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).

Sunday, 20 December 2020


Cuisine formed a notable portion of the latest inscriptions on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, with hawker food in Singapore and couscous traditions in North Africa being celebrated.

The two were among 29 elements inscribed when the intergovernmental committee for the safeguarding of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage met virtually Dec. 14 to 19, hosted by Jamaica and chaired by the island’s Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Olivia “Babsy” Grange.

“This year … the experience that we all had in sharing and experiencing the cultures of different countries made us realize that in spite of the pandemic, in spite of us being apart, we were still able to share in each other’s culture, and what it did for all of us was to bring us closer together,” Grange said at the end of the meeting.

The inscription of Singapore’s “hawker culture, community dining and culinary practices in a multicultural urban context” marks the first time that the Southeast Asian island state has an element inscribed on the List.

Hawker culture is “present throughout Singapore”, with these food centres seen as a kind of “community dining room”, officials said. Here, people from diverse backgrounds dine and mingle, in an atmosphere of conviviality and enjoyment of the scents and flavours on offer.

Hawker centres grew out of street-food culture, housing cooks who provide meals in a bustling communal setting with different stalls. The centres have, however, seen closures and fewer customers because of the Covid-19 pandemic, making the 2020 inscription a bitter-sweet one.

The couscous submission - which focused on the knowledge, know-how and practices pertaining to the production and consumption of the dish - was made by Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, and it naturally sparked an online debate about the absence of other countries that are known for this food, and about favourite recipes.

The inscription encompasses “the methods of production, manufacturing conditions and tools, associated artefacts and circumstances of couscous consumption in the communities concerned,” according to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

Originating from the Berber culture of Algeria and Morocco, couscous is now eaten around the world, accompanied by a variety of vegetables and meats - depending on the region, the season and the occasion.

It comes “replete with symbols, meanings and social and cultural dimensions linked to solidarity, conviviality and the sharing of meals,” UNESCO said.

Food was also indirectly highlighted with the inscription of “Zlakusa pottery making, hand-wheel pottery making in the village of Zlakusa”. This comprises the practice of making unglazed food vessels that are used in households and restaurants across Serbia, originating from a tiny village in the west of the country. 

Some gastronomes claim that dishes prepared in Zlakusa earthenware have a unique taste, and the pottery’s “close association with the village of Zlakusa and its environs reflects its close link with the natural environment,” the inscription stated.

Away from food, several music and art practices were also inscribed, and the meeting saw three elements added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, while another three were added to the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices.

The latter “facilitates the sharing of successful safeguarding experiences” and “showcases examples of the effective transmission of living cultural practices and knowledge to future generations,” UNESCO said. Elements inscribed this year include the Martinique yole (a light boat), whose tradition goes back several centuries in the Caribbean.

The committee stated that a “spontaneous movement to safeguard these boats developed while they faced the threat of disappearing” and that the safeguarding programme has grown over the years. The main purpose is to “preserve the know-how of local boat builders”, transmit expertise on sailing, and create a federation to organize major events.

In a year that has seen the cultural sector hit hard globally by the Covid-19 pandemic, the inscriptions brought some cheer to the 141 countries attending and the more than one thousand people participating in the virtual meeting. During an online press briefing on Dec. 18, committee chairperson Grange noted that Jamaica was of course also affected by the health crisis, but that the population was very “resilient”.

“It impacted aspects of our culture, primarily the entertainment industry, and also various sectors in the creative industry,” she said in response to a question. “It has impacted the economy … and our creative people who depend on their creative works to earn an income. However, we were still able to take our music to the world, through technology.”

Grange said that hosting the huge virtual meeting of the Intangible Cultural Heritage committee posed some technological challenges, but nothing that could not be overcome. She said it showed the importance of working together, of sharing cultures, and of finding ways to overcome obstacles to “ensure that we continue to use culture to unite the world.”

This year saw the highest number of multi-country nominations - 14 inscriptions “testifying to the ability of intangible cultural heritage to bring people together and promote international cooperation,” Grange said.

