Friday, 10 September 2021


By Dimitri Keramitas

PARIS – Indian author Amitav Ghosh bemoans the fact that the novel isn’t dealing with current reality.

Speaking with readers in the French capital on the publication of La Déesse et le Marchand (the translation by Myriam Bellehigue of his novel Gun Island, Actes Sud), Ghosh debated whether this literary form is relevant or not, as he addressed pressing world issues such as climate change and migration.

“The novel doesn’t deal with the issues that are so important for the survival of civilization, but instead focuses on individuals’ subjectivity,” he told readers during a lively discussion earlier this month at bookstore l’Arbre à Lettres in the Bastille area of Paris.

Ghosh has devoted himself to these mega-concerns since the publication of his nonfiction book The Great Derangement, and he has also won acclaim for Sea of Poppies, a novel that deals with the tumultuous encounter of European and Asian civilizations in the 19th century. He is also celebrated for The Glass Palace, which has been translated into more than 25 languages.

Ghosh said that he considered the novel to be inherently conservative in form, and difficult to change. Without giving examples, he said that film was much more adaptable, but, at the same time, he acknowledged that the novel’s vivid elements - scene-making and dialogue - had continuing vitality.

For Ghosh, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the great novel of climate change. (Steinbeck’s classic deals with the migration of “Okies” as a result of “dust bowl” conditions in the 1930s that rendered much of the United States an agricultural wasteland.)

However, Ghosh said that if the novel had been written today, it would necessarily include many Hispanic characters, which would also affect the work’s language. He added that the novel form suffers from monolingualism, and that it needs to address today’s cross-pollination of languages and cultures.

“The novel is usually limited to one language, for example English. But if The Grapes of Wrath were written today, it would have to include Spanish. Migration nowadays concerns people from Africa to South Asia, and fiction dealing with the subject must incorporate other languages.”

He noted that in the past, the Western literary tradition was actually less monolingual.

“A writer in medieval France would have spoken two languages, French and Latin,” he noted, although he might also have mentioned regional languages such as Provençal, Occitan and Breton.

When Ghosh spoke more directly about migration, he emphasized that the underlying issues for people's movement were more complex than just climate change. He described doing first-hand research among Bangladeshi and other migrants in Italy. He said that none of the migrants he spoke to accepted the term “ecological migrant”.

“Migration is complex and there are many reasons people leave their countries. Political, religious, economic, familial,” he stated. He found that most of the migrants weren’t happy with their lot in Europe and felt trapped there.

“They felt they’d made a mistake, leaving behind their family bonds, communities, language and traditions, and would return if it were possible,” he added.

In response to a question, he said he chose Italy, as opposed to France or Greece, for his research because he was more familiar with the country and its language, and had friends there. He was able to communicate with those from his home region (he’s from Calcutta in West Bengal, while Bangladeshis are from what used to be called East Bengal, with Bengali the common language).

“One of the key aspects of the migrant experience is that those who would explain it do not speak the migrants’ language. Journalists and others don’t speak Bengali, so they interpret migrant reality in English.”

A member of the audience, also from Calcutta but residing in France and working with refugees, pointed out another aspect of the communication gap: Many refugees, when questioned or interviewed, tend to say what they imagine others, who might help them or have power over them, want to hear. The author agreed with her observation.

He added that mounting migration was perhaps the single most important factor in recent political developments. He said that migration accounted for the rise of the extreme right in Europe, for Brexit, and for the election of Donald Trump. Asked about his own country, Ghosh said that the same issues had led to the rise of Hindu nationalism.

“While there aren’t many people crossing India’s borders, there have been problems with the situation of forest people and other minorities,” he said.

Ghosh also highlighted the role that technology, particularly smartphones and social media, play in migration.

“Much migration couldn’t take place without it, (for) persons who fly into Libya or go through the Balkans. One migrant travelled from Bangladesh to Europe on foot, over a year and a half. This just wouldn’t be possible without today’s communication technology,” he told the audience.

Surprisingly, while focusing on the large-scale problems of the day and the need for the novel to deal with them, Ghosh also made a case for phenomena that surpass conventional notions of what’s real. He said people encounter uncanny, inexplicable events all the time, and called this preternatural, as opposed to supernatural. He gave an example from his novel, the temple that appears in it.  When asked about this, he answered that he’d invented it, but sometime after the book was published, an American geologist contacted him with information about a temple that had been unearthed in the novel’s setting, which bore a striking resemblance to the fictional one.

La Déesse et le Marchand / Gun Island – Ghosh’s most recent novel - is phantasmagorical and originates in a Bengali folktale about a merchant who crosses (and then must flee) the goddess of snakes Manasa Devi. This might seem like indulging in magic realism, but it is actually a way to look at our current predicament, he indicated.

Photos (top to bottom): Amitav Ghosh (by D. Keramitas) and the cover of La Déesse et le Marchand (Actes Sud).

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Friday, 27 August 2021


Acclaimed Angolan artist Ana Silva, whose work strikingly incorporates personal experiences and key aspects of world history, will have her first exhibition in France, from Sept. 4 to Oct. 30.

Titled “Portrait de Famille” (Family Portrait), the show takes place at the Magnin-A gallery in Paris, comprising about 30 pieces - some of which are up to three meters high.  Several of Silva’s artworks will also be shown at the popular Art Paris Art Fair, Sept. 9 - 12.

The exhibition is an “intimate and poetic journey where the artist questions her own history, and that of the ‘passage’ between her grandmother and her daughter”, says the gallery. It adds that Silva “weaves sensitive and invisible links between her personal history and a more universal history”.

The artist uses embroidery, netting and a range of fabrics to create her works, tracing her techniques to her experiences in Angola. She says that war-time scarcities meant she had to explore what was available. Now she gathers materials from markets in Luanda and from other sources.

Silva’s art of embroidery is “imbued with the figures of women, their knowledge and their gaze”, according to the Magnin-A gallery. The current show features the most important women in her life.

