Monday, 7 September 2020


(This is the second article in SWAN’s series on translators of Caribbean literature.)

Laëtitia Saint-Loubert is a French translator and an early-career researcher whose much-anticipated book on Caribbean literary translation is being published this fall. Titled The Caribbean in Translation: Remapping Thresholds of Dislocation, it explores 20th- and 21st-century Caribbean literature in translation and aims to shine a new light on a range of works, while promoting a “rethinking” of translation theory from a Caribbean perspective.

The book is based on Saint-Loubert’s doctoral dissertation which won the Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Comparative Literature.

Book by Laëtitia Saint-Loubert.
The award came as Saint-Loubert completed a PhD in Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick, in the UK, in 2018, after two Master’s degrees in literary translation at the Université Michel de Montaigne in Bordeaux, France - where she “came to develop a passion for Caribbean literature”.

Her current research “continues to investigate Caribbean literature in translation and focuses on bibliodiversity and non-vertical modes of circulation for Caribbean and Indian Ocean literatures”, she told SWAN.

She has translated a number of Caribbean texts, including a short story by Guadeloupe-based writer Gisèle Pineau and an essay on Puerto Rican impressionist Francisco Oller for a trilingual project (Spanish, English, French). The Pineau story - "A Little Fire of No Consequence / Un Petit Feu Sans Conséquence" - appeared in the journal Vernacular: New Connections in Language, Literature & Culture based at the University of Tennessee.

Saint-Loubert said she’s also in talks to translate a novel by a Jamaican writer into French, and she’s interested in working with Caribbean-based publishers to promote intraregional circulation of Caribbean literature. The following interview was conducted by email and telephone.

SWAN: You speak English, German and Spanish, in addition to your mother tongue French. How did your interest and proficiency in these languages develop?

LAËTITIA SAINT-LOUBERT (LS-L): I grew up in a fairly monolingual, French environment but have always loved other languages and cultures. When I turned 16, I left France to participate in an exchange programme in the US, where I studied and lived with a host family for a year. This experience was crucial in a number of ways, as it opened up whole new horizons that allowed me to start conceptualizing and dreaming (of) the world differently.

I started learning German in middle school and later did an Erasmus year abroad in Germany, before completing two MAs in Literary Translation in France, one in English and one in German.

I came to Spanish much later, as an adult. I was very fortunate during my PhD at the University Warwick to be given the opportunity to attend classes in the Department of Hispanic Studies, and to later conduct a research project in Puerto Rico, where I was completely immersed in the local culture and language. This was my first time in the Caribbean.

I have since been based in La Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, where people speak French and Reunionese Creole. Unfortunately, I do not speak any French Creoles fluently, but have a basic understanding of Kréol rényoné and Kreyòl ayisyen (Haitian Creole).

Scholar Laëtitia Saint-Loubert.
SWAN: What motivated you to study translation, and how would you describe your university experience of focusing on literature from other countries?

LS-L: I always wanted to live “in translation”. When I was in high school, I wanted to become an interpreter. Years later, when I studied conference interpreting, I realized that it wasn’t for me. I was more of a literary person and decided to major in literary translation to combine my two passions, literature and translation.

I started developing an interest in postcolonial literature during my year abroad in Germany, where I concomitantly studied GDR literature and art movements. It was then that I started familiarizing myself with writers of French expression from the Caribbean, writers that I had never heard of before in my country, despite my initial background in literature. When I returned to France, during my second MA in Literary Translation, I began working on the French translation of a Jamaican novel for which I felt the need to further immerse myself in Antillean writing to try and do the text justice.

I would say that my interest in literature from other countries, including the various Francospheres, comes from a profound love of cross-cultural encounters and a deep need to interrogate the power differentials in transnational literary circulation. This is one of the reasons why it was important for me to do a PhD in Caribbean Studies and in a different academic setting - in this case, the UK. I wanted to keep shifting my referential framework and look at translation and literature from a somewhat different angle and location. This is also the reason why I felt it was essential to carry out research in the Caribbean to address issues of (in)visibility and access in the circulation of Caribbean literature in the region and beyond.

SWAN: Your doctoral dissertation explored 20th- and 21st-century Caribbean literature in translation. Why did you choose this topic?

LS-LThe Caribbean in Translation: Remapping Thresholds of Dislocation was born out of a desire to work at the intersection of Caribbean and translation studies. I wanted to look at the transnational circulation of contemporary Caribbean literature from a comparative lens, across the region’s multiple languages, cultures and literary genealogies. To do that, I chose the theoretical concept of the threshold which I connected to Glissantian theory and transoceanic theoretical concepts from the Pacific and the Indian Ocean to explore the aesthetic, sociocultural and political aspects of Caribbean writing in translation. My aim was to challenge vertical models of global literary traffic and to invite readers to envisage alternative pathways of cultural exchange from archipelagic latitudes, beyond a binary North-South axis.

