Stories « hidden » in other languages: Gersy Ifeanyi Ejimofo on Das Deutsche Krokodil
Whenever the boy answers the phone, he always gives his full name. Some people who call to speak to his mother find this amusing and mimic him, as though the boy’s naively narcissistic way of answering the phone merited an affectionate echo. When he pronounces his full name, it comes to nine syllables. The sounds and the rhythm pulse like a wave. But that’s not the reason why he answers with such a tongue twister; no, this is his attempt to mitigate his fate. His middle name is his hope of tempering the exoticism of his first name: Ijoma Alexander Mangold.
When you look at it like this, it’s actually 2-1 to Germany. But only when he manages to remind the person he’s talking to of the existence of his middle name.
For all his attempts, it doesn’t really work. Although his middle name appears on official documents like sports certificates, it isn’t really given the same weight as his first name. The grown-ups clearly can’t be dissuaded from the assumption that Ijoma is the name that best describes the boy, even though they always trip up when they say it. The way people stumble over his name is a source of grave embarrassment for the boy. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. They even seem to derive a certain enjoyment when they praise its uncommon beauty; the logical conclusion is that he should count himself lucky he wasn’t a run-of-the-mill Matthias, Andreas or Oliver.
He sees it differently, but he doesn’t say so. He senses a great pressure to identify with his first name. His mother has told him several times he can call himself Alexander in kindergarten or at school if he wants to, but he can’t imagine really going to the effort of changing it. It’s not easy to tell people that from now on they should call you by a different name. « What’s wrong with you? » they would ask. « Why would you want to get rid of your beautiful first name? » He doesn’t want to go that far.
His mother says he was named Alexander after his great-great-grandfather, who was a tailor in Berlin. He could listen to the stories about his great-great-grandfather over and over; he never tires of hearing about him. He’s grateful for his Berlin ancestor whose protective hand hovers over his middle name. Whenever his middle name is pushed aside, he can defend it by invoking his great-great-grandfather.
His first name is his father’s legacy.
It seems a rather disproportionate intervention, given that his father has been completely absent from his life. All he knows about his father is that he studied medicine in Heidelberg and then went back to Nigeria soon after his son was born. There are only a few photos. In one, his father stands next to his grandmother, holding his son in his arms, wearing a suit and tie. In the background are vineyards, the Odenwald. The boy isn’t particularly interested in the photos, but whenever his mother gets the album out – he can’t exactly stop her – he’s always amazed by the sheer joy on his grandmother’s face. Isn’t she at all bothered by this stranger holding her grandchild, he wonders. Why doesn’t she look annoyed or uncomfortable? Doesn’t it seem wrong to her that this stranger is taking up so much space in the family photo? Unlike his mother, who can’t be relied on to react to things in any normal way, Grandma is usually more reliable. If it had been up to him, this photo and others like it would have been filtered out by now. He wouldn’t mind if the picture were cropped. After all, if you’re not around in life, why should there be a place for you in the photos?
The boy doesn’t resent his father, but he doesn’t miss him, either. He has no memory of him, so he can see no reason for him to show up in the photo albums.
His mother sees it differently. She’s always singing his praises. The boy can see through it: she just wants to establish an endearing image of a likeable father. She doesn’t want her son to think badly of him just because he isn’t there. She doesn’t want her son to feel abandoned. Now and then she tells him the story about how his father came to Germany to study medicine, supported by his village. He had always assumed that he would go back home with the skills he acquired in this country, with his specialism in paediatric surgery. And on the other hand, she, his mother, couldn’t imagine them going to Africa to live there. Much as she loves Africa, she felt too German for that. She and his father separated amicably; there was no reason to blame him or hold anything against him.
The boy is wary of these conversations about his absent father. His mother extols his virtues and tries to make it sound like everything is as it should be, but the fact remains that he – unlike all his friends – doesn’t have a dad. And why should he listen to stories about a person who for him doesn’t even exist?
To his relief, these conversations don’t come up too often.
The good thing is that his father now has his own family in Nigeria. To avoid giving his wife any cause for jealousy or jeopardising the blessing of the household, his mother explains, they decided not to stay in touch. The boy is reassured by the potentially jealous wife; at least his father won’t suddenly turn up at their door, in his suit and tie. The boy can do without any surprises like that. The absent father is a gap, a flaw, but as long as no one brings it up, it’s an absence you can forget about. When his mother remarks that the boy has the same beautiful pianist hands as his father, he rolls his eyes. It’s not the absence of his father that’s the problem, it’s the trail he left behind, the markers that point to him. But it’s in the boy’s first name that his father is most present. Whenever he tells someone his name, it inevitably leads to questions and it’s the answers to those questions that draw people’s attention to what is unusual about the boy’s circumstances. « Oh, so you have your father’s first name and your mother’s family name? » For some reason, people expect it to be the other way around.
These conversations are bearable enough; they’re usually over quite quickly. But if only his mother didn’t make such a fuss over his name! She never stops going on about how beautiful and unusual it sounds; that it means « a stroke of luck »; that it isn’t at all exotic in Nigeria; how nice it sounds when a name has three different vowels in it. This name – which the boy sees as a weakness, a flaw – is, in his mother’s eyes, a cause for pride. This is what upsets him most. But the boy never says anything.
In any case, it seems to him that his first name has less to do with his father, than with his mother and her desire to be contrary, to do things differently. To choose a Nigerian to father her child – only his mother would have that idea. To raise a child without a father – who else would choose such a thing? And then to give your child a name that does the precise opposite of camouflage – that’s the embodiment of her dauntless character!
