A new novel by the celebrated Palestinian writer travels back and forth in time, across decades, examining the way family, politics, and friendship in her homeland are shaped by violence and war.
Decades after being exiled by the colonial forces occupying her homeland, a woman returns to Palestine to repair her childhood home––and to confront a past filled with heartbreak and bloodshed. Her name is Nidal and, now in old age, she has spent her life running from the memories of the armed confrontations that roiled the region during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Many of Nidal’s memories have to do with Rabie, a boy she fell in love with at the start of the armed conflict. Torn between romance and the sense of duty young people feel, Rabie disappears into the fog of war, leaving Nidal with lifelong questions about what happened to him. Is he even alive?
Long-lost love is just the starting point for Sahar Khalifeh’s sixth novel, My First and Only Love, but don’t let the title deceive you, it’s so much more than that. The book travels back and forth in time, across decades, examining the way family, politics, and friendship are shaped by violence and war, and whether or not collective memory of such things is set in stone.
Khalifeh is one of the most respected Palestinian writers working today. Since her acclaimed debut Wild Thorns (1976), she has written eleven novels and won several prestigious literary accolades, such as the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. The life of Palestinians under occupation is a recurring theme in her work.
For this book, she doesn’t require you to be an expert on the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor does she try to educate you on the history. This approach has a way of bringing the humanity of the characters into focus.
“I find myself without a friend and without a home,” Nidal says, after reconstruction on her home begins. “I am alone, like a sword. Members of my family had left and I too left like many others. Who stayed behind? All that is left for me is this house, and that is why I returned. I want to make of this house––the family home, my first home and my last home––a gallery with pictures, paintings, and frames. In short, a museum.”
While Nidal seems ready to engage with her memories through the reconstruction of the house, she is also, simultaneously, reluctant to delve too deep. She has spent her life separating herself from the traumatic experiences of British patrols, cave hideouts, and “the screams of peasants.” There is a sense, for nearly the entire novel, that she believes she already knows everything she needs to know about these things, and how they impacted her family. This is very obviously a defense mechanism, which protects her from trauma and a lack of closure.
She is stubborn. If a museum is what she wants to make of her house, then it is not one whose artifacts she will readily engage with. Nidal is the most successful member of her family, having gone onto become a successful painter, with exhibitions for UNESCO in Paris. When troubling memories of Rabie get too close, she cuts off conversations or fixes her mind on painting. Who needs lost lovers, anyway?
The story’s feminist undertones belie the narrative’s time period and setting. A significant theme is whether or not a woman can find fulfillment without having children. Some of the strongest characters in the book are women, Nidal’s grandmother among them, who feel equally capable of having careers as they do of running households. It helps to ground the romantic plot lines, which could have easily turned melodramatic under the direction of a less capable writer.
For example, early in the novel, the plot seems to be headed for a traditional, almost sappy, romance storyline––Rabie is becoming increasingly involved in the fighting and Nidal is lost in thoughts of her “collapsing” love affair. But for every moment in which sobbing lovers hold hands in the forest, there is a scene that is so run-of-the-mill that the whole feels taken from real life. There are countless scenes of characters discussing the logistics of the conflict––obtaining food for troops, mapping out which cities to attack. These conversations are long and detailed, even tedious, but they help to remind us of the messiness inherent to the time.
In one scene, an angry crowd forms around the mayor’s house, but it is not the kind that explodes into violence. Its members are strikingly articulate, sharing their concerns about the Jewish settlements that are encroaching on their land by picking up fence posts during the night and inching them closer toward the locals’ property. They discuss the different ways to stop the encroachment, the different sizes of their lots, the ins and outs of having to move. Yes, they are angry and the crowd becomes dangerous. But there is also an attention to the details of displacement that another story might have overlooked.
What is national literature and how is it defined? Often, when one thinks of a particular nation or language, they imagine a specific phenotype tied to a historical narrative. A cursory Google search of contemporary Italian women writers spits out lists of writers one should read, including Elena Ferrante, Giulia Caminito, Viola di Grado, and Donatella Di Pietrantonio, to name a few. These women, whose works have transcended linguistic and cultural borders through translation, are also who one might expect to embody “Italianness.” In doing so, and without knowledge of the shifting racial and cultural demographic of Italy, one would assume that whiteness is central to Italian identity. In fact, any attempt to find a more expansive list of Italian writers with diverse identities and backgrounds requires adding “postcolonial,” “migrant,” or “second generation” to the search bar.
In engaging with the Italian literary landscape, Italians who claim hyphenated identities, regardless of their personal sense of Italianness, are relegated to the margins. Yet Italy’s geographic location and history as a colonial power have placed it in a proximal relationship to Blackness. These histories, unreckoned with in many ways, mean that racialized experiences of Blackness in Italy are simultaneously at the forefront and invisible.
Even before the transnational Black Lives Matter movement, Black Italians have pushed Italy to confront its colonial past and engage with its present diversity. Among those leading the charge are Afro-Italian women writers whose work speaks to and amplifies both contemporary and historical experiences of Blackness within the Italian context. These writers, in fiction and nonfiction, attempt to expand the idea of what it is to be Italian.
In this issue, four writers from different generations—Igiaba Scego, Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, Marie Moïse, and Djarah Kan—enrich our understanding of what it means to exist in Italy as a member of the Black diaspora. Against the grain of right-wing, xenophobic rhetoric and policies in Italy, their writings challenge the idea of italianità as a synonym for whiteness.
In Aaron Robertson’s translated excerpt of La mia casa è dove sono, “My Home Is Where I Am,” author Igiaba Scego recalls growing up in the Italian education system as the Black daughter of an immigrant, as well as her experience navigating belonging among white classmates.
The protagonist of Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s novel Il comandante del fiume, translated by Hope Campbell Gustafson, learns of his degrees of separation from an attempted bombing in the London metro in this excerpt, “Bambi,” and compares himself to the bomber—another Black Roman boy, who’d been friends with his new friends, loved hip-hop, was Muslim, and wore white tank tops.
Djarah Kan’s written performance piece “Soumaila Sacko: Storia della vita di una pacchia” (“Soumaila Sacko: Story of the Good Life”), translated by Candice Whitney, humanizes Soumaila Sacko, a Malian man murdered by the bullets of a white supremacist in Calabria, Italy, in 2018. Kan interrogates the racist and xenophobic gaze of a society that relies on the exploitation of Black people, leading to premature deaths.
Finally, in Barbara Ofosu-Somuah’s translation of an excerpt from “Abbiamo pianto un fiume di risate” (“We Cried a River of Laughter”), Marie Moïse explores how her family's experiences with various configurations of violence have rendered a breaking both through geography and psychology, which ultimately shape her process of hurting and healing. By addressing struggles related to class, gender, (in)visibility of borders, cultural belonging, and healing, these stories demonstrate that the experiences of African-descendant people in Italy are not monolithic.
As translators, each of us has established relationships with the writers we translate. It is important to recognize that as with every cultural shift, literature is a tangible way for people to push a cultural conversation in more expansive directions than have been allowed before. As translators we attempt to expand the transnational discourse around Blackness by showing how Black Italian women and their lived experiences are critical to the way we think about Blackness beyond borders.
Looking to the future, when we think of national literature, we must always ask: what stories are not being told? Which writers don’t have the space to even consider themselves as such, due to structures that prioritize one group over another? How can translation be a bridge to unconsidered stories across borders? We hope that this feature complicates the reader’s idea of national literature and encourages them to consider how we can center the stories of women in racialized bodies when seeking to understand places and experiences.
© 2021 by Candice Whitney, Barbara Ofosu-Somuah, Aaron Robertson, and Hope Campbell Gustafson. All rights reserved.
Somali-Italian writer Igiaba Scego recalls her childhood experiences in the Italian educational system in this memoir.
Although I’m Somali-Italian, I was born and raised in Italy, and I’ve spent very little time in Somalia, mostly during the summers and then once for about a year and a half. I went to the Italian consulate’s school there. I had no idea what Somalia would be like at first. It might as well have been Mars or any other unfamiliar planet populated with little red men that moved in ranks like soldiers in a military parade. The truth about the Land of Punt, though, is more miraculous than these fictions. I’ve never seen so many free-roaming animals as are in my distant homeland. Grus, baboons, goats, camels, hawks, hens, cats, martens, termites, dik-diks. The most extraordinary aspect is the importance ascribed to stories. Storytelling is never wasted time. Stories teach, inspire dreams, help one grow and also become a child again. When evening fell at my aunt’s, stories were told about wild hyenas and ingenious women, brave men and magic tricks. Adults and children sat together listening to and recounting tales. The word itself occupied the seat of honor. We practiced using it wisely.
My mother tongue blossomed amid this linguistic maelstrom, when before it had been hiding in a crevice in my throat. It had been embarrassed and afraid to emerge for years. Italian is the first language that I spoke, but the lullabies and songs I heard at home were sung in Somali, with an occasional Bravanese addition by my father. This made for a very confused child. What a lovely perplexity it was. I hopped like a cricket from one language to another and felt a thrill whenever I said things to my mother that the grocers didn’t understand. It was incredible.
This changed when I had to go to school, where they told me, “You’re not talking, it’s monkey babble. You don’t know anything. You’re all freaks, gorillas.” Recall that I was young. Gorillas, though splendid animals, frightened me because of their size. That’s not what I wanted to be. After checking that my black skin couldn’t be changed, now I had to deal with this. At least language was something I could work on. I was four or five years old, hardly an enlightened African woman proud of her own skin. I hadn’t read Malcolm X. I decided, then, to stop speaking Somali. I wanted to assimilate, to become one with the snow-white masses. Renouncing my mother tongue became my unorthodox way of saying, Love me.
No one did.
Some Italian mothers today bemoan the presence of immigrants’ children in schools. They don’t want to make their own kids sit in the same classroom, thereby contaminating their offspring. If someone were to call them out as racist, they would deny it. “It’s not racist. But these kids limit how productive the school can be. We want the best for our children. We don’t need them turning into Zulus.” By best they mean white, obviously. White Italian mothers in the ‘80s said the exact same thing about me. Because I was Black, their logic went, I’d be a dumbass and have hair swarming with lice. One kid told me directly: “You have germs and diseases because you’re Black. My mom said not to play with you or else I’ll get really sick and die.”
My classmates’ parents were against me and thus so were my peers themselves. The bigger kids called me Kunta Kinte after the character from Alex Haley’s Roots. The series debuted in Italy on September 8, 1978, during primetime on Rai 2. This was the beginning of my academic life. It was easy for my classmates to associate me with what they’d seen on TV. All black skin was alike. It’s a shame these children didn’t get the message of the series. Kunta Kinte’s fight for freedom was his choice, as were his actions as a man warring against the barbarism of slavery. The kids and their parents never read past the story’s surface. All they saw was a Black man whipped until he bled by those who’d stripped his freedom. My color united me with Kunta Kinte. Instead of saying, “It’s great that your Black brother is a hero, we love him,” they said, “You look like Kunta Kinte, a grimy nigger, we’re gonna whip you. You were born to be a slave.” I was five. I cried when my mother came to pick me up. Why did I have to face such abuse? I’d seen the TV series, too. Getting whipped wasn’t what these people wanted. The actors’ faces clearly said as much.
I didn’t have many friends in kindergarten or elementary school. I usually holed myself away in a corner to eat the snack my mother had lovingly prepared for me. The poor woman didn’t know how to help me. It was hard for her to be in this strange land, too. Once she spied on me to see why I was crying every day, ceaselessly. She told me this when I was much older. She took position behind the school’s little wall to see whether I was playing with the other children. She saw me lonesome and companionless apart from everyone else. The only things people said to me were aspersions like “grimy nigger.” I felt so helpless when I saw you like that, Igiaba. Your mother felt like she had nothing to give you.
But Mama gave me everything. She began telling me stories about Somalia. Somali nomads believe that every story contains the solution to a problem. Mama’s stories aimed to show me that we did not arise from emptiness and that our foundation consisted of a country, its traditions, and its history. The ancient Romans and Gauls, Latin and the Greek agora—they existed not alone but alongside ancient Egypt and the incense harvesters of the Land of Punt, that is Somalia, and the Ashanti and Bambara kingdoms. Mama wanted me to be proud of my Blackness and the country we left because of an overwhelming force that pushed us out. She told me of our distant empires, our relationships with Egypt, India, Portugal, and Turkey. Her words carried the heavenly scent of incense and uunsi, for whose fragrances Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty led an expedition in Somalia. Mama’s stories freed me from my dread of being seen as a walking caricature. They made me human, gave birth to me once more.
Even my elementary school teacher did her part. Ms. Silvana Tramontozzi was a gorgeous woman with buoyant, vaporous white hair and old-fashioned tenacity. She and my mother didn’t initially hit it off. Mama was shy and spoke broken Italian. At gatherings with other parents she said as little as she could get away with and left when the small talk started. Having to face the parents who treated her like a circus freak because she wore a hijab wasn’t fun for her. Invariably, she looked wounded and worn when she came home from one of these meetings. It was partly my fault. I wasn’t an exemplary student when school first started. I knew many things: times tables of 9, the capital of the Ivory Coast, the tributaries of the River Po, Giovanni Pascoli’s poem “L’assiuolo,” and the last five presidents of the United States. I never let it show at school. I was quieter than a fish. Not a peep from me. I didn’t even respond to questions the teacher asked me directly. I feared the onslaught of insults too much. My thinking was that if I breathed so much as a word, I’d get pummeled. I let my mind wander during lessons, imagining an alternate universe in which my black skin and I made many friends. I was the picture of a girl with her head in the clouds. Sometimes I left my notebooks all over the classroom. My only dream was to escape the school that persecuted me. The teacher would say Marco was the best student, Vincenzo breezed by, Valeria excelled at math, Silvia was a careful reader, and me, well: “The poor thing always has her mind elsewhere.” This convinced the other parents that I was developmentally challenged, and so perhaps maybe all Blacks were. Mama asked me one day, “Igi, what’s going on with you? Why don’t you say anything when the teacher asks you something?” What could I say? I tried offering an explanation. “Because they hit me.” This was not entirely false. There were times, at recess, when someone would approach from behind and smack me on the butt, which hurt like hell. A couple of girls punched me once, in the head and eye. I told my mother I’d tripped.
Mama complained to the teacher. She explained what a good, studious girl I was, and that I wasn’t speaking because I was scared. I don’t think my teacher had ever experienced a case like mine. She may have given it a bit of thought. Whatever the case, things soon changed substantially at school. The teacher called me to come see her and told me she had a drawer full of fantasy stories, but if I wanted to read them I had to promise that for every story, I had to say another word in class. I loved reading, so this was a drawer of goodies: tales of submarines, flying carpets, mythical gods, princesses with flaming crowns, knights on invisible steeds, kids who invented magical worlds, silly wizards, and fairies. I would do anything to get my hands on these stories. My only friends were in books. I promised the teacher I’d say whatever she wanted me to. Slowly, story after story, my tongue unfurled. I went from mute to voluble. The teacher encouraged me to speak about themes related to Somalia, what Somalis’ lives were like, our practices, the dramatic colors of our attire. My classmates were dumbfounded. I was a bigger hit than Mr. Rogers. I started making friends and earned a name for myself, thanks largely to a teacher who was understanding for the first time that words have an incredible power and whoever speaks (or writes) well is unlikely to ever be alone. My teacher also helped my mother. She played a kind of chaperone, giving her parental advice and finding her reliable friends among the other mothers. With a wave of a magic wand, we metamorphosed from circus sideshows into two human beings.
In a way, Ms. Tramontozzi had performed an ancient rite of cultural mediation.
I’m not joking when I say my elementary teacher, the one with the buoyant white hair, saved my life.
© Igiaba Scego. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Aaron Robertson. All rights reserved.
The Malian immigrant Soumaila Sacko was murdered by the gunshots of a white supremacist in Calabria, Italy, on June 2, 2018. This piece was originally performed at a conference in Palermo days after Sacko's murder. Italy's prime minister at the time, Matteo Salvini, affiliated with the Lega Nord, was known for enacting far-right policies related to residency and citizenship, including restricting Italian borders and strengthening corrupt political relations with Libya to control the Mediterranean Sea. The title echoes Salvini's statement on the day of Sacko's murder: “Per i clandestini è finita la pacchia” (“For illegals, the party is over”). His rhetoric implied that people who migrated to Italy had it good, similar to Ronald Reagan referring to Black American women as "welfare queens'' during his first campaign for president of the United States in the mid-1970s.
Now that I’m dying, my face becomes everyone's.
Now that I’m dying . . . first, I become a thief, then a victim of hate, then a thief again, then a hopeless nigger, a nigger without recourse.
But at the end of this sad, sad merry-go-round, that renewed stay permit absolves me of all of my sins. It will prevent me from being buried under the label Illegal Alien.
I can already hear their voices in my head. The voices of journalists and lawyers, those who reek of politics and wear starched black suits.
They’re so arrogant.
Their skin is white and pure. Their skin seems as if it doesn't have secrets. But it’s lying, it does have secrets! Just because it seems clean doesn't mean that it's not dirty, that it doesn't have a few secrets.
Don't trust appearances or what they say. I didn't trust them then and I don't trust them now. I see them handle my suffering violently and carelessly, as though it were burning embers, red with blood and unsettled rage, to be extinguished and drowned with water and salt, water from the sea.
Italy saves me. Italy sentences me.
Now that I’m dying, my face suddenly becomes everyone's.
But I don't know you, or you, or even you. And I don’t know you and you, or even you. I don't know any of you.
You, down there, demanding justice for me, pronouncing my name with the wrong accents and rhythm, your eyes are too calm to really picture me.
You simply can’t—white man over there—stand on my side. Because you’re alive, and I’m still dead.
Because we walk side by side, and you hope that maybe one day we can all look alike and be equals, but History has made us and divided us.
Now that I am dying, something strange is happening around me. My face exists, it’s real. When I was alive, I worked so hard that I forgot how it felt to look in the mirror. Photos of my face are everywhere now. People use images of my face on social media and on the news to condemn and judge me. They do it to prove to themselves how poor and desperate I was. What a “migrant” I was.
I remember my small, narrow face a bit differently, though. Not as niggerly as everyone else now sees it, but thinner, more delicate, and invisible.
I was so young, and they chose to use the worst photo of me, but that’s not really who I am. I'm not a person who goes out with messy hair or who has a face that looks like they’ve been sleep-deprived their entire life.
Those who feel pity looking at my stunned face should have seen me when I took to the streets with my brothers and we protested with the essential workers’ union.
We were farmhands, so we raised our fists and went on strike, even if we were tired and aware of our feudal landowners' hatred in that valley of Gioia Tauro—where we were and still are slaves—we shouted that in this foreign country yes, we were workers, not pack animals ready to be slaughtered.
We continued to shout:
That our work counts just as much as a white man's.
That a Black man has the right to a safe work environment, a welcoming home to rest his head, and fair living conditions in an impossible world.
That we had to stop these new slave owners from combing these vast plantations with their short-barreled guns.
We protested that we were men. I, Soumaila Sacko, was a man. Truly I tell you, this tough, arid land called Calabria, which humiliated and keeps humiliating me, is not what killed me.
Because the skin that I leave on this land will become separated from my flesh and blood sooner or later. Time will make it happen, death already has. And then what? People will forget what it meant to mourn for a migrant who isn't rooted to any place—just as the word implies—and who hears his life described as an obscure, weightless cloud, empty and irrelevant.
A migrant is like a cloud that's pushed by a wind that blows from afar. It gets stuck and lands, but never grows roots anywhere.
So, I was not a migrant. None of us are.
I’d like you to stop calling us migrants from now on, because it's here in Italy we have ended up, on your shore. You don't see us, and when you do, you project your uncivilized, heart-of-darkness fantasies onto us.
But if you drink and breathe and sweat and love in a country that is no longer yours, then you are not a migrant. You are a man.
Different, maybe, but still a man. No longer a migrant.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow is already here. Other men and women will die just like me. Maybe in even worse ways.
And they, too, will leave behind nothing but their skin: marvelous, imperfect, thick, delicate, the color of the earth that we tilled and nurtured so that it would give us back the beauty of life.
We are farmhands, but the people who loved us, and were able to resist this assassin that is Europe, will breathe life into our skin. It won’t be our weak and broken flesh that gives us our lives back, but rather the deep, hot breath of those who believe justice exists, even for a Black man who walks on his own two feet.
A Black man who doesn’t crawl, but walks.
The nigger is dead. It's true. But maybe "he was stealing."
"He had a legal stay permit."
The motive? They speculate that it was "revenge for a theft."
First published in 2018 in the author’s blog, Kasava Call, and in La macchina sognante. © Djarah Kan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Candice Whitney. All rights reserved.
In fiction inspired by true events, a Black teen in Rome learns some startling information about an attempted bombing in the London Tube.
As I was sitting in my usual catatonic state in front of the screen, a story on the news caught my attention. They were talking about a suicide bomber who’d attempted to set off a bomb in the London Underground. He’d made it himself, using a hair product with hydrogen peroxide and whole wheat flour specifically for roti, a round flatbread that Indians make. Thankfully the concoction didn’t come out right and in the end all the bomb did was make a lot of noise, like a huge corn kernel popping. I can almost see him, the bomber, loading up on bottles in an African beauty supply store, then playing the little chemist with the wrong formula!
After the failed explosion, the bomber escaped by jumping out a train window and then changed his clothes in the public restrooms. Didn’t he know there are cameras all over the Tube stations? The images showed this calm-looking guy in a white undershirt, trying to blend in with all the people.
After a few days of searching internationally they’d caught him right here in Rome—out of all the places he could’ve been—hidden in a relative’s house. The bomber had gotten himself some fake papers and had run to his poor brother, who’d been living in Italy for years and had a normal job. They said on the news that he was caught at night and showed the house, a nondescript apartment building in the suburbs. His brother was put in prison too, even though he had nothing to do with it, because just by hiding him he’d become an accomplice. I started buying the newspaper every day because of the bomber. The whole saga had made such an impression on me, I wanted to follow all of its developments.
His lawyer argued that he hadn’t intended to kill anyone, just to get attention. He was enraged about all the women and children dying in Iraq at the hands of the Americans and wanted, with the bomb, to express his protest. We all have moments when we’re mad at the world, but deciding to blow yourself up in the middle of a bunch of people is something entirely different, I’d say.
Nonetheless, at the thought of the bomber shouting out “Allahu Akbar” while the bomb misfired in his hands with a cloud of foam, I, to be honest, almost peed myself laughing. I still wouldn’t have wanted to be near him, of course. The newspapers all said more or less the same things and included the photo of him in his white undershirt along with the one of the apartment where they’d caught him. This was until an article came out that nearly gave me a heart attack.
The journalist had tracked down one of the bomber’s ex-girlfriends and interviewed her. The two of them, when they were about my age, had been part of the Flaminio crew. The bomber was nicknamed “Bambi” because of his big, black, fawnlike eyes and thick lashes. The girl had been so shocked to see his face on TV. According to her, besides being handsome, he was also extremely kind, which is why he had so much success with the ladies. They used to go to the discoteca on Saturday evenings, and like everybody else, Bambi loved hip-hop—he was a great dancer and dressed like a rappettaro, with sagging pants and jerseys from various basketball teams. His idols were African American rappers from the ghetto, but he wasn’t a violent guy. He kept his distance from the wrong crowd; if there were fights, which there often were, he was the peacemaker.
You could find good people in Piazzale Flaminio, like Bambi and his girlfriend, but also dangerous people—pushers and pickpockets. That’s why the police would often go there for a raid; who knows how many times they must’ve asked him for his papers.
He was Muslim but didn’t have any issues hanging out with people who weren’t. He didn’t eat pork, of course, but he didn’t consider alcohol a taboo. The times they had talked about faith he said he believed in Allah, that’s it—he wasn’t an extremist. He had left for London, like many other kids from the Horn of Africa, to seek political asylum. Mainly he’d wanted to be in a place where there was more going on; he only cared about having fun and finding more job opportunities. In Rome, he hadn’t been able to do anything very serious: he worked from time to time but didn’t have any real goals, and no one trusted him. That’s why he couldn’t make plans for the future.
Up until this article, no one had said the bomber had grown up in Rome, so you can imagine my reaction when I found out he used to hang around Piazzale Flaminio. I called Ghiorghis right away to ask if he knew him. Ghiorghis didn’t seem surprised to hear from me: “Where’ve you been, little brother?”
“Nowhere, I’ve had a ton of stuff to do,” I replied from my spot sprawled on the couch. I told him that the story about the bomber had really shaken me. When I asked if he’d known him, and said I thought he might have because they must’ve been around the same age, Ghiorghis said that if I wanted to talk about it we had to meet in person, because it was dangerous over the phone. He added that the people in his old crew would have a lot to say on the subject, too.
His concerns and tone of voice seemed a bit exaggerated to me, but from the little I knew of him, he came across as someone who smelled conspiracy everywhere—Ghiorghis is the type who lets himself be influenced by the movies and thinks those things happen in real life. We agreed to meet at Termini; he would come pick me up with his moped and then we’d go to Ex Snia, an occupied centro sociale, where his friends would be.
Ghiorghis drove with his helmet unfastened, and because he tilted his head to the right to talk to me, I worried that we’d suddenly find ourselves on the sidewalk and crash into a wall. But in the end, who knows how, he managed to keep us headed in the right direction.
He, too, had been surprised that they’d taken this long to report the news. “Bambi didn’t grow up in Africa or London as they’d like to have people believe, but in Rome, just like us.”
“What difference does it make, why don’t they just say it?” I asked while we passed Piazza Vittorio.
“To avoid responsibility—they don’t want anything to do with us, much less if we’re wanted as criminals.”
“What do you mean? We who?”
“Those of us who grew up here, children of Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali parents—from the ex-colonies, in other words. The Italians don’t even know we exist. Do you know how my mother ended up in Rome?”
“She was working as a maid for a Magneti Marelli executive down in Ethiopia. The guy had been there with his entire family for generations, I think. When Mengistu seized power, he kicked out all the Italians, so my mother accepted her employers’ offer and followed them to Italy.”
“Had you already been born?”
“No, I was born here in Rome. She sent me to Africa for the first few years and my grandma raised me, then when I was old enough she brought me back to Italy and sent me to boarding school.”
Ghiorghis’s phone began ringing. Given his already dangerous driving, I hoped he wouldn’t pick up, but he went ahead and stuck it between his helmet and ear.
“Hey, I’m on my way.”
“Careful! We’ll crash!” I yelled at him, so he cut the call short with “If I don’t hang up this kid will lose his shit.”
Then, because I was dying of curiosity, I asked: “So? Did you know Bambi or not?”
“Of course, we were in boarding school together.”
“In your opinion, why’d he do it?”
“Don’t know, probably because of religion, but what do I know? You’re Muslim too, right?”
“I’m circumcised and everything, and I’ve even tried to be religious, but I didn’t succeed.”
“Succeed?” Ghiorghis laughed. “Why, is religion is something you have to be successful at?”
“Well, yes, in the sense that I’d like to have principles, faith, something to believe in. The fact is that I’m not successful even when I make an effort. On the other hand, if the risk is becoming like the bomber, at this point it’s better to stay a heathen.”