SWAN:  What do you hope readers will gain from this work, especially as regards the sphere of translation globally?

LS-L: For readers with little knowledge of the region, its diaspora and their literary production, I hope the book somewhat contributes to placing the rich, multilingual field of Caribbean literature on the world map. For those who are more familiar with Caribbean texts, I hope the book helps bring into focus the need for more interdisciplinary studies to initiate further cross-cultural and cross-linguistic dialogues.

With regards to the sphere of global translations, I hope that looking at transnational literary circulation from a Caribbean perspective contributes to increasing translations from and into minoritized languages, and to addressing asymmetrical flows in global literary circulation, so that we can all engage in more equitable and sustainable modes of exchange.

Saint-Loubert translated an essay on Puerto Rican artist Oller.
SWAN: How important is translation to Caribbean and world literature, now?

LS-L: Translation is foundational to Caribbean and world literature. Without translation, we would not be able to access works originally written in a language we are not fluent in. In that sense, I see translation as not only a part of the afterlife of a text, but also as part of its making and its genesis, even. After all, any form of writing is the translation of inner thoughts and ideas put down into words. With regards to our day and age, I think that untranslatability is an indispensable part of translation, something that ought to be stressed in the globalized world we live in, so that translation is seen as a driving force of linguistic and cultural diversity. This is why I believe that rethinking translation theory and practice from a Caribbean perspective is essential.

SWAN: France is one of the countries with the highest number of translated books. What, in your view, are some of the reasons for this?

LS-L: France has a longstanding tradition of translation that can be explained by its strong literary culture. Nowadays, French literary translators can benefit from professional support and guidance from the Association des Traducteurs Littéraires de France and publishers can also obtain funding for translations, which I think contributes to the presence of translated books in the French literary market. That said, translation is still perceived as an additional cost, which a lot of publishers can’t afford, and that makes it even more difficult for less visible texts and writers to enter the French literary scene. If there is indeed a number of translated books in France, especially when we compare figures in the US and the UK, most of these translations are still carried out from European languages, and mostly from English, thereby confirming inequalities in the transnational circuitry of literature.

SWAN: What can writers, scholars and the publishing industry do to further support and promote translation?

Writers / presenters at a literary festival in France.
LS-L: Writers, scholars and the publishing industry could work together towards organizing more literary events to democratize translation and make it more visible to readers. I think incentives like the Festival VO-VF, which has been held every year in Gif-sur-Yvette since 2013, is an excellent platform for translated fiction and translators, for example. (ED's Note: the biennial Festival America also showcases translated literature.)

SWAN: What advice would you give to students who wish to become translators, and what are the main challenges in the field?

LS-L: In all honesty, I’ve found it very difficult to earn a living as a literary translator. I’ve had to diversify my skills and work as a freelance and in-house translator for various companies, doing technical and commercial translations and learning how to use CAT tools, which eventually led me to doing more literary translation. To students who wish to become translators, I would say, however, that with a good deal of perseverance and hard work, all good things come to those who wait.

SWAN: You are currently in talks to translate a Jamaican writer’s novel into French. How do you approach the translation of Creole?

LS-L: I’m very excited about this project which I started working on many years ago as an MA student. At the time, I knew less about Caribbean literature, and going back to this translation makes me approach the original quite differently.

From the beginning, I did not wish to transplant the original Jamaican voices onto another French regional soundscape, let alone silence them. It was equally important for me not to turn Jamaican patois into an ethnolect that would be based on the systematic elision of r’s at the end of words or syllables, a contentious strategy that has been used in French translations to “imitate” black speech patterns. Rather, I’ve come to look at the presence of Creole and the oral dimension of the original as features of a unique Caribbean voice, one that has its own idiosyncratic characteristics, but that also dialogues with other Caribbean voices, with which it shares commonalities. The idea, with this translation, which I hope will be published in the Caribbean, is rather to recreate a sense of pan-Caribbean linguistic and literary continuum. In so doing, I hope francophone readers can get a sense of the polyphone and porous nature of the “French” voice in the translation.

SWAN: How do you regard the current increased interest in translation, and what are your plans for future projects?

