“Look at reality carefully”
Photograph by Ben Oswest
From The LA Review of Books:
What was Derrida trying to deconstruct? How was he trying to interpret Western philosophy in a new light?
It had a focus on being dominant for centuries without change. Whole groups get excluded because a certain kind of dominant discourse is established. He also said a very powerful thing about African orality: they could remember seven generations back; we’ve lost that capacity. There, “writing” takes place on the psychic material called “memory.” Derrida connects this to Freud. So he was saying, look at reality carefully. It’s coded so that other people, even if they’re not present, can understand what we are saying. He looked at how this was suppressed in philosophical traditions.
You first started working on the translation of Of Grammatology in the late ’60s. You were an unknown scholar at the time and Derrida was still largely unknown in the United States. This was a highly theoretical, very difficult book that’s still challenging to read. Why did you want to take on such a daunting project?
Well, I didn’t know who Derrida was at all. I was 25 and an assistant professor at the University of Iowa in 1967, and I was trying to keep myself intellectually clued in. So I would order books from the catalog which looked unusual enough that I should read, so that’s how I ordered the book.
So you read it in the original French and then thought maybe there should be an English translation?
No, no. I managed to read it and thought it was an extraordinary book. This was before the internet, so nobody was telling me anything about Derrida. My teacher had not met Derrida when I left Cornell, so I truly didn’t know who he was. So I thought, “Well, I’m a smart young foreign woman, and here’s an unknown author. Nobody’s going to give me a contract for a book on him, so why don’t I try to translate him?” And I had heard at a cocktail party that the University of Massachusetts Press was doing translations, so I wrote them a very innocent query letter in late 1967 or early 1968. They told me later that they found my query letter so brave and sweet that they thought they should give me a chance. [Laughs.] It’s really ridiculous, but there it was.