Monday, 14 February 2022


By Marta Fernandez Campa

Critically acclaimed Cuban-American writer and translator Achy Obejas is the author of many works of prose and poetry, including seminal texts such as We Came all the Way from Cuba so You Could Dress Like This? (1994) and Memory Mambo (1996). Obejas’ most recent publication, Boomerang/Bumerán (2021), is a book of poetry that explores a wide range of themes, including love, exile, politics, gender and language from a multilingual perspective.

Her writing has been widely anthologised in collections such as Cubana: Contemporary Fiction by Cuban women (1998, translated from Spanish), Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (2008), and Radical Hope: Letters of Dissent in Radical Times (2017), to name a few. She is also a journalist and has published investigative and opinion articles for The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Out, The Washington Post, The Village Voice and other publications.

As a translator, Havana-born Obejas has translated the writing of several authors, including Caribbean writers Junot Díaz, Rita Indiana Hernández and Wendy Guerra. She has translated into Spanish Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and translated into English Hernández’s novel Tentacle and Guerra’s Revolution Sunday and Everyone Leaves (which has been translated into several other languages as well).

She is the recipient of multiple awards, including a Lambda Award and a Pulitzer Prize for her journalistic work, alongside National Endowment for the Arts and Ford fellowships. Her most recent short story collection, The Tower of the Antilles (2017), was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award.

The following interview with Achy Obejas, conducted by email, is part of SWAN’s series of conversations with translators of Caribbean writing, in association with the Caribbean Translation Project.

SWAN: How did your interest in translation begin?

Achy Obejas: I feel like I’ve always been doing translation. When we first arrived in the U.S., I was six and took to English very quickly, so that I became my family’s translator/interpreter. This meant that, for me, translation came very naturally. It wasn’t until I began doing it professionally that I realized it was actually a specific skill set, that it wasn’t just what you did to help your (immigrant) parents along.

When I first moved to Chicago, I began doing interpreting gigs: depositions, labor disputes, medical emergencies. I had to learn new vocabulary, reconsider the casual Spanish of my family, and the regional variants that often came into play.

My first actual book translation was an accident, really. Akashic Books editor Johnny Temple and I agreed that I’d edit a Havana entry for their noir series. At the time, I figured most of the writers I was thinking of using had translators or work already translated, but the truth is we didn’t consider translation very much at all. And then, when I started getting the translations, they were god-awful. It soon became apparent that it was better, and easier, for me to just do the translations than try and fix them. Johnny and I ended re-negotiating for translation fees on top of the editing fee.

After Havana Noir came out, David Unger was gracious enough to recommend me to translate Junot Díaz’s Brief and Marvelous Life of Oscar Wao. I honestly didn’t think I stood a chance so when I was asked for a sample, I just went with a kind of Spanglish that complemented what Junot was doing in English. I got the job, and great reviews for the translation, and suddenly I was a translator of literary fiction.

SWAN: You’ve translated the work of many Caribbean authors, including Rita Indiana Hernández, Wendy Guerra and your own writing. Can you tell us more about these collaborations and your process of translation?

A.0.: Every author is different. A lot depends on their personality, the work, their own level of interest in the translation, their own knowledge of English. Wendy just hands it (over) and trusts me to do her right, and of course I cherish that trust. With Rita, I had a few questions but it was mostly a hands-off situation.

I honestly prefer when I’m left to my own devices, to ask questions when I have them but to not feel too supervised. My worst experiences have been with authors who think they speak English, for Spanish, well enough to intervene. It’s usually not the case, and it requires a lot of diplomacy.

I’m a pretty straightforward translator - I read the text and take notes for questions, research, challenges and doubts. And then I dive in, chronologically, usually one page per session, with several sessions in a given day. I re-read the previous day’s work every morning. After each chapter, I back up and read from scratch, just to make sure the voice is steady, that there aren’t connections I’ve missed, that kind of thing.

In addition, I always hire a reader. This is particularly important to me when I’m translating into Spanish for two reasons: one, because I’m autodidactic in Spanish (all my formal education is in English) it’s important to have that safety net, and, two, because I’m frequently translating into variants that aren’t Cuban, I want to make sure that the voice is absolutely true.

SWAN: How important is translation for today’s world, especially for communities that might be underrepresented?

A.O.: I think it’s vital. I’m always disturbed by this notion that the translator is somehow a traitor. The translator is a bridge, a pathfinder, the one who makes communication possible. And communication is imperative in our fractured world. And given that the world’s superpower refuses to foster multilingualism, then I think translation is our only hope of expanding minds and opening hearts.

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"?

A.O.: I think the only way that’s real is to learn each other’s stories, to get closer to each other’s lives. We do that by talking to each other, which means we use translation as a bridge, not just to understand each other’s language but each other’s experiences and how they shape each of us.

