Ijoma Mangold is a man who speaks his mind. One of Germany’s top literary critics, he currently lives in Berlin as the culture and politics correspondent for Die Zeit, while featuring regularly on German television and on literary prize juries. Late last year, DAS Editions published his memoir about growing up biracial in 1970s Heidelberg, The German Crocodile, in an award-winning English translation by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. This compelling work covers Mangold’s relationship with his single mother, his burgeoning passion for German literature, the belated appearance of his father and formative visits he made to both Nigeria and the USA. The narrative is shaped throughout by Mangold’s subtle literary touch, his understated wit – and a fierce intellectual independence.
What led you to write a book about your youth?
The catalyst was the death of my mother in 2010. That triggered a lot of beautiful, even idyllic memories of my childhood, including ones I didn’t know I had. So I began writing about that. But then I realised that the reader would be wondering, with all this talk about a mother and child – where is the father? I would have to explain that. It became clear that this was the essential story of the book: what it means to grow up in a completely idyllic German setting when you look different, have an unusual first name, and don’t have a father around. I also quickly realised I was bringing some tonalities and perspectives that aren’t exactly typical for this genre. Which is to say that my book isn’t one of accusation, or of trauma. On the contrary, I had an extraordinarily happy childhood. And I wouldn’t say that I really experienced racism. Still, as a child, I had this growing consciousness of being different that I carried around with me.
Your relationship with your mother is beautifully portrayed in the book. How did that change throughout your life?
As a child, I saw her with a certain skepticism because she was a single mother. My father was a Nigerian who came to study medicine in Germany, which is how they met, but it was always clear that he would be going back there and my mother staying here, so they split up. I never really missed him: you can’t miss someone you never knew. Still, the fact my mother didn’t have a husband had seemed to me like a sign of her weakness – not as a repudiation of her, but out of concern for the stability of our family life. As I got older, however, the characteristics that used to worry me about her became things that I could appreciate as qualities. She was a really unconventional, really open-minded person. And that was fantastic.
You write that, being biracial, you were not a minority: you were a singularity.
Yes, and that’s a very important point. It’s something that first became clear to me when I traveled to the USA after high school and got to know people in the African American community. They would ask me, “So, what’s the Black community like in Germany?” And I had never thought about that, for the very simple reason that there didn’t seem to be one. It was a totally defining experience to be a singularity of a person: someone who is exotic, but not actually faced with racist clichés – because for something to become a cliché, there first has to be a collectivisation. At the time, I was the only person you could call “Afrodeutsch”, although the term didn’t exist then, in Dossenheim, or perhaps even all of Heidelberg. That really shaped my youth because I couldn’t possibly see myself as anything other than German.
Did this enable your development as a literary critic, or as a devotee of German high culture?
I made the best of my situation. Early on I discovered, if there are going to be doubts about whether I’m really a German – because of how I look – then I can dispel them with how I speak. My friends have always observed that I speak a very sharp, clearly articulated German. I also happened to find myself interested in a very German cultural tradition – Thomas Mann, Prussian history; I was a Wagner fan already at 15. At some point, I realised this was a kind of unique selling point, a niche I could cultivate. All the “Aryan Germans” were so worried about sounding like revisionists. Whereas if you look like an African and rave about Prussia, no one will accuse you of being a racist.
So, I did seem unusual as a teenager, but that was more because I listened to Wagner and Strauss instead of pop music.
That sounds like a bit of a provocation. Were you playing with people’s expectations of a “race memoir”, there?
I don’t know if that’s how it comes across now, but when I wrote that, I meant it dead seriously. Different people have difference experiences. This includes the experience that being Black in a majority-white society doesn’t necessarily mean undergoing an irreparable trauma. That experience exists, and it deserves to be told as well. I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist, because it does.
Your memoir doesn’t seem to want to make any political point. And that’s reflected in the form – when memories emerge in the story, it’s not always clear what they mean, even to you…
That’s right. I’m deeply wary of certainties in general. The “unknown unknown”, that’s the most exciting space for me. The uncertainty, the openness, the ambivalence of things. If you think you understand yourself, then that’s a dreadful place from which to try and write an interesting book. I will always shy away from reducing all one’s experiences and memories to one common denominator, or one big idea. Because life is more com- plicated than a single message.