The Usonian Interviews, No. 5: Writer, Editor, and Literary Translator Aaron Robertson

On learning from Spider-Man and John McPhee, translating "Beyond Babylon," and writing "The Black Utopians"

In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a new storyteller or artist from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with writer, editor, and literary translator Aaron Robertson about his work translating Igiaba Scego’s Italian novel Beyond Babylon into English and the process of researching Black utopias in American history for his forthcoming book, The Black Utopians (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023).

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

THE USONIAN: You’re a writer, editor, literary translator, and journalist. How do these different roles intersect in your writing life?

AARON ROBERTSON: My entry to the publishing world was really through translation. I had been a writer before, but I didn’t know anything about the publishing world until I translated my first book [Igiaba Scego’s Beyond Babylon], which came out in 2019.

I’ve always been thinking about the way that translation practice informs my own writing, and how it also informs the kinds of stories that I’m drawn to as an editor. The act of translation, which is a careful act that requires you, in some ways, to rewrite the book while you’re translating it, makes you more attentive to structure, pacing, and word choice. When I write, I’m thinking more as a translator than as a writer, which is a strange process.

When you read stories outside of your national context, it encourages you to break outside of certain conventions. Because it’s very easy for the publishing industry to identify some form of book that has worked, and then people try to replicate that again because it worked in the past. As an editor, I try to avoid what is familiar and what feels easily recognizable. I think that my own work in translation has also informed that view, too.

TU: Tell us about your writing process.

AR: I don’t have one standard process. It depends on whether I’m working on a translation, or my own book, or an article, but right now, what I’m focused on is my book project. I’m in the research phase right now, but I do have a broad sense of my outline. I work in Google Drive, and I have different folders for each chapter. Within that, I have sections for notes and bibliography; I’ll compile books and articles that I think are relevant to each chapter and then I keep a running journal of sorts that reflects, very broadly, questions that I’m thinking about in terms of the book.

I don’t necessarily write every day. Much of the work is mental, allowing certain thoughts and lines of thinking to stew for a bit. Then you kind of trust that once you’re ready to write, all of this has percolated enough to result in something that is semi-coherent.

TU: I once had a conversation with John McPhee in which I asked him how he organized his research when he writes a book. And he was like, well, I just lay out all the material and read it over again. Then I just start writing. And I was like, oh really?

AR: I’m fortunate to call [John McPhee] a friend, and he has been a huge mentor for me. I often think about the importance of structure in his own work. And what’s funny is that, although I couldn’t really tell you exactly what he talked about in each of his classes, I just recall him visualizing the structures of his books, and his drawings, which have had been pretty influential. Structure is a huge part of any project, and being able to curate is such an important part of writing.

TU: We’ve kind of alluded to this already, but what have been some formative moments in your development as a writer?

AR: The activities that got me interested in writing when I was really young, about eight or nine, was mimicking comic strips that I loved. I would draw Spider-Man comics, and I would write text bubbles and realize, oh, I can make these characters say things, which sounds like it’s a very small thing, but when you’re eight, it was realizing that, oh, I can manipulate story here.

One really formative youth experience was when I was probably 10 or 11. Back then I played a game called Fire Emblem, which was a role playing game with dragons, knights, and all that. There’s a lot of text in this game. And so I would write down all of the dialogue in the game and then write descriptions around [the dialogue], and show it to my family—and pass it off as my own.

Which probably isn’t the best lesson to take. But just the act of writing things out and putting some kind of form to them was influential to me.

Most recently, I’ve been reading works from an author named Leon Forrest, a Black writer who was working in the 1970s and 80s. Toni Morrison was his editor for a long time. He was a modernist who could blend African American folklore with the traditions of European modernism. He’s the basis for a lot of my own formalistic approach to writing, someone who could both imitate and at the same time make certain forms his own, which is an extremely hard thing to do. I would say that he’s the author who has most recently shaped the way that I think about writing.

TU: In your June 2020 essay for The Point,“It Was More Than a Notion,” you traced the origin of Albert Cleage Jr.’s church in Detroit, an institution that has had several different names over the years. In that piece, you also brought in your own life experience and flip back and forth between those two narratives. How did you come to this subject?

AR: I grew up in a Baptist household, and although I’m agnostic now, spirituality is something that I’m constantly thinking about, something that has shaped my way of interacting with the world. Eventually, I had this period in my life where I was obsessed with writing about saints, autobiographies of saints, the larger political and social currency that saints have played across time.

That led me to read about Catholic histories, which led me to Black Catholic history in the US. I read a memoir by a Black priest named Lawrence Lucas. He wrote a book in the 1970s called Black Priest, White Church. Lucas was this outspoken priest who did not have time for bigotry or prejudice within the Church. In that memoir, he mentioned Albert Cleage Jr. as someone who had shaped the way he thought. And I realized that Cleage was from Detroit, and he had a church in Detroit that I’d never heard of, which shocked me. That led me down a rabbit hole.

I found an essay anthology, about Cleage and this church in Detroit, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, and one of those essays was about the role of women in the church, and there was this educational institution within the shrine called “Mtoto House.” And when I read about that, it immediately struck me as some kind of vaguely utopian initiative—here you have these Black children within this church who are participating in a model that is based off the Israeli Kibbutz; later, I would learn it was also partly influenced by kindergartens in the Soviet Union. And I was like, what was going on here?

There was this rich hodgepodge of influences that shaped what this church was. That is what what brought me into this kind of study, of not only Cleage and his church, but more general traditions of Black utopian place-making. And it made me think about the ways that we have been talking about utopianism. The US is a very whitewashed concept, so I wanted to revisit that through the lens of race—how have Black people influenced and shaped the way we think about American utopias?

TU: This essay forms the basis for your forthcoming book, The Black Utopians (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023). Tell us more about expanding your essay into a book-length work of nonfiction.

AR: Soon after this essay was published, a couple of agents who had read it reached out to me, and we had conversations about ways to possibly expand this article into a book. With the agent that I eventually chose, we spent months [honing the pitch]. We got in touch in July 2020, and we sent out a proposal in early November 2020. So over those months, we refined the proposal, and I was thinking about all of these threads that I had to suppress, because you can only write so much. I started off with too many ideas for the book, so I cut stuff.

That was an important phase in terms of thinking about the scope of the project. Whose stories do you want to tell? That is the exciting and useful part of writing the proposal, and it helps when you have a good agent who is very hands-on and willing to help you rethink certain structural elements.

TU: Are you reading anything now you’d like to recommend?

AR: I’m really predictable—I’m reading a book called Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline by Dora Apel. It’s a book about how Detroit is a national, even global metaphor for post-industrial ruin, and how that idea evolved over time. This idea is often unhelpful, to say the least, to the people who actually live in Detroit. That way of mythologizing or fetishizing post-industrial decline is remarkably anti-humanist. It actually has a lot to say about the way that we talk about dystopia and utopia in the US. Of course, I’m biased because I’m from Detroit, and I think about it a lot.

But I do think there is a good case to be made that if you’re talking about the kind of prototypical narrative of America-as-utopia slipping into something less than ideal, Detroit is probably the prime example of how we talk about utopia; how we talk about dreams that emerge and fizzle out for a variety of reasons. But this book reclaims that narrative, and then argues we need to rethink all this talk of post-Apocalypse. Because it’s not helping anybody.

TU: Do you have any advice for young authors or translators on how to get started?

AR: Reach out to the people you want to talk to. It sounds kind of simple, but actually cold emails are amazing. Sometimes, they actually work, and people will respond to you.

Do your research about some part of the industry that you might be interested in, or just something that you want to learn about. Look at interviews with key players in the industry, and then see how to get in touch with them. Like whether that is, frankly, logging onto LinkedIn, and looking at, if not their account, someone who works under them and contact them and see if you can just start with conversations.

For better or worse, publishing can be very nepotistic, and in order to get opportunities, sometimes you have to start talking to people who work there. They have to know who you are, that you’re interested and that you’re looking, so visibility is really important. Find ways to make yourself visible.

TU: As I understand it, the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests last summer led to some changes in publishing as well.

AR: The whole summer of protests last year really precipitated a number of concrete changes in publishing, though there’s still a long way to go. The Day of Solidarity in publishing was June 8, 2020, when a lot of publishing employees, more than 1300 mostly junior staffers, practiced collective action protesting the George Floyd murder. [Following that], there were pay hikes at certain houses in the Big Five and some indie presses. There were key hires, and some entry-level hires, too, which was great. But there’s so much that is truly wrong with the publishing industry, that it’s imperative to call that out, especially when you’re in it. You can’t just sit by and watch things happen, as they always have been.

TU: Before we go, we still have to talk about the book you translated and published in 2019 (featuring an introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri).

AR: The book I translated, Beyond Babylon, is by an author named Igiaba Scego, a Somali Italian author who writes expansively on the legacies of colonialism and the after-effects of fascism, not only within Italy, but also in places like Argentina, Somalia, and Tunisia. Beyond Babylon is a fun book and I would recommend that readers check it out if they’re interested.

Aaron Robertson is a writer, translator, and editor at Spiegel & Grau. His work has appeared in the New York TimesThe NationForeign Policyn+1, and elsewhere. His first book, The Black Utopians, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2023. Follow him on Twitter @augiewatts.