“These are great achievements for all of humanity,” she declared, recalling her country’s pride and the global celebration when reggae music of Jamaica was added to the List in 2018. - SWAN


1. A Malay hawker prepares satay (seasoned and skewered meat grilled over hot charcoal). © Mohamad Hafiz, contestant of #OurHawkerCulture photography contest 2019, Singapore, 2019

2. Couscous © Centre national de recherches préhistoriques, anthropologiques et historiques (CNRPAH), Algérie, 2018

3. Olivia “Babsy” Grange, Jamaica's Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport. Photo: SWAN

Thursday, 3 December 2020


By Dimitri Keramitas

American Dirt, Jeannine Cummins’ controversial bestseller about Latin American migrants, human traffickers, and narco lords, was back in the news recently, thanks to France.

The novel was nominated for two prestigious French literary awards, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Femina étranger, and although it won neither, it generated renewed discussion about cultural appropriation, exploitation, and mainstream publishers’ omission of certain writers while glorifying others.

This debate will doubtlessly be with us for a long time, as more books with related themes get released. American Dirt is in fact one of two recent high-profile novels about migration – the other being the critically acclaimed and award-nominated Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

Initially, several critics in the United States also lauded American Dirt, with Oprah Winfrey praising it on her show. Only after the marketing machine kicked in, hyping both book and author, did a backlash occur. Latinx writers and others pointed to “the lack of complexity of this immigration story, and the harm this book can and will do” - in an open letter to Winfrey (also signed by Luiselli). At the same time, however, there have been detractors of Luiselli’s novel, for self-indulgence and off-putting postmodern playfulness.

I don’t wish to rehash the public debates, but to examine the differences in the approach of both novels, especially given the French embrace of American Dirt, which publisher Philippe Rey calls “a poignant hymn to the dreams of thousands of migrants who risk their lives every day”. (French literary prizes too are under the spotlight. The International New York Times recently reported that in France’s “top four prizes, there is one non-white juror among 38”.)

Meanwhile, Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (Archives des enfants perdus) is seen in France as the story of “a continent” and “an attempt to document life… and the present”.

While one can appreciate both novels, each is flawed in different ways. Cummins wrote an afterword, expressing unease at being a non-Mexican author of a novel about migrants. (In fact, most of the migrants portrayed aren’t Mexican but from Central America.) At the same time, she felt a degree of identity because her grandmother was Puerto Rican. In addition, her Irish husband was an undocumented immigrant for several years. Yet, she has also stated that she identifies as white.

Luiselli is of Mexican nationality, but her name reveals her part-Italian heritage. She comes from a diplomatic family, spent most of her upbringing outside Mexico and lives in New York City.

Alongside the debate and the concerns about the publishing industry’s shortcomings, it is important to focus on genre when discussing these books. Cummins writes social melodrama: work that covers a large swathe of society and addresses a topical social problem, often with considerable research. Unlike the naturalistic novel, the social melodrama uses the classic archetypes of melodrama: the plucky heroine, the villainous antagonist, the pathetic victim. 

The presiding genius of this genre is Charles Dickens, but in America the authors who have had the most success at it have included Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Grace Metalious (Peyton Place), Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls). The social melodrama can be hugely successful (as American Dirt is) but is frequently subject to merciless criticism. Sometimes such works can have a real impact, as Stowe’s novel did (Lincoln told her only half-jokingly that her novel had caused the Civil War). Cummins’ novel may have raised additional awareness about the dangers of migration but not in a way that her critics consider helpful.

While some reviewers have compared American Dirt to The Grapes of Wrath, it’s not an epic but a social melodrama, depicting the flight of innocents from evil malefactors, in this case drug lords. Immediately after a family massacre at the start of the novel, Lydia, who has lost her husband, flees with her son Luca. Realizing they aren’t safe anywhere in Mexico, Lydia decides that they will head for the US. The conventional way, via airplane, could result in their being traced, so mother and son join a group of migrants being smuggled across the border. The anonymity of being part of a poverty-stricken flock provides an ideal cover. 

As it happens, Cummins is adept at the mechanics of this genre. After opening the novel with a bang - many bangs in fact, in a scene worthy of Scarface - come chases, near-misses with bad guys, hair-raising stunts on migrant-ferrying trains, and a surprisingly calm denouement. The last is the only surprise. The plot beats are slick and efficient, but we’ve seen it all before. The melodrama is straightforwardly Victorian. Those who focus on the tropes are judging the novel as realism, which it isn’t, despite all the well-rendered detail. The melodramatic plot keeps the reader riveted, as the narrative barrels its way to a close.

