"Poetry is not a class privilege."


In the book "Collected Silence," Sharon Dodua Otoo has opened up new perspectives on the life and work of Heinrich Böll. In an interview, the writer now explores the now famous Nobel Prize lecture that Heinrich Böll wrote fifty years ago. A conversation about the possibility of language, poetry and other realities - beyond prevailing reason.

Porträt von Sharon Otoo
This is an automatically translated article.
Translated with DeepL.
Original language: Deutsch

Heinrich Böll is the first German winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature after World War II. In the fall of 1972, the Cologne-based writer receives the honor "for a body of work that combines a far-sightedness required for its time with the sensitivity of creative power and that has given new impetus to German literature," as the Swedish Academy explains. At this time, a difficult year weighs on his shoulders. Böll is attacked for his political positions and the media slanderously places him close to the RAF terrorist network. Despite all the hostility, his Nobel lecture "Versuch über die Vernunft der Poesie" (Attempt at the Reason of Poetry) reveals a defense of humanity that is not capable of losing its dignity even in the wheels of coldly calculating logic and economics. Sharon Dodua Otoo was born in London in 1972, the year Böll was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2016, the German-British writer receives the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for her short story "Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin" ("Mr. Gröttrup Sits Down"). 2021 sees the publication of her acclaimed debut novel "Adas Raum," which is translated into several languages. In 2022, she addresses Heinrich Böll's satire "Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen" in the publication "Gesammeltes Schweigen" - and expands it to include a collection of her own texts, quotations and voices. In November 2022, she is awarded the Berlin Order of Merit for her literary and political interventions. Otoo and Böll share a socially awake writing style that takes a stand on current issues.

Ms. Otoo, when did you first hear of Heinrich Böll?

I started learning German in London when I was 13 years old. At some point in German class, we read shorter texts: Poems, short stories, plays. Such texts are good for people who are just starting to get to grips with the German language. That's how I got to know all the authors - male, of course. Dürrenmatt, Frisch, Brecht and also Böll.

In the book "Collected Silence," you write that you appreciate the connection between social criticism and humor in Böll's work.

In a way, that applies to all four writers. Heinrich Böll, however, has remained in my memory the best. Precisely because of his satire "Doctor Murke's Collected Silence." I can remember exactly how I felt when I read that story.

What was your first impression?

It's that my personal associations with Germany were positive: Economic miracle, punctuality, order, waste separation. Humor was not necessarily one of them. Böll's satire broadened my view of German history and German society. I also thought it was great at the time that no character in the short story came off well. However, I must confess that at that time, as a reader in general, I felt compelled to "read over" or suppress many racisms. During my school years, there were several books with racist vocabulary. For me, that was just part of it. It was only later, when I became more involved with racism in literature, that I was able to reinterpret this ambivalent reading. It says much more about the writers than about the people they describe. In the course of a request, the editors of the book "Gesammeltes Schweigen" asked me to write a text on Böll's short story. I read it again ...

Did the author Heinrich Böll stand up to re-reading?

Yes. Toni Morrison, the first female Black winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, described the following phenomenon as Africanism in her book "Playing in the Dark": white people use Black characters or references to the continent of Africa to construct superiority and to show what white people are not. Black figures are - with few exceptions - described as foreign and different, faded out or appear only in a passive role. We see this figure, for example, in "The Physicists" by Friedrich Dürrenmatt or in the short story "The Rehearsal" by Herbert Malecha. Heinrich Böll did not need such characters to write about violent continuities in post-war Germany. I was thrilled by that!

In his Nobel Lecture in 1972, Heinrich Böll defends himself against a rationalizing reason that auctions itself off to calculation and domination. What aspects did you address?

I hear the voice of an intellectual who points out that there are things, he calls it "interstice," that cannot be explained to the end. That made an impression on me. There is no such thing as the single genius who can convey everything, nor is it possible to grasp everything that is involved in a process. There always remains something mysterious.

For Böll, "writing is a movement forward, [...] away from something, towards something" that he does not know.

Yes, and we writers try to penetrate this mysterious gap, to uncover new associations. A work that, according to Böll, is never finished - and can never be. I like that, this idea: yes, we are searching, perhaps searching together.

Elsewhere, Böll speaks of the "possibility of dislocation" that literature offers, for example "to another class, another time, another religion. With the goal: not to create strangeness, but to abolish it.

Here I am skeptical that this is so easily possible. I think we all start somewhere. And we start with our preferences, our fears, our socialization. The moment we write, we usually imagine our own identity into other characters. Before that, we should reflect exactly on our own position and deal with what it means to be "I" in the first place. For example, what can a critical approach to whiteness look like, what is masculine? In the end, I think the place from which I write is crucial.

