Posts featuring Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

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. 

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How to Write About Africa: Everything Lost is Found Again in Review

How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés?

Everything Lost is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho by Will McGrath, Dzanc Books, 2018

To recognize one’s own foreignness in a place that is foreign is difficult. To write it is even harder. In Everything Lost is Found Again, journalist Will McGrath’s Lesotho-set travelogue, he does what is almost antithetical to the travel writing genre and acknowledges his foreignness, resisting the impulse to position himself as the default cultural setting and transfer “otherness” to the country and its citizens. The fact that this book is printed in English and primarily sold in the States means that his audience is also foreign to the place he is writing about, making McGrath’s reversal a considerable achievement.

But let’s begin one step back. How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés? In Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical 2005 Granta essay, “How to Write About Africa,” the Kenyan author advises: “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country . . . Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions . . . Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone . . . Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa,’ and you want that on your dust jacket . . . Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky.”

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His Defiance: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Struggle for an Independent African Literature

These words cannot just exist in a vacuum; they provoke reactions that demand political change.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born 5 January, 1938 in Limuru, Kenya and is a perennial favourite for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ngũgĩ is at the forefront of a war of resistance regarding the use of language that has spanned many decades. He advocates that African writers write in their mother tongues, because he understands how integral language is to a culture and its identity. Since African literature is mostly written in languages of the minority, the language of the colonizers, Ngũgĩ asserts that this choice stifles the imagination of Africans and their propensity to be creative.

Nearly fifty years ago, Ngũgĩ wrote his first novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), the first written in English by an Eastern African. Ngaahika Ndeenda (1977), translated as I Will Marry When I Want, was co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii. It is a play that depicts the injustices and excesses of post-colonial Kenya. It was acted by “non-intellectuals” in an open-air theater at the Kamirithu Educational and Cultural Center, Limuru. Ngũgĩ’s Gikuyu play sought to bring the theatre closer to the masses and encourage the audience to interact with the play. The play appealed to a wide audience and, because of the resultant reaction by people, the Kenyan government threw Ngũgĩ in prison for a year.

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In Review: Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu

A review of the first novel translated from Lingala, an African language spoken by between 7 and 10 million people.

Richard Ali A Mutu’s Mr. Fix-It begins curiously enough with a list of items that its protagonist, Ebamba, and his family must procure as a bride price to obtain the hand of his girlfriend, Eyenga. Over the opening pages, the goods range from the mundane (three bags of rice), to the supposedly traditional (baskets of kola nuts), and the extravagant (two three-piece Versace suits). As negotiations carry on and break down, with the would-be bride questioning the need for this process altogether, a rain-storm recalling the one that wipes Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo off the map in Cien años de soledad forces everyone inside to conduct business inside the house. Everyone decides to pause for a while as due to the leaky roof “people [run] out of dry places to sit” and “The rain is coming down as if someone had opened a giant faucet and the family is frantically putting out more and more buckets to protect the carpet” (12).

Despite the optimism one may glean from this inauspicious opening’s relation to the work’s title (Mr. Fix-It being a stylized translation of Ebamba’s name, which literally means “mender” in Lingala), the rain stands in for the larger structural problems faced by the people of Kinshasa at home and within the world economy. For example, “the Chinese” paved the now flooded street and put in the stopped-up sewers, and the residents themselves are at a loss to explain the failed development project. Some blame poor Chinese workmanship, others the neighborhood’s witches. Whatever the explanation, the roads are flooded and the sewers broken. And what about that roof? The astute reader of African literature will thus find the novel taking up colonialism’s inescapable structuring of the present as found in novels such as Chinua Achebe’s often overlooked No Longer at Ease (1960). As with the main character of Achebe’s novel, the orphaned Ebamba obtains an education but enters a broader economy where power relations, colonial and otherwise, shape one’s destiny regardless of one’s talents or intents. The mayor, the president, and the director of a company where Ebamba applies for a job all lack names, suggesting the utter dehumanization connected to dealing with them. Yet the novel reminds us that, these difficulties aside, Ebamba, the mender, remains the master of his own fate, and the choices that lead to his destruction are his alone.

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DISPATCH: International Translation Day, London, 30th September 2013

Asymptote Editor-at-Large Nashwa Gowanlock reports from ITD 2013

If there’s any sure sign of dedication to a cause, then it’s a group of UK-based translators voluntarily heading towards a day-long symposium indoors on an unseasonably warm late-September day in London. As I exited the labyrinth that is Kings Cross station to be blinded by the unexpected sunshine and made my way to the British Library, I noticed the clock on the tower of the St Pancras station. I was running late. The lack of tell-tale signs of a nearby conference about to start—no small clusters of strangers wearing identical badges, cradling coffees or cigarettes while studiously ignoring each other—confirmed it: I was late for the opening session. READ MORE…