The language of the novel is off-kilter at first, like a sailor awkwardly treading land with his sea legs. It does begin as realism, but this isn’t the writer’s forte. There are phrasing clunkers and mixed metaphors a-plenty, and Spanish tossed in indiscriminately like chilli flakes. Yet Cummins’ research on life in Acapulco seems authentic (her acknowledgements seem to bear this out). She appears to be faking her assured style, but as the narrative progresses, the reader becomes absorbed in the breakneck plot and engages with the protagonists - Lydia, the bookstore owner whose journalist husband’s exposé triggered the massacre, and precocious Luca - but also numerous vividly drawn characters, migrants and those who aid or exploit them. 

Startlingly, a human trafficker is depicted as almost heroic. He’s doing a job but does it with genuine dedication, and has the interests of his charges (or his cargo) at heart. Cummins doesn’t imply that the character is typical of his trade, and he’s not sentimentalized, just humanized. Even the narco-lord who is the chief baddy is portrayed as having a good side. This seems more facile, contrived both-sides-ism that reinforces the archetype of the dashing villain who puts the heroine through an emotional wringer before getting his comeuppance.

Cummins’ heroine is both conventional and unconventional. She’s in the social melodrama tradition of heroic women with a good heart, able to outwit the (male) villain. Classwise, she is neither poor nor a usurped aristocrat, two conventional archetypes. Instead she’s middle class: a bookstore-owner married to a journalist, with an Americanized son. The author has been criticized for creating an unlikely protagonist, but she’s in a distinct tradition found in various genres, such as the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock: the ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary situation. It’s one reason for the book’s popularity with some readers, if not critics.

Luiselli’s novel seems at first to be the diametric opposite of Cummins’, in both form and content.
American Dirt is straight-ahead narrative, interrupted by flashbacks to the protagonist’s relationship with her husband and her narco-lord friend, and also by news magazine-style tidbits about migration. The subject of Lost Chldren Archive overlaps that of American Dirt: a family’s road-trip intersects with the plight of migrants, specifically a group of children who are lost and wandering the desert. But while Cummins’ middle-class protagonists are plunged into crisis, Luiselli’s remain at a distance. 

Formally the novel is a bag (or box) of tricks: the main characters, a couple and their two children (each by previous relationships), are unnamed. The characters are based on Luiselli and her family: this used to be called metafiction (now we might say autofiction, or maybe meta-autofiction). The narrative is organized around a series of boxes of archives. Some include lists, fragments or quotes from literary works deemed inspirational to the author. In a nod to Borgesian intertextuality, there’s a book that eerily parallels the story of the lost migrant children.

All of the tricks are effectively allusive. Perhaps the irritation registered by some readers comes from not being familiar with works or persons cited. Or it may be that the playfulness seems trivializing. In the Trumpian age in which the novel is set, of children separated from parents and held in cages, some may not be in the mood for literary Ouija games. What’s curious is that although numerous “archives” are referred to, and the narrative itself is divided into Boxes (as opposed to Parts), these have to do with the narrator-protagonist and her family - there’s no sign of any archive dedicated to the lost children.

The language weaving the texture of the novel, and the world that Luiselli creates, is fluent and poetic. We enjoy the purring language the way we enjoy hearing a piano playing evocative chamber music, so different from the infelicities at the beginning of American Dirt. The language redeems the over-deliberate structure, and makes it seem like the intricacy of certain types of poetry.

Yet, aspects of the novel are problematic. First, the narrative is based on a trope that might be termed the bourgeois saviour. The protagonists are bourgeois of the type which in France is called “bobo” (bourgeois-bohemian). The couple lives in Brooklyn with their children by other relationships, one a “documentalist”, the other a “documentarist”. Snarky fun is made of the contrasting terms, but each collects anthropological data on indigenous people. There is nothing wrong with a character who’s bourgeois - an author has the right to be what she is, to write about what she knows. Luiselli is aware of this and has her character question her motives, but it feels like a pre-emptive strategy, not very different from how Cummins deals with the issue in her afterword.

The novel’s bourgeois family elects to drive cross country - a grand tour typical of certain families with a certain budget - but they also have that edifying mission of recording data on native peoples. Then there are the “lost children” who have become caught up in America’s ideological wars. The migrants in American Dirt, with the narco-lords and law enforcement on their tails, at least had their trafficker guide, while the lost children are supposedly alone. They are in need of rescue; enter the bobo saviours.

