A Conversation with Todd Fredson

Dexter L. Booth

Dexter L. Booth: Your first book, The Crucifix-Blocks came out in 2012. Since then I know you’ve been involved in a lot of translation work leading up to Josué Guébo’s My country, tonight. Why is translation important right now, in this moment? In particular, why do you think translations from the Ivory Coast are important?

Todd Fredson: In the US, right now, staying open to a range of values and cultural practices seems pretty important, especially as news feeds seem to increasingly isolate us into feedback loops that affirm what we think we know. Translation, for readers looking to engage with the dynamics of the unfamiliar, anyway, facilitates these encounters with Difference.

And in specific terms, there are also some economic and political issues that Americans are dealing with that I think many other countries, former colonies like the Ivory Coast, have been dealing with for a while. So hearing these experiences and points of view might be illuminating. It seems like there’s a lot of discontent in the US about the neoliberal policies that, for a short time, buoyed middle class security, and that made for cost-friendly consumer habits. But now more American workers are included in the expanding pool of surplus bodies that are expected to produce things cheaply while wealth accrues elsewhere. And inexpensive goods don’t really help take care of precariousness — healthcare, child care, affordable housing, debt assumed for education …

The ethnic and state violence of the last twenty-five years in the Ivory Coast is largely borne out of the ambitions of investor interests, of neoliberal economic policies enforced by G7/8 countries such as the US. The forced privatizations (of land, of universities) and the ending of government subsidies as a part of loan conditions set by G7/8 proxies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, created competition for dwindling resources in the country, and violence escalated. IMF riots, economist Joseph Stiglitz called them, as they occurred regularly in former colonies.

My country, tonight, and a lot of other literature from the Ivory Coast, is reckoning with the ethnic and state violence that’s happened in the country over this period. In this book Guébo situates readers in the violence that followed the 2011 presidential election as the Ivory Coast erupted into what is often called the country’s second civil war. This is an apex moment, as the hand agitating much of that “local” Ivorian violence is exposed. The UN and French military forces intervened, facilitating a transition of power that ended (at least formally) the ascension of nativist ideologies that threatened foreign investors’ interests. Guébo insists on registering the role of the UN as a proxy for these investor nations.

By now this neoliberal model — economic globalization as capitalist exploitation — is familiar and has become increasingly vilified. The US, particularly in the late 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, was the beneficiary of cheap labor and unregulated access to resources (we can get a three-pack of cotton socks at Walmart for 389 pennies!), but many American workers now experience the effects of unreliable wage employment alongside a generation of suppressed wages (though still nothing like the suppression their counterparts in other parts of the world experience). It doesn’t seem like US workers are too willing to become immigrants, to uproot and search the world for jobs. Or maybe it’s the recognition that there is nowhere to go, no job in some “elsewhere” that will improve the spread — am I going to cover the cost of living for my family here in the US by sending money back from … where? Where can I go? Do I send my family somewhere with a lower cost of living while I work from the states? As neoliberal policies come home to roost, we are behind much of the rest of the world in adapting. We might look at the contest that Guébo lays out in My country, tonight as a preview or a warning, or an example of ungovernability.

DLB: Do you see any similarities between our own 2016 election and the 2010 Ivory Coast election?

TF: Mostly just that the person most intimately connected to international financing or financiers won. As with Macron in France.

DLB: What do you think Guébo’s work in particular brings to American readers? How would you compare Guébo’s work to works being written here in the US?

TF: Well, Guébo has an absurdist’s humor, a dark humor. And also a light touch, which steers the work away from being exclusively satirical, I think, though he can be very biting. His literary inheritance includes an oral tradition, and I think a lot of his page presence comes from that inheritance — I mean that there is an adaptability, a whimsy, as his book-length serial poems blossom into sequence. They seem to evolve while we are reading them. I often have that sense when I am in a Terrance Hayes poem. But Guébo’s destinations are less deterministic, less fully punctuated — Hayes is typically writing in discreet poetic units, even if the relationship between the poems finally offers another way of seeing each poem. Guébo’s poetry is less compressed, less looking for a mark — they are, literally, less punctuated. Again, I think it’s the West African oral tradition that makes his mark on the page a light one. He keeps silence on display. Bhanu Kapil’s work often does something like this — though their poetic textures are quite different. She writes toward absence, out of absence, into absence, to make space, to summon. In another way — and going back a generation — I’m also reminded of Russell Edson, how he creates these minimalist tableaus, micro-dramas that are, also, somehow remarkably expansive, and that seem to rise according to some logic internal to the poetic landscape. Guébo regularly drops into surrealist reveries and, as he does so, allegorical dramas spring up that, tonally, texturally, spatially, feel akin to Edson’s.