LS-L: I’m very pleased to note a certain interest in translation and hope that Caribbean literature and Caribbean Studies at large will benefit from this trend. I would certainly be very happy to continue contributing in any way that I can to the circulation of Caribbean texts in the region and beyond. I think that this is particularly important for the circulation of Caribbean theoretical texts, for instance. Otherwise, besides doing a joint-translation of a Reunionese novel into English with a friend of mine, I am currently working on a new research project that examines the book industry and/in the Caribbean ecosystem from a decolonial perspective. (Copyright SWAN)

This series is being done in association with The Caribbean Translation Project, an initiative to promote the translation of literature from and about the Caribbean. (Twitter: @CaribTranslate)

Tuesday, 1 September 2020


Even as their income dries up and their touring opportunities disappear because of the Covid-19 pandemic, some artists are using their work to call out injustice, criticize inept leaders and spark social change.

The members of Megative - a Brooklyn-based, reggae-dub-punk collective - are among those aiming to fight negative global currents, and they’re doing so through edgy, scorching music.

The members of Megative, with Gus van Go (far left).
Photo copyright: Daviston Jeffers
“I think activism is the most important thing we have right now in 2020. It’s do or die right now for humanity. The injustice absolutely must end, and it will not end with silence,” says music producer Gus van Go, leader and co-founder of the group.

In a year of uncertainty and division, Megative stands out for its multicultural composition as well as its fusion of styles and thought-provoking lyrics. This past July, watching the incompetence of certain heads of state in the face of the  pandemic, the group released the song The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum, a cover of the Fun Boy Three hit from the early Eighties, combining dub and punk music. (Clip:

The original was a critique of the Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher era, and Megative thinks the track is just as pertinent in 2020, with the current presence of problematic leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.

“We still believe the message is important, and it’s almost more relevant now,” van Go told SWAN in a telephone interview from Montréal, Canada, where he grew up, and where he has a studio along with one in Brooklyn.

The group was due to take their songs on the road - scheduled to perform at “five or six festivals” in France, for instance - but the pandemic has caused all these events to be cancelled. The musicians now find themselves, like so many other artists, struggling to maintain an income and to keep their overall work going.

“I think Covid-19 is exposing something that I’ve always thought about in the music industry,” said van Go. “So much inequality. We’ve always had this one percent of artists who have been insanely rich … and the rest of us are working our asses off, in order to eke out a living.”

The cover of Megative's first album.
He explained that with the massive decline in album sales over the past decade, musicians had turned to touring in order to “just barely make a living - travelling together in a shitty old van”. But now even that has dried up with the global health crisis.

“Covid has shone this giant light on it,” he added. “The universe took away the one single piece of the pie that the artist still had. All of a sudden, nearly every single musician cannot make a cent. One day, the universe just said ‘no you cant have that’. There is no income for all these artists. You see how dangerous it is to have just one source of income? Do we not need music in this world? What if Covid continues for two or three years, what if this goes on for multiple years?”

He said it’s time for artists to band together and demand change - in their industries, communities and countries. “Megative supports activism,” he declared.

Discussing the origins of the group, van Go said the idea for the collective grew out of an overnight drive from New Mexico to California that he took with fellow musician Tim Fletcher 10 years ago. There were only two CDS available in the car - Combat Rock by The Clash, and More Specials by the 2 Tone and ska revival band The Specials, both English. The sounds got van Go thinking about the “conscious lyrics” and the history of the musical styles and their influences.

“We have a love for Jamaican reggae and dub culture of the early Eighties with bands like Steel Pulse and The Clash. But reggae in North America, where we are from, is associated with vacation spots, coconut trees and irie vibes. We were lamenting the darker reggae of the early Eighties. Our Clash discussion morphed into how a reggae band would look in 2018,” he said.

Back in New York, they invited a producing-engineering duo called Likeminds and Jamaican MC Screechy Dan to join the conversation. The enthusiasm for the project was so strong that they recorded three songs which almost immediately led to a signing with Last Gang Records and the subsequent release of their debut album in summer 2018.

Megative - trying to drum against
negative currents. Photo: D. Jeffers
The collective now brings together disparate artists including the Grammy-nominated Likeminds (Chris Soper and Jesse Singer); Jamaican-born singer, MC and dancehall veteran Screechy Dan; singer-guitarist and punk rocker Alex Crow; percussionist-DJ-singer JonnyGo Figure; and the rising Brooklyn drummer Demetrius “Mech” Pass.

All the members have their own individual projects but contribute their respective skills to create the Megative sound – a fusion of UK-style punk, Jamaican dub and reggae, and American hip-hop. The music is a response to today’s world, to everything that’s happening including the “hyper-noise of incessant information”, according to the collective.

The overarching theme is existentialist angst amidst precarious conditions. Tracks such as Have Mercy, Bad Advice and More Time call upon listeners to take control and rely on their own sense of what’s right, with lyrics set against dub beats and a punk vibe, and skilful singing mixed with mindful rapping.