There is another phenomenon in play, that of bourgeois appropriation. The narrator and her family playfully take the names of Native Americans. Perhaps this is meant to represent the family embracing their roots, while empathizing with indigenous people. To an extent it is the initiative of the children and evokes the role-modelling typical of growing up. The family is Mexican, after all. But one can’t help thinking of the author’s growing up mostly outside of Mexico, and residing in Brooklyn’s hipster heaven … or, of French royal Marie-Antoinette and her entourage playing at being peasants.

Finally, there is bourgeois virtue-signalling. As the family drives through the American West, the reader is treated to a travelogue of flyover communities and a populace of prairie lumpen, those people left behind and forgotten until Trump came along. At least the author minutely depicts these areas, which most people literally fly over to destinations in LA or Vegas or the Colorado ski resorts, or drive past on the way to the natural parks. But the descriptions tend to be one-note - a dismal note. Perhaps she simply calls ‘em as she sees ‘em, but what’s most grating is her unrelievedly contemptuous tone. The shimmering ambiguity that is her professed credo is lost, replaced by a monolithic sneer. Even when the point of view shifts to the protagonist’s young son, there’s no substantive change in perspective.

In the end, the bobo family will not save the lost children. The author opts for the sentimental pathos standard in certain highbrow fiction. The bourgeois saviour archetype is dashed, yet she does permit herself the comforting resolution of old-fashioned domestic fiction: the parents find their own children, who had strayed in the desert, and the couple resolves the tensions they’d been undergoing. The family is intact and free to deal with the migrant issue another day.

I prefer American Dirt’s ending. It’s in the tradition of what has been called an American favorite: a tragedy with a happy ending. As in Luiselli’s novel, the family will remain intact, though not wealthy or living in Brooklyn. Lydia and Luca have settled into a modest middle-class life in Colorado, but they sleep with the light on, and she occasionally crosses paths with men who may be linked with the narco-gang. In a final irony for readers in lockdown, including those in France with translated novels, Lydia finds personal solace reading Love in the Time of Cholera (L'Amour aux temps du cholera) - which never won a major French prize.

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

Sunday, 15 November 2020


Ecuador’s entry for the 2021 Academy Awards’ International Feature section is a surprising movie, highlighting a story that up to now has been little known.

Titled Vacío / Emptiness and directed by self-taught filmmaker Paúl Venegas, the work focuses on how increasing numbers of Chinese migrants have ended up in Latin America over the past 15 years, and it features a cast of mainly non-professional actors – speaking Mandarin, Spanish, English and some Cantonese.

Even viewers familiar with stories of migration will find this an unexpected look at the issue, after decades of news articles about Europe and the United States. The migrants here are Chinese individuals arriving clandestinely in Ecuador and other Latin American countries, trying to make a living while dreaming of going elsewhere, and rapidly having to adapt to the local language and culture.

This is Venegas’ first feature (after producing several documentaries since 2003), and he clearly draws on his own Ecuadorian background as well as his time living in Asia, where he worked in finance in the Philippines and China. Viewers get a sense of both worlds, the one the characters have fled for various personal reasons, and the new one that is merely a way station for some but still filled with peril for the “paperless”, the undocumented.

The film follows Lei (Fu Jing) and Wong (Lidan Zhu) who arrive clandestinely in Ecuador after having met on a packed boat heading to what they think will be a land of opportunity. Lei’s objective is to get to New York, while Wong’s aim is to make enough money working so that he can bring his 12-year-old son from China to South America.

Before long, we see them falling into the hands of a seemingly charming but sinister individual, the bipolar gangster Chang (Meng Day Min), who has his own devious agenda, especially as regards Lei. They will have to figure out a way to escape, helped by friends including a fun-loving, good-hearted young Ecuadorian (played by Ricardo Velastegui) and an older immigrant (Yin Baode), who himself yearns to return to his homeland. Yet, even if escaping should prove successful, perhaps this won’t change their fate of forever having to live in the shadows.

Vacío could have been an unbearably bleak movie, if Venegas hadn't pulled back from leaving the main characters in despair. With his cast, we get a depiction of the many hazards of migration, but also a message of optimism. Lei’s dream could take a long time to be realized; still, she may eventually get to New York and follow the career path she has set herself.

In a videocall, Venegas told SWAN how and why he made Vacío (which had its premiere at South Korea's 2020 Busan International Film Festival in October and has already won awards in Latin America). The edited interview follows.

