The Knotty Problem of Race in Three New German Novels

June 6, 2021   •   By Marcel Inhoff

Ministerium der Träume

Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

Identitti

Mithu Sanyal

Adas Raum

Sharon Dodua Otoo

SUCCESSFUL DEBUT NOVELS are a good marker not just of what can succeed with a given readership but also what strategies young writers consider promising, given the biases among critics and publishers. For a writer of color in Germany, any strategy has to reckon with the racism inherent in our critical and academic institutions. For example, you can count on one hand the nonwhite critics who have judged the three major German literary awards (the German Book Prize, the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, and the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize) over the past decade and still have two fingers left over to rub your temples in exasperation.


Yet new writers of color and diverse ethnicity keep coming — on the longlist of last year’s German Book Award were debut novels by Deniz Ohde (Streulicht) and Ronya Othmann (Die Sommer), which offered illuminating fiction about growing up in Germany with Turkish and Kurdish backgrounds, as well as playwright Olivia Wenzel’s debut novel 1000 Serpentinen Angst, which the author called a “coming-out of not being white,” was arguably last year’s best German novel. Wenzel, whose father is Zambian, became conscious that she was only using white characters in her plays, and thus decided to write a novel specifically interrogating Black identities in contemporary Germany. All three of these books are, fundamentally, coming-of-age novels involving travel and migration, topics that are not uncommon in German fiction by writers of color.


Three novels published in February 2021 offer different narratives. Sharon Dodua Otoo’s Adas Raum (Ada’s Room), Mithu Sanyal’s Identitti, and Hengameh Yaghoobifarah’s Ministerium der Träume (Ministry of Dreams) were all praised upon publication, and they all sold well. Yet they are three vastly different attempts to navigate German literary discourse, and the various ways the books engage readers, critics, and prevailing power structures can help illuminate the state of literature in Germany today.


In his trenchant work of postcolonial theory The Black Register (2020), Tendayi Sithole discussed the relationship between racism and assimilationist demands, and what that relationship means for contemporary social justice movements. In some sense, all three of the novels under discussion here offer their own takes on this complex question. None of these writers have come out of nowhere, though they were not all previously known for writing fiction. Hengameh Yaghoobifarah is best known as a journalist and cultural commentator, while Mithu Sanyal’s most celebrated work has been nonfiction on feminist issues. Only Sharon Dodua Otoo is best known for her fiction, especially after winning one of Germany’s most prestigious literary awards, the Bachmann Prize, for her first short story published in the language (she is a Black British writer of Ghanaian descent). Before their new novels appeared, all three authors had well-established careers, in the course of which they have had to deal, to varying degrees, with criticism, resistance, and pushback from journalists, other writers, and the general public. The reception of their novels has been informed by these debates, as are the novels themselves. In many ways, there could not be three more dissimilar writers, or three more dissimilar books. They are, however, connected by the phenomenon of German racism, which is manifested and addressed in each book, and which has affected the way reviewers have reacted to them.


When it comes to the general public, 30-year-old Hengameh Yaghoobifarah is likely the most widely known of the three authors. A nonbinary journalist of Iranian descent, and a prolific writer for over a decade, Yaghoobifarah has worked in numerous media, from podcasts to essays on race, pop culture, and fashion. Until last year, they were best known for co-editing an immensely successful anthology called Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum (Your Homeland Is Our Nightmare, 2019), which collected essays on racism and antisemitism in Germany. In June 2020, however, their brief satirical op-ed on the topic of police brutality made headlines and was widely discussed, even prompting the Minister of the Interior to officially announce (and subsequently retract) a legal action. In the piece, Yaghoobifarah suggested that people who serve in the police forces should not have any job where they have actual power over — or even contact with — human beings; instead, they should work at a garbage dump. Right-wing commentators disingenuously claimed that Yaghoobifarah had argued that police officers should be literally trashed, and for weeks the writer was hounded by police unions, resulting in the newspaper’s editor-in-chief apologizing for the op-ed. The whole affair took months to die down, but it did result in a significant rise in Yaghoobifarah’s public profile, if for all the wrong reasons.