SWAN: How do you see literary translation evolving to reach more readers?

A.O.: I think it’s a pretty exciting time to be a translator, and a terrific time for discussions about the hows and whys of translations. Language is always evolving but right now feels like a very emphatic moment in terms of gender, disability, race and other political concerns and how language frames these conditions. It seems to me I’m constantly re-evaluating and reconsidering my approach.

SWAN: The decade of Indigenous Languages begins in 2022. Can you speak a little about what that can mean to the work of translators and to translation generally?

A.O.: Wider circulation, I hope, of indigenous texts. And greater respect and honor for indigenous communities, their histories and stories. And a greater understanding too of how much those languages have infiltrated and influenced more widely used languages, especially European languages. Because we owe a lot.

SWAN: Congratulations on the publication of Boomerang / Bumerán, your latest poetry collection. In its Author´s Note, you mention that you wanted to write largely a gender-free text and you highlight the challenge particularly with the sections in Spanish, a language that is marked by gender categories in its grammar and that, as you say, “exists on the binary.” How do you see the poems disrupting gender binaries as well as other binaries and discursive levels?

A.O.: Most of the time when we talk about inclusive language in Spanish, it means degendering persons, but the rest of the language remains gendered: the table is feminine, the coffee is masculine. I have yet to understand why that’s okay in a supposed de-gendered text; I have yet to understand the utilitarian nature of gender. So, in Boomerang/Bumerán, I de-gendered the table and the coffee and everything in between. I don’t think you kill the binary in persons but allow it in things; why?

This is, of course, an intellectual and political exercise. Most of us only de-gender a little here and there in our speech - todes, amigos, that kind of thing - but I wanted to propose a vision of another possibility. Not the way necessarily, but a way.

SWAN: What are your next projects?

A.O: I’m currently working on a novel. I’m excited about returning to that form. 

Photos (top to bottom): Writer and translator Achy Obejas; Havana Noir (Akashic Books); Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra, translated by Achy Obejas; the cover of Boomerang/Bumerán by Achy Obejas.

Marta Fernandez Campa is a researcher and lecturer based in London, with various research interests, including multi-lingual texts and the role of translation.

Follow the Caribbean Translation Project on Twitter: @CaribTranslate

Wednesday, 2 February 2022


The Rastafari movement, which began in Jamaica during the 1930s, has become internationally known for its contribution to culture and the arts, as well as for its focus on peace and “ital” living. Major icons include reggae musicians Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Burning Spear, with the movement overall projecting a very male image.

But women have contributed significantly to the development of Rastafari, as Jamaican-born historian Daive Dunkley has shown through his research. Rastafari women were particularly active in the resistance against colonial rule in the first half of the 1900s, and they created educational institutions for young people and helped to expand the arts sphere in the Caribbean, among other work.

These contributions are highlighted in Dunkley’s latest book, Women and Resistance in the Early Rastafari Movement, an essential addition to the history of Rastafari - which scholars generally see as both a religious and social movement. US-based Dunkley, an associate professor in the University of Missouri’s Department of Black Studies and director of Peace Studies, spoke to SWAN about his research, in an interview conducted by email and videoconference.

SWAN: What inspired your research on women’s role in the early Rastafari movement?

Daive Dunkley: There is a story here. My inspiration for writing about women’s role in the early Rastafari developed from research I had been doing since 2009 on Leonard Howell, one of the four known founders of the movement. I quickly realized that women were a significant force in the group that became known as the Howellites and were critical to all their considerable initiatives. These included developing the first self-sufficient Rastafari community, known as Pinnacle.

Hundreds of women joined the estimated 700 people of the Pinnacle community in 1940, located in the hills of St. Catherine, Jamaica. I realized too that the women had been part of establishing the Ethiopian Salvation Society (ESS) in 1937 and were members of its governing board. They were secretaries and decisionmakers, including Tenet Bent, who married Howell. Bent was one of its leaders and financial backers. She also had connections in middle-class Jamaica that proved critical to the development of the ESS as a benevolent Rastafari organization.

Interestingly the ESS created a constitution written chiefly by women who called it a “Christian charity.” And some of its first outreach programs were also clearly determined by women, such as providing relief in the form of food and clothing to survivors of natural disasters in several parts of Jamaica in the late 1930s. In 2014, I decided to focus my research on the activities of the early women, who came predominantly from the peasantry. The colonial government and newspapers largely ignored the activism and leadership of these women in the development of the Rastafari movement.

SWAN: Were you surprised by the information you discovered?