“You know what? The truth is he was a wimp. When he was little he always said he missed his mommy, so the teachers were nicer to him. He got more attention and the best gifts—the most modern stereo, the fastest skates, the coolest sweatshirt—and only because he was handsome, that smart-ass.”
I wanted to tease Ghiorghis about his jealousy, about how bitter he was that Bambi got all the best gifts, but I couldn’t come up with a good line.
“Do you think he wanted to blow himself up and kill a ton of people or just stir up some trouble?”
“Both,” he replied. “If you think about it, deep down it’s the same principle: a search for attention.”
“Yes, but if the attempt succeeds, you die and kill a bunch of people along with you. How can someone even remotely think that’s the right thing to do?”
We’d gone a good distance down Via Prenestina in the meantime, and since our destination was on the left-hand side of the road, Ghiorghis did a big U-turn. I wasn’t expecting it and nearly slid off the back of his moped.
Ex Snia is an abandoned factory where they used to make rayon; it had been occupied and transformed into a centro sociale a dozen years earlier.
“They made parachutes here,” Ghiorghis said.
“Yes, and tents, uniforms, and backpacks for soldiers during the war.”
There’s a big park surrounding Snia, mostly off-limits, unfortunately.
Basically, Ghiorghis told me, a famous developer had wanted to build a shopping mall there and who knows what else but, while digging, the workers struck an aquifer with extremely pure water. “For a while the guy played dumb, he was afraid they’d revoke his permit. He had the water drawn out with pumps and emptied into the sewer. Until a storm made a mess of the whole thing, and that’s how this lake came to be.”
While talking, we’d gone deep enough into the pine grove to be able to admire the lake, through a metal fence.
“That’s an incredible story,” I told him. “But why is it closed off?”
“Well, the developer still won’t give up, even though the neighborhood and the centro sociale kids have been fighting for it to become a public park for years. Come on, let’s turn back. You see that small building? That’s where we’re going. I want you to meet some people.”
His Flaminio friends were all outside under a row of small trees. Libaan, seeing us approaching, ran up and hugged me. They were busy talking about other things, but an impatient Ghiorghis blurted out that they had to tell me about Bambi. This made everyone, including me, feel embarrassed. Because it bothered me how he’d put me on the spot, I said: “Would you quit using me to get attention?” But my remark rolled off his back, or maybe he just didn’t let his reaction show. Instead, it served to break the ice. One by one they all began to talk.
First was Libaan. He spoke about one of their friends who had just gotten out of prison, a guy who had a major alcohol problem and would get into trouble. Every now and again, they would lock him up. Anyway, they had met up recently for a coffee but ordered beer instead, and the friend told him that the night they’d caught Bambi, all the Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalis in the prison had been woken up. They’d lined them up, then walked the bomber by each of them. Everyone denied knowing him, and this friend did the same. He’d lied, of course, but then again Bambi had changed so much that he had struggled to recognize him.
Someone from the group interrupted to say that he had seen Bambi a couple times, when he’d come to Rome on vacation, and that Bambi had seemed fine to him. Someone else had seen him in London some years before, and already at that point he had seemed different. He was dating an Ethiopian Christian who he’d forced to convert and to wear the headscarf.
I thought that religion didn’t have anything to do with it. Because I had gotten angry many times but had never started making bombs in the name of Allah. For example, one day I was on the bus and had to get off at the next stop. I was up near the driver, so I asked him, “Would you open the door for me, please?” and the guy said, “How many times do I have to tell you people to exit through the rear door?”
I looked around, and since there was no one else nearby, I said: “Why use the plural when I’m the only one here? Why say tell ‘you people’? Who do you have to tell?” The driver got even angrier and refused to open the door. After a few long seconds, he got up and stood right in front of me. I was a head taller than him, but he thought he was a big deal, he was one of those guys who pumps iron.
I lost my cool and insulted him: “Fuckin’ beefcake!” And he yelled back: “Go home, beat it!” pointing toward the rear doors, and the people on the bus started grumbling: “Just get off the damn bus!”
They were talking to me and not the driver, who I’d simply asked to open in front. While getting off through the rear, I honestly thought that I would happily plant a bomb on that bus so they’d all be blown up—the driver and the people yelling at me.
Maybe the bomber had thought: I’d happily plant a bomb somewhere. And then he’d literally gone and done it. We say lots of things that we don’t do and that we’d never do. I don’t know if Bambi actually wanted to set off the bomb and kill a lot of people. Maybe it’s true that he just wanted to attract attention, so he mixed up the ingredients badly on purpose.
While I was all caught up in my thoughts, one of Ghiorghis’s friends—a tiny guy, short and with very light skin, so light he looked Arab—began talking. He was furious. He didn’t seem much older than the others, but his hair was all white.
Bambi had been his friend for a long time; they’d drunk, smoked, and talked together. “Who knows,” he said, “maybe one day he could’ve just shown up like old times: ‘Let’s have a cigarette. Drink a beer,’ and boom—blown us all up.” The guy was twitching a ton, he looked like a marionette: “Yes, he would’ve blown us all up, boom, just because some of us are Christian!”
I said in response: “But you were friends, religion has nothing to do with it, he never would’ve blown you up.” But the guy only got more agitated: “It’s his fault that they’re now more racist than ever.”
Then, while Ghiorghis stared at me with a baffled expression on his face, I asked: “Who’s more racist than ever?” and began unbuttoning my shirt because of the heat. Seeing the white tank top I was wearing underneath, everyone suddenly stopped talking. After a bit, Ghiorghis shook his head and said: “To tell you the truth, little brother, Bambi even looks like you.”
From Il comandante del fiume (66thand2nd, 2014). © 2014 by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah. Forthcoming from Indiana University Press as The River Commander, translated by Hope Campbell Gustafson. By arrangement with Indiana University Press. Translation © 2021 by Hope Campbell Gustafson. All rights reserved.
Writer Marie Moïse describes her search for her roots and traces her family’s history of cross-Atlantic displacement.
I spent my youth seeking to recover my roots, which were severed by migration from one shore of the Atlantic to the other—from Haiti to Italy. I investigated, interrogated, and sought to understand. From the time of my birth, I have suffered a strange nostalgia for the pain of a journey I have never taken. It seems like my family’s psyches were divided in the course of that journey, with half their minds here and the other half there. And they brought as my gift the anxiety of nonexistence. It has never been possible to speak of this condition: there was never a language to give it voice, no framework to make sense of it. But here in Italy, at one time, everything had to be categorized, defined, restrained. Above all, nothing abnormal could freely roam. It was simply called “pathology”—madness, psychosis, delirium. This is how my family found itself confined once again, taken back to its island condition.
The Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, “The Black man cannot take pleasure in his insularity. For him, there is only one way out, and it leads to the white world.”
So here I am today, teaching science and pathology at a university where my students are shocked when I tell them that it has only been a few decades since pathology has denoted the knowledge of desires and passions. From the ancient Greek, pathos-logos. The study of passion concerns everything that moves us, and it excites us precisely because it can make us suffer. It is a study rooted in practice, in the body’s experience and its intrinsic relational existence. We have not abolished suffering. Instead, we have put an end to a form of society that sickens with a disease that imprisons. This illness is what people used to call normality.
Finally, we can now speak of the past. Now that I desire, now that passion gives meaning to my life, now that the cage of madness is destroyed, what happened can be told.
To the Root of the Absence of Roots
I was born in a family bleached by an unexpected split. I spoke my first words in the language that forced my father, his sisters, and my father’s father to forget theirs. I inherited only one noticeable trait of their foreignness, this unusual and unpronounceable surname: Moïse, with the two dots on the “i.” But for the rest, born to a biracial Haitian man and a white Italian woman, I was raised to be normal among the normals, unlike my father, grandfather, and aunties.
For an entire lifetime, I grew up without a past. My family preferred to silence it rather than to confine me to a Black past. Yet I inherited a surname with a slave origin. Moïse means Moses in French, and its etymological definition is “saved from the water.” It is one of those biblical names that slave owners gave to slaves transplanted to Haiti from Africa. With the rite of Catholic baptism, they erased the lives that those enslaved bodies had known before their deportation. The new name, in the colonizer’s language, marked the beginning of a new (non)existence in subhuman conditions.
Moïse. Saved from the waters. What more fitting name for a body that survived the torture of a forced transatlantic journey? Once they arrived in Italy, the Moïse family began to accept calling themselves by the Italian version—by also pronouncing the surname’s final “e.” The French pronunciation, in which the closing “e” is phonetically silenced, was reserved for family members who remained on the other side of the ocean.
Nevertheless, normality was my inheritance. And so, even though they Italianized my surname, every time I had to create a family tree at school, those severed roots came out. I saw in the strange expressions on the faces of those around me that I, after all, was not a normal person like them.
So, I began to wonder, and I began to ask many questions. Yet, I always received only a few brief answers. As if there were nothing to know, as if there were no words to respond to me, or that those words were too painful to utter.
On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake brought Haiti tumbling down upon itself. For the first time, I saw the country on television. Friends and family died in the ruins. For the first time, I heard Haiti being spoken about, albeit not directly. My father wrote newspaper articles; I cut them out. And my nostalgia for those severed roots that had gone missing, swallowed by the shaken earth, continued to grow.
From an early age, I spent a lot of time in books. Yet, there were no traces of Haiti in them. No book of geography or literature, much less philosophy, related the history of the island. It was my grandmother who told me that Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti on December 5, 1492, and found it so beautiful that he wanted to baptize it with the name Hispaniola, little Spain. I was taught to be proud of Christopher Columbus, a heritage entirely Italian, so I looked at Haiti at first through his eyes, and I saw it bright, full of water, flowers, and rainbows. I found only one short mention in a history book which referred to Haiti in passing as the first destination of the transatlantic slave trade.
The Moïse were saved twice from the water. First, they survived inhumane deportation by sea, which erased their history, obliterated their memory, criminalized their mother tongue, and extinguished their desire to live. Then they survived a second journey thanks to the distance that the ocean had placed between Europe, the land of salvation, and the Haiti of Duvalier. After having fought and risked their lives against that bloody dictatorship, the Moïse went underground to escape violence and torture. In 1965 they left the island of Haiti forever. And so, even the uprooting was done twice. Saved by the waters, but once again condemned to never set roots down into the land.
I sensed the need for those roots when the yearning for the journey began to sicken first my auntie, then my father, and then me. I needed to understand why.
There is white normality, and then there is its opposite. But the opposite of normal is not merely abnormal. Normality defines who has the power to make you feel wrong, to sanction you as inferior, and to brand you a failure. Thus, the opposite of white normality is failure.
I was born white to those who failed to be white. I was born and raised with the implicit responsibility to cancel the mark, hide the unspeakable from which I originated, and break the chain of failure. I grew up in the anguish of having to disguise an original shame. I did not learn my father’s language, I had never seen his homeland, and I didn’t know my family’s story. I was white, yet normality was an affliction. Failure is a mark that is passed down from father to child from the colonial era. The colonized, the enslaved people, could not meet the full dignity of man, and because of this, my father could never entirely fulfill the role of father. In fact, the only possible version of a fatherhood is that of the head of household who imposes his authority on his wife and children. Since the time of slavery in Haiti, only the master of the enslaved, the white colonizer, could be a father. “Man” is an intrinsically white gender category.
The enslaved woman is the only biological parent legally recognized. The Black man has historically been Black because he is raté de père, a failure as father. My father was a father until I finished elementary school. Soon, he hurtled into oblivion. He stopped dedicating the weekends to his kids or giving money to my mother. He never had any money for us, and when we asked him for some, he disappeared. He would reappear months later and then disappear again.
His father had done the same thing. My dissident grandfather was more often imprisoned than at home with his family. My grandmother and her children had the task of encouraging him, of giving him the strength to resist, by greeting him from beneath his cell window. Once they arrived in Italy, they had only my grandmother’s salary. Grandfather found ways to squander it. In the end, soon after they divorced, he also disappeared.
My mother once told me that in Haiti “this is what they do,” and that my father had learned from his father. That in Haiti, it is mothers who are the heads of the household, who act as both father and the mother.
And so, caught in the anguish of normality, in the absence of the tools to understand and the words to say so, for years I called my father a failure in the hope that he would react and show me that he wasn’t. In my eyes, he was a weakling impassively watching the end of his relationship with his children, making no attempt to mend it. He let me call him a failure, he turned his back to me, and he left. Yet, the more my father failed, the more I agonized over inheriting his failure. And the more I found myself failing.
The Haitian Syndrome
I could not learn their language, I’m not Black like them, and I knew nothing about their past. Yet there is an illness that I suffer from, which is not whiteness. “It’s the curse of your Haitian family,” my mother once told me—a type of defective gene, she said, that I inherited from my Black side. I don’t know what happened inside of them when they abandoned Haiti. Perhaps my grandfather was already mad when, a second before illegally embarking for Europe, he raised a fist in salute to his homeland, for which he never stopped fighting. It is one of the few things that I found out about him from my father. The ignorance of children protected Auntie and Dad. Still, they only had the length of a transatlantic journey to become old enough to face this new world and all of its whiteness.
Once, in elementary school, during an Italian lesson, the teacher dictated to my father’s class the story of how the intelligent white man arrived in the land of the stupid Black man. And how the white man seized the bountiful land that the foolish Black man, who preferred to wallow in laziness and vice, did not care about. My father wrote down what the teacher said, word for word. He stopped speaking and eating. When my grandmother learned why, she confronted the school principal, who shrugged, “I’m sorry, we did not realize that the boy was Black.” I wonder if, from that moment, my father no longer found it simple to behave in a way that would ensure no one realized his Blackness—to permanently whiten himself and to stop being Black.
I didn’t even realize that my father and his sisters were not white. And I never met my grandfather. There was a single incident while I was drawing the faces of my family for a family tree, my grandmother told me that I needed a brown pencil to color my grandfather. The effect of that brown face on the paper depicting my ancestry made me realize that there was also Black blood in me. The one-drop rule: the historic racial law that makes you Black if you inherit even one drop of Black blood. With that drop of blood, I inherited an entire history of misfortune and madness.
I feel afflicted by a hereditary pathology—we are Haitians. The reasons for this madness are inside of us. Lazy, thieving liars, incapable of looking after ourselves, irresponsible, incapable of behaving like real men, cowards shirking our responsibilities, like all of our kind. And the blame is entirely and ultimately ours. The symptoms make it evident that the cause is endogenic: the Moïse are afflicted with the Haitian Syndrome—disease without a cure. And now I—the daughter of an irresponsible, lazy man, caught up in her whiteness—want to sever my roots having only just found them. I feel only shame. I would prefer to be the daughter of no one, to not have a father at all, than to have a failed father. The father that I would like is a real father—a white father.
Fatherless in the society of family men, I fed on rage and shame for a long time. I wanted to act violently and sabotage this society, but I was only able to sabotage myself. Still, my anger helped me not to feel the pain coming from the outside—an overpowering yet anesthetized pain of which I was the architect. Failure was the first, albeit painful, way of refusing to belong to a toxic society that compels you to win a contest with death in which the only expected outcome is your demise. In my own Haitian syndrome and in the way my family contracted it, I found the bacteria of an ancient resistance in a society that dictates a harmful and singular way of being healthy, becoming sick was the best way to resist. In failure, I found a way to repel from myself and from us any form of the injunction to normalcy. In yet another superhuman attempt to not collapse so as not to die, I finally chose to taste death. Never more so than in that hellish fall did I live with my whole self. I gave up everything, the competition, the anguish of failure, the hatred, and anger.
The white father is a huge lie. I will never have one, nor will any of you.
I decided to let everything go. To leave this poisonous and caustic Europe. I decided to escape.
Escape is only called a failure in the language of the master. In the language of the enslaved, to run away is to take the first step toward freedom. The story of the Haitian maroons has left its mark. “Marronage,” originating from the vocabulary of the indigenous Arawaks and Tainos, indicates the enslaveds’ escape from the plantation. Hidden in the mountains, runaway enslaved people formed genuine underground communities—spaces of deep and collective freedom, where they put together forces and strategy and shaped the counterattack. The battle of the Black Jacobins for their liberation had its beginnings in marronage.
I fled a land where I had no roots and once again crossed the waters of salvation. Using the money I had saved for years, today I am taking my father back to Haiti, and I am also returning. I emerge from a vicious circle of a defective madness and an imploding present and affirm with my marronage the possibility of my desires.
Often, after my crises, I told myself that I could do it, that I could take pride in my ability to endure. But it’s not true. I only see myself dying a little more each day as the little contact I knew how to maintain with the world outside my cage of madness shrinks. I swallow questions about who else I might be and I can’t answer myself. Then I wonder why I can’t answer myself and still can’t find an explanation. I am so consumed with the fear of failure that I have begun to kill myself a little bit each day. Just so I don’t admit that I have failed at living.
We left everything behind, and we disappeared. We laid down this unbearably empty legacy, and we stopped enduring.
Dad, let’s go. I’ll take you all the way there, but then I’ll lean on you. I want you to take me to see the house where you were a baby, the places where you played with your friends and your sisters. I would like to see with my own eyes where the aunts lived and for you to tell me a little bit about them. I want to see the school where Grandmother taught and the prison where they kept Grandfather. I want to see where the dissidents held their underground meetings. I want to see the house where you hid before running away to Italy. I would like a close-up view of where Grandfather held you in his arms in that photo that Grandmother only recently showed me.
I want to see the hospital in Port-au-Prince where you were born. In fact, let’s begin this long walk from there. In Italy, you seemed so Black to me, here you appear so white to me . . .
We begin to walk, and we will only stop walking when it feels like we never left.
We walk and we walk until little by little, the reality around me takes form and color. Gradually, my father begins to speak. His memories color the landscape: the still green mountains of Kenscoff, the downhill runs with the dogs, dives in the Artibonite River, the mud and the light breaking through the waterfalls. Let’s walk, Dad, and everything you show me sets into motion: the four wheels of the tap-tap, the women at the market with the full baskets of fruits and poultry on their heads. More distant from us is also the long and profound economic, political, and environmental crisis. I know it, but only vaguely, from your eyes, and I can only see it in the distance. I frown and squint to focus on the horizon and see a mom with her newborn, despair on her face. She puts the newborn in the arms of a white woman, begs her to take care of the child, and disappears. And then again, a man was forcefully pulled out of a bus by two armed men. They shove him into the trunk of a car, and the scene vanishes a second later.
We walk onward, and while we feel the exhaustion of the journey in our lungs and our limping gait, unreal images of the life that we would have lived if we had remained here or had been born here take shape. And what if you grew up and became an adult in Haiti, Dad? What if you became a father here and, holding me, as a baby, in your arms, you had sung goodnight to me in Creole? I brought you here so that you could finally tell me. We walk for days, looking for traces of memories and reflecting on all the reasons they were erased. Almost as if it could return to the present to make an impact, every day, another small piece of this incredibly difficult story emerges. And already, it does make an impact. I feel you beside me like never before. You don’t look at me while you speak, you look ahead, but you talk to me.
In your fullest presence, I realize something for the first time: in your life, you have been my father for longer than you were your father’s son. We begin to slow down and speak in whispers. I don’t even know where my grandfather was buried. You never told me. I only know that you were eighteen years old. That he had already left the family and that he was found dead in France. Yet, no one really knows where nor why. It’s still hard to ask, but I brought you here for this.
We arrive in the center of the capital, in front of the presidential palace, which was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. It is still Sunken in on itself. Instead, after the quake, what has remained intact is the enormous statue that gives this square its name: le Marron Inconnu, the Unknown Maroon, erected in commemoration of the Haitian Revolution and the abolishment of slavery. Over eleven feet tall and eight feet wide. The statue’s right knee is on the ground, and its left leg is stretched behind him, a broken shackle on his ankle. His body arches upward and at the same time, with all of its magnitude, proudly occupies the ground underneath his feet. The half-naked body, marked by violence, immortalizes the gesture of the Black Jacobin who, putting a large conch to his lips, called for the revolt of the enslaved peoples in the name of freedom.
Dear Dad, although I don’t know where my grandfather was buried, I inherited more from him than anyone else in this unhinged family. So, now that we are here, I long for only one thing: to organize the most beautiful funeral for Grandfather for the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Here, underneath the statue of the Marron Inconnu.
So I raided my old life, delivering a special invitation to those who thought I had vanished forever. It went like this:
After months of silence, I decided to send you this short message to let you know that I am in Haiti with my father and that I would really like you to join me. Even if only for a day: the day of the funeral of my deceased grandfather, my father’s father. If you receive this invitation, it is because you are among the few people who knew, loved, and hated him, or—as is much more likely—because you know virtually nothing about him; only slightly less than I do. It has been years since I celebrated birthdays or other ceremonies. Yet I have a deep desire for this, and I would like for you, who have accompanied me for a lifetime in this troubling path, to be here.
I ask that you join me. To come to learn my roots, which I spent a lifetime missing, with me. I want you here as I celebrate the end and finally prepare for this farewell. If you receive this invitation, it is because you are one of the people who told me, “I am not like you,” and I suffered without knowing how to respond. On this day, I would like you there to celebrate what makes me different from you. And yet, if I am writing to you, it is because you live inside me. It is because you are part of my body, and to find the strength to leap into the future, I ask this body of mine, I ask you, to consider me starting from my passion for life, from my vital strength of desire.
It was an exhausting wait. In the square underneath the statue, my father and I awaited them one by one. Then the conch rang, and all our loved ones huddled around us—sisters, friends, cousins, professors, mothers, doctors, and colleagues. We were surrounded by intense connections from the past, the loves of my life, comrades in the struggle. First, all the people who knew my grandfather spoke: each story that flowed finally gave us back the sense of nostalgia, the toils and anxieties, the failed failures. Witness after witness, my roots absorbed the nourishment and, coiled around them, a new flower bloomed in the middle of my belly. It was the most intense celebration of my life. After several days of going deep into my family history, the Haitian syndrome began to dissolve. It gave way to an unrestrained passion for the life that I had. To this grandfather without a history, to the one who, for me, was just a brown face in marker on a notebook, I dedicate the struggle that I chose, or perhaps that I finally took on.
Goodbye, Grandfather. “Goodbye, Father,” my dad said. Or thank you. Thank you to all the Jacobins who came before you: cowards, traitors, fools, and failures. Long live you nameless fugitives, who lie nowhere because that conch still resounds inside me.
The disease collapsed in a scream of deep rage, it was expelled from our nonexistent bodies, and it spat on its creators. That scream lasted for days, weeks, and then years. In the end, the last exhaled scream of rage began to trudge until it turned into a syncopated sound, more and more similar to roaring laughter.
We died from laughing, we were reborn from laughing, we laughed until we cried a river of laughter. And then again, the tears swelled with sorrow. We flooded the world with our suffering. Yet, finally, we let it drain away. The anger had breached the banks of that island of nonexistence. We released our pathology, shed our restraints. And we finally found the words to speak of our most passionate desires.
From “Abbiamo pianto un fiume di risate.” © Marie Moïse. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Barbara Ofosu-Somuah. All rights reserved.
In the wake of 2020's racist violence, and subsequent organizing by the Black Lives Matter movement and others to combat white supremacy, literary magazines and publishers everywhere have, to differing degrees, made efforts to publish more writers of color. Within the translation community, a corresponding issue arises: Who is chosen to translate, and what assumptions and structures support and drive those decisions? What roles do race and privilege play? And how can we assure equal access to all?
South Korea-based translator from Korean Anton Hur, US-based scholar and translator from French and Czech Corine Tachtiris, and Canada-based writer and translator from Chinese Yilin Wang consider this complex topic.
|The Great White Canceling
by Anton Hur
|Privilege, Race, and Translation
by Corine Tachtiris
|Barriers, Privileges, and Invisible Labor: A Sino Diaspora Translator's Perspective
by Yilin Wang
And read previous roundtables:
Translator Anton Hur takes a wry look at race and translation in this essay.
You’re a white translator. I come into your home office and break your computer. I run a bath and drown all your books, especially the ones translated by you. I go into your closet and cut up all your wigs. After burning you at the stake in your backyard, Salem Witch–Trials style, I give your job to a Black translator.
In Year Two of the Great White Canceling, the Booker International committee still manages to nominate enough of “your kind,” triggering a global hunt for the last remaining white translators hiding out in terrorist cells as they churn out yet more English editions of Yukio Mishima. I’m between books, so I sign up for volunteer interrogating at that year’s ALTA conference, which has to be renamed soon because “America” does not exist anymore—just the newly liberated and federated jurisdiction of Turtle Island. Please, begs the hog-tied white translator we captured in some basement in the repatriated Lenape territories, I don’t want to be guillotined, I just wanted English readers to enjoy the purely aesthetic and apolitical pleasures of Japanese fascism just as I do.
Oh, quit it, I say under the swaying pendant lamp, filing my nails, my boots up on the desk. You’re white, and you dared to translate. Translate littérature no less. Which, for a white person, is a crime worse than murder. You knew all the colored people would come for you if you did what you did. Surely if you had any decency you would’ve just starved to death, but here we are. Enjoy being separated from your head. I blow on my nails and show him. Neat, huh? Before he can answer, they drag him away.
As I flash my lanyard at the barricade and sign out for the day, I suddenly remember a discussion I had with you before the whole burning-you-at-the-stake thing, or even before that one time in 2021 when a white translator gave up their job to a Black one. You said race should have nothing to do with who gets to translate, that you didn’t see race at all, that you should be able to translate whoever you want however you want, that nothing you say or do has any real consequence because you’re just a mindless translating machine, and furthermore, that this was a slippery slope to banning all white translators. You have no idea how upset your words made me then. Because you were onto us! In the bimonthly Zoom chat with all the translators of color in the world, I was like, OK, guys, excuse me, guys, hello, can I just say something, please? This white translator is onto us. We have to move quickly or the global takeover we’ve been preparing for, the one where we ban all white translators and take over the world, will all be for naught. And it will take forever to reschedule. But when I said this, the other translators of color urged me to be patient. It’s okay, they said. That particular white translator, by their own vociferous admission, “doesn’t see color.” We’re totally invisible, even if, obviously, something inside them is trying to tell them how we’re going to initiate a global dismantling of white supremacy in literary translation, putting all whites in manacles and dragging them down Main Street (“Or Salem witch burnings!” I remind them). Yes, they said, and Salem witch burnings. All right, I said, reassured. Great. Just let me know, I don’t want to double-book it with a haircut or anything.
How surprised you were when I showed up at your door! Well, that’s a figure of speech, I bulldozed through your foyer. In any case, we got you so bad! And you burned so brightly.
At home, pouring myself a scotch on the rocks using your lacquered skull as a tumbler glass, I gaze out at the night cityscape and think about all the close calls I had regarding the premature reveal of the Great White Canceling. Like that time two separate white publishers tried to intimidate me into shutting up about their heinous labor and “bridge translation” practices over DM—boy, did I want to say something then! Or that year—well, years—of grant competitions picking yet another white mediocrity over a more deserving colleague who happened to be non-white. Or that white translator who would take up Korean grant money for decades and routinely and publicly insult the Korean writers he translated. But I managed only to be just mad enough. You know, respectable mad. Mad enough to call you out on Twitter, but not so mad as to reveal the fact that we have long given up waiting for a place at the table by being “respectable,” “collegial,” or “good enough,” all the fake-meritocracy dangling carrots, in other words, and that we were already planning to wrest power by force, just as your ancestors did with mine. I raise your skull to my ancestors—the clinking ice cubes are heart-shaped, I’m sentimental like that—and offer up a silent toast in their memory. They persisted, because deep down, they knew the chickens would come home to roost. Just as you yourself knew on some level, because you were so convinced the Great White Canceling was going to happen any day now, this being your fantasy more than mine. You talked about it all the time, remember? We kept telling you that you were creating straw man fallacies and being harmful with all your microaggressions (and macroaggressions) against your colleagues of color. But you knew, didn’t you, that all the harms you did to us would come back to haunt you in the end. It’s too bad that instead of confronting your repressed guilt and conceding some of your systemic power, you had to project your guilt instead and, well, end up in my dishwasher.
