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Queer Afropolitanism in Germany: SchwarzRund

This essay is the last in a four-part series on Afropolitanism and literature. The term Afropolitanism is a combination of Africa and cosmopolitanism. People of African origin, who live here today and there tomorrow, coined this term to describe their mobile lifestyle and the resulting creativity and political attitudes. In their striving towards radical openness, Afropolitans produce diverse, creative visions in which people of African origin belong everywhere equally.

Germany is probably not the first place one thinks of in relation to Afropolitanism. If you ask people on the street in Germany about Afropolitanism, you will likely find that very few – that is, very few white people – have ever heard the term. A consequence of this is that even the search for German-language Afropolitan literature produces significantly fewer results than a search for its English-language counterpart. That I found SchwarzRund’s Afropolitan Berlin novel Biskaya was pure coincidence. I was at ‘Queeres Verlegen’, a small queer book fair in Berlin, and discovered the novel in the book display there. Fortunately, SchwarzRund had opted for the subtitle ‘Afropolitan Berlin Novel’ on the cover. So I bought Biskaya on the spot.

SchwarzRund moved to Bremen as a Black German Dominican at the age of three, but has been living in Berlin for years. SchwarzRund writes in different formats about multidimensional lived experiences. Biskaya is SchwarzRund’s first novel. Published in 2016, it sheds light on the situations and experiences of Black queer people in the metropolitan art scene. In the novel, it quickly becomes clear how different axes of power intersect, and have a direct impact on the everyday life of, and options open to, the characters. SchwarzRund’s intervention in the Afropolitan literary market thus stands out not only because of the setting and language of the novel, but also because of its evidently intersectional approach.

The novel follows young musician Tue, who is constantly critically assessing herself and her Berlin environment. With her band, she is part of the Hamburg School, which traditionally tends to be white and male. In addition, the Hamburg School is characterized by its tendency toward intellectual song lyrics in German. As a Black, queer woman, Tue transgresses the framework that the majority white public is used to. She is not easily accepted as a part of this school. In order to avoid racist prejudices, the protagonist straightens her hair at the beginning of the story and tries hard to meet white norms and expectations. She is not successful. Her white band mates and the German mainstream media offer unsolicited commentary on her appearance and behaviour. Even positive feedback often turns out to be stereotyping.

SchwarzRund uses Biskaya to intervene in everyday racism by repeatedly having the protagonist intervene in happenings around her. For instance, there are scenes in which Tue interrupts white people who are about to say the N-word. Over the course of the novel, Tue changes. She begins to wear her hair naturally and finally leaves the band in order to make music that is more in keeping with her political values. I interpret this transformation as the emergence of an Afropolitan attitude.

SchwarzRund thus refuses, on the one hand, to portray her protagonist as a victim of German society. On the other, the novel reveals the enormous privilege of financial security. Tue has choices that are not open to everyone (as the last essay in this series on Brian Chikwava’s novel Harare North illustrates). Tue can financially afford to make music that the majority white public criticises sharply. Ever since Afropolitanism was coined, critics like Emma Dabiri or Marta Tveit have queried its elitism. Biskaya confirms this and at the same time makes it clear that if people have privileges, they can use them constructively. Tue increasingly uses her capacities for political work. Her new songs deal with Black German history, about which the white mainstream either keeps silent or only tells euphemistic versions that exclude violence and exploitation.

Nonetheless, SchwarzRund’s representation of the book’s protagonist is not uncritical. Tue also makes mistakes. Drunk and angry, she outs a bandmate who carefully guards the details of his sex-life. Tue teaches a child about the allegedly correct use of pronouns for people she doesn’t even know. But other characters, friends from her Afropolitan community, speak to her about it. They act as correctives in the novel and convey to the reader the multidimensionality of lived realities that SchwarzRund’s novel is concerned with. The further the story progresses, the clearer becomes the change in the protagonist. Tue’s will to respect individual boundaries – just as she wants her own to be respected – grows in strength. In this way, Biscaya conveys an Afropolitanism that is based on respect for multiple expressions of identity.

Beyond aspects of the novel’s plot, I also interpret SchwarzRund’s decisions regarding certain spellings as Afropolitan actions. Whenever possible, SchwarzRund chooses a gender-inclusive spelling and marks the queer spaces in which the protagonist and her community move as such. Tue’s favourite café, for example, is called ‘der*die Ecke’ (an effect that is lost in translation, this attributes both a masculine and feminine definite article to the noun ‘corner’, which are queered by the asterisk). Up to this point, I had rarely found in Afropolitan literature such sensitivity for the intersectional workings of race, gender and sexuality, and their multidimensional representation. In Taiye Selasi’s celebrated novel Ghana Must Go, only an attentive reader would register a hint of critique of heteronormativity – Sadie’s preference for women is hardly more than a footnote.

In form and content, Biskaya is an expression of the search for an Afropolitan-aesthetic answer to structural injustices. In SchwarzRund’s novel, Afropolitanism manifests on the one hand as a strategy of resistance, and on the other hand in a willingness to negotiate new solidarities on the basis of intersectional principles.

With the novel, SchwarzRund makes the concept their own and shows that Afropolitanism can be a relevant political stance for the Black queer art scene in Germany. While this German Afropolitanism with its focus on intersectionality is clearly more radical than that of more famous authors such as Selasi, Teju Cole or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it is nevertheless connected to the controversies that Afropolitan literature has catalysed in recent years. This includes the previously mentioned critique of elitism, both criticised and confirmed by SchwarzRund’s novel. Finally, Afropolitanism is mutable, and can be adapted to and for different contexts. Those who use Afropolitanism for themselves shape and change its meaning. The negotiable contours of Afropolitanism in terms of participation and a possible political agenda make it difficult to simply celebrate it. But the debates about belonging, human coexistence and interaction with an awareness for structural restrictions brought about through Afropolitan literature are relevant. The value of the concept lies in the negotiation processes.

In this series on Afropolitanism, we have also discussed the work of Taiye Selasi, Achille Mbembe and Brian Chikwava.