Translating a Powerful Connection: In Conversation with Zahra Patterson

. . . the political questions, rather than the success of the translation, became what was more interesting to me.

Zahra Patterson’s Chronology won the 2019 Lambda Award for Best Lesbian Memoir or Biography. Deserving of the accolades, but defiant of genre conventions, Chronology was inspired by Patterson’s friendship with Lesotho writer and activist, Liepollo Rantekoa, and her attempt to translate a story from Rantekoa’s native language, Sesotho, into English. Produced in collaboration with the editorial collective at Ugly Duckling Presse, Chronology is arguably more a box than a book, a capsule of the writer’s personal and political landscape containing so many loose pieces that keeping it intact requires physical care. Personal notes, diary entries, and photos from are interspersed with essays on the politics of translation, post-colonialism, activism, history, and connection, forming a narrative that firmly deconstructs its own relationship to chronological order and time. Following the Lambda Awards, we reached out to Patterson to congratulate her and ask her to about Rantekoa’s enduring legacy, finding and losing mementos and her decision to learn Sesotho in New York’s public libraries.

Sarah Timmer Harvey, July 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Chronology opens with an email exchange between yourself and Liepollo Rantekoa. Can you tell me about meeting Liepollo?

Zahra Patterson (ZP): I met Liepollo during a bizarre exchange at a café in a trendy part of Cape Town. I was a tourist, and she worked at Chimurenga, a pan-African journal whose headquarters were nearby. I was taking a long lunch reading and writing, and I might have been the only customer in the café when she entered. She was supposed to be meeting a friend, and she was late, or the friend wasn’t there, and she needed to use a phone. Then she approached my table to ask me to watch her bags—she was going to use the waiter’s mobile to make the call so had to go and buy him minutes first. Basically, within a matter of seconds of entering the cafe, she had both me and the waiter doing her bidding, but she was also very gracious and generous in her authority. 

I had recently purchased Dambudzo Marechera’s novel Black Sunlight and had been reading it while I ate, so it was sitting on my table. She was very excited and confused to realize that I, a tourist whose purpose was to watch her bags, was reading one of Africa’s most controversial writers, who was also one of her favorites. A few days later, we were friends, and I moved into her shared apartment in Observatory, a southern suburb of Cape Town. I lived in her house for three and a half weeks, and then we kept in touch via email, gchat, and Facebook. Our close connection was based mostly on a shared ideology that we accessed through literature. 

STH: You met in Cape Town, but Liepollo was originally from Lesotho?

ZP: One thing that was very important to Liepollo was her culture. She was proud of her country, Lesotho, and her language, Sesotho. In March 2011, she launched a literary festival that brought writers from Lesotho together in a conference that took place over several days in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. It was called Ba re e nere (although the spelling has been changed to Ba re e ne re by the people who continue her work). At that time, I was trying to figure out how to launch a community arts project for youth in Brooklyn—which I conceived in response to gentrification and launched in the fall of 2012. So, our work was beginning to inform each other’s across continents. I think the conversations we had as roommates led directly to both of us engaging in our respective communities.

STH: And then the unthinkable happened to Liepollo . . .

ZP: She was living in Cape Town and must have traveled to Lesotho to cover an annual mountain biking event in September 2012. She was in a van full of journalists and volunteers at the end of the day—I think that’s when the accident happened. The driver was a young volunteer from Germany, and he was driving too fast on the mountain and passengers asked him to slow down and he wouldn’t. He went off the road, and Liepollo lost her life. As far as I know, the driver has never formally apologized to Liepollo’s family and friends. He was quickly evacuated and did not have to face the pain he caused in so many people. 

As a way of coping with her death, Zachary Rosen, Liepollo’s boyfriend, kept Ba re e nere going with a writer from Lesotho. They resurrected her conference in her memory, and they expanded upon her work by creating a website, a short story competition, and a dictionary to create new Sesotho words.

Everyone who met Liepollo was moved by her. She is one of the most charismatic people I’d ever encountered; I think a huge part of her legacy is how many people adore her. She loved language and was incredibly quick with a comeback, she was dramatic and self-centered and had an incredibly generous heart. She was dynamic, inspiring, and her life was taken far too soon by an irresponsible European. The injustice isn’t lost on any of us.

STH: When did you conceive of Chronology, and did your approach evolve as you were working on it?

ZP: Chronology was originally a final project for a class I was taking at Pratt Institute for my MFA in Writing program. The course was called Multilingualisms: Translation and/as Composition and was co-taught by Anna Moschovakis and Sarah Riggs. I was taking the class shortly after Ba re e nere’s revival, and I had no idea who was behind it at the time, but I was following it on Facebook. They created a website, and a story was published as the winner of their first competition. It was Lits’oanelo Yvonne Nei’s “Bophelo bo naka li maripa.” In class, we’d been reading M. NourbeSe Philip and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Sawako Nakayasu and discussing the art of form, and ways language can be interpreted and reinterpreted through translation. I was incredibly inspired by what could be done and had been done with language and storytelling and form by those three writers. So, I decided to work with Sesotho and attempt to translate the story from Ba re e ne re’s website. I thought it would help me process the loss of my friend. I never thought about the project being more than a final for a class. I’ve always written fiction, so it was new for me to step into the world of translation and poetics and essay. 

