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from the June 2017 issue

“Inheritance from Mother” by Minae Mizumura

Reviewed by Michelle Kyoko Crowson

Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother is a literature lover’s novel and a translator’s novel. The narrative is split into two parts, with a total of 66 short chapters. Chapter 1, “The Long Telephone Call in Lieu of a Wake,” opens with a conversation between sisters Mitsuki and Natsuki, who speculate about how much money they can get back from Golden, the barely-used assisted living home where their mother once lived. The frank conversation upends some of the most common stereotypes about the Japanese as ritualistic and indirect collectivists who put family above self. But the social pressure to present oneself as such is implied in the response from Mitsuki, the protagonist, when she lowers her voice even in the privacy of her own home to whisper the sum they hope to collect. That number also marks the novel as a translation, because it’s footnoted with both a US Dollar approximation and a general guideline for US-Japan currency conversion. The layered emphasis on linguistic and monetary conversation adds extra weight to the scandalous nature of the conversation––death and translation are always accompanied by concrete losses and gains. To add to that, Noriko (the mother in question) was a difficult women, and her relationship with both daughters is so strained that Mitsuki recalls how, when Noriko was first rushed to the ER, Mitsuki sat in the waiting room, thinking:

Mother is dying.
My mother is dying.
Finally she’s going to die.

In fact, Noriko didn’t die that night, but Mitsuki is seized with the thought, and the words become a dark, persistent refrain in her life, a shameful wish she can only share with her younger sister Natsuki. The sisters are close despite, or perhaps because of, the resentments between them, stoked by Noriko’s lifelong tendecy to play favorites.

Early in life, Natsuki was the favorite because she was more beautiful, and Noriko trained her to become a pianist, to marry into status and wealth. That preferential attention shapes Natsuki long after she falls out of favor––when the sisters convene for their frequent commiserating phone calls, Natsuki retreats to her soundproof piano room, out of earshot of her husband and daughter. Meanwhile, the long-neglected Mitsuki bears the burden of Noriko’s attention late in life, taking on the lion’s share of hospital visits in spite of her own poor health. 

What both sisters inherit equally is their mother’s cultured sensibility and a love of the finer things in life, from French lace curtains and opera visits, to their respective artistic training: Natsuki in piano and German, Mitsuki in singing and French. As readers, we are immersed in Mitsuki’s cosmopolitan sensibilities and her meditation on life through art. Every major personal event in her life is contextualized by different artistic depictions. In the opening chapter, even as Mitsuki talks with her sister about their mother’s death, she thinks: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Today, Mother died. The opening line of the first novel she had ever read in French, long ago.” As a young woman, years before her mother’s death, Mitsuki went to Paris to study chanson. There she met Tetsuo, her future husband, a boursier––a graduate student on scholarship from the French government––who lived in a cheap, shabby apartment on his meager funds. He struck her as La Boheme’s Rodolfo in the flickering French candlelight of their engagement night, as an artistic soul living in charming poverty. She saw him as a kindred soul who would be her storybook hero as they romantically pursued a life of art and culture together. But when they moved back to Japan, Tetsuo’s materialistic side became apparent, as he became more and more preoccupied with the thought of owning a sleek, large condo downtown, rather than their homey but less fashionable apartment. Worse, on the same day that Noriko is rushed to the hospital, Mitsuki discovers that Tetsuo is cheating on her with a younger woman (again), and these twin blows send her into a tailspin, forcing her to come to terms with a life long on responsibility and short on happiness. 

Several times throughout the narrative, Mitsuki declares herself someone who “wouldn’t make a good heroine in a novel.” A middle-aged woman about to slide into old age, Mitsuki has an unenviable life: her husband is preparing to leave her for a woman who calls Mitsuki “pathetic,” and she is saddled with a mother whose deteriorating body forces her to "fluently speak words like 'Dysphasia' and 'nasogastric tube." Meanwhile, her husband’s social ambitions require that she reject passion projects––like translating a new Japanese edition of Madame Bovary––in favor of working as a freelancer and adjunct professor, teaching English during the day and translating French patents at night. These thankless, boring jobs exacerbate her lifelong physical frailty. Yet until the double shock of that day, Mitsuki does not allow herself to recognize that her life is caught in “sticky meshes of woe.” Once that page is turned, she must decide if and how she can extract herself. 

Part of what makes this novel so striking is its narrator's self-awareness, a quality that may not appeal to everyone. But for readers fascinated by the entanglements of language, society, and the way we create stories of ourselves, this book is a must read. It is also a novel acutely aware of its contemporary context, and the narrative gestures toward pressing issues, such as Japan’s aging problem, the cultural-linguistic hegemony of the West, and the double bind of women expected to act both as familial caretakers and productive workers. 

Constant references to foreign literature aside, this is a novel deeply rooted in Japan. While Mitsuki regrets not re-translating Madame Bovary’s Emma, and Natsuki fantasizes about the pleasures of a “a room of one’s own,” the sisters’ very existence is contingent upon their grandmother’s conviction that she, a former geisha, is the heroine of Japan’s first newspaper novel, The Golden Demon. At one point, Mitsuki views the crisis point in her life as the frenetic pitch in a play by Noh master Zeami. 

The tightly woven literary self-awareness and the emotionally heavy themes are shot through with surprising humor, like the moment when Mitsuki buys her fashionable mother emergency clothes for her hospital stay, selecting sturdy pajamas for “solid citizens” that fairly shout, “Hello, underwear here, at your service!” 

Mitsuki’s incisive observations and cosmopolitan sense are mirrored in the author’s other works, an aesthetic sense rooted in her distinctive biography. A Yale graduate and former faculty member of the Iowa International Writing Program, Mizumura is a respected French literature scholar, and this is her third collaboration with translator Juliet Winters Carpenter, who translated Mizumura’s English debut, A True Novel (2002), and the thought-provoking essay collection The Fall of Language in the Age of English (2015). That past relationship is evident in the deftness of Inheritance, which offers little gifts made possible by an English translation—like the fact that Carpenter is translating Mizumura translating Camus’ The Stranger when Mitsuki recalls that famous French line, “Aujoud’hui, maman est morte," and renders it as "Today, Mother died." 

