Conducted by Skyler J. Arndt-Briggs, March 2017
SAB: I am curious about the relationships, if any, that exist for you between your two nonfiction projects, Blood at the Root and the translation of Knud Holmboe’s Burning Desert. How are the two projects related chronologically? Were you working on Blood at the Root when you came upon and decided to translate Holmboe’s memoir?
PP: I think that the two projects are deeply related, in that they both grew out of my fascination with hidden history: shocking, monumental, and once widely- known events that over the course of time have been erased. Both books are accounts of atrocities: Blood at the Root tells of the expulsion of the entire African American community of Forsyth County, Georgia, where I was raised, and The Burning Desert documents the attempted genocide of Bedouin people by the colonial Italian army.
As far as chronology, I have been thinking about the story of Forsyth County’s black community since I was seven years old, and actively researching the book for about a decade. During this same period I learned about The Burning Desert from a writer and translator named Andre Naffis-Sahely, who knew many Moroccans who revere Holmboe for telling the world about the genocide in North Africa—a bravery that cost Holmboe his life. Andre reached out in hopes that a new translation could bring fresh attention to the book and to that history.
SAB: While both Blood at the Root and Burning Desert demand a historical archaeology, the former was clearly a personal project for you (rooted in your years in Forsyth as a young person), while Burning Desert recounts events that took place half a world away. Do you feel that similar or different things drew you to each project?
PP: I love that phrase “historical archaeology,” and that’s very much what I felt I was doing in both cases. What links the two projects, beyond the appalling crimes committed against vulnerable people, is that both events have been almost totally erased from our consciousness. So a goal common to both Blood at the Root and my translation of Holmboe was to bring a buried history back to the surface. History is written by the victors, as they say, and so I wanted both books to counter that, by telling the story of the victims, and reversing that process of erasure and historical amnesia.
I should also add that these connections are something I see only in hindsight! At the time, I was simply following my curiosity and trying to make myself useful. But clearly one project was influencing the other, and I have no doubt that I was deeply influenced by Holmboe’s drive to expose an atrocity—and to honor the dead by telling their stories.
SAB: As an accomplished poet, how does it feel to be working on these two major prose works? Do you feel you get different things out of each form? Or that each brings out different things in you?
PP: Because I have spent most of my adult life working as a poet, I struggled to believe that I could write a long-form book of nonfiction, or translate one. But in the face of that self-doubt, the best thing is to simply carry on: to keep working every day and try to ignore all the questions about whether it will add up to something.
Instead, I taught myself how to write prose as I was working, and I do think that translating Holmboe’s writing was a great boost to my confidence. The wonderful thing about translating is that the translator gets to write without having to invent. You get to work out all the mental muscles that shape precise, elegant sentences, but are freed from the anxiety of what to say.
I think all those years I labored in the fields of poetry were also invaluable, in that poetry teaches compression, concision, and the power of the singular, well- chosen detail. Now that I’ve worked in prose and poetry, I think the distinctions we draw between them are much more professional than they are actual. I have come think of myself as a writer rather than exclusively a poet, and it is thrilling to feel that I can range into some new territory without anxiety about genre. It was also a joy to do something new because I have a short attention span and am very easily bored!
SAB: I know that you have received the support of many organizations and fellowships, so I’m sure that our small contribution to your work did not stand out. But, if there is anything you could say, we would love to hear any thoughts you might have regarding the work and mission of the Lois Roth Endowment.
PP: The support of the Roth Endowment was absolutely essential to my work on Holmboe, particularly because it came during the very early stages of the project. The grant I received from the Endowment supported a month I spent in Copenhagen, where I got my conversational Danish back up to speed; spent time in the Kongelige Bibliotek reading Holmboe’s work as a journalist; and devoted long days to translating the text of The Burning Desert.
Translation is always a labor of love, and that means the translator can often feel very lonely: like the only person in the world who cares about a given author or text, and like someone laboring for very little reward and attention. But receiving a grant meant that for the first time I could take my own interest in Holmboe seriously. Someone else had given that work a vote of confidence, and a push forward, which meant the world to me. So everyone at the Roth Endowment has my deepest gratitude!
To me, the message of the award was simple but absolutely vital: keep going.