Poet and Podcaster Musa Okwonga, Reclaiming Berlin

This week on The Trip podcast: Writer Musa Okwonga on Berlin’s exquisite and heavy psychogeography

Social media, for all its ills, can deliver unexpected gifts. For me, that was when I found writer Musa Okwonga’s self-published excerpt, on Instagram, from his upcoming novella called In The End, It Was All About Love (available for pre-order in November 2020 from Rough Trade Books). 

I first lived in the former East Germany in the early 90’s, and spent decades since balancing a deep love for the place with my unease as an outsider—especially as a half-Jewish teenager living through the dawn of Germany’s neo-Nazi revival. Musa’s novella, in that way that good writing can do, seemed to speak directly to my experience, even though it was written by someone quite different from me: an Oxford-educated lawyer, a Brit of Ugandan heritage, a football podcaster

So I wanted to start this series of five episodes from Berlin I’ll be doing on The Trip right here, with Musa. He suggested that our drink be Moscow Mules. We talked about that choice, about his writing habits, and about how he reclaimed Berlin for himself.

This is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Musa. You can listen to the full episode, for free, on StitcherSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Berlin is like a cookout. Bring a dish.

Thornburgh: Why did you choose Moscow Mules as our drink?

Okwonga: I associate it with my first few months in Berlin where I was dating a lovely woman, Angela. Shout out to Angela if you’re listening.

Thornburgh: Hey Angela.

Okwonga: We’d go to these bars, and this was the favorite drink there. It was five, six euros, and you just kind of get into it really fast. It’s a traditional Berlin drink.

Thornburgh: We should start with how I met you, a day and a half ago, through a beautiful thing—How to Eat Cake in Berlin—that you posted on Instagram. Tell me about it.

Okwonga: I wrote this 30,000 word novella called In The End, It Was All About Love based on my first four years in Berlin. It’s about 90% factual, 10% fiction. There’s an element of magic realism in it which comes at about a third of the way in. I wrote it with such a visceral form. I woke up every morning at six a.m. and then just wrote while it was still dark until the light came up. You know when you’re working out, you don’t work out until you’re exhausted. You work out until everything is tingling. I’d write until I was tingling. Then I’d stop. That means that the book is written with this real intensity and rawness. It’s all pretty much the first take.

Thornburgh: It’s the colostrum.

Okwonga: What did you call it?

Thornburgh: Colostrum. It’s that first squeeze of milk from a cow or any mammal. It’s the richest in the cream.

Okwonga: That was the idea. It was like the distilled form. [And] I believe in the psychogeography of Berlin. I believe this city has so much depth of emotion sunk within it, even within its stones. If I could express that lyrically or poetically, then it would be a great start for the book.

Thornburgh: You’ve been here four years. In the novella you write about being accosted by smug, spitting racists of various sorts whom I assume would just blend in with other Berliners, like the two women who were barking at you and took your phone. How do you not get paranoid?

Okwonga: That’s a great question. I think for me, the turning point was going to the anti-fascist march in Spandau in 2017 because I think it was just after the activist had been killed in Charlottesville, rest in peace. I thought, “What would my heroes do? They wouldn’t just sit and write opinion pieces or go and do interviews on the radio like I was doing. They’d actually get out there, and they’d march.”

I thought, my heroes are going to march, and so would I. I got on the train from Zoologischer Garten to Spandau with a friend of mine. It’s weird. When you get on the train to one of these marches, it’s the only real time neo-Nazis can get at you because there’s no police presence on the trains. Until you get to the march, actually, it’s an open season. It’s a bit of a tense moment.

 It’s a 40 minute journey from Zoologischer Garten to Spandau. I was opposite my friend. He was looking up to see who got on the train in case it was one of [the neo-Nazis]. I never looked up once. I wasn’t afraid. I was like, my back is exposed to whoever comes on this train. I’m not scared. That was the turning point.

After that, you couldn’t scare me. That was the day I reclaimed the city and said, “Yes, it’s your city and you hate me. You hate the fact that I’m Black. You think I’m inhuman. Okay, you know what? You believe that. It’s also my city.”

That was the day I reclaimed the city.

