lives own their facts/…facts own their lives… (Zong! #22)
1. In 2016 Renata Morresi, wrote to me stating that she was interested in translating Zong! into Italian. Renata Morresi stated that she did not have a publisher. I advised Renata Morresi that she would have to get permission from the publishers, Wesleyan University Press (WUP). At the time it appeared to be something of a passion project and assumed that she would be in touch with me once she had a publisher. I heard nothing more from Renata Morresi until June 11, 2021 when I received congratulations from Benway Series Press on publication of a translation of Zong! by Renata Moressi.
2. In 2020 WUP sold the translation rights to Benway Series Press for $150. WUP did not inform me that the rights had been sold nor did they put me in touch with the translator Renata Morresi or Benway Series Press.
3. At least five people, including representatives of the Canada Council which funded the translation in the amount of some $13,000, have been involved in this Italian translation of Zong!, all of whom are white, and yet no one thought it necessary to consult with me, the Black and African-descended author of the said work, which engages with the transatlantic slave trade and which, as plainly stated on the cover—as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng—involved Ancestral voices.
4. In addition to this egregious act of negligence regarding process and common standards within the translation community, the translator, Renata Morresi, failed to respect the foundational and organizing principle of Zong!, which is that no word or cluster of words can come directly below another: each word, fragment or word cluster is seeking the space above to breathe as those massacred 240 years ago this November were not able to breathe. It is this restraint and conceptual rigour that gives the work its distinctive shape.
5. On p.203 of the Notanda that appears at the end of Zong!, I state: “every word or word cluster is seeking a space directly above within which to fit itself and in so doing falls into relation with others either above, below, or laterally. This is the governing principle and adds a strongly visual quality to the work.” Renata Moressi has ignored this principle.
5. In ignoring this principle Renata Moressi is in breach of the Translators’ Code established by the Federation of International Translators, in particular paras. 4 and 11. These read as follows:
4. Every translation shall be faithful and render exactly the idea and form of the original, this fidelity constituting both a moral and legal obligation for the translator. (my emphasis)
11. Being a “secondary” author, the translator is required to accept special obligations with respect to the author of the original work.
6. Renata Morresi and Benway Series Press are also in breach of my moral rights as an author and, in particular, as regards a work that engaged Ancestral protocols and obligations.
7. Since June 11, 2021, when I first received notice of the publication of the translation by Benway Series, I have been making my concerns known to all the parties concerned, Renata Morresi, Benway Series Press, WUP and the Canada Council. I called for the work to be destroyed, an act which publishers do find necessary to do from time to time. Despite my making my concerns and opposition to the publication known to everyone, no one listened to me or took my concerns seriously.
8. On June 18, 2021, Benway Series Press wrote to me and did agree with me that they and the translator should have been in contact with me earlier: “You are entirely right when you say that we, Benway Series and the translator, should have contacted you earlier.”
9. They excuse themselves as follows: “Although the project has been ongoing since at least 2016, the great bulk of the translation, the editing and the painstaking proof-reading of your book was essentially done during the pandemic, among great personal and professional difficulties, and on a very tight schedule.” The translation appears to have essentially been a pandemic project.
10. In late August 2021 I received an email from WUP informing me that Benway was intending to go ahead with the distribution of the translation because they had told the Canada Council that they would publish the work by June 2021.
11. On September 1, 2021, I informed all the parties that unless I had a confirmation that Benway would destroy the translation and remove all mention of it from their website, I would make the situation public.
12. On September 1, 2021, WUP, via email, finally agreed that the translation did not follow the organizing principal of the original and agreed that the text should be destroyed and expressed hope that Benway Series would agree.
13. In response to these events WUP has changed its policies concerning informing authors of sale of licenses and has set a minimum fee of $500 for print runs under 1,000 books.
13. On September 1, 2021, via email, Renata Morresi continued to assert that the texts were exactly the same except for a few places where there was some overlap: “I invite everybody who hasn’t had the chance to do it yet to compare the original and its translation page by page: they will realize that the Italian version follows the layout of the original in almost every instance. Yes, in a few instances a word or a cluster of words slightly superimposes the word or cluster of words in the previous line, for the space of a character or two….”
14. Morresi’s statement is inaccurate, since there are many, many pages where the organizing principle is not followed.
15. Morresi also states in this letter that she reached out to me for “advice and collaboration more than once.” (Her emphasis) I have one request from Renata Morresi in 2016 referred to in para. 1 above. There was a failed attempt made by a third party to speak with her after the Benway publication.
16. I did not respond to Morresi because she had not contacted Wesleyan and did not have a contract. Morresi is clearly of the opinion that because she was interested in translating Zong!, I should have made myself available to work with her with no contract or financial recompense for my time. This is a form of exploitation and entitlement.
17. Benway Series Press did not reply to my September 1, 2021 email.
18. On September 7, 2012, I wrote once again to Benway concerning their failure to respond to my September 1, 2021 letter. In response Benway Series wrote that “(d)oubts about the book’s quality and graphic rendering… cannot be attributed to identity differences or presumed essences.”
19. Neither Renata Morresi nor Benway Series Press appear interested in the fact that in allowing the words to breathe on the page, the experience of the Zong massacre by drowning—the content, if you will, has been braided into the formal and textual properties of the work; in other words the form of Zong! is also the content and the content the form. Benway Series and Renata Morresi appear more concerned with what the former describes as the “graphic rendering” of the text, and the latter with how the text can be used to further the discussion of racism in Italy. Neither Benway Series nor Renata Morresi appear concerned with the reparative intent of the work for Black and African-descended people; indeed Benway dismisses those as “identity differences” and “presumed essences.” They do not consider Zong! a work of mourning or an honouring of the Ancestors, which it was written as. For the most part, they are more interested in how Zong! can kick start a discussion on race related to the migrant crisis in Italy today and be used to challenge a Fascist legacy.
20. Among the layers of erasure enacted by Benway Series is the fact that although they are a bilingual press and all their other books listed on their site are bilingual, Zong! is the only book to appear that is only in Italian.
21. Most recently Benway Series has publicly accused me on their website and on my FB page of racial essentialism; tribalism; authoritarianism & totalitarianism; North American privilege and colonialism.
2016: Renata Morresi contacts NourbeSe regarding wish to write Italian translation of Zong! June 11 2021: Benway announces Italian translation of Zong! June 11 2021: NourbeSe asks Suzanna (Wesleyan) and Benway Series to be informed of translation process, contracts and rights
June 14 2021: Suzanna Tamminen confirms Benway signed contract with Wesleyan for $150
June 15 2021: After assessment of text, NourbeSe informs Benway Seies translation is unacceptable
June 16: Benway explains process, CCA funding and anonymous peer-review
June 21: Renata Morresi contacts NourbeSe
July 1: Renata Morresi contacts NourbeSe
July 8: Suzanna Tamminen confirms outside reader
August 30: Suzanna Tamminen contacts NourbeSe
September 1: NourbeSe writes to Benway to inform them of her opposed to publication, informs them she will go public
September 1: Suzanna Tamminen agrees project should be pulled
September 1: Renata Morresi contacts NourbeSe
September 7: NourbeSe inquires to Benway Series; asks why they have not responded to request to pull book
September 9: Benway Series responds to NourbeSe
September 9: NourbeSe contacts Benway for name of Canada Council contact September 9: Benway responds to NourbeSe; telling her CCA contact remains anonymous to applicants
May 31, 2016, Renata Morresi contacted M. NourbeSe Philip:
Dear M. NourbeSe Philip,
I am so happy to hear you find our translation project interesting: it certainly is an amazing job and more than once I happen to wake up in the middle of the night with a word, an expression, a ‘solution’ to some linguistic question haunting me (sometimes it was just the ghost of a solution, sometimes just a ghost). I say “our” project because, despite being the only translator of the poetic text, I feel thankful to my two ‘fellow travellers’: Andrea Raos, a Japan-based poet-translator, who first sent me your book as a gift and encouraged me to imagine an Italian translation, and who has already translated “Notanda”, and Veronica Costanza Ward, Afro-American-Italian poet and journalist who was enthralled by Zong! as soon as we described it to her, and constantly spurs us on. I imagine that even in translation Zong! cannot but be the result of a collective effort. We haven’t found a publisher yet, and I suspect the search will prove itself as complex as the translation, but I am hopeful. Of course, we will need your consent (and Weslyan’s, too). I don’t know whether you speak Italian, but if you feel like we can discuss the drafts (it would certainly be an invaluable help for me). As I am going on in the text I realize an essential part in the translation process is made up of recreating the hidden/overt/recurring relations among the ‘floating’ words and fragments; relations which are always multifarious (sonic, semantic, rhythmic, etc.) and which produce different effects, repeatedly displacing the reader, who’s never on ‘safe ground’. Very challenging work, but I do really hope I can go through it successfully.
Tell me what you think about this, whether you would like to take a look at some pages, and whatever you feel it is necessary to say and take care of.
We are happy to announce that the Italian translation of Zong! is about to go to print. We wish to thank you for the opportunity you gave us to work on your book, a task that deeply absorbed us in the last few years. The team was composed of the two of us for Benway Series, and then the translator, Renata Morresi (also an outstanding poet on her own), and Andrea Raos who contributed to the coordination of the project. The support of the Canada Council for the Arts was quintessential.
Please find attached to this email the PDF file of the translation. We will be happy to send you some copies of the book if you let us know your mail address.
For the promotion of the book we are in contact with the Embassy of Canada in Rome, and for the moment we are thinking of an online presentation, on Zoom or another similar platform. To this end, we would like to know if you would be interested in participating and when you might be available. We were thinking of some time between July and September, but we can be flexible according to your other engagements.
We would also be honored to plan a live (in person) presentation and/or reading some time in the future. So we were wondering if you may already be planning to come to Europe in the next few months or, conversely, if there are any periods from here until next year when it would be entirely impossible for you to plan a visit to Italy.
Thank you again for your beautiful book.
With our very best wishes,
Mariangela Guatteri and Giulio Marzaioli for Benway Series
On June 11, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Suzanna Tamminen of Wesleyan University Press:
Please see below—was a contract ever signed for this translation? They had mentioned in an earlier email —as in 2016 (see previous email)—that they would be in touch with Wesleyan. Please enquire as to what is going if you have not been apprised of this.
On June 11, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Benway Series:
Dear Mariangela and Giulio,
Greetings and thank you for the good news of the translation! Congratulations to you all who have worked hard on this project—I am honoured and I know the Ancestors thank you. It is so important that this work reach European countries many of which are the ground zero of the trauma that is ongoing.
I am sorry to talk business at a time such as this, but I would very much appreciate it if someone would update me on this. Not having heard anything from anyone since 2016, I had no idea it was going ahead. Was a contract ever signed with Wesleyan? I am copying this to Wesleyan since they need to be involved in these discussions and I will of course be in contact with them.
