There are so many things that people loathe to admit about themselves. Our external persona is often a promise that we break in our internal lives, in our most intimate relationships and in moments of crisis. the things i am thinking while smiling politely by the Berlin-based author Sharon Dodua Otoo explores the private realm of a life falling apart.
The book is deceptively small, 100 pages of pure raw emotion and honesty. I devoured the entire thing in one night and then read it slower on a second and third night to get the pieces that I missed the first time around while caught up in the intensity of the situation. An interracial marriage falling apart, infidelity, betrayal and the un-packing of the internalized oppression of our Ghanaian born, London educated protagonist. Sometimes the details of the subterfuge she suffers and inflicts gets lost in the personal revelations she releases with abandon. Secrets about herself that no longer matter in the wake of the emotional destruction of her crumbling marriage.
Otoo’s writing is efficient and brutal with a journal-like quality. This writing style effortlessly explores complex issues like white supremacy in intimate relationships, cultural colonialism, immigration, the mine-field of divorce and universal human failure. None of these issues are at the center of the story, yet are weaved through everything that happens. Her narrative gives us a sneak peek into the unsaid and often felt universe of a black woman in Berlin.
Internalized Oppression is particularly a taboo subject as it is bound to a tremendous amount of shame. The ravages of white supremacy on the minds of people of color is hard to admit in part because we want to feel that we have complete control over our minds. Yet the lessons of whiteness are so pervasive and omnipresent that our young psyches are convinced of our inferiority before we develop the ability to think critically and this lingers long after we can make a convincing logical argument against it. The first-generation immigrant is especially vulnerable because the way of success is clearly illuminated as the way towards whiteness, cultural erasure and assimilation at all costs. Otoo’s novel illustrates how high that cost is.
The interracial relationship, in this case between a White-German man and a Black African woman, could easily be seen as the hope of a post-racial present. The unraveling of the relationship is caused by the tiny explosions that undo many romances stressed by time, children and life. The freshness wears off and the oldness gets heavy. When the mushroom cloud of this relationship blossoms, all post-racial illusions disappear. The mental musings that accompany it in this novel will keep you torn between needing to look and wanting to look away.