Anyway! So much for ancient history. I have to go back to work, apparently someone cooked an actual casserole and you know how that’s like, a big no-no. But at least my claws look perfect tonight.
© 2021 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.
Scholar and translator Corine Tachtiris reflects on the inherent privilege of translating while White in this essay.
And if there are few Black translators, there are few representatives of the possibility of that being a thing one might do as a Black person. We need to see people of colour in a broad swath of professions and possibilities in order to make those professions and possibilities imaginable for others.
Kaiama L. Glover, interview with Lauren Cocking for Leyendo Lat Am
Literary translation (in)famously comprises a tiny portion of the US literary market, and it’s not exactly a prestigious corner. Even within the translated literature publishing sector, translators all too frequently go underpaid and unrecognized. Our names are omitted from book covers, reviews, and promotional material as we wrangle over pennies per word and the copyright to our own work. Given all that, it can be hard for some of us translators to think of ourselves as privileged. And yet White translators do generally benefit from privilege in various ways.
When it comes to acquiring the source language, for example, White students in the US from monolingual families more commonly have sufficient access to foreign language education, including study abroad programs. Black K-12 students, however, face a variety of barriers to foreign language education, including underfunded programs, lack of culturally relevant material, and a dearth of instructors who might serve as role models. In terms of English as the target language, racialized long-term English and Standard English learners are habitually perceived as having “deficient” language competency, as Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa demonstrate, even when abiding by the norms of so-called “appropriateness.”
As compared to their White colleagues, then, aspiring or even established translators of color encounter additional structural obstacles as well as implicit and explicit biases as they attempt to enter the field or secure publishing contracts.
. . . it was found highly dangerous to employ the natives as interpreters, upon whose fidelity [the East India Company] could not depend . . .
Sir William Jones, preface to A Grammar of the Persian Language (1771)
We can’t understand where we are in the creation and publication of translations without looking at how we got here. As European colonizers invaded Africa, Asia, and the Americas and appropriated land, resources, and labor, they also appropriated knowledge and culture. Literary, religious, and other humanistic texts from colonized cultures passed through White European translators considered to have the expertise to “explain” these cultures to their compatriots. No matter their individual orientation to the texts they translated—whether condescending or admiring—what these translators shared was being vested with the authority to understand these texts and convey them “reliably” to their new readers. White Europeans became the subjects or agents of translation, while people of color became the objects.
The history of enslavement in the Americas similarly established segregation in cultural production. In her recent book, Anjali Vats shows how US intellectual property law has been entangled from its origins in questions of citizenship and how it “codes” people of color as “lacking the capacity to create.” This same racism is coded into how we talk about translations—an epithet for a translation that lacks creativity and follows its source text too closely is “slavish,” a sense that first emerged, according to the OED, in 1753, at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.
We can see that biases that depict translators of color as untrustworthy, unqualified, and unartistic run deep, on top of the material conditions that tend to exclude people of color from the translation profession.
I came to Savage Seasons through Sophie Schiavo, who was at the French Publishers Agency at the time. She encouraged me to take it on . . . But I didn’t know much about the political situation in Haiti, I had not heard of the Haitian classics . . . I was not at all familiar with Haitian culture or literature . . .
Jeanine Herman, interview with Nathan Dize for Haiti in Translation
While translators of color face structural barriers and the centuries-old legacy of bias, White translators benefit from the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their talents and expertise. And even if succeeding in getting their work published is no easy task, White translators generally have greater access to the professional and academic networks that facilitate getting a book into print in the overwhelmingly white publishing industry. So homogeneous is the output by the largest publishing houses that Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek’s large-scale data showed that, when she became an editor, Toni Morrison had a statistically significant impact on the number of African American authors published at Random House, and when she left to devote herself to her writing, that impact disappeared. Who will be the editor to do for translators of color, especially Black and Indigenous translators, what Morrison did for Black US-American literature?
Meanwhile, many current efforts to diversify the field of translators and editors ring hollow without actual systemic changes. Getting a foot in the door in publishing often occurs through unpaid or poorly paid internships in New York City, a place with astronomical rents. “BIPOC encouraged to apply” means little if you don’t set material conditions that would make their hiring and employment possible—how many years of experience does the job ad ask for? How much payment is being offered? “BIPOC encouraged to submit” also means little if the work is judged based on White Western notions of what makes for good or great literature, on the supposed marketability for an imagined White-majority readership, or on the use of “standard” US-American or British English.
The unacknowledged privileges of translating while White—being seen as qualified, being able to access resources that make the profession possible—can also predispose White translators to see themselves as the right person for a job. Certainly freelance translators need to support themselves, and some texts, especially by authors of color, would not get published without certain White translators advocating for them. But translation is not an intrinsic good. Even well-intentioned translators and well-intentioned translations can recapitulate the colonial logic that persistently figures White people as translators and people of color as translated. Although White translators are marginalized in the literary market more broadly, undoing these inequities will require them to share resources, access, and projects all while pushing for expanded publication and better working conditions in general.
© 2021 by Corine Tachtiris. All rights reserved.
Translator Yilin Wang addresses various forms of bias in translation from Asian Languages in this essay.
“You must teach yourself how to carry loan words,
tiny seeds gift-wrapped like hand-me-down heirlooms
as you crisscross past borders.”
— “A Sichuan Diaspora Daughter’s Kitchen,” a poem by Yilin Wang
As a racialized, genderqueer woman translator working with Chinese literature, I translate as a form of reclamation and resistance. There has been an increasing number of discussions in the literary translation community recently about whether any translator should have the right to translate any text. This question, however, can be quite simplistic and misleading. It overlooks the power dynamics at play in the field, such as the barriers that affect who can break into translation and the undervaluing of less formal forms of expertise such as lived experiences. It overlooks that, in addition to working as a translator on the page, marginalized translators often need to “translate” many times over, performing additional emotional labor when it comes to justifying their anti-oppressive approaches to translation and navigating biases in the publishing and translation industries.
Instead of asking “if anyone can translate anyone,” here are some questions I think it is important for translators to consider instead: Why do you want to translate a particular project? Do you have the ability and knowledge to understand the work’s nuances and handle them with care as you translate into the target language? Are you an ideal fit for the project as a translator, not only in terms of conventionally valued skills such as language abilities and a history of publishing translations, but also in terms of often overlooked and ignored factors such as lived experiences, cultural expertise, and personal ties to the subject matter? Have racialized translators and marginalized translators had their chance yet to translate these types of works yet, especially the ones depicting culturally specific experiences or experiences of oppressed peoples, and been widely supported in doing so? What impact might your translation have on the literary traditions you’re translating from and into, and on the people who are a part of those living communities and cultures?
The possibility of translating literature from Mandarin never occurred to me until three years ago, although now that I look back, it’s clear that I have been performing many acts of “translation” all my life. I grew up in a bilingual household with a Han Chinese mother and white Canadian stepfather, code-switching on a daily basis as I communicated with parents who each spoke a different preferred first language. As a daughter of immigrants who frequently moved, I also spent the first two decades of my life living and studying in eight cities across China, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. While the experience of frequent relocations was quite challenging, it gave me the privilege of accessing many immersive language-learning environments, allowing me to learn to acquire language skills quickly and adapt easily to different regional variations of a language. By the time I started developing an interest in literary translation, I had already been reading Chinese literature extensively for most of my life and publishing my creative writing in English for nearly eight years. Close reading skills in the source language and writing abilities in the target language are two of the most important tools in a translator’s toolkit.
Despite all of this, I still never considered professional literary translation a possibility until I was in graduate school in my mid-twenties. Translators of Chinese literature seemed far removed from my everyday realities. No relatives, friends, or acquaintances had ever suggested that I try pursuing translation as a career path, although they frequently approached me with language questions. I repeatedly felt and continue to feel imposter syndrome about my Mandarin writing skills because I have spent many years living in the Sino diaspora rather than in my “motherland” and primarily uses English in daily life.
Even my mother expressed shock at my ability to convey the nuanced emotions of Chinese poetry in English. She held the unconscious bias that racialized 1.5 generation immigrants and third culture individuals like me, who spend our lives immersed in more than one language and culture, would still never become fully fluent in our second language. It’s a view that is unfortunately shared by many, an illusion shaped by the world around us. I don’t ever recall seeing a Chinese name listed on the spines of books of translated Chinese literature or meeting Chinese heritage speaker translators at literary events, not until I started actively searching. The lack of role models can lead to a deeply ingrained sense of not belonging for many folks like me.
This feeling of being an outsider in the literary translation world did not fade even as I started doing translation work. Only months after my first attempt at literary translation, I would witness a racist incident at a Vancouver book sale. A white man, who held multiple positions of power as a Canadian bookseller, retired library studies professor, and board member of a literary awards organization, repeatedly used slurs to describe a Chinese poet who had read poems in both Mandarin and English at a bilingual reading. Throughout this incident and its drawn-out aftermath, I was threatened for speaking up, continuously gaslit for years, and never received any sincere apology from the incident’s original perpetuator or his many enablers.
The incident left me deeply shaken. It also sparked in me a stronger, unwavering desire to translate, not only from a place of passion, but also from one of anger and of loss. If a gatekeeper thinks it’s acceptable to blatantly insult a writer and translator of color who works with non-English languages in public, I cannot imagine how much worse it could get behind closed doors. Given the lack of safe(r) spaces for racialized and marginalized translators, it’s no wonder we must fight so hard just to exist and thrive and be heard.
It was only in my Creative Writing MFA program that I finally encountered literary translation as a field of study and a possible career path. A 2017 Authors Guild Survey of Literary Translators’ Working Conditions shows that 77% of working literary translators hold an MA, PhD, or equivalent degree. Although formal education is never a requirement for becoming a translator, this strong correlation demonstrates that a clear majority of working literary translators have completed graduate school education and suggests this education would be quite beneficial for aspiring translators who want to break into the field. Yet MFAs and graduate Area Studies programs, where translation is taught and encouraged as a subject, can be inaccessible to many people due to barriers like lack of time, financial cost, inability to relocate, absence of diverse faculty supervisors, and unconscious bias in the admission process. These barriers disproportionately affect marginalized folks, who often have less access to resources and mentorship to begin with, perpetuating a cycle in which fewer marginalized folks are able to enter and complete these programs and to become translators.
When it comes to Chinese-English poetry translation in the Anglophone world, there is a strong overlap between translators of Chinese poetry and Chinese Studies scholars working to study and understand the “Far East.” Not only does this overlap pose a strong barrier for aspiring translators who are not able to access this education, but the history of Chinese Studies also traces its roots to a colonial discipline known as Orientalism. In the decades since its creation, the field of Orientalism has become rebranded as Asian Studies, but the majority of its practitioners have yet to address this problematic history. Graduates from these programs generally have a much more straightforward path into literary translation. Their way is paved by their higher education credentials in a foreign language and culture, whether or not they recognize or acknowledge their privilege.
As a first-time translator in a multi-genre writing workshop in my MFA program, I was surrounded by a classroom of peers who were writers with very little understanding of translation and who had extremely limited exposure to Chinese literature. The only other student who had some experience with translation was white and translated ancient Latin texts. In addition to submitting my translations of Classical Chinese poetry, I also had to “translate” a second time for my workshop peers. I had to unpack for them the cultures and traditions I was working from, the ways that Chinese and English poetry differ, and the complex power dynamics that shaped the history of Chinese-English translation, even as I was just beginning to learn about those issues myself.
Janey Tracey’s article “The Modernist Revision of a Foreign Culture in Ezra Pound’s Cathay” expresses concern about how Ezra Pound has been credited as an “inventor” of Chinese poetry despite the fact he did not understand Chinese. He relied on the notes of a white scholar of Japanese art who was also not fluent in Chinese, and heavily revised translations to conform to his aesthetics as an American modernist poet while introducing many misinterpretations of the source text. Pound’s translations continue to influence perceptions of Chinese poetry in Anglophone literary spaces while Chinese heritage speaker translators are often overlooked.
The type of “translation” that Pound did continues to this day, in a similar practice known as “bridge translation,” which is discussed by Jen Calleja and Sophie Collins in their essay “She knows too much: ‘Bridge Translations,’ ‘Literal Translations,’ and Long-Term Harm.” In the Chinese-to-English translation space, it’s common for a native speaker of a Chinese language to be treated as an “informant” and paired with a writer, often white, monolingual, and possessing the prestige that comes with a history of publishing writing in English. The writer does not know the source language and often lacks cultural context yet is given the power to craft the final poem. Their skill in writing in the target language is put on a pedestal above all else.
Calleja and Collins have already discussed extensively in their article how bridge translation can be problematic when it comes to unequal recognition of labor; the writer’s name may be featured more prominently, often credited as a translator or a co-translator, while the bridge translator is overlooked. I want to add that this form of collaborative translation is especially prevalent when it comes to literary works written in non-European languages and to literature by racialized people who already face many existing barriers in the translation field. Although collaboration can certainly be productive and invaluable in some contexts, why are BIPOC translators seen as less capable of working independently and of writing skillfully in English? Whose skills and experiences are being celebrated versus dismissed? And at what cost, to the translation and representation of literatures by people of color, especially when so few of their translations are published and recognized?
This lack of faith in racialized translators played itself out in the responses that I received when I announced the publication of my translations of some poetry by Chinese feminist poet Qiu Jin. Despite the overwhelmingly positive feedback I received, a Chinese reader replied to my publication announcement with a recommendation that I read another white woman translator’s translation of Qiu Jin’s work. Those early translations, dated to the early twentieth century, were full of exoticizing language that resulted from a misunderstanding of Chinese grammar. The country name “Japan” (日本）was broken up arbitrarily into the characters “日” (sun, warmth, day) and “本” (original, core), and then translated literally as “Sun’s Root Land.” A term that roughly means “suffering” or “difficulties” (磨折) was similarly misinterpreted as “snapped off, ground to powder.” In response to these inaccurate translations, another white male reader reached out to me repeatedly to demand the source text. With complete disregard for the fact that I am a translator of Qiu Jin’s work, he stated that he wanted to translate the poems using Google Translate and piece together their meaning himself.
The power structures that dominate the real world, the translation and publishing industries, and the hierarchy of languages are deeply intertwined with the decisions that translators make on the page, whether big or small. Translators of color and marginalized translators are burdened with the extra challenge of navigating the norms of so-called Standard English, the gatekeeping of style guides, and preconceptions about what a story or poem should look like in the target language. When it comes to literary works rooted in the personal lived experiences of marginalized peoples, which may feature complex topics such as identity, social inequities, slurs, and gendered language, the choices we have to make become increasingly numerous and nuanced.
I often have to “translate” a second time when I explain to editors my decision to resist the white gaze and to translate for readers who may approach my work from positionalities other than the dominant one. In response to publishing professionals who introduce italics into my translations, interviews, and translator’s notes, I had to “translate” for them the politics of italicizing words; many of them never had to think about how italics are not applied equally to loan words from all languages and can serve as a form of othering. Likewise, I have had to “translate” my decisions to use footnotes, add glosses, or preserve idioms that may complicate a “smooth” reading experience.
As a translator who is also a writer, I find some slight comfort in the fact that the publishing world has been having more and more discussions about the issue of representation, even though it still has a long way to go. Writers and publishing professionals alike have been engaging in conversations about the dangers of cultural appropriation, the need for more and better representation, and the benefits and limitations of publishing #OwnVoices, a movement that encourages support for books featuring marginalized characters written by authors who share the same identity. We have also had discussions about the problems of tokenism and how representation alone is never enough without dismantling the larger systemic inequities at play.
Given the nature of a translator’s work as someone navigating the spaces between languages and cultures, these conversations must also occur in the translation community, where they are urgently and desperately needed. It’s time for those who care about translated literature––whether translators, editors, or those who read translations––to recognize the many forms of undervalued labor and invisible layers of “translation” that marginalized translators perform on the page and beyond it, to confront the privileges, challenges, and inequities that are present when it comes to who gets supported in translating different literatures into English.
© 2021 by Yilin Wang. All rights reserved.
Welcome to our twelfth annual Queer issue. This year we celebrate Pride Month with seven pieces depicting Queer characters confronting decisive moments. Some find themselves at turning points, while others reckon with past choices or cope with the fallout of decisions made by those around them. In their divergent settings and circumstances, these characters confront their individual crises with ingenuity and alacrity, pivoting within their shifting contexts.
In South African writer Olivia M. Coetzee’s “In the Shadows,” a trans woman observes street traffic from her window while reflecting on the many people intersecting in her own life. Her thoughts reveal a social circle as populated and bustling as the scene outside; yet her preoccupation with a childhood friend’s descent into addiction and his subsequent disappearance intrudes into even her most pleasant reveries.
Another lively community forms the backdrop for the autobiographical “Yun-Fan: Singing the Variety of Queer Life.” Yun-Fan, a Taiwanese butch lesbian who identifies as a woman and uses male pronouns, provides an instructive look into Queer life in an earlier era. One of a collection of oral histories of older lesbians solicited and compiled by the Taiwan Tongzhi LGBTQ+ Hotline Association, Yun-fan’s account depicts not only the restrictions he fought to escape, but the freedom he found when he entered the Queer community in middle age.
Colombian poet Raúl Gómez Jattin also considers lives and loves past in his elegiac “Cereté, Córdoba.” A Queer man of Syrian descent writing in ways that broke with his country’s poetic tradition, he spent much of his life between psychiatric hospitals and the streets but still published seven volumes of poetry. Here he recalls the endless sun and welcome shade of his hometown, and notes, “I loved Love twice there / And one time Love said yes / And another time it said no.”
In Li Kotomi’s similarly mournful “Solo Dance,” the reserved schoolgirl Yingmei finds herself drawn to the magnetic Danchen but is too shy to act on her attraction. When Danchen dies in an accident, Yingmei grows even more solitary. As she spirals into depression, her concerned parents assume she is reacting to the massive Chi-Chi earthquake; no one guesses the real source of her upheaval.
Another sort of tumult informs Nina Bouraoui’s “A Night in Timimoun,” set in the liminal space of a hotel. The unnamed narrator impulsively leaves her sleeping husband and children and flees Algiers for the desert resort town of the title. In this strange and disorienting place, she becomes obsessed with another solitary female traveler. The headlong monologue reveals the narrator’s roiling emotions as she confronts her actions and desires.
In a second tale of travel, “Theo,” Fahmi Mustaffa’s young Malaysian visits Amsterdam for the first time. Invited to the house of an expat widower and fellow Malaysian, Theo finds solace in the familiar food and language, but feels less at home when his host suggests a walk to an unexpected destination.
And Panamanian writer Javier Stanziola’s “Gustavo” rewrites a young man’s understanding of his fractured family. When JJ refuses to talk on the phone to the stepfather who abandoned their family, the older man sends a letter from his new life in London. “It had nothing to do with you or your brother,” Gustavo explains, then elaborates: “In fact, it had nothing to do with your mother.” What follows is a revelation.
These characters pursue solutions that differ as widely as their situations, but they share the determination to move through these critical moments to a place of comfort and understanding. As always, we hope you enjoy the multiplicity of Queer experiences and perspectives offered here.
© 2021 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
Grandma’s Girlfriends is a response to The Rainbow Bus: Youthful Reminiscences of Twelve Older Gay Men/彩虹熟年巴士: 12位老年同志的青春記憶 (GBooks, 2010). Tong, the cameraperson at the launch of The Rainbow Bus, remembers feeling indignant that only queer men were included in this book, and set in motion a plan to record the lives of older queer women too. Over the next few years, a group of volunteers from the Elder LGBTQ Team of the Taiwan Tongzhi (LGBTQ+) Hotline Association, Taiwan’s oldest and largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organization (founded in 1998), interviewed seventeen subjects whom they found via Facebook and message boards, and by flyering lesbian bars. These stories were then collected in Grandma’s Girlfriends, which was brought out by Locus Publishing in 2020. Yun-Fan’s oral history was written by Wanning Chen, who has been volunteering with the association since 2014.
In a brief English-language preface to the book, the editors say, “The impression of elder homosexuals that remains engraved in today’s young generation is that the former were born in the wrong time, and were unfortunately unable to appreciate the liberation brought by the LGBT activism. . . . The elder lesbians’ stories told in this book completely overturn those stereotypes: their lives back then were even more reckless, even more exciting!”
Queer language in Taiwan does not map completely onto Western norms. As a butch lesbian, Yun-Fan identifies as a woman and uses he/him pronouns. The Taiwanese term for “butch” is the English letter "T," which stands for “tomboy.”
Before he took his first steps into the queer scene at the age of forty-four, Yun-Fan had a steady girlfriend he’d met at work. Only after this office romance was over did he take the plunge, and he was promptly astonished by the dazzling array of ways to meet people—from internet dating to Girlfriend magazine, not to mention the queer-friendly businesses listed in newspaper supplements. As he found his footing, Yun-Fan realized that the world within the scene was changing very rapidly, and everyone he connected with through these channels was a significantly younger “little friend.” Somewhat uneasily, but in the spirit of experimentation, he went to a queer-friendly women’s space, but couldn’t quite work out its dynamics. After a number of fruitless encounters, he began to keep his distance.
Yun-Fan describes his romantic life as having more heartbreak than warmth. “When I was twenty-three, I met my first girlfriend, who then went off with a man after just four months—and eventually married him. I had a dry spell of seven years after that, and we got in touch from time to time, though all we ever did was hold hands. I got tired of being treated like an ATM—and of course these loans were never repaid . . . Like an idiot, I thought if I kept giving in, my ex might come back to me, but each time that happened, it was only to ask me for something. Nothing but fake feelings. And stupid me, I got caught up in these feelings . . . ”
Yun-Fan’s second office romance lasted six and a half years, followed by a lingering four and a half years after his ex married a man. Once again, the relationship consisted of nothing more than holding hands. So there were these two bisexual girlfriends, after which Yun-Fan entered the scene and had several partners in a row. Ultimately, he said frankly, “As you get older, you need to be with someone so you can take care of each other at the end. Love is always going to depart. Androgynous Ts like me don’t get as much attention in the scene as femmes do. It’s best to prioritize getting your work and finances on secure footing.”
Time moved on, and queers began to meet online—but only if they were computer savvy and knew the rules of the internet. Even with the early websites, such as To-Get-Her and Smalltown Girl, Yun-Fan felt the scene did not favor more mature queer women like him. And so he went in search of opportunities at queer-friendly establishments. When he first entered the scene, Yun-Fan felt very isolated, although resistance from home had decreased after his mother’s death, and queerness was no longer as much of a taboo among people of his generation. With less family pressure as he got older, Yun-Fan thought more and more of “becoming myself,” even as lesbian-friendly spaces became more prevalent, with bubble tea shops, T bars, ijinkan, and so on. Whenever Yun-Fan wanted a drink or a place to chat, he’d make sure to support one of these businesses run by queer women. This led to Yun-Fan’s next decision. Aged fifty-two, he found himself unemployed when his company went bust. It would have been difficult to enter a new profession at this age, so even though he’d never been much of a drinker, he decided to open a karaoke bar. Here, amid the crowds and neon lights, he saw all kinds of queer stories unfold before his eyes.
Yun-Fan spent almost two years wrestling with the karaoke bar idea before pulling the trigger. This was a project that would require a lot of time, energy, and money; on top of this, he’d heard there would be pressure from both sides of the law. While mulling this over, he organized many clandestine queer gatherings, which made him long for a more open space to meet, talk, eat, and drink in comfort—and a karaoke bar that could be booked out for events seemed like the best option. After he’d gotten it up and running, Yun-Fan gained the support of various communities, and the bar would have costume parties to mark certain occasions or give discounts to attract different groups. Yun-Fan tried dressing more femme, with thigh-flashing outfits and high heels. These gatherings inevitably ended up being divided into zones: Ts, femmes, and the uncategorized each claimed a spot, from which they’d shoot flirty looks and sidelong glances at each other, or just chat happily. Given how furtive and hidden queer life was at the time, this opened Yun-Fan’s mind and made him think about how some people preferred Ts, some preferred femmes, and some went with the flow. “I am just me,” he thought. “Sexual orientation is a part of me. I’m a perfectly normal person, I just happen to love women!”
In elementary school, Yun-Fan already felt different from other people and kept having the urge to protect female classmates he liked. A second-generation immigrant from the mainland, he grew up being beaten and scolded by his father. His older brothers inflicted their own violence too, and as far back as Yun-Fan can remember, he’s always had a decidedly negative impression of the male gender. As for Yun-Fan himself, he liked toy guns and knives, and would play at being a soldier or horseback warrior, rescuing damsels in distress. Society was still very conservative when he was in high school, and he got all the way to college living in the shadows. His family kept urging him to get married, and his mother nagged him constantly to find a husband, glaring with suspicion and hostility at every girl Yun-Fan brought home. Only when his mother died did this family pressure decrease. Time moved on, and eventually his father, by then in his eighties, would occasionally say, “It doesn’t matter if you’re with a man or a woman, as long as you have someone to grow old with.” Even after his office romance ended with his girlfriend opting for heterosexual marriage, Yun-Fan was still besotted enough to wait at her workplace each day, hoping to catch a glimpse of his beloved. This infatuation lasted two whole years. This girlfriend said, “Being with a man isn’t necessarily the best choice, but once you choose to be with another woman, that’s a dead end, and there’s nothing but darkness ahead.”
When discussing his sexual experiences with women, from holding hands to hugging to kissing, then the final hurdle in bed, Yun-Fan confesses to having felt lost—information was not as easily available back then, and it was a mystery to him how to truly satisfy his partner. “We were both completely inexperienced! We just groped around and spent a lot of time investigating each other’s bodies. In the end, our sexual relationship felt like me providing a service.” Yun-Fan has a side that is pure romance. Many of the Ts he knew back in the day were single, and given the circumstances at the time, Yun-Fan preferred to be with older femmes, married or divorced, because they’d made a choice and understood the direction of their hearts. This was an era when quite a few people allowed themselves to be railroaded into heterosexual marriages, only to find themselves further minoritized by being excluded from the queer community—a kind of double injury. Listening to entertainment gossip and watching people come and go in the scene, including Huang Hsiao-ning, the then-popular Lady Elvis, Yun-Fan lamented that even public figures weren’t able to be themselves and faced pressure both in and out of their communities.
