Bringing Black European Authors to a Broader Audience

Postdoctoral scholar Jeannette Oholi researches and introduces students to Black German and Black European writers, poets, and literary scholars whose work has been underrepresented and understudied. 

When Jeannette Oholi was growing up in Munich, Germany, she didn't come across a lot of literature written by people like her.

As a Black German, she noted that the prevailing sense across the country was that Europeans—and the European experience—was white. Oholi gravitated to reading works by African-American authors in the United States, but she always felt that there was a corps of Black German writers, poets, and other literary scholars who were underrepresented and understudied. 

She set out to change that.

Oholi earned her undergraduate degree in African and German studies and went on to receive a PhD in comparative literature, focusing on Black European literature, from the Justus Liebig-University Giessen.

Now, as a post-doctoral fellow at Dartmouth in the Department of German Studies, she hopes to expose more students to the work of Black German and Black European authors and to make these authors more visible in the U.S. generally. In addition to her research, Oholi organizes literary events, including readings and lecture series.

In a Q&A, Oholi reflects on her research, her impression of the field of Black German and Black European studies, and an upcoming reading event she organized at the Norwich Bookstore on Feb. 6 with scholar and translator Jon Cho-Polizzi.

How did you come to focus on Black German and European literature?

I'm Black German. When I grew up, I didn't find much literature written by Black Germans. I read mostly African-American literature because that was something I could access. Later on, in university, I realized that there are so many Black Germans who write and also do theater or are in other cultural institutions. That's when I started to read Black German literature.

I started with poetry. Poetry is pretty important in the Black German literary tradition. I also loved spoken word. That's how I started, and then I thought, I would love to know more about Europe more broadly—if there are similarities or differences in the literature. So I started with African and African-American literature, then went to Black German literature, then Black European literature, and then everything came together in my PhD.

How does poetry play an important role in the Black German literary tradition?

The Black German movement was in the 1980s and 1990s. Some activists were also poets. That's how this Black German movement, this activist movement, is always connected to poetry. That's also why poetry is still important for many Black Germans.

For example, one of the most important voices from this time is May Ayim. She tried to talk about racism in her poems, but it's an artistic form of expression. Poetry can be quite direct, so you don't really need many words. I saw some videotapes where May Ayim performed her poems, and it was a mostly white audience. People really got what she was talking about because it was just so direct. I think that's what poetry can do.

How do you choose which authors or works to study?

I first came across Fatima El-Tayeb and her scholarship on Black Europe, and it was so inspiring to me. She has this great perspective on Black Europe. Her scholarship was my starting point. Then I decided to focus on contemporary literature—the 21st century. It was easier to access, without having to go into archives, and I just love contemporary literature.

My focus became Black European identity and how it is constructed in different texts. I didn't want to focus only on narrations; I also wanted to bring in poems and plays. I went across these literary genres and focused on how blackness is narrated in these texts. The idea of European-ness is still so white, but where are all these other narratives of European-ness. My idea was to make visible these other narratives of European-ness in memory, culture, and everyday life.

Can you offer an example of one of these other "European-ness" narratives?

I focus both on the content but also on aesthetics of a text. In other words, I look at how this idea of a plurality of Blackness in Europe is also reflected in the form of the text. My argument is that content and aesthetics, or the form, are intertwined.

A great text that serves as an example of this is Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other [which won the 2019 Booker Prize and made Evaristo the first Black woman to receive this honor in the English language]. How Blackness is narrated in this book is that community is really important. Blackness builds through community and in connection with others, and that's also in the text. The chapters are intertwined. There are connections between different chapters. Some characters know each other. And there is this polyphony of voices in the text, which mirrors the plurality of Black Europe itself.

The study of Black European literature is dynamic and expanding, both in Europe and the U.S. What's happening in this exciting field?

In Germany it's quite a recent development to focus more on Black German or other marginalized authors. It's just simply quite new. It's still a niche. It's the same in the U.S.: I have some friends who also work in Black German studies and not everyone knows about this field. They do have some struggles. It's a lot of work.
But it's very dynamic. We are trying to build a common ground with our research. And we are trying to use theories or methods that were created in Europe, because in the past it hasn't always been that way. But we are trying to see how we can combine American theories and methodologies with Black theorists in Europe.
You're working on a second book project. What is it about?

I try to go a little bit more back, to the 20th and 19th centuries, and I want to focus on anti-racism. I don't think I will only focus on Black writers; it's more about this idea of anti-racism and how it developed. In Germany, it's quite recent that people use the terms racism and anti-racism in the broader debates. But there have been people who were activists and who were anti-racist earlier, so maybe this term has not been used before but the idea was there. That's my starting point.

Also, in the 20th century there were Black intellectuals coming from Africa to Germany, some of whom have been translated into German. I think that this idea of translation is quite interesting: Why did people choose to translate them? What was their thought about it? I'm still working on it.
You've organized a reading at the Norwich Bookstore for Feb. 6, with literary scholarand translator Jon Cho-Polizzi. How did this event come to be?

He's coming to Dartmouth for a translation masterclass for our students in the German department and in comparative literature. And I invited him to do a reading.I first noticed the name Jon Cho-Polizzi because he's the one who translated all of my favorite books into English. He has translated, for example, Sharon Dodua Otoo's Ada's Room. Sharon Dodua Otoo is one of the most popular Black writers in Germany. Cho-Polizzi is focusing on underrepresented voices in Germany. He's mostly translating authors of color and Black authors.
You've talked about the importance of translations, like Cho-Polizzi's, in helping to expand the audience for Black German and Black European literature. Can you talk a bit about this?

Bringing Black German literature and literature written by authors of color to a broader public is quite important. It also opens up new opportunities for the authors; they can connect with other authors abroad. Their networks could grow a little bit more.
What I experienced in Germany is that there are so many African-American authors or authors from Africa being translated into German and so sometimes people think, "Okay, we already have Black literature." They are not aware of Black German literature or Black European literature. I think it makes such a difference to also translate these authors into English, and then they have a broader audience and get some recognition beyond Germany or Europe.