birgit weyhe

Translator’s Note: Priscilla Layne on Birgit Weyhe’s Rude Girl

Translator Priscilla Layne, a Black woman with shoulder-length locks, standing in an autumn forest
Priscilla Layne © Alexander Ray

In the case of Rude Girl, it was blindingly obvious who the translator ought to be: the book’s own subject, Priscilla Layne, who had previously published several translations from German. In fact, the project made no sense without her on board, so we were thrilled when she agreed to work on the book. Here’s her translator’s note, explaining its genesis and effects, and the nature of the translation challenges.

The graphic novel Rude Girl, the 8th by renowned German artist Birgit Weyhe, is very near and dear to me. First of all, it is based on my life story, as someone who was born to Caribbean immigrants in Chicago, always felt out of place because my interests didn’t make me “Black” enough, and who found refuge in two very unusual spaces –in the anti-racist skinhead scene and in Germany.

A second reason why Rude Girl is so important to me is because Birgit and I worked on it together. I first met Birgit in the winter of 2018, while I was living in Berlin on a research fellowship at the American Academy. My interest in comics, as a reader and a teacher, brought me to Birgit’s extensive oeuvre. I intended to write an essay about the representation of Blackness in her work and therefore I sought her out, hoping to interview her on the subject. At the time, she had just returned from a semester-long stay in Pennsylvania and she was eager to talk to an American in German Studies about her work. So, I traveled to Hamburg to interview her and to my surprise, not only did we get along wonderfully, but she was equally interested in my biography.

First, she wrote a one-page comic about my life that was published in the German newspaper Tagesspiegel. Then she approached me about doing a book-length project together with me. Our desire was to make this a collaborative effort. The book would be Birgit’s, drawn and written by her, but it would be based on my life and include commentary by me from our follow-up conversations, which occurred whenever she’d present me with a new chapter. Each chapter would be proceeded by a drawing of an album cover that was important to me, because music has been so significant in shaping my life.

The result is Rude Girl, which I consider a groundbreaking work not only because of how it interrogates issues of race and representation in comics, but also because of my story. I am not necessarily the most remarkable person and certainly not at all a famous person – I work in German Studies, a field which few people know exists. I won’t cure cancer or solve any of the world’s many problems. But I do consider mine a success story, because I went from being an introverted, Black girl nerd who felt like a perpetual outsider to a successful and confident, but still introverted, Black female professor at one of the top research universities in the United States (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

And the reason I was able to overcome a lot of personal challenges (sexual abuse as a child, an absent father, anxiety and a difficult mother-daughter-relationship) and political challenges (dealing with racism and sexism in school, as a professional and in everyday life) is because I found strength in alternative communities; in the punk scene and among anti-racist skinheads. Finding those subcultures helped me let off steam, find an outlet for my politics and embrace being different.

Thus, I see Rude Girl as an important book, not just for fans of graphic novels, but for anyone who has ever felt different, especially people on the margins of mainstream society like BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, especially people who belong to those groups and identify as being nerds, geeks or punks. I am often amazed at how mainstream nerd culture has now become in the US, but still if you are a Black nerd, any other nerd of Color, or even just a femme-identifying nerd, you don’t necessarily see any (positive) representation of yourself. I’m glad Rude Girl is helping to contribute to these representations and that it is now available in English.

Translating the book was kind of a surreal experience. Since it’s based on my life, translating often felt second-nature. I just had to ask myself, what would I have said in this scenario? What language would I typically use? But it was also challenging because having your life displayed on the page requires a degree of vulnerability. And there are scenes in the graphic novel that were particularly embarrassing for me to remember! There were also some German phrases that were difficult to convey in English and in some cases I decided to leave them in German. In any case, this entire artistic project has been a wild ride and it touches my heart when I hear people enjoy reading it and feel they can relate to the story.

The Rude Girl Playlist

One of the things I particularly love about our new graphic novel Rude Girl is all the music in it. Music? In a comic? Yeah, baby! Birgit Weyhe tells the story of Priscilla Layne, in conjunction with Layne herself – and since music is such a major part of her life, we get a peek at the records the fictionalised character Crystal listened to at different stages. Each section starts with one or two record covers, stacking up throughout the book to make up an impressive collection.

If you want to follow that development at home, we made a neat Spotify playlist featuring one track from each album. But here come some visuals to go with it…

We start with early childhood listening, music all around Crystal in her Jamaican/Bajan family in Chicago. Try Wendy Alleyne’s Never Make a Fool of a Woman, Bob Marley & the Wailers’ Soul Shakedown Party (a personal favourite of mine) or ABC by the Jackson 5.

Then Crystal starts to choose her own records as a girl… We’ve picked Why Can’t I Be You by the Cure, the very stirring Raiders March from John Williams’s Indiana Jones score, and for The Clash it had to be Rock the Casbah.

As she gets older at the height of the VHS era, Crystal takes comfort from more soundtracks. Composer John Williams is writ large, with Setting the Trap from Home Alone, and Theme from Jurrasic Park.

It’s the 90s, so there has to be grunge… Nirvana’s classic Come As You Are, Disarm from the Smashing Pumpkins (not pictured), and Say It Ain’t So by Weezer.