SWAN: Migration is a universal topic, but your story is special because not many know about this particular movement of people. Can you tell us about the background?

Director Paúl Venegas

Paúl Venegas: Well, Chinese communities have been migrating all over the world since more than 150 years. In Ecuador and Latin America in general, they started arriving about 120 years ago. Lima (Peru) has a huge Chinatown. They were brought as coolies to work on the Panama Canal too. And then there have been waves of immigration to countries in southeast Asia, for instance. I remember in Cambodia, literally in the middle of the jungle, I found a Chinese community that had been there for over a hundred years. They were farmers. They were just hidden somehow.

So, there’s been this spirit of always leaving … something that has permeated the culture.

Regarding the script, my co-writer (Carlos Terán Vargas) studied filmmaking in Cuba around 2005, and he began to write a script about Chinatown in Havana, because in the late 1800s, there were Chinese helping to fight the war of independence of Cuba. So there’s this long history, and when we met in 2008, I was already going back and forth to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for my work, and whenever I went to a corner shop, it was run by an Argentinian. But as the years went by - and starting around 2012, 2013 - all of a sudden around 99 percent of all these mid-size supermarkets, across all neighbourhoods, became run by Chinese, to the point that nowadays you don’t say I’m going to the supermarket. The expression translated from Spanish in Buenos Aires is: I’m going to the Chinese. It’s amazing.

So, I started observing this phenomenon, and seeing the same thing happening in São Paulo, also in Madrid, in Milan, in Valencia. I took inspiration from what’s happening all over the world, and the script developed and changed.

SWAN: And in Ecuador, specifically?

A scene from the film.

PV: Here particularly, in 2008, the government opened up the borders completely. You didn’t need a visa, and a lot of nationalities came in, using this as a transit point for the traditional migration to the United States. A lot of Asians came, and also people from Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, and from the Middle East as well. They’ve come in large numbers to Ecuador. They stay a few weeks, and then they go to the United States by land or other ways. But a lot of them will also stay and go to southern cities like São Paulo or Buenos Aires.

In 2008 to 2009, around 30,000 Chinese nationals came to Guayaquil (the second biggest city in Ecuador) especially, and it’s said that around 20,000 of them stayed, and they began to enlarge the already existing Chinatown - which had been there for generations but without the name. Last year it was recognized that there is a Chinatown, but even today, when you speak to people from the city about this, they say: What? Where’s the Chinatown? What I mean to say is that Chinese migration is very low-profile. It’s not marginalisation. They arrive under different conditions (from other migrants), and they arrive to already existing economic networks. So, it’s very silent, but it’s very permanent.

That is the interesting fact, I think, about the film - that people don’t realize … because they’re more aware of the terrible conditions of other migrations, with all the tragic things that we know. Still there are a few Chinese nationals now being caught at the border between Mexico and the United States, but not in the numbers compared to Latin Americans.

SWAN: How did you find the members of the cast?

PV: The casting process was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had with this film. I’ve worked with natural actors before on projects with other directors, and it was always a good result. But it wasn’t my original idea for this film. I started out aiming to co-produce with China, so I went through the process of the Beijing International Film Festival Pitch Forum. I applied there in 2014 and the film won “best project”.

After this, many producers came on … so I started doing casting with professional actors, but they just demanded so much money - half a million dollars! After ten times of going back and forth to China, I gave up. It became so difficult. I said to myself, I’m gonna go for natural actors and do a casting in the Chinese community in Guayaquil. The first thing that we did is that I got in touch with the Chinese immigrant associations in Guayaquil. This was around Chinese New Year in 2017, and they invited me to take part in their celebrations, at big banquets in restaurants. There we were presented in society, and the casting director and I went up to the podium and talked about the film.

Lei, the lead female character in the film.

So, the word got out and the Chinatown doors opened to me. They used social media to announce the castings … and we did six months of castings and eventually we found the right people. They all have very interesting stories. I interviewed them extensively, and this gave me a deep insight into what human beings they were and what happened to them when they migrated to Ecuador or somewhere else. We rehearsed a lot, every day, and we watched a lot of Wong Kar-wai films - I do take a lot of influence from him, I like his cinema a lot.

The cast gave me feedback about things, too, about how to say certain things. So, we adapted the script, and I adapted the story to their personalities. (The natural actors include a teacher of Mandarin and a miner.)

SWAN: Coming back to the story, the ending is not as sad as one might expect. It could have ended in a much worse way, particularly where the women characters are concerned. You seem to have pulled back from that. Why?

