“My Home is ‘the between’”: An interview with N.S. Koenings (Swahili)

We’ve reached our fourth installment of Translator’s Cut, our journey around the literary world with the translators who make world literature possible. In this issue we’ve reached the continent of Africa and the Swahili language. We feature Nathalie S. Koenings, a fiction writer, anthropologist, and translator who spent her childhood in East Africa, speaking Swahili, French, and English. Her fiction draws on her work in anthropology, where her main concerns have been popular geography and the historical imagination in East Africa. Her published work includes the novel The Blue Taxi and the short story collection Theft, as well as scholarly articles about popular history and politics in rural Zanzibar.


K.E. Semmel: Let’s start with Swahili-language literature. Can you give us a brief overview of the history of Swahili literature? I know this is an enormous question, but it’s difficult finding satisfactory information on the topic.

me and frieda in pragueN.S. Koenings: I should say up front that I come to Swahili literature in a peculiar way. I am a long-time speaker of Swahili, an anthropologist of Zanzibar, and a writer of literature. I benefit enormously from the wisdom of people who study Swahili literature, but I am not among them. I’ll tell you what I do know. The heartland of the Swahili language—where people speak Swahili as their first and deepest language—is the Swahili Coast, the coast of East Africa, from Kismayu in present-day Somalia down to Nova Sofala in Mozambique. There, Swahili has been spoken since at least the sixth century. Archaeological evidence of sophisticated city-states engaged in vibrant trade along that coast dates back to the seventh century. The Swahili oral tradition—including historical accounts, poems, tales, and riddles, etc.—naturally dates back to the very birth of Swahili. But the 1700s present a wealth of written Swahili poetry. The School for Oriental and African Studies in London has anincredible collection of these, and there are amazing resources at UCLA, too, under the care of prominent Swahili Studies scholar Thomas Hinnebusch. Swahili literature has been knowledgably studied and written about by East African scholars and scholars from all over the world.

People in the West often don’t realize what a literary language Swahili is, and how important poetry has been. There is a long tradition of poetic exchange,kujibizana, in which poets provoke or challenge one another, and poems like this were often—are often still!!—political in nature. One of the most famous exchanges took place in 1812, during a battle between Swahili city-states. That exchange has been elegantly written about and translated by Ann Biersteker and Ibrahim Noor Shariff. But every area had its famous poets, and they competed against each other—which makes for a wealth of moving, energetic poems. And this tradition—of political debate in poetic form, and poetry as a means of history telling, even at the smallest local level—continues to this day. Naturally there are also love poems and didactic poems, the vast majority of these following very traditional meter and form. Swahili poetry has been plentiful and meaningful for a very long time. Swahili prose work, which is my concern, is another matter. The novel in particular is a twentieth century form, and here, your question about colonialism is really crucial.

KES: In what way did colonialism shape Swahili language and literature? What are some positive and negative effects?

NSK: From the 1700s until the late nineteenth century, Swahili was written in the Arabic script. When the European powers came, they viewed Islam (and Arabic-related things) as the competition. European missions were set up all over East Africa and Europeans pushed for a turn away from the Arabic script to the Roman alphabet. For the colonized, speaking and reading English, and writing Swahili in this new way were key to survival and advancement in the colonial world. The British schools taught English literature. Here, African students encountered Shakespeare, for example (whose works Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere translated into Swahili). And they also encountered the short story and the novel. Folk tales existed, of course, and people had all kinds of ways of telling stories. But the short story as such, and much more clearly the novel, were newer forms, and they are still far younger than the really venerable poetic tradition. Their emergence is linked to schools, colleges, and universities in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, all modeled on the British system. One of the Swahili writers I most admire—and whose work you read in Asymptote some time ago—is Mohammed Said Abdalla, author of the classic Bwana Msa mystery series. His first Bwana Msa story was published as the prize-winning entry in a 1958 story contest run by the East African Literature Bureau, which was opened in 1948 by the British High Commission at the insistence of British writer Elspeth Huxley. So there is a link there—between the colonizers’ educational system, British literature, and these literary forms.

There was some benefit to this, in that the 1960s and 1970s were a particularly rich time for Swahili prose literature—a sort of first wave, although some critics would say that much of that literature was either explicitly political in nature (socialist, communist) or formulaic in some way. I think there were terrific novels written then, and I myself don’t see what’s wrong with the political, or with traditional form as such, in fiction. But there’s currently a resurgence of more unpredictable work, coming from more diverse writers and in a rich variety of forms. And there have long been brilliant, very committed publishers working to support writers, publicize their work, and also encourage and foster fiction-writing and fiction-reading culture.