DLB: I actually was reminded quite a lot of Edson while reading My country tonight, not only because of the surrealist undertones, but because of the way he uses the body as a way to make political commentary. It’s really powerful to watch how he adjusts the presentation of the body across what essentially feels like a book-length poem. There’s a large history of surrealism in African poetry, correct? How deeply is that tied to the political, and if you had to place Guébo’s work in within a specific movement or school or poetic thought, how would you define it?

TF: Yes, especially in French-speaking African poetry — French surrealism directly intersected with the Négritude movement. French surrealists like Eluard, Aragon, Breton — these guys demanded literary freedoms, but also defended social and political freedoms, literally fighting the encroachment of fascism on the ground during WWI and II. It makes sense that their work would resonate with the anti-colonial and politically-focused efforts of the Négritude movement — in terms of Négritude poets, Aimé Césaire’s poetry is most stylistically akin to the surrealist’s. Breton writes about encountering Césaire’s work while in exile on Martinique and being blown away. Césaire is Guébo’s most singular poetic influence — and I think he’s got a lot of company in that; Césaire is an adopted African for francophone African poets. Césaire is much more granular and syntactically disruptive than Guébo is — Césaire really roots around in the language, making it stick in the mouth. He dislodges irreproducible images, word combinations. He is more actively engaged in infiltrating the French language than is Guébo. But Guébo plays with the language, making homonymic associations, multiple entendres, and neologisms. He is certainly working to create and catalog poetic images in French that would not be there in “continental” French, images that register an African presence, to your point about how he uses the body. Guébo’s political engagement and pan-African appeals re-issue those Négritude era aims for literature.

I mentioned that Guébo is invested in an oral tradition. He, in fact, followed a generation that was very dedicated to decolonizing literary forms, which, as written expressions, mostly followed European conventions. For francophone African artists, this project was largely centered in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast’s largest city, where Guébo was in a lycée and then the main university. It was a really vibrant literary scene and moment. Oral forms were being expanded and experimented with all around him. Work was being produced for local markets, let’s say, rather than with an interest in making something that would be legible to non-African audiences and potential publishers. Guébo’s political and social engagement certainly extends from this literary tradition as well.

DLB: Considering what’s happening in the U.S., how does you being white contribute to this book? With events like what happened in Charlottesville, the nation seems to be fracturing. On one hand, there are various equality groups such as Black Lives Matters and (to a more questionable extent) Antifa, but there also seems to be a resurgence of white supremacist ideals and hate groups such as the KKK and Neo-Nazis. Some white people seem to be worried that minorities are taking their jobs, their place in American society, their homes. Racial tensions in America aren’t a new thing but seem particularly loud at the moment.

In contrast, there seem to be a plethora of minority voices in the poetry world at a time where people of color are demanding to be heard. As a white male, and an ally in the fight for minority rights, what does it mean to you that you’ve translated a book by an African poet? What are the challenges of being a white American poet translating an African poet? What does it mean that you’re doing it right now?

TF: Yes. Awesome. So, for me, in terms of timing, it has been a bit coincidental — as in, I’m glad these translations are coming into the world right now, but much of the work I’ve done to feel able to responsibly produce the translations, my personal work in understanding (maybe) and accounting for (maybe) my whiteness, and my subject position, more generally, happened slowly (and continues to happen), so that as the work has become visible (as I gave myself permission to make the translations, and the translations found interested publishers) there was an intersection with this moment you describe, this moment of increased visibility (maybe) around racial tension in the US.

The moment has since added urgency to the work for me, but for many years, these questions about accountability paralyzed me — in my own writing, I mean, which was also a matter of translation. As a white American, a white male American, how could I write about living in a village in West Africa, in the Ivory Coast, about how it felt to be there as the social fabric unraveled, as ethnic violence flared? Having had that experience, how could I think of anything else? But what did I know, really? How could I talk about that without being another voice of Empire claiming the space to speak, without occupying a space where an African voice might more appropriately be situated? Was this just my need, and was I just, by the reflex instilled in my subject position, expecting that other people should care about what I thought was important and would hear me out? Would I be betraying trust — the trust of friends in the village where I lived for two years, for instance? Everyone there, in the smallest villages, knows that they should ask for money whenever a toubabou takes their picture. Because that foreigner will profit off of those villagers’ “rustic” poverty, gaining in cultural capital or actual capital or both. But my memories were not flat, dimensionless portraits. I wasn’t trying to portray a Westerner-achieves-epiphany story. I want to talk about intimacy, about the risks … I thought like this constantly. I still do. In trying to come to terms (quite literally) with the ethics of my actions (or of my confusing embodiment, frankly), I ended up with a collection of poems that is a record of those interrogations. As I came to terms, I also started translating.