PV: Well, the female character that I try to portray is, to me, this liberated, empowered woman of the new China that is basically somehow escaping chauvinism. It’s clear that she does what she wants, and she manipulates males, in a good way as I see it, to get what she wants. I wished to portray this character as someone that keeps going, even when she has all these things that could stop her. To me, the transition at the end is a metaphor, it’s not complete disappointment, but she is empty inside.

SWAN: It’s probably a good choice because we know of the other story, other endings.

PV: Yes, I didn’t want to fall into the typical abuse story. Actually, there are other films that have done that, by a director in France, for example, where the Chinese migrant character ends up in a prostitution ring. I know this happens, but I don’t see migration like that. It was not my point for the story I wanted to tell. I’ve migrated a lot during my life and I’ve gone through a lot of the emotions, and I’ve seen people go through the emotions. So, that’s what I aimed to do with the film. The criminal aspect is there but that’s not the main point.

SWAN: What do you want the audience to take from your film?

PV: To reflect on the harshness of migration, on these journeys that we go through, the emotions that we go through. I like to say that migration is like jumping into emptiness: you really don’t know what’s going to happen, so you take a jump into a hole, basically. And perhaps what I want to say to people is that: before you take that jump, to think about it, about whether you’re going to be better off in your home country with your own people.

I also think audiences will see that you don’t just migrate for economic reasons, you migrate for existential reasons too. And it’s hard, no matter where you go.

SWAN: And the Academy Awards? How do you feel about the film being selected as Ecuador’s entry?

PV: Of course, I’m very happy about that. It raises the value of the film for distribution and gives more awareness to my film career and to filmmaking in Ecuador. Hollywood is not my thing, and the film is a small film and probably has little chance of making the shortlist. But it gives the story a higher profile. And I’m already in the game, so I have to play the game.

Vacío / Emptiness is an Ecuador-Uruguay coproduction. Distribution: Helderland Films

Thursday, 5 November 2020


If you’re looking for works by Haitian writers translated into English, it’s highly likely you’ll come across texts by American translator Nathan H. Dize, a rising voice in the field. His translation of Les Immortelles (The Immortals) by novelist and poet Makenzy Orcel is being published this month by SUNY Press, and while this is Dize’s first book-length publication, he has translated poetry and fiction by many other Haitian writers, including Kettly Mars, Charles Moravia, James Noël, Néhémy Pierre-Dahomey and Évelyne Trouillot.

A PhD candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University, Dize is also the content curator, translator, and co-editor of the digital history project A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. With Siobhan Meï, he coedits the “Haiti in Translation” interview series for H-Haiti. On Nov. 12, he will be in conversation with Jennifer Boum Make of Georgetown University, Washington, DC, for a presentation titled “The Urgent Act of Translation”.

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

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

NATHAN H. DIZE: I started learning French during my second year of high school in Baltimore at the age of 14. At my school we were required to take Latin in the first year, and at the beginning of the second we had a choice between French, German, and Spanish. Many of my friends decided to take Spanish because they had already started in middle school and others took German because it was not something they had encountered before. I chose French because I wanted to be a little different and I liked the way that it sounded.

I remember that year very well because in October and November we started studying the unrest in Paris when Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré were electrocuted to death while running away from the police. Our teacher was from France via Guadeloupe and her teenage son was in my class. She was distraught and the Foreign Language Dept. started teaching about the unrest. From there, we studied Caribbean writers like Aimé Césaire and Maryse Condé as well as Léopold Sédar Senghor. Although I couldn't yet read their work in French, I retained these names until I enrolled at the University of Maryland (UMD) for my undergraduate studies. In my first term at UMD, I took a class on Francophone African and Caribbean writers with Dr. Valérie Orlando that I will never forget. The reading load was intense, and we read work from writers who I still consider some of my favorites like Myriam Warner-Vieyra, Ferdinand Oyono, and Frantz Fanon.

Nathan H. Dize

After taking that class, I immediately started to enrol in every Caribbean and African diasporic literature class on campus until I decided that I needed to major in English, French, and Latin American/Caribbean Studies. Most of the courses I took were taught, at least initially, in English translation, but it was clear to me that I needed to continue taking French to learn more about the work that hadn't yet been translated. After a particularly discouraging French grammar class, I was all but ready to give up until my English professor, who happened to be Merle Collins, encouraged me to give French one more shot. And, I haven't looked back since. 