Once again heartfelt congratulations,
On June 14, 2021, Benway Series emails M. NourbeSe Philip, cc: Suzanna Tamminen, confirms contract with Wesleyan:
Thank you so much for your kind reply. Please be assured that Benway Series stipulated a regular contract with Wesleyan. It will be a pleasure to mail you some copies of the book if you let us have your address.
In the hope of having the pleasure to meet you in Italy in the near future, and with our very best wishes,
Mariangela and Giulio
On June 14, 2021, Suzanna Tamminen wrote to M. NourbeSe Philip:
Yes they have been very diligent and they have signed a formal agreement with us. There is also going to be a Swedish edition in 2022 with Ramus forlag.
Very best to you
On June 14, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Suzanna Tamminen:
Why haven’t you been keeping me aware of these developments? I am aware Wesleyan has world rights but I have never seen either contract; I have no idea what they have paid, if anything. This lack of transparency is unacceptable.
On June 14, 2021, Suzanna Tamminen replied to M. NourbeSe Philip:
It’s just not part of the normal process to send sub rights and permissions updates to authors. I will try to do this for your work, going forward. Benway is doing a very small edition of 200 copies and their fee is $150. The Swedish edition is planned for 800 copies and they will pay $1,225 in two instalments. I think we may receive some of this income in time to wrap it into the payment in August 2021, but more likely it will be received and paid out in fiscal 21-22. I hope that Kara at HFS was able to get the $1425 from last year to go through to you.
All best, Suzanna
On June 15, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Benway Series regarding unauthorized translation:
Dear Mariengela Guatteri and Giulio Marzaioli,
I once again wish to thank you for the efforts you have made translating Zong! and acknowledge that it has been a long journey for you all. I have now had an opportunity to look at the “translated” text and I regret to say that I am extremely unhappy with it. I wish that somewhere along this long journey that you took, you had thought to talk to me. I wish Suzanna Tamminen had had the courtesy to let me know that you had approached her, so that I could have been in touch with you.
The most important activity happening in Zong! are the silences on the page, not the words. The central and organizing principal around which the words are laid out in the sections that follow Os is that no word or word cluster can come directly below another, thereby allowing them to breathe into the space above. In seeking the breath in the space above, the words echo the actions of those who were thrown overboard the slave ship Zong. They also resonate with the long struggle of Africans to find the breath and space of freedom—from the maroons running from enslavement to George Floyd, whose last words were, “I can’t breathe.” I repeat—the most important activity happening in the text Zong! are the silences which are filled with the unknown and the unknowing, filled with potentiality and possibility. Not the words. These silences, part of the larger Silence must be honoured. Formally and on the page. It is in honouring the formal constraints on the page that we honour the history and memory of the massacre, and, most importantly, those lives de-named, erased, dismissed and lost.
This simple but profound rule is what gives the text its distinctive shape. You have completely ignored that, and, as a consequence, what you have produced is a travesty of the poem and a dishonouring of all that the work is about.
I also want to address the fact that there were poets working on this text. I am surprised and disappointed that another poet would think it acceptable to disrespect another poet’s work to the degree that they would be careless with the placement of words or phrases. This is not how I understand poets to work, understanding as we do the deep and essential work that language does. One important aspect of our craft as poets is precision— precision of placement, precision of words, precision of punctuation, precision in all things. It is how we express care for language, for that is what we do as poets: we care for language and the wonderfully difficult work it does and in caring for language, we care for others, for their lives, filled with wonder and heartache and tragedy and trauma. We care for language, this thing that makes us being-human in ways those enslaved Africans on board the Zong were not cared for and were seen as so much cargo to be dispensed with. Zong! is a deep and profound expression of care for them, such as they did not find at the end of their lives on board the Zong. Unfortunately, this translation, while originating in a place of interest in the work and a desire to share it, continues this pattern of lack of care.
Form is of great importance and significance to me as a poet and Zong! is a work of great formal strength, a quality that was and is necessary to meet the powerful centrifugal—Cesaire refers to it as volcanic— force of the transatlantic trade in Africans (I would include the Arab trade as well.). To fail to honour the formal properties of the work is to mutilate the text (an act we are all too familiar with) and all that Zong! is attempting. To fail to honour the craft of a poet is a profound act of disrespect and reveals a lack of care on many levels.
I also have grave concerns with how the Ebora section has been “translated” and the cover is disappointing and does not do the work justice. All of this could have been avoided had you consulted with me; all of this could have been avoided if Suzanna Tamminen had let me know that she had signed an agreement with you for translation rights. Further to this point about communication, I pulled this off the internet regarding translating poetry:
“Know the poet. If you are lucky enough to pick a living poet to translate, write to him or her. Get to know the person; ask him or her questions about the poem. What was the poet thinking when writing the poem? What does the poet think the poem means? Is there any imagery or language that is repeated? Is there anything symbolic from his or her life? What does the poet think of poetry? The more you know about the poet and his or her life, the better able you are to understand the nuances of the poem. Be courteous and grateful. The poet is answering your questions to help you with your translation.”
I am aware that the desire to translate Zong! comes from admiration for the work and a desire to share the work with a European audience, which leaves me troubled and wondering why I was not consulted. I have my own ideas but I would welcome an explanation from you.
In conclusion, I am in fundamental opposition to the Benway Series publication of Zong! proceeding any further and I will be writing to the Canada Council on the matter and copying this letter to them. I have already been in communication with Suzanna Tamminen about her failure to let me know about the contract and will be in further communication to her. I know this will be a disappointment to you, especially given the time you have put into the translation. I can only trust that you understand my position as the “unauthor” of this story that cannot be told, yet must be told and which can only be told by not telling. I responded to the call of the Ancestors as one must when they come calling. It is they whom I honour and to whom I must listen. This translation dishonours them profoundly.
On June 18, 2021, Benway Series replied to M. NourbeSe Philip, cc: Suzanna Tamminen
Dear NourbeSe Philip,
We are deeply saddened that your first impression of our work on your book was negative. Renata Morresi is an extremely skilled, and multi-award-winning, poet and translator. As a matter of fact, before Suzanna agreed to give Benway Series the translation rights of your book, a first draft of the translation was anonymously peer-reviewed, in very positive terms. We don’t know whether it would be appropriate for Suzanna to let you see that review, but were it possible, we are confident that this could help in reassuring you about the seriousness of Renata’s work.
As for the cover, its design is in line with the characteristics of the series in which your book is published. Except that we decided to print your book in a size that is way larger than the other titles, precisely in an effort to respect as much as possible the form as well as the spirit of the original.
Regarding Ẹbọra, it was ‘translated’ by Mariangela Guatteri, who is a visual artist and writer on her own in addition to being the person that physically (almost literally with her own hands) creates the Benway Series books. She writes as follows:
«My starting point was the process that originated Ẹbọra as it is described in Notanda. I thought that it wouldn’t be possible to translate an unwanted mistake generated by a machine, even though that mistake was later rationalized and accepted by the author. Therefore, my attempt was to reproduce the outcome of that very mistake.
This resulted in textual pages that also have a very strong visual (and emotional) dimension.
Furthermore, this visual dimension is made of movements, of plenums and voids (i.e. full and empty spaces), and of planes that break away from the two-dimensional spaces. These are the aspects I focused on.
To me, one very important trait of Ẹbọra is that the visual and textual dimensions intertwine and reinforce each other, thus creating surfacings and disappearances.
I should also add that the pages I worked on were not chosen randomly; inasmuch as possible, I retraced the corresponding pages in the original Ẹbọra.»
Regarding your intention to write to the Canada Council for the Arts, we think that you should be aware of the nature of Benway Series. Founded in 2013, Benway is not a mainstream publishing house. It is a project by poets for poets that makes beautifully crafted books, painstakingly going after every single detail. And over the years, we have published authors such as Nathalie Quintane, Charles Reznikoff, Francis Ponge, Forrest Gander, and several others.
You are entirely right when you say that we, Benway Series and the translator, should have contacted you earlier. But please be aware that, although the project has been ongoing since at least 2016, the great bulk of the translation, the editing and the painstaking proof-reading of your book was essentially done during the pandemic, among great personal and professional difficulties, and on a very tight schedule. We hope that we can count on your understanding, and that you will accept our heartfelt apologies.
Very sincerely yours,
Mariangela Guatteri and Giulio Marzaioli for Benway Series, Renata Morresi, Andrea Raos
On June 21, 2021, Renata Morresi contacted M. NourbeSe Philip:
Dear NourbeSe Philip,
Please allow me a few words about the translation of Zong!, the humbling experience that it has been, the importance of this first translation – and not just for the literary field – in the country where I live, and the feelings of utter respect that have kept me from disturbing you.
The translation of Zong! in a foreign language could only happen within the limits and the horizon of that language: not merely its unfamiliar rules and words, but also its unfamiliar relationship to what is silent, what is obliterated, what is unspoken. (‘Unfamiliar’ and ‘foreign’ are always situated, though, and relative, which reminds me of what Glissant suggested: we always write in the presence of all languages). I understand it must be a bit of shock to see one’s work into what seems a different, apparently incongruous, form. But in that excess, in the space of difference, there hopefully lies new resonance. The dialogue is renewed, the nekyia goes on.
More humbly, I am aware that my ‘version’ of the work into Italian is just one of the many possible versions, and it is not so much ‘mine’, rather an extension of a primary, incomparable work; its ambition is to be read by those people who can’t speak or read the original in English. And there are many in Italy, which is still quite a monolingual country, in many ways still regrettably monocultural.
I don’t think that this work has betrayed the foundations of the ‘source text’: it has used the Gregson v. Gilbert report as a word bank, it has fragmented words as a way to mirror the destruction of African life on board of the Zong, and in every possible way it has aspired to opening up the ‘logical’ lexis to its many other possible lives: other languages, other touches, other cries, other prayers, other silences. There is so much silence in Italy about the boat-people who cross the Mediterranean to look for work, hope, refuge in Europe. Many of them end up finding the opposite: centers where they are kept prisoners, without an identity, jobs that exploit them, new forms of segregation. And before all this, torture and exploitation in the North-African detention camps and then, in this middle passage, sometimes – how many times? – the bottom of the sea. I must admit this: my work with Zong! has been a way to short circuit these facts and those facts, and spotlight the ghastly dehumanization still going on in the name of profit, hierarchy, status. You are perhaps not aware of the debate about citizenship going on in Italy, where people who were born and raised here haven’t got access to Italian citizenship if their parents are migrants. Thousands of young people left without political rights and whose civil and human rights are deeply affected in the name of a supposed hereditary Italianness.
But about the translation, again: you must not think it has been rushed or unadvised. Much study has been going on, a lot of reading of your other works, of critical essays about Zong!, interviews, reviews, history of the slave trade, poetics of trauma and memory, your presentations and readings on YouTube, and more.
