The judges’ citation reads: “A touchstone of Kenyan literature, Katama Mkangi’s Walenisi begins with a reimagination of events from the dictatorial Kenyatta and Moi regimes. The novel’s protagonist, sentenced to death for “talking too much,” miraculously escapes his fate by piloting the space ship intended as his grave to the utopian planet Walenisi, where a journey of self-discovery begins. Blending parable and science fiction, Mkangi, who was imprisoned for his pro-democracy advocacy, satirizes global capitalism and postcolonial authoritarianism while presenting a speculative vision of an egalitarian future. Richard Prins translates this thrilling ride with humor and verve — a rare chance for English-speakers to read an Africanfuturist work originally written in an indigenous African language.”
On a more personal note, I first read Walenisi about fifteen years ago while studying Swahili as an undergraduate. Though I wasn’t yet fluent in the language, I could easily discern what wild and courageous vision was at play in this novel. I didn’t get around to rereading the novel until I came across a copy in a bookstore in Dar es Salaam last summer. I didn’t even think about translating it, because at that point I was so immersed in Swahili songs and poetry. But through a set of serendipitous circumstances, I wound up translating the first chapter for an anthology of Swahili fiction that will be published by Two Lines Press next year – and now, with the encouragement of this grant, I am hopeful about taking on the rest of the novel.
Meanwhile, back on the poetry front, several of my translations of the 19th century Mombasan poet Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy have appeared lately, such as “He Shuns Me” in Rattle, “Days of Eating Junk” in Action, Spectacle and “What Would You Do For a Treat?” in Tampa Review.
I translated three Swahili hip-hop songs by my frequent collaborator Sloter and his legendary duo LWP Majitu, and they are up today on the “Translation Tuesdays” feature of Asymptote‘s blog.
No matter what language you’re speaking, hip-hop has been a vehicle for some of the best verse of the last few decades, and Tanzania is no exception. Though I’ve spent much of the last year focused on the classical 19th century poetry of Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy, I am continually struck by the myriad ways in which LWP echoes his humorous and satirical portraits of daily life, whether it’s 19th century Mombasa or modern day Dar es Salaam.
Several of my translations of Muyaka have also appeared recently – and several more are forthcoming. You can simply click the “Swahili Translation” tab above to continue perusing.
On my last day in Dar es Salaam, while convalescing from a mild case of food poisoning, I recorded this song, shot this music video, and made it to the airport on time. (Now I am back in New York, where I will feel accomplished if I remember to wake up from my afternoon nap). This is my first foray into singeli music, a sped-up spinoff of mchiriku music, which is itself a modern take on the traditional music of the Zaramo people indigenous to the region of Dar es Salaam. I think it’s the hottest stuff coming out of East Africa right now – in fact my daughter can instantly discern an mchiriku beat as “Daddy’s work music” since I rarely listen to anything else while trying to make myself write. If you find yourself digging its frenetic melodies, there are many artists far less gimmicky than myself you should check out!
I just got back from a brief trip to Dar es Salaam, where I was fortunate enough to record two new songs with my frequent collaborator Sloter, from the famed Swahili hip-hop duo LWP Majitu. Here is the video for “Poa”:
We launched the song during an interview on TBC, the national radio broadcast, an excerpt of which can be viewed here:
Recently, I have been devoting the majority of my creative energies towards translating Swahili poetry. The Swahili language is host to a rich poetic tradition dating back to at least the 17th century, but it is rarely translated (and even more rarely translated for literary appreciation rather than academic purposes). My first published translations in nearly a decade just appeared in the spring issue of Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation, specifically the poems and songs “Cassava From Jang’ombe” by Siti Binti Saad, “Amina” by Shaaban Robert, “It’s No Big Deal To Catch Fish” and “You Might Walk On Land, Hippo” by Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy, “My Old Dowry Chest” by Abd ai-Rahim Sai’d Muhammad Ba Salim, and “[O tapper of palm wine]” and “The Song of the Trees” by unknown authors. You can also read a note I wrote about the translations.
I also have a pair of translations appearing at the end of the month in Los Angeles Review, one poem by the great 19th century Mombasan poet Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy (1776 – 1840) and another by the 20th century Tanzanian poet Mathias E. Mnyampala (1917 – 1969). And in the fall I will begin my MFA in literary translation at Queens College. While embarking on a second MFA might make me sound like some sort of walking parody in a hipster sitcom, I am nevertheless very gratified to be doing what I can to bring these works to the attention of English readers.
And while you are reading my translation of this song, do enjoy the legendary Bi Kidude singing “Muhogo wa Jang’ombe”. It was getting this chorus stuck in my head six months ago that kickstarted my recent flurry of translation. At the time this video was recorded, she was the oldest living performer the world.
Additionally, I received the news that my essay “Down and Up in Dar es Salaam”, which was published last year in Witness Magazine, has been listed as “Notable Travel Writing” in the collection Notable Travel Writing of 2020. It’s always gratifying when someone out there in Editor Land finds one of my little misadventures “notable”!
Eek – it’s been a couple years since I posted anything here. To rectify that, I would like to point your attention to two new essays of mine that were published by Terrain.org over the last few weeks – the first, “Teach Me How To Fight” about gentrification and segregation in Brooklyn as my daughter experienced it when she was two years old (I also have a piece in the newest issue of Rattle called “Arrest This Poem” that features very similar language, just with line breaks; it should be online sometime in the spring.)
The second essay, as part of their “Letter To America” series, is about my time growing up in Michael Bloomberg’s New York. I hope that going live the day before Super Tuesday will allow me to take credit when his campaign fizzles out at the polls tomorrow.
You can view some other new work by clicking the “Poems” or “Prose” tabs above; I do update those pages more frequently than every two years.
My poem “Bless Me Editor” from Rattle’s previous print issue went up on their website today, including a somewhat manic audio recording. I think it’s a wild ride through my psyche, and I hope you enjoy it!
Another music video from my latest trip to Dar es Salaam. This one is a collaboration with my friends Man Dili and Melali Juma in the mchiriku style endemic to Dar and its surrounding areas. It’s called “Harakati” (meaning “Movement” or “Activism”). I hope you enjoy!
I just got back from Dar es Salaam, and have the music video for my latest Swahili hip-hop collaboration ready for your enjoyment, featuring Sloter from the old-school duo LWP and introducing Kemy. Thanks to Mubbyzow for producing and Shakka for directing.