These nerdy delights add to the novel’s overall literariness. And like Mizumura’s other works, Inheritance is just as interested in exploring form as well as content. The novel’s two parts are so distinct that, stylistically, they almost feel like standalone novellas––except that the narratives are so deeply entwined they end up looking like eerie, inverse silhouettes. Meanwhile each chapter is short and punchy, a reflection of its original context as a serial novel, published weekly in the Yomiuri Newspaper. A dying genre of fiction, the newspaper novel is largely read by middle-aged women, and Mizumura’s story elucidates the nuanced complexity of being a woman of a certain age in Japanese society. The female mind-body is on full view, with all its desires and disappointments, vitality and indignity. Mizumura’s insights edge on brutality, but in the best way possible, demonstrating that a middle-aged woman is more than capable of being our novel’s protagonist.

Sam Oates

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Giuseppe Caputo

Frances Riddle

Gilmer Mesa

Juan Gabriel Vazquez

Melba Escobar

Oscar Collazos

Yolanda Reyes

Juan Alvarez

from the May 2017 issue

“The Hunger in Plain View: Selected Poems” by Ester Naomi Perquin

Reviewed by John W. W. Zeiser

In “Delay," from Ester Naomi Perquin’s newly translated collection of poems The Hunger in Plain View, she remarks “We are modern. It’s the wrong century for love." Yet love is everywhere in this collection, complicated by the messiness of modernity, true, but appearing all the same, if not always where we expect to find it. Perquin's love is instead the contradictory kind, simultaneously mundane and surreal, and shared by criminals and prison guard’s wives, just as it is by family or lovers, and this perspective, style, and poetic play are expertly handled by translator David Colmer, in whose English none of the weird is lost. 

Perquin's poetics are conversational, intimate and direct, such as in her poem “Quiz:" 

Cross out: I am not a woman /  I am a stupid woman.
In recent years there are at least six things
I have regretted. On my fingertips, I prefer:
gold leaf, paint, tomato juice.

The Hunger in Plain View provides a good overview of her three previous collections, Napkins at Halfmast, In the Name of the Other, and the captivating Cell Inspections, the last of which was partially inspired by her time working as a prison guard. This experience crops up in other places as well, like in her poem “Guard Duty” from In the Name of the Other. But it is love that appears again and again, providing the connecting thread throughout the collection, as in “You Are the Wrong Man:"

You always were the wrong man
and you, incontrovertibly, are the wrong man still.

I don’t like love and never have.
I’ve stayed with you because I am so sure of it.

Not exactly the stuff of fairy tales, but Perquin’s dismissal of the subject only serves to heighten the end of the poem five stanzas later, “Maybe I do love you, as long as I don’t stop / meaning it as something inalienable, / as long as I can keep it safe and well.” For Perquin, keeping something safe is a form of enclosure or confinement, whether it be in a prison or in our hearts. Personas and characters often appear celled or walled off, physically as well as emotionally. Take for example “Enclosed” where she begins: 

Being alone in the sense
of constantly your own smell,
over the wall a view
of unfinished sheds

She juxtaposes the narrator's view of what lies beyond with the immediate surroundings:

But the perfect company
of a wallpapered cell, clippings
    
of glossy sluts, mothers
breastier than ever, girls
climbing onto laps, daughters

who feed the ducks.

Likewise, in her prose poem “Within Limitations” she begins:

You get used to your format. Walls built up out of patience, the height of the ceiling with peculiar stains, a sticky floor, your unstoppable breath feels out the room and rebounds, in the dark your hands know where to find the switch.

As in “Quiz,” the persona is aware of the poem as a prison, and in both poems is able to joke about things like “format” or telling herself to cross out words or phrases.

There are many solid poems in the first two collections, but it is the selections from her third, Cell Inspections, that really show off the nature and breadth of Perquin’s imagination, her eye for detail, for inhabiting character and voice, and her ability to imbue humanity into criminality. She worked in a prison as a way to pay for creative writing school and it is clear that the experience was formative. So many of the poems deal with specific prisoners, their crimes, their interiority and identity as something more than simply those convicted of a crime.

Many of the crimes described are difficult sounding to deal with, yet Perquin’s gaze is unflinching. Consider how Perquin describes love in “David H.”:

Of course it was love—but love can’t lie, it doesn’t scream
when you say, quiet, it doesn’t run out of breath and
doesn’t force me into anything. Love lies down
before you and listens. True love
is always willing.

Love here is the specious delusion of someone who can’t quite confront what he’s done. And indeed Perquin gives us the ending we expect, though in such a quiet, breathless way that is stunning:

As far as that goes, I know better now. I wouldn’t have looked
at her like that, I would have loved her differently,
not in a hurry with my two hands round her neck,
but thoughtfully, mournfully, gently.

At the same time there is monstrousness, there is also humanity, and Perquin’s knack for getting us there is nothing short of amazing.

My only regret with the book was that Cell Inspections wasn't translated and included in its entirety, as it was the strongest section of the book for me. Yet all the selections in The Hunger in Plain View are spellbinding, weird, and completely different than so much poetry I have read recently. Perquin was recently named Poet Laureate of the Netherlands through 2019, and based on the work on display here, it's no wonder. Hers is a unique, subtle, fascinating, sometimes weird, and sometimes creepy voice. 

Thoraya El-Rayyes

Nadia Al-Kokabany

Wendy Pearlman

Abbad Yahya

Claudia Hernández

Mohamed Abdelnabi

Mansour Bushnaf

Zoran Janjanin

Dayla Rogers

Kemal Varol

Nawzat Shamdeen

from the June 2017 issue

I Will Not Sing

I will not sing—
                  I will sing today no rose song, no song of the nightingale,
                                    No song of the iris, no hyacinth song,
                                                      No song to ravish nor song intoxicated
                                                                        Not languor’s sweet, slow songs—
                  Not the least song—
I will not sing—
Not when the dust cloud of war skins the iris for its hue—
                  When the thunder of guns tears out the tongue from the nightingale—
                                    When I hear the clamor and clatter of chains, here
Where there were hyacinths—and the diseased eye of lightning is webbed-closed, 
                  And mountains recoil
Back onto their haunches; when black-death gathers close
                  Cloud tops to embrace—
I will not sing—
                                   For now warlord and the bureaucrat stand girt-about
                 With an eye on my Kashmir.