I had to work within the constraint of a language with different morphology and syntax, with very few monosyllabic words, unlike English, and gender inflection, to name just one of the ‘problems’. I asked for your blessing but I still feel it would have been naïve to ask you whether this Italian word or that Italian word would have been better. It was not a question of words in the first place, I assure you I am completely aware of that. Translating is a process that has to do not with what the words say but with what a text does. And surprisingly enough Zong! manages to do many things, even in this format you found so repulsive.
A personal note: it is thanks to my Slavic grandmother, a post-war refugee with her two sisters, who never came to learn Italian ‘properly’ (whatever that means), and from her multilingual lullabies and riddles that I ended up loving poetry and its possibilities. I do hope that her selfless spirit of devotion to others has at least in part guided me in a translation meant to be of service, without any other ambition than to serve your work and the people who can’t have access to its original voice/s.
I am aware that Zong! may have many enemies in this country: ultra-conservatives, nostalgic fascists, theo-cons, the populist right, the ‘standard’ racists, the cynics and the elitists who will probably keep on snubbing and ignoring it. In this struggle, it would be tremendously painful not to have the author’s support. I sincerely hope you will come to look at this rendition in a new light: as an opportunity and not so much as a flaw.
On July 1, 2021, Renata Morresi contacts M. NourbeSe Philip:
It’s a pleasure to read that your work is so widely loved, I had no doubt about it. I am very sorry and I must apologize for everything that went wrong in our communication. Let me please explain what I meant when I said, in a previous email, that everything was done out of respect towards you. When I wrote to tell you about the translation and ask for your support, you were kind, but then you never told me you were interested in talking about it and actually never replied (I’ll send here the email in attachment, just for the sake of clarity). Ithought that it was because you were busy and found the thing of minor interest; to tell the truth, Italian is a minor language, so I understand that an English-speaking author is not really into it. That’s why when I found the Benway series publisher willing to communicate with your publisher I thought it was wiser to go ‘the institutional way’, not bothering you directly. We sent sample translations to Wesleyan, they had them reviewed, and they wrote the contract that the Italian publisher signed. I presumed you knew everything, I now realized how wrong I was.
Let me briefly add something about the translation itself: discrepancies in the alignment were not the result of random choices. Translation is about the negotiation of differences and the differences between the two languages involved a different treatment of the space: I preferred to deal with the clusters as coordinates than to maintain the original spacing, because this would have meant, in some cases, a disruption in the lines. There’s also another reason for this choice: in October 2013 a boat carrying hundreds of migrants shipwrecked out of the coast of Lampedusa, in Southern Italy. More than 360 people died and this tragedy was a turning point in the history of the Mediterranean for many reasons. One of the pilots of the helicopters involved in the rescue operations later described the appalling sight that he could see from above, and how the pilots involved chose the floating body of a woman dressed in vivid purple to function as a reference point (in Italian it’s called “punto nave”, literally “ship point”) to give coordinates and assistance to the rescuing team below. So, I treated the clusters not as points pinned on the page, but as floating points in relation to each other, which could provide a form of help in this moment of danger, even after more than 200 years. I am deeply sorry that this was taken as a misappropriation. Maybe it was, maybe there’s nothing like the past, nothing like the present.
The origins of writing cannot be the same (say, me invoking the Ancestors to reproduce the conditions of production: I wouldn’t dare): my work is not an original and it will never be; but it’s not a final work either, and I am willing to work on it to fix it, if you agree to allow me.
I’ll teach your work next semester (your work, not my translation) and there will likely be students who will want to write their thesis about it: I would be grateful if you could share any advice.
Please, accept my deepest apologies,
On July 8, 2021, Suzanna Tamminen contacts M. NourbeSe Philip:
I am writing with some thoughts about the Italian edition of Zong!. Benway contacted us in fall 2019 and sent us the attached sample of materials, which were vetted by an outside reader. The reader’s comments are below. Benway contacted us again in April 2020, and we proceeded to a contract. The next time we heard from them was June 2021, when they emailed you and I together about the completion of the work, and shared the full page proofs.
When I compare the Italian page proofs to the English edition, page for page, I see that the Italian follows the layout of the English exactly. The Italian often needs more letters, though, which is creating a lack of space when compared to the English. I think the best solution to this would be to add a translators’ note in the book that would explain how the translation was made, and show a few pages of the original as a comparison.
Once this edition is published, I expect it receive reviews and that both its themes as well as its successes and flaws as a translation can be discussed. Expanding the critical discourse on the book in this way helps to ensure that the book remains on reading lists for years to come. I will email Benway to see if they have had any additional thoughts about this, and if they would consider adding a translator’s note to the book.
Please note that Stephanie and I are back in the office now and can be reached again at [redacted].
With best regards, Suzanna
Outside reader comments [added]: This highly ambitious manuscript of translation brought to fruition by a respected poet and translator holds out great promise, and deserves to be published as soon as practicable once it is complete; indeed, it has been eagerly anticipated in the small but robust experimental literary community in Italy. I was grateful to have a chance to read these sections, and from the very impressive first pages that replicate deconstruction of the words “water/acqua” and “good/buono” across a linguistic divide to the increasingly granular dissections of “Sal,” was gratified by what I encountered. The translator’s choice to bring Philip’s epic poetry into the Italian language represents, in my view, nothing less than a watershed in contemporary European literature. Rendered in all its brokenness and resuturing to the other languages complicit in the suffering of drowned Africans of the Middle Passage (and their heirs), yet (hopefully) armed with the renowned and pointed critical apparatus of Philip’s afterword, this work promises to introduce to the Italian republic of letters—and to a tongue on the front lines of the global migration “crisis”—a language with which to address, and rebuke, the unspeakable legal and ethical failures being legitimized daily by a mounting white supremacist state apparatus.
As would be the case in nearly any translation of difficult poetry, I have questions about some lexical choices—though I am certain that the renderings here were made upon vigilant reflection, and imagine that this text will be accompanied by a translator’s introduction that can work through some of their logic. I wonder, for instance, about the rendering of “throwing” as “evacuazione,” which has the benefit of echoing “acqua,” and also reflects the way that contemporary rescue missions are represented in the news, but does not represent the same physical action as the very violent “throwing” (“gettare”) or, for instance, the dark philosophical shadow of Heidegger. “Garante,” similarly, has a very different feeling from the original English term “underwriter,” which in this text can be read literally and somehow throw the meaning of the overlords’ law into question (hence the translator might consider “sottoscrittore”). Other choices by Philip such as “arose” (which returns in the form of “rose”), “weight,” and “ground” also play with these freighted issues of grounding, drowning, aboveness and belowness, and might influence the translation as it progresses. Other choices such as the use of proper nouns that echo concepts, or the use of creole, are very difficult to determine, requiring great flexibility and multiple solutions on the translator’s part, and one could debate them endlessly: the substitution of “pietà” for “ruth,” for instance, or the decision to render italicized spoken nation-language phrases such as “dem cam fo me” as the relatively standard (and unitalicized) “gli uomini vengono per me.” I would like to see some italicization in places where effects like these are either lost or changed. Narrative notes at the end of the text would also help the Italian readership to grasp the translation process on a more granular level.
The highly inflected Italian is not as flexible as the simpler English grammar, and this introduces some truly knotty problems for any translator between the two languages. I would be careful in this text about keeping verbs such as “die” distinct from nouns such as “death” (for instance on page 15 of Zong #9, “the suffered in / die”), and notwithstanding the discomfort it creates, maintaining the ungrammaticality of moments like these (page 19 of the original, “could / found,” is made grammatical with “potuto / trovare”). At certain points the changing of a preposition in “Os” changes the meaning, and in such ladder-like assemblages this creates a question in the reader’s mind. I’m thinking of, for instance, “schiavi / in ordine di / distrutti” instead of “slaves / to the order of / destroyed.” To be a slave to something is not the same thing as being a slave in an order of something. In other places where the English is broken as a result of forcing a centuries-old lexicon into contemporary lingo (such as “where s the cat”) it would be important to retain this sense of fragmentation at as many points as possible (rather than restoring to “dove è il gatto”), in my opinion. (The translation does retain traces of this, but not in every single case.)
In “Sal,” on the other hand, the English text’s recourse to Latin makes for an almost natural translation into Italian, and one delights in how well Philip’s effects come across.
On July 13, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip replied to Suzanna Tamminen:
You are entirely mistaken in your statement that the “Italian follows the layout of the English exactly.” I have attached random pages selected from the translation with the relevant page # from the Wesleyan edition: it is very clear that it does not “exactly” follow the layout of the original.
I do not agree with nor do I accept what you describe as the “best solution.” You clearly do not, nor do you care to, understand the conceptual ideas or the formal properties behind the work. If you did, you could not so cavalierly talk about this translation that so disrespects those ideas and properties, and, more importantly, the work that the text accomplishes in the world for Black and African-descended people living in the wake of the trans-Atlantic trade in Africans. If you did, you would not reduce this failed attempt at a translation of Zong! to a matter of getting “reviews” and “ensuring that the book remains on reading lists for years to come.”
The failure of the translator, Renata Morresi, and the publishers, Benway, to contact me, compounded by your own egregious failure to include me in this process, demonstrates the workings of white supremacy at both the institutional and personal levels. Let me parse that for you: there have been at least five people engaged in this translation— the translator, the two individuals from Benway, the external reader of the translation sample sent to you, and yourself, all of whom are white, deciding on the translation of a work by a Black and African-descended author about a horrific event in the cataclysmic history that is the Maafa(the transatlantic slave trade), and no one thinks that it just might be useful or helpful to speak to the author of the work. Didn’t the optics of this not strike you as unacceptable, or are you all so engorged with a sense of your own self-importance that it appeared normal? I question whether this would so easily have happened were the poet from a culture other than Black or African; I also question whether this would have happened so easily to a white, male author, and the very fact that I have to raise these questions to myself tells me how little has, indeed, changed. Your proposal of the “best solution” to the present situation ignores a process that was flawed from the beginning—a process that was profoundly disrespectful of me as the author and results in an outcome, despite all the good intentions of all of you, that can only be described as racist. It is a process that you participated in and fostered. This flawed and racist process has resulted in a translation that fundamentally disregards the organizing principle of, and the conceptual idea undergirding, the text—that no word or cluster of words can come directly under another; each word or word cluster is seeking the space directly above it to breathe, the reasons for which are both theoretical and spiritual. Then and now the words and word clusters breathe in honour and in memory of those who could not and still cannot breathe. It is also this theoretical organizing principle that gives the work its distinctive shape and appearance.
I will share with you a quotation I shared with Benway regarding the value of the translator speaking to the poet if they are alive, which I found on the internet with just cursory searching. I cannot believe that this is new to you as editor-in-chief, or any of the others involved in this sorry endeavour of erasure:
“Know the poet. If you are lucky enough to pick a living poet to translate, write to him or her. Get to know the person; ask him or her questions about the poem. What was the poet thinking when writing the poem? What does the poet think the poem means? Is there any imagery or language that is repeated? Is there anything symbolic from his or her life? What does the poet think of poetry? The more you know about the poet and his or her life, the better able you are to understand the nuances of the poem. Be courteous and grateful. The poet is answering your questions to help you with your translation.”
