On January 12, 2010, at seven minutes to four in the afternoon, an earthquake devastated the island of Haiti. The epicenter was 25 kilometers west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and measured 7 on the Richter scale. Within minutes, buildings and roads were reduced to rubble. The quake left hundreds of thousands dead and some 3 million injured or homeless.
“The situation here…yes…you cannot describe it…” said an aid worker, struggling to find words. “The dead are lying in the streets. Thousands of people are spending the night outdoors. They are lacking absolutely everything: water, food, medical care.”
Amid the ruins, a young man crouched behind an abandoned car, writing furiously. Beside him lay the corpse of a pregnant woman. As trucks rumbled past, piled with bodies and makeshift coffins, he wrote on. “I thought I was going crazy,” he recalled later. “This book saved my life.”
Makenzy Orcel was 26 when the earthquake struck. Born and brought up in Port-au-Prince, he had already begun to make a name for himself as a poet, but it was with Les Immortelles—the book that “saved his life”—that he achieved international recognition.
The novella is the fragmentary testimony of a prostitute from Grand Rue, the city’s red-light district, whose life has been shattered by the event she can scarcely bring herself to name. Earthquake, tremblement de terre in French, tranbleman tè in Haitian Creole—there is no word, in any language, that can adequately convey the scale of the destruction. She refers to it simply as cette chose, “this thing.” When she discovers her customer is a writer, she strikes a deal with him. Write about the whores who had “disappeared into this thing,” she commands him, a book “to bring them back to life and make them immortal…” In return, she offers to pay him in her only coin: her body. He takes the commission, but not the fee.
Who is speaking in Orcel’s strange narrative? The prostitute-survivor, or those that have died? The writer himself or the woman? A brutalized mother, or her lost daughter? Language collapses into “this thing,” a black hole of darkness and gravity, from which only a few splinters of light can escape. The story emerges in broken pieces: sentences blurted out, words tailing off, events half-remembered. It is a book where white space outweighs black ink, where silence screams.
Who is being haunted? What has been lost?
In November 2017, an Indian publisher who was bringing out an English edition of Orcel’s book approached me to work as an editor on the translation. My French is far from fluent, and ordinarily I would have hesitated to take on the job, but Les Immortelles had been translated by my dear friend, Annie Matthews. It was the last piece of work she completed before she died of lung cancer on October 27, 2017.
Editing her work was unlike anything I had done before: at once raw, painful, and healing. As I sat with her text on one side and Orcel’s original on the other, I found myself listening for the ghost-voices that lay beyond each. The story is narrated almost entirely by the nameless prostitute–the Whore of Grand Rue–whose grief and anger elevate her to near-regal status, worthy of capitalization. Her resounding voice makes it easy to forget that it is a man who is writing. I had assumed Makenzy Orcel was a woman, and was shocked when I discovered my mistake.
It was an uncanny process, trying to intuit Annie’s intention through the lines of the translation. I could hear, in her gravelly voice, the words that she’d considered and discarded before settling for the ones on the page in front of me. I’d argue with her. You’ve translated “Tous les cris de la terre on leur écho dans mon ventre” as “All the cries of the Earth find their echo in the pit of my stomach,” which is fine, but I’m just wondering whether “belly” is better than stomach—it’s got that overtone of pregnancy, y’know? On the other hand “pit of my stomach” sounds good and queasy, like “sick to the stomach,”so I can see why that would work… My dead friend and I tossed ideas back and forth as though she were sitting next to me, with a generous slug of single malt in her whisky glass and an ashtray full of cigarettes.
In the book, the Whore of Grand Rue tells the story to (and on behalf of) all her fellow sex workers who were killed in the quake. Makenzy Orcel has said he sees himself more as a medium than a creator: “Je pense que c’est plus sincère d’écrire dans la voix d’une femme…Dès que j’ouvre mon ordinateur pour écrire, c’est une femme qui parle.” (I think that it is more authentic to write in a woman’s voice. When I open my computer to write, it is a woman who speaks.) He talks of “glisser dans la peau d’une femme”—slipping into a woman’s skin—as though writing, for him, is not about appropriation, but surrender. It’s an act of possession, a kind of voodoo.
I find this quite hard to accept. Crossing the gender divide is not as easy as the verb implies. If a woman were to speak for a man, I doubt she would “slip” in quite so smoothly, the power politics being so stacked against her. I am not the only one to feel uncomfortable at the thought of a man stepping forward to speak on behalf of silenced women, rather than handing them the mic. On the other hand, Orcel is one of the few men who “gets” something that most women instinctively understand: that your gender, your body, can be a drag. And so he slips into their voices—the abused, the injured, the dead whores of Port-au-Prince—and delivers their stories, like a drag queen whose elaborate façade allows her to escape the dead weight of her gendered body, and soar.
The women in Orcel’s book suffer no fools. They may be desperate, but they are not to be pitied, these tough, foul-mouthed, tender, fierce survivors. The men, on the other hand—their customers—seem almost laughably willing to be duped, to have their egos massaged and their wallets emptied by these street-smart streetwalkers of Grand Rue.
Eight years after the earthquake, the prostitutes of Port-au-Prince made headline news. I had just finished working on the translation edits, and the characters in Les Immortelles suddenly seemed to walk out of the story and into real life. When The Times reporter Sean O’Neill broke the story of how Oxfam staff in Haiti had exploited and sexually abused the very women and young girls they had been deployed to protect, the shockwaves were felt around the world. Country director Roland van Hauwermeiren was forced to resign; Oxfam’s chief executive Mark Goldring announced he will step down at the end of this year; millions of dollars of revenue have been lost. Indeed, this is most calamitous for the thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods depended on the charity’s work.