Copyright © Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
Gersy Ifeanyi Ejimofo is founder and head of Digitalback Books, a virtual platform for literature and scholarly books, dedicated to African writers, readers and the African diaspora. The English translation of Ijoma Mangold’s Das Deutsche Krokodil (The German Crocodile) was the first book published under Digitalback Books’ new DAS Editions Imprint. We asked her to tell us about it.
Tell us more about your publishing imprint and its aims.
Well, I had spent the past 5 years curating literature from independent publishers across Africa on a digital platform DBB (digitalbackbooks.com). I felt, given my concerns about these books’ lack of penetration on the continent, that my experience in digital publishing and my focus on the discovery and rediscovery of Africa’s stories was what I could add to the conversation around lack of visibility or accessibility.
Extending the ‘Discover Africa’s Stories’ concept to include a publishing imprint DAS Editions was conceived purely out of a chance conversation with a fellow parent on a small ski resort just outside Zurich. (Story for another day!) Launching this imprint will allow me to address some of the restrictions I have faced on my journey to date and, in fact, to come full circle with my original intention.
I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, and there is much to celebrate and to choose from when it comes to African Literature today. But I do feel frustrated that some of the important African classics remain out of circulation, so I do intend to explore plugging that gap with this imprint. And while I see healthy traffic in translations from English into other European languages, perhaps we could do more in the other direction if sufficiently supported by cultural organisations. It would be great to share more stories where the narrative straddle multiple borders—stories ‘hidden’ in other languages—and pull them into the global English lingua franca of today.
Going forward, my aim would be to handpick some gems and publish a modest two to three titles annually in the DAS Edition Series. That list, as it grows, will allow readers to experience the literature of Africa’s past juxtaposed with the translated literature of Africa’s legacy in the world today.
What is The German Crocodile about?
It is a compelling coming of age memoir that sees the reader accompany Ijoma on a journey where he recounts and reflects on his youth spent in 1970s Heidelberg and the new Federal Republic, and momentous visits in early adulthood to the USA and Nigeria.
His narrative is framed within the context of what it means to grow up different, both in terms of his ethnicity, his family structure and his erudite interests. His own story is inextricably linked with that of his mother, a German from the eastern province of Silesia, forced to escape as a refugee in the expulsions from 1944, and to start afresh in utter poverty in West Germany. His Nigerian father, absent most of his youth, reappears on the scene 22 years later and forces a collision with an unknown culture, one he grew up suspicious of, and a new complex family history to come to terms with.
Within that, many existential themes are explored: the legacy of one’s past, the reality of one’s present and an intentional carving out of one’s future path. It’s also about a mother’s love, teenage angst, trust, rejection and finally acceptance.
The book packs quite a punch and it was an absolute delight to have acquired the English language translation rights to be bring his story to an English-speaking audience.
Who is Ijoma Mangold?
He is probably better placed to answer that question but I would describe Ijoma as a feather-ruffling intellectual and a proud German of Prussian and Igbo heritage. A graduate of literature and philosophy, he is today one of Germany’s most respected literary critics. He is currently the cultural-political journalist at Die Zeit and is regularly on the jury for major literature prizes in Germany.
You can catch him on the television alongside other critics, hosting the Südwestrundfunkliterature show Lesenswert.
What attracted you to his writing?
The first connection was definitely at an emotional level. The themes resonated with me.
In an increasingly diverse society, we are experiencing an exciting fusion of culture, language and people, where new identities are formed that might not fit very neatly with a binary view of the world. The exploration of what this feels like, that balancing act of one's own identity and that of your parent's, or even one that society might want to impose on you, is a complexity I am sure many others will identify with.
The chapter about Mangold’s mother’s escape as a child—from the eastern province of Silesia during the expulsion of Germans by the Red Army from 1944—is deeply moving. This harrowing experience of non-Jewish German refugees is a perspective on World War II history that is rarely covered in English-language literary and artistic explorations of the war.
Next was the language. You really see the German language shine in all its glory!
Ijoma shares his story while experimenting with style and form. His passion for music and literature is also sprinkled throughout, and he weaves it delicately into the narrative, leaving crumbs here and there that make you feel like you are on a literary treasure hunt.
His observations and reflections are delivered with a humor, honesty and irony that will have you gasp, marvel, laugh out loud and even shed several tears as he takes you through the journey of his youth. This has to be literary non-fiction at its best.
What was your experience of the translation process?
The German Crocodile was an ambitious and very nuanced text to want to translate and I am very fortunate to have found an incredibly meticulous translator in Ruth Kemp and a wonderful editor in Jen Calleja. Ruth’s experience of translating critical texts on music and art, and her thorough knowledge of German history and politics, made her well placed to convey to English readers the cultural context that imbues Mangold's very personal memoir.
Having immersed myself in both the German and the English texts—and with multiple hats on as both a bilingual reader and publisher—I am even more appreciative of the beauty of language, the challenge of translation and the importance of organisations like The Goethe Institut and English PEN who have so generously supported this work and continue to champion cross-border literature. We will be all the richer for it!
What do you hope your readers will take away from this book?
Firstly, I hope they will relish the reading experience. Reading this book felt like an assault on all my senses, a bit like enjoying a full-bodied red with a platter of cheeses where each bite triggers a different reaction you had not anticipated. There is also so much to unpack, from themes to language to style to countries to music to literature. You will definitely have the urge to untangle the ideas and emotions it stirs up with someone else, so rope in a friend, discuss it in a book club, debate it in class or dissect it at university. It is an immensely satisfying read!