Only when Facebook became popular did Yun-Fan enter the world of internet groups. He seems to attract very young women and is always getting interest from people born in the eighties or nineties. The biggest age gap he’s experienced is thirty-five years. As Facebook took over from MSN as the dominant social platform, all kinds of groups and videos sprouted up online, which was eye-opening for Yun-Fan. His ultimate goal is still to find a suitable partner and have a stable home. As he gets older, he feels marriage won’t necessarily do anything for him emotionally, but having legal protections for his medical treatment, education, social security, and inheritance is still important. Yun-Fan keeps an attitude of mutual support and understanding. [Editor’s note: At the time of this interview, Taiwan’s equal marriage law hadn’t passed yet.]
As we face the future, our years increase and our bodies gradually decline. Everyone begins marching toward death as soon as they are born. You and I will both get old—whether we’re rich or poor, whatever our sexual orientation. Time is fair that way. Yun-Fan has planned well to make sure his pension is secure and has saved enough to live on. Only when his basic needs were assured did he pursue a better quality of life. Yun-Fan was born into a military family, and his father enjoyed army benefits, meaning there wasn’t too much of a financial burden as he aged. His mother may have nagged and pressured him to get married, but she was also the person Yun-Fan loved most. Yun-Fan and his siblings received very unequal treatment because of their gender and position in the family. When the first baby of the next generation appeared, though, this little grandson served as an emollient for the household. Now Yun-Fan could sometimes feel a sort of tenderness and joy. Thinking ahead to the squabbling over inheritance and the division of property after his father’s death, Yun-Fan promised himself, being all alone in the world, to take care of his bottom line, though that made him even more keen to find a companion for his later years.
Yun-Fan says he doesn’t regret or deny any of his choices, and he doesn’t seek to avoid the world’s hostile gaze, choosing instead to retain a cheerful, bright disposition. Being part of the queer community has never caused him shame. He reckons his friends who have never dared to confront who they really are, choosing instead to live in the shadows and wear a mask as they pass through life, are the ones truly suffering. While being your true self may not always be smooth sailing, needing to lead a double existence exacts a penalty of its own. We encounter people who don’t understand us, we get emotionally hurt, and we hit rock bottom—that’s the homework we need to get through in order to be our authentic selves.
Writer’s note: The transcript of the first interview with Yun-Fan ran over ten thousand words. Yun-Fan, whom I hadn’t yet met, had done his best to provide his full story, including every little detail. Human memory is fragile, and all we can do is live in the present, remembering everything we can in a footrace against time. Then these piping hot words come out of the oven, and the interviewee’s story becomes visible. From the past to the present, the road to gender inclusivity has been very long, and these changes did not come in time for some. From the present to the future, every voice, every signature on a petition, every bit of support is a part of creating history. I feel honored to have worked with the Taiwan Tongzhi LGBTQ+ Hotline Association to spend some time with this group of queer elders, speaking with these big brothers and sisters about the courage they needed in an earlier time and the choices they had to make. They are all stars, and the light they shine allows us to understand the past better.
From Taiwan Tongzhi LGBTQ+ Hotline Association, 阿媽的女朋友: 彩虹熟女的多彩青春 (Grandma's Girlfriends: The Splendid Youth of Elder Lesbians). Published 2020 by Locus Publishing. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Jeremy Tiang. All rights reserved.
A woman leaves her husband and two daughters and ventures into a resort in the Algerian desert in search of refuge in this short story by Nina Bouraoui.
I’d like to talk to you and tell you how I arrived here, around eleven in the morning, I’d like to describe the feeling of freedom to you, tell you how strange I felt as the plane flew over the sea of sand on its way to In Salah, how far removed from everything, how close to myself, for the first time in my life, it didn’t seem like an act of heroism to me, more an act of love, yes, that’s what it was, an act of love; I acted out of love for myself, for the very first time, I did it for me and not for anyone else, it’s hard to explain, I’m still floundering, unsettled by the desert’s silence after Algiers, I haven’t found my bearings yet and I’m leaving again tomorrow for Tamanrasset, but when I look at you, sitting there alone by the pool in this hotel built by Fernand Pouillon in the heart of Timimoun, reading your book, I want to tell you the whole story, as if you were my confidante for a night and a day, and my conscience too because I seem to have lost my head, or perhaps I’ve found it again, I know I’m not in my usual state of mind. You’re so serious, so sensible, so sure of yourself, alone, with your books, your newspapers, in the shade of the palm trees, diving into the pool from time to time, traversing its length underwater, your body lit by the already scorching April sun; you’re not French, you’re reading something in English, maybe you’re American, married to an oilman, he’ll be joining you for dinner this evening, maybe you’ve struck out on your own like me, they say the desert can be therapeutic, like the ocean, with its rich store of calming properties; space in the desert is unbounded, earth and sky are one, inseparable, like a painting in three colors, deep, deep blue, light brown swirling in and out of the dunes and then the bright red mud and stone of the small cone-shaped dwellings that look to me like towers in the desert; everyone is a spy here, watching their neighbor in secret, the desert isn’t empty, the men and women who live here stay hidden to protect themselves from nature and its violence, but they know, they know who I am, who you are, perhaps they’re keeping watch on me, on you, I like to think they are, even though I feel no fear all alone here at the end of the world, I don’t feel anxious at all, and if I had to die in the desert, I would greet death as an unexpected but not unwelcome guest, what I mean by that is that I’ve stopped being afraid, I accept what fate has in store for me, come what may, I don’t feel guilty either, although I ought to, I left my husband and my two little girls still asleep in their bedroom this morning, I closed the door of our apartment without a sound so as not to wake them, I crept down the six flights of stairs on the tips of my toes; in the taxi on the way to the airport, I felt a wave of happiness wash over me, I’d love to talk to you about that too, about that wave, flowing through my innermost being like lava, hot and thick, pleasure made real, and yes, freedom. I had to do it, I’m not leaving them, I’m finding myself, I’m not running away from them, I’m making my way toward myself, I’m not letting go of them, I’m taking myself by the hand, putting my arm around my shoulders, I’d kiss myself too if I could, what I feel for myself is not so much desire as a great tenderness, for years I’ve been so hard on my body, I’m sad, it’s probably an illness, although I’ve never thought of myself as ill, but it is true that I’ve never felt fully happy, I’m sure you’d understand if I explained it to you, my happiness is never complete, never whole, there’s always a little crack that ends up getting bigger and engulfing all the small pleasures, the little sparks of light, and then there’s that word that’s always defeated me too: normality. What do I mean? It’s like this, you’ll probably think I’m no good, but I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world to find herself at loggerheads with normality, by which I mean coupledom, apartment, job, household tasks, the fading of desire, boredom, habit; maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I was escaping from this morning as I went through security, as I walked up the Jetway and settled into my window seat, I’d stepped out of normality, me, the little woman who weeps silent tears to avoid frightening the people who rely on her, for they do rely on me, in spite of everything, my daughters, my darling little girls, my husband, my dearest husband, I’m still a pillar in our household, in spite of my tendency to be melancholy. They were sleeping so soundly, I left a note, explaining that I had to go on a journey, that I’d come back better from it, I don’t know if they’ll understand, but I need my solitude, here, as you do perhaps, I look over at you, it’s sunset, nobody’s come to join you, you’re wearing a light green two-piece swimsuit, a straw hat, bangles on your right wrist, a man’s watch, nail polish, you gather up your things, slip on a flower-print dress, you’re wearing sunglasses, you don’t look at me as you walk along the side of the pool and up the stairs to your room; I follow you up, I’m starting to feel chilled, I put on something warmer, I ought to phone them, in Algiers, but I don’t want to, not right now, tomorrow maybe, from Tamanrasset, all I want here is silence, the silence of this place, broken only by the sounds of my imagination; your room is so close to mine, I could join you and tell you how I got married to this country, Algeria, when I married my husband, that it wasn’t only a man I was committing to when I arrived in 1962, the rare French woman to set foot on Algerian soil in those days, I was making a promise to a people standing up for their history, a people protecting their newfound freedom, I was full of pride for my new brothers, although I wasn’t really their sister anymore, I probably never was, not even for one moment. I didn’t understand at first, I believed that love was contagious, I loved this man, I loved his land, I loved all the men and women who’d suffered, who’d fought for their independence, a great and courageous struggle, I thought, their victory was something I admired, but revolutions can be played out over several acts, I didn’t realize the war was far from over. I could talk to you about how I loved the landscape of this country to distraction, this country that I embraced as my own, abandoning France, moving far away from my family, my parents, my brother and sisters who were incapable of loving my new life, for yes, you had to be in love with it to like Algiers, with its dense, masculine crowds, its menacing alleyways. I could spend hours describing the wild daisies to you, the poppies, the creeks below the road along the cliffs, the Kasbah, the Chiffa Gorge, the ravine of the Femme Sauvage. I think we’re alike, you and I. I can hear you, on the other side of the wall, we’re doing things in sync, I’m removing the bedspread just as you are, adjusting the pillows, looking for something to drink in the minibar that’s stopped working, going into the bathroom at the time designated for taking a shower according to the sign at the desk, picking up my bottle of shampoo, my orange-blossom shower gel, getting undressed, as you are, letting the thin stream of water run down my face, my chest, my stomach, and as I wash myself, it’s your skin I feel sliding beneath my soapy palms. I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, darkness has fallen, it seems bigger in the desert, sacred. I can hear your footsteps, you’re talking to someone on the phone, but I can’t understand what you’re saying, I don’t know if it’s French or English you’re speaking, or a secret language. I decide on what to wear, pick out something to sleep in, I’m leaving tomorrow morning at dawn, daylight means safety in the desert, a traveler must follow the light; did you know that Fernand Pouillon said that traveling is like destiny? A road that can’t be closed off or avoided. I like to think I’m following the path of something bigger than myself, that it’s impossible for me to go back; I can hear the swimming pool being filled and then emptied again, the magic of water flowing like this in the depths of the Sahara, there’s a coolness in the air, the lights are coming on in the gardens, I put on my makeup, inspect myself in the mirror, it’s your eyes I’m looking into, then I start to hurry, you’ve already left your room, I can hear you walking down to reception, to meet the man you love perhaps, I think about my husband, my daughters, I see them as three white dots spinning in the darkness, and then they vanish, leaving me to my space, to my adventure. I apply a splash of perfume, select a pair of sandals with heels, I’m wearing a black dress, I wrap a large shawl of fine wool around my shoulders, it’ll keep me warm. I look around for you, I can’t find you, there’s no one at the reception desk, the phone rings and rings, there aren’t many tourists at this time of year, schools are in session, my girls will be going to bed soon, they’ll read, each in her own bed, their father will come and kiss them, tell them he loves them more than anything else in the whole world; more than me, he’ll think to himself as he leaves their room to go and smoke on the narrow balcony that runs the length of our apartment. I could draw a map for you of where we live, the tall trees in the surrounding gardens, the ramp leading to the exit, the streets of Hydra and Paradou, the school my daughters go to, I could tell you that I too love to read, that I’ve spent so much time losing myself in books because real life seems flat to me, words bandage our wounds, they cut too, like knives, but they don’t inflict the pain that real life does; the desert brings me solace, this hotel is my refuge, I see you sitting alone at a table, you’re smoking a cigarette, you’ve ordered something to drink but the waiter’s told you that alcohol is not permitted, you don’t insist, you understand, even though you’d have loved to feel the burn of the whiskey awakening your senses, and your desires too perhaps; I’ve often thought that it’s normal for a woman to desire another woman, I’ve never been shocked by the idea, it’s never made me uncomfortable, I’m not thinking only of the softness this image might evoke, but the harshness too, of control being wrested from one body to the other in a battle that’s never won or lost by either of the partners; women play on equal terms, I don’t know if you’d understand what I’m saying, but this is what I’m thinking as I watch you place your jacket around your bare shoulders to ward off the chill you feel. I smile toward you, you don’t see me. You’re hardly eating, you jot something down in a notebook, shooting stars raining through the skies above Timimoun, a few guests are on their way down to the pool, I can hear them laughing, then their voices fade as if someone’s turned down the volume to let silence fill this space we’re sharing, but you’re not aware of it, or you don’t want to be, maybe you’re preoccupied with your own story, I’d love to know all about it, the arc and span of your life, the walls that stand firm, the arches that collapsed, for I think of life as the work of the lowly architects we are, at times magnificent, at others a failure. I eat sparingly, like you, a few pieces of fruit, some almonds, then I follow you through the hotel gardens, I could reach out and touch you on the shoulder; you’d only have to turn around, brush against me and perhaps embrace me, one word and I’d move closer to you, you’re wearing your blond curls up, I turn back and go the other way, intoxicated by the night and its perfume. I won’t be able to sleep, I’ll lie in wait, awake, keeping vigil, listening for your footsteps, hearing you move around, I’ll know when you’re back from the gardens now shrouded in darkness. I’ve long believed that we could choose our life, make the decision to follow one path rather than another; if I were truly free, as I claim to have been in the plane that was, unbeknownst to me, leading me to you, I’d have come and told you how much your beauty unsettles me, how much your solitude resembles mine. I’m waiting for the light; for mirages are born of light.
Nina Bouraoui, “Une nuit à Timimoun, ” from Une nuit à l'hôtel, published 2020 by Le 1. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. All rights reserved.
A trans woman’s view from her window resurfaces pleasant and painful memories in this excerpt from Olivia M. Coetzee’s novel Innie Shadows.
Where is Carl?
It’s a dark and cloudy Tuesday morning. Veronique Plaatjies, or Nique, as she’s known to her family and friends, is sitting at her makeshift desk. She starts every morning the same way. A steaming cup of black coffee, curtains pulled back and windows slightly pushed open, a perfect frame to watch the world go by. She opens the journal Balla bought her to celebrate their seventh year together.
Winter is here, she writes. Her head is cluttered with worries. Gershwin and his constant troubles with his mother, and Carl, who she hasn’t seen for a few weeks. Sometimes Nique wishes that she could go and pack Gershwin’s bags herself, but she knows life doesn’t work like that. She scribbles across the page. Toxic relationships last because people stay. People will do what they think they must do, even if it means staying in places where they’re not wanted. But she's never understood straight people’s obsession with trying to fix those who are not like them. What is there to fix? And Gershwin’s mother seems to be the captain of that club. If she only knew that her son is secretly dating her crush, Pastor Richards. But Nique would rather deal with Gershwin’s demons than the dragon devouring Carl. She accepts that Carl is a lost cause. Meth is an illness with no cure, and no one can be blamed for his choices. Auntie Merle always said, we make choices, and those choices pave the way for us.
A few old magazines are stacked on one corner of Nique’s makeshift desk. Receipts and bills lie scattered next to an empty handbag. She tucks one end of the towel wrapped around her body back in its place. She leans back into the chair and reaches for the coffee mug. Her eyes jump over the potted plants and the small herb garden that she started in the corner of her yard. She never thought she would have a house to call her own, let alone a garden. But there are many things she never thought she would accomplish.
Nique’s focus swings back to the street. Most mornings she makes up stories about the people, but today, she just sits and watches them pass by. She’s struggling to calm the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. The rhythmic flow of people moving in and out of her window frame has become part of her early-morning release. Her own little real-life movie. Little kids, dressed in oversized hand-me-downs and backpacks too big for their bodies, chasing after their older brothers or sisters rushing to catch either a bus or train to school. A few groups of women, all walking with sling bags tucked under their arms, shouldering through the wind. All of them rushing to board a crowded bus that will take them into the city, to one of the last remaining clothing factories. Nique chuckles as she sees a few of her customers walking by, because never mind how many times she goes to do their hair over the weekend, come Monday, their curls will be tucked away under their colorful headscarves. The women burst out in laughter as they exit Nique’s window frame. Next a group of young men enter, dressed in paint-stained blue overalls, listening to loud music playing over a boombox hidden from sight.
The rhythmic flow of Shadow Heights was something she often missed and longed for while she was in Joburg. She missed the comforting sameness of every day. Nique’s eye zooms in on her neighbors, two elderly sisters, as they shuffle through their front gate, waving down a minibus taxi coming up the street.
Her hand rubs over the big red letters on the mug she’s holding. “Besties,” it reads. She remembers the day she got it. The five of them—Gershwin, Sara, Lee, Carl, and Nique—went out to celebrate Carl’s birthday. They’d been inseparable since primary school, and their bond only grew stronger as they got older. “The Terrible Five,” Auntie Merle always called them. Nique wanted the necklaces, but Sara reminded her of the time she was walking around with a green neck from the cheap necklace she had bought at the outside market at the Grand Parade that pops up every Wednesday and Saturday in front of City Hall. That was the last year they really knew Carl, before he started hanging with the wrong crowd, drinking and drugging. No one saw it coming, and no one could have imagined that Carl would be the one to get lost in the shadows.
Nique takes a sip of the coffee, which has lost its heat and sweetness. She sighs happily, because that’s how she likes her coffee, cold, bitter, and with no cream. Her friends could never understand her love for cold coffee. They could also never understand her taste in men. The men were either ugly, dark-skinned, or fat, or in Balla’s case all three. But she found comfort in Balla, and what others saw as ugly and unattractive she saw as support and love. The fact that he was the biggest gangster in Shadow Heights didn’t matter to her, nor did his wife or kids. It was love at first sight, and he never once disrespected Nique for the way her body was before her operations.
Nique‘s eye catches a seagull flying in the direction of Hoerikwaggo, fighting against the merciless winds beneath the dark skies. It pushes forward, then gets thrown back, then pushes forward again. The bird’s flight continues for a little while before it suddenly drops down, probably tired of struggling to get where it needs to go, landing somewhere outside of Nique’s view. She always wonders if other people also see Hoerikwaggo as a landmark to show where home is. If they see what she sees, that she’s home.
The alarm on her cell rings. She gets up to silence it and unplugs the cell from the charger. The faint smell of her perfume coming from the jersey she flung over the back of a chair standing next to her bed reminds her of her mother. Nique thinks back to the last few weeks before her mother passed. The house was full of people she didn’t know, work colleagues of her mother and well-meaning neighbors fussing around her mother’s bed. They all wanted to be there for Auntie Sandie but ignored Nique like she didn’t exist. Walked circles around her, some looking at the wall or a crack in the cement floor if they needed to ask her one thing or the other. Her mother refused to accept her son as a woman, and the well-meaning neighbors didn’t make it any easier.
Nique’s attention is brought back to her front gate, where a minibus taxi stops. Music blaring. She feels sorry for people having to get into taxis like that, music blaring no matter the time of day or night. She sees her neighbors shouting at the taxi’s sliding-door operator as it moves off without them. Two more women join them as they wait for the next taxi coming down the street, but this time Nique hears no music. They slip into the taxi, one after the other disappearing into it.
Her pen starts scribbling again across the page. Every day it’s the same story. The same people, with the same problems, walking in the footsteps of the day before. Shadow Heights, a TV drama of its own, she thinks. But she fell in love with its drama, small houses squashed in next to each other, with asbestos roofs that shimmer gold and green when the sun rises. Each one standing at attention before Hoerikwaggo. Sometimes she wishes she could win the lotto jackpot so she could help her people living in poverty. But never mind how bare people’s cupboards were, they always made it a point to paint their houses with bright colors and decorate the fronts with beautiful flowers and green shrubs. Like shining a light into the dark corners of their lives.
Nique shifts on the chair. She wonders about Carl and where he is. He would always show up when she asked him to. The last time she saw him was when she went on her weekly visit to Balla. It was the same Sunday night she saw Gershwin’s mother rushing out of the gambling room that Balla had added to his shebeen. Nique was shocked to see her, a deacon at the local church, storming out of a gambling room. Balla’s bouncers always had stories to tell about a Rose, but she never thought it could be the Rose she knew who went around cursing the sinners like her son and his gay friends. But Nique could always see the darkness that Rose carried around. Abusive behavior comes from being abused, she always told herself when Gershwin complained about his mother’s episodes.
Nique starts drawing little hearts in every corner of the page in front of her. Her tummy starts to moan. She picks up her cell and presses the button on the side. The screen switches on.
“10:00 a.m.,” she says out loud as her tummy moans again. “No wonder you’re putting on such a big show.” The cell vibrates, an email notification pops up.
The chair scrapes against the cement floor that Nique painted white after her mother’s passing. She walks over to her closet and pulls on its handles. The doors swing open with a slight squeak from the hinges. She moves the hangers from one side to the other as she decides on her outfit for the day. She catches her full-body reflection in the mirror hanging on the inside of one of the closet doors.
She moves closer as her hand moves over her perfectly plucked eyebrows. She never believed in putting on too much makeup but loves to paint her lips bright red when she visits Balla every Sunday. Nique lets the towel wrapped around her drop to her feet and stares at her perfect body. She is finally the woman she wanted to be all her life. She moves her hands over her firm breasts. Balla always wanted to know why she had to go for the operations when she was perfect to him the way she was. But he couldn’t keep his hands off her after her body healed. It didn’t matter to her that her friends didn’t understand when she chose to have her surgeries. She was mostly disappointed in Gershwin, thinking he would be the one who would understand. But he finally came to accept it. Veronique pulls on the bikini panties. Tight-fitting white track pants follow. She pushes her feet back into the pink morning slippers without putting on socks. She pulls on an oversized T-shirt without putting on a bra and rounds off the outfit with a bright yellow hoodie.
She returns to her makeshift desk and notices raindrops on the windowpanes. With coffee mug in hand, she walks into the kitchen opposite her bedroom. Sometimes she misses having other people in the house, but living alone comes with a lot of positives. The less people know what happens in your home the better.
From Innie Shadows. © Olivia M. Coetzee. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Olivia M. Coetzee. All rights reserved.
An unexpected letter brings a revelation about family trauma in this excerpt from Javier Stanziola’s novel Hombres enlodados.
The envelope and paper smell of empire.
The dirt-colored envelope is longer and wider than the ones sold in the little Chinese stores. Its corners and folds house a blinding white page, not like the thin, bone-colored kind they sell in the Arrocha Pharmacy on Vía España or the light tan ones of Balboa notebooks. It is an imperial white that covers a width that I am accustomed to but spans a luxurious length, superfluous. On the surface of that haughty white, I see an “Esteemed JJ,” and I still can’t believe that the national postal system has managed the miracle of successfully coordinating and executing the process of picking up a letter at the airport stamped in East Ham, London, transporting it to the correct post office at the entrance of one of the many suburbs in the east of Panama City, and then cataloging and safeguarding it in the mailbox of Entrega General. Some good came out of the Revolution after all.
“I have just hung up the phone,” the paper keeps on giving.
I loved hearing your mom’s voice, speaking with your brother, and, of course, knowing that you were there sitting on the couch listening in and scrutinizing everything without saying a single word. As I promised when your mom put you on the phone and you remained true to your vow of silence, I am writing you a couple of lines. This is not to give you tourist reports or to detail the political balancing acts of the Iron Lady and her henchmen, and least of all to show off having found El Dorado on Oxford Street. Simply put, there are many things worth repeating and expressing with ink. There are plenty of complex and complicated feelings between the two of us that words cannot explain, leaving behind and nourishing so much useless pain.
First things first. The opportunity to be part of your life and your brother’s, to play the stepfather role, was a privilege for me. My departure had nothing to do with you or your brother. In fact, it had nothing to do with your mother. If that hasn’t been made clear, I want you to forgive me.
Here is where it gets complex, complicated. My escape follows the same pattern of thousands of seditious people from around the country who have sought exile, peace, and a new start in another country, wherever, for the past twenty years. But I’m a bird of a different flock. Now that you are a man, I want to explain to you the tenor of my departure. I want to explain that in addition to political, religious, and ideological exiles, there are also sexual exiles.
For more than thirty years I was a member of a wolf pack that found peace in its own chaos, proclaiming that man-on-man action amounts to an air bombing and torpedo attack against humanity. I invested three thousand hours dreaming up fantastic escape plans from the very same thick and oxidized iron bars of the cell I built so I wouldn’t become another prisoner of a foreign war I still do not understand. A war waged by fearful men. In vain did I try to accept the vigilance of my jailer—myself—only to vanquish him and end up throwing myself to the floor, humiliating myself, and begging for anyone’s touch.
My life in your house was no more than another prison I built so as not to fall into the claws of a mysterious, incredible, and mythological beast in a man’s skin. In that house, in the room opposite yours, beside the most beautiful woman I have ever kissed, I soothed my anguish by dreaming that I grew the wings of a hummingbird and escaped the bourgeois rhythm of dinner at six, television at seven, and Klim powdered milk at nine before burying my face in my pillow. When those wings would not take me far enough, I transformed my whole body into a vulnerary capsule that transported me to a world of yachts replete with leading men from French films, glasses overflowing with champagne, baguettes, and strawberries lathered in cream. Only like that, JJ, did I manage to get near the world of free people, a world where one laughs with delight and hope, just like your mom showing those big teeth and wrinkling her nose. A world where you feel what you feel and you cry when you feel like crying. Like Danielito, who cries with fervor and desperation, letting a stream of snot slide over his lips to then loudly inhale it back into his nose and announce that he can’t breathe from so much crying. In that you had a point, JJ. There was nothing more invigorating than watching your brother cry. I loved seeing you run across the kitchen, to the bedroom, and to the living room in search of your mom, “Mom, Mom, Daniel is turning purple again.” And your mom rushing out, “He’s drying up. My baby is drying up.” Your mom would toss poor Danielito in the air hoping that on the way down he would regain the breath he had lost from all the crying. With her defeated, it was my turn, “Don’t dry up, champ. Daniel!” “Throw him, Gustavo, throw him!” And again, that scandalous bawling, this time awash in tears.
I recall your face lit up by that little light bulb that Daniel turned on with a battery and wire one day of blackouts, among the many, that caught us without candles or lamps. “So you don’t get scared in the dark, J.” I like remembering his healing eyes asking you why you couldn’t walk straight if you didn’t have blood or scars on your legs. “I’ll cure them,” your brother would promise while resting his warm plump hands on your legs, waiting for his magical intervention to demolish your full-on swing, Celia Cruz on Calle Ocho in Miami. But nothing, JJ. You, as always, remained sunken into the armchair trying to escape, complaining about your fate, wasting away your life in front of books about sinful Greeks or inventing stories about fish in a tank.
Last Friday my boss, before firing me on the pretext that tourist season was over, asked me, with that heavy accent all East Londoners have, what someone as posh as me was doing working reception at a third-rate bed-and-breakfast. Severance pay in hand, I told him the truth. I don’t know if he understood, I don’t even care, but I explained in my best cockney that wet dreams end up mixing up and producing a creamy red, sticky, toxic mire. Instead of drowning in it, instead of anesthetizing myself with Valium, instead of swimming in a septic tank and fed up with fine hair and beauties, I decided to drown myself in reality. Now at last I can appreciate all the accidents marking my bare flesh the only way I know how—through the honest eyes of another naked man. Now I can let the foolishness of doing whatever and being whoever I want to tickle my fancy and take me on adventures without consequences or problems.
If the mornings condemn me to a servant’s uniform, disinfectant, mops, an atrophied mind, and a mouth wide shut, the nights give me calloused fingers running down the curve of my back. Protected by Compton Street, the night no longer obligates me to search for street corners or plead for darkness. The nocturnal reality now affords me the luxury of giving away my breath to whomever desires it and clinging to wide shoulders covered in pink silk in order to not fall back into my imagination. Come dawn, when it is time to say goodbye, I can look into their faces, their haggard eyes, and tell them face-to-face, without complexes or sissiness, “I liked it, I want more.”
