Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Willful Blindness

It's an interesting thing, being in a country that's so different from what you know. Especially as a white Westerner in a poor black African country. There are a lot of misconceptions that come along with that, and I think that many/most of them come from a lot of reductive travelogues that have been written over the years. Over the centuries, really. This started way back with European explorers keeping journals that detailed the "primitive" "native cultures" they "found." The whole assumption that European culture is more "civilized" has led to a whole host of other ignorant assumptions about anybody who doesn't fit that norm.

But it's an extremely pervasive narrative, especially having been educated in the States. And, just like systemic racism, it seeps into your brain and starts messing with your own thoughts, convincing you that your experiences in, for example, Madagascar, aren't valid unless you just see the extreme differences between that culture and your home, all the poverty and want and lack and oh-how-quaint-life-is-here.

I fell victim to that the first time around four years ago, definitely. (Sadly. I'm sorry.) But now that I'm back, I've started actively looking for things to disprove my earlier assumptions/misconceptions. Here's what I've got so far:

  • Yes, there are in fact addresses. Kind of all over the place, on all sorts of different buildings, in both the city and the countryside. It's standardized, too, even if there isn't daily/regular mail service like at home.
  • Ditto for street signs. Either official or not, there are a bunch in the city for specific streets. And then there are signs on main roads that point the way toward different neighborhoods (in the city) or towns (in the country).
  • Yes, there are women who drive scooters and motorcycles. It's not just men. Remember, helmets and protective gear tend to be (and should be!) pretty gender neutral . . .
  • There are women breastfeeding EVERYWHERE -- although to be fair, I was pretty blind to this in every culture until I had my own child.
  • Yes, there are actual grocery stores, the way I normally think of them, instead of “just” markets. There’s even a Malagasy chain. (It’s called “Supermaki.” The maki is the classic ring-tailed lemur. :-D)
  • Yes, there are plenty of other vazahas, even in non-vazaha areas. (Although, this trip, I truly do still have yet to see another white woman.)
  • There are even funeral processions, cars with their hazards on following a hearse and everything.

So yes, even if I feel out of my depth here, completement dépaysée, that doesn't mean there aren't any similarities between here and home. Just because I didn't ever set foot in a supermarket last time, doesn't mean I can't go buy more shampoo here if I run out. And I don't have to go to a special Euro-import store, either. It's just normal.

I will no longer be willfully blind to the parts of Malagasy society that overlap with American society, and I can actively work against the misconceptions stuck in my own brain. Life here is just life.

I don't even need to sleep under a mosquito net. (Yet.)

SLAM!

Don’t let anyone ever say that literary production in Madagascar is minimal, doesn’t exist, isn’t up to snuff.

Maybe there aren’t as many publishing houses as in a Western country, maybe printing books is sometimes prohibitively expensive, maybe there are extremely few people who can live off of their writing alone.

Let me tell you, none of that matters. Malagasies are just as creative and impressive as people all around the world.

Case in point? SLAM POETRY.

On Friday, I went to a 2-in-1 event organized by CRAAM, a cultural organization, and Madagaslam, which is pretty much what it sounds like: the premier association for slam poetry in Madagascar. There was a writing workshop at the university in the early afternoon, followed immediately by an open slam. HOLY CRAP IT WAS AWESOME.

First, the workshop. One of the Madagaslam organizers was going to give a whole history of slam (in and outside of Madagascar), but we started late, so about two minutes in he went, “Should we just write?” Resounding yes. So we came up with seven topics we could write about: education, politics, nose, love, money, friendship, and travel.

Most of these people were there for the first time. And believe me when I tell you that they got roughly one piece of advice: it doesn’t have to rhyme. The end results?? HOLY CRAP THESE PEOPLE CAN WRITE. We had about fifteen minutes, and a couple people presented at the end, and what they came up with was astounding. Not just the content, but the rhythm, the repetitive sounds in some cases. I went up to two of them to exchange contact info, asking if they were writers. They tried to brush me off.

I’ve been in workshops and situations like this before, where people come up with some amazing piece of art in an extremely limited window of time. But this is just proof that so-called “third-world” or “developing” countries are not actually lagging behind the US or France or any other “developed” country in terms of artistic prowess. They lack some resources, sure. But not skills. Even without any formal training. Humans everywhere have amazing capabilities.