The most important thing happening on the pages of Zong! is not the words but the Silence/s within the spaces into which words breathe; that breath and those Silence/s must also be translated. Theoretically those Silence/s are akin and kin to the Glissantian opacity. Translation of Zong! cannot be about simply “follow(ing) the layout of the English exactly,” as you put it. That would be to create a facsimile, which this translation attempts and fails at. I remind you that in 2008 Wesleyan, under your editorship, had to redo the first printing of Zong! for this very reason—the original text was too cramped and narrow and did not breathe.
Zong! works with what Nathaniel Mackey would describe as the poetics of the breath, as well as with what I call the poetics of the fragment. These two are in constant, dynamic tension and interplay throughout the poem, and the new language that begins to emerge as one goes deeper into the text is only possible because of the interplay between word and Silence—breathed Silence.
Despite these fundamental textual problems, which could have been addressed through one conversation with me, not to mention the absence of a respectful process or adequate protocols, your email urges that what Renata Morresi has done is good enough; that I should accept it, settle for a “translator’s note.” And, once again I pause and reflect on whether this is an aspect of that old, tired, racist attitude that finds it acceptable that Black people should operate from a lower standard—the it’s-good-enough-for-you principle. Because that is what you are asking me to do—accept a lower standard for this translation than I set for myself for Zong!.
I ought not to be surprised, however, at your actions, given that in 2018 you, as publisher of Zong!, without notice withdrew your earlier support of our then joint attempts to have the artist Rana Hamadeh acknowledge her appropriation of Zong! in her 2017 installation in Rotterdam. You stopped replying to my emails and, indeed, only finally responded when I complained to the Authors’ Guild about your behaviour. The result of your actions, which you have never explained, was that my attempts to get acknowledgement of Hamadeh’s extensive use of Zong! had to be aborted. I found your behaviour then, as editor-in-chief of Wesleyan, disgraceful in abandoning support for the work. Today, however, you urge me to accept the mess of pottage—”reviews” and the promise of “reading lists”—that according to you is the “best solution.”
Every poet and writer wants reviews of their work; we all want to be on reading lists, but I do not think that any writer of integrity writes for that reason. I wrote Zong!, among other reasons, to explore the meaning of meaning in the face of atrocity; I wrote Zong! to investigate whether being can ever be sufficient, or whether it is always contingent; I wrote Zong! to remember the dead, those on board the Zong who died such a horrific death, and in so doing to grieve on behalf of those who could not grieve then and who have been so long forgotten. I wrote Zong! to honour the memory of the Ancestors. Zong! has become a sacred text, a lament, a mourning song of grief to those who, bereft of kith and kin, died unmourned, and while it remains a book, its non-material antecedents are embedded in what I call the Protocols of Care, which are an integral part of the book. Those protocols entailed my seeking permission of the Ancestors to bring those voices forward, which, in turn, resulted in the need to acknowledge another type of authorship on the cover of the book in the words: “As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng.” Some call this collaboration; I, an abdication of the ego. In addition, in moving into performance and the annual collective readings, Zong! throws its many-voiced voice forward into community and collectivity. All this by way of saying that the creation and unauthorhsip of Zong! was a laborious, careful and care-filled act of working with and listening to the Ancestors. Indeed, in their perceptive and helpful comments regarding the translation, the outside reviewer clearly reveals the need for care to be taken with the text. It is, therefore, beyond strange, astonishing, and confounding that that care didn’t extend to consulting with me, but then maybe not; perhaps it was entirely predictable when racism, the everyday, ordinary kind of racism that just doesn’t see Black folX is factored in. What you, Benway and Renata Moressi have done is an utter violation of the care-filled aspect of the work and betrays the ideal of care that is at the heart of the work. For you to talk about “reviews” and “the book remaining on reading lists” is a profound travesty—indeed, it is tantamount to those on board the Zong who decided to jettison their “cargo”, the enslaved Africans, to collect insurance monies. Wesleyan owns subsidiary rights to Zong! and as such has the law on its side, as did those responsible for the murder of enslaved Africans on board the Zong!, the shipowners. There is, however, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and it is the latter concept that has been fundamentally breached and betrayed by the acts of erasure of all of those involved in this. I will not be a party to this and will not now or ever give my consent to this translation, which betrays the core principles, ideas and concepts of Zong!, as well as a sacred pact with the dead and the Ancestors.
It has been clear since 2018 that you do not have the best interests of the work at heart. I do not expect you to be invested in, or even care particularly about the monumental work so many of us are engaged in; work which entails piecing together broken histories, fragmented lives, lost cultures, and healing the historical trauma that underpins the history of Black and African-descended people, but what I resent deeply is that your casual acts of erasure and disrespect, and the ensuing racist outcomes result in burdening me with more work and more stress in my life, at a time that is already exceedingly stressful.
In closing: how dare you?!
On August 30, 2021, Suzanna Tamminen replied to M. NourbeSe Philip:
Thank you for your email. I am grieved that the Italian edition of Zong!, and the process of its unfolding, has caused you such distress. I received a copy of the book this week and a copy for you as well, which I am putting into Fedex to you. I had asked Benway to hold the book from distribution, but due to their grant from the Canadian Council of the Arts, which came with a requirement to publish by the end of June, they felt they needed to move forward.
I discussed your email with the staff and we have begun to look at our processes surrounding the sublicensing of translation rights, and to consider how to improve them. The Association of University Presses committee on equity, justice and inclusion is preparing a resource to help publishers make their contracts more equitable. Stephanie serves on this committee, and we have discussed the critical importance of seeking input from authors of color and authors from historically disenfranchised groups, to find out what is wanted and needed.
There are several other translations of Zong! underway or under consideration. These include editions in Danish, Swedish, Portuguese and Greek. Would you like to be contacted by the translators? If so, I will share your contact info with the publishers and request that their translators contact you.
I will continue to consider how I and the press can do better, and I will let you know whenever new translation projects are proposed.
On September 1, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Benway Series, Renata Morresi and Suzanna Tamminen:
Dear Guatteri and Giolio Marzaioli and Renata Morresi and Suzanna,
Today I received an email from Suzanna Tamminen that Benway Series are going ahead with the publication of the translation of Zong!. Based on my previous correspondence you are all well aware that I am entirely opposed to this publication. Let me once again briefly set out my reasons:
1. Although within her rights to do so, Suzanna Tamminen sold the rights to Benway Series for $150. Suzanna Tamminen neglected to inform me that she had done so, nor did she do anything to put me in touch with the translator Renata Morresi. This is not in keeping with standard practice.
2. Renata Morresi herself failed to contact me to consult with me about the translation.
3. At least five people, including an American reader of a sample of the translation, as well as the Canada Council, which funded the translation, have been involved in this Italian translation of Zong!, all of whom are white and yet no one thought it necessary to consult with me, the Black and African-descended author of the work.
4. Renata Morresi has failed to respect the foundational and organizing principle of Zong!, which is that no word or cluster of words can come directly below another: each word fragment, word or word cluster is seeking the space above to breathe as those massacred 240 years ago this November were not able to breathe. It is this restraint and conceptual rigour that gives the work its shape. Based on her correspondence with me Renata Morresi is not interested in this and has her own ideas as to how the work should appear.
5. Despite my making my concerns and opposition clear to you all in June of this year, you are still going ahead with the publication on the grounds that you informed the Canada Council that you would publish by June 2021! I will be contacting the office that funded this as well as Jesse Wente the current head of the Canada Council who is himself Indigenous.
From its inception to its end the entire process of this translation mirrors the transactional relations and the racism that resulted in the transatlantic trade in Africans and the Zong massacre in particular; it is a process that makes a travesty of the care and attention that are at the heart of Zong! in both the preparatory work and its composition. Most importantly Zong! and its life in the world constitute a practice that is reparative in intent—reparative of the souls lost in 1781, who stand in for the many, many others lost to this inhumane and insane act of extended barbarity, as well as reparative for those who today continue to mourn them and ourselves. I cannot speak to your intentions but the results of your actions are racist and represent the white supremacist attitudes so prevalent in the publishing world.
The most egregiously racist aspect of your behaviour, however, is your consummate and committed indifference to the rigour of the ideas and theories behind the formal constraints of the work, integrally tied as they are to the circumstances of the massacre. Despite my bringing to your attention the need to respect the form of the work, despite my explaining why the need for the words and their fragments to breathe for those who couldn’t is non-negotiable, despite all this you insist on going ahead. Indeed, the book is advertised on Benway’s website. All of this could have been solved by a simple phone call to the author by the translator, had the necessary respect and care been there. And barely a year after the lynching of George Floyd and the uprising against racial injustice around the world, your actions appear even more deplorable.
You have all failed to honour the dead, the souls at the heart of this work, as you have failed to honour the care and attention that have gone into the preparation and composition of Zong!. I am calling on you to take down the advertisement on your website and to destroy this publication of Zong!. If I do not hear from you by end of day on September 1, 2021, I will be going public with this extraordinary act of contempt for a Black and African-descend writer.
m. nourbeSe philip (PWA)
On September 1, 2021, Suzanna Tamminen replied to M. NourbeSe Philip, Benway Series, and Renata Morresi, cc: Stephanie Elliot Prieto (Wesleyan), Embassy of Canada, Consular Section (Rome):
Dear NourbeSe, Benway editors and Renata,
Thank you for your email, NourbeSe. I have looked again at the translation layout, comparing it carefully to the original and I can now see what you mean about the phrases not having enough space, and lines that sit above one another in ways that they don’t in the original. I feel very bad that I didn’t properly recognize this issue before. As I am understanding things now, I am deeply distressed that so many lines of the translation are in effect hindering the breathing of the lines below.
I hope Benway will take this concern to heart, and look again at the translation, and will consider destroying the existing copies. I am very sorry, but I feel this would be the right decision.
Going forward, I hope there will be earnest discussion about the translation process, and a recognition of the importance of the organizing principals of the line spacing as part of the spiritual practice of this work.
Please inform us of your decision as soon as possible.
On September 1, 2021, Renata Morresi wrote to M. NourbeSe Philip, cc: Suzanna Tamminen, Benway Series, cc: Stephanie Elliot (Wesleyan), Embassy of Canada, Consular Section (Rome):
Dear NourbeSe Philip,
As in the previous emails we have exchanged I would like to underline that:
1) I wrote to you and asked for your advice and collaboration more than once. If you remember well, one of the last attempts was done by our mutual friend Veronica Ward, an Italian-African-American journalist who has supported the translation of Zong! since the beginning and who has discussed its impact in Italy with you during a series of interviews you had. She asked you to have a video call together a few months ago, but you declined that too.
