Books

My five published and/or forthcoming book projects, very much like the sixth (in-progress), may all seem to be about one thing, namely history—art history, cultural history, Mexican history or political history. Close reading reveals what these six books really have in common is related but distinct, namely oral history and its transmission through the generations via elder griots at the intersection of oral and written traditions in transition.

«The San Diego Decameron Project»

The San Diego Public Library, San Diego Writers Ink, Write Out Loud, and the La Jolla Historical Society invited San Diego County authors to submit stories for the San Diego Decameron Project. This project is inspired by The Decameron, a book written shortly after the Black Death overtook Florence in 1348, and a collection of novellas structured as a frame story by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). The book contains 100 stories told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa. They fled Florence to quarantine themselves for two weeks from the pandemic that ravaged Europe between 1347-1351. To pass the evenings each member of the party tells a story each night, except for one day a week for chores and one for religious observance, resulting in ten nights of stories over the course of two weeks.

For the San Diego Decameron Project, local authors were invited to submit previously unpublished fiction or nonfiction narratives based loosely around the theme of the current pandemic. Twenty-five judges read all submissions and chose the top 100 stories. Winners will have their stories posted on one of the partners websites beginning in February 2021 (25 per site). The top 10 most compelling stories will be read by Write Out Loud actors and presented in a virtual presentation also premiering in February. All stories submitted will be digitally archived with the San Diego Public Library and La Jolla Historical Society.

The importance of this project is threefold. First, there is every intention to let creative writers comment on the present experience; to help all of us unpack and understand this moment; to reflect on what it means to live through the COVID pandemic as related through the written word. Second, during this time we’re all staying at home more, and as a result, people are reading more. So, to some degree, there’s been a rediscovery of the narrative form, the written word, and this project very much relates to that notion. Finally, there is this idea that we’ve been here before and survived. The 14th century Decameron was written during one of the worst plagues in history. Yet humanity survived, the human condition recovered, civilization re-emerged, and the early traces of the Renaissance resulted only a few years later and then carried on for two centuries.

«Umpteen Essays in Search of the Novel: Countée, Ida Mae & Others (1983-2023)» - Excerpt

Publication: The Chattahoochee Review
Publication Date: October 2017
Format: Trade Paper

Summary
Ida Cullen-Cooper, my maternal great-grandmother, appears in book indexes and footnotes as ‘Roberson, Ida Mae.’ Widow of Harlem Renaissance poet Countée Cullen, she’s known throughout our family as ‘Ida Mae.’

A tone of casual familiarity pervades this book. Countée, his many friends, colleagues and students (James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, many others) are hereinafter referred to, as they were when I grew up, by first name or by nickname. It was as if they’d merely slipped out into the kitchen to fix themselves a snack, and were expected back any moment.

Peeling back onion layers of fact, truth, half-truth, significant omission and outright cover-up, Countée, Ida Mae & Others: Familiar Essays on the Harlem Renaissance and More portrays ‘tooth and talon’ our relationship as it grew and changed between the time I was born, the year I moved to New York, the months we spent together before her death, and the subsequent decades I lived there before returning to California.

FAQs
Q: What was the purpose behind writing this particular book?

A: Turgenev speaks of ‘right relations’ among a half-dozen or so narrative elements in transition: character; description; dialogue; plot; point of view; rhythm; scene; storylines; and tone. I won’t go on and on about ‘process,’ except to say that in Countée, Ida Mae & Others: Familiar Essays on the Harlem Renaissance and More these narrative elements occur and recur in combination with a half-dozen or so artistic, chronological, geographic, historical, linguistic, political, psychological or sociological motifs.

Somewhere on the Internet, a musicologist estimates the possible chord combinations on an 88-key piano number at more than 8,000. In the three-note chords of our lives, Ida Mae is always the root, and Countée and I, sometimes inverted, form diminished thirds or augmented fifths.

Ocosingo War Diary: Voices from Chiapas (2014)

Efraín Bartolomé, a poet from Chiapas, lived through the entire beginning of the Zapatista uprising in 1994. His family, like many in the village of Ocosingo, received death threats from the Zapatista guerrillas who demanded they join them at risk of being declared enemies of the Revolution. This book, equal parts poetry and diary, is his account of that conflict.

Reviews
Q: What was the purpose behind translating this particular book?
A: In 2006, I began corresponding with Mexican poet Efraín Bartolomé through PEN American Center. I was in my final undergraduate year in New York, and I’d been studying with Gregory Rabassa, translator of 100 Years of Solitude and many other works by Latin American and peninsular Nobel laureates. I’d begun publishing short translations in eXchanges and other literary magazines, but hadn’t had the opportunity to work on a book-length project. So, Bartolomé agreed to let me translate first book of prose, Ocosingo.

Translations
Translating a short book one short chapter at a time and then serially publishing those excerpts in literary publications makes the project less daunting that it might otherwise be but also presents challenges.

One challenge was Bartolomé’s vivid but not at all ‘picturesque’ description of a modern-day Maya Indian dressed in traditional clothing. Another challenge was how best to convey the emotional relief that seeing food trucks had on a besieged and famished city.

‘Replenishments are on the way’

is a serviceable option, but just doesn’t have the joyous leap of ‘volverán los víveres.’
The ultimate challenge every translator faces is to achieve high fidelity with low distortion. With any work, literary or technical, too literal a translation does as much disservice to the original as does taking too many liberties. I searched for equivalents that are faithful enough to pass peer review yet felicitous enough to capture some of the beauty of the original. The echo of A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man in my version of Bartolomé’s prologue is both intentional and, I hope, felicitous. ‘Do the first draft,’ one of Rabassa’s colleagues used to tell students, ‘and then throw away the dictionary. Trust your meaning, and try to make it sing.’

On this project, length is not the difficulty. Part pastoral elegy, part eye-witness reportage, Bartolomé’s artful war diary is as much a prose poem as it is a memoir of the 1994 New Year’s massacre. Deceptively simple prose can be very hard to write, and Efraín Bartolomé’s Spanish proved more difficult to translate than I originally anticipated. His lines — double- and quadruple-spaced upon the page as if engulfed in a pervasive void of white — mimic the tense expectancy of nights and days punctuated by not-so-distant gun fire. At their best, they are as sonorous as recited poetry. A deceptively short work, Ocosingo has both the sparseness and density of a chapbook.

Translation is an inherent act of collaboration, whether proximate in space or remote in time. This was certainly the case with Ocosingo War Diary: Voices from Chiapas, which Mexican author Efraín Bartolomé affectionately refers to as ‘our book.’

This brief note will touch upon some specific literary, technical and logistical challenges we faced rendering ‘3 January 1994’ and Ocosingo’s 18 other chapters into English.

In purely literary terms, Ocosingo is a landmark in writings about Chiapas. To do justice to this multifaceted prose work composed by a poet, I weighed each word carefully while trying to make the text read as rapidly as possible — to the eye, if not the sense. I employed certain techniques to pare down the text and speed up the action, thus adding to the impression of someone scribbling hastily in real time under conditions of extreme stress.

I consciously mimicked the telegraphic urgency of these rhythms. Dropped subject pronouns whenever it was clear from the antecedent who was doing or saying what. Started sentences directly with the verb, thus imitating a feature of Spanish readily familiar to readers who have studied Latin, Greek or other highly inflected languages. For similar reasons, I used contractions wherever rhythm and narrative tone didn’t otherwise indicate.

Logistically, project management and time management were the main challenges. 19 chapters meant several times that many moving parts. Each chapter consisted of: (1) the Spanish-language source text in Microsoft Word; (2) an English draft translation exported to an Intermediate Translation Document (‘ITD’) format associated with the computer assisted translation (‘CAT’) program known to technical translators as SDL/Trados; (3) a file generated by SDL and re-exported to Microsoft Word, formatted with footnotes, endnotes and sprinkled with translator queries electronically highlighted and bracketed in [yellow]; (4) a separate Microsoft Word document consisting of author comments, numbered in red and correcting, confirming or clarifying line by line, sometimes word for word queries from the draft translation; and lastly (5) an English language final incorporating the author comments and improving on any infelicities the translator missed first time around.

Ocosingo contains many lyric contemplations of the natural world — mountain ranges, river systems — alongside graphic descriptions of battle scenes:

17:00 Death hangs its hammock beneath the rainbow
My Spanish vocabulary, despite 4 years of formal training and 10 years of professional technical translation experience, was stretched by this project. In addition to the document files mentioned earlier, I maintained several project data files: (1) a Microsoft Access translation memory associated with the .itd file; a separate SDL terminology database devoted to lexical quandaries like exotic flora, fauna, foodstuffs, slang (which all vary greatly from country to country and even region to region within a given language), weaponry and other technical terms not frequently used in everyday speech. Sometimes a very simple word will have what linguists call a ‘low frequency’ shade of meaning or nuance. The act of seeing an unfamiliar word or usage, researching it on a social media translators’ networking website like proz.com, then manually entering that word or usage into one or more databases definitely helps reinforce retention. But it also adds exponentially to the time it takes to draft a given passage. Google is faster than combing through physically far-flung, specialized reference volumes, but still very time-consuming.

My preliminary version was even rougher than I thought. I proofread the English draft against the Spanish original with a fresh eye, then sent the author an email attaching the draft translation for his review and comment. He sent me an email acknowledging receipt. Days or weeks might pass before I heard back from him. Which was a good thing. Because it allowed me to move on to the next chapter, repeat the process, and gain some much needed perspective on the one currently under draft.

The author’s corrections were always clear and easy to follow. Sometimes he would clarify what at first reading seemed an obscure literary allusion but was simply a reference to the Mexican National Anthem or a remark overheard in the street. Sometimes an endnote I’d spent a lot of time and energy proactively researching was simply way off base. Sometimes exuberantly vulgar jokes or references to Mexican politics had to be explained. Other times, his comments came complete with picture dictionary illustrations. Usually, the author simply wrote ‘OK’, confirming that English words like ‘Governor’ or ‘guerrillas’, not found in the original Spanish text, were in fact necessary to clarify for the reader what was meant by ‘him’ or ‘they’. In the end, in purely word-processing mode, I auto shuffled through the 900 mp3 music files on my hard drive, cranked up my headphones, and actually enjoyed the translation process for a couple of hours. I gave it one last read-through for glaring typos or omissions, then transmitted what follows to Hayden’s Ferry Review.

We made a good team, Efraín and I. In this way, the moving parts were coordinated, and the complete manuscript grew incrementally, chapter by completed chapter, until the entire book was, relatively painlessly, complete. As translator, I found working with a savvy and cooperative living author so advantageous I almost can’t imagine doing it any other way.

Our book has provided me a unique opportunity to delve deeper into the rich and varied literary traditions of the language I married into. Ocosingo’s artistry and historical importance are such that every chapter, every page almost, offered technical and literary challenges that helped me continue growing as a writer in my own right. Here’s hoping these notes may prove useful to others as they face their own translation project challenges.

New York Public Library African American Desk Reference (2000)

A wealth of vital information about African-American history, culture, and contemporary life In the tradition of the million-selling New York Public Library Desk Reference, here is the ultimate one-stop resource for information about African-American life. Packed with over 5,000 entries, this landmark reference taps the resources of the prestigious Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture to provide an array of frequently sought information. whether you’re looking for Nat Turner’s revolt, scholarships for black students, Bessie Smith’s greatest hits, or members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Combining information not found in any other single book — and hard to find on the Internet — this unique work serves as an essential historical and cultural reference, comprehensive resource directory, and browsable collection of fascinating facts and figures. Topics covered include politics and civil rights, business, religion, science, health, the arts, sports, and the Diaspora. The information is presented in a host of formats, including charts, tables, timelines, historical entries, reading lists, recipes, and biographical profiles. The New York Public Library is one of the most respected names in reference publishing. Their acclaimed reference works have sold in excess of a million copies. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is regarded as one of the world’s foremost research facilities devoted to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of materials documenting black life.

Reviews
‘Indispensable for those interested in the African American experience. We have no better source for quick and reliable information.’ ~ Cornel West, Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

‘As much about African American culture as one could possibly gain from one volume is now available in this highly readable, easily accessible, genuinely informative desk reference.’ ~ Johnetta B. Cole, PhD, President Emerita, Spelman College; Presidential Distinguished Professor, Emory University

Malcolm X: His Life & Legacy (1995)

Commissioned in 1993, just after the release of Spike Lee’s movie on the same subject, Kevin Brown’s second book attempts to chronicle the rise and fall of Malcolm X as well as that of rival leader Martin Luther King against the backdrop of the civil rights and black nationalist movements.

Reviews
Q: What was the purpose behind writing this particular book?
A: A more ambitious book, Malcolm X attempts to chronicle his rise as well as that of rival leader Martin Luther King against the backdrop of the civil rights and black nationalist movements.

Formally, I wanted to explore two literary genres: biography; and the essay. Malcolm X aspires to all the things biography has historically been–didactic, exemplary, commemorative, cautionary– everything but hagiographic. Formal or informal, lyric or expository, solemn or satirical as the context requires, Malcolm X is essentially an attempt at a vividly nuanced biographical essay, interpretive analysis of the Nation of Islam in the larger context of the civil rights movement and a theory of his sudden reemergence as pop-culture icon a generation after his assassination. Ideally, the aim was to combine both forms to achieve something of the wit and perspicacity of Strachey’s superb quartet, Eminent Victorians.

Biographically, in writing about a figure as simultaneously overexposed and elusive as Malcolm X, the challenge was either to say something about him that hadn’t already been said, or to say it in a different way. The tension between myth and memory as well as the use of multiple perspectives and interior monologue were intended to reveal as many facets of his character from as many angles as possible. The idea was to evoke both subjective and objective reality, revealing the minds of Malcolm and Muhammad at work–their ambitions, their frustrations and reasoning, however flawed. This multiplicity of ‘truths’ was intended to create the impression of complexity, not confusion. Far from mere conceit, this technique seemed the most economical means, in a book so short, of illuminating character from the inside out.

I wanted to reach the broadest possible audience in the liveliest possible manner while remaining true to my own aesthetic; to create a provocative portrait without resorting to shock tactics. Was Malcolm X merely a ‘talented rabble-rouser’, as one critic put it, or was he an inspired and inspiring teacher? A little of both, I think. Malcolm’s life, like his Autobiography, is a classic story of transformation and redemption. Whatever his lasting political and philosophical legacy, recognition of his courage, charisma, intelligence and influence in struggling to articulate the plight of African Americans and its implications for the country at large is long overdue. 1995 being the 30th anniversary of his assassination, it seemed a good time to reassess, citing a fairly representative cross-section of thinking by contemporary writers on Malcolm X, just what his life might mean for mine and future generations.

Romare Bearden: Artist (1994)

Depicting the life of Romare Bearden, a biography tells the story of a brilliant artist who created powerful collages and paintings of humanity from the perspective of African-American experience. Bearden’s Southern childhood, teenage years in New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and lifelong struggles with channeling his artistic talent fuel this thoughtfully presented book. Black-and-white reproductions and a few color plates give an indication of the artist’s work. ~ Horn Book

Reviews
Q: What was the purpose behind writing this particular book?
A: I first learned of Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Jacob Lawrence, Augusta Savage, Hale Woodruff and other African-American artists through my great-grandmother, who had known them all and proudly owned their work. Romare Bearden was a family friend, Harlem Renaissance poet Countée Cullen having been an early supporter and collector. Even at his death in 1988, Bearden was still underrated in comparison with New York School contemporaries like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell or even post- Harlem Renaissance contemporaries like Jacob Lawrence. Romare Bearden, my first book written under contract, afforded me an opportunity to: (1) help bring his work to the attention of an ever-widening public; (2) explore my African- American heritage, namely the Great Migration of blacks to the urban North from the rural South between World Wars I and II; and further my interest in the visual arts.