Then, the open slam. I was simply blown away. There will probably be video up soon on the Madagaslam Facebook page. I was going to record a few people’s performances (with their permission), just to have for myself, especially the ones in French, in case I wanted to try translating them. I was thinking, to preserve my phone battery, to give each one a few seconds and then stop if it wasn’t amazing.

I recorded every single one in full. Even the ones in Malagasy. I can’t explain the power these poets have, standing in front of their peers, declaiming at the top of their voices the problems with their country and the great things about life.

This is art. Just because they’re not in a hip little cafe in NYC doesn’t mean these people aren’t extremely talented artists. Just because a good percentage of the books published by Malagasy authors are printed either with thinner paper covers or in France doesn’t mean the literature isn’t amazing.

And isn’t that why we translate? I’m only one person, so I can only do so many things. But this is why translation exists and is a good thing. Let’s allow everyone to enter the global cultural conversation. Everyone has good and important things to say.

Manahoana...Again

I'm back! Back to the blog, and back in Madagascar. I'll be here until October, and let me tell you, it's already been quite a trip.

I've been here once before, for almost six weeks back in 2014. That was back when this blog was a little more active, but if you look at the archives (or if you've been following for a while), you'll see that I barely wrote anything at all about that trip. Seems a little incongruous, considering it was literally a life-changing trip: my first time in a developing country, my first time anywhere on the continent of Africa, and the trip that kick-started what has become my professional niche (at least for now).

It was a difficult trip. I was yanked out of any semblances of a comfort zone, and I found it hard to adjust. But it was also one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I met so many wonderful people, and saw so many wonderful things . . . I just couldn't figure out how to write about it.

This lasted for a while. How could I write about the good parts and ignore the bad? Or, perhaps worse, how could I write about the bad and have that be the only perspective that many Americans/Westerners would have on this country that already struggles to craft any image for itself to the wider global community, besides lemurs and poverty?

I saw an interview a few years back that was a prime example of this. (It might have been Benedict Cumberbatch on Top Gear, but I don't remember exactly, and I don't currently have a fast enough internet connection to figure it out.) Whoever it was, he'd been asked about a trip he'd taken to South Africa, where he and some friends had gotten carjacked and abducted on a highway at night, they'd had hoods over their heads for a while and guns pressed up to them every so often, and he'd really believed he was going to die. But he added very quickly that he didn't like telling that story, not publicly, because there were so many good people in South Africa, and he didn't want the audience's assumptions about that country to be that it was all violence all the time. Granted, I didn't get kidnapped or anything, knock on wood, but I didn't want my struggles to be the only things people knew of Madagascar.

But at the root of all this, really, was my chosen role as a translator. What good would my stories be, when I could tell the stories of the people here, in their own words? The real stories of the real lived experiences of the real people in this real country, instead of some quick travelogue jotted down by someone who flew away almost as quickly as she'd arrived? This is what I've been doing for the last four years: telling Malagasy stories by Malagasy authors. Because they know best. It seems like a "duh" thing to say, but that's the truth. Why would I want to let my own stories get in the way of theirs, especially when I have chosen to dedicate my professional life to telling other people's stories in a new language?

So that's what I've done. I've tried to keep pretty quiet about my own experiences in Madagascar for a while, because there was such a lack of Malagasy voices in English. However, that's finally starting to change -- the first novel is out in English, and there are a few more in the works (more on that when I'm allowed to talk about it!) -- so my voice will no longer be the only one that many English-speakers have access to. Plus, there are a few Malagasies writing directly in English, too (they're listed on the Madagascar page of this website).

So . . . I'm here. Again. For a longer trip this time. And although I still feel rather ridiculously out of my depth, there are things that I can write about, that I can feel comfortable writing about. I want to write about this place, and I can easily share little snippets of different parts of life here. (What I can't do is try to summarize the entire culture and people and food and art and life of this whole wide country in one huge over-arching essay. So why try?) I can write about little things as they happen, the same way anyone does in normal life on a blog or social media. Because any life, all life, is so much more complex than one page on the Internet.

"Beyond the Rice Fields" Giveaway Winners!

