6 Questions for Stephen Henighan on Ondjaki and Transparent City

Ondjaki is one of the leading African writers, and one considered to be among the best in the Lusophone world. He has received many of the most prestigious prizes for Portuguese-language authors, as well as being included on the Africa39 list. Although his books are often described as working in the style of magical realism, Ondjaki tends to see his work not as powerfully imaginative but as reflective of the realities in his birth nation, Angola:

Fiction doesn’t happen to me, fiction happens in Angola and I happen to be there, and I happen to be born there. Among us, if you find another writer from Angola, you will not hear this comment, “oh that book of yours, what a powerful imagination,” no; the question is, where did you see that?!

His novel Transparent City, translated by Stephen Henighan and forthcoming from Biblioasis in April, has received the 2013 José Saramago Prize, the 2015 Prix Transfuge du Meilleur Roman Africain, and a Prix Littérature-Monde at the 2016 St. Malo literary festival.

Transparent City joins his previous works Good Morning Comrades and Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, also translated by Stephen for Biblioasis.

Stephen is among the most dedicated, discerning, and best-informed translators of Lusophone fiction that I know of (or just one of the best translators, period), so when he says that Ondjaki is among the best writers Africa has to offer, I take notice. I recently corresponded with him to learn more about Ondjaki and the process of translating Transparent City.

Veronica Scott Esposito: Ondjaki has been quite a prolific and successful writer. Since his debut in 2000, he’s published no fewer than 20 books and has won a number of prestigious awards—all at just 40 years old. Can you tell us a little about Ondjaki as a writer and what has made him so successful?

Stephen Henighan: For one thing, he hasn’t been distracted by alternate careers! Though he’s dabbled in film-making, and occasionally teaches a creative writing workshop or writes a newspaper article, basically he devotes all of his time to writing and promoting his fiction and poetry.  His fiction can be whimsical,  but his professional comportment is punctual and organized. He has an excellent eye for detail when it comes to marketing and promotional issues. He travels tirelessly through the Portuguese-speaking countries that are his main market, and the fact that he’s also fluent in English and Spanish has helped him to expand his market beyond the Lusophone world.

Aside from the quality and originality of his work, the other point I would make is that Ondjaki grew up in a literary culture.   We often take this for granted when we speak of writers from New York or London, but a writer from Luanda can also grow up in a literary culture.   Ondjaki’s mother was a teacher; his father, though trained as an engineer and later involved in politics, published a novel; his parents wrote a play together. When Ondjaki was growing up, the family’s circle of friends included the prolific, bestselling novelist Pepetela, the well-known writer Manuel Rui, and a number of others.  It was natural for him to become a writer, and to feel that this a normal profession to follow.

VSE: This is your third translation of Ondjaki, following Good Morning Comrades and Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret. What made you want to translate this author’s work?

SH: I read Good Morning Comrades in Portugal in 2005 and immediately felt a kinship with it.  The novel describes the relationship between Angolan schoolchildren of the 1980s and their Cuban teachers. When the Cubans leave in 1990, it’s clear that their childhood has ended.   Though I’m of an older generation, I also grew up with parents who participated in a left-wing culture: the fringes of the 1960s back-to-the-land movement, opening our farm to U.S. Vietnam War draft dodgers who had come to Canada, and so on.  There came a point in my early adolescence when the draft dodgers disappeared and I realized my childhood had ended, much as happened to Ondjaki and his friends with the Cubans.  As I was reading Good Morning Comrades, I felt an immediate identification with the story. I also had another reaction, which only happens once in a long while: reading the book in Portuguese, I began, involuntarily,  to imagine how it would sound in English. I  was mainly a short story writer and novelist at that stage–as I still am today. What I mean is, I wasn’t translating much –just occasional short pieces from French or Spanish–and this was my first intimation that my future might include some serious translating.

Later in 2005 I visited Angola and met Ondjaki and his family there. When I returned to Canada, Dan Wells of Biblioasis told me he was starting a translation series and asked me to edit it.  Dan had one book lined up–the collected poems of Ryszard Kapuściński–and asked me what I thought we should do second. I suggested Good Morning Comrades.  It took a while to convince Ondjaki and his agent that Biblioasis –at that stage a tiny one-man operation very different from the Biblioasis of today– deserved their confidence, but eventually we pulled it off. Translation opened up a new world for me, and also, I hope, for readers who discovered that book and all the others we’ve translated since. Translating Ondjaki was not only my entrée into the Biblioasis International Translation Series, it’s also probably my biggest contribution to the series, even more so than the editorial work I’ve done for them.

VSE: I’m curious to hear a little more about the literary culture that Ondjaki grew up in. I know that literary aesthetics in different parts of the world can be quite different from what we’re accustomed to here in North America—what is the tradition that Ondjaki writes in like—for instance, what parts of the world does it traffic with, what are the dominant modes of storytelling—and what do you see as his place in it? Is there anything you’d want a reader of his to know before they started the book?

SH: My view would be that a number of traditions dovetail in his work. The linguistic experimentation of José Luandino Vieira, an Angolan writer of dense monologues and prose that mingles Portuguese syntax with Kimbundu rhythms–very challenging,  almost untranslatable writing–was  important to Ondjaki at an early stage of his development.  Also, the early, more linguistically acrobatic, work of Mia Couto, which transposes the narrative prose of the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa and the terse  dialogue of the Mexican Juan Rulfo to Africa. Thanks to a highly literary uncle on his mother’s side, Ondjaki was given books like One Hundred Years of Solitude to read at an early age–and, as García Márquez himself noted when he visited Angola in the late 1970s, the African oral tradition–very important in Ondjaki’s fiction–is a  connecting tissue between coastal Colombian fiction and Angolan culture.