This brings to mind a statement by interdisciplinary artist, writer, and philosopher Grada Kilomba: "We all speak from a particular time and place, from a history and a reality-there are no neutral discourses."

Exactly! Like Grada Kilomba, I feel that there is no such thing as a neutral position. People who claim to be neutral and free are probably the most constrained. That's my contention. Another question Grada Kilomba asked was also particularly important to me: whose knowledge counts as knowledge? Literature by German or German-speaking writers were often negotiations of what it means to be a white man. Other people came along and wrote novels as well and dealt with their identities. But because it wasn't about white men, their work was seen as something particular. So many women writers who wrote were reported so disparagingly, as author Nicole Seifert has brilliantly traced in her book Women's Literature. That extends into the present. We see this, for example, with Mithu Sanyal. With "Identitti," she has written a novel that revolves around a character with Polish-Indian ancestry, but otherwise has little to do with the author on the surface. Yet she is constantly asked if her novel is to be read as merely autobiographical. I find that disrespectful.

Incorporating autobiographical elements is one side. Is writing beyond one's own biography possible?

Yes, I think in principle it is. However, if I don't do the necessary homework, then I'm only ever writing about myself and reproducing prejudices. That's why writers have a great responsibility. Writers have the ability to imagine incidents or ways of life that they do not know from their own experience; they can make the foreign familiar and mystify the familiar, as Toni Morrison put it. Nevertheless, for me there is a difference between people who are privileged in a society and people who are marginalized. As a rule, privileged people rarely get to see what reality looks like.

What do you think is the reason for that?

I think people who are marginalized can't get their imaginary world so easily from newspapers, reports, films. There, imaginations of other privileged people are often presented. Marginalized people know this all too well. They constantly hear and see what the privileged think and feel and consider important. Therefore, they have usually developed their own experience to draw upon. They have a double view of society, of the dominant group and of the reality of their own lives. The historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois called it "double consciousness." That's why I think it's good that Böll tried to open the view for several realities in the Nobel lecture by emphasizing: poetry is not a class privilege, it has never been one. For me, this is true: poetry is not a class privilege.

Heinrich Böll also criticizes the Western notion of reason for suppressing other poetics and approaches to realities. "We, who humble so easily, are missing something: humility, which is not to be confused with subordination, obedience, or even submission. That's what we've done to colonized peoples: turned their humility, the poetry of that humility, into humiliation."

A strong sentence, it does something to me. However, I have to translate it for myself because he only separates between colonizers and colonized. The question here is, who does he mean by us? Böll is positioning himself and at the same time he is addressing a white audience. Because until then, no Black person had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. So I read this sentence and think: Yes, that's true. At the same time, I feel in a space in between. I am a descendant of colonized people. But on the other hand, I live in the West - and therefore also benefit from colonialism. I have both. And that's why this sentence is good and inadequate for me at the same time.

Where does humility turn into humiliation for you nowadays?

It starts with the thoughtless use of language. This attitude, as the German poet May Ayim describes it in her poem "künstlerische freiheit": Putting all the words in your mouth and dropping them everywhere, no matter who it hits. In particular, cancel culture, political correctness, and non-discriminatory language hold a lot of room for humiliation these days. Many people want to maintain interpretive authority over what is good and right. So people who are marginalized and continue to be marginalized have to be quiet, please.

For Böll, social criticism was above all linguistic criticism. Writers should defend the dignity of the human being. In the word.

Yes, and I have the feeling that many people who deal with language criticism today are very fixed, that language is something hermetic. Locked down. A word can only mean one thing and not mean anything else, no longer change. That's not my understanding of language at all. It has a lot to do with my own socialization. I myself started speaking English - and then forgot the language again ...


I grew up in England. My parents spoke English to me. When I was three and a half, I moved to Ghana, lived there for a year and a half, and went to school. In Ghana, I only spoke Ga - and forgot English again. When I came back at the age of five, I couldn't speak a word. So early on I had the feeling that nothing lasts. Everything can change radically, even language. Again, when I started learning German, I struggled for a long time with the three definite articles. Der, die, das. It seemed arbitrary to me. For me, language is simply a means to an end. And as long as I can be understood to some extent, it's all good. It doesn't have to be grammatically complete and completely understandable. A lot resonates in body language, what my mood is like, my facial expression. Emotional states are a form of communication. Reading them also requires a form of expertise, I think.

Heinrich Böll concludes in the Nobel Lecture with the passage, "The reason on which we have built has not made the world more familiar to us." A reference to a creeping alienation that Böll also addressed in his late literary work. Do we need more knowledge or more sensibility?

Or perhaps the recognition that sensibility is also a form of knowledge?

Thank you very much for the interview.