The scandal has generated acres of newsprint, and yet the voices of the prostitutes themselves are infrequently heard. In one rare instance, The Guardian quoted a woman called Natasha who was back on the street a week after the devastation: “I didn’t have a choice,” she says. “It’s the only way I could make any money.” In another story on ITV, a young woman recalls how, just after the earthquake, van Hauwermeiren—aged sixty—saw her one day and told her, “I find you very sexy. How can I help you?” She was seventeen at the time, and eight months pregnant. According to the news report, today she feels neither angry toward nor exploited by him: “If God puts someone on your path to help you, it is something to be thankful for,” she says.
I wanted to hear more from her—what it meant to accept his help, what price was she willing to pay. How she’d react to the label so often applied to her cohort: victim.
Who is being haunted? What has been lost?
Les Immortelles opens with a fragment of poetry by the Japanese writer Natsume Sōseki:
Sans savoir pourquoi
j’aime ce monde
où nous venons pour mourir
(Without knowing why | I love this world | Where we come to die.)
As these lines were translated from Japanese to French and then into English, I wondered what nuances were lost and gained in the process. Is a successful translation one where you can’t tell it’s been translated? Not necessarily. For me, a good translation wears its heart on its sleeve: listen, and you can hear the syncopated rhythm of a different linguistic beat. The places where you stumble are, sometimes, where you find treasures.
It strikes me that the text I am working on is a palimpsest of many layers. A black Haitian man translating the thoughts of an imaginary (dead, pregnant) woman into French from the Haitian Creole that she most likely spoke, which is itself a mishmash of eighteenth-century French, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Taíno, and other West African languages. Then this French is being translated into English by a francophone Malayali from Delhi, and edited by a half-Bengali Brit based in Somerset. Languages of the colonizer, languages of the colonized. Language forced upon, language wrested from. The word “translation” derives from the Latin, and means literally “to bear across.” Salman Rushdie famously declared, “We are translated men,” referring to diasporic writers who, like him, have been “borne across the world.”
Les Immortelles is a work borne across myriad boundaries and borders, cultures and identities and languages. I choose to see the translated text not as a flawed approximation of the original, but instead akin to a piece of Japanese kintsugi—a broken pot, mended, its cracks lacquered in gold.
I moved from India to rural Somerset in 2015, long before Annie’s diagnosis. I am glad I no longer live in Delhi, that I don’t have to deal with an Annie-less city. I am selfishly relieved to not have to confront the everyday fact of her absence.
And yet, here I am, haunting her neural pathways, following in her word-steps through the story of a Haitian whore, herself haunted by those she has lost as she seeks to confer upon them a kind of immortality—resurrected forever in story.
As he lay on his sickbed in 1623, the poet and priest John Donne wrote: “All mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.” Donne pictures the afterlife as a bibliophile’s paradise: “God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.” In heaven’s library there is no need for translators. The pages of our lives commune with one another directly, skin-to-skin, like hands folded in prayer, word and meaning collapsed together in an everlasting intimacy.
But so much slips through our fingers. I can no longer hold Annie’s hand, nor hear her sardonic voice. And the same will be true of us all, in the end. And so we write to cheat death. To have our words, our minds, our very souls live on to haunt those who outlast us. But we write also to celebrate—to bear witness to this fragile, mended, cracked, marvelous world. It is the only one we will ever know, the only one we are privileged to explore, as we set out in these leaky coracles of muscle and skin: these aging bodies, yours and mine, Annie, with our pennants flying.
In the last year of her life, Annie rejected Western medicine. She dug in her heels, over and over again, refusing to spend one more second of her remaining time on Earth battling the effects of chemotherapy. She chose instead to live out what time she had surrounded by the people she loved, looking after herself, eating well and healthily. In all the photos from that time, she looks radiantly happy. Although I know there were dark days of pain and grief, I see in her a woman alight with the sharp realization of life’s limits, blazing in the full knowledge that it will end.
Annie loved this world where we come to die. I think she must have enjoyed translating Les Immortelles, hearing the irreverent, caustic, heartbroken voices of those Haitian hookers in her head. I wonder if she lost herself in translation. It’s a liberating thought: that reading can allow you can escape the prison cell of the self, to slough off your skin and go, quite literally, “out of your mind.” To surrender to the pleasure of the text.
The French phrase to describe orgasm, la petite mort, forges the link between sex and death, and Roland Barthes took it a step further with the term jouissance. The word is sometimes translated as “bliss” or “ecstasy,” often sexual. But Barthes’s “jouissance” is really an untranslatable term, encompassing a sort of swoony pleasure, a playfulness, joy, and a shudder—a frisson—like a bell that reverberates in harmony with something else. I feel it in my guts, my belly: the earth’s voice raised, not in a cry of pain, but in song.
I suppose, in writing this, I am trying to translate my grief into a better language. To shake my fist at death, and, in some small way, to enable Annie’s work to joyfully live on where she does not. And to shout to the world that the prostitutes of Haiti, and all those who lost their lives or their children—born and unborn—to the horrors of “cette chose” will not be forgotten. That their voices will be heard, those translated women, as they laugh and curse, dream and crack and grieve and come.