If one day you decide to stop hiding behind a pen and burn the books you’ve turned into manacles, call me. You can’t make a life out of trying to escape your destiny, because the process of trying has its own rules, its own architecture, that from being so precise end up controlling you. One thing’s for sure: forewarned is forearmed, JJ. Contrary to the experience of political exiles and migrant workers, your sexual exile won’t last for a handful of years or end with the return of heroes. Your exile will be heart-wrenching and eternal, with everyone who now professes to love you thanking you for distancing yourself. Only then will you spare them from the dissonance of loving you and despising you at once. Your cycles of nostalgic days and reflective nights will ceaselessly repeat long after generals fall, the economy decides to create jobs, and income inequality becomes a curious thing of the past. The hate, disgust, and fear that provoke your eyes, lips, and sweat will not leave with the dictatorship or the tolerance campaigns or good intentions. Among so much hissing of sacred words, testosterone, and mental laziness, there’s no one in our pack who will mount a surefire coup d’état against fear—rooted deep in the darkest corners of our minds—and the ravages of extinction.
The day that you decide to open your cell and fly far, you’ll be leaving behind the prisoner you are today. And you will never see him again.
From Hombres enlodados. © 2013 by Javier Stanziola. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Alexander Aguayo. All rights reserved.
Memories of family, childhood, and love, and his Colombian hometown haunt the exiled speaker of this poem by Raúl Gómez Jattin.
For Zuni Roca
Maze of farewell witnesses to tears Sun
So much sun sometimes I’ve forgotten its nights
Sun on rooftops and pedestrians rushed
But also shade below the sky sombrero
Shade in the park’s fig trees And sometimes
sweet shade in what a friend says
Maze chased by my same old childhood
With purple doves in the bell tower
and in the hands of children when the virgin Fátima
showed off her incredible pureness in a cotton dove
the size of a house It seemed to smile
And the thoughtful miracle of doves set free
from our hands Do you remember Zuni Sara Thelba
Rosalba Manuela María Auxiliadora Narcisa Daniel Joaquín Susa Martha?
Remember? You all flew toward her And cooed to her
Alba do you remember when you dressed up like an angel
and your wings fell off?
A river that cools the sun’s glare and memory
splits the town in two And it’s meek like the good Ceretanos
Since there’s another kind too
I loved Love twice there
And one time Love said yes
And another time it said no
No fucking way
I had a house there with a straw roof
and holes on top
where wind would slip in to bring me
news of the Universe
I had a family there who loved art and nature
now with my folks gone we’re running loose in the world
I dreamt of writing and singing there I dreamt of taking Cereté
Córdoba with me to other places Spelling it all out on a blank page
So people from somewhere else could discover the nights starry
with fandango sperm in the Candelaria
and your kind-hearted souls my friends
you know how to promise the moon
with a bottle of downed white rum
I love you all even more in exile
I remember you with a sob soon to burst
from my moonstruck throat Here’s the proof
“Cereté de Córdoba” © Ediciones Fondo de Cultura Económica SA, Bogotá. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Katherine M. Hedeen and Olivia Lott. All rights reserved.
A schoolgirl's crush is interrupted by an unexpected tragedy in this excerpt from Li Kotomi’s novel Solo Dance.
Note: Li is bilingual and has written versions of Solo Dance in both Chinese and Japanese. This excerpt is translated from the Chinese; Solo Dance is forthcoming in English from World Editions, translated from the Japanese by Arthur Reiji Morris.
When had she first become aware of the enormous dark shadow hovering around her? And where had that dark shadow come from? No matter how she picked through the tangled vines of her memory, answers eluded her.
She had grown up in the Changhua countryside in western Taiwan. Her family was not poor, had not been violent; there had been no complicated issues like that. They were a perfectly ordinary nuclear family, with a father who sold scooters and a mother who worked in the neighborhood kindergarten. As a double-income household, they had been well-off enough that her father had always bought her books, ever since she was little. Fairy tales, biographies of notable greats. When she first started school, before she could read proper characters, she spent all the break times, and every afternoon after class, poring over the Bopomofo phonetics written alongside the lines. She didn’t talk much, and her classmates kept their distance, seeming to sense a certain gloominess about her.
“Yingmei is always so reserved,” she once overheard a teacher saying to her father. “We’re a little concerned.”
Yingmei had been her name back then. It meant “welcoming in the plum blossom”; her parents chose it because she was born in January.
For as long as she could remember, she had felt somehow different from everyone else. She had never cared about princes and princesses living happily ever after. Instead, she fantasized about becoming Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, setting off on an adventure with the Good Witch of the North.
When the class groupings were rearranged in her fourth year of primary school, she met Shi Danchen, and what had previously been a vague, creeping sensation turned into something more definite. Danchen had very pale skin and an inscrutable, far-off expression. There was a strange precariousness about her—her movements had an absent-minded, ethereal quality to them, as if she were just about to vanish into the air. Her black eyes glinted indigo, like moonlight skimming the surface of a dark lake. Over a decade later, Danchen still made appearances in her dreams, and although the details of her face had faded, her eyes were as clear as ever.
The moment she saw those eyes, there was no doubt that she was deeply attracted to Danchen. At that stage of her life, she hadn’t even learned the most basic meaning of the word “love,” but some kind of instinct kicked in, and she knew that the squirmy feeling in her stomach was the same thing that existed between the princes and princesses in her fairy tales.
She was constantly sneaking glances at Danchen but in the end never found a chance to talk to her.
The following year, during the first assembly of fifth grade, the form teacher broke the news of Danchen’s death. It had happened over the summer. Danchen was on the back of her mother’s scooter, on the way to a piano lesson, when they were hit by a dump truck. The teacher asked the class to close their eyes for three minutes of silence. For the whole three minutes, all she could think was: Where has Danchen gone? Was her body still there? In her head, she ran through a detailed description of poor, eternally sleeping Danchen, the girl with the pale, otherworldly face.
A few days later, the teacher brought the class to the hospital to pay their respects. A black-and-white photo of Danchen had been placed in a nook set into the corridor outside the morgue. The class lined up in two neat rows and solemnly followed the lead of the class captain, each lighting a stick of incense. She gazed at the photo. Danchen smiled a sweet, slightly mournful smile and looked straight back. So beautiful. She sighed, feeling the air rise from deep in her chest.
“I wish we could see Danchen again.”
After school, a few girls from her class were huddled together chatting. Hearing Danchen’s name, she went to join them.
“Yes, even her corpse would be something! I just want to see her one more time.”
The shock on their faces let her know this was the wrong thing to say. In hindsight, she could understand why. She had been a serious, conscientious child, but at that point in time she simply had not lived long enough to understand that, where death was concerned, there were words you couldn’t say out loud. It had not occurred to her what the corpse might look like after being hit by a dump truck, and her comment had nothing much to do with life or death; she thought Danchen was beautiful, that was all.
From that day on, her memories of Danchen were frozen. No new ones were made. Time had stopped for Danchen while for her it kept on flowing, whether she liked it or not.
She dreamed about it. In the dream, she was immediately aware that she was dreaming. Danchen was staring at her, smiling a steady but barely-there smile. Her eyes were sorrowful. Danchen’s sad, she thought. But was that true? Who was really sad? Was her dream self experiencing Danchen’s sadness, or was it just that she herself was sad? She became aware that Danchen was slowly drifting away. No: Danchen wasn’t drifting away, it was she who was drifting away from Danchen. The two of them were standing in the same stream, but she was the only one being carried away by the current. Danchen was standing still, watching silently as she thrashed and struggled.
She was woken up by a violent shudder and an enormous crash, to find the whole world shaking. Danchen had vanished. It was pitch-black outside the window. The only light in the room came from a dim night-light beside her bed, which battled vainly against the darkness. Picture frames fell off the wall and her wooden bookshelf keeled over, scattering biographies and collected works of world literature all over the floor. Glass smashed. In the distance, someone screamed. Shouting came from next door. An ambulance siren sounded. If this is the end of the world, so be it, she thought, her mind still blurry with sleep. Then the night-light went out. She closed her eyes again, noticing a dampness at their corners. Danchen floated back up through the darkness.
When she next opened her eyes, she was on her father’s back. Her mother had her two-year-old brother in her arms. They were outside and it still felt like the middle of the night. In the weak yellow of the streetlights, she saw that there were people everywhere. The racket from earlier went on and on. A baby was crying. A boy. A girl. News came through on a radio. She looked up at the sky. The moon glowed gently, but it was missing a tiny piece.
That was when it hit her: she would never see Danchen again.
The Chi-Chi earthquake shook the whole country. It also seemed to snatch away a piece of her soul.
Danchen’s face appeared every time she closed her eyes. Danchen’s smile occupied her dreams. One glimpse of the little white flowers blossoming at the side of the road and it was as if she could smell Danchen’s delicate scent. The fragrance was funereal. The visions were remembered. She had only her memory to rely on, but while the memories were still fresh the sky was still blue and the world was in sharp relief.
Then, as the winter monsoon intensified, so the memories began to dim. When Danchen’s face appeared it was a blurry outline. There were still those inky, sorrowful eyes, but the rest looked formed from a dull-colored dust, ready to scatter in the first breath of wind. After a while, even that small amount of color faded, leaving the face a lifeless gray wisp of smoke. The whole world lost its luster. The sky was monochrome.
At some point, she couldn’t say exactly when, crying became part of her daily routine, something as commonplace as eating. Something she often did while eating, even without the slightest provocation. She lost all motivation for schoolwork and her grades began to slide, from the top of the class all the way to the bottom. She got her first period. Danchen would sometimes appear in her dreams as a bloody corpse, causing her to wake up screaming. Left alone at home, she would act on sudden urges to scrawl all over the white walls with a red pen or to tie white Scout rope around her neck and pull it as tight as she could.
Her parents noticed that she was behaving erratically and tried their best to help. Assuming the shock of the earthquake must have dislodged her soul, they first took her to a temple to call it back, making her down large quantities of holy water. When this failed to have any effect, they turned to Western medicine instead and took her to see a child psychiatrist.
The consulting room reminded her of the deathly white morgue, and the fortnightly appointments only increased her suffering. None of them would ever understand, and she didn’t have the words to explain. She was in love with Danchen but Danchen wasn’t there anymore—how was she supposed to talk about that? The psychiatrist tried to pry open her tightly guarded emotions, searching for the cause of her behavior with questions that were almost comically off the mark. Her parents had explained that she’d been acting out since the earthquake, and this seemed to have led the psychiatrist to the same, misguided conclusion: the shock of the earthquake was the reason for it all.
Nobody made any connection to Danchen. Truth be told, not many people were worried enough to try and make connections anyway. She didn’t exactly seek out their attention. During class breaks, she sat by herself and read a book. She hardly ever played with her classmates. On the way to and from school, she was always alone. She kept herself to herself. Sometimes she wondered if the only reason she hadn’t been bullied was that even the bullies hadn’t noticed her existence.
The twenty-first century arrived and it was as if someone pressed a fast-forward button. Two years flashed past and she remembered nothing about them. She made it through elementary school despite her bottom-rung grades. She skipped the graduation ceremony, but a certificate and commemorative book were sent to her home afterward, as though to remind her: You can’t not graduate. One July afternoon, in a fit of boredom, when the weather was diabolically hot and the cicadas were screeching at full throttle, she began flipping through the book. Over a hundred pages of thick, matte-finished photo paper, with a mere six pages dedicated to her class. Excluding the class photo and the obligatory individual headshot, there was only one photo of her. In most of the other photos, she recognized faces but had no idea of their names. She struggled to believe that she had spent three whole years in a class with those people.
Then one shot in particular caught her attention. It was of Danchen and three other classmates. They were in a classroom, Danchen sitting on a music stool with the others clustered around, and the four of them were staring straight at Yingmei. Not just because they had been looking at the camera, but because at the moment the photo had been taken, she had been the one behind the lens.
It was from a music lesson sometime in fourth grade, when the music teacher had found out that Danchen could play the piano and asked her to play them a song. There being no piano in the classroom, Danchen had had to use a little organ instead, but her playing was no less impressive for it. At the end of the lesson, someone with a camera suggested taking a picture, and two other students rushed over to join. Hence this photo of the four of them, the photographer duty naturally having fallen to the person sitting closest by, which happened to be her.
Danchen had played Mozart’s Requiem. At least, that’s how she recalled it. She had once read in a Mozart biography that the Requiem was commissioned by a mysterious man just before Mozart’s death, upon which the piece was left unfinished. As a result, there were rumors that this man was in fact the Grim Reaper, aware of Mozart’s imminent demise and commissioning him to write a requiem for himself.
Why had Danchen chosen that piece? Was it possible that Danchen, too, on some deep, mystical level, had been aware of an inauspicious omen?
She stared at the photo for a long time. A tear rolled down her cheek, followed by another. While her thoughts whispered on, she raised a hand to wipe her face. Oh, this incurable affliction—no sooner had she thought it than she felt an unfamiliar urge, an irrepressible wave of emotion that welled up from the pit of her stomach and flooded her consciousness. She began to sob. Not her usual kind of weeping, but uncontrollable, gut-deep howls. She buried her face in her bedclothes and let them soak up the tears.
If the Requiem was Mozart’s farewell, his last wave as he set out on his journey to the underworld, then what had Danchen chosen for company on hers? Apparently Danchen had died at the scene of the accident; maybe she hadn’t even had time to choose. That being the case, it was up to her now. She would have to create something and then offer it up to Danchen. She couldn’t play any instruments, which ruled out anything musical. All she had was her writing.
After an hour, maybe two, she finally stopped crying. She got up and went to her desk, where she picked up a pen and laid out some paper, then started to write.
She wrote a short poem, laying out her feelings for Danchen and commemorating her death.
And one day I’ll remember, I’ll remember
A story over before it began
A cheek cold before it was touched
Blood dry before it could be stemmed
Rivers race to the ocean, birds return to the mountains
A light is extinguished,
And all that remains:
A thread of music to guard the soul.
Without her realizing, the sun had begun to set and the din of the cicadas had quietened. Silence enveloped the room. Bloody last rays of sun streaked through the window, stretching her shadow across the floor. Her shadow was ink-black, the same color as Danchen’s eyes and hair. Looking at it, she was struck by a thought: If I can just focus on this color, I’ll be OK.
© Li Kotomi. By arrangement with the author and World Editions. Solo Dance is forthcoming in English from World Editions, translated from the Japanese by Arthur Reiji Morris. This translation © 2021 by Natascha Bruce. All rights reserved.
A conversation between two Malaysian expats from different generations takes a surprising turn in this excerpt from Fahmi Mustaffa’s novel Amsterdam.
Ah, Theo! Come in, son. Here, let me get your coat.
Thank you, uncle.
You can just call me Pak, it’s more friendly, right? Ha, come in, come in.
Theo was led to the living room. Every inch of the space was neat and well organized. Strangely, Pak Latif’s house had no television.
Theo, where are you from, son? Eh, it’s OK for me to speak Malay, right?
From Vondelpark. Oh, that’s fine, Pak. I’m half Malay, half Dutch.
Oh, that’s why you’re fluent. How many years did you live in Malaysia?
All my life, Pak. This is my first time in the Netherlands.
I miss Malaysia so much. I can’t go back, though, I’m all alone.
I understand. Your children, they’re all here, right?
Yes lah. Eh, hold on a second, Theo. I am heating up the food. We can chat for a while. Here, have a drink. Pak handed him a virgin mojito.
Pak Latif went to the kitchen to check on the food. The entire house smelled of Malay cooking. Theo was familiar with––was in fact very fond of––the aromas. As his eyes wandered he saw something, leaped to his feet, and headed to the corner.
Books were shelved from the floor to the ceiling. Goethe, Kant, and Plato filled the space next to hundreds of hikayat, lipurlara, novels, philosophy books, and major works of literature from around the world.
Theo was impressed. Clearly Pak Latif was not like other people!
No voracious reader, he reached for one of the thinnest books and looked it over from front to back. On the back cover was written: “If truth can set us free, where do we find it?”
Oh, you like that, Theo?
Pak! Oh, forgive me. I chanced upon this corner just now—you have many books indeed—I took one to look through. This is a book by—
J. Krishnamurti. My favorite philosopher.
Wow, you’re a philosopher, are you?
Haha, far from it, son. Let’s eat first, and later I’ll tell you all you want to know.
The table was spread with Malay dishes: rice, pineapple chicken stew, petai anchovy sambal, beef rendang, and mung bean porridge. Pak Latif obviously hadn’t overlooked basic life skills, even if life’s other demands took up much time and energy.
Ha, dig in, son. I cooked all this.
Wow, what a good cook you are, Pak!
My wife has long passed. Living like a bachelor, you need to know many things, right, son? All these, I bought from the Asian supermarket Aunty Ng. It’s where many Asians from Rotterdam shop.
Oh, I see. Do Daud and Daus come home sometimes?
Once in a while, yes, but young people have their own lives, you know. But that’s good, I like living by myself.
Oh, if you have a lot to do, it gets less lonely.
That’s right, Theo. But that’s the thing, humans are so scared of solitude, I don’t know why. I used to be like that. Anxious about the thought of being alone in my last days. I'm from Terengganu, near Kuala Kemaman, a fishing village. After secondary school, I got government assistance to continue my studies at the London School of Economics. At the time, there weren’t that many Malays there. My friends and I had a great life.
Haha, great life?
Yes lah! I was let loose like a deer that came to town. You name it, I smoked it! But after a while, that life got boring. Momentary pleasures get you nowhere, Theo! Until the day I met Camella. They’re lookers, Theo, the Dutch!
So she was your first love, Pak?
Ish, I don’t know if it was first love or not, I think maybe it was one-sided. I was in my second year. We were in the same class. Camella wasn’t only beautiful—she wasn’t like the other white women! Sweet, didn’t wear sexy clothes, didn’t cozy up with just anybody, didn’t even drink! I was so taken by our Camella, but I was shy, she was a stunner, and then there was me, with my flat nose and dark skin, she might have laughed at me if I confessed . . .
Haha, but if you never try, then you’ll never know, right?
That’s right, Theo. I was young then. Young blood is impatient. Young people want everything now. So one night, I tried to approach Camella. After a while, we got close. Oof, many people went around gossiping about us, but I liked that! Camella too, it looked like she was also into me, we always took study breaks together, just the two of us. All that young people stuff. I think I was your age then, Theo.
Then what happened?
We were a couple for more than four years, but there was no way forward, Theo. Her parents didn’t allow it. My parents were worse—chasing a mat saleh, as if there were no more Malay women on earth! they said. When I went back to Malaysia after my studies, Camella went back to Rotterdam lah. Every two, three months we sent each other letters—in those days we didn’t have Whatsapp and email like now—and sometimes there were things I wanted to tell Camella, but I missed my chance. It was too late.
One day I received a letter, the return address was Camella’s but actually her brother had written it. He said that she had died in an accident. You can imagine, Theo, it was like the world had ended for me. Everything was a blur! I still remember, I was so upset with my parents that I packed all my bags, left their house, and went to Kuala Lumpur to start a new life. I went half-mad because of Camella.
I understand, Pak. The one I loved passed away too . . .
In those days there weren’t things like mental illness diagnoses and all that. People said I went mad because I read too many books! When in fact I was sad because I didn’t get to see Camella for the last time. I almost felt like taking my own life. Every day I felt life was more painful than death.
How did you heal from all those feelings, Pak?
Five years after that, I bumped into Camella in Kuala Lumpur.
It turned out Camella was still alive! Her elder brothers were the ones who wrote that letter after they found out we were still in touch. So we lost contact for no good reason, but that ended when we got back together and got married in Indonesia. She took on the name Camella Abdullah. Daud and Daus came along five years after we got married, and Camella passed away in childbirth.
I’m sorry, Pak.
That’s what I actually wanted to say, from the time we’re young we’re taught to fear loneliness, because that's what the people around us believe, a life like that is not normal, they say. Life must be festive, with lots of people and many things to do. But I don’t like that. I like being on my own. There’s a blessing in every solitude. In life, Theo, there’s no such thing as one good thing. Life’s gifts, they come in pairs.
How do you mean?
If you risk yourself to love someone, you also take the risk of being heartbroken. But to love someone, Theo, is a blessing. To be heartbroken is a blessing too. Don’t forget that.
To be heartbroken is a blessing too?
Yes! There is a blessing in not getting what we want.
I get it, Pak. But it’s hard to move on. Hard.
I understand, son. I know just by looking at your face you’re facing some problems. If you feel ready at some point, you can share. There’s just one thing I want to say: everything heals, Theo. Everything. Our heart operates like our mind—it will only function when it’s open.
Thanks, Pak. I really needed this!
OK then, no more being sad. Let’s eat first. If you want to come by again, feel free. Daus and Daud’s room, I was thinking of turning it into an Airbnb. If you want to stay over, you just have to tell me. That’s more convenient, you can stay here for a long time. After all, we’re both Malaysians!
Theo missed Malaysia upon taking the first bite of the dishes made by Pak Latif. He missed Mama and Benjahmin van Koen. He missed Lucas and his therapy sessions. But there was a gentleness in Pak Latif’s soul that put him at ease. In addition, Pak Latif was learned and experienced. Theo thought about inviting him for a stroll around Amsterdam one day. Pak Latif felt calm. He smiled seeing Theo happy and with such an appetite—it made Pak Latif’s mind wander to Daus and Daud. The fruit of his and Camella’s love. His one and final love. In his heart, his longing for his late wife grew. He accepted everything. Rest in peace, Camella van Koen, Pak Latif whispered softly.
After they finished dinner, Pak said, Tonight we’re going to the red light district, OK?
Er . . . what for, Pak?
Eh, to watch naked dancers lah! It’s Amsterdam!
At night, Amsterdam turns into a city of possibility. At the end of May, summer begins to wind down, but its remnants can still be felt. Earlier in the day, the sun has no qualms about baring itself in the Dutch sky, but at sundown, a mysterious cold sets in. The afternoon turns to dusk, but the night is a festive riot where anything’s possible.
Now we’re here!
Theo felt a bit shy when they arrived at the city of possibility. The crowds, tourists and locals alike, poured into the city at night. Coffee houses and bars were brought to life by the visitors and their endless partying.
Pak, before . . . before we . . . walk around, I . . . I have a confession.
Oh, what is it?
Er . . . I, I’m not like you.
Not like me? I don’t understand lah Theo.
I, I think we shouldn’t be here.
Aih, but we’re almost there, Theo. Just a few steps ahead. Why? Are you sick?
Er . . . actually . . . I . . .
What is it?
Er . . . I’m gay, Pak.
Hah, what about it? My son Daus is also gay.
What’s up, why don’t you tell me?
I thought, I thought the plan was to have fun . . . around . . . around here.
Here? In this red light district? Theo, you don’t have to worry. It is not what you think it is.
Lights were on at every pedestrian crossing. Red lights.
A place that looked normal in the daytime turned one hundred and eighty degrees at night. Glass walls draped with lights and curtains looked like a scrumptious feast for all who were looking for one.
Taking their time, they passed by the rows of erotic dancers in the red light district.
Occasionally, a dancer knocked on the glass window and locked eyes playfully with the tourists—anybody who was aroused and interested in more just had to come in—the curtain would be drawn. There were also those who entered in packs.
What a wonderful place to be, eh, Theo?
Leaving the red light district, they returned to Centraal Station.
Theo, can you get me some mineral water? All of a sudden, I feel thirsty.
OK, Pak, you wait here.
Pak Latif smiled.
Theo walked to the convenience store at the end of the block. As soon as the young man was out of earshot, Pak Latif quickly took out his phone. His wizened fingers hurriedly typed out a message.
He’s with me. Don’t worry.
Message successfully delivered. Pak Latif grinned.
From Amsterdam. © Fahmi Mustaffa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Adriana Nordin Manan. All rights reserved.
Linguistic experimentation and political rebellion went hand in hand in the work of the Ecuadorian Adoum, a leading figure of the Latin American neo-avant-garde who wrote his verses in what he called "postspanish."
Jorgenrique Adoum turned his own name into “postspanish.” Melding the “e” of Jorge to the “e” of Enrique and vice versa, he transformed his own signature into a banner of sorts, an embodiment of his politically charged rebellion against linguistic conventions. The Ecuadorian poet, who has been hailed by Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda as “the best Latin American poet of his generation,” has finally made his book-length debut in English—or, more precisely, in “postenglish.” Just out from Action Books, and translated by Katherine M. Hedeen and Víctor Rodríguez Núñez (the same duo translated a chapbook of Adoum’s poetry for Eulalia Books in 2019), prepoems in postspanish and other poems brings together three of Adoum’s most groundbreaking books: Currículum mortis [Curriculum Mortis] (1973, 1979), prepoemas en postespañol [prepoems in postspanish] (1973, 1979), and El amor desenterrado [Love Disinterred] (1993). A rare instance of Ecuadorian poetry getting translated into English, the book topples the false dichotomy between political commitment and formal experimentation. Adoum writes, in a word, “southamericanly,” taking aim at the regulations and conventions of imperial language and knowledge. “Within such ruin,” writes Hedeen, “a new rationality emerges: postspanish.”
As Hedeen details in her excellent translator’s note, Adoum was a leading figure of the Latin American neo-avant-garde: poets born mostly in the late 1920s and 30s, whose writing was profoundly shaped by the revolutionary fervor of the 60s, wherein radical art was mobilized to bring about social transformation. Artists of this generation answered the collective call to action to challenge and undo coloniality through art. For Adoum (and now Hedeen and Rodríguez Núñez), language is the terrain in dispute, the space through which this undoing takes place. The poems, ranging from seven lines to twelve pages, deploy various poetic devices in their attempt to reinvent—but also “de-invent”—the Spanish language, from numerous neologisms (“coinciobedience”; “superunderdevelopment”; “exiled exskied”’), to rearranged prefixes (“this disactivity of postliving”; “countersilent and vice versa presleeping”), and juxtaposed discourses (“in this monastery of sores or pustule terrace / paralysis and scrofula”).
Adoum’s writing takes on a poetic motility out to challenge coherence and convention. It works to free up the poetic, linguistic, and epistemological norms that originate in colonialism and the imposition of a colonial language. To achieve this, he and his translators perform a double temporal displacement: a return to a pre-time before capitalism and empire, and the forging of a self-determining post-time. Both are crucial for Adoum’s attempt to let radical, alternative existences make themselves known through his writing.
Adoum’s decolonial poetics unearths new temporal categories—“postnight,” “postevening,” “daybeforetomorrow or dayafteryesterday”—in turn abrogating the supposed objectivity of existing organizers, like “morning” and “today.” Much of the book evokes avant-gardist César Vallejo’s Trilce (1922), in its rebellion against Western definitions of sense, order, and time. I hear Vallejo’s “the suit I wore tomorrow” (in Clayton Eshelman’s translation) echoing in Adoum’s “summer happened around the middle ages” or “i read in tomorrow’s paper that yesterday there was / oncely a change of government that doesn’t change.” Many of Adoum’s poems toy with the notion of infinite interchangeability, undercutting any anchorable meaning within language. It comes across most clearly through wordplay with prefixes: “unlearning what the hell happens to man,” “I should dethink the things,” “occupying your nothingness stuck in your demanning,” “you preknew (like everything else),” and “for always / postknowing.”