KES: From what I’ve read, the Swahili language itself seems to be penetrating deeper into the regions in which it is spoken. It should stand to reason, then, that a growing language would have a growing literature. Give us an idea of how large Swahili-language literature is today (i.e. books published, sold, etc.)  

NSK: Oh, I can’t imagine it. I have no mind for numbers, for one thing. But the Swahili-speaking world I am familiar with is in fact only a tiny portion of the whole. Very much Zanzibar. Some of Tanzania. And the headlines about Kenya. Or maybe I should say that the entirety of the Swahili-speaking world is enormous—as you say, Swahili is spoken in several countries in Africa, quite distant from that coastal strip which was the birth place of Swahili. It’s spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in some parts of Rwanda and Burundi, some parts of the Central African Republic and Somalia; it’s spoken in the Comoros and Seychelles, and in parts of Mozambique. And it may be surprising to know that it’s also spoken—fully and fluently—in Oman and in parts of India. So that is a huge, huge world of writers and readers. My guess is that it has grown, is growing, and that Swahili literature, given the infrastructure and political stability required, could continue to explode.

I can say some things about the places I do know. In Tanzania, there is first and foremost Mkuki na Nyota Press, led by longtime publisher Walter Bgoya, which publishes a lot of new novels and stories every year. And there is E&D Publishers, another energizing place, which last I heard is still the only press in Tanzania founded and run entirely by women. One of the founders is the wonderful Tanzanian novelist (and translator of Nurradin Farrah), Elieshi Lema. E&D also run a very successful community reading and writing program in Dar es Salaam, and they support local writers in every possible way. In Kenya, Billy Kahora and Wainaina Binyavanga among others have been doing amazing work with Kwani Press, and the yearly Kwani Literary Festival, which attracts prominent writers from all over the globe. The oldest press in Kenya is East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), run by Henry Chakava, who has been a leading figure in publishing since the 1970s. Just recently a partnership between EAEP and Cornell University resulted in the inaugural Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize being awarded to four Swahili-language writers. It’s great news in general of course, but I hope it also signals a future flourishing—Swahili literature appearing in translation as a matter of course in the English-speaking world.

I should say, though, that literature in Swahili has always been alive and well in newspapers all over East Africa. Serialized stories which may not make it into book form are widely read, and newspapers feature daily poem pages, too. People are always reading, so literature is alive. For example, bestselling Tanzanian popular author Eric Shigongo’s many—I don’t know what to call them (supremely violent, pulpy, macho, slasher?) novels became books after having been serialized and gaining a truly devoted following. What the publishers have been doing for a very long time and are continuing to do—maybe with even more success recently—is persistently nurture a book-reading and book-writing culture. The U.K. based African Books Collective does a lot to connect with publishers all over Africa and to make the best of their books available to readers across Europe and U.S. and elsewhere.

KES: Who are some of the Swahili-language writers that readers should be aware of?

50-1D0-33E7-50-9781611861822NSK: My first very excited suggestion is a recent translation of poems by Tanzania’s foremost modernist poet Euphrase Kezilahabi. The book, translated by Annmarie Drury, is called Stray Truths and it’s beautiful, so elegantly done. Secondly, readers should be on the lookout for the winners of the Cornell-Mabati prize… the one whose work I know is Mohammed Ghassani, a witty, pricklingly smart Zanzibari poet and journalist, whose knowledge of poetry—and of the Swahili language—is deep and broad. He publishes a new poem nearly every day and has a huge following among Zanzibaris at home and in the diaspora. Other Swahili literature in translation—of which there is sadly not much at all—includes Aniceti Kitereza’s Mr. Myombekere and His Wife Bugonoka, Their Son Ntulanalwo and Daughter Bulihwali, translated by Tanzanian novelist Gabriel Ruhumbika, and more recently the play He’s Far Too Much by Said Ahmed Mohammed, translated by Sara Weschler and Niwaeli Kimambo.

Readers of Tanzanian literature in Swahili will know: Shabaan bin Robert—a fiercely philosophical poet, essayist, and novelist writing in the first half of the twentieth century; the aforementioned Mohammed Said Abdalla, writer of classic mysteries featuring the pipe-smoking but famously ‘anti-Sherlock Holmes’ investigator Bwana Msa; Shafi Adam Shafi, a novelist of the social whose most famous book, Kuli, tells the story of the 1948 dock-workers strike in Zanzibar, and who has just published an important and boisterous memoir called ‘Far From Home’ (Mbali na NyumbaniLonghorn Kenya 2012); and, not at all least, Said Ahmed Mohammed, whose dramatic novels about ordinary life in Zanzibar are always both beautifully written and riveting. The best known of these are Asali Chungu (Bitter Honey) and Dunia Mti Mkavu (The World is a Dead Tree).