“These works express the passage from my grandmother's life to that of my daughter. It's a project I've had in mind for a long time,” Silva says.

Her daughter was born in Portugal (where Silva is based) and travelled to Angola for the first time at the age of three to meet the family and Silva’s grandmother.

“It was important to me that they met,” Silva says. “My grandmother was a descendant of the oldest ethnic grounp in southern Africa. She died five months after meeting my daughter. It was from this moment that I began to want to work on this story, that of the passage.”

For more information, see:

Photos: Ana Silva and her artwork, courtesy of the Magnin-A gallery.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021


By Dimitri Keramitas

Brazilian director Carlos Segundo has made an arresting, engaging movie with Fendas, but it probably will not be everyone’s cup of coffee.

On one level, the film is a meditation on reality versus perception, and, on another, it’s a speculation about how scientific research into natural phenomena may enable us to comprehend emotional states.

This makes Fendas sound very cerebral, and while the science may pull in some viewers, it may leave others feeling adrift. Yet Fendas - a French-Brazilian coproduction that was making the festival rounds before the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns - also has a gritty and sensual texture true to its South American characters and environment. The combination is what makes the film original, if not entirely successful. 

Roberta Rangel plays Catarina, a researcher and professor of “the physics of poiesis”. Poiesis has several meanings, especially in philosophy, but here it seems to refer to the potential properties of phenomena we create. 

According to certain theories, if such phenomena become fixed by the act of measuring them, or are distorted by observing them, perhaps one’s actions can somehow be retrieved by searching and measuring as well. 

So, Catarina’s research explores the possibility that sounds, particularly those related to living beings, may be conjured out of visual images - out of captured light, and she takes photographs in pursuit of this prospect.

We can’t really see Catarina in teaching mode, however, because the professors are on strike, leaving the school where she works looking like a ghost town, and this is one of two destabilizing events for her. The other is the disappearance of her cat. She continues to come to the classroom, to chat with the sole student who shows up. But we never hear of the cat again in the movie. Does it simply symbolize loss?

The director does cite many scientists and institutions in the movie credits, but he doesn’t really give a clear idea of the link between vision and sound and how time plays into all this.

From a layperson’s perspective, though, there’s enough to spark interest. The earliest attempt to record sound, for instance, was with the phonautograph of Frenchman Edouard Léon-Scott de Martinville, via graphic notation. For more than a century there was no way to mechanically retrieve the sounds in question, but now, using digital methods, researchers have unlocked the old sounds and brought them back to life - using photographs of the original notation that consequently enabled them to reproduce the sounds.

This idea of the role of pictures in sound is pushed further when the director shows us large, disconcerting image-blobs - Catarina’s blow-ups of the photographs she’s taken. This is also reminiscent of Blow-Up (about a photographer who discovers that a detail in a photo actually depicts a murder when it’s magnified), and Brian DePalma’s unofficial remake Blowout (a murder mystery as well, but focused on sound recording).

Yet Segundo equally punctuates his film with black-outs, hinting at the futility of obtaining any definitive meaning from the images.

Just as disconcerting are the dissonant noises of the soundtrack, whether associated with Catarina’s research or with her life (and by extension, her unstable mental state). The director choreographs these sounds and images impressively: they resonate on our nerves like hammers striking piano chords, but their full meaning remains blurred.

At first, the main question of the film seems to concern speculative physics. But then the science merges into a kind of spiritualism, the idea that sounds and images may persist beyond time, even after the death of the persons captured in recordings. We’re reminded of the spiritualists of the 19th and early 20th century who claimed to depict ghostly auras (in the most literal sense) in photographs, most of which were debunked. This becomes linked to the tragic fate of that lone student, Henrique, and also to Catarina’s past relationship with a Frenchman.

Anything is possible, especially in the quantum universe, we think at first. Yet quantum mechanics, subatomic particles, and theory apply only tenuously to our macro, organic reality. So, we begin to wonder about Catarina’s emotional state. She’s beautifully played by Rangel, vividly present physically, and also in her relationships and conversations. This physical quality is emphasized by the director’s filming in a grainy 16mm-ish texture. In addition, there are shots of stark scenery and rough Brazilian terrain as well as cliff-top views of stretches of white-sand beaches.

We might think that the movie will turn out to be another sentimental story about sublimated loss, but, if anything, it’s about loneliness. If Catarina continues to come to the classroom, it’s obviously to see Henrique. Yet nothing serious comes of the relationship. Her only friendship seems to be with a colleague who will soon relocate to France.

Catarina’s contact with Réné, her former partner, also leaves one wondering, and the feeling of isolation is reinforced when she’s seen in desolate landscapes (such as the isolated spit of land where a lighthouse sits), crying out “Is anyone there?” Then, rather pathetically, she asks that if someone really is there that they email her. Her one contented moment is a scene of her masturbating, and one wonders who she might be thinking about then. She’s smiling but her eyes are closed.

Ironically, the “slits” or “cracks” of the title (fendas in Portuguese) refer to the eyes, openings to the visualized world outside, to the light-revealed exterior. The visual is also closely linked to the mental processes that perceive spatially - and also abstractly. But it’s the auditory that’s more related to the body, to the rhythms of music, dance, and intimate movement.

Much as we humans long for unity, and many physicists have been searching for years for a Grand Unifying Theory of the Whole Enchilada, the idea that sound and image are interchangeable seems a profound mistake. Catarina apparently recognizes this at the end, a revelation for both her and for viewers. (Perhaps she can now work on getting another cat.) In the meantime, Segundo is to be commended for serving up a memorable vision of the frayed interfaces between mind and heart, time and space, sight and sound.

Photos provided by Fendas distributors. The film arrives in French cinemas Aug. 4.

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

Wednesday, 30 June 2021


Bernard Hoyes believes that art can make a difference, and his creations - especially his latest output - attest to this view.

