Skip to content
Join us on October 26 at 7PM EDT for the 2021 WWB Virtual Gala. Learn more and get your tickets today!
from the January 2021 issue

Global Blackness: Black Writers in Translation

Our annual January archive issue this year comes at a moment of urgency: in two weeks, the US’s first Black vice president, Kamala Harris, will be sworn in, after four years of divisive politics in which racism figured heavily. Less than a year after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led to renewed Black Lives Matter protests and a reckoning across American society, literary publishers—including this magazine—are seeking to address the deficit of Black writers published each year.

The magnitude of the hole is clear, but data that might inform solutions is scattered and, sometimes, nonexistent—another indication, perhaps, of just how steep the climb out will be. A few quick examples, though, can be quite illustrative: in the New York Times “Globetrotting” list for 2020, only twelve of 224 titles listed there are from Africa; nine are in translation, but almost all of those are from French, and of the four writers from sub-Saharan Africa, only one identifies as Black. While the Times list may not make any pretense of comprehensiveness, this one is nonetheless revealing of US publishing’s priorities. Last month, Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek wrote of their efforts to quantify the number of Black writers published in the US between 1950 and 2018, finding that ninety-five percent of English-language books published in the period were authored by white writers. It’s tempting to guess at what data would have looked like if they had drilled down to translated work. Literary agent Marie Dutton Brown, interviewed for the Times piece, remarks that “Black life and Black culture are rediscovered every ten to fifteen years.” Imagine the impact on Black writing in translation.

Part of the problem stems from larger issues within our industry: corporate (or corporate-minded) publishers looking for the next Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, wittingly or unwittingly narrowing from the get-go what Black writing ought to read like. In an article published last year in the Times Literary Supplement, Colin Grant details some of the problems that have plagued Anglophone literary publishing when it comes to publishing Black writers: differing literary standards for works by white writers and Black writers, and a rush to publish more Black writers that betrays greater concern with avoiding mention alongside the #publishingsowhite hashtag than with developing the careers of Black writers (or as one of our columnists later this month will argue, Black translators). Complicating the scenario further, the barriers faced by Black writers hoping to have their work internationalized can begin before translation is even a consideration, as scholar and activist Franciane Conceição Silva writes in her essay (translated by Bruna Dantas Lobato) for this magazine in 2018.

This is not, of course, to overlook the good work being done—and being done well before we finally began the current reckoning with our shortcomings—by some independent publishers.

There is, as the title of this essay suggests, a secondary problem when it comes to Black literature in translation, which pertains to expectations placed on writers of color, as translator and scholar Corine Tachtiris notes in her recent interview with Project Plume. “Anti-racist translation should actively disrupt racism, whether that’s discursive racism, structural, economic, linguistic racism, and so on. That might be by translating into a racialized English that challenges the White mainstream norm, or by selecting texts that undermine racist stereotypes of other cultures, especially racist formulations that are meant to come off as positive.”

As the writers in our opinion series publishing later this month note, there are solutions where there’s will. PEN Translation Prize finalist Aaron Robertson proposes new ways in which publishers might work to support Black writers and translators, and also charts a path for translators of color to organize. Sandra Tamele, a WWB contributor and founder of Maputo-based Editora Trinta Zero Nove, discusses why she founded a press in Mozambique with the aim of publishing writers there in English translation. Writing of the translation history of Octavia Butler and of her own work, Évelyne Trouillot advocates not only for the more frequent publication of Black writers in translation but also a change in the way this is done.

At Words Without Borders, we have begun to evaluate our own myopia when it’s come to better publishing and promoting Black writers. The danger of the single narrative, a double risk when publishing writers who are Black and write in a language other than English, is pervasive, and we’ll be working with outside advisors to assess and help guide our efforts. As we work to address our own shortcomings through sustainable, structural initiatives aimed at lasting change, we are taking inspiration in the work of Black writers in our archive whose work is testament to the multiplicity of Black life as it confronts structural racism (and its effects) throughout the globe.

In making our selection for this issue, we wished to highlight writing that confronted the various guises and modi operandi of racism. What those active in the struggle for change understand is that it's not just the institutions that buttress racism that must be dismantled but the ideas underpinning them. The essays, stories, and poems this month shed light on the corners where these ideas lurk, which, as we discover in the work of Igiaba Scego and Ricardo Aleixo, pervade the quotidian if only we bother to look. But the Black experience, as activists have urged this year, should not be reduced only to misfortune and struggle. Failure to acknowledge Black joy (also an act of resistance) is but another form of undercutting anti-racist work. Naomi Jackson reminds us of some of the forms this can take in her paean to pan-Africanism via Salvador, Brazil. While selections of any sort fail to adequately capture the whole picture, the writers here harness the strength of literature as, by its very attention to nuance, a form of resistance.

The first of those is Ricardo Aleixo, who combines text and performance in work that explores poetry as both visual and social expression. In this issue, we’re revisiting Dan Hanrahan’s translations of three poems by Aleixo, adding a video performance by Aleixo of his poem “My Man”—a repudiation of the impositions made upon Black identity—especially for this issue.