I will not sing—
                  I will sing today no song of Nishat or Shalimar, no annealed song of waters
                                    Engraving terraced gardens, no bower songs of bedded flowers;  
                                                      No soft songs flush or sweetly fresh, not green dew songs
                                                                        Nor songs gentle and growing—not the least song—

I will not sing—
                  Not the least song—
                                    Not today—not when here is no place
Where the day’s white-seething pan of light is not set, poised to distress,
                  Setting shake, spilling from quavering vessels what life there was yet
                                    To blight my garden waking—
                                                      So the rose holds its breath, and
The tulip its brand; quick rivers stall their song and keening koels shake
                  In their palpitating hearts,
                                                      Where throbbing song is stilled—all fearing,
A wild starling idly sinks into the quiet of its unsettled perch. 

I will not sing
                                    For now warlord and the bureaucrat stand girt-about
                  With an eye on my Kashmir.

 

I will not sing—
                  I will sing no song today of incipience, no late songs favoring the spring
                                    of first friends, the fevers willed, of new love and wildness in longing;
                                                      I will stage no song to effloresce red and yellow, with tender crests
                                                                        Of the blue and green stuff growing—not the least song—

I will not sing—
                  No such song—not today—

 

Translation © 2017 by Sonam Kachru. All rights reserved.

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from the June 2017 issue

I Will Die Young

I, too, can’t bear the pain that’s yours
on being so far away from me.
I will die young.
What more?
You’ve abandoned me to pity:
to feel the pain that follows pain.

I will die young.

My neck’s in the coils of your serpentine curls:
what’s left is the tale—
             So tell me,
which tales would you now have me tell?                 

You’ve rent my heart—I’ll be damned
if your nose
isn’t a sword
of silver! How many lions now
among us
has your blade laid low?

The sunshine, my sun, has shamed the light

of the moon of Qandahar—I’m waiting,
wilting
in your memory—

 

In my dark he spoke
(the seller of red gems)
to show me
what’s evident: “A jewel
comes into view
from inside stone.”

You’ve loosened me, my love,
to fall—I can’t stand
on my feet. Now whom
have you
fallen for?
Are they more beautiful than me?

In this garden of love, flowers
are wounds of my heart,
the swaying cypress sounds
my sighs; with tears
I’ll fill rivulets—

You’re upset;
             but I’ll run
                         right on after you—
                                        I’ll hold on,

Grab you by the collar
              of your cloak—I swear I’ll grip its hem
                            on resurrection day—

I will die young.

 

Translation © 2017 by Sonam Kachru. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2017 issue

June 2017

from the June 2017 issue

And What If Love Is Stronger? The Queer Issue

Our eighth annual queer issue launches in the wake of several notable international LGBT literary successes. Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You, a smash in the US last year, was awarded the British Book Award for a Debut Novel and will be translated into a dozen languages. Édouard Louis’s autobiographical End of Eddy promises to be only the beginning of a major career, selling a remarkable 300,000 copies in the original French and arriving to acclaim in English. And Qiu Miaojin's Notes of a Crocodile was praised for its depiction of teenage alienation in mid-1990s Taiwan. Yet these welcome literary occasions occur in the shadows cast not only by events in areas associated with oppression, but also by regression and erosion of rights in the US. In Europe, Chechnya arrests, imprisons, and tortures gay men while denying they even exist; in Indonesia, police cane two gay men in front of a cheering crowd, then announce the formation of anti-gay task forces. Meanwhile, recent advances in the US are reversed, as new regulations restrict transgender bathroom access, religious liberty initiatives militate against LGBT rights, and authorities refuse to classify homophobic attacks as hate crimes.

In this troubling context, the need for portrayals of queer lives around the world becomes even more urgent.  The work in this issue highlights the plurality of queer experience in light of both advances and setbacks. Whether struggling with established prejudice or claiming new rights, protagonists—real and imagined—assert a place for themselves in the world.

Families, as always, provide both comfort and conflict, offering havens to some and springboards to others.  Our issue opens with fiction from Equatorial Guinea's Trifonia Melibea Obono, who reveals a secret society within a narrow-minded West African village. On her way to collect firewood, a teenage girl runs into a trio her grandmother has darkly referred to as "indecent and mysterious." The three girls gently tell her that her effeminate uncle has been run out of the village. While she struggles with this news, the girls lead her to a clearing and induct her into their “indecency club." Her uncle may have been banished from their community, but she has been welcomed into one that feels far more like home.

In a chapter from her Kapuściński Prize finalist I Won't Apologize for Giving Birth: Stories of IVF Families, Polish journalist Karolina Domagalska travels to Tel Aviv to meet with a self-made family: two same-sex couples who collaborate to produce two children. The four adults navigate the logistics of multiple households, the definition of parenthood, and the unexpected complications of the male couple's breakup in establishing their very modern family. As the older daughter turns seven, one of the women declares, "I can say with a clear conscience that our arrangement works.”

By contrast, very little functions as it should in the troubled multigenerational household of the Serbian intellectual and political activist Biljana Jovanović's "Lida, Danilo, and the Others." Lida's fractured family struggles with internal violence and the social changes of Tito's Yugoslavia. Breathless, angry, fragmented, Lida jumps through time and memory, from her uncle's cruelty to her first stirrings of same-sex desire, to create a portrait of emotional and physical pain.

Another sort of danger informs the transgender world of "Miss Eddy," Mexican writer Milena Solot's English-language debut. The title character and her friend Úrsula fall in with the seductive sex trafficker Tommy. As they work their way toward the border, Eddy's initial infatuation turns to suspicion and then fear; when Tommy announces a change of itinerary, she stays behind in Tijuana, but cannot persuade the lovestruck Úrsula to do the same. The result is no less tragic for its inevitability.  

David Albahari's Brother portrays a novelist famed for his depictions of his idyllic childhood whose orderly existence is rocked by the appearance of a brother he never knew he had. At their rendezvous in a Belgrade restaurant, this new sibling upends everything the writer thought he knew about his family, and everything he thought he knew about himself.  Reeling, he has no idea that his brother has even more shocking news in store.

In another restaurant scene, Caio Fernando Abreu's talky obsessive struggles to reconcile romantic ideals with harsh physical reality. After their dinner is interrupted by an aggressive young actor, the morose theater critic Pérsio launches into a gritty, earthy monologue with his bemused friend. Focused on the carnal elements of male sex, he works himself into a funk. His friend challenges his reductive viewpoint:  "What if everything that you find disgusting was precisely what we call love?" And, moreover, "What if love is stronger?"

Turkish artist and writer Beldan Sezen, now living in New York, returns to her native Istanbul in the "fearful, despondent" early months of 2016. On top of the threat of war and increased suicide bombings, her friends worry about the Erdogan government's association of the queer community with the opposition party and the loss of their majority, and the resulting escalation of anti-gay police action. They meet the cancellation of the annual pride parade with defiance and ingenuity to remain visible both in Istanbul and around the world.

The invisibility of queer identities, of course, takes on many forms. The University of East Anglia's B.J. Epstein, coeditor of the new collection Queer in Translation, takes up a related battle against the double erasure of queer translators. Epstein discusses both the content and source of queer translation, and creates the portmanteau word "eradicalization"—the eradication of the radical element of queer translation—to assail the normalization of queerness in translated texts. 

If Epstein laments the use of words to put a damper on the representation of queer sexuality, Uruguayan poet Raquel Lubartowski's "Triptych" rues their futility in the face of desire. "Poetry is no longer enough," she declares, then undercuts her argument with powerful imagery and compelling emotion. Love is a mirage in an endless desert; "We're seeking water / where there is only thirst."

This traditional month of celebration may have a more defiant edge this year, as the international queer community battles the current political and social environment. With that in mind, we offer the writing here as rebuttal, as testimony, and as a declaration of the force and importance of queer writing. And as we fight the forces of hatred, prejudice, and oppression, we must maintain our belief: yes, love is stronger.

© 2017 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

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from the June 2017 issue

The jewels of my eyes I’ll lay at your feet

 

1

The jewels of my eyes I’ll lay at your feet
Come, beloved mine, my childhood friend.
Like a kukil you flew to rivers and shallows
my heart, deceived by calls not really yours,
tore in two.
Come beloved mine, my childhood friend.

Yellow blossoms festoon the banks,
I know you’ll fulfill your promise today.
If you come, I’ll lay my head at your feet.
Come beloved mine, my childhood friend.

 

2

Garlands of flowers I weave for him,
Won’t he revel in the jasmine, for my sake?
Desire fills these goblets with wine,
Oh for his place in this heart of mine
One glimpse of his face will restore me
Won’t he revel in the jasmine, for my sake?

 

3

My garden awaits your footfall,
Place your feet upon my head
And I’ll wear the mark like a crown.
In the pain of separation, I sundered my veil,
Won’t you ever return to me?
A wreath of jasmine I once was,
Now withered to a blade of grass.
O let me wear your footprint like a crown.

 

4

Hum not with pain, my spinning wheel,
I’II soothe your aches with scented oils
Hyacinth! Lift your head your head from within the mud
The narcissus waits with her brimming cup.
A jasmine bush am I, and I will not bloom again.
Hum not with pain, my spinning wheel, 
I’ll soothe your aches with scented oils.

 

Translation © 2017 by Neerja Mattoo. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2017 issue
from the June 2017 issue

Born of earth, I fell into contemplation

 

1

Born of earth, I fell into contemplation
Hari, you alone open the doors for me
Enlighten me, be my ferryman
You kindled hope in me. Now fill my cups.

 

2

The sword of meditation slung by my side
I mount the horse of twin breaths.
The oriole’s song, like a veena, fills the air,
Conches resound, all around
Cymbals ring, the river of Practice springs forth,
This is how I worship Shiva.

 

3

Ever-alert Self, she plays and dances
She decks herself in shining clothes.
Always conscious, always perfect
On Shiva’s path, She becomes one with Him.

 

Translation © 2017 by Neerja Mattoo. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2017 issue
from the June 2017 issue

Simurgh: Seeding a New Generation of Literary Translators

The translations of Kashmiri poetry presented here grew out of a project at Sangam House, a writers residency program in the Indian countryside about forty-five minutes west of Bangalore. Every year, Sangam House invites writers and translators working in languages across India—and, indeed, the world—to live and work among their peers in a safe, supportive, and nurturing space. As an outgrowth of our core residency program, Sangam House began organizing workshops to facilitate exchanges between writers and translators from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In the winter of 2014, we began work on a special project called Simurgh. Supported by the Aditi Foundation for the Arts, and named after the mythical bird born from the combined energies of those who sought it, the project was designed to seed a new generation of translators from Indian languages—who could come together as a community, enriching not just their own work, but bringing the treasury of Indian writing to a wider audience.

Simurgh’s first translation program focused on Kashmir and the Kashmiri language. The aim was to place young Kashmiri writers and translators in the presence of their literary past, and to get them to create their work within the larger context of history, genres, themes, and concerns of their own larger literary traditions. An intensive nine-day workshop, held in Srinagar and Pahalgam, brought the young translators together with scholars, poets, and writers who guided them through the classical texts as well as through the translation process. In the course of these discussions and readings, the translators confronted such critical issues as unstable texts from the oral tradition, meanings and interpretations from esoteric mystical traditions that lay behind the use of everyday language, and how form and structure might be carried across in translation.

By all accounts, it was the first time that the diverse and dispersed writers and scholars of the Kashmiri literary tradition were brought to work together under one roof. And it would seem that a small community was indeed seeded: the translators and mentors established a working, supportive relationship with each other, and broke through barriers of language, community, religion and politics in personal as well as professional conversations.

Perhaps the most critical realization of the workshop was that the texts we were working with were profoundly unstable. Vociferous arguments and discussions arose about the words, their meanings, the order of verses, and the verses themselves. It became clear that as important as it was to translate these classical works, it was even more urgent to record and document their multiple versions, all laying claim to be the poets’ "authentic" and "complete" oeuvre. Our intention was not to stabilize the texts, but to represent the oral tradition as it is—contested, known, recited, beloved. As a result, the second round of Simurgh in Kashmir focused on making oral recordings of these classical works. We asked scholars and poets to read and recite the poems that they believed were the authentic works of the poets, thereby generating an aural sense of the unstable texts. We also hoped that these multiple versions of a poet’s oeuvre would enable conversations about the meaning and significance of "canon" both in the world of scholarship and in the popular imagination. The translations presented here represent not only a portion of the work that came out of Simurgh in Kashmir, but a historical overview of Kashmiri poetry written in four centuries: the seventeenth-century Roop Bhawani; the eighteenth-century Arinimal; the nineteenth-century Rasul Mīr; and the twentieth-century Dina Nath Nādim.

Kashmiri is one of the oldest languages of South Asia, with a rich vocabulary. While its grammatic base is Sanskrit, it has happily absorbed words from other languages such as Farsi and Arabic. Its literature can be traced back to the fourteenth century. Among the first mature poetic compositions in the language are the vaakhs of Lal Ded, who laid down a strong foundation of mystic poetry which continues today.

The first practitioner of the other prominent form of poetry in Kashmiri, romantic verse, was also a woman, Habba Khatun. In the selection here, Roop Bhawani (1625–1721) represents the mystic stream, and Arinimal (eighteenth Century), the stream of love.

Roop Bhawani was a practicing mystic who left her husband’s home and renounced domestic life. She had philosophical dialogues with prominent Sufis of the time in Kashmir, among them Shah Sadiq, also known in Kashmir as Shah Qalandar. Her poetry, also in the form of vaakhs, is steeped in the beliefs and practices of Kashmir Shaivism.  The vaakh consists of four lines, each a trochaic tetrameter, and does not adhere to a strict rhyme scheme. In fact, more often than not, there is no rhyme, but a solemn rhythm, which suits the generally grave tone of religious poetry. Of course such poetry is often ecstatic, too, and her work includes varying rhythms to suit mystic exclamations.

Arinimal celebrates the world of the senses. In her poems, we find an acknowledgment of a woman’s sexuality, a frank desire for a union that is not at all platonic.  Arinimal's poetry is invested with the romance of loneliness, a brooding reproach to the absent lover, her husband, with whom she was deeply in love, and for whom the wait never seems to end. Arinimal’s husband, Bhawanidass Kachru, was a scholar, poet, and linguist, a sophisticated member of the courtly circle of the Afghan Governor of the time, Jumma Khan, who himself was interested in music and poetry. Kachru had no use for the sensibilities of his wife and did not appreciate her poetic skills; perhaps the unpretentious lyricism of her songs did not appeal to his serious, purposeful, even moral view of poetry. Ironically, it is Arinimal’s verses that are sung today, while Kachru's Persian magnum opus Behr-I-taveel lies forgotten in some archive. Women’s voices have a way of escaping the stifling silences they are forced to maintain.

Rasul Mīr flourished in the nineteenth century. His friend and fellow poet, Mahmud Gāmi, allegedly said about Mīr: “He will die young.” The comment has been widely viewed both as prophetic and as censure of a dissolute lifestyle. It could also be considered a comment on Mīr’s body of lyrics, endowed with irrepressible personality, and swerving away from the kind of mysticism that came all too easily to Kashmiri poets between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.  Mīr’s ear for detail is unparalleled in Kashmiri poetry. As are the moments of sudden transformation, where sound and meaning coalesce. Note, for example, "grāyi mārān kot gachhakh kan dūriye," where the beloved, whose distinctive gait at the beginning of the lyric was enough to identify her from a distance, is now transformed by her possibly retreating motion into a last glimpse of her own pendant earrings, ornaments which shake with every turn of the head: a moment of affection even in the acknowledgment of diminution, and a metamorphosis that is impossible to translate.

Dina Nath Nādim’s poems are distinguished for their experiments in form as well as for their vocabulary, pitch, and tone. What is distinctive is not simply the quality of his attention to life but his way of focusing that attention through the use of “hard, ordinary words” (as John Hollander said of Whitman). Kashmiri, itself, is both the subject and the site of his verse. Every word in his poetry requires its own commentary, each indicating a choice of attention, each bearing the burden, through idiom or etymology, of a way of life.

Nādim was a genius with images, as in “day’s white-seething pan of light,” or “the mountains recoil / back onto their haunches” in "I Will Not Sing." But it is in the hard, ordinary words and the phonetic texture of this poem that you will find the event the poem was: free-verse in distinctively Kashmiri idioms, the meter a matter of stride and breath. Such a poem you translate with your body; if the English cannot be chanted, if the lines no longer train your breath, it will not be Nādim’s poem. Even the phonetic details matter; entirely appropriately, the only break in the richly worked alliterative and assonant surface of the Kashmiri texture of this poem, as Professor Braj Kachru once noted, consist in those two words, jangbāz, jālsāz, which Sonam Kachru has translated as “warlord” and “bureaucrat”:  this is auditory intelligence of the highest caliber.

The brief selection presented here is but a glimpse into the mystical, lyric, and political poetry that forms a part of the long tradition of Kashmiri literature. At this point in time, as Kashmir burns and religious and national identities are contested on a daily basis, these poems from the past remind us that a happier, more peaceful time of syncretism and harmony once existed in this troubled land.