For van Go, born Gustavo Coriandoli in Argentina and raised in Canada, the historical alliance between punk and reggae was central to Megative’s formation. He recalls growing up in Montréal in the late 1980s and early 90s, when the “punk rock movement was taking hold” among the youth.

“The shows had trouble finding venues, so they always tried to rent space … and sometimes that would be at Jamaican community centres. All these punks would be at these shows, but also the Rastafarian community. So, dub music was playing. I was 16, had never heard dub, had never been been to a punk show, so it fused in my brain,” he told SWAN.

Don Letts' autobiography.
Similar congregations or collaborations in the UK had led Bob Marley to release Punky Reggae Party in 1977, a reflection of the bridging of cultural divides; and punk-dub pioneer Don Letts wrote about the movement in his 2006 autobiography Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers.

“It’s all about social message – in punk and reggae, so they’re natural allies or they should be,” said van Go. “There’s a positivity but also a dark side. I love the energy that this creates, in punk and reggae and in early hiphop.”

When asked about Megative's views on the current discussion around cultural appropriation in the arts, van Go answered: "This is an ongoing discussion with us, and we really encourage dialogue on the subject." He added that the group takes a multicultural approach to creating music, as can be seen from their output so far.

Regarding the future of the collective, van Go said Megative planned to continue producing music with a cause, and to get back to touring when possible. They are currently "writing new material" but aren't certain in which format(s) it will be released. 

“Like nothing else can, I think music can definitely help heal,” van Go told SWAN. “We have to topple these terrible people who are in power right now. We have to find concrete ways to end systemic racism. Music has to play a part as it did in the Sixties. It needs to.”

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Friday, 14 August 2020


Jamaican writer and academic Elizabeth “Betty” Wilson ranks among the first modern translators in the Caribbean region, translating both poetry and prose, from French and Spanish to English. Her trail-blazing role is receiving new attention in 2020, particularly as the publishing sector pledges - once more - to include more diverse voices.

Scholar and translator Betty Wilson.
Wilson’s works include the novels Juletane, by the late Guadeloupean writer Myriam Warner-Vieyra (Heinemann, 1987); Exile according to Julia (L’Exil selon Julia) by French-Caribbean author Gisèle Pineau (CARAF, University of Virginia Press, 2003); and Aunt Résia and the Spirits and Other Stories - the first collection of short fiction in English by the acclaimed Haitian writer Yanick Lahens (CARAF, 2010).

When The Caribbean Writer journal devoted a special bilingual issue to “Ayiti/Haiti” in 2011, Wilson translated Raymond Mair’s poem "Haiti 200" for the volume. This followed several earlier publications, such as the translation of poems by Francophone Caribbean writers from Guadeloupe, Haiti, and Martinique, for a special issue of The Literary Review in 1992.

Wilson is a former head of the Department of French at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. Now retired, she taught French language and literature as well as translation at UWI’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. She was also an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Literatures in English for five years, in charge of the graduate course “Women, Gender and Fiction”.

With her sister, the author Pam Mordecai, Wilson edited Her True True Name (Heinemann, 1989), the first anthology of writing by Caribbean women. In addition, she served, for many years, as a member of the French Examining Committee of the Caribbean Examination Council, including being Chief Examiner for French at both the secondary and advanced levels.

Juletane, by Myriam Warner-Vieyra,
translated by Betty Wilson.
Wilson lives in Jamaica, where she remains active in supporting Caribbean literature. Her translation of 19 poems by the Cuban poet Dulce Maria Loynaz, with colleague Ileana Sanz, is awaiting publication, and she continues to work on Warner-Vieyra's short stories, Femmes échouées, and on poems by Mauritian poet Édouard Maunick. The following interview was conducted by email.

SWAN: When did you first become interested in languages, and how / where did you learn French, Creole, and Spanish?

WILSON: I've always loved languages. I started learning French and Spanish in high school. I am bi-lingual in Jamaican Standard English and Jamaican Creole but, unfortunately, I do not speak French Creole fluently. I was blessed to have great language teachers, and literature and languages have always been my favourite subjects.

SWAN: When did you start translating, and why?

WILSON: I did Latin in secondary school for seven years. It was taught very traditionally, and we always had to translate, which I liked. I enjoyed working out the puzzles and getting the message just right. My first published translation was the novella Juletane (Heinemann). At the time I was working for Heinemann Publishers in Jamaica and they found out I was fluent in French. They asked me if I would consider translating the book which they wished to publish. I found I really enjoyed the project. Two years later I was asked to do translations of poems by Edouard Maunick from Mauritius for the literary journal Callaloo. I had said I would never translate poetry.  It was much more challenging, but I found it very satisfying.

