On Translation, Responsibility, Solidarity:
Celina Su’s Route 1095
By Marina Romani
June 16, 2022
Our collaboration is a way to highlight margins and subtexts of our cultural and linguistic experiences.
It’s a way to live across / with rather than in / on,
to inhabit a different kind of belonging.
Neither Celina Su nor I grew up speaking in English, yet English has become the language of most dimensions of our lives. It's also the language of our friendship. In our ongoing conversation on the politics of language, we often reflect on the fluidity in navigating cultures and linguistic registers, and on what kind of power relationships emerge or are emphasized in different — institutional, political, personal — spaces.
Celina powerfully tackles these concerns in her writing. A poet and an engaged scholar, she is professor of Political Science at the City University of New York and author of numerous publications on participatory governance, critical pedagogy, and racial justice. Her debut full-length collection of poetry, Landia, was published by Belladonna* in 2018. Landia is a reflection on real and imagined geographies, topographies of struggle and inequalities, borders and border-crossings, intimacies of space. In poet Cam Scott’s words, her poems are “astonishing... anti-imperial glossaries”.
What drew me to Celina’s poems was her sensitivity to the politics of multilingual and multicultural relationships, and the pressure she puts on language itself. Celina takes English away from the top of the linguistic hierarchy, while using this language to highlight systemic inequalities as well as her own positionality within discriminatory global structures. English can be a symbol of hegemonic corporate and imperial powers. But Celina’s English is not extractive: rather than a weapon of state violence, her English is spacious and multilayered, and it becomes a ground to analyze, criticize, and shed light on imbalances of power.
There’s a piece within Landia which I was especially drawn to — the multi-part, multilingual poem Route 1095. I asked Celina for permission to translate it into Italian. In my writing and translation practice, I’m interested in what emerges in crossing languages and cultures and in the ethical and political responsibility that such cross-cultural acts entail: who has the privilege to traverse, to translate and be translated? In which languages and cultures is an individual allowed to cross? Bringing Celina’s words into a language that I know intimately represented a way to explore some of these issues.
The process of translating Route 1095 was also a space to interrogate my own positionality and the hierarchies embedded in my uses of language. As a queer white person born in a rural village in Italy, as someone who has lived their life in Europe and in the US, I struggle to grasp the nuances of certain experiences. The work of translation allows me to acknowledge this impossibility while, at the same time, drawing on language as means to bring Celina’s work to a wider audience.
Celina’s journey along Route 1095 started in the winter of 2001/2002, when she traveled to Thailand to collaborate with a local youth empowerment project. “Route 1095 is a winding road through the mountains that connects the urban center of Chiang Mai to the small northern town of Mae Hong Song, bordering Burma/ Myanmar,” she explains. “Many communities live and travel in the area, including Thai and Shan folks, Burmese migrants, other so-called ‘hill tribe,’ Indigenous and historically migratory peoples such as the Lisu and the Karen.”
The informal school that Celina collaborated with was run by Thai teachers: “There were inequalities within the group, and also some fraught dynamics between the local Thai community, especially governmental bureaucrats, and the Burmese migrants. Despite that, the volunteer teachers — not employed by or even condoned by the local government — had a great relationship with local migrant/ refugee communities. As I mention at the beginning of the poem, they basically had 100% attendance, which is astounding when school was not mandated. At first, my aim was simply to connect the group to the larger non-governmental organization world, and to secure grants to pay for school supplies.”
Celina ended up going back for a few months every year for more than a decade, and developing a relationship with this informal school, the teachers and students, and their families. Even as she learned quite a bit about the local political context and inequalities within the Burmese migrant communities, she continued to struggle with, as she puts it, “the many ways in which each of us is simultaneously an insider and outsider, and so many questions regarding sovereignty and truly community-led projects that we could never fully answer, but only grapple with together.” Nevertheless, she says that she feels particularly proud that some of the original kids served by the organization, who were roughly 5 years old at the time, now serve as the organization’s Executive Director, Treasurer, and Lead Teacher. Finally, Celina states, “no one in the organization is making decisions on their behalf.”
As she spent time collaborating with local educators and community organizers, Celina understood how she didn’t necessarily have the vocabulary to describe this experience. She didn’t want to mold a story that would fit into a specific narrative or into pre-established historical, political, or academic paradigms. She underlines that these tensions are inherent in using a participatory model — that is, one in which local communities have control over the support and resources that external non-profit organizations are there to provide: “I’m conscious of my position within the communities we serve. During my time there, I realized how I need to be reflexive, to analyze the role of the nonprofit industrial complex locally in more subtle ways as well as overt ones, my potential complicity in saviour complexes, and how I myself navigated a society in which I was possibly read as a local because I’m of Asian descent. Even though I’m somewhat familiar with notions of liminal spaces and outsider status, having lots of experience as a perpetual foreigner in the US, I had to re-examine everything I thought I knew in this new context in Thailand.”
Now living in Brooklyn, NY, Celina grew up in Brazil with Chinese/ Taiwanese parents. She only began to learn English in middle school, and perhaps because of this, the nuances of languages fascinate her: “I ended up being really taken with idiomatic phrases or the metaphors that are embedded in our everyday languages, especially when learning a language, like Thai, which was new to me.” The reader of Route 1095 can experience these re-orientations in the way in which Celina uncovers linguistic norms and assumptions we make while using everyday vocabulary. “I’m interested in how we become desensitized,” she comments, “and how to become sensitized again to the language we use, and in so doing, attempt to enact new relationships, or even new political projects.”
In Route 1095, as well as in the whole collection, Celina destabilizes the text by incorporating, rather than avoiding, contradictions. She interrogates her own socially constructed identity, and how that is interpreted in different contexts: “I like bringing questions about my position and my positionality — what my vantage point is — in order to show how this is a subjective experience. I'm not trying to convey one objective truth. I'm trying to question the idea of an objective truth as I pay attention to real-life inequalities.”
In my connection with Celina, I feel what Natalie Diaz referred to as “the rigor and radicalism of friendship.” Our collaboration is a way to highlight margins and subtexts of our cultural and linguistic experiences. It’s a way to live across / with rather than in / on, to inhabit a different kind of belonging. And it’s a constant interrogation on care and responsibility. During one of our recent video calls discussing this essay, Celina said something that stayed with me: “In our ongoing conversation, in thinking through different languages, in my work, I think about how to enact ecologies of care and solidarity, how to keep the intimate and the subjective dimensions within sight without focusing only on ourselves. How do we talk about things with humility but also hopefully making a contribution besides recounting our own personal experiences? How to enact respect when relationships are fraught with power differentials? Reflecting on language is one of the ways in which I attempt to grapple with these questions.”
I’m thankful to Celina for articulating these issues so powerfully. I carried these questions with me while immersing myself in her work. And I carry them as I inhabit my identities and cultivate relationships in multiple languages, in spaces of ever shifting power imbalances as well as luminous refractions of solidarity.