Happy Friday, all! We had two signed copies up for grabs of Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo, translated by yours truly, published by Restless Books. Please give a hearty congratulations to our two winners:

Twitter entrant @ritualgibberish
AND
Blog commentator Christiana

I'll be contacting both of you shortly to get your mailing addresses!

Beyond the Rice Fields_cover.jpg

And THANK YOU to everyone who commented and spread the word! If you're interested in purchasing your very own copy of the book, you can, right here.

Enjoy!

"Beyond the Rice Fields" Giveaway

I promised it would happen, and here it is! The first couple times I did this, I called it something ridiculous. And tradition must be upheld. Please, prepare yourselves for:

The Third Not-Nearly-Regular-Enough-To-Be-Called-Annual-or-Biennial-or-Monthly-or-Anything-Else A.M.C. Giveaway!

*assorted cheers and trumpets*

 Isn't it pretty??

Isn't it pretty??

The Prize: Two (2) randomly-chosen people will each receive one (1) paperback copy of Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, translated by yours truly, published by Restless Books, released this month. Each book will be signed by me and inscribed however the winners desire.

The Entry(-ies): There are two ways of entering, each of which grants you one entry (so every person can enter up to twice).

  1. Beyond the Rice Fields is the first novel to be translated into English from Madagascar. Without translation, the English-speaking world would have no Naivo, and no Madagascar. In light of this revelation, comment on this post with your favorite non-Anglophone writer, who you'd never have been able to read if it weren't for translation. (Bonus brownie points if you #namethetranslator!)
  2. To help spread the word, tweet a link to this post. Must either tweet at me (@sunshineabroad) or include this hashtag: #NaivoGiveaway

The Deadline: One week from today! Thursday, December 7, at 11:59 p.m. EST.

The Rules: After the contest, I will randomly select two entrants (by assigning a number to each comment and Twitter account and using a random number generator), and announce the winners on this blog on Friday, December 8. I will then contact the winners for their email and mailing addresses. Anyone with a valid mailing address anywhere in the world may enter. Limit two entries per person.

The Why: Did I mention this is the first novel EVER to be translated into English from Madagascar? And that it's amazing? (True fact, not my very biased opinion.) That's why.

Good luck to all!

You Can't Please Everyone

Beyond the Rice Fields is out. We've been getting some really nice reviews about it. (And there will be a giveaway coming after American Thanksgiving! Watch this space.)

Reviews are all subjective, though. One person's opinion. And people's opinions can vary wildly. I accept that. It's part of putting creative things out into the world -- no matter how much negative reviews might hurt.

And yet . . . sometimes you have to wonder.

Here's one review in Publishers Weekly. It includes this:

"Naivo’s encyclopedic attempt to capture Madagascar’s history is admirable, but the depth of that portrait comes at the expense of the novel’s characters: they are only fully realized in the novel’s thrilling conclusion, and only then as victims of “the foundational animosities” tearing the island apart. Nevertheless, Naivo provides readers with an astonishing amount of information about Madagascar’s culture and past."

Seems legit.

Here's another review from the Historical Novel Society. It includes this:

"The period of Queen Ranavalona’s horrific reign was one of intensity and violence, and yet for a few occasions near the end of the book, much of the historical context is superficial at best."
"Naivo captures a profound relationship between two people and how vastly our lives and experiences change on our various paths, while also illuminating the Malagasy experience."

Also seems legit.

*record scratch*

Wait. Wait a sec. So, on the one hand, the characters are sacrificed at the expense of the historical context, and on the other, the historical context suffers from the relationship between the characters?

Friends, I have translated a paradox. It seems congratulations are in order. :-P

Hey, at least people are talking about it.

Book 11: In Sickness and In Health

The End of My Career, by Martha Grover
Perfect Day Publishing, 2016

The New Deal (of my books): I'm reading books from my to-read shelf, because darn it, they need to be read. Afterward, I'll write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It is keeping me accountable, and will continue to do so.

Page 58 says this:

6. LINK

I ask my father to read an article about male entitlement and emotional labor.

"Can you just tell me what it says?" he says.

That's it.

Pow.