SWAN: How important is translation to Caribbean and world literature, especially now?

WILSON: Very important. Otherwise most people would only have a window into their own world and not be able to experience other cultures through great texts like War and Peace, Don Quixote, Senghor's poetry, Wide Sargasso Sea or A House for Mr. Biswas. I have had good feedback from friends who do not read French about the importance to them of my translations. It is especially important now for us to appreciate one another's cultures and world view.

SWAN: What can writers and the publishing industry do to support and promote translation?

A novel by Gisèle Pineau,
translated by Betty Wilson.
WILSON: For starters, the publishing industry could pay literary translators more appropriately; right now, it is a labour of love. "Professional" translators generally won't touch literary assignments. Writers could recommend books they have read in translation or in the original to their publishers for translation and publishing and seek avenues to have their own works translated.

SWAN: What is your opinion on the state of language teaching in the Caribbean?

WILSON: Language teaching has come a long way though we are still far behind Scandinavian countries and regions like Africa and India where English is not the first language. Most French teachers in the Caribbean are pedagogically trained, but more language teachers need to be trained. The Department of Modern Languages at UWI now offers several languages, but the departments of Education have largely not kept pace in terms of offering professional training in methodologies. In some countries active language teachers' associations - like JAFT (French) in Jamaica - attempt to fill the gap with workshops and seminars.

SWAN: How can people in the literary sphere help to bridge the linguistic "divides" in the region?

WILSON: Departments of literature (in English) could offer more texts in translation in their course offerings. Public readings could also be encouraged, as well as interviews with writers. Films like Sugarcane Alley, based on the Martinican novel by Joseph Zobel (La rue Cases-Nègres) or films like Strawberry and Chocolate (Senel Paz, Cuba) or Like Water for Chocolate (Laura Esquivel, Mexico), as well as "foreign" film festivals have done a lot to promote the literatures of other countries. Literary festivals like Calabash in Jamaica have also introduced and promoted writers who do not write in English.

This is the first in a planned series of translator profiles, in association with The Caribbean Translation Project (Twitter: @CaribTranslate), an initiative to promote the translation of literature from and about the Caribbean.

August is Women in Translation Month, a programme launched in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinski. #WITMonth

Saturday, 1 August 2020


Reading is, of course, a way to travel, so here are our picks for memorable journeys even as the Covid-19 pandemic keeps most of us physically at home.


The Belle Créole contains all the literary ingredients for which Maryse Condé is acclaimed: a gripping narrative, troubled characters, lavish descriptions, and a slow, simmering political backstory, set in the Caribbean.

The Guadeloupean author, who won the New Academy Prize (or alternative Nobel) in Literature in 2018, delivers a tale marked by tumult, love and desperation, skilfully translated from the French and Creole by Nicole Simek. The work, Condé’s 12th of 16 novels, starts with the “spectacular” acquittal of 22-year-old Dieudonné Sabrina, a gardener who is accused of murdering his employer - and lover - Loraine, a wealthy white woman descended from plantation owners, a “békée”.

Readers gain insight into Dieudonné’s past through a series of flashbacks from different points of view; we see the accused wretchedly wandering the city of Port-Mahault and finding sanctuary in a decrepit sailboat, La Belle Créole, while his homeland experiences strikes, violence and social disintegration. Condé makes us feel the “suffocating” heat of the city, an “inferno” that portends “further abominations”, such as “furious rains” and hurricanes. In contrast, there's the compelling beauty of the sea, although it, too, can be treacherous, as we see when Dieudonné sails away.

Apart from the main character and his “crime, the story is a portrait of an island struggling with the legacies of colonization and inequality, while facing a future where the only certainty might be climate change. Nothing is clear-cut - not relationships, motivations, politics, or personalities. As Dawn Fulton writes in the afterword, the figures that Condé creates in her novels are “famously not heroic, yet they unfailingly speak to us, draw us in, incite our compassion, frustration, fear, and empathy.” This book will leave some dissatisfied because of the characters’ “contradictions and incongruities”, but in the end, it’s well worth the read. (University of Virginia Press)


Add caption

“There are few places more puzzling than Jamaica” states the jacket flap of Orlando Patterson’s The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonialist Predicament.

Over the next 346 pages, the Harvard University sociologist attempts to explain the puzzle: why an island with more churches per square mile than any other country can also have one of the highest homicide rates in the world; how a place that produces numerous stars in the arts and sports spheres still struggles with an “anaemic” economy and fragile infrastructures. And so on.

What, then, are the answers to this long-lasting enigma? Patterson investigates the history and culture of his homeland and offers pertinent explanations for what drives Jamaica and its people. In doing so, he reveals that the island is not so mystifying after all.

