The German Dream, published in the literary collection of Edition Solitude, is the latest title by Dominic Otiang’a, one of the youngest published novelists in Kenya. The book, which was presented in the context of this year’s book fair in Leipzig, talks about the daily struggles, discrimination, and stereotypes which African immigrants experience in Germany.
Clara Herrmann/Marte Kräher: Dominic, are you interested in building a bridge between cultures?
Dominic Otiang’a: Well, that’s a tough one. I’m more interested in creating awareness of existing, emerging, and evolving cultures. If that goes ahead to build bridges between cultures, then that will be an achievement.
CH/MK: The title of your book refers to the idea that you can climb the social ladder; you only have to work hard enough. Comparing the two main characters Jamba and Rawila, would you agree that the German dream is only valid for the privileged?
DO: The German Dream as coined in the novel is almost impossible to chase with only hard work if you are immigrant like Jamba and Rawila. They both work hard chasing their dreams, but without a heavy bank account or some levels of privilege, one of them fails to realize it. There seems to be a wall that puts an end to fairness by providing a legal jurisdiction that decides whose hard work will count. Many German citizens I talked to aren’t aware of the existing institutions of higher learning for all and other institutions reserved only for Germans and immigrants with certain immigration statuses. To say this is a normal practice everywhere is to admit and accept unfairness and inequality as part and parcel of our life. Outside the book, some difficulties start at an early age sometimes. For Instance, when a school kid with an immigration background has issues that teachers don’t see and they insist on sending this kid to a special school because they believe that the kid is out of place, when in real sense the kid’s behaviour, mood or emotional condition is as a result of discrimination, constant racist comments or racist chants from other kids. In other words, such a kid is being »thrown out« of school for feeling the pain of discrimination or for failing to withstand such a pain.
CH/MK: What role does »dignity« play when you are fighting for a visa?
DO: When elderly parents plan to visit their kids here and are subjected to rigorous questioning like crime suspects, such treatment forfeits them their dignity. Dignity is also in question when they need to renew or obtain a visa, or when a better immigration status leads helpless youths into having babies with strangers from the EU. These are just a few examples.
CH/MK: How much of the story is based on your own experiences?
DO: I really don’t know about the percentage of it, but it’s entirely based on my observation, research, the experience of many others and my own personal experience. It’s a story of many being narrated by a few characters.
»Books like this one allow me to see my home country through the eyes and with the sensibility of a foreigner. It offers insights that I could not gain myself.« Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Minister of Foreign Affairs
CH/MK: Regarding your time at Solitude as a fellow of Literature in 2014, what was the exchange with the other authors and artists like?
DO: It is always an interesting experience to spend time with other authors and artists. In Solitude, it was rejuvenating to even have discussions with them and very interesting how everyone was interested in knowing more about the other’s discipline. It excited me to get to what person X is busy with and try to know what kind of society person X is from, whether that kind of society influences his/her work.
CH/MK: You also deal with questions around the transdisciplinary field of »critical whiteness« – in what way and on what level does this context influence your work?
DO: Critical whiteness or whiteness studies has focused more on North America, Australia, and to some extent France in colonial time. But being a modern-day immigration country and an international cultural melting pot, Germany calls for more attention. We had quite a number of successful discussions on the same topic last year with fellows at Akademie Schloss Solitude. Here, it was clear that the topic is very relevant, but again, extremely sensitive. As a novelist, I try to bring some of the issues to the reader’s mind through narration. The construction of whiteness in Europe or Germany, to be specific, is quite different from what it is in North America. By the way, there is a massive construction and expansion of »whiteness« in critical whiteness terms in Germany, especially in low-income neighbourhoods and workplaces with low wages.
CH/MK: Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, referred to your book in his last speech on the occasion of the Humboldt-Forum at the Kenyan National Museum in Nairobi, February 22, 2015. He said: »Books like this one allow me to see my home country through the eyes and with the sensibility of a foreigner. It offers insights that I could not gain myself.« To whom is the book addressed?
DO: That’s a correct address, right there: To that person who is willing to get to know what’s in the minds, dreams, daily life, and needs of some immigrants in Germany.
CH/MK: The German Dream will be published on the occasion of this years book fair in Leipzig. Are you already thinking about your next book?
DO: I’m already working on my next book. Having spent time with kids, industry workers, middle-class citizens, intellectuals, politicians and the high society, I feel I have gained more. I am working on something.