2) I invite everybody who hasn’t had the chance to do it yet to compare the original and its translation page by page: they will realize that the Italian version follows the layout of the original in almost every instance. Yes, in a few instances a word or a cluster of words slightly superimposes the word or cluster of words in the previous line, for the space of a character or two, but this is due to the inherent differences between English (an isolating language) and Italian (an inflected language: its morphology makes it inevitably longer) and the need to preserve the integrity of the page. This is a very interesting problem in the translation of poetry, where rhythm, meter, spacing, line-breaks, prosody are so central, and for this reason always seriously addressed. Literary translation is a form of reading, and it is always, inherently, about negotiation, otherwise we would do it with a software tool, which ‘respects’ everything but doesn’t understand anything. Of course, no translation is given once and for all: I could work on a reviewed edition where the main concern is spacing. I will have to reconsider lines, then, and pages. I am not sure Benway Series will be still available, though, given the circumstances. I will discuss the possibility with Mariangela Guatteri and Giulio Marzaioli.
I would also like to add that:
3) You shouldn’t take our ethnicities or our loyalties for granted without even bothering to ask.
4) It is very problematic to demand the destruction of a book, all the more so in Italy, where not so long ago books were burned and foreign words were banned in the name of racial and ethnic purity. Benway has worked in respect of all the required standards. If my version is as bad as you say, it will show, and critics will criticize it. Comparing a work in translation to an actual murder is, alas, unfortunate. Benway is an esteemed but small publishing series and we are a group of poet-translators with no academic power, you are a world-famous and prize-winning author writing in the global language par excellence: if you want to say that my translation is not rigorous, even without having read it, you can certainly do it, but demanding to destroy the book is an act of cultural arrogance which is simply unfair.
As I wrote to you some time ago, the premises of the Zong massacre are still active also here in the Mediterranean, with thousands of lives lost to the blind politics of the European Union and to the fascist sentiments periodically resurging in Italy. I would lie if I said that this translation was done without having them in mind, keeping always in mind their obliterated conversations with history, the survivors’ plea for human and civil rights, and their children’s call for citizenship. I think the dotted line I have traced between them and the victims of the Zong massacre does not erase the voices of your book, rather it makes them resonate further. This is just my perspective, neither formally nor ethically unfounded though.
I hope we can find a way out of this impasse, also for the sake of those readers who cannot read the work in the original language.
My best regards,
On September 7, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Benway Series:
Benway Series has not had the courtesy to respond to me and the advertisement for Zong! is still up on Benway Series’ website.
On September 9, 2021, Benway Series replied to M. NourbeSe Philip:
Dear NourbeSe Philip,
We write as Benway Series publishing project, without Renata Morresi, in her role as translator, being held accountable for what is contained in the following response, which replies to your comments of September 1:
1. We cannot be held responsible for the manner of proceeding chosen by Suzanna Tamminem. We interacted with her in full compliance with her requests and the terms of the agreement, and the transfer of translation rights led us to believe that you had discussed the terms;
2. This issue has already been addressed by Morresi. We can add that in our experience translations require multiple revisions, but not the inevitable intervention of the author, whose contribution can be useful but also questionable, and certainly limited, given the unavoidable differences in language and context;
3. We do not know the ethnic composition of the committees who evaluated the translation and the value of the project we submitted: we trusted Wesleyan University Press and the Canada Council to be inclusive institutions accustomed to fair practices;
4. The publication of the translation of Zong! is a matter for Benway (not Morresi), and Benway claims validity and legitimacy for the book, both in terms of poetic restitution and in terms of the graphic rendering of the text, which, moreover, has been elaborated and produced with the utmost care;
5. The Italian edition of Zong! is the object of a publishing agreement between Benway, who bought the rights, and Wesleyan, who sold them. Doubts about the book’s quality and graphic rendering must be brought within the scope of this relation and cannot be attributed to identity differences or presumed essences.
We invite you to browse through the book as a material object to fully appreciate the qualities of the work.
Our best regards,
Mariangela Guatteri e Giulio Marzaioli
On September 9, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip contacts Benway Series:
I would very much appreciate if you would provide me with the name and contact of the person you dealt with at the Canada Council.
On September 11, 2021, Benway Series replies to M. NourbeSe Philip:
We didn’t have a direct interlocutor: applicants are not to know who the project’s evaluators will be.
When did I start reading you?I believe it was after I wrote She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks because I know that when I began to read you, there was a sense of recognition.Although, looking at the date of publication Decolonizing the Mind was published two years before She Tries… in 1986. Why do I say recognition when there was so much to learn from what you had to say?I say recognition because She Tries… had taken me some way to understanding the “politics of language,” however the roots of recognition is to know something again, although we may be meeting it for the first time.When I read what you had to say, I knew it for the first time and yet recognised it. I recall excited discussions aboutyour being about to stop writing in english.It was a revolutionary act, especially for those of us who had no other language to turn to.I wished, indeed, still wish that I had that luxury— to write in an Other language— a language other than english; “this/ fuck-mother motherfuckin- this/ holy-white-father-in-heaven-this/ ai! ai! /tongue.” This primal wound that will not heal, and no possibility to maroon myself linguistically.It interests —and perplexes— me that not many have followed the path you took.
Would I still feel stranger if I were to learn an African tongue.
As I write tears prickle— well up.
I cannot write a scholarly or academic essay about what your thinking has meant to my writing and thinking life.It calls for another language… or even an Other tongue.
And the wound heals from the inside out.Always.
In the alchemy of history are we the nigredo trans(trash)substantiating into then and now
translated from we into they
whitened faceshistory’s floating pieces
“Can I eat it?” she says, on seeing the red earth of Africa
She wants to eat the earth
He, the Ancestor wants
to return and turn and return to the land redolent with i lose
we lose found—
He wants to eat the earth
i find you in the red so red
earth — the am in i and the i in am you
How would one—you— say that in Kikuyu?
Google translate does not provide translations into or from Kikuyu!There is Swahili, though.
Why a letter?I’ve often wondered whether it would have made a difference if we’d been able to write letters “back home” to those in Africa, telling them what was happening. This side of the Atlantic.During the Maafa —a Swahili word that comes from your region of Africa. Naming that which resists naming.In English. Would it have? Made a difference?Letters are anticipatory, aren’t they,filled as they are with possibility.How will the recipient receive what I have to say?They may choose to not even open it, as I have done with letters whose contents I fear.They may open it and decide not to respond; they may open it and, even more frighteningly sometimes, choose to respond.
This letter does not anticipate a response—perhaps it doesn’t even qualify as a letter; it is, rather, a vehicle to talk to express what your work has meant to my thinking and to my own work—
Race-baiting and The Writer’s Union of Canada by NourbeSe Philip
Hal Niedzviecki has every right to express his opinion, as badly argued and uninformed as it is; after all, we do have protections regarding free speech short of hate speech. What I find inexcusable, however, and profoundly disrespectful is that the Writers Union of Canada (TWUC) would publish an issue of Write dedicated to Indigenous writers—long overdue, I might add —and have the editorial introducing the work be a flippant and uninformed piece about appropriation.
I enter this debate for two reasons: some twenty-five years ago this very same issue erupted in Toronto and resulted in the then Women’s Press splitting. The cross-country debate back then was equally fierce. My response to that was “The Disappearing Debate: Or how the discussion of racism has been taken over by the censorship issue,” a title that speaks for itself. It’s troubling to witness the return of these issues with apparently no greater understanding, truth and reconciliation notwithstanding. As a presently a paid-up member of the TWUC I feel implicated, albeit unwittingly, in this issue and it is as such I enter this debate.
I want to draw readers’ attention away from the issue of appropriation for a brief moment and ask them to focus on a smaller, less controversial issue — that of hospitality and protocols around how you welcome and treat a guest. It has many reverberations in the history of colonialism.
The culture I come from — African Caribbean — as do all cultures, traditional and modern, and, I might add, even Western cultures, have protocols about the guest and how the guest should be treated. Indeed, in early Christian times, Christians were expected to keep a bed, some bread and a candle for the unexpected guest. In African cultures, it was often the occasion on which a large animal would be killed, so that the guest could be fed. (Invading colonisers often used that practice to further exploit the people.) In the history of the many, many cultures colonised by the European you will find numerous instances in which the guest, the European, was taken in and treated well— even taught how to live on the land. As we know so well now, that generosity was often repaid by conquest. My point being a very simple one — when a guest comes to your home, especially an invited guest, you honour them, you provide them the best. More to the point, you do not invite someone to your home or living space and then insult or disrespect them. What TWUC did was the equivalent of this and I suspect that had those writers known what the editorial was going to be about, none of them would have submitted their work. What kind of culture, literary or otherwise, produces this kind of uncivilised behaviour? A culture whose very integuments are woven around a kind of everyday racism against peoples of colour.
The TWUC, one of the gatekeepers of Canadian Literature culture in Canada, invited these writers to submit their work and then published an editorial that entirely disrespected the sea-change that the publication of these writers represent. Why didn’t the TWUC invite an Indigenous guest editor, as often happens when magazines have themed issues, and of which there is a long history in the culture of literary Canadian magazines? Why did the oversight committee not catch this travesty before it was published? What has happened is tantamount to publishing an issue dedicated to women’s issues or feminism and having an editorial, written by a man, making light of, or challenging the widespread sexual abuse of women, or domestic violence against women. Can we imagine the firestorm that would have erupted over such a glaring and brutal example of sexism and misogyny? Instead, what we have is a firestorm over appropriation, which was not raised by the invited writers, with the two camps arrayed against each other. I am suggesting here that the debate about appropriation simultaneously erases and supplants the racist act that the publication of the editorial represents; further it illustrates how systemic racism functions and how we can all be baited to participate in a debate that hides even as it reveals.
Yes, the issue of appropriation is a very real one — I might add here that living in the present, globalised, commodified world, there are very few of us who do not indulge or partake in practices of other cultures — from yoga to mindfulness meditation to Buddhism, to karate and other Asian martial arts. Is any of this appropriation? If not, why not? Further, Black culture — especially musical culture — has always been and continues to be appropriated by all cultures, bar none — Elvis Presley, Adele, Lily Singh, A Tribe Called Red, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones — the list is long. There appears to be no understanding that Black music bears a name, has an address and a particular and tragic history. Indeed, to use a digital example, Black culture is approached as if it is a Creative Commons to which everyone ought to have access. And it is a zero-sum game because the widespread consumption of Black culture has not resulted in any greater respect for the original creators. Indeed, in an extractive capitalist world, the opposite has been the result. Indigenous peoples have their own arguments about how their cultures have been appropriated, as, I suspect, do all colonised cultures and peoples.