Many former British colonies are grappling with similar issues of colonial heritage, inequity, and globalization; but Jamaica’s “hypervisibility” (a word everyone likes to throw around at the moment) makes for a special case, and the island’s history naturally explains its present. From Spain’s’ “genocidal destruction of the once-abundant indigenous Taino population” to the brutality of British plantation slavery, Jamaica has a past that is “drenched in blood, like no other place on earth”, Patterson writes.

Some people will disagree with his assessment, and the book may not be everyone’s idea of “summer reading”, but it is written in an accessible, engaging style, with flashes of Patterson’s acerbic wit. Each chapter (except for the final one) poses a question. Why Do Policies to Help the Poor So Often Fail? Why Does Globalization Not Produce Cultural Homogenization? And so on. The responses are based on extensive research and also on the writer’s personal policy experiences. This is a must-read for anyone interested in postcolonial history… and in why poor children can run, sing or write their way to international renown. (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)


That Hair, by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida, takes readers to different continents - travelling by hair. Okay, enough with the puns.

Described by its publisher as an “autobiographically inspired tragicomedy”, the book is a coming-of-age story seen from the perspective of Mila, a biracial character growing up in Lisbon, the daughter of a black Angolan mother and white Portuguese father.

The exploration of her “curly hair” is a quest for identity that “intersects with the story of at least two countries and, by extension, the indirect story of the relations among several continents: a geopolitics”, as Mila herself puts it.

The main themes relate to belonging, colonialism, migration, feminism, and the issues that arise from eternally being considered an outsider – even in one’s own land. Translated by Eric M. B. Becker, the writing is rich and evocative of place, past and present, and the book is a worthy addition to our reading list, no matter the season. (Tin House)

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.

Thursday, 9 July 2020


By Dimitri Keramitas

On hearing that the documentary Babenco is about the late Argentine-Brazilian filmmaker Hector Babenco, film buffs of a certain age will likely exclaim “Oh, that Babenco!”, because this subject is a true icon of cinema history.

Poster: Babenco - Tell Me When I Die
From the 1970s to the 1990s, Hector Babenco was a hard-to-miss presence, not just in Latin-American cinema but also in the US, unique (at that time) in his cross-over career.

Kiss of the Spider Woman, Pixote, Carandiru, Ironweed, At Play in the Fields of the Lord were all critical successes, and Spider Woman (based on a novel by Manuel Puig) a commercial success as well. Major Latin-American directors like Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu and Guillermo Del Toro, who have achieved even greater mainstream renown, owe much to Babenco’s example.

In this new film - directed by Barbara Paz, Babenco's third wife, and shown recently at Switzerland’s 2020 Visions du Réel (online) festival - the acclaimed South American filmmaker states that a director must know how to tell a story.

When he made films of gritty documentary realism, there was always a narrative thrust. Later in his career he came to depend on literary source material: Puig, Peter Mathieson, William Kennedy. Oddly enough, in Babenco the subject seems to lose that interest in story, maybe because he was ill, or because he’d found that at a certain point story is no longer the most important aspect of filmmaking. At the end of his life, he sees the past as pieces in a jigsaw, though always with a constant underlying meaning.

It’s hard to say where Paz’s authorship begins and Babenco’s influence ends. He had strong predilections and ideas about filmmaking. These certainly impregnated the director’s approach, especially as the documentary is her first feature-length film. (There was another heavy-duty figure behind her; Willem Dafoe, with whom Ms. Paz co-starred in Babenco’s last film, was executive producer). The documentary exudes a feeling of collaboration, a warm melding of young and old, male and female.

One of Babenco's most famous films:
Kiss of the Spider Woman
In form, the film is a kind of mosaic. It contains haunting, but also obscure, scenes that represent Babenco’s musings and fantasies. We also get beautiful shots of Brazilian landscapes. Although Argentine in origin, Babenco was attracted to the wildness and beauty of Brazil and spent much of his life and career there, becoming a naturalised citizen.

We are treated to several extracts from his films, even a shot of him at the 1986 Academy Awards, where he lost out for Best Director to Sidney Pollack and Out of Africa (although William Hurt won for Best Actor, as Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman).

Much more striking are interviews of Babenco at various phases of his life, especially his younger days. He seems physically very different from one phase to another. The dichotomy or multiplicity of Brazilian/Argentine, guerrilla filmmaker/Hollywood director, derives from his roots. Both his parents were Jewish transplants to South America. His mother emigrated from Poland, while his father was of Ukrainian descent. He continued the family tradition of immigration and outsiderhood, and always identified with marginal people, like the street kid Pixote, during his life of advocacy and idealism.