D.D.: I was not surprised by my information about women’s political, economic, and cultural activism within the early Rastafari movement. My earlier research on the antislavery activities of enslaved people included research on women. Despite slavery, these women remained active in the resistance - undermining, escaping, or abolishing slavery altogether. I found out that women’s role in the early Rastafari encountered silencing by the colonial system. We helped maintain this silencing in later writing about the early movement. What I read in terms of secondary scholarship was largely androcentric. I learned the names of the four known founders and some other prominent men. They engaged the colonial system unapologetically as Rastafari leaders. I read nothing similar about women, which I found pretty strange.

Moreover, when women were portrayed, including by British author Sheila Kitzinger in the 1960s, it was essentially to reflect on how marginal they were in the movement. By the way, for me, the early Rastafari movement dates from the 1930s to the end of the 1960s. Women in the 1960s were members of the early action, and many joined from the 1930s through the 1950s. In other words, early women were members of Rastafari during and after the colonial system. This system was far more devastating in its attitudes towards Rastafari than the early postcolonial government of Jamaica that took over with the island’s political independence in 1962.

Rastafari obtained a male-dominated image from the mid to late 1950s with devastating consequences for all the movement’s women. The colonial system successfully imposed a veil of silence on women, resulting in our ignorance of these women. More research using interviews with and about women and closer reading of the colonial archives, including the newspapers, helped me uncover some of the hidden histories of the women in the early movement. I was inspired to continue searching for these stories because I knew that Black women were never silent in the previous history of the Caribbean or before the genesis of Rastafari in 1932.

SWAN: What was the most striking aspect of this story?

D.D.: This question is a difficult one to answer because all these stories involving women were fascinating or striking. But if I were to venture an answer to the question, I would say that the story about the women who petitioned the government for fairness and justice in 1934 stands tall among the most striking. I’ve written elsewhere about this story in a blog for the book published by LSU Press. I said that the women who petitioned the government for justice and fairness showed their awareness of the power of petitions in the history of the Black freedom struggle in Jamaica and the Caribbean.

These women organized themselves to defy the colonial police, justices of the peace, and resident magistrate. These entities had dedicated themselves to silencing Rastafari women and men. The women submitted their petitions to the central government. They did so in a coordinated fashion to ensure that the colonial officials did not ignore the pleas.

You will have to read the book to get a fuller sense of what happened due to these petitions. I will say that engaging with the government showed an effort not to escape from the society but rather to transform colonial Jamaica into a just and fair society. The women wanted the island’s Black people to see themselves improving. They wanted Jamaica to reflect their aspirations. The activities aimed at accomplishing this wish were among the most significant contributions of early Rastafari women. They were not escapists. They were radical transformationalists if we want a fancy term.

SWAN: How important is this particular segment of history to Jamaica and the world, given the international contributions of the Rastafari movement?

D.D.: Rastafari’s early history is critical to understanding both the history of Jamaica and the African diaspora at the time. People like to think of the internationalization of the Rastafari movement as starting from the 1960s and growing from there. However, my research on early Rastafari women has confirmed that this is not true. Rastafari was formulated with an international perspective and established ongoing connections with the global Black freedom struggle from its very beginning. The women also helped establish relations with Ethiopia on a political level that included fundraising, organizing, and participating in protests against fascist Italy’s aggression and subsequent occupation of Ethiopia in 1936-1941.

In addition, women protected the Rastafari’s historic theocratic interpretations of the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I and Empress Menen Asfaw in 1930. The coronation event was critical to inspiring the genesis of the Rastafari movement. Women such as the previously mentioned Tenet Bent maintained the correspondence with the International African Service Bureau (IASB) through one of its founders, George Padmore, the Trinidadian Marxist based in London. The women knew that the organization evolved out of the International African Friends of Abyssinia formed in London in 1935 to organize resistance against Italy’s attempts to colonize Ethiopia.

In 1937, Padmore created the IASB with help from other Pan-Africanists from the Caribbean and worldwide, including CLR James, Amy Ashwood Garvey, ITA Wallace-Johnson, TR Makonnen, Jomo Kenyatta, and Chris Braithwaite, the Barbadian labor leader. The early Rastafari women preserved the history of Rastafari’s attempts to engage with the global Garvey movement from 1933, though disappointed by Garvey’s unwillingness to meet with Rastafari founder Leonard Howell.

Women, however, helped preserve the movement’s links to Garvey’s Back nationalist ideology to maintain the Pan-African political consciousness of the African diaspora. Women also read and discussed the literature of Pan-Africanist women writers such as Amy Bailey. The newspapers of Sylvia Pankhurst, the British socialist and suffragist, also kept the early Rastafari women abreast of developmental initiatives in Ethiopia.

Undoubtedly, the 1960s onwards brought further development of this international focus, especially with the development of Reggae and primarily through the touring by Bob Marley and the Wailers in the 1970s. However, much of the success of Reggae was due to its Rastafari consciousness developed in the 1930s. This consciousness centered on the African origins of humans and empowered Reggae with a message of morality, peace, and justice that appealed to people worldwide.