Thornburgh: You talk about surprising visitors to Berlin. You had a cousin who visited, and you took her all the way out to the west to where the forests and the lakes are. You said, “They come looking for drum n bass. I give them bird song.” That to me is such a beautiful thing. It’s also a way of saying that you’re not constricting yourself or confining yourself into these very diverse several neighborhoods at the heart of the city. You’re really going to jog this place.

Okwonga: Absolutely. That’s how you sort of take ownership. I think the beautiful part of Berlin, its enduring quality, is that it’s bottomless. It’s the quality of all great cities. Sao Paulo, Shanghai, these places. You can lose yourself.

I think with Berlin, I always celebrate the diversity, the richness of the geography itself. The lakes, the hills, the forests within the city’s boundaries. It’s unbelievable.

Thornburgh: It is, but it feels to me always, particularly in the state of Brandenburg and rural parts of Mecklenburg where I lived as a teenager, that increasingly those leafy places are unfriendly zones for foreigners in general. When you start to see the trees, it’s when things get a little odd.

Okwonga: Yeah, that kind of sort of preternatural stillness. Having said that, there is a place I went to for a friend’s wedding [in the countryside], a place that got quite a high conservative vote, where they were tearing down AfD posters before the wedding just to make us feel more comfortable. There was a guy living there, a Ugandan guy, who had been living there for eight years and absolutely loved it.

He’s as dark skinned as me. I just thought it’s so funny because people there are voting for the most nihilistic parties, but on a daily basis they’re absolutely friendly to this guy. Maybe they think, “he’s Black, but he’s different. He speaks German.” It’s bizarre.

Look how close we are to a better world.

Thornburgh: Well, that’s a way also of understanding the racist far right. That it’s complicated for them in an oddly human way. My name is a tough one in German because there’s a famous book that’s called Nathan The Wise, which everybody gets assigned in high school. They don’t like to read it, but they know it’s about a Jew. So in Germany, Nathan is the most Jewish name, which is not true in the States.

Okwonga: Wow.

Thornburgh: I remember being in a bit of a rundown neighborhood up in Mecklenburg on my 16th birthday. Just super drunk and out partying. These neo-Nazis come over and kind of accost us. They’re like, “What’s your name?” I tell them my name. And all of a sudden I thought, “Oh fuck.” My friends and their friends started to jaw. Then one of my friends said, “Yeah, he’s a foreigner. He’s from America.” All of a sudden, the head neo-Nazi in town, this hulking bowling ball of a dude, just melted. “America! My little brother loves baseball,” he said. “Can you tell me what a slider is?” The Jew fell away, and the American emerged.

Okwonga: Sliders with Nazis [laughs]

Thornburgh: Totally. We ended up continuing the party, I think, together.

Okwonga: It’s like a Larry David sketch! Isn’t it painful because it shows how close… I mean, it’s an amazing story, but it also is tantalizing, isn’t it? Look how close we are to a better world. If only there was a way to tell people or show people who are so afraid and so angry that the focus of their anger and their fear wasn’t a valid focus. But that’s the story of our civilization, isn’t it?

Musa Okwonga’s In the End, It Was All About Love will be available for pre-order in November 2020 from Rough Trade Books.

You can listen to the full episode of The Trip Podcast Episode 98 with Musa Okwonga here

Source link

72 Replies to “Poet and Podcaster Musa Okwonga, Reclaiming Berlin”

  1. I抦 impressed, I must say. Actually rarely do I encounter a weblog that抯 both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you’ve gotten hit the nail on the head. Your thought is excellent; the difficulty is one thing that not enough persons are speaking intelligently about. I am very completely satisfied that I stumbled throughout this in my search for something regarding this.

  2. A powerful share, I simply given this onto a colleague who was doing slightly analysis on this. And he in reality purchased me breakfast as a result of I discovered it for him.. smile. So let me reword that: Thnx for the treat! But yeah Thnkx for spending the time to debate this, I really feel strongly about it and love studying extra on this topic. If doable, as you become expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more details? It’s extremely helpful for me. Large thumb up for this weblog submit!

