The first time I moved to Berlin was in the mid-1990s. The wall had just come down and I could smell freedom in the streets of Mitte. It was an exciting, confusing time. Although I had been raised in the streets of East London (so to speak), my parents had been very strict and I was obedient (mostly). Consequentially, I did well academically and was a fairly well-trained future housewife, but only managed to go to my first concert or have my first kiss while I was a fresher at university. I didn’t smoke (I still don’t), I was a poor drinker, I was politically unengaged and – honestly – I was kind of boring. But the capital city of the reunited Germany was smaller than London, far more reasonably priced and full of optimism. I was simultaneously hyper-visible (not many people around who looked like me) and hyper-invisible (few people took the necessary time to see beyond their learned stereotypes). It was during my year abroad in Berlin that I first started serious study of a West-African language (Twi) and when I first learnt what it meant to identify politically as a Black person (deliberately written with a capital B). I also had my first serious love relationships here. I returned to London after twelve months, exhilarated, single and pregnant. A little over twenty years and four sons later, I won one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the German-speaking world in summer 2016. I now live in Berlin again and am currently working full time as a fiction author, with a book contract and speaking engagements in the USA, the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Having spent decades doing the work I love for free, I suddenly found recognition where I was least expecting it: among the traditionally educated German middle-class intellectuals.
I am loath to view this as the happy end though. It would be easy to see my literary success as something I had achieved only through my own hard work and talent. It would be possible, but probably irresponsible, for me to claim that anyone can do what I have done, if only they persevered long enough and pursued their dreams hard enough. I remember not too long ago being the kind of person who would avoid stories of people who had won an amazing prize, married a beautiful partner, landed an incredible film role and / or dazzled their employers into giving them a fantastic promotion. These were the kinds of things which made me feel inadequate, untalented, unloved and hopeless: I would have hated contemporary me. A while ago I read an article (Alam 2015) on jealousy, and have since been able to make sense of those feelings and give them a place. In a capitalist society, so argues the author, we are conditioned to think even of love, appreciation and recognition as being scarce and finite commodities. Anyone who is able to get some is envied by the rest of us – even if it is recognition for an achievement outside our own area of expertise.
So now that I am that shiny person in the dazzling story, being asked to write a short article about my work, I feel moved to mention the rigorous training in critical thinking I have received as a member of the African Diaspora in Germany, specifically as an active member of the Initiative of Black People in Germany (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland) as well as its sister organisation ADEFRA Black Women in Germany (Schwarze Frauen in Deutschland). I should also mention my parents here, who were both born in humble circumstances in Accra, Ghana. My mother for example has told me the story of how she, as a small child, always dreamed that her children would one day go to school in white socks and shiny black shoes. I hated those knee-length socks with some kind of passion, but I do know about, and am grateful for, her sacrifices. It would also be fitting to mention my children, my siblings, my closest friends and my political allies at this point, all of whom have encouraged me to keep going, even when they did not necessarily understand exactly what I was doing or why, and may have secretly been hoping that I would just stop being so restless one day.
Yes, it is true that it took a lot of hard work for me to become this successful, and that not all of that work was done by me. And yet, I feel there is still an element of the story missing. This has to do with the construction of the story itself: the quite western and individualistic notion that we start somewhere, and we continue to progress until we reach a pinnacle of achievement at the end, somewhere else. It is a comforting story for the so-called winners. But for those of us who very rarely receive external recognition, this model sucks. And to be honest, when I first arrived in Berlin a little over twenty years ago, and during the years I spent raising my children alone, studying, struggling with debt, falling in and out of love, working jobs I hated, I was arguably risking more, learning more and living more than I am now. What, then, if we were encouraged to see ourselves not as empty vessels to be filled, but as full and complete individuals in our own right? What if our contributions to the communities we live in were not measured in terms of the amount of money we make or the number of external accolades we collect, but in our ability to practise mindfulness and self-care? What if we lived each day as if we were wearing invisible capes? Would that change anything? I would like to think so. I do think so.