In the last five years at Vanderbilt University, I've been learning Haitian Creole and coordinating language clubs and programming with Haitian students there. I suppose I came into the study of language at the right time. It's been the defining characteristic of my life since I was 14.

SWAN: How did your interest in translation begin?

NHD: My interest in translation came at the same time as my interest in French, which is to say in high school and college. In high school, we had the International Baccalaureate program and our junior year was dedicated to World Literature. We read works by Haruki Murakami, Bao Nihn, Ariel Dorfman, and Isabel Allende that year. The next year, we read Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre and was transfixed by the way French, Dominican Creole, and English played out in these novels and I developed a thirst for linguistic confrontation, code switching, and marronnage via language.

Building on my impressions of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea from high school, I started reading a lot of Guadeloupean and Martinican women writers at university. I felt that the narrative voices of writers like Maryse Condé, Myriam Warner-Vieyra, and Simone Schwarz-Bart carried the traces of Rhys's writing that I loved the most as she wrote back to Charlotte Brontë. Though I loved Warner-Vieyra and Schwarz-Bart, not all of their writing existed in translation and their contemporaries like Michèle Lacrosil and Jacqueline Manicom were (and still are) only available to read in French.

So, I consumed all that I could in translation, knowing that I had to rely on it until I had enough of a handle on French to continue undeterred. These translations felt urgent and necessary because in many cases the French editions were either out of print or difficult to find; for Warner-Vieyra, Manicom, and Lacrosil, this is still the case. I'm delighted to learn that Cajou by Lacrosil is being translated into English and that Elizabeth Wilson is working on the translation of Warner-Vieyra's short story collection Femmes échouées. (See the first article in SWAN's series on translators.)

From there, I went on to do an undergraduate thesis on two novelettes by Myriam Warner-Vieyra, Juletane and Le Quiboiseur l'avait dit..., and translation was something that I was eager to practice as well as critique. Looking back on it, I was far too harsh on the translators. I didn't know how to read translations with the sensibility of a translator, and I insisted that I myself translate the passages I wanted to work from. Professor Collins agreed, knowing that it would be a worthwhile exercise and that it would teach me to be patient with translators. It did that and much more.

SWAN: You’ve translated poetry and fiction by Haitian writers. Can you tell us more about this?

NHD: I've been quite fortunate to translate a number of living Haitian writers - Kettly Mars, James Noël, Makenzy Orcel, Néhémy Pierre-Dahomey, and Évelyne Trouillot - these last few years. I'm most motivated to translate a writer after reading them. Often times, it's that first time reading a book that sticks with me, and I cannot shake it. It was this way for all of these writers and the works of theirs that I have translated.

When I was living in Lyon, France in 2014, I recall reading Makenzy Orcel's The Immortals on a cold, rainy day. I had just come home from the visa office and had the day off, so I read the book in one sitting. The novel takes place in one room in Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake. It's a conversation between a writer and a Haitian sex worker about her deceased protégé who she wants to immortalize by having the writer transcribe her story. It's a transformative thing to be reading alone in your tiny dormitory room about someone who believes that books have the power to immortalize someone, especially a beloved friend. I didn't know it at the time, but when I was struggling to continue my studies four years later, I returned to The Immortals and started translating it in 100-word portions by night. It became my little ritual that kept my spirits up. Now, I'm delighted to be able to share this novel with readers in English and I hope it will impact people in ways that they do not yet know.

Makenzy Orcel
As for the poetry I've translated, these were some of my first published literary translations. In 2017, I translated a poem by the Haitian poet, playwright, and diplomat Charles Moravia, called "President Wilson's Vision," about the late response to World War I by the United States. 

It's not a poem that many people will remember because it was printed in the Haitian daily Le Nouvelliste in 1918, but I just thought he was so courageous, especially as a diplomat in DC, to stand up to the president of the United States while Haiti was currently under a US occupation. I'm particularly fond of Évelyne Trouillot's poem "Tremors" because it expresses so much beauty and pain with so few words. It's another poem that I remember reading in Lyon as I walked home from the bookstore on the banks of the Rhône. For years, I returned to the poem on January 12, the anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, as a source of comfort. One year I translated it and sent it to some friends, thinking it might help them understand what happened that day on an emotional level and they encouraged me to try to publish it. With the blessing of Évelyne and her publisher, Meridians printed it last fall.