Appropriation is a complex issue, which often stems from a racist power structure which can do real harm to those who are racially, socially and politically marginalised. The debate over appropriation of voice, which this particular debate is all about, often lurches between those who are rightly concerned with the dangers of literary censorship on the one hand, and those who are concerned about very real damage that can be done by appropriative practices. There are those who argue that you cannot cage what is uncageable — the human imagination and inspiration, and that creativity and inspiration cannot be boxed in by identity politics. This is true, but it does not necessarily mean that one has a “right” to poach the cultures of others, particularly those whom your own culture had a hand in destroying. As I argued earlier, a sense of humility is necessary approaching another culture. Further, the imagination does not exist in a vacuum and is, more times than, not affected by one’s social milieu. Just think of how many metaphors we use today that come from the digital world we live in.
As I argued in “The Disappearing Debate,” however, the solution to appropriation of voice will not be found in prohibitions. The deeper structures of exclusion and marginalisation have to be dismantled. We, those of us who have borne the historical, political and social brunt of white supremacist practices, are often suspicious of the practices that Western, humanist cultures hold sacrosanct, like freedom of speech. We know only too well how these beliefs have been used against us. However, as we watch the pillars of democracy, albeit a very imperfect one, being dismantled south of the border, it sharpens the appreciation of these practices and beliefs. Being against appropriation does not necessarily make one a supporter of censorship: there is a deeper wound that is being identified that perhaps a secular, Western state does not yet have the language to address. Being in support of being able to imagine the lives of others who may be different from you, does not necessarily make you racist.
What is important is that we realize that art does not exist in a vacuum, that writing, publication and success come out of many, many small decisions that can contribute to or hurt the coming to voice of the historically displaced, marginalised and erased. Writing and publishing are material acts in a material world, pace Madonna, and racism, sexism and all the other harmful practices impact negatively on those acts.
The pros and cons of appropriation are not the issue here, although many found Niedzviecki’s opinions offensive. Indeed, his resignation was demanded because of what he wrote, which he complied with. His arguments reveal an astonishing ignorance and can be easily demolished. I maintain, however, that having an opinion in support of appropriation while offensive to many, is not necessarily racist, just as those who feel it should not happen are not necessarily in favour of censorship. At the risk of being repetitive, I return to the more fundamental one of respect for the literary guests the TWUC invited to publish in its magazine, Write. Why, for instance, wasn’t the editorial about the literary history of Indigenous people in Canada, dating back to the poet, E. Pauline Johnson and before, so that we, the readers, could have a better idea of where these newer writers fit in? Why did the editor see fit to write an editorial about appropriation to introduce the Indigenous writers invited to submit work, when appropriation was not the theme of the issue?
The TWUC editorial was racist for the following reasons:
(a)it made no attempt to place the work of the Indigenous writers in any literary context, and by arguing for appropriation, revealed a dismissive and thoughtless attitude towards the writers, especially given that this was an issue dedicated to Indigenous writers who had been invited to submit work; (In other words, the editor couldn’t be bothered to do any research on the literary history or context of Indigenous writers and the issue of appropriation appears to be the primary association he makes with Indigenous writers).
(b) the publication of a deliberately incendiary editorial, intended to inflame the feelings of Indigenous writers and incite debates between those on opposing sides of the issue, showed that the editor was completely indifferent to the writers, their history and culture, as well as the destructive, colonial history of Canada; (In other words, he used his editorial as bait— it could be said to be a form of literary race-baiting.)
(c) Indigenous writers were solicited to submit work on the understanding that their work would be treated respectfully and seriously. Instead the editorial was used to further debate on appropriation which was not the theme of the issue; (In other words, the editor employed a literary bait-and-switch technique).
(d) in his editorial the editor privileged an issue that would ensure that white voices would be amplified, the result of which is that we now have a call for an appropriation prize. (In other words, he ensured that white people’s voices would continue to be privileged in the ensuing debate.)
This is not the discussion we should be having as a consequence of the TWUC publishing an issue of Write dedicated to Indigenous writers. By linking the issue of appropriation, as he did in his editorial, to the publication of work by invited Indigenous writers, Niedzviecki was being mischievous at best; at worst, unintentional or not, the editorial resulted in racism.
Appropriation is an issue for all cultures dominated by white supremacist attitudes and practices, but speaking for my own culture, it’s not an issue Black writers are overly preoccupied with. We engage with the full spectrum of life, including trying to piece together memories of cultures that have been pulverised by the onslaught of colonialism. We, like all writers, struggle with time management, grants, getting published and all the demands that writing exerts on one. Not to mention relationships and children. I suspect it is similar for Indigenous writers. Except when a red flag is waved in front of them as it has been in this case. In this context, this is an issue for white writers who object to those who rightly challenge systems of power and reveal how they also exist in art and artistic practices. Those who feel this way, know they can appropriate and know that much in this culture supports them. As we see happening with contributions to the Appropriation Prize.
The issue of appropriation of voice is not new and there is no excuse for this happening. Twenty-five years ago this was the very issue that split the Women’s Press in Toronto and spawned intense debate across Canada. If there was any real interest in why it was an issue for those writing from formerly colonised cultures back then, we wouldn’t have had the insulting editorial, nor would we have had the vague, confusing apology from the Chair of the TWUC regretting “the pain and offence caused….” and talking about Write magazine offering “a space for honest and challenging discussion” and being “sincerely encouraging to all voices.” Expressing regret for “pain and offence” is not a true apology, nor was there anything “honest” or “challenging” about Niedzviecki’s editorial, which has done nothing to encourage Indigenous and other writers of colour to submit work to mainstream publications.
We have all been played to some degree because the debate about appropriation will be with us for the foreseeable future, which is not necessarily damaging. The more discussion and respectful exploration of the issues there are, the more we benefit. However, if we fail to drill down below the issue of appropriation in this case, we miss the deeper, systemic racism at work here.
Some twenty-five years ago I proposed that the Union set up a committee to look at racism in writing and publishing, which I was interested in being a part of. I did not receive a response to my letter and my proposal went nowhere. The TWUC must be called out on the blatant racism of inviting Indigenous writers to submit to an issue and then disrespecting those writers and their efforts. Anti-racism workshops are not enough. The Union should name the issue clearly— we are writers and words are our medium. It needs to name what happened as racism — the ROM’s recent apology, some 28 years later, for the anti-black racism of the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit could be a model for the Union’s action. Intention is not relevant, particularly as it relates to the functioning of organizations like the TWUC long-steeped in colonial practices. No one may have intended to be racist but the result is a racist one, and The TWUC needs to apologise to the invited writers, the Indigenous communities and the TWUC membership for this racism. Then it needs to meet with Indigenous writers and figure out where to go from there.
Haiti, I weep for you. I hide my tears because I’m on a flight from Kelowna, British Columbia, to Toronto, and who knows, with all the heightened security I fear they may think something’s amiss. That I’m weeping as a prelude to joining my ancestors. So paranoid have we become. But I weep for you, Haiti, for your people, for the shit — the unmitigated shit — that life seems to throw your way. Again and again. And, to adapt the words of one of your warrior daughters, Maya Angelou, “still you rise,” to greet another green, tropic day that holds hope ransom, as you tear your people limb by painful limb from a hell that eschews fire and opts instead for the hardface, stoneface indifference of concrete that, Medusa like, seems to have frozen all of your magnificent history into slabs of cement. Now fragmented they litter your landscape as if some giant, angry at us mortals, had decided to stamp on your already precarious country. There was a time when our Caribbean houses kept faith with wood, whether one-room homes — some call them chattel houses — or larger, more graceful estate houses. Time was when the thatched Ajoupa bequeathed us by Taino, Arawak and Carib would have swayed to the groans of the earth as she eased her suffering, opening herself along her wounded fault lines to the ever blue skies, the constant love of the sun, to release all her pent up grief for us, birthing we don’t yet know what. Time was when hands steeped in skills of building homes brought from a homeland a slap, kick and a howl away, across a roiling ocean, would have gently patted mud over wattle, weaving branches to create cool interiors, shaping shelters from the earth that would not, could not, betray the safety in home to crush, obliterate, to fall down around your ears. Like the third little pig in the nursery rhyme, Haiti, you built your home of brick — it was supposed to protect you.
Each and every time I hear or read the words that describe you as being a poor nation, the poorest of the poorest — I weep.
Poor you most certainly are in all things material, but your riches are immeasurable, woven through your history, your culture and your people.
Yours was the first and only successful slave revolt in the Western world and resulted in the second independent nation after the United States in the so-called New World. In taking the name the Taino had given the “Land of Mountains,” Ayiti, you returned the country to its First Nations roots. How many know that the USA embargoed you for sixty years because you fired a shot across the bow of history by liberating your people under the brilliant leadership of Touissant L’Overture? How many know that you became a pariah in the world for taking a moral stance in favour of justice and freedom and against racial exploitation and oppression? Then, you were at another epicentre, along one of the many fault lines of history, the reverberations of which seismic, political shift would be felt around the world. Indeed, are still being felt, I would argue. No one rushed to help you then, Haiti. Instead, what we had were France, Spain, Holland, Britain and the United States (albeit secretly) — shall we call them the coalition of the ready, willing and able, or simply the usual suspects? — preparing to invade you to re-impose the yoke of slavery. How many know that your liberation determined the eventual downfall of Napoleon? So decimated were Napoleon’s troops under his brother-in-law, General Leclerc, by fighting in Haiti and by yellow fever, they could not provide the necessary support for Napoleon’s subsequent campaigns in Europe — against Spain, Russia and Prussia to be exact. In November 1803, France, under Napoleon, capitulated. In January 1804, General Jean Jacques Dessalines
declared you an independent nation. How many know that France, that bastion of revolution and freedom, by the Ordinance of 1825 exacted the sum of 150 million francs as compensation from you for loss of “property” — read: formerly enslaved Africans? How many know or even care to know that you did, indeed, pay your extortioner through a series of loans that bankrupted you? The equivalent of that sum is $21 billion in today’s money. And how many know that the USA invaded you in 1915 and occupied you until 1934? Hearing that the US military now controls the airport makes me shudder. Makes me want to hold my head and bawl.
Despite the historical and contemporary demonisation of Vaudon, you have enshrined the religion of your ancestors in your constitution, making it an official religion alongside Christianity.
Only South Africa among a continent of African nations has dared to do this — most flee this reminder of who they are. No other Caribbean island nation has followed suit. Most of all, Haiti, you are rich in your people — their dignity, their love of homeland and willingness to struggle for freedom. What more fitting example of this is the recognition of the language of the people, Haitian Creol, as an official language? With the exception of the three formerly Dutch colonies, Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, no other Caribbean island nation has officially recognised the language of the people, for the people and by the people — the vernacular, the demotic — Kamau Brathwaite’s nation language — as worthy of recognition. Ah, but most of all, Haiti, I weep for the “dream deferred” that Langston Hughes so eloquently wrote about. What has happened to the many deferred dreams of your people? Where have they gone? How many know that at the start of your fledgling nation in 1804, democratic principles were central to your constitution? First, you abolished slavery, then moved to enshrine one of the most frighteningly revolutionary and emancipatory ideals in your constitution — racial equality — even granting citizenship to Polish soldiers who had fought alongside Haitians against the French. In 1804 that would have been the equivalent of an earthquake measuring at least 8 on a Richter scale of oppression. You were at the heart of the awakening of modernity — albeit a deferred modernity. More than anything else, you presented, in the words of the Canadian poet, Jordan Scott, a profound “threat to cohesion.” The cohesion of imperial power founded on brute racism.
