Downstate Legacies, 2018
Paperback, 76 pages
To “review” Sade LaNay’s Härte feels wrong, inadequate. Review is to see again. But Härte moves us outside of seeing to a place where we can position ourselves to listen and feel more deeply. Through a series of seemingly innocent questions, LaNay encourages us beyond our limited and comfortable resources as speakers and listeners into different and more empathetic logics. Because this book is reader-focused, those empathetic logics will look different for each reader.
Härte is a book of questions, one question per page asked three times: The first in English, the second in a mix of English-German, and the third is in what seems like German cognates (if you don’t speak or read German):
Did you like it? Was it really rape?
Did you Leiche it? Was it really Rappe?
Warst du Leiche? Hat es wirklich gerappelt?
The feel and intent of these questions shift throughout the book. They shift in a way that feels like I have asked these questions, to where it feels like I have been asked these questions, and to where it feels like I am simultaneously asking and being asked. This shifting brings up other questions for me:
What to do in the spaces between what was said and what was heard?
What types of extra work am I heaping on people when I ask questions like these?
What types of extra work will be heaped on me if people ask me questions like these?
Looking at the title: Härte. I’d never seen that word in my life, but Härte sounds and looks like the word Heart, so I thought it meant something similar to my cultural and definitional understanding of heart: the organ that pumps blood, warmth, kindness, understanding, bravery, tenderness.
The online Deutsch-Englisch-Wörterbuch list all of these English synonyms for Härte: hardship, rigor, hardness, severity, harshness, toughness, rigidity, rigour, relentlessness, strictness, acerbity, flintiness, pitilessness, rigorousness, steeliness, stoniness, ironness, hardhead.
That moment put me in place, and gave me clues on how to read the book:
Do not rely on my initial understanding.
Do more work to understand.
Some type of terrible/hopeful possibility is alive between the contradictions of definitions.
In Härte’s introduction, writer and German translator, Maria G. Baker says, “Sade’s instruction was never, ‘translate this.’ It was ‘what German words you know does this phrase sound like?’ What German words in the emotional realm of Härte does this sound like? I couldn’t draw on my usual inventory of bilingual vocabulary.”
I couldn’t draw on my usual inventory of bilingual vocabulary.
And I couldn’t draw on my usual inventory of ways to read and listen. I had to first acknowledge my layers of limitations and privilege, some of which are:
I don’t speak German.
I have never been sexually assaulted and raped.
And haven’t been asked a subsequent slew of harmful and dismissive questions.
And as such, I couldn’t draw on my usual inventory of ways to write and think about a book. This is also why I say to “review” Härte feels wrong, because like my reading, I am also writing from a place of limitations and privilege. Härte asks us to read and write from those places because it resists binaries of a one-for-one translation in whatever languages we’re communicating in. It asks us to experience the laborious and exhausting accumulation of our “innocent intent” of asking questions like the ones I noted above.
I’m thinking of two other texts that ask us to experience exhaustion and labor in the form of accumulation. One is Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes Books, 2017). The other is Metta Sáma’s essay/poem “#whywecan’thavenicethings” in the anthology Letters to the Future: Black Women / Radical Writing (Kore Press, 2018), edited by Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin.
Queen’s I’m So Fine is an accumulation of vignettes cataloging sexual assault and harassment. In the vignettes, there are no periods between what would normally be sentences. It feels like an ever-present blur, and it’s hard to catch your breath until the end of a vignette, but the next vignette follows. Queen also catalogs what she was wearing, which is illustrating the transference of labor and blame: What did you do to cause this? You asked for it. The narratives evoke these types of questions and statements.
Sáma’s “#whywecan’thavenicethings” is a four-page list of imperatives, including:
I don’t know how to talk about rape…I’m gonna go watch The Cosby Show to clear my head
Black people need to get over slavery
How can it be rape if she like changed her mind after she took her panties off? I mean, she did get him riled up. (226-227)
Sáma’s list of statements function like LaNay’s list of questions—where it feels like we have said these statements, to where it feels like we have heard these statements, and to where it feels like we are simultaneously saying and hearing.
These three texts individually and together—Metta Sáma’s “#whywecan’thavenicethings”, Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine, and Sade LaNay’s Härte—perform a similar transference of labor that Härte’s three iterations of the same question does.
Sáma’s list is the initial thing said/heard that seems innocent and easy to understand: Was it really rape?
Queen’s narratives muddy the waters—we can still understand a little, but we hear some other violence creeping into the question: Was it really Rappe?
LaNay’s questions are final the moment that transfers the labor to us: Hat es wirklich gerappelt?
With that German sentence, we get the sounds first and might think because it’s sonically related to the initial question, that it may also be semantically related. We know from reading the introduction that this is not true, but when reading these questions in this accumulation of exhaustion, it was easy to forget that the translations weren’t exact. Soon I remembered, and went back and translated, or translated while reading.
Was it really rape? Was it really Rappe? Hat es wirklich gerappelt? (Has it really rattled?)
Did you like it? Did you Leiche it? Warst du Leiche? (Were you corpse?)
Do you think you’re innocent in all this? Do you think you Reinmöse in all this? Denkst du mit reiner Möse? (Do you think with pure cunt?)
LaNay has created a field for new poems to grow. A new language formed from the cycle of German modifying English and English modifying German, and that cycle further modifying us by giving us some work to do and slowing down our automatic acts of language violence. Härte is the language of liminality, labor, pain, and transference.
Honor what this book asks us to do—take on some of this labor of accumulated exhaustion and see how we negotiate responding to violence, and how we enact violence. Translate all the German in Härte, and maybe write the translations in the book underneath each last question, like adding a line to the poem, then listen to and feel all the hardness and heart in the space between. What types of terrible/hopeful possibilities are alive between the contradictions of definitions?