10 Questions for Shanta Lee
- By Edward Clifford
The nanny Fidelia Córdoba kept her rhythm in her tetas. She'd been born on the banks of the River Sipí and she had bulging tetas, small and round like a pair of corozos, with retractile nipples that also had a sense of direction. They were all at once compass-sextant-weather-vane-plumb-line-quadrant-astrolabe-point-you-left-point-you-right, or wherever you need to go but never get you lost kinda nipples.
—from "Fidelia Córdoba" by Amalialú Posso Figueroa, Translated by Jeffrey Diteman and Shanta Lee, Volume 64, Issue 1 (Spring 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
When I was in Cuba in December 2017, I did a bit of a dive into the work of Nicolás Guillén and tried my hand at translating one of his poems. Between 2018 and 2019, I revisited translation within a workshop during one of the residencies at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I am not going to call myself a translator at all, but these experiences—in addition to talks I’d attended and a mix of other things—added more layers to how i perceive the connections between langage, translation and the reader. What are some of the decisions one needs to make? What are the kinds of rules or liberties that one takes that can contribute to or detract from the original language of a work? Within a landscape of our talks about decolonization of everything, how do we perceive the concepts of imperialism and decolonization when it comes to translation, especially when we think about bringing work into the realm of English speakers and readers?
I know these are things that are being discussed and of course, because of the way my mind works, I can’t help but to bring critical questions to the table such as these. Working with Jeff is my first official work in doing a project on this scale in terms of not only thinking about the voice of the original writer but also thinking about the realm of language, bridges and kinship between Black English Vernacular and Afro-Columbian culture/vernacular within Amalialú Posso Figueroa’s writing.
What is most interesting is that my insights or embracing of Black English Vernacular within my work, writing and thinking seriously about it has co-emerged with the larger discussions about who and what is valued or devalued within American culture. Due to the complexities of things like respectability politics—not to mention the existence of this conversation against the backdrop of the ongoing debate about this very thing that has existed among Black intellectuals—I've long had mixed feelings about how I would engage it on the page. Was it something that would remain just to use with friends in private conversations or was it something that I could or should embrace out loud in public? There's so much more I could say about this but I will wrap with this short story. I was encouraged to revisit my thinking during my first first workshop experience at VCFA which was led by Douglas Glover. I allowed myself to revisit not only the language, but think about authentic ways of allowing myself to engage with it on the page within my own work like what I have done in my first poetry collection, GHETTOCLUASTROPHOBIA: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues (Diode Editions, 2021) and a lot of other work.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
There are many but I keep going back to the ways that the world of fairy tales and myths have been a sickness from which I hope never to recover from. Additionally, the works of writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Toni Morrison, the poetic voices and depths of Ai and Robin Coste Lewis. Additionally, the work/words of writer and my mentor, Emily Bernard and the wisdom of poet, novelist, playwright, Fred D'Aguiar, all for different reasons.
The fairy tales and myths gave me permission to see a real commingling between the harsh realities and the fantastical. Maxine Hong Kingston’s work taught me the ways that culture, myth and one’s life could be tied together in ways that birth unique and genre bending prose. Toni Morrison stays with me for the way I fell in love with the different landscapes of the gothic alongside seeing the endless applications of magical realism within storytelling in addition to her refusal to apologize for her steady and loving focus on the Black community within her work. Ai’s poetic voice not only for the dramatic monoglogues but all of the ways that she invites a poet to think about stretching beyond the boundaries and confines of one’s personal reality to imagine (and then become the voice of) others on the page, even if it is monstrous.
Robin Coste Lewis for not only her approach, her overall being, thinking and brilliance as a poet but also the way she engages research in her poetic work.
Emily Bernard has impacted my work for many reasons that range from the way she has a care and preciseness for the display of truth on the page in addition to what she shared during an interview for something I am working on that is still in progress. Emily talked about the role of the artist or writer not playing it safe. I paraphrase, but in our talk a few years ago, she shared about how important it is NOT to play it safe on the page (or anywhere) if you are really going to do the thing with writing or your art. And Fred D'Aguiar for his wisdom in addition to his body of work. I have had the good fortune of interviewing him a few times and I have loved not only his approach to his writing but also the way that he has said that he switches lanes when it comes to his work and the superficiality of genres. Again, I am paraphrasing, but there is something powerful about not only the wisdom of these writers, but also the ways that they have shown me that impossibility is only as possible as I allow but on my own terms.