Next up is big fat punk and ska love, as Crystal discovers subculture. New Girl by Suicide Machines, the brilliantly named Keep Britain Untidy by Peter and the Test Tube Babies, and a dash of Laurel Aitken with Sally Brown.

As life goes on, Crystal’s taste broadens and she finds herself listening to… Yikes, Belle and Sebastian! A calm track to finish off, Funny Little Frog.

There’s more to discover on the playlist – and of course in the book itself!

Fantasy Book Picks for This Town

You know when you love a TV show so much that you want to recommend books for all the characters to read? You do, right, it’s not just me?

That’s what happened with BBC’s brand new drama series This Town, set in the West Midlands in 1981 as riots rage and a band forms, inspired by the 2Tone spirit and the Thatcherite shite going on around them. A bunch of youngsters and their families are embroiled in the politics of the day, largely Northern Ireland-related. And the soundtrack is a treat. Some singing along occurred.

So here come the V&Q book picks for almost all the main characters in This Town, with the exception of the ones I really disliked. I assume they don’t read books.

For songwriter and angsty teen Dante, it’s got to be a bit of metaphysical poetry, right? The Poems of John Donne, preferably a dog-eared second-hand copy with many pencil underlinings.

His cousin Bardon, top singer and guitarist, is such a big reggae lover that we’ve got him Marlon James’s excellent novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, re-imagining the attempted killing of Bob Marley. In paperback, stuffed into the pocket of his leather jacket.

Bardon’s mum Estella needs a good cry, and an empowering tale featuring a blues singer who steps up to a maternal role. What better than Alice Walker’s classic The Color Purple?

Fiona learns to play the bass just to join the band, and don’t you just love her for it? This one was easy: Viv Albertine’s punk-rock/parenting memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, about those three things and life as a woman in general.

Dante’s brother Virgil is rightly angry with the family’s situation. I reckon a bit of Audre Lorde would be right up his street, confronting injustices and changing the world in poetry and prose. Your Silence Will Not Protect You might even be a motto for his own life, who knows?

The brothers’ dad Deuce made me all melty inside. This is a man who knows how to love, but maybe bell hooks could still teach him a thing or two. And I think he’d appreciate the Christian sides to all about love as well.

Drummer Matty would want a first-edition copy of William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, purchased from an antiquarian bookseller in Moseley. Sharp-edged, loud and experimental – beat, baby, beat!

Ah, and now to Jeannie, our lovable skinhead girl, music writer and keyboardist. Who would of course absolutely love Birgit Weyhe’s graphic novel Rude Girl, translated by Priscilla Layne. Get your copy here from 29 April.

Announcing… Birgit Weyhe’s New Graphic Novel RUDE GIRL

Rude Girl book cover

You know when a character in a comic wears a band T-shirt and you know the musicians personally? Maybe not – I guess it doesn’t come up all that often. But that’s what happened to me when I first read RUDE GIRL, Birgit Weyhe’s graphic novel telling Priscilla Layne’s story. There it is, on page 264 – a Mother’s Pride T-shirt. The first thing I did was take a photo and send it to the former singer, who went out and bought a couple of copies of the German original. The second was to think: Would people want to read this in English?

Back to the comic itself: the author and artist Birgit Weyhe likes telling people’s stories in her work. She’s often drawn to outsiders, or people who have moved between continents like herself, after a childhood in Germany, Uganda and Kenya (as detailed at the beginning of MADGERMANES). Over the years, a number of her fictionalised characters have been Black. But when US academics accused her of appropriating those stories, she was offended.

Then along came the Black German studies professor Priscilla Layne, visiting from the States. What if Weyhe tried to tell her story – but in closer collaboration than usual? The upshot is RUDE GIRL, a graphic novel about growing up feeling different, and finding – at least for a time – a like-minded community through music.

We get Birgit Weyhe’s take on what Priscilla Layne described to her, followed by sections where Layne gives her feedback; perhaps on the choice of colours, perhaps adding more detail or defending a character. In the process, Weyhe takes on her comments and changes things. It’s a fascinating insight into the writing and drawing of a graphic novel. And Layne’s life makes a very interesting subject.

A childhood in Chicago with a single mother from Barbados, a fairly absent Jamaican father, challenges fitting in at school and trouble in the extended family. First discovering German through Indiana Jones, and later discovering ska, reggae and punk. Pursuing an academic career originally inspired by Kafka while battling imposter syndrome – and achieving a whole lot in life. And who better to translate the book of that life than Priscilla Layne herself?

In the meantime, having commissioned and edited that translation, I’ve met Priscilla in person. Our years on the Berlin ska scene didn’t quite overlap, sadly; but our encounter was still warm and friendly, since I felt like I knew her already. It takes guts to tell a story like this, and both Weyhe and Layne have guts aplenty. For music fans, there are album covers, haircuts, outfits, hangovers, and Birgit Weyhe manages to capture the thrill of dancing in an ecstatic crowd in a single image. For everyone else, there’s a fascinating life told in pictures, a tale of how a sense of community buoys us up and gives us joy and confidence.

RUDE GIRL is published on 29 April, but you can pre-order now.