Adoum renews a Vallejian poetics of disassembly and reassembly, but he does so within the 1960s decolonial drive. I can’t help but read it in dialogue with Cuban poet and intellectual Roberto Fernández Retamar’s call to action in Caliban (1971): to reject and break apart (neo)colonialist forms of culture and knowledge, to then “rethink our history from the other side” (my translation).
This rejection of convention also conjures José Ignacio Padilla’s theory of avant-garde language in El terreno en disputa es el lenguaje (2014). Padilla argues that Latin American avant-gardes from across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries share a drive to disrupt the supposed transparency of language as a strategy of capitalism (but also, empire) that presents language as a depoliticized, objective space. Avant-garde practices across time have sought to obscure language—materializing it, rendering it unintelligible, tearing it apart to piece together something else—disrupting the theoretically straightforward symbolic flow of language and capital, but also, I think, the logic of Western “rationality.” A number of Adoum’s “prepoems” parody the positivism of natural and social sciences. “Electrocardiomathematics,” for instance, asks its reader to “determine the maximum level of destiny concentration / that will instantly invalidate the notion of longitude.” Another poem, “Ecuador,” draws a connection between Western forms of knowledge as scientific justifications for (neo)colonialism. Referencing “Darwin data,” “natural / selection and survival of the fittest,” the Ecuadorian speaker identifies as the subject of “First World” experiments: a Pavlov's dog made to watch a man get murdered “to see how its gland fills up.”
“postspanish” as a neo-avant-garde mechanism for probing and undercutting (neo)colonialist order might take on its most visceral form in the book’s treatment of death. Like the title of the first of the three collections included in this edition, Curriculum Mortis, life is redefined in relation to death across the book. The living are “precadaver” or “closetocadaver,” life is a “disdeath,” to die is to “defuturize,” and rather than to “survive” Adoum speaks of “surdeath.” For the marginalized, daily death appears as the only guarantee:
but every monday is the same
you go back to work like to your country
vietnam indonesia biafra where it dumps buckets of dying
Lifelessness is also, quite literally, policed: “that’s why of course suddenlyly police find out / what number how why and most of all / why the fuck are you still living.” While writing the first two books from exile in Paris (he had left Ecuador in 1963 to travel and was unable to return home because of the military dictatorship), the internationalist ethos of Adoum’s denouncement of (neo)colonialist deathmachines (to make my own, Adoum-like neologism) is palpable. Reading these poems in 2021, after a year in which the sacrifice of the poor for the “good of capital”—inseparable from the “good of empire”—has perhaps been more blatant than ever, Adoum’s work has a hard-hitting cyclical quality to it. “Death is necessarily a counterrevolution,” he writes in a masterpiece of a poem titled “May 1968 (21st Century?).”
Across a number of prepoems, love, too, is the subject of linguistic invention—“getmeupearly tomorrow so we can relove / and redo my body pairedup”—but Love Disinterred, which the translators have chosen to publish alongside the two earlier books, is the true star of this undertaking, underscoring the interrelation of love, revolution, and radical poetics in Adoum’s writing. This long poem responds to the Lovers of Sumpa, remains of “two skeletons lovingly embraced,” found in an ancient Paleo-Indian cemetery by archeologists in the 1970s in present-day Ecuador— “fossilized love,” as Adoum’s speaker calls it. The unearthing urges the speaker to rethink all categories (“I have suffered tenday weeks and fourteenmonth years / but these centuries were short”), but, most of all, love:
For this body eternity, act eternity
is that what it was for, the love we unlearned with time and is no longer today or is not still?
The poem even critiques the way patriarchal and religious structures restrict sex, which especially oppresses women, who are “convinced by spouse and priest that in them / was only an opening for a child to come out.” The implication here is that the right to pleasure was equal before the arrival of Western religion and colonialism to the Americas. If postspanish offers a means for denaturalizing and rethinking, Adoum extends its reach to patriarchal notions of love and sex, suggesting revolutionary potential within new—or pre—ways of love.
What does it mean to translate Adoum’s profoundly decolonialist project into another imperial language and, moreover, that of neocolonial power? This is a question that Hedeen and Rodríguez Núñez have considered deeply, embarking on a parallel project to disrupt the coherency and hegemonic familiarity of English from within. Hedeen writes of explicitly conceiving of the translation project as one of political tergiversation, in the sense of deserting a cause or position: “[to] turn renegade, [to] abandon any loyalty to the language of neocolonial power.” Translation as tergiversation can be read as subversively reframing the Italian adage, “traduttore, traditore” (translator, traitor), which has long structured discourse around translation. Here, the subject of the “betrayal” or “treason” is not the original author, but rather the target(ed) language of English, and what it underpins: (neo)colonialism, ethnonationalism, border militarization. The treasonous actor is translator as co-conspirator.
Tergiversation also recalls the avant-gardist obscuring of hegemonic language. If avant-garde poets invent poetic procedures for “destabilizing unity (territorial, national, linguistic)” as Padilla argues (my translation), then translators of this work must invent translational procedures for unleashing this disunity on new terrain, a task that goes beyond side-by-side wordplay. Consider these examples, comparing original and translated verses:
“y no hay silencio por el ruido del corazón terrestre y anacrónico”
“there’s no silence from the terrestrial anachronistic heartnoise”
“y alguien se la inventó a martillazos para querer vivir”
“and someone invented it with hammerblows wanting to live”
“descontento en este descontexto / trabajando y trasubiendo”
“discontent in this discontext / working and workqueen”
“(losotros ¿serán siempre los otros y nosotros solamente ellos y/o?)”
“(otherselves, will other selves and ourselves always only be them e/go?)”
Hedeen and Rodríguez Núñez translate Adoum’s postspanish, but they also break a different group of rules in English. It is what makes prepoems one of the most impressive translations that I’ve ever read—and I don’t say this lightly. Theirs is precisely the kind of translation that emerging and established translators, especially of writing from the Global South, should read, re-read, and re-read again. Where Adoum unsettles the limits of Spanish, opening it up to “prepossibilities” and “postpossibilities,” Hedeen and Rodríguez Núñez’s “postenglish” compels us to ask why English is the way it is, which—as Adoum teaches us—is also to ask: Why are things the way they are? What other sides exist?
With an unflinching gaze at physical and sexual violence, abundant profanity and a disregard for meter and rhyme, the poems in this collection expose the gruesome routine of gender hierarchy in a society that has turned the shoring up of patriarchal structures into government policy.
Russian feminist poetry arrived in English with three seminal publications in 2020/21: the much-debated bilingual anthology F-Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry (Isolarii, ed. Galina Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky and Ainsley Morse), featuring twelve poets, including Lida Yusupova; Rymbu’s Life in Space (Ugly Duckling Presse); and now Yusupova’s The Scar we Know, which includes sizable excerpts from three of her Russian collections. And it is Yusupova—hailing from Leningrad but now living in Canada and Belize, and significantly older than most of her peers—who has shaped the poetics of this new brand of feminist poetry, both formally and semantically. She popularized the movement’s trademark long, free verse narrative poems with their run-on lines and documentary aesthetic. She moved the body, in abundant physiological detail, into focus. And she defined violence as a dominant subject.
The collection Dead Dad (2016) contains Yusupova’s best-known poems. Although many are written in the first person and seem autobiographical, they are not lyrical. The collection’s dynamic hinges on the association between Ron Mueck’s eponymous, hyperrealistic sculpture––which graces the cover of the Russian edition and inspired the first poem––and the indignity of the heroine’s father’s death in a hospice, detailed in “using an in” and “dad makes his move.” The poems explore disturbing facets of the human psyche in a montage of precisely and unemotionally observed snippets: a little girl voices suicidal fantasies, a woman’s death in a house fire triggers vicious gossip, the dying father spits profanities during his final moments, the heroine’s first lesbian lover is transformed into a Putin-loving nationalist clamoring for traditional family values, a woman raped by a man she considered safe company tries to present a sanitized version of the story to herself, and an uncomfortable sexual encounter between the heroine, who was persuaded to help a conscript lose his virginity, ends in nobody’s ecstasy but
I had his dead cock in my mouth Koka kept saying suck it suck it don’t stop […] in a mean voice full of despair and impending doom eight months later he was killed in Afghanistan.
Yusupova’s observations exhibit finely tuned psychological insight. In the cycle “Verdicts,” she takes her documentary ambition one step further. The “Verdicts” are found poems, composed of excerpts from real court rulings in violent crime cases, which Yusupova collected from Russian legal websites. At the Festival of Feminist Writing in early March, Yusupova explained that her approach aims to give voiceless victim a voice. In “as well as a red-haired girl named Irina,” Irina’s killer claims it was her who harassed him for sex and that he had to keep her off himself. His statement documents his lie:
he became angry
and shoved Irina away from him
and this made her lose her balance
and she fell into the water, face down
Rather than noticing the incongruity of a push to the chest and the victim landing face down in water behind her, the judge emphasizes “the immorality of the victim’s behavior.” His words become the poem’s refrain, highlighting the absurdity of the defendant’s version––if the reader has the necessary sensibility, because the poet does not provide commentary.
Indeed, the insistent repetition of key phrases is one of Yusupova’s most common, and most effective, poetic devices. In spite of their formal looseness, her poems are tightly wrought artworks; they are poems first and documents second. The devastating impact of her montage technique is evident in a verdict-poem hinging on the interplay of harrowing facts presented in dry legal language (“he took a wooden stick and thrust it with force into her vagina,” “then he withdrew this stick on it were G.’s intestines”), and the judge’s finding that “the vagina is not a vital organ,” which informed his decision to convict the accused of “grievous bodily harm leading to death through negligence” rather than murder although his actions resulted in “the death of the victim.” Yusupova’s presentation makes the reader feel queasy in a way reading the court document would not, and queasiness is an appropriate response, toward the crime itself as well as to the verdict. Art is supposed to make us feel.
The English part of the The Scar We Know––the book, importantly, is bilingual, making it attractive to readers who want to see Yusupova’s poetry in the original––is the work of a stellar team of translators. Younger translators who are closely involved with the contemporary Russian literary scene, such as Ainsley Morse, Hilah Kohen, and Madeline Kinkel, have done the bulk, but established scholars who have been studying and translating women’s poetry for years, such as Stephanie Sandler and Sibelan Forrester, also contributed. Yusupova’s poems translate fluently into English. Paradoxically, their taboo-breaking qualities––the unflinching gaze at physical and sexual violence, the abundant use of profanity and, in formal terms, the disregard for rhyme, meter, and even line breaks, features that remain common to much poetry written in Russian––are less remarkable in English.
In her introductory essay, editor Ainsley Morse calls Yusupova’s work “civic poetry” that advocates for social change. Yusupova confirms that “the point of feminism is the practical defense of women’s rights. What does feminist poetry mean then? Poetry written by feminists (and on any topic) or poetry expressing feminism (and it must be by women)? I think the latter.” She is evidently aware of the political power of the current she has helped shape. Yes, gender-based violence is ubiquitous, as is homophobia. This is perhaps the reason why Yusupova’s poems are semantically at home in the Anglophone context, too. But feminism is such an important force in Russia today because sexuality is so much more politicized there. With its focus on violence, contemporary feminist poetry exposes how hierarchy works in a society that has turned the shoring up of patriarchal structures into government policy, through legislation criminalizing the open display of LGBTQ behavior, the decriminalization of domestic violence in the name of family values, and ultimately the militarism that has gripped many strata of society. Where the law of the strongest has become the law of the land, the political implication of feminism is far greater than mere advocacy for legal equality.
The narratives of "Everything Like Before," only the second book by the Norwegian writer to be published in the US, bend toward the seemingly mundane, then sting with an act that might (or might not) change everything.
Kjell Askildsen, winner of the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize in 2009, is a consummate chronicler of contradictory, quicksilver emotions and impulses. There is in his work a careful calibration of his characters' inner lives, of small dramas in no way empty of incident, whose ultimate crux is the desultory, dangerous weight of time: time is too slow, nothing ever changes, time doesn’t matter, then it is too abrupt, it’s unbearably long—all in prose that is as lean and clean as its implications can be dark.
Everything Like Before is only Askildsen’s second book to be published in the US, following 2014’s Selected Stories, which, published by Dalkey Archive Press and also translated by Sean Kinsella, features a handful of the stories also present in Archipelago’s offering. Published simultaneously in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics and bringing together thirty-six stories from Askildsen’s long career—which started with his 1954 debut short story collection From Now on I'll Take You All the Way Home—Everything Like Before showcases the Norwegian as a master of the shorter mode.
Many of Askildsen’s stories bend toward the seemingly mundane, then sting with an act that might or might not be quite ordinary, that might or might not change everything. In “A Lovely Spot,” a couple tensely tries to keep the unease and uncertainty between them from ruining their calm vacation, culminating in an act of undiscussed, benign violence; in the stunning “A Sudden Liberating Thought,” a man living quietly in a basement flat is unnerved when one day a stranger sits down next to him at the park, precipitating a surprising series of encounters that proves, if we are to trust our narrator, fatal; and in “Nothing for Nothing,” a jealous husband embarks on a pitiful betrayal that doesn’t quite pan out. In addition to the often-disquieting realism of these stories––the way they seem to eerily meander at a pace redolent of real, unremarkable life––what these stories have in common is Askildsen’s tendency to chillingly weave between stasis and revelation, where stasis can lead to revelation and revelation to stasis, such that stasis and revelation seem, at the very least, to rhyme.
It is through his characters’ reactive and random thoughts and dialogue that Askildsen can be at his most affecting. Here he is in “Dogs of Thessaloniki,” limning a man’s mind as, vexed by his wife, he takes a walk and falls into “a drowsy, absentminded state”:
My thoughts pursued seemingly illogical courses, which were not unpleasant, on the contrary I had an extraordinary feeling of wellbeing, which made it all the more incomprehensible that, without any noticeable transition, I became gripped by a feeling of anguish and desertion. There was something all-encompassing about both the anguish and feeling of desertion that, in a way, suspended time, although it probably didn’t take more than a few seconds before my senses steered me back to the present . . . suddenly I thought, and it was a distinct thought: if only she were dead.
In a different writer’s hands, this might lead in a subsequent scene to some frenetic climax, but though there is a kind of uncanny crescendo to this story, even two of them, Askildsen offers no easy resolution or epiphany to the man’s feelings of entrapment: the man’s wife does not die, nor does he kill her (other stories do feature murderers, though never in the act). Because nothing actually earth-shattering or nominally significant happens, what is at stake in this passage, as is true in many of Askildsen’s stories, is not so much the question of time passing or standing still, of lost memories or change, as much as it’s about it already being too late in the day: the lovers are already at the end of love’s possible course, the friendship is over, the judgment has been handed down, the punishment meted out, the body has already aged—yet it, all of it, continues.
Time itself, rather than passing by, seems to inhabit the same place as those beholden to it. It is waiting. But for what, only time will tell. “He’d been dead nine days. That’s far too long, I think,” remarks the narrator of “After the Funeral Service.” It is this sensibility, most keenly tuned in “Thomas F’s Final Notes to the Public,” a grouping of eleven stories taken from Askildsen’s celebrated collection of the same name, that makes Thomas F, who graces some of Askildsen’s shortest stories in the book, such a crowning achievement.
Everything Like Before might be full of aging male narrators, but Thomas is Askildsen’s tartest graybeard; he comes out with lines like “Life won’t let go of me. He who has nothing to live for has nothing to die for.” In a strain found, too, in many of the other stories, Thomas’s bent, despite his bitterness, is toward hope, even if he might ultimately regret having given in to it. In “Maria,” Thomas bumps into his estranged daughter, who for a moment he mistakenly believes to have cracked a joke, which throws him on this little eddy of cogitation:
To think I had a daughter with a sense of humor, a slightly cheeky sense of humor at that. Who would have thought? It was a special moment. But I was mistaken, you’re never too old to be stripped of your illusions.
In “My Goodness,” when seeing an old friend from across the street but giving up on crossing, Thomas, who has trouble walking, quips, or perhaps laments, “It would have been stupid to lose my life from joy when I had managed to survive so long without it.”
What allows these stories to transcend their slim setups (“Café-goers” has him dropping a wallet and hoping someone will pick it up) is not exactly Thomas’s humorous, ironic asides so much as the way their tone expresses what he and others of the Askildsenean cast so yearn for: refuge from pain and humiliation, quiet and human connection both. In “The Banister,” Thomas wishes for the repair of the eponymous handhold. “‘Don’t you understand,’” he beseeches his landlord, “‘that on occasion that banister is all I have to hold onto in life?’” The landlord responds with a trite religious remark, such that Thomas might better have remembered his own dictum from “Maria”: “There are far too many words in circulation, the more you say the greater your chances of being wrong,” which is also a way of saying, as so many of these stories tacitly do, that the more you talk the greater your chances of being misunderstood, ignored, betrayed.
And yet! Though the banister’s destiny might not include its repair and life’s indignities might be too all-pervading (in one story, Thomas pees himself), Thomas somehow has the strength to tell himself in the final grace note of the story, “Don’t give up, Thomas, don’t give up.”
Many of Askildsen’s characters, such as the husband of “The Dogs of Thessaloniki,” inhabit a stasis from which only death might deliver them. In Thomas’s swan songs, this danger and release is especially concrete. In the final story of “Final Notes,” which is also the final story of Everything Like Before, Thomas has a fainting fit over a chessboard, toppling both “kings and pawns,” and upon waking, realizes that like this, painlessly, is “exactly how I wanted to die.” So, he waits—or does he?
Since then I’ve had several dizzy spells. But I’ve placed the chairs I have in strategic positions. It makes rather a sorry mess of the room, almost gives the impression of it being almost uninhabited. But I’m still living here. Living and waiting.
Is the strategy here to hurry things along, to make sure he hits his head good on one of these chairs, or is it that he cannot but fashion for himself a kind of banister, a grouping of things to hold onto so as to save himself and continue the stasis that is his living?
“Oh,” narrates Thomas in the final line of the story just preceding, “The world is changing, I thought. And silence is spreading. It’s time to die.” This here might be revelation in the form of resignation, but in the end, Thomas is still setting up his chairs. Maybe one day he’ll finally give life a rest—or a place to sit.
The release of the Hollywood film The Mauritanian earlier this year made a harrowing tale of torture and injustice at Guantánamo Bay the first Mauritanian story to truly reach the world. When the book the film was based on—Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi—came out in 2015, there were only three books written by Mauritanian authors available in English. The number of Mauritanian works which had been translated into other languages or won regional literary awards could be counted on one hand. However, the world literature market’s lack of interest in Mauritania—a country simultaneously Arab, West African, Saharan, and Sahelian—does not reflect its overall literary vitality.
The country’s position—straddling the Arabophone and Francophone spheres and bringing Pulaar, Wolof, Soninke, and Arab-Moorish cultures into contact with each other—lends itself to an outward-facing literature of movement, migration, and adaptation. Yet, paradoxically, Mauritania’s state of interethnic division and resistance to hybridity also brings a sense of stasis to these very same stories.
After Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960, conflicts over the character of the new nation-state played out in language policy. While Arabic speakers associated French with colonization, speakers of Pulaar, Wolof, and Soninke associated arabicization with racism. In addition to interethnic tensions, occupation-based caste structures dividing nobles from craftsmen, musicians, and—in Arab Mauritanians’ case—religious scholars still influence opportunities, social status, and marriages.
Yet, whether written in Arabic or in French, whether sweeping across the Sahara or tracing the Atlantic coastline, Mauritanian literature foregrounds characters on the move. Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s The Desert and the Drum (2016) alternates between life in an Arab encampment and the rebel Rayhana’s breakaway move to the city. Aichetou’s Awaiting the Stoning (2013) and Al-Sunnī ‘Abdāwa’s The Ghosts (1998) follow the nomadic routes most Arab Mauritanians lived by until decades of drought and desertification forced them into settled life on the fringes of ever-expanding cities. This migration to the city and its attendant sense of alienation is mournfully documented by Aḥmad wuld ʻAbd al-Qadir in The Gazing Eyes (1999) and Turbah Mint ʻAmmar in Two Faces in a Man’s Life (2008). Other writers show Mauritanians seeking their fortunes as far afield as Angola, as in Muḥammad Maḥmūd Wuld al-Shaykh Aḥmad’s The Chaos of Dreams: Diary of an Immigrant to Angola (2011), or opting for remote desert retreats when the promises of immigration fail as in Daḥḥān (2016) by Muḥammad wuld Muḥammad Sālim.
Yet, alongside this element of physical movement and momentum, a heavy sense of social stasis permeates Mauritanian literature as the enduring legacies of slavery, racism, and rigid caste structures keep protagonists in their place. Mimoun of The Shepherd of Fort El Barka (2015) comes to see himself as more than the caste he was born into, but is unable to move those around him to do so. Mhemid of Outside Servitude watches other Haratin—Black descendants of former slaves who speak Arabic and share many cultural practices with Arab Mauritanians—formally leave slavery only to find themselves economically unable to cut off their former masters. Cheikh Nouh’s Adabai shows that while the Iggawen (griot) caste preserves the histories, glories, and genealogies of others through their songs, this music only speaks to a small segment of the population. The 1989 border war with Senegal and its aftereffects haunt Bios Diallo’s Life with a Begging Bowl (2011) and Muḥammad Fāḍil ʻAbd al-Laṭīf’s award-winning novel Hospitality (2013). Finally, for those protagonists who do escape—such as the narrator of Mist from a City That Rains (2015) by ʻAbdallāhi Aḥmad Maḥmūd and that of Munina Blanche (2014) by Muḥammad ould Amīn—their new circumstances only make them obsess even more over everything connected to the past.
As such, the five stories and two poems presented here engage with the forces drawing Mauritanians across race, caste, and language to move and migrate, as well as those forces that confine them to predetermined social roles. The dialectic of movement and stasis propel each text even as their styles and foci diverge. In Moussa Ould Ebnou’s Barzakh: The Land of In-between, Gara travels further and further into the future, searching for a better civilization. He starts in the period of the trans-Saharan slave trade, then moves to the beginning of the French conquests of Mauritania before finally arriving in an imagined future where toxic waste facilities poison the Sahara. Gara finds that while technology advances, exploitation simply shifts shape.
In Bios Diallo’s “Say to the Tomb,” however, the future becomes not a repetition of the past, but rather a language that is shared by all Mauritanians regardless of their mother tongue. A politically engaged author who takes inspiration from Francophone Négritude literature, Diallo connects Mauritania’s struggle to form a united national identity with similar issues elsewhere on the continent. He dedicates La Saigne, the forthcoming book this poem is taken from, to the Malian city of Timbuktu.
Haratin poet and activist Cheikh Nouh’s novel Adabai (2019) shows the arbitrary nature of narratives surrounding bloodlines and purity, recording their real, deadly consequences even while showing their patent falsehood. This extract captures the thoughts of the villager Musa as he meanders between his experiences growing up in Adabai, the village’s founding myth, and the community’s forbidden loves.
Herself a product of migration and métissage, feminist poet Mariem Mint Derwich pays tribute to the women of the diaspora, hailing them as the transmitters, renewers, and revitalizers of culture. In her poem “You Will Tell Them,” published originally in Anthologie des femmes poètes du monde arabe (2019), she asserts that Mauritanian cultural memory remains wherever its citizens move, declaring “You will inscribe in their blazing gazes, your name / my name / their names / And, in the infinite that is, you will become a country within.”
Aichetou, who grew up in a nomadic encampment, takes us through an outsider’s drifting, amorphous impressions of one such camp. Her historical novel I Am N’Daté . . . (2018) situates the history of slavery in Mauritania within the larger regional context of conflicts and struggles in seventeenth-century West Africa. The narrator, N’Daté, proudly claims her origins from the Balanta People of Guinea-Bissau. However, after hostilities with a neighboring community, she finds herself far from the forests she grew up in, sold into an Arab encampment. Alone with her story and unable to speak the language of the nomads, she observes the lives of the women around her closely and gradually learns of their stories and dreams.
Looking forward rather than to history, Mamadou Kalidou Ba’s resistance literature explores whether interethnic solidarity and nonviolent activism could be the answer to Mauritania’s social stasis. In “A Tactical Alliance,” from his novel The Peaceful Resistance (2017), two activist groups meet to discuss joining forces in a different type of confrontation with the state.
Finally, looking outward, Ahmed Isselmou’s science fiction novel Outsider Mode (2021) imagines a new currency that links value directly to an individual’s productivity, regardless of their nation’s exchange rate. Invented by a resident of Futurcity and adopted around the world, the T-coin becomes a global economic driving force, only to find its strength challenged by a devastating cyberattack.
While there are still fewer than ten Mauritanian books available in English translation, there has been a steady growth in regional and international recognition of the country’s literature over the past five years. Since the publication of Guantánamo Diary, the aforementioned Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s novel Le Tambour de Larmes (2016) was translated into English as The Desert and the Drum and was awarded the Ahmed Korouma Prize. Muḥammad Fāḍil ʻAbd al-Laṭīf’s second novel won the Egyptian Supreme Council for Culture’s Naguib Mahfouz Award, and Aḥmad ould al-Ḥafīẓ’s The Grapes of Wrath (2016) made the Sheikh Zayed Book Award longlist. Cheikh Aḥmad al-Bān’s first novel is also due to be translated into English after winning a Katara Award last October. Lastly, in the month of The Mauritanian’s release, Mohamedou Ould Slahi broke away from the endless burden of telling and retelling his story of torture and survival by publishing an epic adventure novel in English. This issue aims to maintain this momentum by moving more of Mauritania’s vibrant literature, in both Arabic and French, into the Anglophone sphere.
© 2021 by July Blalack. All rights reserved.
 The other English-language Mauritanian books were The Ignored Cries of Pain and Injustice from Mauritania (2011) by Sidi Sene; Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in Search of Happiness by Amadou Ndiaye (2014); and Mohamed Bouya Bamba’s self-published novella Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language (2011). There were also some academic books and articles written by Mauritanians in English.
 See Epic Traditions of Africa by Stephen Paterson Belcher (p. 9–13); “Popular Culture in Senegal: Blending the Secular and the Religious” by Fallou Ngom in Music, Performance and African Identities edited by Toyin Falola and Tyler Fleming (p. 100); “Mauritania” by Constanze Weise in Africa: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society, vol. 2.
 See “The Griot Tradition in Ḥassāniyya Music: The Iggāwen” by John Shoup in Quaderni di Studi Arabi, Nuova Serie, vol. 2 (2007), pp. 95–102
 For more information on narratives surrounding bloodsucking, see Erin Pettigrew’s article “The Heart of the Matter: Bloodsucking Accusations Along the Slave Routes of Mauritania.”
A currency linked to worker productivity becomes a global economic force—and the target of a devastating cyberattack—in this excerpt from Ahmed Isselmou's novel.
“Time is the God of our era,” Hammoud al-Jamloudi, the governor of Futurcity’s Central Bank, declared to the delegates packing the assembly hall. “Time is the sacred arbiter we worship today. Time is the true revolution that offers justice to all classes of society. Time cannot submit to anybody’s power. The era of wage slavery is over, and employees today are free to demand a fair wage for the work they do.
“There is no room for discrimination or favoritism in today’s world because no one can make the minutes go any faster or slower. A day lasts twenty-four hours in every corner of the planet. Competition is free and fair: people can work ten hours if they wish, or they can work twenty—and if they don’t want to work at all, they can spend all twenty-four hours relaxing.