  3. That is the proper blog for anybody who needs to find out about this topic. You notice a lot its almost arduous to argue with you (not that I actually would want匟aHa). You positively put a new spin on a subject thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just nice!

  4. A formidable share, I simply given this onto a colleague who was doing a little analysis on this. And he in reality purchased me breakfast as a result of I found it for him.. smile. So let me reword that: Thnx for the treat! However yeah Thnkx for spending the time to debate this, I feel strongly about it and love reading more on this topic. If attainable, as you grow to be experience, would you mind updating your weblog with extra particulars? It’s highly useful for me. Big thumb up for this blog put up!

  5. The subsequent time I learn a weblog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my option to learn, however I truly thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you possibly can fix when you werent too busy looking for attention.

  6. The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to learn, but I really thought youd have something attention-grabbing to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you might fix should you werent too busy on the lookout for attention.

  7. Aw, this was a very nice post. In thought I wish to put in writing like this moreover ?taking time and actual effort to make a very good article?but what can I say?I procrastinate alot and not at all seem to get one thing done.

  8. This web page is mostly a stroll-by way of for all the data you needed about this and didn抰 know who to ask. Glimpse right here, and also you抣l undoubtedly uncover it.

  9. My husband and i have been really ecstatic Edward could complete his analysis with the ideas he was given out of your weblog. It is now and again perplexing just to possibly be giving for free points which men and women could have been trying to sell. Therefore we understand we have the blog owner to thank because of that. Most of the illustrations you’ve made, the simple web site navigation, the relationships you help promote – it is all powerful, and it’s really leading our son and the family do think that article is interesting, which is exceedingly essential. Thanks for everything!

  10. I together with my pals were found to be checking out the good information from your website and then all of a sudden developed a horrible suspicion I had not thanked the site owner for those techniques. Most of the young men were definitely totally excited to see all of them and have now unquestionably been tapping into those things. We appreciate you genuinely considerably thoughtful as well as for settling on this kind of really good themes millions of individuals are really eager to be informed on. My very own honest apologies for not saying thanks to sooner.

  11. I wish to express some appreciation to the writer just for rescuing me from this trouble. As a result of surfing through the world wide web and finding concepts that were not powerful, I figured my entire life was well over. Being alive minus the strategies to the problems you have solved through your review is a critical case, as well as those which could have adversely affected my entire career if I hadn’t noticed your site. Your main understanding and kindness in maneuvering all the things was crucial. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if I hadn’t discovered such a stuff like this. I’m able to at this time look forward to my future. Thank you very much for your specialized and amazing guide. I will not hesitate to endorse your web blog to any individual who will need care on this area.

  12. I precisely needed to thank you very much once more. I am not sure the things that I could possibly have accomplished in the absence of these tactics shown by you concerning such a subject matter. This has been a very scary setting in my circumstances, but spending time with a new skilled form you solved the issue made me to weep over joy. I will be grateful for your assistance and then sincerely hope you comprehend what a great job you are always carrying out training other individuals through the use of your web blog. I know that you haven’t got to know all of us.

  13. I needed to post you a bit of remark to help thank you very much the moment again for all the beautiful basics you have discussed above. It was quite generous of you to convey easily what exactly many individuals would have offered for sale as an e-book to make some cash for themselves, especially considering that you might well have done it in the event you wanted. The techniques likewise worked to provide a great way to know that other people online have the same zeal the same as mine to figure out good deal more around this condition. I think there are a lot more pleasant sessions up front for individuals that examine your blog.

  14. I would like to show some appreciation to the writer for bailing me out of this trouble. Just after looking throughout the the web and meeting things that were not helpful, I believed my life was over. Existing devoid of the approaches to the problems you’ve solved all through your entire website is a critical case, and the kind that would have in a negative way affected my career if I had not come across your web page. Your main capability and kindness in dealing with every aspect was helpful. I’m not sure what I would have done if I hadn’t discovered such a solution like this. I can at this point look ahead to my future. Thanks so much for the high quality and sensible guide. I won’t think twice to propose the sites to anybody who requires tips on this subject.

