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Nuance is the New Black

I have wanted for a while now to think — and to think-write — through this essay I found the other day (which I confess I went looking for, after feeling just a little frustrated with my ability to convey what I had wanted to convey, to Simone at Todo Modo, about this whole kerfuffle with Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, Janice Deul, and the translation of Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”)...  I have wanted to write through it because it seems to line up and name so many of the pieces that matter, in this particular storm of a teacup.  Then too, for some ways in which it resonates particularly hard these days, as I’m reading Nesrine Malik’s We Need New Stories.

The essay is by Haidee Kotze, a professor of translation studies at Utrecht University.  So already, you could say perhaps, that this is someone whose interest in translation is not related to being a translator (or, if she is a translator also, not only based on that), but rather, perhaps, to an involvement with and understanding of translation that is differently invested — and perhaps even broader, deeper, and historically aware...? Perhaps.  I’m not saying that the views (or the pithy soundbites) of a translator who may or may not have lost potential income as a direct result of this debacle are not valid (or even less valid).  But I’m saying that already, we can see that there may be some difference, some difference perhaps to consider, in what such a translator says or would say.  As opposed to what a professor of translation studies says or would say.

Still.  Kotze says a heck of a lot, and I wasn’t sure where to begin, or how to get my thinking-and-writing ball rolling.  Then I had Andrew read the essay, and the first thing he said after, was how much it reminded him (in particular the way in which certain subtleties in this picture seem to be getting distorted or downright ignored...) of the American Dirt controversy from a year or so ago…

And suddenly my ball was off.  I thought, “Exactly.”

So this evening I went rooting around among old emails, until I found what I was looking for — an email from last February to a friend, about American Dirt and about cultural appropriation, and about so much else that, in re-reading today, seems almost uncannily to be talking too, about now.  For instance, this:


I still and absolutely believe that anyone, regardless of who they are and what their background is, should be able to write about anything. But I think that is true along with some other things that are also, equally, true.

For example, that we live in a world where white people have, in general, hugely disproportionate access and privileges when it comes to being able to write about whatever they like (and get paid/recognized/sustained/allowed/enabled to do so), and when it comes to the ways in which they are (often automatically) accepted and acknowledged and respected for what they have written (whether that acceptance is in terms of cash advances, lower standards for quality and research, bigger / more immediate / more ready platforms, whatever).

All of that is true too.


I linger especially, on that bit about
the ways in which white people are (often automatically) accepted and acknowledged and respected for what they have written — including in terms of lower standards and more immediate / more ready platforms, whatever...

I think about that, and I think of what Kotze points out—that Rijneveld does not have experience as a translator, does not have (by their own admission) proficiency in the source language, and does not have experience with the genre of spoken-word poetry.  And yet, the publisher nevertheless describes Rijneveld as the “dream translator” of Gorman.  As Deul points out (in the translation of her opinion piece, also on Kotze’s blog):

They are white, non-binary, have no experience in this area, but yet are, according to Meulenhoff, the ‘dream translator’?

A similar vote of confidence is not often afforded to people of colour.  Quite the contrary.  Whether in fashion, art, business, politics or literature, the merits and qualities of black people are only sporadically valued — if they are noticed, at all.  Something that applies even more so to black women, who are systematically marginalised.

*

I go back and read some more of my email:


I feel like all I have to do is think about how many white people have written about the experiences of minorities, and been lauded for it (often absolutely justifiably so, but not always...), and then try to think of how many novels I’ve read or heard about by a person of color that are not exclusively or mostly about people of color. Toni Morrison talked about this. Leila Slimani talks about this. (And of course, it happens with the men–women thing too, which I think Ben Lerner himself pointed out... When a man writes a good book that happens to be about a family or even a friendship between two men, it’s the “great American novel” or anyway a book for “everyone.” But when a woman writes a good book that happens to be about a family, it’s almost always dubbed a “woman’s novel.”) And it happens outside of the literary world too. Bobby Flay gets to be a celebrity chef expert on Mexican cuisine, but I can’t imagine a Mexican woman celebrity chef being lauded for her expertise in say, French cuisine.


And then I read that line of Deul’s again:

A similar vote of confidence is not often afforded to people of colour.

*

But there is even more that seems, as Andrew said, to pull these two controversies together.  I go back to the Kotze piece:

Many responses, in the Dutch and international news media and on Twitter, however, immediately fixated on a particular interpretation of the identity argument, reflecting at best a complete disregard of context, and at worst a wilful misreading of the arguments made by Deul.  These contributions interpret Deul as arguing something like “only black translators can or may translate black authors” — a point she never makes.  The two dimensions of the identity angle (the ‘may’ [i.e. permission] and ‘can’ [i.e. ability] arguments, as I will call them) are worth differentiating.

As a typical example of the ‘may’ dimension of this argument, Kotze points to a piece by Luc van Doorslaer, another professor of translation studies, writing in the Belgian paper De Standaard:

Van Doorslaer characterises Deul’s points as the “dictatorship of identity thinking” [and] sets up a straw-man argument that has little connection with Deul’s original points.  He claims that the “disturbing march of identity thinking” is a creative dead-end, leading to a situation in which, for example, white people will not be ‘allowed’ to write about apartheid; black people will be ‘required’ to write only about ‘black experience’ — and only black translators will be ‘allowed’ to translate black authors.

All of this talk of how everyone should be ‘allowed’ to do everything, and of how, if some people are not ‘allowed’ to write about some things, that’s a creative dead-end...  I know this kind of talk.  It’s the same kind of talk that Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda set about unpacking in their introduction to The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind:

[To] say, as a white writer, that I have a right to write about whoever I want, including writing from the point of view of characters of color—that I have a right of access and that my creativity and artistry is harmed if I am told I cannot do so—is to make a mistake.  It is to begin the conversation in the wrong place.  It is the wrong place because, for one, it mistakes critical response for prohibition...

This idea of creativity and artistry — both in a lower-case, personal sense of someone’s individual creativity and artistry and in the more abstract and lofty, upper-case sense of Creativity and Artistry — as being rarefied, fragile and ephemeral things that are oh-so-very-vulnerable to harm from these terrible, malignant attacks of being told I cannot do something...  This is a very powerful setup (see references below to all the folks in their ivory towers lamenting the “end of translation,” see Jhumpa Lahiri being breathtakingly simplistic about what translation at heart really is, etc.).  But still, a setup.  Or anyway, as Rankine and Loffreda put it later in their introductory essay, a trick of repositioning, a kind of deflection:

This repositioning appears to cleanse whiteness of its power, of its aggression—for who can’t hear the aggression in “I have a right of access to whomever I wish?”—and says of whiteness instead “I have been unfairly characterized and misunderstood, I have been assassinated by someone whose motivations are political and who is thus disqualified from the human endeavor that is art making.”

Elsewhere in the essay, there is this:

Are we saying Asian writers can’t write Latino characters?  That white writers can’t write black characters?  That no one can write from a different racial other’s point of view?  We’re saying we’d like to change the terms of that conversation, to think about creativity and the imagination without employing the language of rights and the sometimes concealing terms of craft.

That line about changing the terms of that conversation, and particularly that second part of the “without”...  Meaning, to think about creativity and the imagination without employing [...] the sometimes concealing terms of craft...  That reminds me again, of so many of the conversations around American Dirt.  The way so many white people seemed to want to cling to one mode, and almost only that one mode, of critiquing the book, and the rightness/wrongness of its having been showered with money and movie deals, and with gusts of rapturous and demented praise that it got.  This mode was rooted firmly in discussions of how good bad the writing was.  The flat characters, the clunky metaphors, the sloppy language...  All that.  As if that was the only way in which they could and would stand in the space of critical response.  Of course, I have some ideas about why this is.  Many white people still believe that the literary world is a mostly, or at least a meaningfully meritocratic world.  And so the most important way in which American Dirt slipped through some kind of crack in the system and was therefore of questionable legitimacy, had to do with the quality of the writing.

(Meanwhile writers of color from Rankine and Roxane Gay to Myriam Gurba and Jesmyn Ward are going, “Yes, of course.  Because otherwise, you know, generally, it’s all about merit.  Mm-hmm.”)

*

Back in Kotze’s essay, she goes on to note how this line of argumentation is evident across social media and in the comments sections of newspapers [all of which are] framing the debate in terms of “cancel culture” and “reverse racism” (I know, I know.  Don’t let me get started...).

But she also looks at the ‘can’ aspect of the blowback, noting the absurdly histrionic claims and clickbait headlines of “the end of translation” [and/or how this] means no one can translate anyone (because no one has the same identity).  As the prime example of these histrionic ‘can’ reductions, she mentions the very lines that Simone brought up the other day (and which I allude to, maybe a little sarcastically, above).  It’s the quip from Víctor Obiols, the Catalan translator who was selected for Gorman and then (perhaps because of the Rijneveld/Meulenhoff blowout), de-selected:

“But if I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, black, an American of the 21st century, neither can I translate Homer because I am not a Greek of the eighth century BC.  Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.”

As Kotze says, all of this — either kind of argument — misses the point entirely.  The question raised by Deul is not principally about who ‘may’ (who has permission) or even ‘can’ (is able to) write or translate particular experiences.  Instead:

The question is who is, institutionally, given the space to articulate this experience, to participate, to be visible.  Who gets to have a seat at the table? A place on the podium? A prize? An interview or column in the newspaper? The exclusions, historically and contemporary, along race and gender lines, among others, are clear.

It’s only now, in re-reading as I pull it in to sit here, that I notice she says write or translate particular experiences.  Write or translate.  She too is talking, pretty explicitly, about writing.  Of course she is.

I think of that email of mine again.  I go back to read the rest of it:


We’re not even halfway to that point. We’re not even on that road. Cummins is quoted as having done the homework, etc. Great! Good for her! But she’s a white woman who swooped in and did this homework, to tell this story for (and yes, in support of) the people she’s “done the homework” on. How many Mexicans, who also do the homework (and are the homework), and write just as well as she does (or better) get heard and published and read and marketed and picked up by Oprah, etc.?

So I think all of that is true too. And I think it’s important to hold all that up along with all the other stuff that’s maybe easier to think and talk about (like whether she did her homework, or whether she uses good metaphors). More important, actually, given the real and huge imbalances and inequalities that exist when it comes to power, representation, and voice in the literary world.


(The exclusions, historically and contemporary, along race and gender lines, among others, are clear.)

I have trouble believing I wrote that email all of a year ago.  Especially when most of the year in question is 2020.  Is that really when American Dirt came out?  Last year?  In 2020?  And so I check its Wikipedia page.  Along the way I come across a quote from Oprah, in which she defended her decision to endorse the book, despite all the criticisms (and despite an open letter from a hundred and forty-two writers — including Carolyn Forché, Ada Limón, Valeria Luiselli, John Murillo, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Dina Nayeri and Rebecca Solnit — asking her to reconsider):

Winfrey took a stand amidst the controversy and carried on with her show by posting two one-hour Apple TV plus episodes that focused on American Dirt.  She [...] decided, “If one author, one artist is silenced, we’re all in danger of the same.  I believe that we can do this without having to cancel, to dismiss or to silence anyone.”

And so first of all, of course, there’s the magical thinking that hits you, with that second line.  I believe that we can do this [what is “this,” anyway?] without having to cancel, to dismiss or to silence anyone.

The idea that if a book is not in Oprah’s Book Club, then it has been cancelled, dismissed, or silenced.  The idea of that.

I think of Kotze, carefully differentiating between who may and who can write or translate particular experiences.  She may as well have added a third kind of specificity: who may/can have their book bestowed with the kind of publicity that results in more sales than winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But then too, there’s the other bit of Oprah’s proclamation.  If one author, one artist is silenced, we’re all in danger of the same.  I said already didn’t I?—that much of all this has been resonating pretty ringingly for me, with what I’m reading these days in Nesrine Malik’s We Need New Stories.  And so that line of Oprah’s reminds me of something in Malik’s chapter on “The Myth of a Free Speech Crisis,” about the logical fallacy that lies at the heart of these “slippery slope” and “where do you draw the line” arguments, whenever they are used in the service of “defending” the right to freedom of speech:

[The slippery slope argument] goes something like this: if you enable censorship or the silencing of views you do not like, that exposes the views you do like to censorship as well.  You will be next. [...] It is a compelling argument that has achieved almost canonical status.  It just sounds like it makes sense.

Malik admits that it’s also a pretty flattering conviction.  To believe in defending views with which you disagree implies a moral robustness and intellectual largesse.  But the argument is based on a blissfully false equivalence, or (as Malik puts it later), a kind of frequency scrambling.  Because this isn’t about defending a view you disagree with.  Nobody is saying Jeanine Cummins’s book should have been banned, for heaven’s sake.  No one is saying, either, that Marieke Lucas Rijneveld shouldn’t be allowed to translate Amanda Gorman.  But some of us are asking, absolutely understandably, why Cummins gets a seven-figure advance for writing that particular book.  And why Rijneveld gets to be called a “dream” choice for translating that particular poem.

(And again, for the love of Pete: not getting to be on Oprah’s Book Club is not quite the same as being silenced.  Good grief.)

Alternatively, as Malik puts it: Where do you draw the line? Well, where myriad other lines are drawn all the time as part of society’s customary and legal boundaries.

*

(This post is getting long enough, so I won’t get into this tangent, but around here is where I think of that tweet — the one about “Thought-Terminating Clichés”...  Where do you draw the line indeed.)

*

Around here is also where I remember another problem, from when I first read that ridiculous quote from Obiols.  (Ridiculous yes, but also, how frustrating in its smug and convenient pithiness! Because you just know that shit is going to get sucked up and parroted around by every wide-eyed-and-well-meaning-but-nevertheless-ethnocentric white person that reads it...) Another way in which that quote of his is hugely problematic, and a way that Kotze does not quite get to (though she does mention ethnocentrism early on...).

It has to do with what a person of color suddenly understands, clear as day dawning to a chorus of blonde and blue-eyed cherubic angels, when they hear someone suggest, as if it were not only a truth but an obvious truth, that for a white man living in Western Europe today, the cultural and literary distance, or distance anyway in terms of otherness, between himself and Homer (so, a writer of the foundational texts upon which rests pretty much the entire literary culture in which that man lives, writes, and breathes), or between himself and Shakespeare (ditto), is the same as the cultural and literary distance / otherness between himself and Amanda Gorman (so, a young, Black, female, spoken-word poet living and writing in the context of the African American experience as it is evolving right now before our very eyes).

How to explain what I understand when I hear you say that?

How to point to the air we’re breathing?  Both of us?

I think of a line from “Brown on the Outside” — an essay by Mariya Karimjee in Can We All Be Feminists? — about that moment that comes sometimes, when you’re talking to white people:

One moment, it’s a normal conversation, and [the] next, the person we’re with has revealed the limits of their understanding.

I think too, of a story Eula Biss tells in Notes from No Man’s Land, about Black. White., a reality television show produced by R.J. Cutler and Ice Cube, an experiment that put two families, one white and one black, in a house together and used Hollywood makeup to switch their races:

At the beginning of the six-episode series Black. White., the white family needs coaching from the black family in order to learn how to pass as black.  But the black family, as they explain after an uncomfortable silence, already knows how to act white, of course, because that is the dominant culture within which they have to live their daily lives.  Knowing how to act white is a survival skill for the black family.  The white family, on the other hand, struggles with acting black, frequently committing tone-deaf errors and ultimately not quite pulling it off.

I first read this book back in 2019.  But then I read it over again, a few months ago.  That was when I underlined this part:

But the black family, as they explain after an uncomfortable silence, already knows how to act white.

On the next page, I had underlined this too:

What exactly it means to be white seems to elude no one as fully as it eludes those of us who are white.

*

Finally, this: In re-reading Kotze one last time, I realize there’s at least one thing she doesn’t get to — perhaps because she’s not familiar with the world of slam and spoken-word poetry.

(And please understand: to say that someone is unfamiliar with the world of slam and spoken-word poetry includes in its meaning much that is not, and cannot be included in saying, for example, that someone is unfamiliar with the world of lyric poetry, or epic poetry, or even — perhaps especially — conceptual and experimental poetry.)

It’s difficult to articulate — this thing Kotze does not get to.  It has to do with the fact that if there has been in recent times, any kind of exception to the mainly white room of literary institutions and literary production in the Western context, that exception has lived in the world of slam and spoken-word poetry (though as you’ll see if you read that article I just linked to, many believe that even that world no longer represents a significant structural exception to the mainly white room).

It has to do with something the poet Jericho Brown says in another part of that same book I mentioned way back at the beginning — The Racial Imaginary:

I’m sorry, but seeing the poem as artifact without seeing the history and culture embedded in the poet suggests we read without any history at all.  This may be a convenient way of reading for those who have a history they can’t face.

And it has to do too — like an echo or a refrain or a leitmotif — with something I was trying to point at a few months ago, in the way the Times Literary Supplement (and others) chose to see and render the story of what happened with and around Michael Dickman’s poem in Poetry Magazine.  I say “trying” because there too, it was a little hazy and hard to point to (especially in all the ways that white culture requires shit to be pointed to...).

But even if we can’t always or even usually point to it, this is a thing that people of color know absolutely — even if sometimes subliminally — because we have been seeing, hearing, and breathing this knowledge, as a lived reality, for a very long and consistent kind of time.  And so, when you say that we are overreacting, or that we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, slipping down that slippery slope, whatever.  When you complain that we are stooping to identity politics and identity thinking, to reverse racism and divisiveness.  When you roll your eyes about cancel culture and political correctness...  Folks.  We know you’re gaslighting us.

We know, even if you don’t.

*

And post-finally, this: In re-reading that email of mine one last time tonight, I remember how when I was writing it, I had several other points to make, but I held back on them, because I worried at the time that it might be “too much” for my friend, to point out all the problems I saw with the American Dirt picture...

I think about that now.

How I was right, to worry.


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[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[giovedì 20 maggio 2021 ore 21:05:30] []