SWAN: From a gender standpoint, how significant would you say the research is for Jamaica, the Caribbean?

D.D.: The early history of Rastafari women revealed some crucial developments in the story of gender and its dynamics in the modern history of the African diaspora. The early women challenged gender disparity inside and outside the movement from the 1930s’ inception of Rastafari. Many of these women had been part of empowered women congregations in the traditional churches, namely the Baptist church.

Still, they felt that Rastafari focused more on their African ancestry and therefore was more relevant to their social uplift. Among the gender discussions initiated by women was equality between the emperor and empress of Ethiopia, whereas men saw the emperor as the returned Messiah. The women proposed that the empress and emperor were equal and constituted the messianic message of the coronation event in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1930.

Women also ensured that they participated in preaching the Rastafari doctrine on the streets of Jamaica from the early 1930s. They defended men arrested and tried for their involvement in Rastafari. Many women also ended up imprisoned for their defense of the movement and its use of cannabis. Women were present during the court proceedings as witnesses and supporters. Their willingness to engage the justice system revealed to colonial officials that the male focus in suppressing Rastafari would continue to fail unless they paid attention to women.

The women carried on the Pinnacle community in the 1930s through 1950s when the police arrested the men. As my book discusses, women were at the center of initiating the most significant Rastafari organization of the late 1950s, the African Reform Church of God in Christ. One of its two founders was Edna E. Fisher. She was prosecuted for treason-felony and did not attempt during the trial to hide the fact that she was the owner of the land on which they built their organization. Fisher considered herself the brigadier of the movement. However, scholars have named the events and the trial after her partner and future husband, Claudius Henry. Still, Fisher was instrumental in the leadership and creating the organization’s cultural and political objectives.

SWAN: Why did the Rastafari movement become so male-oriented in later decades?

D.D.: My research has shown that Rastafari became male-oriented mainly in the 1950s. This change was primarily a response to the attempts of the colonial regime to suppress the movement. Its male leaders and many male followers decided they needed “male supremacy” to fight “white supremacy.” Scholarship on the Black freedom struggle in the United States has also disclosed this decision. Despite this reorientation towards male centrism, women continued to play pivotal roles inside and outside leadership positions.

Initially, it made sense for many women to capitalize on the image of male power to protect the movement because of the targeting of male members by the government. 

However, state officials eventually recognized that targeting men could not end Rastafari. They needed to take a gender-equitable approach to suppress the movement. That recognition would lead to the detention of many women by the police on charges of disorderly conduct, showing animosity towards state officials, such as police and judges.

Of course, many women also faced cannabis charges. The male orientation of the movement continued into the independence period of Jamaica primarily due to the men seeking to consolidate power. Many cultural and philosophical attitudes developed around this male-centered identity that started in the 1950s. The male focus continues within the movement despite women challenging these attitudes using notions of gender equality inherited from earlier women.

SWAN: How did the book come about?

D.D.: I started to write chapters for the book in 2014 and revised them over the next seven years. One of the strategies I used was to return to some of the women and men I interviewed to ensure that the information was consistent with what they had told me previously. I also expanded the archival research to include Great Britain and the United States materials. Regarding research materials for the book’s writing, the most important sources were the Jamaica Archives, the British Archives, the Smithsonian, and the newspapers, particularly Jamaica’s Daily Gleaner.

SWAN: What do you hope readers will take away from it overall?

D.D.: One of the things I hope will happen with this book is that it stimulates further research into women’s role in founding the Rastafari movement. That part of the history needs analysis that I think will expand our understanding of how Rastafari came about and give a complete picture of the critical figures in founding this movement. I believe women were vital to both the genesis and initial development of Rastafari, who had been articulating its consciousness before the 1930 coronation of the empress and emperor of Ethiopia.

It is clear from my research that women read the same materials men read and gradually developed their ideas about Rastafari consciousness independently of men. I also hope the book will inspire people to see poor Black women as agents of historical, social changes in the history of the African diaspora. These women had meaningful conversations regarding materializing social change for the greater good. I’m hoping readers see these women as intellectual catalysts and activists who helped shape the evolution of the modern African diaspora. These women were critical to the decolonization process, for example. – AM / SWAN

Women and Resistance in the Early Rastafari Movement is published by Louisiana State University Press.

Photos (top to bottom): Dr Daive Dunkley (courtesy of the University of Missouri); the cover of Dunkley's book (courtesy of LSU Press); Tenet Bent (courtesy of Month Howell); Bob Marley - Songs of Freedom; an image from one of Dunkley's scholarly presentations; artwork from the reggae CD Inna de Yard.

Follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale.