Translation as Care: On Fabienne Kanor’s “Humus,” Translated from French by Lynn E. Palermo

By Jennifer Boum Make

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?

Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,

in that gray vault. The sea. The sea

has locked them up. The sea is History.

Derek Walcott

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, humus is “a brown or black complex variable material resulting from partial decomposition of plant or animal matter and forming the organic portion of soil.” Fabienne Kanor’s novel Humus, published in French in 2006, elucidates this geological term as the text constitutes a polyvocal archive of an incident dating from 1774: fourteen anonymous African women escaped the hold of the slave ship Le Soleil and leaped overboard to resist their enslavement. Only six of them survived while the others drowned or were killed by sharks. In the “Afterword” to the English translation of the novel by Lynn E. Palermo published by the University of Virginia Press in September 2020, Gladys M. Francis reminds us of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of recovering the voiceless and effaced experiences of these fourteen women. Indeed, the report of the tragic incident in the logbook of Le Soleil’s captain, Louis Mosnier that Kanor consulted during a visit to the archives in Nantes, “succinctly notes that six [of the fourteen women] survived while the others died from shark bites” (191). From such an impersonal telling of the incident grew a polyphonic novel containing a plurality of independent women’s voices. From a line of text in Mosnier’s logbook, Kanor grew the stories of unarchived voices. The title, Humus, thus reflects in French and in English the storytelling process undertaken by both the author and the translator – to grow something out of a heterogeneous and complex chorus of unheard voices. 

Then humus, the word and the formation process it suggests, is a way to symbolize both Kanor’s voicing of the silenced agency of the fourteen captives and Palermo’s work of translation. The humus layer, in a geological sense, is formed of residues released during the degradation of organic matter contributing to its heterogeneous composition. Kanor’s novel, much like humus’s multiform content, is necessarily polyphonic with the intent to capture and reveal the many different languages these women spoke as well as the diversity of their experiences. In fact, up until their lives intersect when they are captured and sold into slavery, we understand that these women have very little in common. Each woman tells her own story connecting past (before her capture), present (the space of the slave ship’s hold preceding the collective act of resistance) and future (the reclaiming of silenced voices).

Each woman has a distinctive nickname. Each section of the novel features a different first-person narrator identified with her nickname, starting with “the mute woman” who tries to find the words, tries to remember her name; and closing with “the heiress” who, in a more contemporary present, inherits the weight of silence on the colonial past and thus seeks to retrieve the stories of these fourteen women lost to the sea. In her translation choices, Palermo retains the distinctive elements that point to the wide range of cultural identities of the women spanning across Africa: for example, in the section recounting the twin sisters’ [les jumelles] story, the main text presents song lyrics in Wolof with the translation included as a footnote (97); or, words such as Blolo (the otherworld for the Baule people), Walai, or Gorgorou remain italicized with no further indication of the cultural context (95).

With her novel, Kanor converts the loss and absence that mark the experience of slavery into recovery and presence. From the single line in Le Soleil’s captain’s reporting the women jumping overboard, “the heiress” uses imagination to fill the gaps trying to find “the language to speak the invisible” (186). Similarly, Palermo tasks herself to find the words in English to grow and circulate these stories of resistance. In fact, the voices of these women, reclaimed a first time through Kanor’s writing, resonate all the more so through the act of translation that takes over the work of transmission of stories from slavery and colonial times as well as intensifies the resilience and agency of women. At a virtual event organized by Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, PA (support your local bookstores!) in November 2020, Fabienne Kanor and Lynn Palermo came together to discuss the novel in their respective roles of author and translator: Kanor read a section from the novel in French while Palermo was reading the same section from the English translation. The two voices echoing each other created a live soundbox that solidifies a path of memorialization in our present day.

More precisely, the words that shape these women’s brutal experience of enslavement are the necessary instruments to curate a collective history illuminating the lasting effects of slavery and the legacy of colonialism. Briefly going back to the physical properties of humus in a geological sense, such material retains nutrients and moisture greatly improving the structure of the soil and thus making it ideal for plant uptake and growth. Similarly, the stories of these captives having emerged from the silence constitute the newly-formed archives of the Atlantic slave trade and of colonization critical to the subversion of omitted or erased historical knowledge. While Kanor addresses the gaps in our knowledge of the Atlantic slave trade, in particular of enslaved women’s lives, Palermo confirms the relevance of a sustained involvement with the marginalized voices of history to not only make them visible but also interrogate how we now coexist with the uncovered.

“‘We are the papa-feuilles, the healers,’ Peter whispered to me [the heiress]. I stood up. Facing the book to come. Facing these walks where the ghosts nestled, ghosts who would soon fade away” (187). The untranslated expression ‘papa-feuilles’ might come from the phrase ‘papa poule’ in French which refers to the attentive father figure who looks after their children with extreme caution. Here, ‘feuilles’ or ‘papers’ in English replaces the word ‘poule’ or ‘hen’ in ‘papa poule’ referring to the hen brooding, to suggest attentiveness and responsibility towards the written words. The writer tends to the page curating the stories of voiceless others. This conclusion to the novel serves for us as a hint that the voicing of these women’s experiences, and their being relayed through translation, embodies a practice of caring. Caring can in this context be viewed as a way to include marginalized or rendered invisible subjectivities. In this way, Kanor’s writing and Palermo’s translation deploy a practice of caring as they ensure against further neglect and erasure. Kanor and Palermo conjointly engage in such practice and make us participate, as we read Humus, in a caring literary sphere.  

Kanor, Fabienne. Humus. Translated by Lynn E. Palermo. University of Virginia Press, 2020.

Jennifer Boum Make is Assistant Professor in the Department of French & Francophone Studies at Georgetown University. Her teaching and research include a focus on migration, and representations of otherness and hospitality in contemporary Caribbean and Mediterranean contexts. Her broad areas of interest include: Francophone postcolonial theory; Caribbean and Mediterranean Studies; ethics; as well as questions of mobility and circulation of people and cultures. She has published or has forthcoming publications in Crossings: Journal of Migration and CultureContemporary French and Francophone Studies: SITES, Convergences FrancophonesNouvelles Études Francophones, and Francosphères, among others.

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