‘I avoid filling up my belly to feel less guilty’—Read newly translated poetry by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Asymptote Journal runs the Close Approximations Translation Contest yearly, and this year an excellent translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s poetry is one of the runners up.

The translator, J Bret Maney, translated several ‘solitudes’ from the Congolese writer’s poetry collection, Le Fleuve dans le Ventre (The River in The Belly) into English for the contest. Previously, writing from the collection was only available in a French and German bilingual edition, released in 2013.

The poems show the Congo River running through Mujila’s veins as he contemplates mortality, (in)voluntary exile, the resource curse and the physical grandeur of the river itself.

Read his Solitude 18:

How can I continue to boil my tea each morning, how can I continue to drag myself through beer-soaked nights, how can I continue to calmly smoke my cigarettes and sip my red wine when behind my back, far away, in certain corners of my country, the rifles recite their idiocies, the same idiocies? I am ashamed to eat and drink to fullness. I avoid filling up my belly to feel less guilty. The proof: for the last six years, I have taken my meals standing up, out of solidarity with these mothers who dine with one foot in the house, one foot out, in order to disappear into the forest at the first belch of a rifle …

In his prize citation, Eugene Ostashevsky writes:

… Fiston Mwanza Mujila, a francophone poet from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and his translator, J Bret Maney, deserve to be singled out for the selected ‘solitudes’ from Mujila’s The River in the Belly. The river in question is, of course, the Congo, and the lines that gave rise to the title are: ‘Not blood but the Congo River / sloshes in my veins … / If you deny it, if you have your doubts, if you don’t believe me, take a sharp object (a steak knife or bayonet will do) and cut me open, slice me up, skin me from belly to belly, from head to foot.’

As can be seen from these lines, the poet (currently an exile in Austria) thinks back not only to his native river, but also to the almost constant multi-agent civil war that has eviscerated the Congo over the past decades: it is both the bloodiest conflict of our time and one of the least noticed. Runner-up Maney very capably conveys the intonations and registers of the original in this faithful and beautiful rendering.

A bittersweet pride characterises Mujila’s free verse poetry and these translations are a must-read.


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