Hoyes, an acclaimed Jamaican-born, US-based painter and sculptor, is increasingly using his work to redefine public spaces, in addition to portraying his Caribbean background and vision. He ranks among the lead artists in “Paint the City”, for instance, a project organized by the Jamaican non-profit group Kingston Creative that has transformed sections of the island’s capital through bold, colourful murals.

Alongside this involvement, Hoyes recently completed the installation of a monumental sculpture titled The Mating Dance of the Hummingbirds, a work now gracing the entrance to the headquarters of the Port Authority of Jamaica in the historical Duke Street district, also located in “downtown” Kingston.

“The idea for this work has its roots back in the Eighties, when I took part in an exhibition with another artist, hanging paintings in buildings that had been burnt out in the political violence of the 1970s,” Hoyes told SWAN. “From that time, the issue of Kingston Restoration was a matter of restoring architectural icons downtown. But the painting of the murals organized by Kingston Creative three years ago sparked a certain momentum where other things started to happen, such as the decision to create the sculptures.”

The Mating Dance is the first sculpture commissioned for Kingston’s “Walking Museum Project”, part of another restoration initiative, funded by local and international bodies including the European Union.

Difficulties occurred, however, after the completion and during the installation process because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hoyes said. First, his trip to Kingston from his home and work base in California was delayed because he contracted the coronavirus and had to spend two months recuperating. Then, the time it took to clear the sculpture through customs in Kingston was much longer than expected because of lockdowns, following the transportation across the seas in a shipping container.

When the work was finally up, the Port Authority tweeted on May 19 that it “was more than honored to provide the space for this amazing sculpture that is aimed at beautifying the downtown area and making it an attractive tourist destination”.

Composed of stainless steel for outdoor durability, the sculpture features wings made from translucent Lucite rods, containing solar LED lights. The solar components enable sunlight to be captured during the day, providing energy for the wings to “come alive” in multi-coloured hues at nightfall. So, as workers leave their offices in the district, they are greeted by the birds’ luminescence.

For Hoyes, who grew up in downtown Kingston, these public art projects are a way to give something back to the community of his childhood, after a successful global career. He said he was inspired by the Jamaican national motto “Out of Many One People” and the fact that the hummingbird is the national symbol.

The sculpture’s 120-pound steel birds sit atop a 12-foot-high double helix, and this “speaks to the procreation of all species, reminding us that we share the same DNA,” Hoyes said.

Known primarily for his vivid paintings of women singing and dancing in revivalist celebrations, Hoyes has long had an interest in sculpture, even as his paintings were being collected by personalities such as Oprah Winfrey and Natalie Cole.

“I’ve made my reputation as a painter, but when I started out as a youth in Jamaica, I used to carve little wooden heads, so I was already into the 3-D exposure when I was in high school,” he told SWAN. “Then when I moved to California, I realized that sculpture took a lot of start-up money, and as I was very transient at first, I found it easier to roll up canvases and carry them with me.”

He returned to sculpture in 2002, embarking on a residency in China seven years later, and refitting his studio in California to make it more suitable for monumental projects.

In addition to the tributes for his hummingbirds, Hoyes has received praise for his participation in the painting of murals that have transfigured areas of downtown Kingston.

Arts observers say that the more than 60 murals to date have changed the ambience of areas long-considered no-go zones because of neglect, crime and gang warfare - even if much more still needs to be done economically to help residents.

Andrea Dempster-Chung, the Executive Director of Kingston Creative, told SWAN that it has been “a huge honour” for the Downtown Kingston Art District to have “public artworks by an artist of Hoyes’ calibre”.

“Hoyes was raised in Downtown Kingston, in a community called Kingston Gardens and so he is of this community,” Dempster-Chung said in an email interview. “He is a local artist that migrated and succeeded in the US, where he is primarily recognized as a contemporary painter whose work evolves from a highly intuitive space. He is heralded for his ability to capture spiritual realms on canvas in radiant and brilliant essence.”

She explained that the inspiration behind Kingston Creative was “to find a way to harness” the Caribbean island’s “raw talent” and to convert it into “sustainable social transformation” and economic growth.

She added that although creativity is an area where Jamaica has “an undeniable global competitive advantage”, it is not yet being used to “convert raw talent into growth, as the ecosystem isn't sufficiently developed for artists and creatives to thrive”.

“Arts and placemaking can also generate employment, regenerate urban areas in a balanced and inclusive way and support reduction in crime, all of which would be amazing outcomes for Jamaica,” Dempster-Chung said.

She told SWAN that once Hoyes had heard of the project, which was launched in 2018, he wanted to get involved.

“Bernard contacted us online, then came in person to an event and volunteered to paint the very first mural in the Art District,” Dempster-Chung recalled.

“Aptly titled ‘Celebration’, the mural has become an iconic fixture in the Art District and celebrates the re-emergence of Downtown Kingston as a creative space.”

Artists who supported Hoyes in painting this mural included Jeanna Lindo, Alec Champanie and Osemere Ehikhametalor. 

“We did this mural all in one week,” Hoyes told SWAN. “We started like on the Wednesday and finished up on the Sunday. But there were a lot of other artists that had individual murals, so we all worked together during that period. It has been an incredible experience.”

PHOTO credit: Doris Gross. Images (top to bottom): Bernard Hoyes with The Mating Dance of the Hummingbirds; the sculpture at night; one of Hoyes' iconic paintings; the mural Hoyes spearheaded.  

For an earlier profile of Bernard Hoyes, see:

Wednesday, 19 May 2021


The largest survey to date of work by the acclaimed Ghanaian-British photographer James Barnor opens in London May 19 at the Serpentine Galleries.

The show, titled “James Barnor: Accra/London - A Retrospective”, runs until Oct. 24 and gives an overview of a career that has spanned more than 60 years, two continents and numerous cities, including New York and Paris.

Bettina Korek, chief executive of the Serpentine, said it was “urgent” to present a major survey of Barnor’s photography because “public knowledge of his work does not yet match the influence it has had upon generations of creators who’ve followed in his footsteps.”

