I had been asked to engage a newish book—a translation into English from French. I, along with others, would respond to the work and, in turn, the scholar who translated the book would respond to our responses. Given that I have no institutional affiliation and no payment was offered—the cost of the hardcover book I received might have paid for an hour of my time, at most—I gained nothing material from this process. At best, I hoped for a congenial exchange, the kind Twitter has taught me to expect. I curate my tl to foster such exchanges. I enjoy them.
When I received the book—a very, very, very, very long translation of an anthropologist’s travel journals—I was slightly daunted by the length; the person who had asked me to participate in the process had mentioned the length, but it’s one thing to be told something is very long and yet another to see its physical form. Still, it was a translation by a scholar whose previous work I have found useful, and I imagined that, if it was like that previous work, it would be worth the slog. And, in fact, would probably not be a slog.
I wrestled with whether I should start with the heavily footnoted preface—readers of Spivak’s translation of Of Grammatology know about the weight of a preface—or whether I should start with the text and then return to the preface. I skimmed a few pages of the preface and then plunged into the text.
The (translated) writing was engaging. The writer was clever and self-conscious in a way that I’ve been trained to appreciate. He was savvy enough to understand his motivations, and, to use social media language, woke enough to know when he did fucked up things. But he did them. And did them. And did them. And kept doing them.
And the more I read, “I knew this was fucked up, but I did it,” the more I wondered about what I was reading. The author was a white man in colonial Africa using all the privileges whiteness afforded him to steal and loot and terrorize and abuse and unhuman, but he was savvy enough to know what he was doing. And, later in life, he regretted what he had done.
How was I to read this?
I returned to the preface to try to understand why a scholar who had written so compellingly about Black life would spend many years translating this work.
And I found nothing.
I found nice sentences about the author’s self-consciousness, about the complexity of those who profited from colonialism’s terror, about the value of white ambivalence, and the complex emotional states of white people who did bad things to Africans. And as I read these sentences, I was thrown back to every bad faith discussion about Conrad and every single colonial-era white writer who we’re supposed to read with “complexity” and “nuance” because they “depicted” the “truth” of the colonial situation, and “did not shy away” or “hide” the “full horrors” of colonialism.
I don’t have time for that shit.
I cannot be invited to a scene of African unhumaning and be told to recognize the complexity of the white people at that scene.
Having read as much as I could of the translated work and the entire preface, I wrote a response to the work, essentially saying, “I don’t have time for this shit,” but with nicer sentences, because I know how to write good when it’s needed.
The translator of this very long book clearly understood what I wrote, because, in response to my 6-page meditation, he wrote a 19-page screed. 19 pages! I was impressed!
Most of it ignored what I’d written—as these things do—and invoked everyone from Foucault to Hartman to Moten to Achebe to Ngugi to put me in my place. Each citation was a blow from a hammer—or meant to be—to remind me that I am uninstitutional, unfamous, unworthy, and unread.
I got the message.
The few sentences that engaged my thinking told me that I was illiterate and unsophisticated. Had I been a different person—a junior scholar in the U.S., a graduate student, an African scholar in an institution that relies on U.S. goodwill, someone who didn’t survive Lenana—I would have been crushed. I wasn’t crushed. I was disappointed by the lack of generosity. And by the bullying. A 19-page response to a 6-page thing is meant to intimidate. It is not generous. It is not thoughtful. I understand how power works.
So I wrote to the place that had solicited my work and withdrew it. And I tweeted a few obscure things about it. And I was going to let it go, but I decided to blog about it.
I am naming no names, but I’m not leaving the names that need to be named obscured. Internet searches exist for a reason.
I was thinking, more broadly, about how power structures academic relations. More than once, I have read fawning reviews written by graduate students. Often reviews of work by tenured and senior scholars. The common wisdom is that writing book reviews is an easy way for graduate students to get publications. It is training in the profession. As true as that might be, the book review is a scene of power: those with little institutional power are asked to fawn over those with more institutional power. Over and over.
It is an open secret that U.S. reviews of academic books tend to be anything but critical. Especially when written by those with less power. I don’t think we need to be mean to be critical. The power dynamics at work in things like book reviewing make honest, useful intellectual engagement virtually impossible. And train junior scholars to be overly deferential. I once read a review of a friend’s work that made me want to weep for the reviewer: it was cloying and gushing in a way that is only appropriate when you’re really thirsty and want to fuck.
And, sure, I’m blogging this because I’m in my feelings and I have no problem with being messy. No, I won’t tell you the scholar’s name or the particular very long translated book.
Perhaps, I mused, I was the wrong audience for the book. I don’t think Africans interested in freedom and thinking against white supremacy should be handed books that ask us to recognize that white supremacists were complex people with feelings.
Those feelings were not complex enough not to unhuman Africans. And if some Africans were treated well—as I was told by this scholar—that really means nothing to me.
By standard five, I knew the difference between collaborators and resistors. That knowledge has served me well.