 

"Couches" is an essay about Grover's, as she calls it, "year of suspenseful illness, while I waited to see if the drug worked, while I got slightly sicker and sicker." Several friends gave her keys to their apartments so she could have several couches in several neighborhoods available for her to crash on as her body gave out at various intervals each day. She is "exhausted and dehydrated from bouts of diarrhea from the experimental drug that I injected each morning and night." And yet. The essay closes with this:

"I enjoyed it. That's something I've never told anyone. That year was one of the best years of my life."

What a narrative. What a popping and soothingly different narrative.
 

Next up: Hi, This Is Conchita, by Santiago Roncagliolo, tr. Edith Grossman

Book 10: Oh, the Humanity

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe
Soho Press, 2014

The New Deal (of my books): I'm reading books from my to-read shelf, because darn it, they need to be read. Afterward, I'll write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It is keeping me accountable, and will continue to do so.

I’m not generally a very fun person to watch sitcoms with. If something that resembles real life is being depicted, I have a hard time suspending disbelief. Especially when it comes to dumb characters. I just want to sit them down and shake some good, old fashioned common sense into them. Tell them to talk to each other. Just think about this for a minute.

I’m trying to come up with examples of this from sitcoms I’ve seen, but . . . it’s been a really long time.

Okay, so when I was younger, “I Love Lucy” reruns were on all the time. I could not for the life of me imagine how anyone could be that dense. Why would you perform in an opera if you couldn’t sing? Why wouldn’t you put something down to protect your carpet when cutting out a dress pattern, so you didn’t end up with a dress-pattern-shaped swatch of carpet? (I understand that Lucille Ball was a phenomenal comedian. It’s not her. It’s me.)

All this leads me to Ike. Poor, poor Ike.

Ee-kay. Ikechukwu Uzondu, the protagonist of Ndibe’s novel. I just wanted to take him by the shoulders, stare into his eyes, and explain to him how to deal with people. Then I thought, perhaps, that it was just a foreigner’s story, of not knowing how to interact with people in a completely different country, although he’d lived in the US for several years. But no, he has no idea how to be when he returns to Nigeria, either. For a while, I was frustrated.

But there is magic in this book. A bit of confidence here, an action against all odds there, Ike second-guessing his own choices . . . and I understood. I know Ike, I know his dreaming, I know his yearning, I know his feeling stuck. This book is a rare gem, one where I could see the ending coming (well, some of it, anyway), and yet the journey to get there was worth it. This is reality for so many people, coming from a place of nothing, trying to build themselves up, so of course any small mistakes are amplified, and economic factors blow up disproportionately to affect personality traits and expectations of social interactions. This is not a sitcom. Not some ineptitude to laugh at (although there are many humorous parts). But nor is it a sad state of affairs to be pitied. It is just life. In all its messiness and trials and joys.


P.S. Okey Ndibe is a Nigerian-American author. Know his name. Not only to find his books in the bookstore, but also to have someone else to list as a contemporary “African” author besides Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
 

Next up: The End of My Career, by Martha Grover

Depression

Back in May, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression.

I spent a week and a half on my couch. That was all I could do.

I found a therapist. It took all the energy I had over about three days to set up an appointment.

Therapy -- specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT -- is working for me. Working wonders, in fact. Three months later, I started feeling like myself again, like a normal human. Perhaps not fully functional, but appropriately functional.

This isn't just a problem for me. 1 in 7 new moms gets PPD or some other form of postpartum anxiety, and new dads/partners can be affected, too. And contrary to popular belief, PPD can hit anytime in the first two years after your baby is born, not just the first few months. If it hasn't happened to you, you probably know someone who's been affected.

  • Wil Wheaton talks about his depression and anxiety a lot. Start here.
  • Hannah Hart made a video about what depression looks like to her.
  • Rob Loukotka, a friend and kickass artist, has been detailing his struggle with depression and work on Twitter.
  • Fellow dancer and Rochestarian Nicole Peltier has started writing about her own journey to fight the stigma associated with mental illness.
  • Here's PPD 101.

Work has looked really different for me over the past few months. Publicly, not much has actually changed. Sure, my blog went dormant for a little while, but that's happened before. And I was still posting on Facebook sometimes; Twitter, less often, as usual. I was a bit slower to respond to emails, perhaps. (Definitely.) From the inside, though . . . I was in survival mode.