  15. I precisely needed to appreciate you once again. I am not sure what I could possibly have undertaken without the entire ideas provided by you concerning this topic. This has been a troublesome difficulty for me, nevertheless viewing this professional mode you treated it took me to weep for gladness. Now i am happier for this assistance and have high hopes you really know what a great job you are always carrying out educating the mediocre ones via your webblog. I am certain you’ve never encountered any of us.

  16. My husband and i were absolutely glad when Peter could round up his researching while using the ideas he gained in your web page. It is now and again perplexing just to choose to be handing out information which usually other people may have been selling. We really recognize we now have you to give thanks to for that. Those explanations you made, the straightforward site menu, the friendships you assist to promote – it’s everything superb, and it’s helping our son in addition to the family know that the subject is enjoyable, and that’s extremely indispensable. Many thanks for the whole thing!

  17. I intended to compose you that bit of observation just to thank you once again for the fantastic suggestions you’ve shown on this site. It is really wonderfully generous with you to grant easily exactly what a few individuals would’ve advertised as an e book in making some bucks for themselves, mostly given that you might well have tried it if you ever decided. These pointers in addition worked like a good way to understand that other individuals have a similar interest the same as mine to see a little more in terms of this condition. I am sure there are numerous more fun instances ahead for those who check out your blog.

  18. Thank you so much for providing individuals with remarkably splendid chance to check tips from this blog. It’s usually so lovely plus jam-packed with a lot of fun for me and my office friends to visit your blog not less than three times per week to learn the latest things you will have. Not to mention, we are always fulfilled with all the stunning solutions you serve. Some 4 ideas in this post are unquestionably the finest I’ve ever had.

  19. I am only writing to let you know what a beneficial discovery my friend’s daughter had studying yuor web blog. She figured out plenty of things, including what it is like to possess an incredible teaching style to get other individuals with ease master certain hard to do matters. You undoubtedly exceeded her desires. I appreciate you for imparting such beneficial, dependable, edifying not to mention cool guidance on your topic to Mary.

  20. I have to express some thanks to the writer for bailing me out of this type of matter. Right after searching through the the net and getting advice which are not helpful, I figured my life was gone. Living without the strategies to the difficulties you have resolved all through your website is a crucial case, and the ones that might have in a negative way affected my career if I hadn’t encountered the blog. Your good understanding and kindness in controlling all the details was tremendous. I am not sure what I would have done if I had not come upon such a stuff like this. It’s possible to now look ahead to my future. Thanks a lot so much for this expert and sensible guide. I will not be reluctant to endorse the website to anyone who will need guidance on this subject matter.

  21. Thanks a lot for giving everyone remarkably breathtaking chance to discover important secrets from this site. It is always so amazing and packed with a lot of fun for me personally and my office friends to visit your blog no less than three times a week to find out the new issues you have. And indeed, I am at all times satisfied with your splendid principles served by you. Selected 3 tips in this posting are undeniably the most impressive we’ve had.

  22. I precisely desired to appreciate you yet again. I do not know the things that I could possibly have taken care of without the entire creative ideas shared by you concerning that question. It was actually a traumatic issue in my circumstances, nevertheless understanding your skilled technique you solved the issue made me to leap with joy. I will be thankful for the advice as well as trust you are aware of an amazing job your are undertaking teaching many people thru your web blog. Most probably you have never encountered any of us.

  23. I have to convey my admiration for your kindness in support of folks who must have guidance on this important question. Your very own dedication to getting the solution up and down ended up being pretty informative and have consistently helped somebody like me to get to their aims. Your valuable suggestions signifies this much to me and further more to my office colleagues. Warm regards; from all of us.

  24. I want to show my thanks to you just for rescuing me from such a crisis. After looking out through the the web and meeting solutions which are not pleasant, I thought my entire life was well over. Existing without the presence of solutions to the difficulties you’ve fixed by way of your main short article is a critical case, and the kind which might have adversely affected my career if I had not discovered your web site. Your own knowledge and kindness in touching a lot of stuff was helpful. I don’t know what I would have done if I had not discovered such a stuff like this. I’m able to at this time relish my future. Thanks so much for your reliable and results-oriented help. I won’t hesitate to endorse your blog to any person who should have assistance on this situation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *