Feb 3, 2021

The Exact Number of Stars: André Naffis-Sahely Translates Ribka Sibhatu

Last year, I was asked by an American editor to submit a selection of my poems for an anthology of contemporary Arabic poetry. “Self-translations are not allowed,” came her disclaimer, predicated on the assumption that a poet is effectively monolingual, and reinforcing a modern understanding of translation, and by extension other cultural practices, to be neutral and objective. “We think self-translation poses a threat to the art of translation,” she added. As I come close to completing a decade in American exile, I have accumulated many examples of how monolingualism enacts the violent politics of the publishing industry and its literary apparatus­––“self-translations are not permitted,” publishers and magazines declare on their submission pages with no effort to embrace the multilingual possibilities of a contemporary American literature. It pushed me to embark on a search for “poet-translators,” whose practice does not separate writing from translation and who often don’t even deploy the term “self-translation,” as they have come to realize that the author and the translator are inseparable.

Now at this distance, having understood the racist nature of monolingualism in the literary context, I find myself in the company of a nation of multilingual poets and translators––from Western pre-modernists like Goethe and Pessoa and Rilke to the émigré writers of modern and contemporary literatures. One would think that our literary conceptions and visions would adapt in light of mass displacement being the new norm–that publishing practices, whether editorial or translation-based, would work on expanding what is a national literature, or do without it altogether. However, the gatekeepers continue to guard the rusting gates, while the poet-translators make their attempts to jump in through the windows.

Ribka Sibhatu and André Naffis-Sahely are two such versatile literary artists. Sibhatu is an Eritrean poet and activist who writes in Italian, Tigrinya, Amharic, and French. She has been fighting Isaias Afwerki’s dictatorship at home, writing poems that imagine diaspora as the hands of a nation, and reclaiming refugee literature from its ghettoization to create a promise for a new literature. For Sibhatu, the refugee is the so-called “renaissance man” who has crossed landscapes, lived multiple lives, shed tongues, and acquired new ones. With such ethos, Sibhatu writes each of her poems, against linearity, against frontiers, and against amnesia.

It is no coincidence that Naffis-Sahely found Sibhatu’s poems, becoming the first to introduce her work to English readers. He grew up in Abu Dhabi with an Iranian father and Italian mother before his family was exiled from the emirate, but his maternal country was not any welcoming either, facing him with xenophobia. When encountering Sibhatu’s work, Naffis-Sahely discovered himself as a literary translator––seeing the possibility of another Italy, narrated and inhabited by the strangers within. In 2011, Andre was asked to translate Sibhatu’s poems for an Italian documentary film. Twenty titles later, Naffis-Sahely has now finally been able to publish his English translation of Sibhatu’s work.

Reading Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! (ኣውሎኣውሎኣውሎ!) released this year by the Poetry Translation Center in London, I felt jealous of this perfect poet-translator pairing. They both talk about how their friendship over the past decade has been built around the multilingual poems contained in this collection, which Sibhatu sometimes translated into Italian, before Naffis-Sahely presents them in his English productions. Their ongoing collaboration confirms my belief that the connection between poet and translator is a lifetime commitment, to grow and write and think together. The translator worked on these poems over years of their friendship, embracing the multilingual capacity of Sibhatu’s work, rather than viewing it as an obstacle. This is reflected in the chronology of the book, its multiple themes, as well as in the variety of styles and themes. In this sense, translation plays an active role in servicing the vision of the refugee poet who is not afraid to live and move between two worlds. When looking at the titles Naffis-Sahely translated from Italian and French over the past decade, we see pre-modern and modern European names, as well as contemporary writers from Morocco, Algeria, Eritrea, and Cameroon. The way Naffis-Sahely kick-started his translation work with Sibhatu helped orient him to use translation as a way of trespassing the arbitrary boundaries of national literatures.   

Sibhatu is not only a multilingual poet, she also insists on an “archaic” usage of the Tigrinya alphabet, which is uncommon among Eritrean writers. She explains in an interview with another exiled Eritrean writer, Abraham T. Zere, that she did not study Ge’ez script and taught herself Tigrinya as she was learning Amharic in school. Sibhatu never seems concerned about the linguistic accessibility of her work or having to mediate and negotiate with the reader. She explains to Zere that without the archaic alphabet, their connection to their ancestors (their canon, stories, songs, powers) will be lost.