But Babenco is not just a documentary about a life, but also about a death. The subtitle is: Tell Me When I Die. Babenco contracted cancer in the 1990s, and his life turned into a continual struggle affecting his physical strength and also his memory. Once again, his features took on a marked change in appearance. Ms. Paz films the process of decline with clinical directness but also love for her husband. This was in line with his own sensibility, the determination to engage directly with life’s harshness. As we see him in a hospital bed or taking a test, he seems resigned, calm, curious about what’s happening to him. (When he died in 2016, at the age of 70, the cause was cardiac arrest.)

Babenco: a moving farewell.
Even as he’s being ravaged by his illness, Babenco is still concerned with filmmaking. He dispenses advice (or at least his opinions) to the much younger Ms. Paz, a neophyte filmmaker.

Lending a metafictional air to the film, we see a clip of Willem Dafoe playing a cancer-ridden character in a film Babenco directed (My Hindu Friend). We even observe them during the shoot, debating how an afflicted person would react in a particular situation. It’s amusing in a ghoulish sort of way, as the director isn’t simply making the film but is in the real position of the fictional character.

Babenco, which was awarded the “best documentary on cinema” prize at the Venice Film Festival, is fascinating as a portrait of an artist’s life. The black-and-white images are often engrossing, and the formal jumble reflects the multifaceted, ever-evolving subject. The focus on the director’s death gives the documentary a dramatic framework. We don’t get much about his life with Ms. Paz, his previous wives or his children. This is probably due to discretion on the part of both Babenco and Ms. Paz, which is understandable. However, it also results in a certain lack in the film, something missing, something thin. While not a perfect film, Babenco is nonetheless moving, and motivates the viewer to want to see some of Hector Babenco’s early work, and to await the next film by Barbara Paz.

Production: Gullane/HB Filmes. Distribution: Taskovski

Dimitri Keramitas is a writer and legal expert based in Paris.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020


Over the past year, several international journals have been focusing on Caribbean diasporic issues, including memory and literature, with scholarly articles and creative work.

Among the most recent is the African and Black Diaspora journal, which has published a special issue titled “African-Caribbean Women Interrogating Diaspora/Post-diaspora” - now available online.

“The articles in this issue originated as papers presented at a conference held at London South Bank University in July 2018, representing the work of a network of scholars from the UK, Canada and the Caribbean,” says Dr Suzanne Scafe, who edited the special issue with Dr Leith Dunn.

The contributors “had been focusing on Caribbean women’s mobility, and, in particular, issues of diaspora, globalization and transnationalism,” adds Scafe, (See her earlier SWAN article.)

African and Black Diaspora describes itself as a “multi-disciplinary peer-reviewed international journal that seeks to broaden and deepen our understanding of the lived experiences of people of African descent across the globe by publishing theoretically and historically informed as well as empirically grounded works in the social sciences and humanities that are intellectually challenging and illuminating”.

It is part of the Taylor & Francis Group, which publishes some 2,700 journals and more than 5,000 new books each year

For information on the contents of the special issue, please see: 


For those who speak French as well as English, a special bilingual issue of BABEL looks at “Écritures minoritaires de la mémoire dans les Amériques” (Memorial Minor Writings in the Americas).

The scholarly articles discuss literature of the Americas (within the theoretical framework of "minoritaire" writing), with a focus on memory, history and resistance to domination. 

Edited by Dr Anne Garrait-Bourrier and Dr Christine Dualé, professors at universities in France, the volume has a foreword by Jamaican author Alecia McKenzie (SWAN’s founder).

The Caribbean writers whose works are analysed include Edwidge Danticat and Paule Marshall, among a wide-ranging collection that also examines “voices of rebellion” and memory in works by African American authors Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, James Baldwin, Jean Toomer, and Octavia Butler.

BABEL is published by the Université de Toulon in southern France. The open-access issue is available at:

Tuesday, 2 June 2020


These tears, I know,
are not just for

They fall for
the ancestors

All those who’ve
died under knees,


So many believe
only what they can

It couldn’t be
that bad, they said

Now they have no
choice, but to look,

There – it is recorded.

                                - SWAN

Friday, 29 May 2020


The poster for Haingosoa.
The film Haingosoa had barely made it onto screens in France when the government ordered a lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Theatres, cinemas, museums and other cultural institutions had to shutter their doors, leaving the arts world scrambling to salvage numerous projects.

While the lockdown rules have now been eased, cinemas remain closed and Haingosoa - like many other films - is moving online. It will be offered via e-cinema and VOD from June 9, and viewers will be able to participate in virtual debates with its French director Édouard Joubeaud.