Mostly, in that time (I left the Ivory Coast in 2002 and returned in 2015), there wasn’t really anyone doing the work that I saw there for me to do. So it seemed like, even if I’m not — like, optically, at the very least — the most ideal person for the job, I happen to have ended up in a position to do the work. And I feel like its there to do, so worrying seems, finally, indulgent.

Which, I remind myself, is still not to say that I know anything. As I translate I am more directly taking over an African’s voice. Translating, generally, is inexcusable like that. But the intimacy of the encounter, if it’s tended to, is also part of what makes translation so beautiful and necessary.

John Keene has been trying, whenever he can find a soapbox, as he says, to make a couple of points about translation. One is how few translations the US publishing industry puts out — three percent of total publications each year. The second point is about how little of that publication sliver comes from non-European countries. Sub-Saharan Africa is basically a literary void in this sense. The organization, Three Percent, at the University of Rochester keeps a database tracking where the translations published come from. And in 2016, for instance, seven out of 634 translations published in the US — and this tracks original literary translations (poetry and fiction are the designations), not re-publications of old work or updated translations, though of course the authors are not necessarily contemporary or even living, just as-of-yet unpublished in translation — seven out of 634 translations were works from sub-Saharan Africa, about one percent of three percent. There were six novels, and one collection of poetry, about which we have been talking: My country, tonight.

Keene’s point, too, is that if studies of blackness, of black experience, are limited to English, then it’s a radically incomplete study of blackness. And so what does it mean that I’ve translated a book, a poetry book, by an African into English at this moment in American history?

Well, in the Ivory Coast, which is about the size of New Mexico, there are about sixty ethnic groups and a similar range of languages. And Guébo’s work might begin to bring in some of this diversity for US readers. French, itself, is a second language — maybe second isn’t the right word; French is not Guébo’s preferred language. His preferred language is Dida. I think Guébo’s poetry participates in expanding conceptions of black experience, where studies of the black diaspora are limited to English, as is largely the case in the US. Maybe this translation means something to US readers? To scholars of the black diaspora? I know that it means something to Guébo. Maybe, I hope, it will mean something to English-speaking African readers.

DLB: Wow. I had no idea so few translations (generally speaking and, on a larger scale, from non-European countries) were being published each year. To me, at least, that makes Guébo’s work even more important than when I first read the book. I wonder if race plays a role in this, or if American readers of poetry just have a general lack of interest in translation, which would be sad and, to my mind, shameful. Were racial differences something you thought about or discussed with Guébo?

TF: I recall an exchange in thinking about covers for a second collection of his that I’ve translated, Think of Lampedusa, which came out this September. We talked about differences in the construction of blackness, how the image would be read in an American context differently than in an African context. In that book Guébo is addressing the migration crisis on the Mediterranean, and specifically an event in which 366 Africans died at sea. The proposed cover image was an upper torso and headshot (we didn’t ultimately get permission so I don’t want to describe it too distinctly) of an unclothed black boy. We both liked the image in itself — it’s very powerful — but it felt like it had its own message. Given that this book is predominantly marketed to an American audience, which has a different history through which to read an image of an unclothed black body than an African audience would have, we discussed how the image might evoke a background other than what Guébo works with, which is African history and myths, the ancient and shared trans-Mediterranean space, Europe’s colonial and neocolonial legacies, the local conditions that would send an immigrant across what has become the world’s most dangerous migrant route. Would the decontextualized image of a black body (the image suggests a vulnerable, even haunted body) obscure, in the American setting, the immigrant bodies presently dying at sea, and particularly the immigrant bodies who are not from sub-Saharan African — Syrians, for example?

DLB: I can see the complication here and I’m glad you brought this up. I honestly don’t stop often to consider the cover of a book of translations and how that image signifies differently to me, with my background as a black man, in America, then it would to the original author. I can see how that first cover image idea would prompt a different history linked to the image of the black body here in the states.

