Chronology by Zahra Patterson (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
To “review” Chronology is already a commitment wrought with problems. Zahra Patterson’s collection of emails, notes, fragments, mementos, and micro-memoirs is flourished with purpose, responsibility, and urges to know fully. It is documentation of the process of translating works in languages that have been barricaded behind the ongoing colonialism of history, the limitations and suppressing qualities of publishing and its industry, and of a stifling and undaunting, contemporary geographical isolation. Chronology is also about time, and commitment. It is about the travels that surround projects and an exploration of personal ties to place and people. To language. It is about relationships: where they come from, how they become acknowledged, and how they grow. It is about memory, and the efforts writers can take (and do) as they seek out the beauty in the periphery of culture, in the slowness of the present. And it is about life, and the need to be and to move, to open and close through curiosity and growth and self-awareness.
The translation itself is arbitrary; what is important is my interaction with her language.
But summarizing the book with all of those qualities, while true, excludes the radical core of Chronology. It also excludes the extraordinary lineage of works Patterson accepts, interprets, and contributes back to: inspirations like Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha; Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip; and the theories of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (to name a few). Chronology is an examination of ethnic and racial power and pride, presenting numerous conversations Patterson has on blackness in the context of the United States and Africa. It is a plausibility towards ancestry and the history of multiple peoples, of identity, and of disconnection and displacement. It is an ongoing conversation of the necessary translation that contributes to health and progress in a globalized, post-colonial vision. Chronology is a dive into risk through the project that is generative of success, failure, and the remarkable acceptance of both. It is about human achievement and human stories, and the equity that can bind us and elevate us through both.
And Chronology is also a book about language in all of its amazement, its transfigurations, its complexities, and its own problems. The book seeks to remedy what is taken for granted in the act of translation, in the conversion and explored movement between one language and another. It recognizes the power of language and the vulnerability of language as it is approached, as it is messily understood, and as it may or may not satisfy. Language’s importance consists of its derivation from relationships, and from the resources that are created by the efforts of humans. From the lack of dictionaries to the inherent personalized experience of communicating to the emerging witness of orthography, of receiving assistance, of engaging serendipity, language and translation is of incredible essence. In Chronology, the core of languages forms the spine and the soul of the work and the project, and Patterson’s treatment is careful, restless, and dutifully challenging. There is a sense of mindfulness. There is a sense of consciousness. There are senses of morality and respect. And there is a sense, again, of the equity of human stories.
I could have gone to Malawi and stayed out of debt. But I had to come to Cape Town to find who I am. This city is me: the separate coexistence of Europe and Africa. Yet I am one. And it is one. The separation is part of the whole. What completes the essence is the unbearable dichotomy within it. Yet we bear it, don’t we. The Monster—the oppressed. The Fool—the oppressor. And vice-versa. And within all of us western-ethnic folk, we carry and cope with this dichotomy. When you become your own monster’s fool, you will have achieved self-awareness. Then you can live with your dual self.
But no matter what lens Chronology is explored through, there is the challenge of representing it as fully as it can be, representing it through any review or otherwise, and understanding its fullness as being filled with the unseen, the personal, the interpretable, and that which is outstanding. Much of the book’s most enjoyable moments occur when there is a fluid sense of complexity, where the book might not be known as well as it could, where it deserves retreatment by the reader.
The stories contained within, which literally explore Patterson’s engagement with a short story written in the Sesotho language, which literally explore the ongoing friendship between Patterson and the late Liepollo Rantekoa, are stories that inform each other and contribute to the book’s structure and form. But in support of and additionally beyond those narrative threads, Patterson’s Chronology feels like an offered gift of self, for self. Noting the space that the reader can be, that of the “the other,” is an occupied, intentional space that promotes connectivity and a humble resolve. Chronology, for me at least, induced a pressure to find love and fulfillment within my own realms as modeled by those pressures described in Chronology.
What is my function? I am not mere bystander critiquing orthographic politics and the violent gift of literacy. I am a writer. A speaker of English. I am not a translator or a speaker of Sesotho. What right do I have to embark on this project? An emotional pang—is that a right?
And so, what is the fuller (or simpler) description of the conversation of “the ultimately failed” project that is contained within Chronology? Much of it can and should be, at least in this space, this review, left up for mystery. We as a collective of readers have much to gain through the examinations and periods of self and selflessness, and their joyful and difficult overlaps, that Patterson has chosen, with intentionality and empathy, to include. To acknowledge the courage underlying this providing of reflection as intense and determined work, in all of intricacies, is to recognize Chronology as an act of productivity, beauty, and graciousness.
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All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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