These aesthetic influences seem to have been complemented by the fact that most of the writers Ondjaki’s family knew had participated in the independence struggle and were members, at some level, of the governing party, the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola).   Writers like Pepetela and Arnoldo Santos were seeking the essence of  angolanidade— “Angolanness.”   Where we in the Global North often see (erroneously, in my view) a contradiction between committed writing and aesthetic experimentation, I think it’s fair to say that Ondjaki grew up in a literary community where both of these strands were present, and, in many ways, they were intertwined. For me, this is particularly clear in the novel that’s just coming out in English, Transparent City.

VSE: I’m fascinated by this kinship that you feel with Ondjaki, despite coming from such very different places. What do you feel that his work brings to the literatures of the U.S. and Canada?

SH: My reaction to Good Morning Comrades when I first read it was extremely personal and possibly not transferable in precisely the same way to other readers. On the other hand, everyone has a childhood, and everyone becomes aware at some point that it has ended.  These days most people live in cities, and many readers will find some shred of their own cities in the Luanda described in Transparent City–though they’ll also find things that are utterly unexpected and unusual!  More literary types can hardly help but be fascinated by how neo-Faulknerian Modernism, having mythologized Latin America in the work of García Márquez, the early Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, Guimarães Rosa, etc.,  later found a home in Lusophone Africa, and that some of its aesthetic quests, adapted to African realities,  have continued in Luandino Vieira, Mia Couto and Ondjaki, among others.

Finally, reading Ondjaki helps break down North American stereotypes about Africa. In Canada–and I believe it’s similar in the U.S..–we see Africa as speaking English and French, and being racially Black.  In other words,  our “Africa”  is Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone and maybe Kenya or Ethiopia, but not much else.   We overlook literatures written in Africa in Portuguese, Arabic, Swahili and other languages.  And we overlook the high degree of racial and cultural mixing in southern Africa, where Bantus, San people, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Arabian Peninsular Arabs, Lebanese, South Asians, Greeks and others have all blended their lineages.  I suspect that for many readers, reading Ondjaki is a wake-up call that Lusophone Africa–which now includes over 60 million people–even exists.  I was once at an event with Ondjaki where a very famous Black writer from the Global North refused to recognize him as African due to his mixed racial background and kept referring to him, rather aggressively,  as “Portuguese.”  The dissemination of Ondjaki’s writing, and that of other southern Africans, whatever their literary language, helps break down this sort of obtuseness.

VSE: What do you see as some of the challenges of translating Ondjaki’s prose? Is there anything particular about working on Transparent City that you can remark on?

SH: With the debatable exception of Luandino Vieira, Ondjaki is the most difficult Luso-African writer to translate. Pepetela, Mia Couto, Manuel Rui, Ana Paula Tavares, José Eduardo Agualusa and so on all grew up in colonies where the five per cent of the population that spoke Portuguese employed a standardized, literary version of the language. So even when there’s wordplay, as in Couto’s early works, it happens within familiar semantic parameters.  Ondjaki is writing a different language because he’s the first significant writer born after Angola (along with Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde) gained independence.  His literary idiom is the language of the 75% of the Angolan population that now uses Portuguese on a daily basis, but many of whose parents or grandparents did not speak Portuguese, or spoke it poorly.

Ondjaki’s own Portuguese is highly polished, of course, but the characters of Transparent City speak a portmanteau language that is often syntactically eccentric, containing vestiges of African languages, residues of socialist jargon, recycled phrasing from colonial administrative diction, riffs on Brazilian and Portuguese popular culture, and bursts of American English, Cuban Spanish and Russian, often distorted by the characters’  imperfect understanding of what these words and phrases actually mean. This conglomeration of influences is much more pronounced  in Transparent City than it was in Good Morning Comrades or Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret.

Since this is Ondjaki’s big urban novel,  and one that’s set in the near-present, the characters speak a real post-colonial Portuguese that takes on board every source of authority with which ordinary Angolans have come into contact.   In many scenes, characters with a moderate level of education are repeating, and often parodying or re-inventing,  phrasing they’ve heard from some official source.  In the original, these subversive little parodies provide the novel with a lot of its humour.  They were absolute hell to reproduce in English.  Some of my renderings came out stilted and others were too eccentric to get past my extremely attentive editors, Dan Wells and Emily Donaldson.  It took a mountain of work to devise ways to transmute this kind of fractured yet poetic urban post-colonial speech into an equivalent English, while maintaining a prose that sounded both particular to the city of Luanda, and to Angolan history,  and also came across as credible English rather than translatorese. I thought hard about how West Indians treat English in a mocking, playful, yet often elaborately formal way that resembles what Ondjaki’s characters do with Portuguese, and I worked from there. I think that by the third or fourth edit, we started to get it right.  The other challenges, such as ordinary punning, peculiarly Angolan references and bilingual Spanish-Portuguese or English-Portuguese conversations,  were relatively simple to deal with by comparison.

VSE: Where would you go next with Ondjaki, translation-wise?

SH: Right now, I’m just delighted that we’ve got a good English translation of Transparent City.  It’s a magnificent book.  In Portugal it won the Saramago Prize and ran through seven printings; the French translation won two more prizes.  This is a major work of fiction that’s been acclaimed internationally and I’m delighted to have it as part of the Biblioasis International Translation Series.   Looking forward, well, Ondjaki has many books ahead of him. In  addition, I’ve been looking at his four short story collections.  There’s also an earlier novel, Quantas Madrugadas Tem a Noite (“How Many Dawns Has the Night”),  that’s untranslated.  One way or another, there will certainly be more Ondjaki appearing in English.



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