TF: In the end, as far as me being white and translating the work of a black author — and I think Guébo would agree — it feels like the bigger challenge is not race but culture. When I was there in the Ivory Coast in the Peace Corps, other volunteers who were black shared experiences of being treated as local (not served when at a table with white volunteers — the assumption being that the black volunteer was a local worker or counterpart, or the proverbial native guide). This was coupled with the experience of having little to nothing in common with the Ivorians these volunteers worked with and lived with, at least initially. They certainly had a different experience than I did because of race, but it wasn’t because skin color gave them a way past cultural difference. Often, because I was living there as the government was taken over by the military, and as ethnic violence escalated toward civil war, and because I have a visceral sense of what that time was like, or because I understand what village lives are like — relying on broken pumps and wells or long walks for water; flashlights, lanterns, and fires instead of electricity; field work — Ivorians who are not already friends will exclaim, “oh, you’re a vrai (real) Ivorian.” And I know that’s merely topical. The point, though, is that it’s not about race so much as it’s about shared cultural memory.

DLB: You mentioned the diversity that francophone African voices could add to the Anglophone black diaspora — you pointed toward additions, differences. Do you see similarities or parallels between social experiences of African-Americans and social experiences for Ivorians or West Africans?

TF: Oh, yes. There are some social disruptions that I think share an origin, in fact. I mean, there is that rich history of transnational affinity and exchange between African and black artists in the US, often through the Caribbean. Jamaican-American Modernist Claude McKay was influential to French and Wolof-speaking Leopold Sedor Senghor. The Harlem Renaissance, as a whole, was a crucial inspiration for Négritude poets. And this black internationalism continues through the civil rights era, which corresponds to the era of national liberation movements around the world (the Ivory Coast proclaimed independence in 1960, for example). In the US Langston Hughes edited the anthology Poems from Black Africa in 1963. Robert Hayden was the Poet Laureate of Senegal in 1966. South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile (rapper Earl Sweatshirt’s father!) exiled in New York after his resistance to Apartheid endangered him. And Gwendolyn Brooks wrote the introduction to his book My Name is Afrika in 1971. The Last Poets, the group of spoken word and performance poets who formed in Harlem took their name from one of his poems — and they were influential to the rise of hip hop. We could look at Etheridge Knight’s “Poem for 3rd World Brothers” in Belly Song in 1973. And to the extent that literary figures in the Black Arts Movement were politically engaged in black nationalist movements, it’s worth remembering the refuge that members of the Black Panthers sought in Africa. Black intellectual, political, and artistic relationships boomed between Africa and the US. But, then, the eighties. Reaganomics, trickle-down economic segregation, decimation of black sociality.

DLB: A study done by Gallup at the start of the 90’s concluded that most black people in the 80’s didn’t experience much, if any, discrimination in the workplace or in schools, but how can that be true when we know that black people were, on average, three years behind whites in terms of reading and math skills in schools, and about two years behind in writing skills, to say nothing of black representation in the arts? Remember when Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 (and again in 1988, I believe)? Part of his platform was that he wanted to give reparations to black people, give more funding to public schools, and make sure that low-income kids had access to a free community college education. He lost, of course, but he did get a fourth of the votes. I bring this up because I think blacks are still dealing with the effects of Reagan’s imaginary “welfare queen,” who encouraged resentment against blacks because she abused the welfare system, which as supposedly meant to aid the black community, but which, it turns out, actually did more good for whites. Education is still a huge problem in low-income black communities today. I often wonder how much some things have really changed.

Arthur McDuffie was beaten to death with flashlights, while in handcuffs, by police in 1980, and despite the testimony of the coroner and the witnesses the officers were still acquitted. That resulting riot in Liberty City doesn’t feel too different from what we saw during and after Ferguson. It wasn’t then and isn’t now just the criminalization of black lives, but the blatant disregard for them. We’ve been fighting the same battle against corrupt police practices and shoddy racial politics for almost 40 years. I suppose I’m getting away from the topic of poetry a bit here, though …

TF: Yeah, but this suppression of resources, of voices, certainly has its equivalence in terms of poetry or literature. As Howard Ramsby has it, there is a period of silence associated with black poetry throughout the eighties (in literary terms, anyway — hip hop certainly emerged out of that attempted silencing). Ramsby speculates that the Black Arts era buckled in 1976, with the closing of Black World magazine. It’s no surprise that the line of black transnational affiliations gets severed here. Boubacar Boris Diop (of the seven books translated into English last year, two were his) points to Wole Soyinka’s 1986 Nobel Prize as the end of a period of inclusion and recognition for African literature in regards to the West.