Survival mode means nothing extraneous, nothing that's not absolutely necessary. No blogging. No emails. No pitches. No short stories. No submissions. No taking on new projects. Just pick one thing and make that deadline. (Or don't. Every single one of my deadlines over the summer was adjusted -- generally for several reasons, but my mental health didn't help.)

One thing at a time.

This includes final edits on the most important book I've ever translated.

My expectations for myself had to be radically altered. Expectations of productivity, of the division between work and family and home and personal, have changed drastically. But as I've progressed with my recovery, these altered expectations have actually proved useful. I've learned how to balance the work I want to do with the time I want to spend with my family, so that I don't feel guilty about one while doing the other.

I'm slowly, so slowly, so so slowly, letting go of perfection. This has been the goal for my entire life -- worshiped, idolized, fought and striven for. But practice doesn't make perfect, and perfection is unattainable. We are all human. Me, most of all. Slowly, slowly, self compassion is taking its place. Each day, every one of us does our best. And maybe my best today isn't as good as yesterday's best, or your best. But it's the best we can do. It's the best I can do.

For the past couple of months, I've had these grand plans of how eloquently I would describe living and working with PPD. But it's fracking hard to sit down and type out an announcement to the entire world that you're sick. That something's wrong. That you can't be a diligent worker bee at the moment. It's terrifying to admit that you have depression. I avoided telling people for weeks because of dumb, anxiety-brain reasons. I avoided telling people during the time when I needed the most support. And then it took me even more time to write this for you, my readers, the world, the Internet, to see for the rest of time.

Depression sucks.

But it gets better.

Talking about depression with people means that they talk about it with you. It's been staggering to learn just how many people I know deal with depression or anxiety or both. And it's been equally staggering to realize how many of those people are role models for me, in terms of the work that they produce. So, the realization follows: I can still produce amazing work. I can still be an admirable person. I can still be me.

A friend and colleague of mine has depression, and he's managing it very well. He's explained to me about his "mental colds", those mental health equivalents to getting a cold: you take it easy for a day or few, and you're back to normal in no time. And recognizing that mental colds are a good reason to take it easy can be . . . life-changing.

Depression does suck. But it really really does get better.

In the early stages of therapy -- i.e. once I could actually work again -- I got edits back on a comic book that I'd translated and delivered just as I was sliding into full-on severe PPD, maybe a day or two before I realized I needed help. I appreciate how good of a relationship I have with that editor, because they made only a passing comment on just how many changes they had to make. There were a lot of changes. The translation was awful. Forced, hackneyed, French sentence structures retained in English, several blatant (and easy to spot) mistranslations. Pretty close to the worst thing I've ever produced, very probably the worst thing I've ever delivered to a client.

The most recent graphic novel I did for them earned a separate email of compliments from the head editor. I've still got it.

Looking for help? Try these resources:

Week (or rather, Book) 9: Music and Literature

No, not the magazine, but:

A Greater Music, by Bae Suah
Translated by Deborah Smith
Open Letter Books, 2016

First order of business: Rather obviously, 40 Books in 40 Weeks has become an unattainable goal. I developed some health problems over the summer, which absorbed all my energy and time. This will probably also be the subject of a future blog post, however ironic that seems . . . However, I have kept reading books, and I enjoy sharing my reactions with all of you lovely readers. So, here's the new deal (not the New Deal; I don't have that kind of political power):
I'm reading books from my to-read shelf, because darn it, they need to be read. Afterward, I'll write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It is keeping me accountable, and will continue to do so.

This is the first book of Bae Suah's that I've read, and I intend to read all of them.

This is one of those books that you read not for what happens, but how things happen.

This is one of those books you read for how the narrator views the world.

This is a classical music lover's heaven in literary form.

This is a language learner's trials and tribulations in literary form.

This is being in love with the idea of a person.

This is not knowing if drowning is dying.

This is a small dog regulating your emotional state.

This is family being not the most important thing or preconception in your life.

This is such a better blank narrator for a reader to superimpose themselves on than Twilight.

"The sequence of past, present, and that time we call the future, exists in this successive form only as it appears to the eye. Such a sequence has no real existence in our mental world."

This is humanity.

Next up: Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe