The Politics of Language, In & Of Translation
—Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, 2017)
—Invasive species, by Marwa Helal (Nightboat Books, 2019)
At a moment where the freedom of movement is no longer a human right, time itself expands, unless it dissolves, becomes measureless; waiting becomes a way of life. Wait from Anglo-French waiter, to watch over, await, akin to Old English wæccan, to watch. More at wake. Which is another form of passing, to pass or pass over, another form of death, or life, a formality or ritual.
It’s not hard to see the effect of nation-formation on the autonomy of the individual; it’s not hard to see how individuals today, as in the past, are dehumanized in service of a collective (and collected) security. Walter Benjamin, writing his “Critique of Violence” in 1921, could only imagine the “formless”—and also faceless—security apparatus that engulfs today’s police and political interventions via the invisible gaze of biometrics, yet his words echo across the century, anticipating not merely a globalized police state but one that is both “ghostly” and “all-pervasive,” conflating both the image of the border police and a police without borders. All of this to help the nation secure and sustain itself through racialized, sexualized, gendered, and religion-specific eligibility requirements for citizenship, a system which exists to sort and separate desirables and undesirables, an instructional model for its own citizens who reinforce the importance of the nation and its exclusionary construction of citizenship whenever we uphold particular norms, rules, values, and principles, the privilege of having documents; we who are ourselves turned into texts, to be written and rewritten by the state.
If it’s true that every revolution begins on the level of language then Marwa Helal’s Invasive species (Nightboat Books, 2019) provides the instructions on how to re-orient our way of reading each other and ourselves on the very first page, in her “poem to be read from right to left” which ends by articulating the inherent re-possession of translation:
number the counting
words English of
to takes it
in 1 capture
Language: it is the way, and it gets in the way. These are the paradoxes and inherent contradictions that Helal grapples with, critiques, unpacks, extends. Much later, she lets readers in on her practice and process, turning the resignation of her opening into the opening-up of creation: “i am trying to tell you something about how/rearranging words/rearranges the universe” (“generation of feeling” 98). And amid all of this, she waits for it, allowing us an intimate entry into the various set pieces of her own migratory life; if this book is about waiting it is also about being in the liminal space between transport, between passage; in the hold of the immigration industrial complex in every sense of the word. In the sprawling essay, “Immigration as a Second Language” that comprises the second-half of the book, Helal recounts the U.S. Census Bureau agent who visited her home to ask why her father had checked off so many boxes for race (“We get mistaken for just about everything around here and not one of us is the same color as the other,”), her being “aged out” of immigration benefits at age 21, her repeated visits to the U.S. embassy in Cairo, her entrance into the U.S. and through customs, her citizenship induction in Brooklyn, and through all of it: the waiting that turns into expectation; the expectation that turns into being turned away—“it’s as if they never saw it, as if I had never been there at all—erased, gone. Like the anthrax but this time I’m here for it,” she writes. “Witnessing my own erasure.”
Helal, though, knows a thing or two about survival and performance, about how to negotiate the in, and the out, and the in-between of telling “a story in this language when I exist in another,” using a mix of self-archival and autoethnography, of recording and being, of performing the act of writing while living it, and of showing us her own field notes—“ive grown tired of keeping a safe distance,” she writes in “returning note no. 5”—code-switching while signaling Simone White, Nirvana, Julio Cortázar, Roberto Bolaño, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, James Baldwin, June Jordan, Gil Scott-Heron, Soundgarden, Juvenile, DJ Khaled, Freak Nasty, and many, many more voices, re-writing not only her own immigration but the space of the book on which it oscillates, an architextural expansiveness that manifests in a mix of poetry, essay, journalism, dreams, questionnaires, sample abstracts, emails, Amazon ads, newspaper clippings, remixes, epilogues, and epiepilogues—for Helal, the point is not to stop; it’s only ever to keep going.
And yet it is impossible to read her debut poetry collection without pausing to think about the politics of language; about the language that is the way and gets in the way. About the ethics of translation. About how exile itself is a translation of everyday life; a way of life that suggests—and demands—a new way of reading.
In negotiating the imperative of care and attentive response with the fetishization of both the migrant and their languages, the translator today inevitably implicates themselves as agents in either the reproduction of existing ideologies or in their resistance. Nevertheless, the universalizing logic of the “Western way” so commonly employed in aid organizations is endemic not only in the camps sheltering migrants during their application to asylum but also immigration inspections and asylum interviews, where translators interpret accounts and explanations of the “foreigner” through their own worldview. Valeria Luiselli, who wrote about her experience working as an interpreter for asylum seekers in New York City in her 2017 book-length essay, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Coffee House Press), troubles the divide between the social and political and the legal and ethical questions of translation while acknowledging her own responsibility in deciding the fate of people without agency, so many of whom are children.
The performance of asylum interviews is a continual negotiation between applicant and interviewer, but one that is often fraught with bias and stereotypical assumptions, whether in regard to a perceived presentation of sexuality, or the degree of danger from which people are escaping. When Helal writes of the flaunting of Christianity in the U.S. embassy waiting rooms of Cairo, we are reminded that identity is a performance that suggests its own (re)enactment, and for different ends. Nevertheless, today’s asylum applicants are forced to prove their victimhood, a debased candidacy bolstered by offering documentation or offering one’s self up to medical examinations, oftentimes below the standards required by international human rights law. The stakes have risen so much during the application process that countries like Germany have established separate centers for investigators—“refugee detectives,” as a recent article in The Atlantic describes—tasked with deciding who gets to leave and who gets to stay, a sorting of persons administered through techniques and procedures that demand narratives devoid of generic details, yet ones that also include a level of journalistic specificity and emotional resonance—rather, it is a story fit to a predetermined form.
The self-interest of writers and scholars meets a fetishization of suffering that so often turns a human into a human interest story. Ruben Andersson, in his 2014 book, Illegality, Inc.: Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe (University of California Press), goes as far as to assert that researchers’ intense interest on suffering forecloses the field of refugee studies into a study of refugees who most fit or are willing to perform a certain sensationalized image of refugee life. In this presentation of self, what is on display is less a human being than the migrant requiring human security, the coded refugee connoting absence and lack. What is obscured in our limited collective imagination is not just the body of the migrant but the fact of their movements. Mobility itself is called into question once we no longer recognize its processes in everyday life. Crucially, Helal reminds us that the limitations of our collective imagination are not limited to the field of migration studies or the media; they proliferate, too, in classrooms, in workshops, in the expectations of other writers and editors—a moment in which the private self becomes bracketed by a broader public’s ideas, its possession and perversion of others; all those who remain indiscernible and yet attractive to a culture which is used to reproducing everything in its own image:
he says the substance is lacking a center [sic]; a traditional plot / says [i] miss where [im] from and [i] set flashbacks while [i] walk around san francisco / he wants to know what makes [my] story so much more interesting and provocative than others? / … but i understand that what brad means is he wants to see camels and more of his own ideas of egypt in my work and this is how this poem becomes its own genius annotation …
“poem for brad who wants me to write about the pyramids”
Invasive species becomes not only a cultural critique on Western practices of imperialism, colonization, racism, police brutality, state security, toxic masculinity, and xenophobia—“it ought to be a diagnosable disease,” Helal writes—but also and especially, a crucial reminder of our own complicity in an inequitable immigration system that bars people’s ability to pass; the direction and the directing of the displaced; the inscription of borders along the earth and on the body, sealed and at the same time amputated by walls, trenches, electrical fences, barbed wire: a space that is at the same time inside and outside. And how to begin writing about one’s story while using the master’s tools, as Audre Lorde once wrote, or as Helal writes here, resisting her own stereotype, resisting her own suffering, resisting the language of the oppressor, and the linguistic power structures of standardization and capitalization: “Tired of fighting myself on how to tell this story without betraying myself. Every trope is a trap. Even the one you write yourself.” Ultimately, then, Invasive species is an account of our broken past, our broken present; about our collective vigil—and what we wait for is hope, an intimation of our own accountability. “This is America. This is the America we have been waiting for,” Helal writes, as she waits to be sworn in as a citizen of the United States. And yet the waiting that pervades this book, this story, consummates not as an administrative certification or bureaucratic stamping; it arrives, instead, into the renewal of self-realization, self-autonomy, the re-appropriation of categorical difference that heralds the book’s title. “So I made my own term,” Helal writes, after casting out the state terminology of illegality, “I, Invasive species. … The America I return to is the one we are making together.”
It is—again and again—our fundamental lack which opens us to errancy. In the language of exile, even the marks of traversal, even its traces and tracelessness, even this placelessness becomes an act of saying I, in which we are carried by our experience, our dreams, our questions, our home which becomes a question unlike any other—where are you from?—and the memories that return us to ourselves: visible and invisible, inchoate and abundant. If “poetry is the work of the dreaming” as Helal writes, and “poems do work journalism cant” (“dreamwork”), then the poet in an age of disinformation and disenfranchisement must become more than just a writer but a recorder, through which every personal accounting becomes a statement of record.