Yaghoobifarah’s debut novel thus came with big expectations. A review in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit spends nearly four paragraphs preparing readers for what is in effect a positive review: yes, we are told, this is the writer who attacked our police; yes, this is a writer we dislike for their brash public persona; and yet, this is a very good book! Yaghoobifarah did what few people had expected — they wrote a solid, unimpeachable, well-crafted thriller (though not without some stylistic infelicities). The story touches on issues of racism, of both the everyday and institutional variety, but it does not depend on them. In flashbacks, we learn that the protagonist fled Iran with her parents, and the book opens with the revelation that her sister was murdered. The main villains are neo-Nazis, whom even the center-right provocateurs agree are bad. It was a brilliant move by Yaghoobifarah to honestly express political opinions while at the same time making them entirely incidental to the main plot, broaching difficult topics by clothing them in comfortable genre tropes and formulas. Ministerium der Träume deals with issues of identity, discrimination, and, importantly, solidarity, but if you do not happen to share the author’s views, or appreciate their stylistic choices, you will still be transported by one of the most engrossing German crime thrillers to appear in years.


Mithu Sanyal’s debut novel, Identitti, takes a different tack. Sanyal, a German writer of Indian and Polish descent, has been a journalist for decades (she writes a column in English for The Guardian) but is best known for a historical study of the phenomenon of violence against women. She is clearly not shy about taking on difficult subjects. In her novel, she reimagines the Rachel Dolezal case but transposes it onto a German university campus, and instead of passing for Black, her main character pretends to be Indian. This character, born to German parents as Sarah Vera Thielmann, secretly reinvents herself as a postcolonial academic theorist named Saraswati, covering her tracks so well that she manages to publish books and teach at a major German university for decades under her assumed identity. But when some revealing photos are discovered by a vengeful adopted brother and published by an Indian student, the truth at last comes out. The story is narrated by one of Saraswati’s students, Nivedita, whose father is Indian and whose mother is white. Nivedita has long struggled with her own identity, and she runs a blog addressing these issues called “Identitti.” Nivedita is an abject fan of Saraswati’s, and when all hell breaks loose, she moves in with her professor. What follows are 21 days of debates, during which Nivedita questions her mentor and Saraswati lectures her student about identity, postcolonial theory, and the complexity of modern debates on race.


It is impossible to discuss the curious way Mithu Sanyal frames these debates without looking back at the Rachel Dolezal case. In a now-classic interview with Dolezal, “The Heart of Whiteness,” writer and thinker Ijeoma Oluo describes how intellectually arrogant she appeared to be: “She informs me multiple times that Black people have rejected her because they simply haven’t learned yet that race is a social construct created by white supremacists, they simply don’t know any better and don’t want to.” Though Sanyal does not cite this interview in her extensive notes to the novel, this is the exact same attitude that her faux-Indian professor expresses. In a passage toward the end, Saraswati explains that she knows Indian culture better than her Indian students and, in fact, is achieving a net good, despite her deception, by teaching students of color about their own cultures. The claim is breathtaking in its arrogance, and yet not obviously satirical in intent: the text does not condemn Saraswati or, indeed, white Germans generally. Instead, the novel offers an outstretched hand in the culture wars over identity, asking both sides in the debate to try to understand one another better.


This posture extends to the story’s intriguing formal aspects. During her planning for the book, Sanyal invited various writers to submit tweets they might have written if confronted with a situation like Saraswati’s, and she then quotes those tweets in the book, using the authors’ real Twitter handles. The book also contains an article written by an actual journalist, as well as other incidental texts not produced by Sanyal, and the collaborative effect underlines the novel’s message about the need for communication. That said, this message is then muddled by the inclusion of various imaginary tweets that are attributed to real Twitter handles. Sanyal does not invent these out of whole cloth, often quoting from published essays or paraphrasing real tweets. The most intriguing example is a tweet quoting New York Times journalist Wesley Morris’s 2015 essay “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity,” which was partially focused on Dolezal and which Sanyal uses to shore up the verisimilitude of her story.