Reagan’s laissez-faire economic liberalism is implemented domestically, and it’s also implemented internationally — the inception of the neoliberal policies I started out by talking about.

I mentioned that the violence of the last twenty-five years in the Ivory Coast is largely borne out of the ambitions of neoliberal economic policies enforced by the G7/8. I mentioned the forced privatizations as a part the IMF’s and the World Bank’s loan conditions. These loans were attached to Structural Adjustment Programs. And “structural adjustment” meant torquing these countries into capitalist formations, disallowing various socialist structures that were perhaps more akin to existing social structures. In My country, tonight, Guébo lists the martyred African leaders, those who intended to nationalize resources and were assassinated by or with the aid of European and American secret services.

This is where the Western powers regain control of the global economy, after having had to adjust, modestly, to the inclusion of former colonies on those countries’ own terms in the 1960s and 1970s. The new colonization is out of view but imbricated in ethnic formations and nation-state models that are forced into competition rather than cooperation — it’s a blueprint for black-on-black violence.

It seems to me like the architecture of black transnationalism got simultaneously dismantled from the African side and the US side. It’s not a shared black experience, exactly, but the consequences of what I would like to call, optimistically, this interim, are similar for many black American and many African communities. Silenced, impoverished, policed, disenfranchised. In the Ivory Coast, there is, interestingly, a musical style that is compared to hip hop in its emergence from the youth culture that was protesting the abuses of the government in the 1990s (as the state imposed the required Structural Adjustment Program austerities), and also in the way that the music adopts the vernacular of the streets. The music is called Zouglou, and it became internationally popular. The music gave rise to a dance move called the mapouka, which, in the US, became known as twerking.

DLB: I didn’t know that’s where twerking originated. It’s so easy to lose sight of how influences fly back and forth between cultures, particularly when language is involved, and yes, I’d argue that twerking, a method of dancing, is in fact a language of sorts. You talk about the proliferation of languages in the post-colonial setting in the introduction to My country, tonight. You talk about Ivorian French, and a kind of slang called nouchi. How did this, what you call a “bouquet of languages,” affect your translation process?

TF: The French that I learned, I learned in the Ivory Coast. So I am more idiomatically grounded in Ivorian French than in “continental” French. That said, when I’m in a market or on some street at a taxi or bus exchange, and people are speaking to one another in nouchi, which is a mix of local and imported languages, including French, I’m lost. This isn’t used much in a literary context. Though a book I’ve just finished translating, a ethnic myth taken out of its local language, Bété, and put into French (and now into English) is so full of Bété cosmology and terms that I spent a few years with the author just figuring out the allusions and a glossary of terms.

DLB: Much is lost in translation between French and English. What was your process? How did you decide what to let go of?

TF: I translate and read, translate and read, translate and read. And, as I have been translating contemporary poets, I periodically send emails with lots of questions, or, when I have been in the Ivory Coast, I’d meet for a drink or ice cream. I get paraphrases. I get stories. I conduct piece meal interviews. Ultimately, I get a sense of the collection and I try to recreate that in English. I translate and read, translate and read. I trade up in terms of phrases and language choices incrementally until I can finally just read through it uninterrupted, until reading through the translation resembles the experience I had as a reader of the original.

DLB: When they’re done with My country, tonight what other francophone poets should readers dive into?

TF: Well, in terms of contemporary work, there are a few collections from Véronique Tadjo to enjoy — Red Earth, which was translated by Peter Thompson (2006), and The Blind Kingdom, which was translated by Janis Mayes (2009). Both books are beautiful. And as you might have noticed in all of the names that I’ve mentioned throughout, women are underrepresented — in African poetry, and also in translation. But there is this amazing project that Irene D’Almeida did, which involved years of field research. It’s an anthology titled, A Rain of Words: A Bilingual Anthology of Women's Poetry in Francophone Africa (2009). Janis Mayes translated poems for that too. I referred to the Guébo collection, Think of Lampedusa, that just came out. I’d add, too, that there is an issue of FUSION from Prairie Schooner that I curated while I was in the Ivory Coast. It’s like a mini-anthology — fifteen Ivorian poets, each with a poem in translation, across a range of styles and traditions. I’m excited about that, and that’ll be in the world soon.

DLB: I’m excited to check out all of the books you mentioned. Thanks, Todd, for being willing to engage in this conversation.

DLB: Thank you, Dexter, for trusting me with these questions.

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