Haingosoa is ostensibly the story of Haingo - a young, single mother from southern Madagascar who, unable to pay her daughter's school fees, leaves her family and travels far to join a dance company in the country’s capital. Haingo has only a few days to learn a dance that is totally foreign to her, and viewers follow her ups and downs as she tries to make the move work.

Played by the engaging real-life Haingo, the main character readily gains empathy, and viewers will find themselves cheering her on. Yet, the real star of Haingosoa is the music of Madagascar, as the director mixes drama and documentary to highlight the country’s rich and diverse artistic traditions.

“I wanted to give a different viewpoint of Madagascar, by focusing both on the woman lead and on the country,” Joubeaud told SWAN. “I’ve always been interested in the music, and I wanted to show the range of stories as well as the culture.”

Musician Remanindry in the film.
Photo: Pitchaya Films_Marine Atlan
Haingosoa brings together several generations of revered Malagasy composers and musicians, such as Remanindry, Haingo's father. A leading performer of the music of the Androy, the island’s southern, arid region, Remanindry basically plays himself - and his own music - in the film.

Meanwhile, the Randria Ernest Company of Antananarivo, which provides the fictional dance space for Haingo, represents “in its own way” the dance and music of the highlands of today, according to Joubeaud.

Additionally, one of the composers of the film’s soundtrack is Dadagaby, an icon of Malagasy music whom Joubeaud knew for 10 years. The creator of countless songs popular in Madagascar, Dadagaby died during the making of the film - which is dedicated to his memory.

Haingo leaves her family to earn an income.
Photo: Pitchaya Films_S. Cunningham
The movie also features 13-year-old prodigy Voara, who performs two of her songs:  Sahondra (accompanied in the film by her father on guitar) and Mananjary. We see Voara singing in a backyard, as Haingo goes for a walk. The scene comes across as being there just for the music, with Voara’s striking, memorable voice.

There are segments as well showing young musicians casually playing instruments and singing as they sit on a wall, and dancers practising to traditional music - again just to spotlight the distinctive music and array of vocal styles.

So, what about the story, the plot? To be honest, this is fairly simple: Haingo goes away to try to earn enough to pay for her little girl’s education. The boss of the dance company she joins is harsh and puts her to work cooking and washing rather than dancing. But with the help of her friends, including the gifted dancer Dimison, Haingo is able to reveal her true talent.

Haingo in a pensive mood. Photo: Pitchaya Films
That is the surface story. The backstory is that the film is based on Haingo’s own life. She had a child at age sixteen and experienced many of the difficulties covered in the movie, and she’s at her most affecting when pleading for her daughter to be able to continue attending school, despite falling behind on the fees.

“You can feel the real emotion here because this is something she really had to deal with,” Joubeaud told SWAN.

As a director, he faced a dilemma: how much of the film should be about Haingo’s actual life?

“It was a little bit tricky,” he admits. “I didn’t want to expose too much about her life. So, we used her story as the starting point of the film and made a lot of the rest fictional. We wrote it in consultation with her.”

Edouard Joubeaud (Photo: McKenzie)
This diffidence comes across in the film and may be seen as a drawback. The drama never reaches the high point that viewers expect, and the finale is more of a fizzle than a flare.

The unsatisfactory ending is also due to budget constraints, Joubeaud said. After completing the first half of the film, he ran short of funds and had to make a decision: stop filming or continue?

He decided to continue, especially as part of the reason for the film was apparently to raise money for Haingo’s daughter to continue in school, and for the main character to see how she could move forward. (Now in a relationship, Haingo, 25 years old, is the mother of three children.)

As a French director, Joubeaud could have perhaps accessed more sponsorship by making the film in French, but he shot it fully in Malagasy. He says he has studied the language for many years, after first visiting the country in 1999. The work, however, is not eligible to apply for screening in some African film festivals because of Joubeaud’s nationality.

“I do recognize the limits of a French director going to Africa, and I don’t pretend to give anyone any lessons,” Joubeaud told SWAN. “I see this as a personal project, related to my life and to Haingo’s life. I think my responsibility is to respect her consent, to respect all the participants in the film and to avoid stereotypes.”

Regarding what he hopes viewers will take from the film, he added: “My first hope is that viewers will be enlightened by diving into the story of a Malagasy woman, by the richness of her context, and the richness of Madagascar’s diversity - in music, dance, culture.” 

Some viewers will indeed feel that they have gained an insight into the diverseness of Malagasy culture and a new appreciation for the music, but others will wish that the film had gone further and delved more deeply - into the socioeconomic reasons for Haingo's situation and into the legacy of French colonial rule on the island. -  SWAN

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale