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Who Needs a Story? Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic Paperback – January 1, 2006

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More About the Author

Joining Africa - From Anthills to Asmara begins with Charles Cantalupo asking himself how he became so engaged with Africa. The book provides an answer.

A key to it is a poem called "Who Needs a Story," originally written in the African language of Tigrinya, which he co-translated. The first line is, "I needed a story."

One hot day in Jericho in Israel around 25 years ago and a few days later in Cairo's National Museum, Charles Cantalupo began to feel that he needed a story, too. He found it in Africa.

How could a white experimental poet, a Renaissance English literature scholar, and a Thomas Hobbes specialist who taught at a small campus in Pennsylvania coal country connect with Africa, traveling there dozens of times, and eventually working with many of its most distinguished writers?

An unlikely story, but it happened.

Along the way, before he wrote Joining Africa, he edited two groundbreaking collections of essays, interviews, and poetry - Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The World of Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Texts and Contexts. He published two books of poetry: Light the Lights and Anima/l Wo/man and Other Spirits. He published three books of translations of contemporary poetry from Eritrea: Who Needs a Story? - Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic, We Invented the Wheel: Poems by Reesom Haile, and We Have Our Voice: Selected Poetry of Reesom Haile. He also wrote a book about the poets he translated, called War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry.

In 1994, he directed Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Texts and Contexts, at the time the largest conference ever held on an African writer. In 2000, with major grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the World Bank, and the Norwegian Agency for Development, Cantalupo co-chaired Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century, a seven-day conference and festival devoted to the presentation and critical discussion of the languages and literatures of all of Africa, held in Asmara, Eritrea. He was a co-author of the historic "Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures," Africa's declaration of African language independence. He also wrote and directed a documentary about the conference, Against All Odds (African Books Collective, 2007).

Characterized by critics as "Joseph Conrad filtered through the prism of Gertrude Stein" (Robert Archambeau), "blessed with far too much on his mind" (Neil Baldwin), "uncompromising" and "unclassifiable" (Bob Holman), Charles Cantalupo "goes where no other US poet dares go.... His is the hard work of getting the idea right on the page, where it sweats and strains, engages a fierce sense of morality, and churns it all up with the power of urgency" (Holman). His poetry "dynamically conjoins an historical political consciousness with a visceral metaphysics" (John Bennett), and with his book, Light the Lights, "Not since Melvin B. Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia has American language registered such a startling and revelatory encounter with the very idea of Africa" (Aldon Nielsen).

Becoming one of the leading translators in the world of African language poetry, Charles Cantalupo recognizes "the reality of an Africa of many languages and is determined to create a shared legacy....and dialogue between African languages and non-African languages" (Ngugi wa Thiong'o). He "sifts deep simplicity into English poetry prophecy" (Bob Holman) and "offers poetry that is at once sensual and seductive, wise and politically clever, full of wonderful surprises... amazing for, absolute freedom and the magic of the word" (Carole Boyce Davies). His translations of contemporary Eritrean poetry reveal "that rarest of beings, an Eritrean poet made vivid in translations" (Andrei Codrescu). They carry "the weight of incisive image, narrative clarity and irony...that speaks even after you have finished reading" (Amiri Baraka) and "testify to the indomitable nature of the human spirit and the resilience of a culture that withstood decades of external repression and colonialism" (Mbulelo Mzamane). The new headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation engraves Cantalupo's translation of Reesom Haile's poem, "Knowledge" on one of its walls.

Reviewing Cantalupo's pioneering books on contemporary Eritrean poetry, Gilbert Doho (Case Western Reserve) declares, "War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry - intellectual insurgency precedes, accompanies, and transcends any oppressed nation in search of its destiny. Such is the substance of the discourse of Charles Cantalupo, himself poet, scholar." Beyene Haile, Eritrea's greatest novelist, writes, "Charles Cantalupo has amazingly traversed the threshold of the once solitary land, where oblivious Eritrean poets, all on their own, wrestled with gods and demons to grope for meaning in the heat of war and in the burning desire for peace. The uniquely creative translation discloses a vibrant poetry rendered in languages hardly resembling English, yet all the same allied to the family of world literature." Writing about Cantalupo in Per Contra, Marlene De La Cruz-Guzman sees "the knowledgeable work of a poet, translator, and accomplished literary scholar bringing to bear the full extent of his engagement with Eritrea," yet also, "a how-to-book for a scholar wishing to do the same work of bringing to international attention the work of indigenous scholars who are not writing in European well as a diplomatic masterpiece which navigates admirably well the mines of current Eritrean politics." Tej Dhar, editor of the Journal of Eritrean Studies, concludes "To him [Cantalupo] goes the credit of making Eritrean poetry known to the western world." The Somali scholar and poet, Ali Jimale Ahmed, writes in Research in African Literatures that Cantalupo's books exemplify the ideal that "humanity thrives and benefits from a robust exchange of ideas, which comes into fruition when entities - individuals, nations - speak their mind. These are a must read." And Educational Media Reviews Online calls Cantalupo's documentary, Against All Odds, "a fascinating introduction to some of Africa's most famous writers and recommended for all schools with African Studies programs." Cantalupo's work is also featured in the New York Times and on CNN, Deutsche Welle, NPR, BBC, SBS, VOA, and more.

In the process of "Joining Africa," Charles Cantalupo has continued to teach at Penn State University, Schuylkill Campus, where he is currently Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African Studies and is chair of the Honors Council and a member of the Humanities program. The need for a story recounted in the beginning of his book is also at the root of his teaching philosophy. He works to have every student realize his or her story, whether it is to be found in the creations of Genesis, Shakespeare's forest of Arden, the war poetry of Eritrea or in the simple recognition of strong verbs: a story that is unique and powerful, chastening and unforgettable, an inalienable human right, and what every culture, every language, every nation, and every person in the world has, too. If only we could all learn to tell it - the world would be a better place.

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