Chronology, the winner of the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, is a nonfiction collage of emails, journal entries, press releases, theory, and short bits of theatrical dialogue, producing an appropriate pastiche for the contemporary multimedia-trained brain. It is a hybrid text formulated from one’s personal archive, which is notable for the photographs and other ephemera tucked into the pages.
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Our narrator is Z—daughter to an Irish mother and a Nigerian father—a biracial black woman from Brooklyn. She is in Cape Town for her cousin’s wedding and remains for quite a while after, in a self-imposed exile that involved the fraught translation of a Sesotho short story and an affair with the late Liepollo Rantekoa. Notice of her death is a fact we learn early on. Z is intent on preserving the Sesotho language as a means of post-colonial recovery. She describes it as a “language acquisitions experiment.” Given our narrator’s mixed-race background, and the disturbing presence of colonial consciousness found in Cape Town, she endures a persistent provocation of both body and spirit. Early on, the reader is introduced to yearning as subtext. Yearning, spans from the basic and urgent (food and housing) to temporal pleasures (a glass of wine) and existential comforts (identity affirmation and reparation). There is never an ordinary interaction. Often, a brief encounter escalates as an urgent internal collision being played out with strangers. This is evident in the parameters set for the translation. “I won’t use the internet.”
The connection between Zahra and Liepollo exemplifies this collision. Liepollo bustles into a cafe where Z is sitting reading Black Sunlight by Dambudzo Marechera. Liepollo notices the book and initiates a conversation with Z. Before leaving, Liepollo writes a list of titles and her email address on a memo sheet. Z reaches out to her the following day and quickly it is arranged for these two strangers to become roommates. Both women are unaware that they need the other—an unquestionable desire implanted from a time before.
It is here that we realize that the tether of Chronology, roping us between past, present, and beyond is the interrogation of intimacy. Deeper than yearning, such intimacy prods for a closeness that may never satiate. In fact, it is actually in the disappearance of such intimacy—living in the violence of being “lost in translation”—that our narrator experiences resolve. There are notes of Mirene Arsanios’s E autobiography di un idioma critical engagement with power and the feminine. For both manuscripts, the breath found in the white space—from the prose of Arsanios to Patterson’s shuttling from journal entry to email in Chronology—serves as an anchor. One must be willing to encounter this book, by remaining soft, open to structuring narrative when the languages we rely upon disappear: “The separation is part of the whole.”
This context of traveler and resident follows throughout, somehow enlivened even by the intimacy of her death. When news reaches our narrator that Liepollo has died, we inevitably encounter a significant transition in this abrupt irresolution. Not only is Z left without answers, she is also left without consult. Liepollo is now a traveler, joining Z as she faces the futility of her task. Z continues to translate and their relationship is kept alive. She writes letters to Liepollo—journal epistles rooted in the previous histories that we are built, witnessed in the desecration of Black life brought on by America waging its war in the present day. Z writes to Liepollo after the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police in 2016: “We think apartheid is over only to see it manifest from under a cloak. Like silhouettes, the ghosts of white supremacy are ever present, unseen puppet masters.”
Soon after, the reader will notice the burden taking its toll. Our narrator relents against her initial “no Internet” parameters and consults an “online dictionary.” She must face the arbitrary values of orthography—the writing of language versus the speaking of language, and its insistence on palatability in sacrifice of authentic preservation. The truth now, must sufficiently and painfully come forward: “And maybe my aesthetic has been colonized.”
Chronology, is both a book about relation and about excerpt. To read it is to engage with a time where a wandering soul would always be a more reliable guide that any machine, computer, or device. Chronology asks us to consider the consequences of development and its connection to our relationships. Z struggles to find a book that will support her translation. What she had yet to realize, is that she was set to work at designing her own.