I weep for you, Haiti, and for I ‘n’ I, because when I bear virtual witness to your despair and your suffering, when I see the mountains of rubble and concrete, the broken roads, the tangle of electrical wires, and hear the voices droning on and on about the lack of infrastructure, I think of my own internal infrastructure — spiritual, psychic, intellectual and political — and realize that your history has played no small part in its structure and design. I recognize you writ large through CLR James’ The Black Jacobins that I first read as a young Caribbean woman trying to find her place in a world and a history that had hardly begun to be told. Your history, your struggle, your survival, epitomised through the successful Haitian revolution, as told by James, became a part of my own struggle to understand my place and the place of my people in this world — on all those tiny pieces of coral or volcanic rock scattered in the ever blue Caribbean Sea. Through The Black Jacobins we, each and every one of us who read that work, grew in stature internally as Caribbean people, children of the volcano all, to quote the brilliant Martniquan poet and founder of negritude, Aimé Césaire
; became larger psychically, and more intellectually secure in our role as agents of change. In our own history.
The Haitian revolution became woven into our psychic and political DNA, a scaffolding to support our personal structures of personhood; an aide memoire to our silenced history, a map for our journey to greater self-awareness.
Toussaint’s name lived in our minds and on our tongues as young Caribbean thinkers, the first generation to have access to widespread, tertiary level education. The coloniser’s language may separate us, but only superficially, for CLR James who brought your struggle home to us and helped us to understand ourselves through the lens of history, is as much a son of yours as Boukman, Toussaint, Dessalines or Christophe. Indeed, your daughters and sons know no borders. For African-American poet and writer, Ntozake Shange, “TOUSSAINT waz a blkman…who refused to be a slave…TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE waz the beginnin uv reality” for her. A dazzling, polyvocal, linguistically innovative tour de force, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, although located in the US, grounded itself in a historical reality that began with Toussaint. Samuel Huntington (him of The Clash of Civilizations) had the impertinence to describe you as “the neighbour nobody wants” and as being “truly a kinless country,” and in so doing reveals how little ignorance respects knowledge. Little does he know how far, how wide and how deep your kin are spread.
There was a time when for five hundred years the world, with very few exceptions, was indifferent to the suffering of African peoples. They entered the maw of a history drenched in brutality, as history most often is, through the doorway of the slave ship and, by way of what we so euphemistically call the Middle Passage, were washed up on these Caribbean islands like so much flotsam and jetsam the Atlantic was rejecting. To enter the machine of the plantation. Who shed a tear, beyond those left in Africa, for those entombed in slave ships? Who shed a tear for those whose bones litter the sands below the Atlantic? Who shed a tear for the living death of the slave plantation? As recently as 2005 we were witness to the indifference that greets the suffering of Black folk in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. By their own government. Under George Bush.
This time seems different: the world is responding, although many of those responding have been complicit in beggaring you.
Always an agricultural nation, you once grew your own rice, then cheap subsidised rice from the USA flooded the nation and your self-sufficiency in rice was lost, so that during the 2008 food crisis (which continues), when the price and availability of staple foods like rice shot up, you were particularly vulnerable. According to Peter Hallward, writing in the Guardian in January 2010, during its occupation of your territory the US “violently and deliberately” resisted “every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in the words of Jean Bertrad Aristde) ‘from absolute misery to a dignified poverty’.” And make no mistake about it, had it not been for the support of the Soviet Union, Cuba would have been beggared in the same way by the embargo the US imposed after the Cuban revolution.
Today, they say it’s your culture that prevents you from moving forward — that vaudon creates a fatalism that is out of step with the ideals of progress endemic to the West. And I wonder why that fatalism didn’t keep you wedded to a slave culture.
I will not romanticize your history; cannot pretend that the dreams and hopes of that seminal revolution have not been curdled over the years. Toussaint may have abolished slavery, reorganised the administrative and justice systems, built roads, schools and bridges, but Papa Doc and the Ton Ton Macoutes did exist. So did his son, Baby Doc.
The African-American dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham, another of your daughters, had a long and deep relationship with you, even becoming an initiate of the vaudon religion. In Island Possessed she describes her relationship with the Haitian people and her involvement in the culture; she talks of buying the plantation that once belonged to selfsame General Leclerc and of her need to cleanse it of the remnants of the sordid, brutal history of empire she could feel on the property. With the help of her Haitian godmother she does, indeed, shift the negative energies she first felt there. The sheer enormity — the apocalyptic nature of this tragedy — makes me wonder if there is something larger at work here, with you, Haiti, once again being at the epicentre of some violently physical, yet spiritual, temblor, echoing that earlier one two centuries ago. Is this simply, and not so simply, the human longing and search for meaning on my part? Is it this urge to find meaning in our lives and experiences, particularly catastrophic ones, that drives the likes of Pat Robertson, a so-called man of God, to describe your plight as punishment for making a pact with the devil — a comment so egregiously lacking in compassion as to take the breath away? If nothing else he has made the choice very clear: if fighting to free one’s self puts you on the side of the devil and being on the side of God puts you in a place where, like him, you cannot express a scintilla of compassion for another’s suffering, then my sympathy will be with the devil. Always. It is early days yet, I tell myself, to attempt to find meaning in this violent catastrophe whose scale and scope often appears to exceed language, even as my mind feverishly tries to find meaning. Trying to link your history as an unblinking beacon for the Black struggle for civil and human rights, for the quest for freedom, for justice and for dignity on the part of African peoples, to this present maelstrom, as if we didn’t have maelstroms aplenty already. Indeed, in this time of acute suffering it feels premature, if not sacrilegious, to rush to meaning. So, I resist that, for the present, understanding and accepting that any meaning to be found, lies, perhaps, in the sheer absence of meaning — shit just simply happens, it seems. But I do recall another of your English speaking sons, the novelist George Lamming, who feels the heft of your history, making reference years ago in The Pleasures of Exile to the Haitian Ceremony of the Souls, which brings together the people and their ancestors — the living and the dead. What links them is a shared interest in their future — in the one case continued life, in the other eternity. There is a sense in which James’ The Black Jacobins drew us all in the Caribbean into an extended performance of the Ceremony of the Souls: we, the living descendants of the
enslaved, being in active relationship with the memory of Toussaint and his supporters.
Many years ago, David Rudder, one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most beloved performers, sang a soca ballad titled “Haiti,” its refrain a simple lament: “Haiti, I’m sorry.” It begins: “Toussaint was a mighty man/ and to make matters worse he was black/ back back in the time when a blackman’s place was in the back.” The ballad recounts your history and how badly served you have been by history; how we, and in particular Caribbean peoples, have misunderstood you, turning our faces from you. It pains me that more of our island nations have not, over the years, offered refuge to your people — how many heads of state from the Anglophone Caribbean attended the two hundredth anniversary of your revolution in 2004? One, I believe. Haiti, I, too, am sorry, but I do not weep for you, for that would be to pity you; I weep with you, Haiti, with compassion, wanting to share your suffering, which lies at the root of the word compassion. Today I am Haitian and forever in your grief and your undeniable survival, because survive you will. You must. For all our sakes. All I have are my broken words. And my tears. And my more tears. My so many more tears. With you, Haiti.
Today your dead lie all around you, and despite the lack of dignity of their final resting place, you honour them in your deep dignity, notwithstanding the pictures of the Star, and in your resilience.
And once again, through your undeserved suffering, but then suffering of the innocent is never deserved, you become a symbol for me, for us all — your children in spirit — a symbol of the will to survive in the face of apparently insuperable odds. It is what makes us human and simultaneously calls on our humanity. In that respect, we are all Haitian.
Class and race divisions in Haiti are alive and pernicious, but when I hear Bill Clinton talk about the need for Haiti to shake off her history, I wonder what history he is referring to. The history of Toussaint, or the history of Papa Doc, or both?
And when I hear of George Bush urging people to send money, not clothing, I laugh. I remember him urging his populace after 9/11 to go out and shop. And look where that got them. And I think of Obama appointing these two men and I laugh again. Because if I didn’t, I would sure be crying.
Fired in history’s unrelenting sun, we Caribbean peoples who hunger after justice, who long for peace, who have lived cheek by jowl with, and sometimes in the belly of, the beast, have always punched above our weight through history — I need only mention Castro, Fanon, James, Césaire, Wynter, Brathwaite, Walcott, Lamming and Claudia Jones, to name but a few; we grasp the import of our role in history, and no small credit for that must go to Toussaint L’Overture and all the history that swirls around him. We understand, being the subjected to them for far too long, the effects of great power machinations; they continue to reverberate in our tiny island nations as well as in the psyches of the people. The coloniser may have withdrawn but he has left his mark.
But what good is history when your child done dead and gone? Or your mother bury under concrete, or your daddy, grandmère or grandpère nowhere? You cyant eat revolution, you cyant drink freedom. And, as the saying goes, a hungry man is an angry man. It is not surprising, but still I am surprised at the rapidity with which the trope of violence has raised its head: not even a week has gone by before the Toronto Star has a front page picture of a naked, bound man being beaten. The following day the headline screams about violence marring the relief efforts. The following day still a front page picture appears of a knife-wielding man appearing to attack someone for food. It’s the stereotype with which the media and those that “run tings” have clothed us. Beggars or criminals. Or sometimes both, as the Star makes out. Even as they purport to help, they construct prisons of stereotypes for us. How quickly the world has forgotten the unspeakable violence that slavery meted out on African peoples for at least five hundred years. Indeed, Leclerc wrote of his intent to “wage a war of extermination” to reintroduce slavery in your barely formed nation. You have never been forgiven for successfully resisting his violent attempt to subjugate you. To decontextualize the violence in Haiti, as the Star has done in those three issues, under the guise of needing to show Canadians the “true horror of this disaster” appears to be nothing more than a crass and racially exploitative attempt to sell more newspapers.