Like Aleixo’s, the work of Lima Barreto confronts racism head-on. As critic Felipe Botelho Corrêa notes in this 2018 essay, Barreto, a late contemporary of Machado de Assis, expertly diagnosed the disconnect between the realities faced by most of Brazilian society and the European-inspired forms of Brazilian literature at the turn of the century. Taking the opposite tack in “Black Teeth and Blue Hair,” his 1922 short story published in English translation for the first time in our December 2018 issue, Barreto warns that “ignorance is a kind of blindness.” Barreto embraced literature as a means to social change and a clamor for racial justice. When the story’s narrator is mugged, he loses more than his pocket money. Barreto’s is a tale that provokes readers to distrust initial impressions.

Igiaba Scego, meanwhile, in an essay for our April 2016 issue, looks at the persistence of Mussolini-era racism in the form of a popular song. Scego’s essay foreshadowed the proliferation of texts in the US throughout 2020 that reckoned with the surreptitious pervasiveness of racist attitudes in popular childhood songs. “But do people who sing it really know what it means?” Scego asks in her examination of Renato Micheli’s "Faccetta nera."

If the work of other writers in this issue center race and racial consciousness, Germano Almeida’s “A Form of African Identity” traces the deleterious effects of colonialism in impeding solidarities between Cabo Verdeans and other African nations while also writing against the monolithic Africa of the Western imagination. “We led our lives in the serene assurance of being Cabo Verdeans, with the harmless contributing circumstance of also being Portuguese, when this tranquility was abruptly overturned in the 1960s and 70s by the shattering revelation that Cabo Verde was also Africa, in the deepest sense,” Almeida writes. Almeida uses his pen to draw the contours of an identity that allows Cabo Verdeans both their idiosyncrasies and their kinship to other African nations.

Johannes Anyuru, meanwhile, meditates on race, history, and Islam, in Sweden and across Europe, on a journey to the Alhambra. This route begins, perhaps unexpectedly, on the Stockholm metro, where, Anyuru writes, “when my eyes landed on the guy talking about vacuuming a mosque I couldn’t stop staring. It was like he came from a planet that still had meaning.” Tracing his own conversion to Islam, Anyuru later reflects, “If I speak of peace now [ . . . ] I speak of preserving difference. I am not talking about peace because I want to bring harmony to the conflict that has made me who I am, but because I want to preserve the person I am.” Anyuru’s assertion reminds us: despite calls to the contrary, calls to achieve anti-racist through the elision of difference in fact achieve the opposite.

Magali Nirina Marson’s “Abandoning Myself,” in which a young victim relates the neglect, poverty, and abuse of a life for which she was never destined, reveals the nefarious dalliance between racism, colonialism, and misogyny. The choices left the Malagasy narrator, and her mother, after her French father returns to France, are an indictment of a society.

In “Coloureds,” graphic artists the Trantraal Brothers set their sights on the pipeline fueling persistent social ills. Caught in a milieu of addiction and domestic abuse, children in one township in South Africa find themselves facing poverty, hunger, evangelism, and life-or-death decisions. Availing themselves of the unflinching honesty that is inherent to children, the Trantraal Brothers look at the ways in which the family and social spheres conspire to perpetuate inequality.

Colonialism and Christianity in Nigeria are at the heart of Akinwumi Isola’s story about religious and linguistic identity, targeting the social structures of racism from another vantage point. Selected by 1986 Nobel winner Wole Soyinka for WWB’s The World through the Eyes of Writers anthology, Isola’s “The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English),” takes raucous aim at the hapless evangelizing of a white man whose mission is upended as he spends the bulk of his time attempting to remedy the grammatical confusion he’s wrought in course of his proselytizing.

Impatiently recounting his own “bullshit story,” the Ivorian narrator of an excerpt from Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah Is Not Obliged, armed with the Petit Robert and a slew of other French-language dictionaries, sketches the contours of his “fucked-up life” with cheeky defiance. In this romp through French and pidgin idioms, the narrator zeroes in on the cultural assumptions—often nonsensical to other cultures and, occasionally, even in their original contexts—that underlie our everyday speech and, thus, our attitudes. The pathway leading to “the easy money working as a civil servant in some fucked-up, crooked republic” is closed off to our narrator, whose only form of redress is a foul-mouthed elucidation of the structures keeping him in his place.

In a 2016 essay, New York-based writer Naomi Jackson, author of The Star Side of Bird Hill, takes us along her own intellectual and cultural journey from the Caribbean to West Africa to South Africa, and eventually to Brazil—itself the country, as Jackson notes, with the second-largest Black population in the world after Nigeria. “Given my love for Black people and fascination with our stories, Brazil’s paramount importance in the historical trans-Atlantic slave trade and its contemporary role as a cultural and economic leader on the world stage, it was inevitable that my travels would lead me there,” Jackson writes. From her time in the city of Salvador, she returns more certain than ever of the need for an “evolving dialogue that broadens definitions of global Blackness.”

We hope this issue might serve as both a reminder and a beginning: a reminder of this evolving dialogue's plurality, and one we must acknowledge; the work has only begun.


© 2020 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.

Read more from the January 2021 issue.
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.