 

© 2017 by Sonam Kachru, Neerja Mattoo, and Arshia Sattar. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2017 issue
from the June 2017 issue

The Indecency Club

I didn't understand what it meant to be a man. If in the past I thought that it was enough to have genitals dangling between one's legs, now I began to doubt. I doubted, because Uncle Marcelo's did dangle but nobody in the village considered him a man. Then would the perfect male be one who fathered children? "Of course not," I answered myself. My grandfather fulfilled that function and, in the opinion of my grandmother, he shouldn't be considered a man because he had shown himself unable to impose order in the family. Would a man be a person who managed to subdue or dominate other people? I didn't know, and I tossed and turned in bed unable to fall asleep, until I saw my mother, walking before me. I followed her in silence, without asking about my father.

The next day my grandmother left for the farm and gave me a task: to go into the forest for wood, but not to mix with Dina and her friends, three girls who went everywhere together cloaked in mystery. With the basket already on her back, she bid me a dry farewell. As she drew away, I stared above all at her rival, leaning in the kitchen door and holding in her arms her youngest child, seven months old, and calling my  grandmother an old crone. 

"Don't you understand why Osá no longer visits your bed? It's because you're an old hag who no longer gets her monthlies! Do you want to give my husband your curse, eh?"

Aloof from the confrontation that took place between the two women, my grandfather calmly played checkers in the House of the Word. After the first round of the game was finished, he asked for his breakfast. Once I had served him, I left for the closest forest in search of firewood. Crossing the village, I felt that everyone looked at me strangely: the women who came to pray that their polygamous spouses would pay more attention to them during the day and especially at night; the men who returned from hunting and were selling the animals before reaching their homes; the girls who left with their mothers to work on the farms, lugging baskets or carrying their little brothers and sisters in their arms as was the custom; the children who played football in the village's arena.

When I reached the highway I ran into Dina and her friends. Oh my! I didn't want to join them, so I picked up my pace and lowered my head so our glances wouldn't meet. I feared that someone might see me with them and tell my grandmother. But it was useless. Dina, the nicest of the group, looked at me tenderly and said something that it seemed everyone already knew: "Your uncle Marcelo has fled the village along with the woman who lived with him. Last night they burned down his house while he slept. He is lucky to be alive."

"What are you saying?" I approached the girls, who were also carrying baskets. "And when did all this happen?"

"Last night," Dina answered, touching my arm.

The moment her arm touched me, I noticed I was trembling. I hunched over. We sat down together on the trunk of an Okoumé tree abandoned on the side of the highway.

"They demanded he offer his member for the good of the tribe. And your grandmother, along with the rest of the women in the village, had decided to cast out Restituta, who he lived with, for . . .  "

"For what?" We were in the middle of a highway full of mud.

"For . . . that is . . . " She looked at the two other girls who went everywhere with her and then said in a low voice. "For being a whore. It seems that the women have the support of the priest, who says that your uncle's friend brought sin to the village."

"The priest has agreed that they set out to burn alive the . . .  whore and my uncle?"

"No. The priest says that prostitution is sinful and so that it doesn't spread, she must be cast out from the village. How that is done was the idea of the women of the Adoration of the Virgin Mary. It seems that their husbands frequently visited the . . . whore."

We were silent for a long moment, and then Dina spoke again.

"As for your uncle, the true goal of the tribe was to burn down his house with him inside it. That's why the people set out with their torches already lit. However, they made a mistake in taking for granted that he was already asleep. They found him sitting on the terrace, talking with his companion."

On hearing this news, I wanted to run toward the burned house. Dina held me back and gave me a letter from Marcelo. I read it with trembling hands and tears, but with the fortitude that only the daughter of an unmarried Fang woman manages to accumulate during years of humiliations, interminable moments of loneliness, and the lack of paternal kindness in being the daughter of all the men in the world but of none in particular.

The letter said the following:
 

Dear daughter:

I will always love you. You know that, right? All the love I feel for you doesn't fit in this letter that I write with great urgency and tears. Your grandparents, along with all the tribe, have cast me out of the village for various reasons: I decided not to lend my member for the good of all and I keep in my home the ashes of my father, which, according to them, have provoked the barrenness of the land and other disgraces in the village, including your uncle's infertility. And also, the woman who lives with me is a prostitute and receives visits from various men of the village, among those your grandfather. You are a young girl and easily influenced. You must know that I am innocent. You believe me, don't you? Of course I am, I am sure that my girl believes me. I shall hide in the Otosia forest near the Míong River. I have a hut there. Visit me soon. I can't live without you. The girl who gives you this letter, Dina, is a friend of mine. With her, you can come whenever you want. In the end, I can live permanently in the forest. I am in good health, don't worry. I have brought with me only the painting of Guernica and my memories of your mother. I will talk to you about her when you wish and we can also talk about your father. My home is ash. Don't go there because they will associate you with the curses.

I love you very much, my daughter. And worry not: I will be well.

Your uncle who loves you,

Marcelo

 

I couldn't believe the contents of the letter. Meanwhile, my companions were looking more nervous than I was. After a few minutes of silence broken only by sobbing, Dina spoke. She said that only ash and loneliness were left in my uncle's home. I felt somewhat relieved after having read the affection and the advice the letter contained. If Marcelo found happiness in the forest, which is where he spent the majority of his time anyway, then all the better. At last he was free from so much disdain for not fondling women or fathering offspring.

Soon we moved into the forest after traveling half a kilometer along a path that illusorily was called a highway but was barely an earthen track.

"Don't be friends with those girls, they're indecent and mysterious," I remembered my grandmother telling me. But these three adolescents defended my uncle because they considered that he lived as a free man. With their baskets on their backs, they said that he had become an example to follow in having dared to challenge the Council of Elders of the tribe.

"The tribe to whom I owed respect and submission?" I asked myself, walking behind the three girls. Only Dina had turned eighteen. She revealed herself to have a strong character and looked at everyone discreetly but without fear. The second young woman was named Pilar, a very quiet orphan. In the village people whispered that her mother had died from witchcraft, and since then her father had sworn to maintain chastity, despite not leading a religious life. In the House of the Word, my grandfather asked him where his seed rested (that is to say, his semen) if he didn't have a wife. He remained silent.

Pilar had a paramour: Plácido. I discovered this because once the boy gave me a letter to deliver to her at school. I opened it and inside I saw a drawing of a heart. How jealous I was! Nobody had ever made such a tender gift for me.