And seriously, there are so many more living and dead, how much more time do you have? LOL.
What other professions have you worked in?
I created and implemented two academic mentoring programs that ran for 20+ years alongside a statewide internship program in Connecticut that is probably still running in some interaction. I have worked in public health as a director of a program that involved looking at the social determinants of health (basically how everything around us contributes to or detracts from our health). I have worked as a director of grants and I have also worked in the arts sector. One of my most fond memories is working with a few other consultants and the State of Vermont’s Arts Council to co-write the statewide plan for the creative sector. I am sure I am leaving some things out, I have had many lives but funny enough, it didn’t matter if I was working 80+ hours a week or some variation of that, there was something that I felt drawn to in terms of coming back to writing. The other interation or states of development of growth into being a photographer had its own trajectory. However, I can honestly say that both have lived inside of my body since I was a little girl.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Oh nooooooo, I am sure I am supposed to have one answer. I daydreamed about being glamorous (really and I am so not kidding about this). While that was a constant return to escape being trapped as a child (I perceived the adults as the ones being able to have all the fun all the time) I wanted to be a lawyer, at one point, a nurse (which is laughhable to those who know me best), and sometimes, I would pretend to teach a class of invisible children to play “school.” And at one point, I thought being a sexologist was going to be an awesome career move but that did not come along as an idea until much laer.
What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
I am going to thank Jeff for reaching out to me but it was not just that. We started the conversation and upon reading the first chapter of what he shared of Amalialú Posso Figueroa’s work, I was hooked. I still am honestly. Her characters, these women, their bodies, not only are they with me, there is so much I relate to and it is something that I have never seen in quite this way.
I am drawn to the work through Jeff, yes, but also through the power of Amalialú Posso Figueroa’s writing, storytelling, and the uniqueness of her characters. This is work that I would put within the class of yet again elevating my thinking and applications of magical realism within literature.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Hmmmm, I would have to say the work of M. C. Escher has a range of work that makes me think of some of the imagined places that inspire my thinking, bending and writing. Much like the way fairy tales, myths and legends are no place and every place not held by the boundaries of our physics in this world, I feel that way about Escher’s work. These are the things that inspire both my writing across genres and photography.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
You know, I have been stuck on creepy podcasts. I still write longhand and when I get to a point of the reward where I can actually type up the work, I like to put on a podcast that is filled with creepy history which adds to my thinking, creating and imagination.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I do, I keep my ritual life very private. But I will say this in terms of rituals or traditions, I like to practice an internal alchemy. Like what a dear friend and fellow artist, Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees said of her work in terms of wanting to be a good telephone, I want to ensure I am primed and ready to receive. I aim to be a good listener. I don’t want to be so into my head or the doing that I don’t allow for the work to have its own rights and voice to help steer me.
What are you working on currently?
I just came out with a second poetry book, Black Metamorphoses illustrated by Alan Blackwell, which I like to describe as a 2000+ phone line opened to Ovid. It is an interpretation, interrogation and conversation with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Though it is out, I am currently exploring bringing the work to stage and also working on a digital installation for a museum space.
I also have several other manuscripts in prose and poetry going alongside thinking about some additional photography explorations.
What are you reading right now?
I am between An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour: The Harvard Art Museums' Forbes Pigment Collection and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales
SHANTA LEE is an award winning artist who works in different mediums as a photographer, writer across genres, and a public intellectual. She is the author of the poetry collection, GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues (Diode Editions, 2021) and illustrated collection, Black Metamorphoses (Etruscan Press, 2023). Black Metamorphoses has been named a finalist in the 2021 Hudson prize, shortlisted for the 2021 Cowles Poetry Book Prize and longlisted for the 2021 Idaho poetry prize. Her current exhibition, Dark Goddess: An Exploration of the Sacred Feminine which features her short film, interviews, and photography, is on view at the Fleming Museum of Art. Learn more: Shantalee.com.