wir schreiben bis zum letzen atem, we write until our last breath,
damit ein hauch von bewusstsein bleibt, so that a touch of consciousness remains,
ein funke von befreiung entfacht, a spark of liberation inflames
und im innersten der tatendrang erwacht, and, deep inside, the urge for action awakens
alles zu verändern. to change everything.
~ Furat Abdulle (translation: Furat Abdulle)
Just as Furat Abdulle describes in her beautiful poem »Werke der Welten« (»Pieces of the World«), the urge for action, the urge to change everything, is a defining feature of the literature of Black feminists across the diaspora. One notable example in the German speaking context, is the legacy of our most highly acclaimed Black German poet, May Ayim (1960-1996). She wrote about critical whiteness, about intersectionality and about empowerment, long before these terms had been coined. As a speech therapist, educator and activist, she was one of the founders of the most recent Black German movement, which birthed the organisations »ADEFRA – Schwarze Frauen in Deutschland« (Black Women in Germany) and the »Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland« (Initiative Black People in Germany) in the mid-1980s. And with the coining of the term »Afrodeutsch«, Ayim and her colleagues provided generations of Black Germans with a way to politically self-define. She published numerous poetry collections and co-edited the seminal anthology »Farbe Bekennen. Afrodeutsche Frauen auf der Spuren ihrer Geschichte« (in English »Showing our Colors. Afro-German Women Speak Out«). In 2011 a street in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin even was named after her. May Ayim has inspired many Black people and people of color to inscribe themselves, their communities and their perspectives into German language literature – myself included.
The literature of all Black feminist creative writers has revolutionary potential. However, we female and nonbinary members of the African diaspora, who explicitly position ourselves as Black feminists in our work, are yet to be afforded the widespread patronage, recognition, and critical reception that white males in the German-speaking literary world receive as a matter of course. How do we continue to produce art while navigating the structures that have marginalized and excluded us?
In the summer of 2018, I was one of ten writers who had been invited to participate in a three-day discussion on the subject of engagierte Literatur – a term I find difficult to translate into English, but that perfectly describes the work of Black feminist poets and fiction writers: using literature to pursue political change. Around six months after the event, I was interviewed by someone who had been close to the organising team. We discussed my specific feedback on the event itself, as well as my views on engagierte Literatur more generally. The interview was originally to be published online. However, because my answers were heavily redacted during the editing process – I was told that they were »too negative« – I subsequently withdrew permission for the text to be published.
This sequence of events perfectly illustrates on a personal level, how exclusion and marginalisation occur on a structural level. A single marginalised person is invited to participate in an event or initiative. There is no adjustment made to accommodate the specific needs of the marginalised person. There is no examination of the inherent power imbalance among the participants. The managers or organisers remain silent or become defensive when the marginalised person voices their concerns. Eventually the marginalised person is removed or withdraws. The discriminatory structure remains intact.
Given the lack of Black feminist representation in the German-language literature scene, it is at best naive to invite me to speak of my experiences within the industry and not expect me to be critical of certain aspects of it. And given the lack of Black feminist representation in the German-language literature scene, I am certain that my »negative« comments should not have been the main focus of any correction action.
A little over three years earlier, in the spring of 2015, the spoken word artist, author and script editor Philipp Khabo Koepsell organised the first »Indaba Schwarzer Kulturschaffender in Deutschland« – a network meeting of Black cultural workers, which took place in Ballhaus Naunynstraße in Berlin. During this two-day event, Black feminist creative writers like Simone Dede Ayivi, Chantal-Fleur Sandjon, Lara-Sophie Milagro, Stephanie Lahya Aukongo and I discussed the personal and structural barriers we faced within our writing career. We recounted incidents where we had been advised to choose pen names, which sounded more »German«. Or where we had been advised not to refer too explicitly to the Blackness of our main characters. Or where we had simply been told: there is no audience for our work. It was a healing exchange. By speaking about these experiences openly with each other, we were able to confirm: these incidents were not happening to us as individuals alone.
In her poem »der käfig hat eine tür«, May Ayim verbalised a common response of Black German feminist creative writers to these circumstances:
es ist mir inzwischen lieber I now prefer that
ich bin ausgegrenzt I am excluded
ich bin nicht eingeschlossen I am not confined
~ May Ayim (translation: Sharon Dodua Otoo)
By way of example, spoken word artist, poet and novelist, Olumide Popoola, chose to live in London and writes prolifically in English. Her latest novel is »When we speak of nothing« (2017). The author, musician and activist Noah Sow published her debut novel, »Die Schwarze Madonna« (2019), using a self-publishing platform. And the artist SchwarzRund rejects the gender norms and binary language inherent in dominant German language literature altogether. SchwarzRund’s debut novel »Biskaya« (2017) is published in the independent Viennese publishing house, Zaglossus. Indeed, as Black feminist creative writers in the German-language context, the very act of writing and being published could be defined as engagierte Literatur.
Whenever the subject of engagierte Literatur is raised, it seems to happen with much handwringing and concern for quality. On the other hand, literature that is written purely as artistic expression is often assumed to be inherently superior. During the discussions at the three-day event, I asked why literature cannot be both engagiert and of high literary quality. This is the country that produced Heinrich Böll and Bertolt Brecht. Why is this even a debate?
As a writer who explicitly markets herself as an author and an activist, I am aware – just as Brecht and Böll were – that I create within a specific societal framework – one in which there are grave inequalities, discrimination and power imbalances – and I am aware that my work can be used to stabilise or challenge this framework. I believe that all writers can either reproduce racism or call it out. We can all employ tired sexist tropes, or we can reimagine gender altogether. We can all write disability porn, or we can do the hard work needed to create three dimensional characters who also happen to be disabled. What I refuse to do – and perhaps this was my most unpopular statement of all – is remain neutral.
As I write this essay, the debut novel of the author, playwright and musician, Olivia Wenzel, »1000 Serpentinen Angst« (2020) has been longlisted for the German Book Prize. This is a significant achievement, as Wenzel’s bold and innovative novel makes no compromises: the main figure is a Black German queer woman with East German socialisation. I am excited about this highly-deserved nomination, both for Wenzel as an individual, as well as for my generation of Black feminist creative writers in general. However, most of all, this nomination makes me cautiously optimistic that the German-language literature scene is finally ready to welcome Black feminist creative writers into the canon. But even if it is not yet our time, like the spoken word poet and author, Njideka Iroh, I will continue to write:
in der Sprache derer, die vor mir Kamen und für die Generation, die folgt.
Vielstimmig spreche ich, für all diejenigen, die nicht sprechen durften.
Die nur als Objekte wahrgenommen wurden, oder gar nicht.
Und ich werde Deutsch sprechen, wie es MIR passt.
Ich werde mich so artikulieren, ja und einige verlieren,
weil es MIR so passt.
Und ich werde Igbo sprechen und Arabisch und Swahili und Amharisch
Und dann brech‘ ich’s in Pidgin runter, mitunter in Kreol,
Coz I’m diggin‘ what I’m saying deep down in my soul
~ Njideka Iroh (from: »Speech-less«)
in the language of those who came before me and for the generation to follow.
I speak in many voices, for all those who were forbidden to speak.
Who were perceived only as objects, or not at all.
And I will speak German as it suits ME.
I will articulate myself in this way, and yes I will lose some,
because it suits ME.
And I will speak Igbo and Arabic and Swahili and Amharic
And then I break it down in pidgin, sometimes in creole,
Coz I’m diggin’ what I’m saying deep down in my soul
(translation: Sharon Dodua Otoo)