The three girls spoke of Marcelo with much affection, especially the last of them, whose name was Linda. And she was as pretty as her name meant, with lovely eyes and, especially, a nice rear. I always noticed her charms with some anxiety, for I knew that my feelings were destined for some man as tradition decreed. A man who I didn't yet know and who, according to my grandmother, must have money.

Linda described for us the kiss that my uncle had one day given her on her forehead as the tenderest kiss of her life and complained that her father never even spoke to her, unless it was to order her to do something.

"It was here," she said, as she touched the center of her forehead with the palm of her hand. She was standing in front of us, always with the basket on her back like every Fang woman, and smiling.

At that moment we stopped to rest from the long walk. We sat on one side of the track and began to tell one another anecdotes about our lives in our homes. I had nothing to tell. What would I talk about? The constant fights? My perpetual loneliness? My father's abandoning me? The heroes of my tribe who worried above all about getting women pregnant? Of course not! My life lacked emotion. But I found one subject of conversation: I hated my braids. Oh, how I hated them! I also detested lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, and everything used to paint women's faces.

It turned out that I wasn't the only one. Dina and Pilar were with me. The only one who adored makeup was Linda, who couldn't buy any because her father was addicted to cards and gambled away all the family's money. What would she call family? I didn't know where mine was. Or maybe I did. Perhaps my true family lay in the forest, where Marcelo took refuge. And I was desperate to see him that afternoon after cutting wood as my grandmother had ordered me to do.

My grandmother. Nothing remained any longer of the woman she once was. She had changed when her husband became polygamous. I couldn't believe all the fuss she was mixed up in as a result of this, and before saying good-bye to me she had promised me that later we would talk about Marcelo. I anxiously awaited that moment.

We four girls started walking again and, half an hour later, we found various dry trees that we decided to cut. The night before it had rained and the forest was cold, although not enough to put out the torches that burned the home of the man-woman and force him to abandon the village. This was once again the main subject of conversation of the three friends who I had joined, in disobedience of my grandmother.

But, far from starting to work, the girls cut down some large leaves from the trees, cleared a space on the ground, and placed the leaves on the ground like a blanket and sat down on them. I remained standing, holding a machete and watching them without fully understanding why they were doing what they were doing. But they were all cracking up with laughter, which gradually gave way to silence. The first of them to undress was Dina, who started to kiss Pilar. She kissed her on the mouth! The image produced a double sensation in me: shame and unease. I began to tremble and the machete I held fell to the ground, with a loud thud that the girls seemed not to hear. The last to join in was Linda. They kissed one another and they practically forgot about me, while inside me three ideas fought with one another: to keep working, to head back to the village, or to wait for them to finish.

Dina was in the middle between Pilar and Linda. She held out a hand to me: "Come on. Join us."

"No," I answered. "I can't."

"Don't worry. At first it seems strange, but it's nice. You don't need to obey your grandmother, she is not here to watch over you. Come on, try it, you'll like it. You are in the forest: the Fang forest is a free space. Now you are free."

I shook my head again and Dina stood up. She started to kiss me while the other two began to gently remove my clothes. I couldn't refuse a third time. I was enjoying it and for the first time in my life I felt free sexually.

We made love for fifteen minutes. At last I could caress Pilar's rear which had excited me so much in school every time it brushed against some part of my body when the teacher ordered us to all stand in a row to sing the national anthem.

That feeling had always made feel much shame. "I am sick," I told myself often, sick with sin, ashamed that my eyes weren't able to look away from her feminine charms. Sometimes I felt that I had no air in my lungs, when I was overcome with a feeling of guilt for not being like the other women around me, who were always telling anecdotes about their sex lives. Who would I talk to about my own? I didn't know how to answer that question, I was afraid even to think it.

As we got dressed again, Pilar confessed that my uncle had once discovered them making love in the forest. They begged him not to tell anyone. Later, the girls found him with a man in one of the shacks he had in the forest, located near the river where the fishermen of the village often went. Since then, they had shown great complicity toward one other, since they were all part of the same club.

"What club?" I asked, covering my nipples with the palms of my hand.

"The Indecency Club," Linda answered with a smile. She was always content and laughed all the time. "You've become the fourth indecent woman of the village. Before, we were only three."

When I returned to the village, my grandmother was already at home waiting for me and bursting to talk. It was three in the afternoon.

We both found ourselves at the door to the kitchen with our baskets on our backs. Her husband was still in the House of the Word playing checkers with his brothers of the tribe. I placed all the firewood I had brought behind the hearth, so it would be at hand when we were cooking. After sneezing twice, she asked me to sit down, she needed to talk with me urgently and she didn't even change out of the smelly clothes she wore from when she had been working on the farm. I didn't change either. I was still very nervous because of what had just happened in the forest with the girls and I feared that she would find me out by beginning to ask me all the usual questions: "Girl, are you well?" "Are you still thinking about your wretched father?" "Have you finally met a man? Where does he work? Does he have money?" "Did you know that girls your age in the village already feed their families by bringing home rich lovers? What are you waiting for?" "Did you know that women age much sooner than men do?"

My thoughts whirled as I tried to guess what she wanted to talk to me about. For a moment, I mistakenly thought that she would mention the attempt to murder Marcelo or my excursion with the three mysterious girls to cut wood. After placing a bit of tobacco right at the root of her lower lip, she announced that tomorrow I would leave for a village named Ebian where her married daughter lived. My mission consisted of bringing back fifty thousand francs for her.

So. I recalled our visit to the witch doctor.  The money was so that she could bring my grandfather back to her conjugal bed. As she swallowed the tobacco she asked me who I had gone into the forest with.

"Alone," I answered, without hesitating. "Completely alone."

"Very good, my girl. At least you didn't join those three indecent girls. I hate them so much! I especially hate Dina. Did you know that she doesn't have a boyfriend, and at her age?"

"She doesn't have a boyfriend!?" I feigned surprise at Dina's disgrace while I sliced ripe bananas with a finely-sharpened knife.