The world has found you now, Haiti, but where was it when France was extorting blood money from you, ably assisted by the US who arranged loans to help you repay France — loans designed to break you economically? Where was it? The world. It is against the principles of international law that a victorious country should pay a country it defeated for its freedom, yet the nations of the world have been silent on this travesty. One of the claims Aristide made during his tenure was for reparations from France for these immoral and illegal payments. Where was the support for these claims from the world? Where was the world when the US occupied you? Busily fighting to save Europe from the calamity that Hitler portended, shoring up the principles of freedom in resounding Churchillian phrases, where the fuck was the world? As the flag bearer of democracy crushed a small but proud island nation, and today, even today, as hungry, frantic Haitians take to the seas in desperation, seeking refuge anywhere, even in water as their ancestors did, even today, the US Coast Guard turns them back. Where was the world when the US rounded up your boat people to return them, unlike the Cubans, to their home country? Where was the world, Haiti? And will it still love you when you occupy your rightful place? For occupy it you will. Our very survival — the survival of every one of your children depends on it.
Today I saw a little boy birthed from a concrete womb a mere letter away from a living tomb, his rescuers pulling him from the rubble as if he were being born again — for the second time in his so very short life. They snatch his frail-limbed body, whitened with concrete dust and, cradling him in their arms, run with him. And I think, so it was when you defied the long, the very long historical odds against you, and out of the living tomb of slavery created a womb to birth yourself. Blood and all.
I gaze at a map of Port au Prince in a newspaper identifying high profile sites of destruction: it is as if someone decided you had to start again, and wiped the slate clean: the Ministry of Justice — gone; the Presidential Palace — gone; administrative offices — gone; the penetentiary — gone; the hospitals — gone; churches — gone; the cathedral — gone. Hundreds of thousands of people — gone. All gone — just like that. In the clichéd wink of an eye — God’s perhaps? Or the devil’s snap of fingers. Leaving nothing but bright mornings filled with mourning, despair, grief and pictures of little Black girls with locks made blonde by concrete dust, who look out at the world through glasses, bearing the weight of history and a building on their little legs. Oh God, oh God, why hast thou forsaken us? This is the language — the language of the Bible — that bursts forth, as if the apocalyptic nature of the disaster itself demands a language of Biblical proportions. Because flesh hurts, and love and grief know no bounds when your loves are entombed before your very eyes, sometimes leaving no one to mourn, no one to cry out, Why? Why? Why? And, worse than that, no one to answer why.
So, after another drug-induced night of sleep, courtesy of Big Pharma, I’m once again sitting in the restaurant of the Guest Quarters at the University of Ghana. My choices for breakfast are decidedly simple and simultaneously stress-inducing for a Westerner who, more often than not, has a panoply of choices for something as basic as a toothbrush, let alone breakfast. Here, you can have eggs or eggs: fried, scrambled or, perhaps, boiled; bread – brown or white. This is included in the nightly rate of $55.00 U.S per night (How soon before we start quoting rates in the Chinese yuan?), but for an extra two cedis I can have oatmeal porridge. Today I decide on scrambled eggs – done really nicely. Ghanaian cooks are reputed to be prized around West Africa, and yesterday’s lunch certainly confirmed that reputation – fried cassava fish with joloff rice and fried plantains all done to perfection.
But back to breakfast and drugs. My morning drug of choice is coffee, which is in no way intended to make light of addiction, but simply to underscore how deeply habituated I am to coffee, which is addictive, and how ritualised my behaviour around my consumption of it has become. Often I find myself thinking about, and looking forward to, my morning cup of coffee the night before! In an effort to assuage my Western guilt I only buy fair-trade, organic, shade- grown coffee, thereby by killing two metaphorical birds of the environment and exploitative labour practices with one cup of coffee. I even roast my own beans and have even – dare I confess? – attended coffee school – yes, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, coffee school – run by a coffee proprietorship in Toronto whose practices ensure that coffee growers receive a fair price for their beans. So, I’ve learnt about roasting and I’ve learnt about grinding; I’ve learnt about Ethiopia (some say it’s Oromia) being the place where coffee was first brewed, and I’ve learnt that there are over 800 different flavours in coffee, which far exceeds those found in wine. But I didn’t learn that traditionally coffee drinking is a communal activity; that you would roast the beans along with cardomum and cloves; that you would also burn incense which you would pass around alongside the pan of roasted and now smoking coffee beans (for many people in traditional coffee cultures, simply inhaling the aromatic smoke from the roasting beans is enough) to the accompaniment of women ululating. Nor did I learn at coffee school that coffee is a ritual food used to honour and worship Waaq, the pre-Abrahamic, indigenous divinity of the Oromo people of Oromia (presently located inside Ethiopia), and that Waaq’s symbolic colour is black (like the roasted beans), as is the colour of the holy and sacred (within Oromo culture, that is), as well as the colour of spirit and soul. That the smoke from the roasted beans drifts upwards to Waaq, whose abode is the sky – this I did not learn. I did learn, though, that the price of coffee is determined in New York and that if the buyers of coffee would only pay a fraction more to the growers in Africa and around the world – something like 5 cents a kilo – they would be better able to feed their families and build schools for their children. Hence fair-trade organic. The growers have a fighting chance that way, and I can feel a bit less guilty about my habit. I think.
Imagine, then, how my heart sunk on observing that my morning drink – my first, and often only, hit of the day will be coffee courtesy of Nescafé of Nestlé fame. The same company implicated in the baby milk scandal of the 70′s in Africa. Nestlé, at that time, encouraged mothers to stop breastfeeding so that they would turn to Nestlé powdered milk to feed their babies. There was only one small drawback– mothers often didn’t have the money to continue to buy the milk after the first promotional offers, or didn’t have access to potable water to mix the milk, or both. Result? their babies became malnourished and died. In English and French the Nescafé tin assures me that it is “Classic Pure Instant Coffee.” The tin is chockablock with information about coffee breaks and stimulants and the importance of anti-oxidants which apparently abound in coffee. The image of a beautiful, young, African woman complete with – you guessed – café-au-lait skin and braided hair drinking a cup of coffee completes the branded image. A website address will provide you with more information on the benefits of coffee, if you so need, and several West African countries are listed with contact phone numbers. The print is fine and there is a lot of it, so it would have been very easy to miss that Nestlé, the parent company, has been around since 1866. I do the calculations – some twenty-eight years after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and eight years before the abolition of slavery and trading in slaves in Ghana itself!
This is all about trade, isn’t it? It has always been about trade.
This is not my first time drinking instant coffee courtesy of Nescafé. Indeed, combined with evaporated milk, which is how it’s drunk in the Caribbean as well, it has its own charms, but the Nestlé baby milk scandal (and ensuing boycott) throws a long shadow here in Ghana, since it is so illustrative of how the world, and in particular the corporate world, continues to exploit Africa and Africans. The dumping of toxic waste in certain African harbours comes to mind, not to mention the illegal scouring of the sea beds along the coast line of Africa by international trawlers resulting in a paucity of fish for the local populations, in turn resulting in young men turning to piracy etc., etc., etc.
I look at the brown granules so reminiscent of animal turds (No Waaq here) and think of the long process – let’s call it the three E’s – exploitative, exhaustive and extractive — that brings this product of Africa back to Africa. Like myself. Different colour. Different quality. Different taste. Processed. As much by the three E’s as this coffee I now pour hot water on and stir. But when I roast my beans, watch them turn from green to brown to black and inhale the smoke, perhaps I take a little bit of Waaq, a little bit of soul, a bit of the sacred back into myself. As I grind the oh-so-black beans, I am aware of how we, New World Africans, were ground fine between the grindstones of history, and as I drink the black and not- at-all-bitter (if made properly) brew, perhaps I become a part of Waaq – for that moment – hopeful that my gesture of caring for someone whom I know not at all, in Africa, South America, or Jamaica – wherever trade attempts to erase the human – does matter. It is unfortunate that the caring can only be expressed through trade – through paying a bit more for coffee, but it is what we have at present, and I want to believe that Waaq knows and sees all.
October 27th, 2009 — in the Year of Our Word (to quote Looking for Livingstone)
Haven’t been in Africa 24 hours yet. Am sitting in an internet cafe writing a blog for the first time ever. At my age there are not many first- times-ever left, or perhaps shouldn’t be. But I’m also thinking that you’re only old once, which to my mind is far more relevant and meaningful than you’re only young once. After all, in the latter case you have your whole damn life in front of you. In my case it feels like my whole damn life is behind me, or under me, or sometimes above me pressing down with all its might. And then again sometimes there is no ‘or’ — I’m completely encapsulated by my life. Which doesn’t feel like such a good thing.
Perhaps that’s what I’m doing here. In Ghana. Trying to escape my life… perhaps trying to chase a life that escaped and still escapes me. Anyway hunter or hunted, pursuer or pursued, here I am in Afronet. That’s the ever- so- cool name of the internet cafe. So many resonances there that connect with African cultures that, at their foundation, work on principles of connectivity and breaking (dance); synapse jumping and colliding; bouncing off this, riffing on that, picking up stuff here and leaving it there. Like jazz, I mean. Or Negro music as Ellington wanted to call it.
It’s warm outside and cool in here with 2o or so people, mainly men – young men, working industriously at computers. Whoever runs Afronet has it locked down in a positive way — there are always one or two people walking around to give assistance. You — I — notice these things in Africa because so much doesn’t seem to work, and I fret like an anxious parent. When are we going to get it right? (If the media were to be belived, the only thing we seem to get right is killing and raping each other.) When are we going to get out from under that life that is “downpressing” us so relentlessly?
So why am I in Africa — what am I doing here at this particular point in time? Three years ago, while in the throes of working on my last book of poetry,Zong!, I visited Africa — Ghana, believing I needed to ask permission (of whom?) to bring to light the voices of the submerged that are at the heart of that work. I always knew that once the work was done I would have to return. John Keats advanced the theory of negative capability –”being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” And negative capability best sums up — often with lots of irritability and anger, though — my thoughts, such as they are, and feelings about a journey which is not metaphorical but very real: should I, for instance, take malaria pills or use herbs or homeopathic remedies and prophylactics instead? Which immediately brings up the apparently irrevocable link between disease and Africa, which I will explore in another posting. To return to negative capability, however, I “knew” I had to shave my head after I was done with the work — took me some time but I did do it. I also “knew” I had to wear white after I was done. So I did that as well. Interestingly enough, this morning in conversation with a friend here about the death of my mother at the age of 90, he tells me that white would be worn for her because one of the practices here in Ghana is to wear white when there is a victory of sort. If a woman, for instance, has had a difficult labour and survives, she would wear white. Or, as in the case of my mother, her living a long life is considered a victory, so we, her survivors would wear white. I say hmmm to myself and listen some more.
I’ve learnt that having a bald head and not having to worry about twisting and/or combing one’s hair frees up a lot of time and that one’s head get cold very quickly. I’ve also learnt that you can wear an article of white clothing a lot longer that you think you can and it still “looks” white. But I sense that there is more at work here than these trivial pieces of information — perhaps, it has to do with the roots of poetry being in the sacred and in ritual, and, perhaps, some resistance to that on my part. So, I will continue in negative capability around this trip “without reaching after fact or reason” and continue to post as the spirit moves me.