They Cannot Have our Ancestors’ Bones; Or Their Memories

M. NourbeSe Philip 

PREE joins in calling for appropriate action to be taken in the egregious treatment of M. NourbeSe Philip’s iconic work, Zong, which was translated into Italian without express permission or involvement of the author.

On September 8, 2021, I called for the destruction of the Italian translation of Zong! by Renata Morresi and published by Benway Series to whom Wesleyan University Press (WUP), under the editorship of Suzanna Tamminen, sold the rights for $150. What follows is a short summary of the circumstances presented here in the form of a letter sent to the parties involved and explaining to some degree the events that led to my taking that position.

I will be posting a longer description with quotes from the correspondence between the different parties, but for the time being—until tomorrow when I will release the longer version—I want to share this abbreviated outline with as many people as possible. I keep thinking—I can’t believe this is actually happening, but it is. It always is, isn’t it?





Photograph of NourbeSe Philip by Gail Nyoka

On or about May 31, 2016, Renata Morresi contacted me by email to let me know that she was interested in doing a translation of Zong!. It appeared that she had begun the translation because she did ask about sending pages to me, but she had neither a contract or a publisher and it appeared to me something of a passion project. I told her she had to contact the publishers Wesleyan University Press (WUP) for permission. I heard nothing more from Ms Morresi or WUP. Some five years later on June 11, 2021, I received an email from Benway Series congratulating me on the publication of the Italian translation of Zong!.

Sometime in 2020, WUP sold the rights to Benway Series as they are entitled to do by contract. The rights were sold for $150. Neither WUP, nor Benway Series, nor Renata Morresi contacted me about this. I understand that it is common practice to contact living authors when doing translations of their work.

There are two issues here: one is the issue of the process that was engaged in by all the parties to this translation—Suzanna Tamminen, editor, Renata Morresi, translator, Mariengela Guatteri and Giulio Marzaioli, editors at Benway Series and myself. There was also a reader of some of the translated text who, as is the custom, is and should remain anonymous. The five people involved in this translation mentioned above are all European and white or white passing, and yet no one thought that it might be somewhat useful to talk to the Black, African-descended author, or even send a letter with questions. Particularly concerning a work like Zong!. Further, I was told by Benway Series that they received Canada Council funding to publish the translation, I assume because I am Canadian. My questions is why the Council is funding projects that are racist in outcome, if not intention. The other issue is that of a fundamental problem with the translation itself, which fails to honour the foundational concept and principle of Zong!, which is that no word, fragment, or cluster of words can come directly below another: each word fragment, word or word cluster is seeking the space above to breathe as those massacred 240 years ago this November were not able to breathe. It revolves around the poetics and precarity of breath-to quote Mackey—for Black and African-descended people. It is this restraint and conceptual rigour that underlies and underscores the proprioceptive movement of, and within, the text, and gives the work its distinctive shape. It cannot be stressed too much that this formal practice becomes an integral part of the content of the work. In this way, the very form of the work becomes a constant honouring of the Ancestors. Based on her correspondence with me Renata Morresi appears to have her own ideas as to how the work should appear, which the longer document will describe through quotes from her correspondence. Both these issues—that of the process of the translation and the issue of form—are integrally related to each other and to the protocols of care; they are intertwined. The entire process reveals to me the continued impulse to, and enactment of, the erasure by white institutions, including literary institutions, of Black and African realities, histories, cultures and cultural products, even as these expressions and products, tangible and intangible, are consumed by those enacting the erasures.

Despite my making my concerns and opposition clear to all the parties over some 3 months—I have not been able to track down which department at the Canada Council funded the project, no one appeared to be listening to what I had to say. Most recently however, and by email dated September 1, 2021, Ms Tamminen finally agreed with me, expressed regret and agreed that the books should be destroyed. The most recent email received from Benway Series today, September 9, 2021, is basically a dismissal of all of my concerns.

Still from the Living Memorial for the Victims of the Zong Massacre performed in Miami’s historic Virginia Key Beach Park in 2018;

From its inception to its end the entire process of this translation mirrors the transactional relations and the racism that are at the core of the transatlantic trade in Africans, and the Zong massacre in particular; it is a process that makes a travesty of the care and attention that are at the heart of Zong! in both the preparatory work and its composition. Most importantly Zong! and its life in the world constitute a practice that is reparative in intent—reparative of the souls lost in 1781, who stand in for the many, many others lost to this inhumane and insane act of extended barbarity, as well as reparative for those who today continue to mourn them and ourselves.

Barely a year after the lynching of George Floyd and the uprising against racial injustice around the world, their actions appear even more deplorable. They have failed to honour the dead, the souls at the heart of this work, as they have failed to honour the care and attention that have gone into the preparation and composition of Zong!.

I close with the words of the brilliant scholar, Katherine McKittrick in response to this situation:

I cannot stop thinking about how this beautiful and difficult poem cycle is made fungible by people. It is like they are enacting what you demand we should not do. It’s like they learned nothing. I’m baffled and it makes me think a lot about how black poetry—like black music, like black labour, like black smiles—is a site of terrible extraction. (Email dated June 21, 2021)

Once again I call on Benway Series to take down the advertisement on their website and to destroy this publication of Zong!.

2 thoughts on “They Cannot Have our Ancestors’ Bones; Or Their Memories

  1. Who’ll buy? Who’ll buy? Do I hear 50, 60, 70? Look at these fine words all spread out. Mighty, mighty fine words, exotic sounding,
    “Zong”.
    Story bout peoples done drown far from home. Peoples be traffik, beautiful black bodies lost. Story done with deep research, told with feeling by one fine gal descent of peoples be traffik, sold far from home.
    Do I hear 80, 90, 100 ?

    In them words be strong, salted black bodies. Who will buy?

    Pree closer at the quality. White space to fill. Who will take these words which seek to rise and return them to the depths?

    Sold for 150 to regurgitate in a distant tongue, to drown again in the telling.

    Crosses come again. Year of our Lord 2021. Cui bono?

    Like

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