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

NHD: Translation is critical for our world today and we must make sure that communities have access to translation and interpretation services, that those providing those services are compensated for their labor, and that translation is more than just a service rendered. Translation can be an act of imagination, an act of empathy, a crossing into someone else's world… translation can be so many things, if it were only valued the way that it should be.

SWAN: What can writers and the publishing industry do to support and promote translation, especially of under-represented literature?

NHD: There are many things that can be done, small intellectual coups that cost nothing, but do require a slight shift in perspective. For instance, writers who are commissioned or who volunteer to write reviews of works in translation could make the space in their review to acknowledge the influence of the translator on the translated text. Some reviews of books in translation are written as though the book magically appeared in another language. I read one review of the reissued version of Simone Schwarz-Bart's Bridge of Beyond and the reviewer claimed that the novel was newly translated even though the same translation was issued in the 1970s and the translator, Barbara Bray, had passed away three years prior. There are some venues that encourage reviewers to acknowledge the translator like World Literature Today and, but it is sadly still standard practice by many reviewers to ignore the translator.

Another thing that writers can do, especially polyglot writers, is to ask to do reviews in English of a book (that is written) in another language. I've done this before with SX Salon for books by Jacques Stephen Alexis and Emmelie Prophète. Many academic journals already do this, but until you've tried to pitch a translation to a publisher you don't realize how critical trans-lingual book reviews can be. They unburden the translator and they help the folks at the press decide whether the book might be an appropriate fit.

As for the publishers, the question is more complex. In December, I recall reading an article in The New York Times called "The Ferrante Effect: In Italy, Women Writers are ascendant" and I asked myself, what might it mean for any given island in the Caribbean to have a wave of translations (or publications for that matter) appear on the US book market due to the momentum of one writer? I only say the US because that's where I'm based, but the question would hold for any major book market. Can we speak of an "[Edwidge] Danticat Effect," a "[Julia] Alvarez Effect," a "[Marlon] James effect," and so on? I'm being provocative to a degree because of course writers like Danticat, Alvarez, and James have paved the way for new voices from the Caribbean to access global literary markets. All you need to do is look at how many books by Haitian authors Danticat has prefaced or blurbed to understand her impact. At the same time, the work that she is doing is not always written about in the same terms as a writer like Elena Ferrante is.

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

NHD: This is a pertinent question as well. As a translator, I try to keep audience in mind as much as possible because it helps me know who I'm translating toward and who I might be translating away from. For example, when translating a text from a Haitian author from French into English I often try to engage with a Haitian diasporic audience by placing Haitian Creole words into the standardized Haitian Creole orthography rather than leaving them in a "Frenchified" creole. While this may seem like a minor adjustment, I've spoken with heritage speakers of Haitian Creole who when they see their home language in print it fills them with an immense sense of pride. I think we've learned to think about translation in terms of loss, but there is much to be gained in carrying out the work of translation in a thoughtful manner.

SWAN: What are your forthcoming projects?

NHD: My first book-length translation, The Immortals by Makenzy Orcel just came out with SUNY Press in the Afro-Latinx Futures series, edited by Vanessa K. Valdés. Although it was just released, it still feels like it is forthcoming in a way and I'm eager to hear what readers think about it. Recently, I've been collaborating with Siobhan Meï, Jonathan Michael Square, and others on an Instagram-based project called Rendering Revolution: Sartorial Approaches to Haitian History that visually documents the way that fashion and clothing constructed notions of freedom during and after the Haitian Revolution. My role has mostly been as a translator for the project, translating English captions into Haitian Creole. Siobhan and I have also translated two chapters for a forthcoming Routledge volume on Anténor Firmin edited by Celucien Joseph and Paul Mocombe.

In addition to these projects, I have an advance contract with the University of Virginia Press and their CARAF series (Caribbean and African Literature translated from French) for an English translation of Kettly Mars's 2015 novel Je suis vivant (I Am Alive). It's a translation that I've been working on ever since the novel came out and I'm excited to see it come into being.

(Editor’s note: Les Immortelles has previously been translated into English by Annie Mathews for readership in India, published by Under the Peepal Tree.)

This article is part of SWAN’s translator profiles, in association with The Caribbean Translation Project (Twitter: @CaribTranslate), an initiative to promote the translation of literature from and about the Caribbean.