The first draft was about the process of translation; it was a reflection on what I was doing and why I was doing it. It didn’t take me too long to realize I was going to be defeated and that the books I was using to help translate the story privileged the South African orthography as opposed to the one used in Lesotho. I also had difficulty finding simple grammar books to help me understand conjugation and syntax. When I revisited the project for my thesis, and at that point, I was thinking about the possibility of it becoming a book, I focused a bit more on the politics of the history of writing systems in Lesotho, and the inherent entitlement of my actions. 

STH: How did you collaborate with Ugly Duckling Presse to realize your vision for Chronology?

ZP: When UDP took on Chronology, it was still very raw. It told a story, but I don’t think I really knew what it was supposed to be doing. I didn’t see it as a book yet and was also torn by questions around the ethics of publishing emails and information about a friend who could no longer give their consent. I was encouraged, though, because I did believe I was doing something interesting. Rebekah Smith, one of my editors, commented all over my manuscript with suggestions, reflections, and positive feedback.

STH: There are several loose inserts in the book. As a reader, these inserts provoked in me a feeling of wanting to care for the book; paying attention to where the inserts were placed and understanding how easily these parts of Chronology could slip away and be lost, wondering if perhaps some of them are meant to be lost?

ZP: The inserts in the book are beautiful and brilliant, and I can’t take any credit for them. The book’s typesetter, Chuck Kuan, conceived it. Originally, those images were on the page in the manuscript but I immediately loved the idea. I think some readers will be diligent about keeping the inserts where they are originally, and others will appreciate encountering them in varied places when they return to read different sections. They enhance the collage-like experience of the book and the intimacy of the subject matter. The inserts are the souvenirs, the flowers and love letters you collect in your travels and keep in your journal. Sometimes those mementos do get lost, but they remain part of the initial experience.

STH: Early in the process of learning Sesotho, you gave yourself parameters for learning the language. For example, you initially limited your study to what was printed in books found in the library and avoided the internet. Why was this important? 

ZP: I wanted to think about public access and resources and be in a real place and work with tangible materials while trying to translate Nei’s story. I would go to the Schomburg center and sit copying word lists or research the history of Lesotho. A lot of my writing, my fiction and drama, is about performativity, and looking back, envisioning myself there at the library, and thinking about my motivations, I see myself in the research library performing the scholar.  I think I must have chosen those parameters to create some sort of stage or performance space for myself. I’m also a huge advocate of public libraries and community spaces, so I try to incorporate that love in a lot of my work. However, a lot of the books the library had were from the early to mid-twentieth century. My limits were not working for me, so I turned to the internet to get some questions answered. In a way, all my work suddenly felt futile, but then the political questions, rather than the success of the translation, became what was more interesting to me.

STH: There are several translations in the book you refer to as “attempts.” When do you consider a translation to be successful? And is this important to you?

ZP: I think this is a really important question because I want to be clear that I don’t see myself as a translator. I was definitely evoking Sawako Nakayasu’s translations in Mouth: Eats Color: Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations, and Originals. Except the difference between Nakayasu and me is that she knew the ways in which she was messing with language via her varied results. Each of my attempts moved farther away from a limited literal translation, and I had no way of knowing what nuances I was evoking. I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a success-oriented translator or writer for that matter.

STH: After reading Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya’s biography, you note in Chronology how one of her stories made you think of Liepollo and “her cultural context” and your “shared/separate contemporary Cape Town context of traveler and resident.” Did this mirror your experience of learning Sesotho? 

ZP: I came across Singing Away the Hunger: The Autobiography of an African Woman by Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya at the Brooklyn Public Library early in my research. I was somewhat astounded when I read about the Basotho tradition of women loving women and the ceremonies for it. It is platonic love, but official and recognized by friends and family. The way Nthunya’s friend chose her made me think of the way Liepollo chose me that day in the café. I was sitting there, I was going to watch her bags, then she saw the book I was reading, and it was like, okay, now we’re very good friends. However, for me, as a lesbian from New York, that kind of friendship between women is not automatically platonic. Also, Liepollo wasn’t a country girl entrenched in tradition, and she was living in Cape Town working and theorizing with activists when we met. I think reading that chapter in Nthunya’s book allowed me to see my friendship with Liepollo in a way that was connected to Basotho tradition, which is way more powerful than an angsty twenty-first century friendship with unexplored romantic tensions.

STH:  Marechera’s Black Sunlight is referenced many times in Chronology. Are there other companion texts that you would recommend reading alongside the book?

ZP: Decolonising the Mind by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I’d suggest that anyone who wants to understand the politics around speaking and writing in one’s mother tongue should read that. And, Ngugi says we should read Fanon every day, so read Fanon too. One book I didn’t think about when I was writing this was Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark. However, a close friend of mine believed that she was able to understand my perspective because I’d lent her that little book of literary essays. Also, Spivak’s essay “The Politics of Translation” was incredibly important to me in thinking about the meaning of my work.

STH: Last, but not least, congratulations on winning the Lambda Award! What does it mean for you?

ZP: Thank you! I was really thrilled to be nominated. It never occurred to me that I would actually win! It’s been amazing receiving recognition from the queer community, and exciting to think that due to the award more people will read and hopefully, be moved by the book.


Read more interviews on the Asymptote blog: