Tuesday, August 18, 2020

WITMonth Day 18 | New Daughters of Africa and WITMonth | Thoughts

I've been working my way through the absolutely phenomenal New Daughters of Africa for the past several months now. I'm 2/3 of the way through, reading in bursts and am repeatedly in awe of everything the book does. Truly. But I'm also frequently reminded of the one thing the book does fairly poorly: women in translation.

This brilliant, inclusive, expansive, international, and wholly diverse collection does so much so well, and yet women writers in translation are almost entirely invisible from the account. To the best of my assessment, there are exactly 7 women writers in translation featured in the collection (one of whom is credited with her co-author, but the translator is oddly ignored). By my count, there are an additional 4 writers who also write/publish in other languages with no translator credit for the included pieces. This is a grand total of 11 writers out of 211 authors (that I counted). In other words: 5%.

I don't want to fault Margaret Busby for mostly focusing on British authors or somehow fault English-language writers for getting a stage. Black women writers are sidelined enough without that and it is absolutely not my intention to suggest that the featured writers don't deserve their spotlight. Once again, I want to emphasize how astoundingly wonderful this collection is - after all, not everything has to be all WIT all the time for it to be of value, even during WITMonth! And there is such value in Busby's collection.

Orange flags represent the seven writers in translation, the blue flags the four additional women writers known to write in languages other than English.

And yet it's a perfect reflection of so much of what I've been talking about here lately. New Daughters of Africa is such a good collection of African and African-descended women writers from across the continent that its Anglo-centrism is baffling. The lack of Afro-Brazilian voices was something that struck me while reading, during one of the rare Afro-Caribbean stories. Afro-Latinx writers generally felt missing from the book in a very real way, not just as an abstract meta-assessment; I literally found myself flipping through to see if the writers happened to be clumped elsewhere in the book (alas, no). Perhaps it's explicitly because New Daughters of Africa does such a good job in offering so many different voices, stories, perspectives, and narratives that it becomes all the more obvious which are missing or underrepresented.

Then there's the last gap, which is almost invisible and which I'm somewhat hesitant to raise. Despite featuring many writers still working out of the African continent, there is not a single work or writer featured or mentioned as writing in a non-colonial language (and again, almost all are specifically English-language writers). Nothing from Igbo, Amharic, Malagasy, Swahili, honestly this list can go on and on with languages of varying literary traditions and scope, where none were even mentioned (to the best of my reading, at least). To reiterate what I wrote the other day: Authors are at liberty to write in whatever language they choose, but it does have an impact on the way stories are conveyed. And as readers, constantly being exposed to stories that have been written with a very specific frame or audience in mind also shapes our perceptions. Writing in other languages and translations have value for all sorts of reasons. For good and for bad, New Daughters of Africa highlights so much of what I've been writing about this past week: It's not only the power dynamics between different languages, but regional/cultural publishing disparities and even the tremendous difficulty in simply finding books by women writers in translation, when even a wonderful resource such as this can't quite bridge the gap. 

I'm loving New Daughters of Africa. I wholeheartedly recommend it to every single WITMonth reader who is looking for something vast and extraordinary to read, even if only 5% of the book is in translation. The book - like Indigenous Literatures of Micronesia - doesn't have to be a full work of/by women in translation in order to represent everything the project stands for. But I also think it's the perfect encapsulation of how women in translation is not a struggle that is separate from other literary movements or efforts. Black women writers in translation deserve more and while I would absolutely love to see a Daughters of Africa in Translation collection someday to balance this, I would have much rather just seen the original collection reflecting writing by all of Africa's daughters, not just those writing in English. 

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