2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Poet and Podcaster Musa Okwonga, Reclaiming Berlin

Portrait of poet Musa Okwonga

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

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