Born in 1929 within a family of photographers, Barnor began his profession in the Ghanaian capital in the late 1940s, before moving to London in 1959 and travelling back and forth between continents.

“Central to Barnor’s work is the intimate documentation of African and Afro-diasporic lives across time and space,” according to the Serpentine. “Whether making family snapshots, commissioned portraits or commercial assignment, Barnor approaches the photographic process as a collaborative venture, a conversation with the sitter, and his images are a testament to a lifetime of encounters.”

The show’s organizers said that Barnor has “captured images of societies in transition and transformation” throughout his career, with his work encompassing the genres of studio portraiture, photojournalism and social documentary photography. As one of Ghana’s first photojournalists, Barnor recorded major social and political changes, including the lead-up to his homeland’s independence from British colonial rule in 1957.

The photos in this massive show are drawn from his wide-ranging archive and focuses on the decades 1950–80, selected from more than 32,000 available images, and presented in “broadly chronological” order, the Serpentine said.

Ahead of the retrospective, when the gallery remained closed because of Covid-19 restrictions, the Serpentine organized an online event titled "Portraits for the Future: A Celebration of James Barnor" - which gave the public a taste of the show’s scope.

Held last March, this event presented musicians, artists, and poets such as Nii Ayikwei Parkes paying homage to Barnor, while Michael Bloomberg (Serpentine chairman), model Naomi Campbell and others spoke of his global influence (see:

“What a journey this has been, what a journey you’ve had,” said Campbell, as she recalled first meeting Barnor in Ghana. “You’re a true visionary, an artist, and your influence on a generation of artists can be felt throughout the world and back, and all these years and today, it grows even stronger.”

During the “celebration”, Barnor recalled in a flim clip how he came to his craft and career. “Photography was in my family,” he said. “So right from the time that I became a little boy, my uncle was taking photographs in the house, and travelling as well. Three or four people in my family were doing photography. Somebody taught my uncle, and one my uncles taught my cousin, who taught me. And there was another photographer, another cousin… and he more or less got me into what I call… journalistic photography.”

Some of Barnor’s iconic shots appeared on the cover of the influential South African culture magazine Drum during the Sixties, as he continued assignments for this publication following the move to London in December 1959. He returned to Ghana in the Seventies, to establish the first colour-processing laboratory in the country, according to the Serpentine. He then settled permanently in the UK in 1994 and now lives in West London.

Asked by Serpentine artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist how he “photographed freedom”, Barnor said: “I get (freedom) through my life, through my photography and my association with people... I always say it’s better to give than to be given… Civilization flourishes when men plant trees under which they will never sit. When you give... today, it will ripple and many people will get it. Even if you’re not around, that is freedom that matters.” 

The retrospective is curated by Lizzie Carey-Thomas, chief curator at the Serpentine, and Awa Konaté, assistant curator. Several activities are planned around Barnor’s work and around photography in general

Images (top to bottom): Photo by James Barnor at the Serpentine Galleries; James Barnor with South African artists Robyn Denny and Mamela Nyamza in Paris (photo by McKenzie); "James Barnor: Accra/London - A Retrospective" (Installation view, 19 May - 24 October 2021, Serpentine) Photograph: Zoe Maxwell; Ebo Taylor and the Saltpond City Band play at "Portraits for the Future: A Celebration of James Barnor".

Monday, 3 May 2021


Marleen Julien speaks with infectious passion when discussing Haitian Creole. A  specialist in interpreting and translation, with some 15 years of experience, she describes herself as an advocate who’s dedicated to promoting the language and culture of Haiti.

Currently based in Paris, France, Julien worked for the Haitian government and the United Nations for more than a decade, and during that time, she “witnessed an alarming and widespread issue regarding the quality of Haitian Creole materials,” she says.

The experience led her to focus on helping Haitians access information in their mother tongue, and she set out on a mission to improve the Haitian Creole translation industry's standards, she told SWAN

In 2004, Julien founded Creole Solutions (in Chicago) to provide translation services and support to organizations that serve Haitian communities. For her, this was more than just a new business venture; rather, it was her “life's calling”, she says, as she recalls building the business “from the ground up”.

She says she is continuing to expand Creole Solutions' capabilities, ensuring that she “leverages every possible tool available to promote her native tongue”. She translates and publishes short stories that promote literacy and critical thinking among children in Haiti's remote areas, among her activities. Of Haitian heritage, Julien has also focused on development, and her university degrees include a master's in International Development from the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).

The following interview, conducted by telephone and email, is part of SWAN’s series about translators of Caribbean literature, done in collaboration with the Caribbean Translation Project.

SWAN: In 2004, you founded Creole Solutions to provide translation services and support to organizations that serve Haitian communities. Can you tell us about the reasons and the motivation behind this project?

Marleen Julien: I played the role of translator and interpreter for the Haitian Consulate in Chicago since 1998. There was a great need for qualified Haitian Creole language professionals and reliable linguistic resources at that time.

Organizations and individuals were constantly reaching out to me for help with translation and interpretation services. So I started helping pro bono. I eventually became a freelance translator and interpreter for many organizations. There were, however, minimal resources for Haitian Creole translators. In 2004, I founded Creole Solutions to fill that gap.

SWAN: You speak several languages, including English, French and Haitian Creole. Where and how did you begin learning languages?

M.J.: Language learning has always been like second nature to me. I grew up in a multilingual and multicultural environment in the United States.

As children, my parents made French music, books, and movies accessible to my siblings and me. I studied French in high school and college.  When I moved to Paris for my graduate studies, that allowed me to take my French to the professional level.

My parents also made sure that we were fluent in Haitian Creole. My mother only spoke in Haitian Creole with us. My father always bought whatever materials he could find in Creole because he wanted us to read, speak, and write correctly. I began to become an expert in Haitian Creole when I worked for the Haitian Consulate.

SWAN: How did your interest in translation begin?