KES: The Muhammed Said Abdullah story you translated for Asymptote—“If Even the Spirit Child”—is a fun read. Part adventure, part detective novel (and detective novel takedown?).

NSK: It makes me so happy that people have liked the translation. I love the books so much. One reason: Growing up in Uganda in the early 1970s, we didn’t have access to a great variety of books. What we did have were Agatha Christie paperbacks my mother begged people to buy for her if they passed through an airport. We had every one of them. Agatha Christie taught me how to read. So despite my own literary leanings, I love mystery novels. I’ve been smitten with Mohammed Said Abdalla for years, from the moment I picked up the first book. And not simply for the storieswhich are rich, surprising, and always engaging, but for their language, which is so sophisticated, knowinga really fine, awe-inspiring and also uniquely original Swahili. And, as you say, MSA was against rude, invasive forms of inquiry than can, with their violence, destroy the very thing they aim to understand. He was looking for a gentler way.

KES: Can you describe your process of translating his work? What are some of the challenges you face?

NSK: Hm. I can say that once I understoodor perhaps only usefully imaginedthat MSA’s writing moves like ocean waves, we got on very well. I mean that the sentences move up and down in an arc, and come back upon themselves. There is a kind of heaving and a crash, or sometimes a slow and easy sloshing, always a clear lilt. Once I told myself ‘I will ride this wave with him,’ I felt very goodI mean, as if we were sailing.

A challenge… MSA loved Swahili. He knew all of its riches. And people in Zanzibar say ‘lugha ni bahari,’ language is an ocean (there, too, liquid words and waves). What’s meant is that the depths of language are unfathomable, that it stretches impossibly wide, that it has always been there and will be there long after we’re gone, and that while it can feed us and take us almost anywhere, it can also kill. One recurring technical matter is that MSA loved all the many words that a lazy reader might imagine to be synonyms but in fact are not. He might use three adjectives for somethingquite similar but not exactly. And the sound of the first one falls musically onto the second one, and so on with the third. That’s a puzzle for a translator. What’s important here? The three nearly similar but finely distinct qualities? The way the three carouse? The distinctions are so fine… searching for their English is that very discouraging haystack. And I would say, too, that in Swahili Bwana Msa sounds brilliant, discriminating, so wise and nice. In Zanzibar there is, culturally, the figure of a wiser older man who takes his time in speaking, who makes things crystal clear to every listener, and for whom listeners feel grateful. People make important time to hear. In my first drafts, Bwana Msa can seem to be repeating himself, or searching for a word he’s not yet found. But in Swahili he is neither uncertain nor a pedant. He’s a very warm, precise, and observant guy. How to make sure that in English he is charmingly acute?

KES: Abdullah is considered to be among the “fathers” of Swahili literature? What sets him apart?

NSK: Well, it’s true that the books are mystery novels. This can upset people, or make them suspicious, that his work is not ‘real literature.’ But his Swahili is so special, so marvelousseven or eight years ago a group of Zanzibari writers and scholars held a conference in his honor, or perhaps to restore his honor. They did call him the father of Swahili literature, saying that Mohammed Said Abdalla showed others the way forwardhow to let objects and setting speak, how to juxtapose characters in ways that said something not just about the story but quite naturally and without fanfare about the larger world, how to honor the Swahili language and its maritime roots but allow it, too, to carry a writer’s unique voice? And how to write in a way that emerges clearly from but also critiques Zanzibari culture.

KES: Have you had any luck finding a publisher for his novel? If not, what would you tell publishers to convince them to take a chance on the book?

NSK: At the moment I have been focusing on finishing my own novel. Next month I’ll be ready to take this question up again. On so many fronts, the Bwana Msa mysteries would be wonderful in English. International mysteries are selling very well. Mystery novels these days enable readers to encounter distant countries, different cultural worlds. Despite all these endless wars, or because of them, there’s a hunger, too, for understanding across great distances. Mystery novels do that and Bwana Msa does it perfectly.

Have you been to Zanzibar? I think that many English-speakers dream about Zanzibar, what life is like there; for many people it’s a symbol of what’s impossibly far away. What could be better for those readers than a mystery novel? And not just one, but one that they could read knowing there are more to come, that they can get comfortable with Bwana Msa, his trusty companion Najum, and his nemesis Inspector Seif. And the books are funny and wild, and eventful. I would love to know that English-language readers had the chance to share in these adventures.

Many tourists go to Zanzibar, for the startling beaches. Windsurfing and snorkeling. So I have a daydream, of tourists reading Bwana Msa, these lovely, funny, beautifully written books that tell really Zanzibari stories. Bwana Msa’s handle on Zanzibari life is so strong, clear, in tune. He sees everybody: down-on-their-luck drinkers, thieves, traditional healers, orphans, innocents, landladies, washerwomen, businessmen and farmers, teachers, doormen, bureaucrats, and sailors. And these are characters that, whatever their language or background, every reader knows.

KES: You also write your own fiction, with two books already published and a third on the way. Do you find that your work as a translator informs your own writing?

NSK: The relationship between my fiction and my work in literary translation. This is a huge question for me. It has a complicated answer.

I have a photograph of me, at one. I’m standing on my father’s lap, looking away from him, holding a pencil in the air like a divining rod. I look very patient. I am reaching in the air, waiting for the words to find me from the ether. I still feel exactly like that. So from the beginning, before I knew what they were, there was my own love of words. But that photograph was taken in Uganda. So, also from the beginning, I was white in Africa. The answer to your question is a question: how to freely and unworriedly tell stories of your own when the world that nurtures you is built on the violent suppression of other people’s voices? I mean: colonialism and imperialism, injustice on the grand scale that is the history of white people’s involvement in Africa.

I spent the first eight or nine years of my life in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania—and then many more, later, as a teenager in South Africa, coming into conscience, and then again much later as an anthropologist, in Tanzania and especially in Zanzibar. Swahili was there in the very beginning, and I spoke it as a child. My mouth and ears were full with it. There were so few whites around us—to me, Swahili was what the real people, the actual people, spoke. I myself—white people in general—we were not real at all. We were ghosts, ungainly, and mistakes.

Yet Swahili was always in my ears. And there I was stuck with French and English in my pen. When I was eight or nine, we moved to the United States, and Swahili fell away from me—or it fell asleep. I had a very strange experience, the physical feeling of which I remember, still, acutely. In college, I took one semester of Swahili. I didn’t feel that I was learning it. I felt that I was remembering. The words came bubbling up, and the sound of it was there, what I had heard so early. I could feel, physically, my brain and mouth filling with something that had always been there and was now sputtering back to life. I only studied it that one semester, I was mystified by what was happening. I studied on my own, I read and read, and I went to Kenya after graduating and—listen, I was clumsy, it was not a sort of fully-formed rebirth or anything like that, I didn’t suddenly, magically understand. But I talked to everyone I met, I listened and wrote words down all day. I asked everybody questions—what is this, how do I say this, have I made a mistake? It was totally consuming, and my ears and skull ached with it, as if some old boundaries were being broken down. It took some years for it to happen—but I remember it very clearly, too. I was in Mombasa on a bus and I felt a cracking in my skull—a real headache that would last for days—and for a moment I couldn’t see, but I could hear all the conversations at once, overlaying, playing on the air and also what was being said outside on the street—I became delirious with—I don’t know. Joy? Some kind of return. What exactly happened, cognitively, biologically—others will know that—but it was an amazement. This world and your ears agreeing to a contract that you’re never going to break. I imagine many people experience something like this. What a gift it is!

Kyle, forgive me. There’s a detour. It is hard to speak of a relationship between my fiction and my work in literary translation without taking an intermediary step—I do have an MFA in fiction writing, but I only did that after completing a doctorate in Socio-cultural Anthropology. I spent several years in Zanzibar, on Pemba Island, collecting stories about the role of witchcraft in politics and in ordinary life. I did do this with some enthusiasmwho wouldn’t? But what I loved the most about being on Pemba was learning its Swahili. Pemban Swahili is very special, very different from the standard Swahili taught in schools across East Africa, very old, very inventive, local, particular, lightening fast, and absolutely alive with poetry and fun. Words are pleasurable and valuable for themselves. I mean that people in Pembaand all over the Swahili Coastplay very consciously with language. Who knows this ancient word? Who can speak in the most clever pleasing way? There’s a wonder about speech and sound, and I really drank it in.

In some ways the language became more important to me than the topic of my research. I had a wonderful time learning so much from everyone. But when it came to writing my dissertation—which I did do, I did finishI had a terrible feeling, that I didn’t want to be talking about Pemban lives in any ‘expert’ sort of way. I wanted more than anything to continue listening to and speaking in Swahili. I mean that my brain and mouth were physically hungrynot for explaining anything to Westerners about Pemban lives, but to be steeped in all these words and sounds.

Something else was happening at the same time, and that was my realization that what I was and am, at heart, is a writer. That anthropology had been a sort of detour. So I joined the MFA program in Bloomington, Indiana. Which saved me by giving me a sacred opportunity to privilege my own work, my own visions and stories. And to turn away from anthropology, which I felt was killing something in me. And I was very luckily successful, publishing a novel and a collection of stories.

But there was always an unease. All fiction writers work with what they have, what their lives have shown them. Naturally we invent things but there are always contours, for everyone, there is material that comes from what we’ve lived. That frangipani tree I spent entire days in, hiding from my parents. My friends and our private games, the sounds and colors of it: grasshoppers drying on a towel, fruit bats preparing for the night, the pastel-colored cities, the smell of goats and cows, groundnut sauce and diesel, woodsmoke, red-painted cement floors. In Uganda, we lived just below one of Idi Amin’s killing grounds, there was shooting, all the time. What it was to be privileged, living in a war while other people fled, and neighbors and others that my parents knew just suddenly weren’t there and had certainly been killed? All of us have images that live very deep inside us. To this day, all I know to write about are stories set in Africa. These days, that includes the coasts, Lamu, Pemba, Zanzibar, where I spent so much time consecutively until I was thirty. And I do keep going back. But there is still this question of history, of whiteness. How can I write stories set in Africa if I am not in some way enabling African voices to be heard as clearly as possible? How can I move forward in America, simply as a ‘fiction writer,’ letting the past go? I couldn’t. I was very uneasy for a long time. In fact, after my second book came out in 2008, I felt that until I had made some progress on this issuewhich was existential, how to be a person on this earthI shouldn’t write my own fiction at all.

Along the way, I have always done freelance interpreting and translation work. I translated official documents, newspaper articles, scholarly essays, human rights testimonies, asylum petitions, even documentary footage about a rabies prevention program in Zanzibar. I have always done translation. And I have always been a writer. But there was a gap between my own literary fiction and then this very practical translating work. It seems very stupid nowliterary translation from Swahili into English had not occurred to me even once. How blind of me. It wasn’t until one day four or five years ago whenthrough the great kindness of two beautiful, very experienced translators of Swahili poetryAnn Biersteker and Annmarie Drury, who knew that I had been struggling with this question (how to bridge this divide between my feeling for Swahili and my own work as a fiction writer in English)Words without Borders contacted me to ask if I would translate a story for them. It was that proverbial light coming on, or a path in the forest, etc. The moment I began that worka story by Mwenda Mbatia, “Watumwa wa Uchochole” which we decided could be “The Wretched of Uhuru.” I felt immediately at home. Or that I had come home, somehow.

My whole life has been spent between languages. French at home (and my mother’s German, and my father’s Portuguese), English in school, and in childhood there had been Swahili everywhere. I had spent years wondering where my geographical home was. But what I suddenly and happily understood was that I have no geographical home at all and that perhaps I don’t need one. My home is ‘the between,’ especially in language. Or, my home is in translation. When I am translating literary Swahili I feel totally, gorgeously at homeeven with the huge difficulty of itbecause it is written work, which has been with me practically from birthand because it puts me in active relation with this language that has been with me for so long. That discovery has meant everything. No coincidence. When I began translating Swahili literature, I began writing my own fiction again. I’ve just finished my second novel. Has it been possible to write my own fiction again because I am taking steps to bring Swahili voices into the English-speaking world? I think so. I mean that I owe so much to Swahili speakers, people I have known and know and who have cared for me and taught me an infinity of thingsand that I can only write my own fictionset in African worldsif I am also trying in this small way to give something back. The literary translation is critical because it makes my own fiction possible.

Naturally, too, translating Swahili fictionoften set in the very worlds that fuel my own fictionkeeps me close, keeps those worlds in my eyes. Swahili literature teaches me new words all the time, new poetries and ways of saying. And those new poetries certainly feed my own work in English. Shall a thing be white as snow or white as jasmine blooms? Do you sleep like a log or as fiercely as a lion? Is it how are you, or where have you been hiding?


K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator. His most recent translation is Jesper Bugge Kold’s Winter Men. He is also the editor of the SFWP Quarterly and the curator of Translator’s Cut.

TANBIHI: Mahojiano haya yamechapishwa kwa mara ya kwanza na mtandao wa SFWP tarehe 1 Februari 2016.

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