Black Politics and Identity in Translation
By Jane Bentham, Lucy Clark and Rob Tomlinson
Here are our recommendations for essential and enlightening translated reads by Black authors this Black History Month.
I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé, translated from French by Richard Philcox
This far-reaching novel, which won the Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme in 1986, follows the captivating true story of Tituba, a West Indian slave who was one of the first women to be accused of witchcraft in Salem at the end of the 17th century. Condé transforms a scarcely known historical figure into a vivid and charming hero who powerfully reclaims her voice. The novel focuses on different types of injustice and suffering, from the brutality of the slave plantations in Barbados to the widespread religious oppression in Salem during the notorious witch trials. Despite the violence and tragedy that pervades her life, Tituba continually chooses to embrace love and hope, healing and helping others. Condé also undermines the authority of traditional historical sources and archives through the novel’s interplay of oral and textual accounts and the prominence given to Tituba’s voice and emotions. This is a compelling examination of colonialism and violence in all its forms, and Condé skilfully blends history and myth in her rich characterisation of the remarkable Tituba. Condé is a widely celebrated Guadeloupean writer and her works explore racial, gender, and cultural concerns in Caribbean history.
Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, translated from French by Charles Lam Markham
One of the canonical texts of postcolonial literature, in Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon distils the perspectives and ideas gained from his personal and professional life, ideas that would eventually lead him to fight against the French state in the Algerian anti-colonial war. As a Black subject of the French colony Martinique who travels to metropolitan France to study psychology, Fanon brings a wealth of experience of the realities of living in a society deeply divided on racial grounds and the profound psychological impacts that this oppression and discrimination has on the Black subject.
Black Skin, White Masks presents the reader with eight essay-like chapters, which range from personal anecdotes of Fanon’s time in France, to case studies from his career as a psychologist. Through these chapters, the work dissects the structures that work to oppress Black people globally, examining the psychic division enacted by a society that positions one group as an outsider. From the struggles of a child growing up reading magazines that reinforce colonial stereotypes, to a seismic moment when Fanon suffers racism in France and feels a fracture between his internal self-perception and the way the external world views him.
This wide-ranging, talismanic work also embraces class and educational privilege, and the instrumentalisation of race by the French state. It is a deeply powerful read that is hard to capture in a few short paragraphs.
That Hair by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida, translated from Portuguese by Eric M B Becker
Originally published in Portuguese as Esse Cabelo (2015) and now out in an English translation by Eric M. B. Becker, Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida’s highly experimental That Hair is deeply haunted by questions of a true self.
The narrator of this novel, Mila, arrived in Portugal at the age of three having been born in Luanda, the capital of Angola, to a Black Angolan mother and blond Portuguese father. Mila begins straight away by telling us “the story of my curly hair intersects with the story of at least two countries and, by extension, the underlying story of the relations among several continents: a geopolitics,” which immediately highlights the central theme of this novel; conflict of identity.
This novel takes the reader on the journey through Mila’s life through her experiences with her hair. Starting with her first haircut at six years old, Mila finds her hair is growing dry and coiled which is in contrast to the soft, straight hair she had at birth. For Mila, her hair is not a frivolous topic but instead is part of her ancestry and therefore her own story and identity. The novel continues, recounting different haircuts and styles from getting her first chemical relaxer to her long, braided extensions. Pereira de Almeida uses these ever-changing hairstyles as a narrative device for Mila to pick through her memories and detangle her identity. As a mixed-race woman, she feels she cannot identify solely as either Angolan or Portuguese, however her struggle surrounding her identity is universal. She feels her hair is the thing that will provide her with a sense of belonging and so she continues to search for the style that will allow her to embrace her true identity.
This novel is an exploration of ancestry, family and identity and raises questions that many readers will relate to. As a mixed-race woman, how to balance both her Angolan and Portuguese heritage in order to live and present as her most authentic self? In a world that is obsessed with authenticity, Pereira de Almeida’s novel provides a safe space for exploration, where confusion is not a bad thing but is part of the journey to finding belonging.