Today on the blog, podcast editor Layla Benitez-James draws us into the vibrant but seldom-discussed community of Black writers in Spain. In this essay-interview hybrid, she introduces us to two booksellers working to amplify the voices and and experiences of black Spanish writers.
In the past year, I have interviewed three of the panelists from the 2018 Tampa AWP panel sponsored by ALTA, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” for the Asymptote podcast: Lawrence Schimel, John Keene and, Aaron Coleman. My last interview with Coleman gave me a quote which has been rewritten at the beginning of each new journal I’ve started since December as it got at something that I have often felt but never expressed so well: literary translation is a tool to make more vivid the relationships between Afro-descendent people in the Americas and around the world.
I was reminded of the first time I read Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Of course, nothing overlapped with my life exactly, but there was this kind of constant shock and pleasure at recognizing pieces of my identity described by people from places I had never been, a sense of belonging and kinship.
Beyond dictionaries and historical reference works, in my latest projects I have relied heavily on community to understand the context of the text. I moved to Spain in 2014 to work on translation and improve my Spanish. I had fallen in love with the practice after a translation workshop at the University of Houston and started translating the work of Madrid-born and based poet Óscar Curieses. After a teaching placement in the city of Murcia flung me much farther south than I had originally planned, I began to find incredible Murcian poets, like Cristina Morano, Bea Mirales, José Daniel Espejo, and José Óscar López, whose work I wanted to bring into English.
Selling books can be a form of political activism. That’s according to Ketty Valêncio, who founded the initiative Livraria Africanidades, a unique bookstore in São Paulo that only sells books that focus on and valorize black women.
Africanidades Bookstore began online in 2014 and opened its physical location in December 2017. The walls of its new home have murals created by black women artists and its bookshelves are lined with fiction, poetry, feminist theory, nonfiction, and even cookbooks, the vast majority of which are written by black authors from Brazil’s peripheries. The space carries the fruitful results and future promise of selling books by authors who reside on the margins of the Brazilian publishing scene—or who are excluded entirely from the traditional literary market.
Here, Ketty Valêncio tells Asymptote Editor-at-Large in Brazil, Lara Norgaard, some of the challenges for women of color in Brazilian publishing and the power of increasing visibility for writers of color, both in Portuguese and in translation.
Lara Norgaard (LN): How did you come up with the idea for the Africanidades Bookstore?
Ketty Valêncio (KV): The bookstore came about because of my struggle to understand myself as a black woman. I never felt that I fit in anywhere. And then I came across Afro-Brazilian literature, texts that have black characters as protagonists. I understood my blackness through literature, through these books written by black authors and also by a few white authors who place value on black characters. I came across these narratives and thought, wow, there are people writing about me, about who came before me, about my ancestors and my memories.
We are back with the latest literary news from around the world! This week we hear about various happenings in Brazil, Indonesia, and the United States.
Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-large, reporting from Brazil:
Brazil made international headlines when black feminist city councilperson Marielle Franco was assassinated in Rio de Janeiro on March 14. Renowned authors from around the world, including Chimamanda Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Arundhati Roy, signed a petition demanding an investigation into the death of the activist and civic leader. One of Brazil’s most prominent black women writers, Conceição Evaristo, recited a poem in Marielle Franco’s honor during the days of protest and mourning that followed the murder.