M.J.: I would say I have been practicing translation since childhood. My family moved around a lot, and every few years, I had to adapt to a new linguistic and cultural environment. I was already interpreting for family and friends by the time I was in the sixth grade.

SWAN: You've translated and published "short stories that promote literacy and critical thinking amongst children in Haiti's remote areas". Can you tell us more about this?

M.J.:  I have two boys. I wanted to teach them Haitian Creole as early as possible. One of my biggest challenges was finding Creole books for their age. So I started translating children's stories to read to them.

In 2020, I started sharing the stories with a not-for-profit organization based in Haiti to use as a part of their literacy program. These stories are valuable resources for the children because I have adapted them to the Haitian language and culture.

SWAN: You've also worked on adapting international fables into Haitian Creole. What are some of the linguistic challenges of such adaptations?

M.J.: In all of my adaptations, I incorporate Haitian expressions and proverbs. So one of my biggest challenges is finding the correct adage to relay the message. I recently translated the Panchatantra (ancient Indian fables) story of the Mice and the Elephants. The lesson was: a friend in need is a friend indeed. I incorporated the Haitian saying "Zanmi lwen se lajan sere", which means that friends who are far away are wonderful for a rainy day.

Another challenge is envisioning the fables for a contemporary audience. When I translated the (Brothers Grimm) classic Four Clever Brothers, I replaced the dragon with a gangster who kidnapped a wealthy landowner's daughter. Children in Haiti are not familiar with dragons, but kidnapping is something they are familiar with because it's in the news.

SWAN: How important is translation for today's world, and especially for schoolchildren?

M.J.: In Haiti, the schools do not have many resources. Furthermore, most of the limited resources they have are either outdated or in the French language. This lack of resources is a significant barrier to learning. From my experience, translating and adapting for students in their language and culture allows them to understand the concepts better.

The translated and adapted materials prepare them to become better students and empower them not only for themselves but also for their country and the world.

SWAN: In the Caribbean, as in other regions, it sometimes feels as if countries are divided by language. How can people in the literary and education spheres help to bridge these linguistic "borders"?

M.J.: No language medium is shared universally by all Caribbean peoples. However, we have a shared history and identity. I began to appreciate Jamaican Patois better when I learned how its syntax was very similar to that of Haitian Creole. Both languages have roots in the Fon language. With translation and education, we will realize that we have lot of in common. This realization will lead to a desire to learn more about each other's languages.

SWAN: How do you see your translation projects evolving to reach a wider audience?

M.J.: I'm glad you asked that question. I'm working on a project that I'm very excited about because I know that it will achieve this exact purpose. It's a transformational project that will not only enlighten, educate and empower people, it will also serve to bridge the linguistic gap by sharing our common human experiences across the globe.

It's my latest book, and I'll be launching it this summer. I'm looking forward to sharing it with the world. – SWAN

Photos: Marleen Julien by Walter Aleman Photography and Events; the cover of one of Julien’s translations into Haitian Creole. 

Follow The Caribbean Translation Project on Twitter: @CaribTranslate.

Friday, 23 April 2021


Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people have been turning to books to help them get through lockdowns and forced isolation. This is one reason that World Book and Copyright Day has particular significance in 2021.

“During the last year when most countries have seen periods of confinement and people have had to limit their time spent outside, books have proved to be powerful tools to combat isolation, reinforce ties between people, expand our horizons, while stimulating our minds and creativity,” stated the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which organizes the annual event each April 23.

The agency’s director-general, Audrey Azoulay, added that “it is the power of books that we all need right now, as we are reminded of the fundamental importance of literature - as well as the arts - in our lives.”

The purpose of the Day is to promote the enjoyment of books and reading, as well as to support authors, publishers and others in the industry, according to UNESCO. The first World Book Day was designated in 1995, and since then celebrations have taken place all over the world “to recognize the scope of books - a link between the past and the future, a bridge between generations and across cultures,” the agency said.

Officials point out that April 23 is a symbolic date in world literature, as this is the date on which several legendary authors, including William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, all died.

“This date was a natural choice for UNESCO's General Conference, held in Paris in 1995, to pay a world-wide tribute to books and authors…, encouraging everyone to access books,” UNESCO stated.

With education being a part of its mandate, the agency urged people to “take the time to read on your own or with your children”, both during April and the rest of the year.

“It is a time to celebrate the importance of reading, foster children's growth as readers and promote a lifelong love of literature and integration into the world of work,” UNESCO said.

While reading in some countries has doubled over the past year, there are still many people who do not have access to books because of poverty, illiteracy, conflict or other reasons. Some organizations, including at the UN level, are working to improve the situation with literacy projects and book-donation schemes.

“The power of books must be fully harnessed. We must ensure their access so that everyone can take refuge in reading, and by doing so, be able to dream, learn and reflect,” Azoulay said.

Meanwhile, authors and others working in the arts sector have seen their activities dry up during the pandemic, as literary festivals, conferences and a range of cultural events have been cancelled. Writers, too, have had to try to escape via books.

Photos: Books at two independent bookshops in Paris, France.

Thursday, 4 March 2021



Three Kenyan designers have been chosen to participate in an international programme that will assist them in increasing their global market presence, expanding their supply chain and scaling up their production.

The three - Hamaji, Suave, and Katush by Katungulu Mwendwa - will participate in the “Accelerator” programme of the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a Geneva-based flagship venture of the International Trade Centre, itself a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.  

The designers will be supported in sourcing new products and developing their production team as well, the EFI said. It added that all three “share a commitment to sustainability”, using “reclaimed and organic fabrics to create their collections” and drawing inspiration from their country and upbringing in Kenya.

This is the EFI’s second Fashion Accelerator programme, following the launch in 2019 to provide selected designers with mentoring and brand development from the EFI team and industry experts.

Funding comes from the European Union via the Brussels-based African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP), of which Kenya is a member.

“I feel hugely honoured and extremely excited … to have this opportunity to expand my knowledge and be mentored in the development of my brand in a sustainable approach with international and local expertise in Kenya,” stated designer Louise Sommerlatte of Hamaji, one of the three selected ventures.