It is, to say the least, a curious choice. Morris, along with scholars like Allyson Hobbs, who have offered sympathetic comments on Dolezal, have suggested that the case can be viewed as an invitation to have difficult, hard discussions “about the knotty meanings of race and racial identity” (as Hobbs wrote in her own 2015 New York Times op-ed). But these are discussions about intersections of African American identity with specific historical traumas. Sanyal appropriates the basic framework of the argument while expunging its historical specificity; this makes the debate accessible to white German readers like me, but at the price of vagueness and decontextualization. For a novel explicitly “about” identity, Identitti is not deeply interested in clearly delineated identities. Instead, it offers an empty call for harmony among conflicting voices, whose particular struggles have been largely erased. A sentence from Oluo’s essay seems sadly apropos here: “‘Race is just a social construct’ is a retort I get quite often from white people who don’t want to talk about black issues anymore.” Moreover, the rampant argumentation that Sanyal foregrounds is precisely the opposite strategy to Yaghoobifarah’s: rather than veiling its theoretical concerns in comfortable genre tropes, the story’s plot is merely an excuse to have its characters chatter about them endlessly.


Sharon Dodua Otoo’s Adas Raum is not only the best novel of the three, but also one of the best of the past several years. Like Yaghoobifarah and Sanyal, Otoo deploys unusual formal elements: Adas Raum is a book about multiple characters named Ada, living in different places at different times. There’s an Ada who lives in 15th-century Ghana; there’s a fictionalized version of Lord Byron’s daughter, the pioneering female mathematician Ada Lovelace; there’s an Ada who is forced into prostitution in a concentration camp brothel during World War II; and finally, there’s an Ada who is hunting for an apartment in 21st-century Berlin. If this sounds a bit much, it is, and the forking narratives are further complicated by various magic-realist techniques. But in the end, it all hangs together, in large part because of Otoo’s nuanced and meticulous prose style. The novel is funny, horrifying, and fascinating all at the same time. In some places, it reads like an attempt to provide a literary exemplification of what Kimberlé Crenshaw meant when she coined the term “intersectionality,” with Otoo carefully working out different aspects of identity and the problems inherent in them. Yet because of her literary skill, the result feels like an organic fictive whole, rather than a debate dressed up as a novel.


Adas Raum is by no means a perfect novel, but its ambition and execution are remarkable. What’s more, there is no obvious strategy here, unlike in Sanyal’s and Yaghoobifarah’s texts, to accommodate a white audience. The novel is difficult in structure, offering its readers none of the solace of genre writing, and it is difficult in what it chooses to talk about. Rape, racism, death — none of these topics are pleasant to read about or contemplate. Adas Raum is the shortest of the three books, but it is the slowest read. It makes demands of its readers, and in the end offers the pleasures of recognition. “Finally, I understood who I was,” is one of its last sentences.


After Otoo won the prestigious Bachmann Prize for her first work of German-language fiction, she sheepishly admitted not having known about the award before — which led to public grumbling among the critics who decide the winners. The annual competition is kicked off by a speech at the Festival of German-Language Literature, and last year, the organizers invited Otoo to give that address at a socially distanced event. During the festival’s various discussions and presentations, none of the judges referred to Otoo’s speech, even when thanking everybody involved by name at the end of the long competition. Part of the reason might have been that Otoo’s address was not a light commentary but rather a detailed, well-crafted criticism of the lack of representation of Black writers in the hallowed halls of German literature and culture. She tackled the thorny issue of how race is constructed by critics, publishers, organizers, and writers — a topic not likely to endear her to those specific people. It is, however, an important topic if we want to seriously consider the way German literature as an institution works today.


Negotiating literary spaces in Germany often involves presenting ideas in ways that are acceptable to Germans, and even iconoclasts like Yaghoobifarah have found strategies to do that. Otoo’s decisions to speak out directly on the issues that matter to her, and to offer a difficult, knotty book that deals with difficult, knotty problems, make her an unusual writer in today’s Germany. Yet her work represents, one hopes, one bright facet of the future of German literature today; some of the context for Otoo’s emergence has been brilliantly described by Tiffany Florvil in her necessary study Mobilizing Black Germany. Indeed, all three debut novels by such extraordinarily talented writers of color suggest that the field may be opening even for voices that do not adopt pacifying strategies. And yet, this past week, the shortlist of nominees for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair featured none of the three novels under review here, nor work by any other writers of color, for that matter. There is also not a single person of color on the jury this year, and it’s hard not to see a connection between these two developments. Writers who do not conform to the narrow limits of the German literary field still face constraints in their reception and recognition, and while writers like Otoo give us hope for the future, the present remains very hard to navigate.


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Marcel Inhoff is completing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Bonn. He is the author of the collections Prosopopeia and Our Church Is Here, as well as numerous published poems and essays in German and English. He is currently working on his first novel.