The ancestral question is at the center of Sibhatu’s work, in her choice of language, genre, and form. She examines it at different points and in varied directions, sometimes as the exiled writer dreaming of a lost egalitarian society (“the sycamores”, as she calls it), as the diasporic daughter out of touch with her language and history, or as the comrade in grief for those imprisoned and killed. In her gorgeous poem “How African Spirits were Born,” she writes a fable that subverts the classic story of two feuding brothers dividing their kingdom to instead become a story of origins, or rather epistemological origins, when the kings split the world into two halves: the material and the metaphysical. As such, Sibhatu hints from afar––from her distant modern place––at this rupture caused by greed and oppression, which have cost humans their wholeness, their connection to the past, and their ancestral companions.

Similarly, in “The Exact Number of Stars,” Sibhatu writes another fable about a king who orders his village men to murder their fathers. A call that frighteningly resembles the postcolonial proposal to break away from the past for the promise of progress. However, one man in the village decides to hide his father, which then saves the entire village. With every impossible test given to them by the king, the hidden father saves the village from the king’s punishment with his wisdom. The fable-poem here too becomes another testament to the power of memory, without which survival is impossible.

In “African Grandmothers,” Sibhatu writes about a girl called Sara who is burdened by her alienation as a girl born in disapora, her lack of tools and means: “She spends all her time/ at home and school reading/ or asking how the earth was made.” She is the wanderer born into a strange world, she cuddles with the cats and dogs, admires the distant moon, “seeing that god/ won’t answer/ her questions, Sara/ wants me to give her/ the names and/ the surnames/ of our African grandmothers/whom Darwin declined/ to mention in his book.” This powerful poem, about the daughter and her exiled mother, contemplates the possibility of diaspora as lineage, and the loneliness and the difficulty of such a prospect, especially at the heart of Darwin’s land.

The poem’s vulnerability is striking. I haven’t encountered such text that captures, on such an intimate level, the question of exile and diaspora. It is moving how Sibhatu is able to leave her place to look at the world, in its full foreignness, with a girl’s eyes, before reconnecting a daughter and mother with their grandmothers in the face of a world that has long diminished their existence. Sibhatu allows us to see the diasporic daughter making something out of her incompleteness, her lacking, her unanswered questions.

But she is never entirely romantic or sentimental in her treatment of these microrelations. In “Virginity,” she writes in a journalistic yet humorous style about an important man who wanted to marry her after finding out that his bride was not a virgin and abandoning her. Sibhatu opens the poem with the line “For a bride, her virginity is just as important as her eyes, if not more so” and goes on to play on this connection between sight and virginity. This poem celebrates a heroic act, inherently feminist, in which the poet foresees that she must compromise either her honor, and by extension her family’s, or her own freedom and well-being. Knowing that her father might set her up for an arranged marriage, she lies to the man and says she is not a virgin either. Sibhatu writes: “Children greatly fear the might of their parents’ curses.” Thus, the poem takes away the romance of family, repositioning the individual woman at the center of her survival, while still capturing the fragility of the loved ones who might betray her.

With poems such as “Virginity” or “My Abebà,” about Sibhatu’s friend who died in the prison under dictatorship in Eritera, “Prison Cells,” or even her most famous poem “Lampedusa,” which captures the moment when more than five hundred migrants, many of whom were Eritrean, drowned off the shore of the island of Lampedusa, I am reminded of the poem “The Idea of Ancestry” by Etheridge Knight. In Knight’s vision, which unfolds as the speaker lays in his prison bed, the ancestors are already impossible to memorialize, and in light of this rupture in lineage, they are realized as a fiction rooted in intimacy, in the cousins who share the same name, some far away, some close and alive, and others who have gone missing and unmentioned. It is an idea, and therefore, the pursuit of a lifetime, something that Sibhatu is well aware of and goes to explore, at home and in diaspora, and sometimes in the bleak places in between.

“Lampedusa” shows us the kind of multiplicity that Sibhatu possesses as a refugee writer. Across her poems, she builds on ancient fables, evokes biblical cries, and sometimes plays the old role of the poet as a public mourner. In one interview, Sibhatu admits how she used to believe in the separation between these “political” stories or issues and art, but while in exile, she has learned otherwise––that the label of “refugee writing” is meant to introduce her as an “exotic survivor” (to borrow from James Baldwin), and to reduce her story to a matter of one crossing journey, with no past or future.

The truth is that the refugee today is the new traveler, the new clandestine, the new flâneuse, and her story goes beyond death and survival; it is one of human triumph, to recreate the self, to hold a multitude, to speak in one’s mother tongue, or in “stepdaughters”, as Sibhatu describes her five languages. In “Lampedusa,” the poet uses the true story of a woman who drowned while giving birth to masterfully merge the events of death and birth, the ululations of the boat companions fly in celebration and commemoration––it is that human wholeness which was long lost when the two brothers split our world into halves. 

* Published in Words Without Borders 

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