Sommerlatte created the brand in 2017, aiming to preserve “ancient textile traditions and nomadic craftsmanship whilst empowering local small-scale artisans in Africa”, according to the EFI. Hamaji means “nomad” in coastal Swahili, and the brand bills itself as “Made for the Wanderer”.

Meanwhile, leisure lifestyle concern Katush by Katungulu Mwendwa said that their selection was like “an answer to a prayer” and came as “a strong statement of encouragement”.

Founded in Nairobi, the brand comprises casual and semi-formal wear, and it experiments with “modern techniques, innovative fabrics and traditional methods”.

Creator Katungulu, who studied fashion in the United Kingdom, notes that she is influenced by her upbringing and surroundings, and she recalls being introduced early into the artisanal crafts world through her late grandmother, who ran a curio shop.

The brand says it has focused on “working with community groups within the region to make contemporary interpretations of traditional aesthetics.”

The founder of Suave, Mohammed Awale, said he was “overjoyed” and “looking forward to learning from the vast EFI network."

Awale established the brand in 2013, inspired by trips to Gikomba Market, the largest open-air market in East Africa. There, the story goes, he dug through piles of discarded denim outfits, finding source material for most of the bags the company would make.

“What started as a tiny operation with two staff members slowly blossomed into a fully-fledged brand that is attempting to end the cycle of unwanted garments ending up in landfills,” the company says.

It adds that some 100,000 tonnes of used clothing enter Kenya every year, mostly from the United States. Generally, after consumers and dollar stores take their pick from clothing donated to charities, the rest is exported to Africa.

“This is where we come in,” the brand states. “Over the years, we have established contacts with numerous vendors who notify us whenever they have an excess of items that haven’t been purchased in a while. These clothes would normally end up in a landfill, but they can still fulfil a purpose when they’re repurposed and given a new lease of life.”

That new “lease of life” is as trendy, colourful bags that range from backpacks to totes.

As the accelerator programme continues, the mentoring of the selected designers is being done remotely because of the Covid-19 pandemic, said an EFI spokesperson.

“We have planned masterclasses with leading industry experts on Zoom, and the EFI Accelerator team regularly meet the designers also over Zoom or phone to provide all the other support implied in the programme,” the spokesperson told SWAN via email.

She added that later in the year, the EFI hoped to organize an internship in a production facility in East Africa.

Simone Cipriani, founder and head of the EFI, said that through education and mentoring, the organization was seeking to “equalise the playing field, giving exposure to the incredible talent that exists on the continent.”

Cipriani added that the EFI Accelerator programme focuses on the specific needs of African fashion brands, with a business development approach that prepares its beneficiaries to become investment ready. The aim is to provide support to “accelerate their business in the global marketplace,” he said.

For the 2021 - 2022 round, the Accelerator Programme is inviting emerging brands based in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Kenya, Mali and Uganda to join their "mission".

For an article about the beginnings of the EFI, see:

Photos provided curtesy of the brands. Top to bottom: Hamaji, Katush by Katungulu Mwendwa, and Suave.

Monday, 15 February 2021


By Elizabeth (Betty) Wilson

The University of Maryland’s Latin American Studies Centre will host a virtual belated celebration of the 30th anniversary of the ground-breaking collection Her True-True Name: An Anthology of Women’s Writing from the Caribbean on Feb. 18. This is being spearheaded by Prof. Merle Collins, poet and prose writer from Grenada, whose work appears in the anthology. 

Published in 1989, near the beginning of the era of Gender Studies and Women’s Studies, Her True-True Name was the first anthology of prose writing by Caribbean women and the first to include non-English-speaking writers. The title is taken from an extract in the text by the Trinidadian writer Merle Hodge.

For the celebration, the renowned Guadeloupean writer Simone Schwarz-Bart - whose work also appears in the anthology - points out that sometimes it is not until the end of a person’s life that you discover who that person really is, her true-true name.

This seems to apply to the anthology as well. Although it was at the top of the list of texts chosen for the “20 Selected Titles List” in the UK for Feminist Book Fortnight in 1990 and named by the librarians of the New York Public Library as one of 100 books recommended for young readers in the same year, it is only in retrospect that we, the editors, recognized its historical importance.

There have been several excellent Caribbean anthologies since, and while Her True-True Name is now out of print, the attention and excitement generated by this virtual event attest to its importance and impact. 

Conceived as a response to our interest in having a Caribbean-wide publication of writing by women, the editors, my sister Pamela Mordecai and myself, set about trying to select the “tiny sample” which 200 pages would permit. We eventually found room for 31 writers from 13 countries, from Cuba in the north to Belize and Guyana on the South American / Caribbean mainland. 

The introduction to the text details some of the challenges we encountered in those days before “calls for submissions”, cell phones and the internet. We were both on the staff of the University of the West Indies, Mona, and blessed to know personally many writers and scholars at home and in the wider Caribbean - who spoke French, English, Creole and Spanish; their input was a source of contacts and encouragement.

We also knew the artist, Sharon Chacko, whose batik “Metamorphosis” (1986) appears on the cover. Sadly, the inclusion of writers from the Dutch-speaking Caribbean had to wait until 1992, when we were guest editors for a special issue of The Literary Review (Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, New Jersey), “Women Poets of the Caribbean”, where they were included.

The Feb. 18 celebration promises to be a full and rewarding day of readings by writers from the anthology, and presentations by scholars on the work of Caribbean writers from the different language areas included in the text. There will be interpreters for these papers and for the discussions. The organizers have tried to include as many writers as possible and have taken great care to preserve and honour the cross-Caribbean nature of the text.

We are so grateful to Merle Collins and her team, and I am excited to invite you to this free virtual event.

For more information:

Photos (top to bottom): The cover of Her True-True Name; Prof. Merle Collins (photo by A. McKenzie).

