De-Railed: Dead Woman Waking

In the language of my grandmothers, Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibwe language), the town I was born in: Sheboygan, Wisconsin, means “to drum and to transmit.” Various renderings and traditions surround this interpretation. This is the one I learned from tribal elder Saxon St Germain at Hayward, WI in the early 1990s.

A similar interpretation is found here:

  • Zhabwagnak – Sheboygan, WI (sound of drum going thru) [when native people were being persecuted for holding ceremonies, the Potawatomi held them in places where they were unable to be found. In the Sheboygan area there was a cave where the Potawatomi hid out to hold the ceremonies. Sheboygan means sound of a drum coming thru a cave.]

To drum. That’s clear enough. Here’s a video of me drumming with two of my drum students from the Chicago Djembe Project at UW-Madison in 2003.

Or here, with our teachers, Nansady Keita and Sayon Camara, at Vaudeville Underground in Chicago, 2002.

But what’s this bit about “transmitting”–my drum teacher, Famoudou Konate, once said, emphatically “tu est un mâitre”. He emphasized the être: tu est. He was trying to say “master” as in “master drummer”–a title I have staunchly resisted. Here, even coming from the master of masters.

Ever since I heard Saxon’s version, I have understood this “transmission” to involve two activities: teaching (mâitre not as master, but as “teacher”) and translating (transmitting between languages). I have been doing both all my life. I have always had to translate between cultures–between the Indian in me and the unsettling outside world of Western “civilization” I was born into. Later, from the world of prosperity I encountered in my travels through the foster care system and the world of poverty I was born into. I began actively translating from German to English about a year after I arrived in Germany in 1984, and was hired as a full-time translator about a year later.

My work as a translator has been as diverse and intersectional as everything else about me and my life–ranging from technical translations–as a full-time translator for Pirwitz Computer Dokumentation, we completed the earliest versions of Microsoft Windows user handbooks on Apple-MacIntosh “Lisa” OS to Nobel-prize winning German-language literature. My translation of Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s Bambiland appeared in Yale University’s Theater Magazine, and is also available on the author’s website. I was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków to translate Jelinek’s play Sport Chorus, and have contributed translations on such a wide array of authors as Jürgen Kaumkötter, Boris Lurie, Josef Dabernig, Erwin Wurm and others for MOCAK. I spent two excruciating years translating original source documents from the Nazi period for the Third Reich Sourcebook, and many delightful years collaborating with my dear friend and stellar Viennese light artist Victoria Coeln. I co-edited and translated multiple contributions for the volume A Jew in the New Germany by German Jewish journalist Henryk Broder. My translations of Ingeborg Bachmman’s poetry and prose appeared with Green Integer Press in 2004 in a volume that is now out of print, Last Living Words: The Ingeborg Bachmann Reader. Additional translations of Bachmann have appeared in The Chicago Review, The Denver Quarterly, and Trivia: A Journal of Ideas. A mixed bag, to be sure.

Then came the “derailment”. The drums. Looking back, this is the way I see it: there I was, a young twenty-something adventurer, living in Germany in the mid-eighties, on the path to becoming a crack literary translator, when I stumbled. Upon these gems. These drums. It was like having found in the forest, or in the desert, or on the beach someone’s wedding ring. I knew I couldn’t simply toss it back where I’d found it, nor could I pawn it off–not even when I was desperate for cash and may have been able to save myself by selling this treasure. No. I knew I was compelled to find it. Whose ring is this? Had to find the rightful steward, and return it. Come what may. At any cost, and by every means necessary, I had to give these drums BACK. It took me awhile, but I found them.

In the process, I took some pretty heavy falls. But. I did deliver the goods. There can be no denying that.

A performance with Hooked on Drums and Billy Nankouma Konate, funded in part by the MacArthur Foundation.

I took a lot of hits before I finally went down. Sometime in 2011, we closed up shop on “Hooked on Drums”–the non-profit we established for the purpose of teaching predominately African American youth African drums and the culture that went along with them here on Chicago’s south side. I went back to teaching courses in literature, English and the humanities at various colleges and universities. But then, I literally hit a dead end. I was diagnosed with advanced cancer.

Five years ago, I had 6 months to live. At least that’s what my oncologist told me. I was in the middle of a major translation project that I had to scrap in order to go through multiple years of treatment for stage IV lung cancer. Brain surgery. Radiation, first to the brain, then to the lung. Chemo. Immunotherapy. More chemo. More immunotherapy. The side effects nearly killed me in 2018, when I was hospitalized with severe pneumonitis.

But. I survived.

Five years hence, I’m coming around to the realization that there’s still life left in these translator/teacher hands and legs.

I’m a dead woman waking: derailed, but not done for.

I find myself coming full circle, coming back into writing.

My year-long collaboration with Berlin artist Eva Noack resulted in the bi-lingual volume Eine Katastrophe hält was aus/A Walking Catastrophe Can Put Up with A Lot, published in 2023 by Distanz Verlag. It was a lifesaver. Little did we know, at the time, just how widespread and wide-ranging the catastrophes would be–COVID, Trumpism, the War in Ukraine, worldwide rise in MAGA/Fascism.

Re-membering. In Cixous-ian fashion.

Adrienne Rich. She’s still there. Always already Diving Into the Wreck.

When We Dead Awaken
by Adrienne Rich
Trying to tell you how
the anatomy of the park
through stained panes, the way
guerrillas are advancing
through minefields, the trash
burning endlessly in the dump
to return to heaven like a stain––
everything outside our skins is an image
of this affliction:
stones on my table, carried by hand
from scenes I trusted
souvenirs of what I once described
as happiness
everything outside my skin
speaks of the fault that sends me limping
even the scars of my decisions
even the sun blaze in the mica-vein
even you, fellow-creature, sister,
sitting across from me, dark with love,
working like me to pick apart
working with me to remake
this trailing knitted thing, this cloth of darkness,
this woman’s garment, trying to save the skein.

I am a dead woman waking.

There will be no more drums, no drumming. Because I have delivered the goods. For better or for worse. In sickness, and in health. Till death do we part, I have delivered. The derailment is done, and I am coming back into my own.

So stay tuned. There is more to come.

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