the things I am thinking while smiling politely

Sharon Dodua Otoo’s first novella was published in 2012 with edition assemblage. Dodua Otoo describes herself as a Black British mother, activist, author and editor, and she has been involved with activist work in the Black German community for many years. She published a second novella in 2014, and was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2016.

the things I am thinking while smiling politely describes the extremely painful disintegration of a marriage. It is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator whose personal trajectory has taken her from London, where her Ghanaian-born parents migrated before she was born, and onward to Berlin – which is where the novella makes its setting. For anyone familiar with the city, it is a very tangibly crafted city-setting, with references to particular streets and parks of Kreuzberg, as well as to the alienation many who move here from elsewhere encounter in the face of the famed Berliner Schnauze.

The narrator is a Black British woman working on a thesis in drama; her husband a white German named Till. Together, they have non-identical twins, Beth and Ash, a girl and a boy. Perhaps one of the most absorbing peripheral aspects of the novella is the development of these starkly different, complex little humans: Ash, gentle and well-behaved, almost desperate in his sweetness; and Beth, unapologetic and admirable as she is impossible in her disregard for, as the title of the novella might have it, smiling politely.

Without making it the overt focal point of the narrative, the story is embedded in the lived experience of being a Black woman in Berlin; of being a passenger on the underground in a city where she feels herself obviously a minority, and obviously observed. Of the racist and racial difficulties encountered by her children at school and on the streets, not so different from those she encountered herself growing up in Britain decades earlier.

Yet the narrator is certainly no mere victim. Integral to the narrative of her husband’s leaving her is the fact that he leaves her for another woman – a woman who is an asylum-seeker without legal status in Germany. As the narrator dubs her, in anger, “an illegal immigrant”, she is corrected by her otherwise sympathetic friend, “people can’t be illegal” (90). In her rage, the narrator does something that can’t be undone, and that has – it is implied – extremely harsh consequences. In this way, the novella treads a complex and delicate line in its negotiation of personal wrongs and structural injustices as they collide and intersect.