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Jasmine Lee Ehrhardt

Poems of a Man ‘Robbed of His Country’: ‘In Praise of Defeat’ by Abdellatif Laâbi

laabicover-600x700Abdellatif Laâbi is perhaps Morocco’s most well-known poet-activist-writer, and a well-respected Francophone poet as well His personal history—founder of leftist Moroccan/Maghrebi magazine Souffles (Breaths) in 1966, imprisoned for “crimes of opinion” against King Hassan II from 1972 to 1980, and exiled to France since 1985—is staggering on its own, and his writing reflects each stage of his life in haunting and affective ways. This is perhaps what makes In Praise of Defeat (824 pages; Archipelago; translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith) so incredible. The book is a veritable brick—it’s almost intimidating in its scale, refusing to let the reader forget Laabi’s illustrious and prolific career. The poems span from his early work (“Le Règne de Barbarie/ The Reign of Barbarism,” 1965) to the quite recent (“Le Saison Manquante/ The Missing Season,” 2015), and the length of the poems—most notably, Sous Le Bâillon, Le Poème/Beneath the Gag, The Poem (1972-1980) and Le Soleil Se Meurt / The Sun Is Dying (1992)—range as impressively, too. It seems a little crass to call a book of poetry a “page-turner,” but as some poems here span up to ten pages, it’s worth noting that Laâbi’s deft metaphors sustain your attention so that the physical interruption of the turn of a page is lessened. (The book also includes an essay, “Writing and the New World Disorder.”)

With Laabi’s original French on the left-hand pages, and Nicholson-Smith’s English translations on the right, In Praise of Defeat showcases a series of poems, and selections from longer poems, hand-picked by Laâbi. In some cases, this means that only a few stanzas of a poem appear in the book, and the reader is left wondering what else was said, or what Laâbi wanted the reader to seek out on their own. The excerpts, however, do work as stand-alone poems.

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A Political Awakening in Haiti: ‘Dance on the Volcano’ by Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Dance on the VolcanoDance on the Volcano, by Haitian author Marie Vieux-Chauvet (1916-1973), was originally published as La Danse sur le Volcan in 1957. Previously translated into English by Salvator Attanasio in 1959, Archipelago Books has published a delightful new translation by Kaiama L. Glover. Glover, a scholar of Caribbean fiction, translation, and Francophone literature, seems like the natural candidate for translating Vieux-Chauvet’s stunning novel. She has already translated two other works of Haitian fiction, and her scholarly knowledge and apparent pleasure in making the sights and sounds of colonial Haiti accessible to an Anglophone audience are palpable.

Dance on the Volcano tells the story of Minette, a young black woman who passes for white in 18th century Haiti (then called Saint Domingue). Minette, blessed with a beautiful singing voice, becomes the first free woman of color to perform at the opera performance house in Port-au-Prince. The novel, which alternately radiates joy and terrible pain, traces Minette’s rapid radicalization and political awakening, while also depicting the build-up to the Haitian Revolution, as well as delineating race, class, and gender in the country at the time.

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An Upended Life Amid an Upended City: ‘Meantime’ by Katharine Noel

MeantimeMeantime (288 pages; Black Cat/Grove) is an absorbing novel, the second from author Katharine Noel, whose first book, Halfway House, received widespread acclaim. Meantime seems to be on a similar track, as reviewers praise its humor and emotional depth—especially as found in its narrator, Claire Hood. Claire is dry and amusing, and her voice and reactions are engaging and convincing. The main plot points—Claire growing up with her bohemian “Naked Family,” her varied boyfriends and failed relationships, her marriage to Jeremy, and Jeremy’s illness and recovery, et cetera —are all fascinating; the characters and their dialogues drive the novel. There is not one character, however small, that doesn’t seem fully realized. (Claire’s judgments about them notwithstanding). And none is entirely despicable or lovable, but all are undeniably real.

But what sets Meantime apart is how Noel’s beautiful prose renders contemporary San Francisco. Her San Francisco is not some overblown mythical city promising rebirth or “finding yourself,” and it certainly isn’t overly romanticized, either. The San Francisco of the novel, from its descriptions of the views of the Bay or the litter and garbage lining the streets, are recognizable to anybody familiar with the city (thankfully, the novel has no references to the Golden Gate Bridge or fog). Noel’s San Francisco is the same San Francisco that I myself am familiar with, one that has been facing rapid gentrification and staggering income inequality—that in recent years seems like it’s been dialed up to 11.

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