Berlin-based, British-born author and activist Sharon Dodua Otoo speaks to New Books in German about her novel Adas Raum, which is forthcoming in English as Ada's Realm.
This past year has been a whirlwind to so many, and you have been working, on preparing your first full-length novel in German, amongst other things. I guess the first question I need to ask is ‘How are you doing?’
Thank you for asking! I’m mostly exhausted and confused. So far I’ve managed to be in the right place at the right time for all my readings (apart from the ones that were cancelled due to COVID-19) and this I consider to be a small miracle.
What is it like promoting the book?
But then the printed book is only part of the story. The story really only comes together when it interacts with a reader.Sharon Dodua Otoo
I love it. After years of sitting alone in front of a laptop, procrastinating, writing, deleting, thinking, crying, writing again… it’s wonderful to finally have a finished product. But then the printed book is only part of the story. The story really only comes together when it interacts with a reader. It’s wonderful to find out what people associate with what I’ve written. Especially, when the story has really touched them in some way.
Adas Raum is your first full-length novel written in German, after your success with Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin. How was it to write this long piece in German after your previous writing experience?
I found writing Adas Raum extremely difficult, there is no way to dress that up. Apart from anything else, it’s an ambitious and experimental storytelling structure. Constructing that alone was hard work. But then I had the typical self-doubt that I think most writers experience (“is what I’m writing any good at all?”) and then added to that was the fact that this was in German, a language I can speak fluently but do not in any way consider myself to be 100% competent in, and the nervous breakdown was practically programmed in. But I kept going. And I am really glad I did.
In Adas Raum we have several narrators and voices, including women named Ada: what was the idea behind these Adas?
I find this question difficult to answer, because my novel aimed to explore exactly that idea using storytelling tricks (for example repetition of similar names for the side characters). I imagine that each reader will bring their own interpretation to the book and hence many different ideas could emerge. I’d like to hear how others would answer this question.
Similarly to your short story Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin, in Adas Raum we have unusual narrators, such as inanimate objects (doorknob, broom, a room itself, and a passport). How did you choose these specific narrators? And why?
In reality the narrator isn’t an inanimate object, but a kind of being that has not yet been born. This being keeps returning to earth in different forms – as an egg that refuses to become hard-boiled or as a passport for example. While writing the scenes that appear at the beginning of the novel, I tried to imagine where this being might be each time. For example, it was very obvious to me that in 15th century West Africa, where Ada is punished physically, the being would be that broom, and would not want to be the object used to beat Ada. For all the objects I choose, there is a reason for the being to inhabit them. The reasons are explored in the novel.
A string of pearls is what connects your characters and narrators across time and space. Why did you choose this symbol to tie the stories together?
It was also important, however, to think about the ways different stories that seem discrete at first glance may actually be tied together – like golden pearls on a bracelet.Sharon Dodua Otoo
The name “Ada” also means “noble” (from the German word “Edel”) and “adornment” both of which fit with the idea of a valuable bracelet of golden pearls. I also wanted to think about the pillaging of African communities under colonialism, and this is symbolised by the theft of the bracelet right at the beginning of the novel. It was also important, however, to think about the ways different stories that seem discrete at first glance may actually be tied together – like golden pearls on a bracelet.
In an interview for NBG four years ago, you claimed to ‘really dislike translating’ but also that you were ‘more than happy’ to see how others translated your work. Have your views on translation changed since then? Would you translate yourself into English?
Haha. NOPE! Next question…
Seriously, my answer hasn’t changed. It isn’t necessarily the case that just because I speak English, I would be the ideal person to translate my work. Translation is an art and a skill. I don’t have experience of translating and it isn’t my passion. While writing the original version of a story, I have already struggled to wrest the specific vocabulary, imagery or metaphor from the source language, and forced it onto a page. The act of transferring those same things into the target language would change the original version. For example, the title “Adas Raum” can be read in many different ways (like Ada’s room or Ada’s space) and I like that. In English translation, I would have to choose a specific meaning. I’m happy for a different person to make the choice – this becomes their interpretation of my work, rather than me qualifying / clarifying my own work. The person translating Adas Raum into English has chosen the title Ada’s Realm, which I love!
You cover different countries, times, and perspectives, from Early Colonial Ghana to Victorian England to concentration camps to modern-day Berlin: what was your research process for writing in all these different contexts?
It was an intense research process. I read a lot and consulted many books. I spoke to many different people about different aspects of what I was trying to write about. It wasn’t a systematic process, however. I was not aiming for historical fiction, but rather to get a feel for the period and to try to capture the emotions of the people who were living there. So, for example, for the Germany in 1945 section, I began by visiting the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial. From there I found out about the existence of Lagerbordellen (brothels in concentration camps). After that I spoke to historians, read research and watched documentaries.
How are you feeling about the forthcoming English translation of Adas Raum?
Very excited. I find reading my own work in translation hard, because my brain keeps saying: “No, you chose a different word to get that across!” but I am looking forward to reaching a wider audience and having even more conversations with people about the different themes of the novel.
Read our recommendation of Adas Raum.
Read Jen Calleja’s review of the book in The Times Literary Supplement.
Listen to Jon Cho Polizzi read from his sample translation of Adas Raum over on TranslatorsAloud.