“Human society has aspired to fairness throughout the history of its existence. Now, the rollout of the Pay Yourself system has made this ambition a reality.
“Today, no manager can have favorites, no secretary can seduce her boss, and no employee can claim overtime for work they didn’t do. The Pay Yourself system links a company’s accounts to its employee time management system, and when employees leave their workplace, the cash value of the work they have performed is deposited in their wallet within minutes. Nothing could be fairer. We’ve brought to life the Arabic proverb that says ‘Pay the laborer his due before his sweat has dried.’”
When Futurcity was established, there had been a fierce conflict over what the new country’s official currency would be, and in the early days a proposal was made that all global currencies, at their market rate, should be legal tender for day-to-day transactions. This caused such confusion and contention that the stability of the newborn island city-state was under threat when the then-young IT engineer Hammoud al-Jamloudi—who had recently joined the Union of Migrant Minds—came up with a proposal for a cryptocurrency linked to users’ smartphones that would automatically mirror their productive capacity. Individuals would earn units of the currency based on the hours they worked, with each unit equaling one minute. Since the currency’s market value would reflect the productivity of Futurcity’s labor force, he suggested it be called Time Coin. Employees’ salaries would be determined by grade, each grade commanding a specific value per minute worked.
The proposal met with an enthusiastic response from the tech companies, and the International Federation of Technology Industries funded the pioneering project. Jamloudi and his team designed the T-coin algorithms themselves. The system was carefully encrypted. Every resident of the island was assigned a unique identifier to log the start of their working day that could be authenticated by facial recognition technology. The Pay Yourself app was soon rolled out, and now every workplace in the country—even newspaper stands, flower stalls, and public transport stations—was equipped with facial recognition sensors. Jamloudi’s team had developed a feature for the phone app that allowed freelancers and home workers to sign in for work remotely and automatically signed them back out whenever they spent ten minutes away from their employer’s work page.
Meanwhile, T-coin was in use all over the world and was rapidly becoming one of the most widely trusted cryptocurrencies in existence.
As Jamloudi finished speaking, one of the IT engineers, a young African man holding a tablet in one hand, burst in through the door of the hall. He jostled past the high-ranking guests, excusing himself profusely and apologizing to everyone he bumped into or tripped over on his way to the front.
“Sir, sir,” he said urgently, “the central server is under attack and receiving commands to self-destruct.”
“Self-destruct?!” said Jamloudi. “That’s not possible! I programmed the thing. There’s no way anyone but me can give it that command!”
“Look, sir . . . ”
Jamloudi peered at the data scrolling across the screen. It was displaying the self-destruct algorithm, along with a countdown timer and a processing speed monitor that stood at 80 percent. The self-destruct operation was at 7 percent, and if it carried on at this rate, every piece of data about every last person living in Futurcity would be obliterated, along with the currency in their wallets, before the sun had even set.
“Mr. President,” said Jamloudi, “if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting an urgent call to go to the central server room. I’ll update you with more details as soon as we have a better idea of the extent of the damage.”
“You must be kidding me,” said the president of the governing council, who was appointed by the UN. “All these men are waiting to hear what’s happened, and you’re just going to leave the room?”
He gestured to the hall full of delegates, who were nodding and craning their necks, waiting for an answer.
“What’s happened, gentlemen, or at least what we know so far,” said Jamloudi decisively, “is that our servers have been targeted by a cyberattack, and time has stopped. Okay? Try to figure it out yourselves if you can. Argue as much as you like. I don’t have time.”
Jamloudi had dropped any pretense at diplomacy, and, clutching the tablet in his hand, strode out of the hall.
The president turned to the room and called to the assembled delegates to take their seats and listen. He had to raise his voice and repeat himself several times before the first person pulled out a chair to sit down, his attention still on the phone in his hand. Everybody was either making calls or tapping out messages.
“Gentlemen. You are here as representatives of the international scientific and industrial community. I am also joined by representatives of the Central Authority. I’d like you all to muster the forces of your technical teams to work out what’s going on here. We’re going to split into two teams. One will work with Mr. Jamloudi’s staff on a technical solution, and the other, under my leadership, will be working on a political response to this crisis.”
“This isn’t just about Futurcity,” shouted one of the delegates, president of the International Federation of Technology Industries, which represented the world’s twenty biggest tech companies. “This is happening to every company in Silicon Valley. Everyone’s clocks have stopped.”
“It’s happening at the Seoul stock exchange, too,” shouted another, this time the president of the Union of Migrant Minds, looking down at a message on his phone.
Futurcity’s interior minister came rushing into the hall. “None of this makes sense,” he said. “Has anyone here sent any messages from their phones?”
“Yes,” said two people at once.
“We all need to stop using the internet right now,” said the minister.
“How are we going to communicate with the rest of the world?” someone asked.
“We have a secure communications room,” said the minister. “If anyone needs to make an urgent call, they can come with me now. And if you’ve communicated with anyone, tell them to switch off their internet and pass on the same message to anyone they’ve communicated with. We’ve never seen an attack like this before. But we’re going to deal with it.”
The delegates stared at each other in incomprehension. Seven of them followed him out, along with the president. Others hesitated, then one by one left the hall, each hurrying away in different directions.
“I told you, it’s an order from the senior council leadership,” yelled the minister into his phone, paying no attention to the anxious people trailing mechanically behind him. “How dare you argue with me! I want all internet connections cut, across the whole island, right now… To hell with the USA, and the rest of them! They can get their own internet. This is our network and it’s independent. We built it, we put the satellites up there, and we run it. It isn’t up to them. I told you, cut the internet, now.”
It looked like the person on the other end of the line was carrying out the order, because the minister was looking at the faces around him and muttering, “We’ve stopped the virus spreading. Now we just need to eliminate it at the source.”
The president of the International Federation of Technology Industries and the president of the Union of Migrant Minds hung back from the fray around the minister and stepped into the office next door to the Central Bank’s server room, where governor Jamloudi and his engineering team were frantically working on a solution to the virus that was consuming data protocols the way a caterpillar chews through a fresh leaf.
“Turn on all the coolers and get the backup generator going,” barked Jamloudi at the engineers. “Goddammit, if everyone in Futurcity worked this hard all the time we’d be running the world. Get administrator accounts set up for these two. You can sit at that desk.”
He didn’t look up once as he spoke, or stop writing, but the engineers knew his orders were directed at them. One of them came to assist the two guests, who’d immediately taken off their jackets, loosened their ties, and rolled up their sleeves. Sweat stained a wide circle around their underarms.
Suddenly the words SHUT DOWN THE “PAY YOURSELF” NETWORK flashed on the screens where the Central Bank engineers were at work. None of their attempts to shift it succeeded.
“I can’t get into the system!” screamed Jamloudi. He looked around at his team in desperation, but their faces were grim. All their devices showed the same message. Jamloudi picked up his phone and called the minister of the interior.
“I need the entire cybersecurity team here at the Central Bank,” he said.
“We’re losing control over the city,” hissed the minister. “And it’s all because of your greed. So how about you get your team over to the ministry, fast.”
“This isn’t the time to bicker over whose remit this is. I need your engineers over here. We’ve lost access to the central servers.”
“I’m going to transfer you to the head of cybersecurity. He’s on the line. You can talk your tech talk together. Do whatever you have to, just put an end to this farce.”
The director of cybersecurity came on.
“We can’t get on to the network anymore,” he said, sounding panicked. “The attackers have gotten control of all of our machines.”
At his end of the line was a vast hall one hundred yards long. He paced up and down the rows of desks where dozens of engineers were hunched over their devices. Every single screen showed a clock face with no hands, and the same message blinking ominously each second: SHUT DOWN THE “PAY YOURSELF” NETWORK.
© Ahmed Isselmou. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Katharine Halls. All rights reserved.
This excerpt from Aichetou’s historical novel Je Suis N’Daté . . . details the legend of the Forsaken, a community of Bedouin women in a seventeenth-century nomadic encampment.
“You don’t know who the Forsaken are?”
O Sand! Son of the impudent Wind . . .
Much later, for want of having made good my escape, I was to come to know these Bedouin women, the Forsaken:
The Mariemes, eldest daughters of their families, are insignificant but for the names they bear: those ancient clans whose list of ancestors is endless. . . . Do they make them up?
A certain girl named Khadi always occupies a spot between her friends, who are never to be seen without her. She is the daughter of the largest family of Bedouin blacksmiths. Like the Fula, they too have their smiths, pillars of each encampment. Khadi is also called the beauty of beauties.
None of the Forsaken go an afternoon without El-Hartaniya, daughter of the Beautiful Freedwoman, ever-absent and greatly anticipated, of whom everyone speaks, who feeds the conversation of the Forsaken, though she be far away, or perhaps en route for a return the entire encampment awaits. Till then, her daughter is always to be found seated in the center of the small gathering: she is its soul and dominates it completely. Her strength lies in her size, far greater than all the other Forsaken. She is neither really black nor bister like all those around her. She looks like a daughter of the Fula . . .
Beside her sits her friend Sara, elbows ever propped on the knees of one of her neighbors.
Not far away from these two, a Marieme is inevitably to be found. Marieme is such a common first name here. The Bedouins call all their eldest daughters Marieme, in memory of a goddess who, as a virgin, bore a son because their God decreed that it should be so, in a display of His power and His magic, in order to remind one and all that He was the one true Master of women and men. Had He not made a young woman, a virgin, into the Mother of His Son? No need to be violated to give birth to a baby . . .
I knew that the Mariemes, pillars of these little gatherings of the Forsaken, lead such boring lives that they are soon forgotten in the presence of a black woman: Essoudania. She is never without Ramla, her protégé.
Essoudania was born among these tents. She is the chief of her master’s family, the master who made her his wife after his own died from a miscarriage, hoisting a slave to the other's rank, most splendid Forsaken.
Ramla the pious: daughter of a foreigner, whence the shyness that often drove one of her comrades to remind her she was no mute. Her mother, widowed very young, had been protégé to Essoudania’s mother, and so Ramla naturally became protégé to Essoudania.
El-Hartaniya is the rival to a strange woman of a color that does not exist in our Balanta lands, nor in the lands of the Serer or their neighbors. The other Bedouin women all call her El Beidha, the white one. If Essoudania is a former slave, El Beidha belongs to the caste they call Znagua here, a caste formed for the most part of camel drivers said to be swifter than all the djinns and all the winds. But the Bedouin are especially pretentious and underestimate them, as they do all who are not Bedouin. El Beidha has strange eyes, gray like those of a panther surprised while stealing off with a youth barely emerged from boyhood . . .
Sometimes, with the Forsaken can be found other Forsaken just passing through camp during the rainy season, on their way to visit an aunt, a grandmother, an uncle, a sister: Raki, Sektou, Koriya, Zoueinouha, Maimouna, Hafsatou, Zakiyatou, Safiyatou, Aichetou, Fatimatou, Salma, and others still, whose first names betray their foreign origins amid these black tents. All of them have noses that confess they belong to distant encampments, and their very obvious earrings confirm this foreign origin, a world born of unfamiliar dunes, less shifting than the ones surrounding this camp, where the wind god is perhaps more clement.
Every day, these women gather to braid their hair, to throng to repair Bedouins’ tents, to welcome a lost camel driver who tells them tales, recites them poems they always love, no matter their shortcomings. More often, they gather to help a woman giving birth, or to grieve another woman who dies just after.
They also gather at the tent of Khadi’s mother, the lady blacksmith who beautifies all things, who makes everything to be found inside these tents, aided by her husband.
All the Forsaken bow to the whims of the Beautiful Freedwoman when she returns from her long voyages whose secret has long since escaped me.
Will I tolerate these women all my life?
Listen, all of you, to what will later be said of the Forsaken by one of their descendants, who fled the desert, its mirages, its impudent winds, its desiccating winds, its deceitful wells, its shifting dunes, its devils everywhere aprowl; who preferred distant lands like Mortagne, cold and icy, where white, sometimes very white people live, whose shamans know more than those of the Susu, the Bedouin, the Fula, or the Balanta; they are tall, very tall, their hair long, sometimes very long, or very short, often red or ginger, depending, and their eyes blue, gray, green, sometimes brown, faded, but rarely black; they are strange and savage; they build enormous huts of stone to shield themselves from the flood-like rains that drown everything in their wake:
The ten years before the Forsaken came into this world had been relatively prosperous: two green years had followed two green years. Such a thing had never been seen before. Many boys had survived, upsetting the pyramid of the sexes. There were so many that the camp even came to send one caravan, at least, to the edge of the Black River. Male slaves, too, were almost surplus in number. A problem arose: how to find wives for so many men if such growth kept up? The generation of Forsaken was usually meant to supply wives to young boys who’d overpopulated the encampment, but there were even more girls than expected. The God of Abraham does not take kindly to those who complain of His designs. Everyone here knows that.
Had He wished to please the prayerful, or was He calling them to order? The year the Forsaken were born, He carried off half the little boys, saddling the encampment with a horde of particularly robust little girls. They had survived thirst and early fasting imposed on the pretext that there weren’t enough wet nurses.
A great number of men, despite the precautions taken by all the grandmothers, aunts, mothers, stepmothers, serving-girls, cousins, and sisters, passed away. So it was that the Bedouins were reminded that God was the Master of all things, and it was not wise to tempt Him . . .
His will was accepted: the number of Forsaken exceeded all expectations, and soon they dominated camp, until the great drought that forced upon them knowledge of a world they could not have dreamed; and yet their imagination was great. Had they, too, been punished?
Only the God of Abraham could say. He was known to punish both victims and executioners, for the sake of greater balance.
Finally, the people of the black tents came to suffer the Forsaken, to grow used to their invasive presence, to bow to their law, and they soon became the peerless driving forces of the modest life of the encampment, starting with its school and its upkeep, forever marking its history, whence the importance of the Schoolmistress in their lives.
Could they, these Forsaken, understand who I am? Who is the daughter of the Beautiful Toura?
From Je Suis N’Daté . . . © L'Harmattan. Published 2018 by L’Harmattan. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from Cheikh Nouh’s novel Adabai, we're introduced to the history and myths of the eponymous Mauritanian village.
Musa says that Ibrika founded the village of Adabai twenty years after “the year of Ja’bara’s death,” which was an important year in Adabai’s history. Ja’bara was a female slave from the nearby village.
“Ja’bara had confided to some of the women while drawing water from the well that she was carrying the child of master Hammada, a son of the Al-Mukhtar family, whereas she was the slave of Hammada’s cousin Sa’edbouh. Sa’edbouh would send Ja’bara nightly with a glass of cow’s milk to the master who loved it so, and soon enough he fell in love with her.
“Hammada’s passion as a man of his stature for a woman of Ja’bara’s rank was considered taboo, forbidden, atrocious. Ja’bara’s own master Sa’edbouh couldn’t be considered the father of the life within her—even if he had had his way with her as was permitted by an interpretation of Islamic law—because he was known to be sterile, having been married to his uncle’s daughter for ten years with no offspring to show for it.
“With this confession of hers, Ja’bara caused tension between Hammada and his cousin. Even if it was a frightening consideration, there was no redemption from this scandal except for getting rid of Ja’bara herself. What was the life of a female slave compared to the sullying of the Great Tent’s reputation? Both Ja’bara and the life of her fetus died for the reputation of the Great Tent. She was put to death over the accusation of practicing ‘sal.’
“She was a dangerous sallala, an expert bloodsucker, she would have killed everyone if she wasn’t put down—that’s how Ja’bara became a martyr, and what was said when the sons of the Great Tent made their way back from burying her. ‘Sal’ is the practice of sucking out blood by calling upon evil spirits, something which is attributed to the Adabai residents by those intent on scaring others from mixing with them and pushing people to ostracize them, whereas righteousness and sovereignty are attributed to the masters. The master in this society isn’t a rank tied to worship or knowledge, or a position of spiritual purity a person reaches through God’s salvation, whatever his color or origin. It is, rather, an inherited social rank, one of forced authority over people, an eternal occupation.
“As for the labeling of the righteous ones, it can be explained through the past: long ago in ancient times if a girl belonging to the Great Tent fell pregnant then her mother or her aunt would accompany her, approximately a month before the birth, on a journey to an unknown place. One of their relatives would ensure they had food and drink, and stay the night with them in that place or nearby until the girl gave birth. When they returned under the dark of night, they placed the child in a cloth at the cemetery, called colloquially ‘Al-Saliheen.’ They would then command one of the slaves to go to the cemetery and bring the child back. Then the news would spread and the child would enjoy a particular sacredness for being ‘Ibn Al-Saliheen,’ or son of the righteous. One of the slave families, or another family at the bottom of the chain, would raise the child, and it would grow in proximity to the environment of his real family, enjoying the opportunity to learn from those who officially denied his existence. Then once he reached a marriageable age, he would marry one of the daughters of his uncles because he was considered ‘Ibn Al-Saliheen,’ a label which grew to carry a sense of sacredness and magic, someone who had come to the world in a different way, God himself had placed him in ‘Al-Saliheen.’”
With the passing of time, a class formed of the “Ibn Al-Saliheen” that enjoyed a large halo of reverence as Musa saw it. The enslaved Haratin were isolated in desolate clusters. They kept living despite all the torments and bitterness, finding grace in music. Their nayffara is a flutelike instrument heavy with history, deeply immersed in sorrow: all the pain behind words and what is beyond language entrusted to it.
Beneath his trellis erected on the west side of the village school, in front of his clay house on the evening of a scorching day in May 2013, I sat on the dindera for the first time with Musa as he smoked, when the growl of the school principal’s car engine sounded. Not knowing his name, the village people just called him Principal. Musa was observing Yarba—his only son, a teenager named after Musa’s father—open up the pen to let the sheep in, iPod earbuds in his ears.
“He must be listening to that hip-hop song, the popular one by Ouled l'bled . . . it’s got a message. It’s music that speaks to our pain that no one else takes notice of. Is there any other song that speaks to us more than ‘Miserable Ones’?”
Maybe Musa felt this connection because a Jamaican migrant, DJ Kool Herc, founded hip-hop in the impoverished Bronx in cramped New York City, the center of global capitalism. This art form soaked in pain made its way to this boiling desert, which had accumulated eras of creed-like crushing pain wrapped in heavy silence.
Yarba’s generation, the crushed ones, loved this art and melted into its details. They chanted the rhymes and moved to the beats carved from the flesh of their pains. Hip-hop expressed the voices of the marginalized and the broken, of the young people lost between the heaviness of reality, the burdens of the past, and the haze of the future. It was one of the artistic forms of rebellion against the bourgeois suit, the elegant tie, and the official protocols. It celebrated the street-life and the marginal, which was left to be forgotten and thrown to nothingness.
Musa’s ears kept fleeing from the rhythms of traditional Mauritanian music, it being one of the manifestations of the prevailing social order and a way of preserving it by praising the sheikhs of tribes and military organizations. It was only practiced in well-known families forming a separate caste called Iggawen. Their role can be summarized as preserving the lineage of tribal chiefs and singing their supposed glories. This is what made the people at the bottom feel as if the artists of such music weren’t addressing them. In fact, there were songs and slogans that such artists intoned which consecrated the inferiority of the marginalized classes and slapped them with ugly, racist, inhuman stereotypes. Such songs cultivated sayings that glorified the unrelenting social order, even though the Iggawen class itself was considered at the bottom of the pyramid socially, even if their economic standing was better than this.
As such Musa and Yarba his son, and those like them, didn’t find any art form other than hip-hop which was free from social restrictions and available to all, one where you didn’t have to be a descendant of an Iggawen family in order to take part. Maybe that would explain why all hip-hop artists came from tin-house neighborhoods, destitute Gazraat and Kebbatt, waiting for governmental interventions that would never arrive.
The tributaries of hip-hop spread among the youth from the dregs of society like the salt of the sea: rap, the musical embodiment; then graffiti, the drawn embodiment; and finally breakdancing.
Techno music was also popular during the 1990s among teenagers. It didn’t have a specific message, though, and maybe that’s why it didn’t engrave itself deeply into the psyche of those who had been crushed by society. Even so, “Techno,” or “Dance Machine” as they called it, was a trend that those on the lowest rung of society exceled at.
Musa didn’t know what caused these memories to refresh themselves as of late with such piercing urgency and cause him to speak so freely about his life and his past. Since he started feeling comfortable with me—as he put it—every evening that I visited him he started sharing with me the most important events in his life and what they left within. Is it merely a matter of him unloading himself of a past charged with surprising and dramatic events? Or is it a talent for storytelling that only I have been able to unlock? When I promised him that I would write down his story while he sipped green tea with mint on the dindera, his appetite was whetted for sharing stories; stories from when he first entered this school thirty years ago, to his on-off relationship with the sea, to the beginning of his mysterious illness that, according to doctors, is not life-threatening.
His memory jumps to the day when his father patted him on the shoulder and said, “Now it’s halaal for you to slaughter like other men.” He was overcome with a wave of joy at this grand announcement back then, and he still wonders until today why he felt that way when he was told he could spill the blood of another soul and destroy it; even if it was just a hen carrying a string of eggs within her.
From Adabai. © Cheikh Nouh. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.
Mauritania, its geography, and its women come to life in vivid detail in this poem by Mariem Mint Derwich.
You will tell them, my country,
you will tell them of your daughter, daughter among your daughters,
daughter among your men,
you will tell them of the winds that engendered her,
your winds of the East and your winds of the sea.
You will tell them that around her ankles she wears your dunes,
your notes of the moon,
your notes of the sun.
You will say to them that she is your daughter,
born and born again,
with each dawn,
in each song from the mosques.
You will tell them, my country,
of the lineage, the name of your people,
the scent of her mother,
the laugh of stone walls,
over there, in the city that sleeps.
You will tell them how she offered her hands
to the cliffs of Amogjjar,
to the walls of the big city,
to the songs of the rambling night.
You will say to them, to your people,
that she is your name,
in the sudden splendor of a dawn,
in the fold of a riverbed,
in the liquid finesse of a rivulet,
you will sing to them that she is the daughter of clouds,
daughter of phantom words.
You will tell them that she carries love,
You will write on the dusty paths,
you will write that she is the ocher color of her memories,
that she birthed dreams,
sons of man to whom she whispered her name, their womb.
You will say to them, you will say to them, the encampments,
that she is blood and flesh, blood
You will tell them that she is the daughter of encounters,
mixed daughter, roots daughter, mango daughter, date daughter,
you will say to them that she sleeps in the calabash of worlds,
that she is the milk that runs over skin,
you will say to them that she has eyes open, your eyes,
you will say to them that she bears your name, your names, your incantations,
you will tell them, her people, that she sleeps under cemetery stones,
in the prayer of those who rest and hope.
You will inscribe in their blazing gazes, your name,
And, in the infinite that is, you will become a country within . . .
© Mariem Mint Derwich. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Emma Ramadan. All rights reserved.
Two activist groups meet to discuss joining forces in confronting the repressive state in this excerpt from Mamadou Kalidou Ba's novel La résistance pacifique.
It’s now six months since Bilal, the leader of the Call of the Muezzin group, was arrested. And three months since Gayel, the leader of the Walfugui youth movement for Equality and Justice (WEJ), and some of his comrades were also apprehended during a demonstration in Place des Martyrs. These activists were arrested at the same time and released a few hours later, or the next day. The two organizations had held separate marches and sit-ins to protest the detention of their comrades. Each time, the police, backed up by the National Guards, had cracked down on the peaceful demonstrators and there had been bloodshed. This army corps had a special combat squadron dedicated to maintaining order.
Both activist groups, now in the crosshairs of the Harfusowo authorities, were going through a major crisis. A crisis that jeopardized their very existence, and of which the government seemed acutely aware. The regular police crackdowns had put hundreds of activists in the hospital, while others were languishing in Rènedango’s police cells. The capital’s dungeons were crammed so full that more than two hundred activists had been transferred to penitentiaries in the country’s interior to relieve the pressure. Now, everyone here knows that the prison authorities think it normal for a ninety-seven-square-foot cell to house five people. So when they start to show concern about the number of prisoners packed together, it’s because the situation in these detention centers has become truly inhumane. It is all the more worrying because the Harfusowo jailhouses allow no visits from prisoners’ rights organizations. When a prisoner dies, generally as a result of a neglected illness or torture, the death certificate is signed by a prison doctor before the body is handed over to the family. When it is in too poor a condition, it is buried and then the family is informed a week later, with the excuse that the prison authorities had lost their address and telephone number.
The leaders of the WEJ and AM youth wings had resolved to do more than just support each other during demonstrations—they’d agreed to join strategic forces. They’d arranged to meet up, all together, to discuss their very similar situations and see how they could work closely together. Depleted as they were, they realized that they had to either team up or go under. They needed to take back control in the face of the crumbling support of their activists, some of whom wanted to break away and take up arms. It was a matter of the utmost urgency.
Salif from the WEJ and Maham from AM had assembled their comrades in a small house in the Lobouguel-Fouta neighborhood. This abode, rented by three AM members, had been chosen for its seclusion. Their usual meeting places were under covert surveillance by the secret police. They had restricted the number of attendees to ten to avoid attracting attention. Because the place belonged to Maham’s comrades, Salif did him the courtesy of inviting him to chair the meeting. Maham returned the courtesy by first refusing and then accepting at his guest’s insistence.
“Comrades! Salif and I have held talks, and we’ve decided to forget the differences between our respective organizations to bring you all together here. In recent months, our two movements have supported each other a number of times, as much in reaffirming each other’s policy positions as in helping to advance all just causes. But, if we’re gathered here today, it is for even more important reasons. Over the past few weeks, we have been subjected to a violent and unjust repression because we have dared to challenge an iniquitous system of governance, a medieval social order, and a dangerous intolerance. To stifle our voices, the authorities jail us in the hundreds, send us to hospital by the dozens, and bludgeon us by the thousand. Those of us who have escaped the raids so far are forced to go into hiding. As a result, our struggle is losing momentum, and worse, it is threatened by radicalization in reaction to the regime’s oppression. A growing number of voices, within both AM and the WEJ, are calling for armed struggle to break this cycle. ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ as one of our comrades was banging on about to me only yesterday. Our hope is that together we can find a path—a means of pursuing our fight and demanding the release of our comrades being held in extrajudicial detention—without abandoning our fundamental principle of nonviolence no matter what adversity we face. And now I’ll hand the floor over to any of you who wish to speak.”
“I’ll be brief,” said Mboyrik, an AM member. “I have to say that I fully understand those who want to change our means of struggle. I agree with many of these views. After all, we can’t carry on laying ourselves open to the brutality of people who appear to take pleasure in watching us suffer. If you have other solutions, we’ll need to be quick, otherwise we’re likely to find ourselves very much alone.”
“I’d like to thank our friends from AM for accepting our invitation,” began Salif. “Thanks especially to Maham for giving such a full summary of the crisis engulfing us. After convincing my comrades in the WEJ’s policy bureau to refrain from violent protest, I hope that together we will be able to appease the very legitimate anger many of us feel. Although resorting to armed struggle might feel like vengeance now, it will not satisfy either the thirst for revenge or, even less, the burning desire for freedom and equality that drives us. On the contrary, violence only multiplies and amplifies human suffering. Let us not take an either-or view of things. Yes, the current regime—infiltrated by Baathists, Nasserists, and Islamists—is backing us into a final corner through unprecedented repression, but an alternative option is emerging. Harfusowo’s people no longer condone these atrocities and are daring to speak out against our woes and even support our struggle. If our sympathizers among the Ar community are a little more numerous and a little more inclined to stand by us, it is because we have never harmed anyone. But if we indulge in brutal acts, at some point our violence will strike an innocent Ar and then we will be as guilty as our current persecutors.”