Friday, 5 February 2021


Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé has long been one of the most widely translated Caribbean authors, following the international success of books such as Ségou (Segu) and Moi, Tituba, sorcière (I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem).

Now the translation of her novels is seeing a surge since she won the New Academy Prize in Literature, or the “Alternative Nobel”, in 2018.

Last month, Spanish publisher Impedimenta released La Deseada (Desirada, 1997) in a vibrant, eye-catching edition that has been garnering attention from the media and readers. This comes on the heels of two of Condé’s books published in English translation in 2020 - Le fabuleux et triste destin d’Ivan et d’Ivana / The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana (translated from the French by Condé’s husband Richard Philcox, who has done most of the English translations of her novels) and La belle créole / The Belle Créole, translated by Nicole Simek. Publications in other languages also hit bookstores throughout the year.

La Deseada is translated by Martha Asunción Alonso, a Spanish writer, poet and translator who holds a PhD in French Studies from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. She has translated two previous books by Condé for the same publisher, both receiving positive reviews in the Spanish press as well.

Asunción Alonso has taught in metropolitan France, the French Caribbean, Albania and Spain, and is currently a professor at the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares. As a writer herself, she brings a poetic sensibility to her translations (her poetry has received several awards in Spain), and she is particularly mindful of linguistic rhythms and musicality, as she told SWAN. She also focuses on writing that has a feminist perspective, something very present in Condé’s work.

The following bilingual interview, conducted by email, is part of SWAN’s series about translators of Caribbean literature. It is done in collaboration with the Caribbean Translation Project, which aims to promote the translation of writing from and about the region.

SWAN: You speak several languages - Spanish, French, English - and you’re familiar with Welsh, Catalan, Guadeloupean Creole, German, Italian and Albanian. Where and how did you begin learning languages?

Martha Asunción Alonso: El español es mi lengua materna. El francés es mi lengua de adopción elegida (decidí estudiar Filología Francesa y doctorarme en Estudios Franceses con una tesis sobre literaturas antillanas). El resto de idiomas que mencionas en la pregunta he ido conquistándolos, en mayor o en menor medida, a lo largo de mis periplos vitales, lecturas, experiencias… 

Soy española y en mi país, junto con el español, conviven varias lenguas cooficiales que siempre me han interesado. He intentado, por lo tanto, leer algo de literatura y consumer cultura en todas ellas.

Como profesora, he vivido en las Antillas francesas y en Albania. Allí me familiaricé con las lenguas autóctonas. Aunque mis conocimientos de criollo guadalupeño y de albanés son muy básicos.   

SWAN: How did your interest in translation begin?

M.A.A.: Siempre me he sentido muy atraída por la diversidad, por las culturas y las lenguas diferentes a las de mis orígenes, Supongo que el interés por la traducción, en ese sentido, siempre me ha acompañado.

No obstante, tengo un par de recuerdos infantiles fundadores que, me parece, tienen mucho que ver con mi vocación de traductora. Por ejemplo, éste: de niña, fui de vacaciones con mi familia a un pueblo de Cataluña fronterizo con Francia. Conocí en la playa a otra niña, francesa, y sentí una gran frustración porque no lográbamos comunicarnos del todo. Quizás entonces nació mi deseo de ir hacia los demás, de acercar diferencias y encontrar la manera de entendernos, de estar más cerca y compartir a pesar de todo.   

SWAN: Can you tell us more about your translation of Maryse Condé’s work? Were there any particular challenges with the language?

M.A.A.: Traducir a una creadora como Maryse Condé, con una voz tan personal y tan permeable a aportes de toda procedencia, es un viaje apasionante. Creo que se necesita estar aún más atenta de lo normal en la fase de exégesis del texto, previa a toda traducción, para no dejar escapar ningún eco o guiño a otros textos, otras voces, otros géneros e incluso otras disciplinas artísticas. En Condé se imbrican creativamente muchos idiomas, músicas, ritmos y sustratos culturales, que nos hablan de la vida nómada y del espíritu abierto, tolerante y humanista de la autora. Es un gran reto dar a escuchar, ver y sentir todo ese imaginario híbrido en la versión española.

SWAN: How important is translation in today’s world?

M.A.A.: A pesar de la tendencia a la globalización, la labor de las traductoras y de los traductores de todos los campos posibles es capital. Sin traducción, no sabríamos nada los vecinos y, en consecuencia, tampoco sabríamos nada del mundo ni de nosotros mismos. Viviríamos en una soledad y en una ignorancia insoportables.

SWAN: In the Caribbean, as in other regions, it sometimes feels as if countries are divided by language. How can people in the literary sphere help to bridge these linguistic "borders"?

M.A.A.: La literatura es siempre un lugar de encuentro, una herramienta para acercar orillas construyendo puentes y hermanando.   

SWAN: As a writer yourself, can you describe some of the skills you bring to translation?

M.A.A.: El hecho de haber escrito, sobre todo, bastante poesía quizá me haga estar más atenta a retos rítmicos, a la musicalidad del lenguaje y a la dimensión lírica de los textos que traduzco. 

Photos (from top): The cover of La DeseadaMartha Asunción Alonso, photographed by Gustavo Gómez.

Follow the Caribbean Translation Project on Twitter: @Caribtranslate.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021


Renowned activist and intellectual Angela Davis turned 77 years old on Jan. 26, marking more than five decades of her fight against systemic racism and inequality.

January 2021 also marks fifty years since she appeared before a court in California to declare her innocence after a legendary manhunt and arrest. With sympathisers around the world mobilising to demand her freedom, she was eventually acquitted of the charges of “aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder” in 1972, following a 16-month incarceration.

Since then, Davis has been an emblem for social justice and has never stopped speaking out. In 2020, her long history of activism saw another chapter when she joined protests across the United States - in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and other acts of police brutality. Magazines such as Vanity Fair wrote articles about her, and she has been profiled in numerous other publications. 