“I suggest that we mobilize our remaining forces to engage in one last battle that will have a chance of reversing the power balance, or of turning the tide in any case, and at least of breaking the stranglehold we’re in.”
“Yes, but how?” asked Fodye.
“Let us meticulously plan to occupy Place des Martyrs.”
“Place des Martyrs again?” said Mboyrik, surprised.
“Yes, in that very same place. We’ll turn up there with all the activists and sympathizers who are not in the prisons or hospitals. There’ll be a thousand of us, perhaps more. This time we’ll occupy the square—but not for a sit-in lasting a few hours. We will leave only in police vans, ambulances bound for the hospital or hearses for the cemetery. In short, the government must agree to hand back our comrades alive and to discuss our legitimate demands with us.”
At this point in Salif’s speech, applause broke out. “The success of this action,” he went on, “requires lengthy and painstaking preparations. We need at least half of those we've managed to persuade to follow us, in other words nonviolent activists who are both determined and disciplined. They must act as role models, helping to train and impose on others the self-control of passive resistance if attacked by the police—which is inevitable.”
From La résistance pacifique. © 2017 by L’Harmattan. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Ros Schwartz. All rights reserved.
Poet Bios Diallo connects Mauritania’s struggle to form a united national identity with similar conflicts elsewhere on the continent.
Say to the tomb, without pride
Here the poem ends
Here identities, prayers bleed
Here also the nation is reborn
And since a country has but one language
That of its future, of its people
I will brandish my own
Though full of holes
And since we won’t exile ourselves
Or harm our land
I will be, for my nation
The eternal shepherd.
From La Saigne, published 2021 by Obsidiane. © 2021 by Bios Diallo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Emma Ramadan. All rights reserved.
A time traveler finds himself in a harsh new society in this excerpt from writer and critic Moussa Ould Ebnou’s novel.
That night I slept a troubled sleep, and when the time came to dream, my memory and consciousness recalled the beyond-time. I began to cry and scream with all my might, calling for the Master of Time: “Khidr! Khidr! What disaster have you caused to befall me?! Take me from here! You know very well that I am traveling through the beyond-time searching for a better people, and you know that this is the evilest of civilizations. Don’t leave me here!” After much begging and pleading, he finally heeded my cries and appeared, his features obscured by his green aura.
“Gara, did you forget our agreement?”
“No, I didn’t forget anything!”
“Then you must recall that I allowed you to travel to the future in order to change your nation.”
“Yes, but I pictured the future as better than its past.”
“That’s why you chose to explore the future, and I allowed you to explore two periods if you so wished. You said you wanted to leave the period of Awdaghost, so you used up your first chance. You found yourself nine centuries ahead of the period you escaped from. As returning to the past is impossible, it was within your ability to either settle in the period you arrived in or to use your last chance to travel further into the future. This came with the possibility of finding yourself in the midst of a nation more wicked than the one you escaped from and with no way to leave. Was this not the agreement? Despite that, you left the period of Coppolani and found yourself in the period of Tanval, and here you are urging me to give you another chance! I am reminding you of the agreement and confirming that your travel through the beyond-time is over and you will stay here until you die!”
“Save me! I must leave this cursed nation! I never saw such evil, and so up close!”
“You no longer have any refuge! What person before you had the opportunity to live in three different civilizations far apart in time? You only got what you deserved for your iniquity and ignorance! You can’t escape fate forever, and you have nowhere to run. You are compelled to live with your people. At any rate, what you are witnessing is the last face of the Earth. If you kept moving through the future, you would find that the Earth has become a heap of ash, and the Sun has been snuffed out!”
Khidr gradually vanished into his green aura.
“No! Wait! Wait! Khidr! Khidr!”
I woke up shivering violently. My head was as heavy as lead and felt like it would explode from the intensity of the pain. Anmad had taken my hand.
“What’s wrong? Who were you calling for?”
My tongue was thick, and the back of my throat was dry and sticky.
“Give me something to drink!”
After I drank he repeated his question:
“Who was it you were calling?”
“Me? When was I calling for anyone?”
“Just now. You were screaming ‘Khidr! Khidr!'"
“That’s strange! I don’t recall a thing.”
“You scare me! I need to watch out around you.”
The supervisor came to us early the next day. He was armed and threatened us repeatedly as he marched us out.
“I am taking you two to the disinfection room to prepare for work. You are now on the day shift on the squad that monitors the wells. Let’s go, hurry up!”
We were the first to arrive at the disinfection room. The supervisor pointed to some lockers and said they were for our clothing. He then ordered us to wash in cold, filthy showers. I felt my body as the water stung it with sharp jabs. We dressed in our work clothes: two smooth white jumpsuits and knee-high pull-on boots. We put on safety masks and gloves and waited on metal benches, bent over and with our heads hanging, for the rest of the team to get there. The workers arrived in droves, silent and walking as though hypnotized. Terrible pain was etched on their faces, but they remained silent. They took off their clothes and stored them in the metal lockers, then got in line in front of the putrid showers, each of them doing as we had done. We were all given two pills and ordered to swallow them. I felt a lump in my throat as I gulped them down . . .
The sun had settled around the peak of the mountain when we disembarked from the airway at the site of the wells. There were four of us, counting the supervisor. We inspected the area, noticing the cracks that had formed in the rock since yesterday. We found several fissures, some of which had become deep grooves.
“This is how the work will be organized. You two!” the supervisor pointed at me and Anmad. “You will gather large rocks from the top of the peak. I said the large rocks and not the small ones! Put them in the grinder. And you!” he pointed at the other worker, “Turn the grinder, melt the stone, and rotate the platform to pour the melted stone into the fissures. Hurry up! Let’s go! I am watching you, you lazy asses!”
At the end of the day, when the shadows of our uniforms stuck to the height of the mountain as if they were giant ghosts, we heard the end-of-work whistle. I felt my body as I took off my uniform in the disinfection room, unable to believe that it still had volume, that it had remained solid and not melted.
The residential area was perched on the sides of the mountain, rising and falling with its peaks and valleys. It consisted of prefabricated sheds that were unreachable except by the airway. They guided me to my spot in the sleeping area. It was a sleeping pad resembling a military cot, and beside it was a steel dresser of the same type I saw in the disinfection room. I flung myself on the bed and stayed there for a while, unconscious, until I started awake at a sudden alarm bell. At first I thought it was in my head, but then I saw people heading for the exit doors. I got up and followed them down a long hallway.
It led to an open door flanked by large blinds parallel to the wall and controlled by two steel rails positioned above and below. There was writing above the door in illuminated script explaining the purpose of the dining hall. Then, to the left, above the door, was a blackboard with writing in yellow chalk: “December 20th, 2045: Potassium soup, beefsteak, boiled fungi, Agreijitt dates.”
© Moussa Ould Ebnou. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by July Blalack. All rights reserved.
Having written my novel Dove mi trovo in Italian, I was the first to doubt that it could transform into English. Naturally it could be translated; any text can, to greater or lesser degrees of success. I was not apprehensive when translators began turning the novel into other languages—into Spanish or German or Dutch, for example. Rather, the prospect gratified me. But when it came to replicating this particular book, conceived and written in Italian, into the language that I knew best—the language I had emphatically stepped away from in order for it to be born in the first place—I was of two minds.
As I was writing Dove mi trovo, the thought of it being anything other than an Italian text felt irrelevant. While writing, one must keep one’s eyes on the road, straight ahead, and not contemplate or anticipate driving down another. The dangers, for the writer as for the driver, are obvious.
And yet, even as I was writing, I felt shadowed by two questions: 1) when would the text be turned into English and 2) who would translate it? These questions rose from the fact that I am also, and was for many years exclusively, a writer in English. And so, if I choose to write in Italian, the English version immediately rears its head, like a bulb that sprouts too early in mid-winter. Everything I write in Italian is born with the simultaneous potential—or perhaps destiny is the better word here—of existing in English. Another image, perhaps jarring, comes to mind: that of the burial plot of a surviving spouse, demarcated and waiting.
The responsibility of translation is as grave and as precarious as that of a surgeon who is trained to transplant organs, or to redirect the blood flow to our hearts, and I wavered at length over the question of who would perform the surgery. I thought back to other authors who had migrated into different languages. Had they translated their own work? And if so, where did translation taper off, and the act of rewriting take over? I was wary of betraying myself. Beckett had notably altered his French when translating himself into English. Brodsky, too, took great liberties when translating his Russian poetry into English. Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, an Argentine whose major works were composed in Italian, had been more “faithful” when rendering his texts into Spanish. Another Argentine, Borges, who had grown up bilingual in Spanish and English, translated numerous works into Spanish, but left the English translation of his own work to others. Leonora Carrington, whose first language was English, had also left the messy business of translating many of her French and Spanish stories to someone else, as had the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi in the case of Requiem, the great novel he wrote in Portuguese.
When an author migrates into another language, the subsequent crossing into the former language might be regarded, by some, as a crossing back, an act of return, a coming home. This idea is false, and it was also not my objective. Even before I decided to translate Dove mi trovo myself, I knew that the idea of “coming home” was no longer an option. I had gone too deep into Italian, and so English no longer represented the reassuring, essential act of coming up for air. My center of gravity had shifted; or at least, it had begun to shift back and forth.
I began writing Dove mi trovo in the spring of 2015. I had been living in Italy for three years, but I had already made the anguished decision to return to the United States. As with most projects, in the beginning, I had no sense that the words I was scribbling in a notebook would develop into a book. When I left Rome in August of that year, I took the notebook with me. It languished in my study in Brooklyn, though in retrospect “hibernated” is the apt term, for when I returned to Rome that winter, I found myself turning back to the notebook, which had traveled with me, and adding new scenes. The following year I moved to Princeton, New Jersey. But every two months or so I flew to Rome, either for short stays or for the summer, always with the notebook in my carry-on suitcase, and by 2017, once the notebook was full, I began to type out the contents.
In 2018, on sabbatical, I was able to move back to Rome for an entire year for the book’s publication. When asked about the English version, I said that it was still too soon to think about it. In order to undertake a translation, or even to evaluate a translation someone else has done, one must understand the particulars of the book in question, just as the surgeon, ideally, needs to study her patient’s organism before entering the operating room. I knew that I needed time—a great deal of it—to pass. I needed to gain distance from the novel, answer questions about it, hear responses from my Italian readers. For though I’d already written the book, I felt the way perhaps my own immigrant parents felt as they were raising me: the author of an inherently foreign creature, both recognizable and unrecognizable, born from my flesh and blood.
Regarding the eventual English translation, two camps quickly formed. Members of the first camp were those who urged me to translate the book myself. Their opponents urged me, with equal vehemence, to steer clear of the operation. To return to my analogy of the surgeon, I sometimes said, to members of the first camp, What surgeon, in need of an operation, would take the scalpel to herself? Wouldn’t she entrust the procedure to another pair of hands?
Following the advice of Gioia Guerzoni, an Italian translator friend who belonged to the second camp, I sought out the translator Frederika Randall, who worked out of Italian into English. Frederika was an American based in Rome for decades, not far from where I lived: the very part of the city where my book, loosely speaking (though I never specify this), is set. When she said she was willing to translate the first dozen or so pages, so that we could both get a feel for how her translation would sound, I was relieved. I was convinced that she was the ideal person to translate my novel, not only because she was an extremely skilled translator, but because she knew the setting and atmosphere of the book far better than I did.
I thought that perhaps, once she’d finished the translation, I could weigh in on one or two matters, and that my role would be respectfully collaborative. Grandmotherly, which was how I felt when Mira Nair had turned one of my other novels into a film. Perhaps this time I would be a slightly more involved grandmother than I had been to Ann Goldstein’s translation of In Other Words (produced at a time when I was wary of any reconnection with English, and did not relish the role of being a grandmother at all). Deep down, however, I was convinced that when I saw the English version, it would reveal, brusquely and definitively, the book’s failure to function in English, not due to any fault of Frederika, but because the book itself, inherently flawed, would refuse to comply, like a potato or an apple that, decayed within, must be set aside once it is cut open and examined, and cannot lend itself to any other dish.
Italian translation, for me, has always been a way to maintain contact with the language I love when I am far away from it.
Instead, when I read the pages she prepared for me, I found that the book was intact, that the sentences made sense, and that the Italian had enough sap to sustain another text in another language. At this point a surprising thing happened. I switched camps and felt the urge to take over, just as, watching my daughter turn somersaults underwater this past summer, I, too, was inspired to learn how. Of course, that discombobulating act of flipping over, the idea of which had always terrified me until the day I finally figured out, thanks to my daughter, how to execute the maneuver, was exactly what my own book had to do. Frederika, who had lived astride English and Italian for so very long, was bipartisan to the core. She had understood, initially, why I’d been reluctant to translate the book myself, and when I told her I was having a change of heart, she wasn’t surprised. Like my daughter, she encouraged me. As is often the case when crossing a new threshold, it had taken her example, just like my daughter’s, to show me that it could be done.
I was still in Rome—a place where I feel no inspiration to work out of Italian into English—when I came to my decision. When living and writing in Rome, I have an Italian center of gravity. I needed to move back to Princeton, where I am surrounded by English, where I miss Rome. Italian translation, for me, has always been a way to maintain contact with the language I love when I am far away from it. To translate is to alter one’s linguistic coordinates, to grab on to what has slipped away, to cope with exile.
I began translating at the start of the fall semester in 2019. I didn’t look at Frederika’s sample pages; in fact, I hid them away. The book consists of forty-six relatively brief chapters. I aimed to tackle one at each sitting, two or three sittings per week. I approached the text and it greeted me like certain neighbors—if not warmly, politely enough. As I felt my way back into the book, and pressed through it, it yielded discreetly. There were roadblocks now and then, and I stopped to ponder them, or I stepped over them, determined, before stopping to think too much about what I was doing, to reach the end.
One obvious roadblock was the title itself. The literal translation, which means “where I find myself,” sounded belabored to me. The book had no English title until, at the end of October, with a few chapters still left to translate, I stepped on a plane to go to Rome. Not long after takeoff, “whereabouts” popped into my brain. A word as inherently English, and as fundamentally untranslatable, as the expression dove mi trovo is in Italian. Somewhere in the air, over the waters that separate my English and Italian lives, the original title recognized itself—dare I say found itself—in another language.
Once I finished the first draft, I circulated it to a small group of readers who did not read Italian, who knew me well, and only, as a writer in English. Then I waited, anxiously, even though the book had already been born over a year before, and was already living, not only in Italian but, as previously mentioned, in other languages as well. It was only after these readers told me the book had spoken to them that I believed that the foolhardy operation I had performed on myself had not been in vain.
As Dove mi trovo was turning into Whereabouts, I naturally had to keep referring back to the original book I’d written. I began to notice a few repetitions in the Italian I wished I’d caught. Certain adjectives I was relying on too heavily. A few inconsistencies. I had miscounted the number of people at a dinner party, for example. I began to mark the Italian book with adhesive arrows, and then to keep a list to send to my Italian editors at Guanda, so that certain changes could be made in subsequent editions of the book. In other words, the second version of the book was now generating a third: a revised Italian text that was stemming from my self-translation. When translating oneself, each and every flaw or weakness in the former text becomes immediately and painfully apparent. Keeping to my medical metaphors, I would say that self-translation is like one of those radioactive dyes that enable doctors to look through our skin to locate damage in the cartilage, unfortunate blockages, and other states of imperfection.
Some people insist that there is no such thing as self-translation.
As discomfiting as this process of revelation was, I felt a parallel gratitude for the very ability to isolate these problems, to be aware of them and to find new solutions. The brutal act of self-translation frees oneself, once and for all, from the false myth of the definitive text. It was only by self-translating that I finally understood what Valéry meant when he said that a work of art was never finished, only abandoned. The publication of any book is an arbitrary act; there is no ideal phase of gestation, nor of birth, as is the case for living creatures. A book is done when it seems done, when it feels done, when the author is sick of it, or is eager to publish it, or when the editor wrests it away. All of my books, in retrospect, feel premature. The act of self-translation enables the author to restore a previously published work to its most vital and dynamic state—that of a work-in-progress—and to repair and recalibrate as needed.
Some people insist that there is no such thing as self-translation, and that it necessarily becomes an act of rewriting or emphatically editing—read: improving—the first go-around. This temptation attracts some and repels others. I personally was not interested in altering my Italian book in order to arrive at a more supple, elegant, and mature version of it in English. My aim was to respect and reproduce the novel I had originally conceived, but not so blindly as to reproduce and perpetuate certain infelicities.
As Whereabouts moved through copyediting to typeset pages, with different editors and proofreaders weighing in, so did the changes to Dove mi trovo continue to accumulate—I repeat, all relatively minor, but nevertheless significant to me. The two texts began to move forward in tandem, each on its own terms. When the paperback of Dove mi trovo eventually comes out in Italian—at the time of writing, it hasn’t yet—I will consider it the definitive version, at least for now, given that I have come to think of any “definitive text” largely the same way that I think of a mother tongue, at least in my case: an inherently debatable, perpetually relative concept.
The first day I sat down with the page proofs of Whereabouts, during the autumn of the coronavirus pandemic, I went to Firestone Library, at Princeton, booking a seat and taking my place at a round white marble table. I was masked and many feet away from the other three people allowed in a room that could easily hold one hundred. I realized that day, when pausing to question something in the English text, that I had left my battered copy of Dove mi trovo at home. The translator side of me, focused on bringing the book into English, was already subconsciously distancing and disassociating from the Italian. Of course, it is always strange, and also crucial, at the last stage of looking at a translation, to all but disregard the text in the original language. The latter cannot be hovering, as I did when my children first went off to school, somewhere in the building, alert to cries of protest. A true separation, as false as that is, must occur. In the final stages of reviewing a translation, either of one’s own work or someone else’s, one achieves a level of concentration that is akin to focusing purely on the quality and sensations of the water when one is swimming in the sea, as opposed to admiring elements that float through it or collect on the seabed. When one is so focused on language, a selective blindness sets in, and along with it, a form of X-ray vision.
Reading over the page proofs of Whereabouts in English, I began reflecting in my diary, in Italian, on the process of having translated it. In fact, the text you are now reading, which I’ve written in English, is a product of notes taken in Italian. In some sense, this is the first piece of writing that I have conceived bilingually, and so the subject, self-translation, feels especially appropriate. Here, in translation, are some of the notes I took:
1. The profoundly destabilizing thing about self-translation is that the book threatens to unravel, to hurtle toward potential annihilation. It seems to annihilate itself. Or am I annihilating it? No text should sustain that level of scrutiny; at a certain point, it cedes. It’s the reading and the scrutinizing, the insistent inquiry implicit in the act of writing and translating, that inevitably jostles the text.
2. This task is not for the faint of heart. It forces you to doubt the validity of every word on the page. It casts your book—already published, between covers, sold on shelves in stores—into a revised state of profound uncertainty. It is an operation that feels doomed from the start, even contrary to nature, like the experiments of Victor Frankenstein.
3. Self-translation is a bewildering, paradoxical going backward and moving forward at once. There is ongoing tension between the impulse to plow ahead undermined by a strange gravitational force that holds you back. One feels silenced in the very act of speaking. Those two dizzying tercets from Dante come to mind, with their language of doubling and their contorted logic: “Qual è colui che suo dannaggio sogna, / che sognando desidera sognare, / sì che quel ch’è, come non fosse, agogna, / tale me fec’io, non posando parlare, / che disiava scusarmi, e scusava / me tuttavia, e nol mi credea fare.” (Like one asleep who dreams himself in trouble / and in his dream he wishes he were dreaming, / longing for that which is, as if it were not, / just so I found myself: unable to speak, / longing to beg for pardon and already / begging for pardon, not knowing what I did.” (Inferno XXX, 136-141)
4. Reading the English, every sentence that felt off, that had gone astray in the translation, always led me back to a misreading of myself in Italian.
5. Whereabouts will emerge on its own, without the Italian text on the facing page, as was the case with In Other Words. But if anything, the absence of the Italian reinforces, for me, the bond between these two versions, one of which I wrote, and one of which I translated. These two versions have entered into a tennis match. But in fact, it’s the ball that represents both texts, volleyed from one side of the net over the other and back again.
6. Self-translation means prolonging your relationship to the book you’ve written. Time expands and the sun still shines when you expect things to go dark. This disorienting surplus of daylight feels unnatural, but it also feels advantageous, magical.
7. Self-translation affords a second act for a book, but in my opinion, this second act pertains less to the translated version than to the original, which is now readjusted and realigned thanks to the process of being dismantled and reassembled.
8. What I altered in Italian was what, in hindsight, still felt superfluous to my view. The stringent quality of English forced the Italian text, at times, to tighten its belt as well.
In some sense the book remains Italian in my head in spite of its metamorphosis into English.
9. I suppose the exhilarating aspect of translating myself was being constantly reminded, as I changed the words from one language to another, that I myself had changed so profoundly, and that I was capable of such change. I realized that my relationship to the English language, thanks to my linguistic graft, had also been irrevocably altered.
10. Whereabouts will never be an autonomous text in my mind, nor will the paperback of Dove mi trovo, which is now indebted to the process of first translating and then revising Whereabouts. They share the same vital organs. They are conjoined twins, though, on the surface, they bear no resemblance to one another. They have nourished and been nourished by the other. Once the translation was in progress, I almost felt like a passive bystander as they began sharing and exchanging elements between themselves.
11. I believe I began writing in Italian to obviate the need to have an Italian translator. As grateful as I am to those who have rendered my English books into Italian in the past, something was driving me, in Italian, to speak for myself. I have now assumed the role I had set out to eliminate, only in the inverse. Becoming my own translator in English has only lodged me further inside the Italian language.
12. In some sense the book remains Italian in my head in spite of its metamorphosis into English. The adjustments I made in English were always in service to the original text.
In reviewing the proofs of Whereabouts, I noticed a sentence I’d skipped entirely in the English. It has to do with the word portagioie, which, in the Italian version, the protagonist considers the most beautiful word in the Italian language. But the sentence only carries its full weight in Italian. The English equivalent of portagioie, “jewelry box,” doesn’t contain the poetry of portagioie, given that joys and jewels are not the same thing in English. I inserted the sentence into the translation, but had to alter it. This is probably the most significantly reworked bit of the book, and I added a footnote for clarification. I had hoped to avoid footnotes, but in this case, the me in Italian and the me in English had no common ground.
The penultimate chapter of the novel is called Da nessuna parte. I translated it as “Nowhere” in English, which breaks the string of prepositions in the Italian. An Italian reader pointed this out, suggesting I translate it more literally as “In no place.” I considered making the change, but in the end my English ear prevailed, and I opted for an adverb which, to my satisfaction, contains the “where” of the title I’d come up with.
There was one instance of grossly mistranslating myself. It was a crucial line, and I only caught the error in the final pass. As I was reading the English proofs aloud for the last time, without referring back to the Italian, I knew the sentence was wrong, and that I had completely, unintentionally mangled the meaning of my own words.
It also took several readings to correct an auxiliary verb in English that the Italian side of my brain, in the act of translating, had rendered sloppily. In English one takes steps, but in Italian one makes them. Given that I read and write in both languages, my brain has developed blind spots. It was only by looking again and again at the English that I saved a character in Whereabouts from “making steps.” Having said this, in English, it is possible to make missteps.
In the end, the hardest thing about translating Whereabouts were the lines written not by me but by two other writers: Italo Svevo—whom I cite in the epigraph—and Corrado Alvaro, whom I cite in the body of the text. Their words, not mine, are the ones I feel ultimately responsible for, and have wrestled with most. These are the lines I will continue to fret over even when the book goes to press. The desire to translate—to press up as closely as possible to the words of another, to cross the threshold of one’s consciousness—is keener when the other remains inexorably, incontrovertibly out of reach.
I believe it was important to have gained experience translating other authors out of Italian before confronting Dove mi trovo. The upsetting experience of trying to translate myself early on in the process of writing in Italian, which I briefly touched upon in In Other Words, had a lot to do with the fact that I had yet to translate out of Italian. All my energy back then was devoted to sinking deeper into the new language and avoiding English as much as possible. I had to establish myself as a translator of others before I could achieve the illusion of being another myself.
As someone who dislikes looking back at her work, and prefers not to reread it if at all possible, I was not an ideal candidate to translate Dove mi trovo, given that translation is the most intense form of reading and rereading there is. I have never reread one of my books as many times as Dove mi trovo. The experience would have been deadening had it been one of my English books. But working with Italian, even a book that I have myself composed slips surprisingly easily in and out of my hands. This is because the language resides both within me and beyond my grasp. The author who wrote Dove mi trovo both is and is not the author who translated them. This split consciousness is, if nothing else, a bracing experience.
Self-translation led to a deep awareness of the book I'd written, and therefore, to one of my past selves.
For years I have trained myself, when asked to read aloud from my work, to approach it as if it had been written by someone else. Perhaps my impulse to separate radically from my former work, book after book, was already conditioning me to recognize the separate writers who have always dwelled inside me. We write books in a fixed moment in time, in a specific phase of our consciousness and development. That is why reading words written years ago feels alienating. You are no longer the person whose existence depended on the production of those words. But alienation, for better or for worse, establishes distance, and grants perspective, two things that are particularly crucial to the act of self-translation.
Self-translation led to a deep awareness of the book I’d written, and therefore, to one of my past selves. As I’ve said, once I write my other books, I tend to walk away as quickly as possible, whereas I now have a certain residual affection for Dove mi trovo, just as I do for its English counterpart—an affection born from the intimacy that can only be achieved by the collaborative act of translating as opposed to the solitary act of writing.
I also feel, toward Dove mi trovo, a level of acceptance that I have not felt for the other books. The others still haunt me with choices I might have made, ideas I ought to have developed, passages that should have been further revised. In translating Dove mi trovo, in writing it a second time in a second language and allowing it to be born, largely intact, a second time, I feel closer to it, doubly tied to it, whereas the other books represent a series of relationships, passionate and life-altering at the time, that have now cooled to embers, having never strayed beyond the point of no return.
My copy of Dove mi trovo in Italian is a now dog-eared volume, underlined and marked with Post-its indicating the various corrections and clarifications to make. It has transformed from a published text to something resembling a set of bound galleys. I would never have thought to make those changes had I not translated the book out of the language in which I conceived and created it. Only I was capable of accessing and altering both texts from the inside. Now that the book is about to be printed in English, it has traded places with the finished Italian copy, which has lost its published patina, at least from the author’s point of view, and resumed the identity of a work still in its final stages of becoming a published text. As I write this, Whereabouts is being sewn up for publication, but Dove mi trovo needs to be opened up again for a few discreet procedures. That original book, which now feels incomplete to me, stands in line behind its English-language counterpart. Like an image viewed in the mirror, it has turned into the simulacrum, and both is and is not the starting point for what rationally and irrationally followed.
© 2021 by Jhumpa Lahiri. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, vol. 1: Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin, 1984), p. 347.