Last autumn in Paris, her face blazed from massive posters on newspaper kiosks around the city. The iconic image - huge afro, serious eyes, mouth open in speech - confronted pedestrians, motorists and bus passengers as they travelled through the streets of the French capital.

The posters were announcing a special edition of a new, independent magazine that had devoted its second issue to Davis. Titled Légende, the quarterly magazine is the brainchild of Eric Fottorino, a former editor of the left-wing newspaper Le Monde. At a cost of 20 euros per copy, the publication is not cheap; yet many people bought the Davis issue. According to Fottorino, the magazine had several thousand subscribers by the end of the year.

The figures perhaps indicate the special place Davis holds in the French popular imagination, a place usually reserved for venerable rock stars. In 2018 for instance, when she spoke at a university in Nanterre, just outside Paris, her mere presence elicited deafening applause.

Légende contains contributions from writers such as Dany Laferrière, Gisèle Pineau and Alain Mabanckou, reflecting on what Davis has meant to them, and it recapitulates the events of more than 50 years ago - detailing Davis’ membership of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, and her activism in the civil rights movement before and after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King in April 1968.

It also recaps the incident in 1970 that pushed her to international attention: guns she had bought were used by high-school student Jonathan Jackson when he took over a courtroom to demand the freeing of black prisoners including his brother (George Jackson), and left the building with hostages, including the judge.

In a subsequent shootout with police, the perpetrator, two defendants he had freed and the judge were killed, and Davis was arrested and charged following a huge manhunt, although she had not been in the courtroom when the hostage-taking occurred.

These events are captured in bold photographs and illustrations throughout the 90 pages of the magazine. There’s the reproduction of the “wanted” poster, for instance, with the public being warned that Davis should be considered “possibly armed and dangerous”; there are pictures of Davis in handcuffs, and later being freed; of her with family and friends, including writer Toni Morrison; of her lecturing at universities and public events.

Légende ends with an image of Davis standing in the back of a convertible, wearing a mask against Covid-19, her right hand raised in a fist - while nearby, a protester holds a sign that reads “NO JUSTICE NO PEACE”.

To learn more about how the magazine issue evolved, SWAN interviewed editor Eric Fottorino. Below is a shortened version of the interview, which took place at Légende’s offices in Paris.

SWAN: Why did you choose Angela Davis for this issue?

Eric Fottorino: Because when we decided to do this second issue of Légende, there had been the death of George Floyd in the United States, and there’d been in France the demonstrations regarding Adama Traoré, and as we wanted to feature a woman, we choose Angela Davis - to remind people of her work and to show that the combat she fought in the Seventies, and later, for civil rights and feminism is still going on. We thought it was important to speak about Angela Davis’ past at the present time, whether that’s in the United States or France. Quite often we think that the present can only be explained by what’s happening now, but it is essential to know the history.

SWAN: She has spoken of how important international and French solidarity was for her when she was arrested and incarcerated. Can you explain why French supporters took up her cause?

E.F.: For the generation of the Seventies, she incarnated a struggle, a dream for justice, and also exactly the opposite - she embodied a female victim of injustice, but one who would fight with all her forces, energy and intelligence. And for France, that was important because she had studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, and so she received a great deal of support in intellectual circles, whether from Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, or Louis Aragon, and also from the Parti communiste français (PCF). She was the subject of a powerful poem by Jacques Prévert as well. So, she had intellectual and political support. There were marches, too, and we have a photo of one of these in which her sister (Fania) marched with Aragon in the streets of Paris, protesting for her freedom.

I think that all these elements made her a popular figure in France, and the famous cry “Free Angela” that could be heard in different countries around the world was taken up in France too. Besides, when she was liberated, she did a tour - to say thanks but also to make it clear that she wasn’t giving up the fight. She appeared on the big literary programs of the time, such as “Apostrophe”, and also in the studio of France Inter and the big public radio broadcasters. She was a huge presence, and then later a popular French singer, Pierre Perret, made a song about an individual who was the victim of racism, and one could see Angela Davis’ story in it, even if he didn’t specifically dedicate the song (Lily) to her.

SWAN: How about the political newspapers of the time? What role did they play?

E.F.: She had the support of the socialist newspapers like L’Humanité, but it must be remembered that the Parti communiste was among the strongest parties in the Seventies, with about 25 percent of the vote. It was even stronger than the Socialist Party. So, the support from people like Aragon (who was a member of the Parti communiste français) sent a huge symbolic signal.

James Baldwin, who supported her as well, was a writer who was very well known in France. He was not a popular author, but, in intellectual and literary circles, Baldwin was someone whose voice carried weight because he had lived for some time in Paris, and the fact that he wrote that Open Letter to his Sister Angela (An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis, 1971) stayed in people’s memory. (The translation by Samuel Légitimus is reproduced in the magazine.)

SWAN: Did you try to speak with Angela Davis for the issue?

E.F.: We tried but she was very busy, and I think she was also quite tired at the time we made the request. But this wasn’t a necessity for us in writing about her life and the past. Of course, if she had been available, we would have interviewed her, but we didn’t think it was indispensable. In a certain way, her actions, and her life, speak for her.

SWAN: Some Black French thinkers say that there is a sort of fascination and veneration in France for African Americans, including Angela Davis. How would you respond to that?

E.F.: In France, social justice fighters aren’t necessarily black, so there hasn’t been emblematic figures like in the United States with Angela Davis, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King and others.

It’s true that in political life in France, Black people have had a limited space, and sometimes people outside France say that there has not been a black minister or anyone prominent, but they don’t know about Christiane Taubira or Kofi Yamgnane. So, it’s not true that people like that haven’t existed. What is true is that there is no huge emblematic political leader like Angela Davis here.

(Ed: Fottorino has helmed another publication that examines the subject of being black in France, titled Être Noir en France.)

For an article about Davis’ visit to France in 2018 to commemorate the 1968 workers movement, see:

Photos - top to bottom: the cover of Légende; Angela Davis in Paris (A.M./SWAN), and Eric Fottorino in his office (A.M./SWAN).