"No she doesn't, my girl, no," she confirmed, staring into my eyes. Her own were reddened by the effects of the tobacco.

"And is that serious, Abuela? Is not having a novia serious?"

"Did you say 'girlfriend' or did I hear wrong?"

"I'm sorry, you never hear wrong, Abuela, I made a mistake. I meant to say novio."

"Just as well!" she sighed. "Just as well you made a mistake. Otherwise I'd begin to worry. Of course it is, my girl, it's very serious. What is a woman without a man? Dina is on the edge of old age, she is eighteen years old and has no partner! And her family still has not benefitted from her body. At least you're not like that. Just as well!"

Was this the point of our conversation? My grandmother spoke and spoke without pause, until she ordered me to leave the next day for Ebian, alone.

Alone? Something shivered inside me. Alone.

 

From La Bastarda. Published by Flores Raras. © Trifonia Melibea Obono. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2017 issue
from the June 2017 issue

Miss Eddy

That it is ridiculous to speak of joy
that “the promised land” does not exist
that our rage will find no calm.
All this I know.
Reinaldo Arenas

 

Yes, I introduced them, but that was all. Everything that happened afterward, what they said, I swear it’s not true, sugar. Úrsula was on the other side of the tracks when I met Tomás, so it was me he saw first. He looked at me and said, Going North? We became traveling companions, and—this is just between you and me—I fell in love with him. He made me feel like his wife, like he was my protector. He was so sweet, my Tommy.

I knew Úrsula wanted Tommy, but we have a code, a kind of unbreakable code. Wait and see, sugar, if you take a liking to my man, keep it to yourself, but if my man comes after you, then we share. That’s the way it is.

We escaped from El Danubio. Well, you know the reputation that alley has, right? We fled like dogs with our tails between our legs, and during that journey I learned a lot about life, honey, learned that sometimes it’s just trying to make things tough for you. We’d had it up to the back teeth with Genaro—the pimp in the bar where we worked. For months we’d been talking about leaving, about getting out of that rat’s nest. But you see, it took Úrsula a while to persuade me because at first, in comparison with my hometown of San Pedro, El Danubio was a paradise. Well, anywhere’s a paradise in comparison with San Pedro, right? Some nights I came away with more dough than I’d have earned in a month there. But, like everything else, I finally started to take it for granted, and when Úrsula told me about the possibilities here, well  . . . What can I say? My little heart was beating fast. But we ran away from there like thieves, like vermin.

Tommy was so strong. And he had those really short, Chinese sort of eyelashes, and coffee-colored eyes that made you think of a puppy dog or well-polished wood. He was a candy you wanted to pop in your mouth and suck real slow. When we first met—word of honor, honey—I believed him, and when he said I was so good-looking, I felt like everything was just churning up inside me. He looked me straight in the eye, cupping my chin in his hand, as if I really was the most beautiful girl in the world. He told me I was like Penélope Cruz and I—talk about dumb—fell for it. That, dearest, is the way we are: they find our weak points and we’re lost.

Úrsula came with us. The three of us traveled together, and we made a good team. While one of us was gathering the gossip or getting the best tips, the other rested, and Tommy went for water, or so he said. I didn’t want to think too much about who he was, though of course I realized he was different from the rest of us. It was as if he had hope. Do you understand that, honey? I do, because a Mexican I met on the tracks said so, he said that those of us crossing through had need written on our faces. Hunger doesn’t lie, honey, it oozes out through every pore in your skin. Those other people, traveling in their cars, staring at us, they look for that hunger in your face, sniff it out, before unfolding their fists like some disgusting flower and showing the green stuff. Maybe they saw something in Tommy’s face that made them tighten their fists and not even let go of a single peso. Well, it’s like I said, honey. I wanted to believe Tommy’s story. Wouldn’t you do the same if someone made you feel so close to what you’ve always dreamed of?

The glow began to wear off when we were passing through Sinaloa. And listen, honey, if I hadn’t seen what was underneath with my own two eyes, I’d definitely be with Úrsula over there—wherever she is—right now. Something began to smell rotten to me, really rotten, so bad not even I could go on fooling myself, however much in love I was. All those dreams of marrying him, all that believing he loved me and feeling I was beautiful went straight down the drain. But I prefer being alive and ugly to dying with an illusion of love.

Here are the mistakes he made: lying to me about not having a telephone with him, hiding himself away to talk in a loud voice on his phone, and—this is really important—telling whoever was on the other end of the line my name and Úrsula’s. What frightened me most, honey, is that he used our other names, the ones on the official ID. Just when and how had he gotten into our things? Why was he saying our names to that person? Something inside me began to break apart little by little, and I can tell you it hurt to think the worst of my Tommy, but the idiot began to get nervous—if there’s one thing I recognize, it’s nerves—and the nearer we got to the border—up there on La Bestia, moving like a worm through the hills and deserts— and the stronger the scent of freedom and money in the air, the weirder that rat got. Then in Tijuana, looking at anything but me, he said:

“You’re getting off with me here, and we’re going to El Paso.”

“But we’re heading for Nogales, Pop.” His eyes were empty, like a crow’s. I felt a stabbing in my heart: the warning this guy was seriously dangerous.

And right then I stopped being a victim.

“Change of plan. You’re getting off with me in Tijuana, and we’re going to El Paso.”

“No, Pop. You don’t get it. We’re going the other way.”

“And what about me, honey? Aren’t you going to take me with you?” That was Úrsula. She was watching the ending of our love affair, and didn’t want to miss her chance.

“We’ll go wherever you want,” said Tommy, but talking like a pre-recorded message. You know the way, with no truth in his voice, and I could hear the lies, but my dumbass Úrsula couldn’t. And I realized that was just how I’d looked when Tommy told me that stuff about Penélope Cruz. But there was nothing I could do to wipe that enchanted-child expression from her face, especially when that Tommy began saying she looked like Sofía Vergara.

 “Hey girl, you’re breaking my heart. Stick with me,” I pleaded with Úrsula, but it was a waste of breath. Even so, I tugged her away to where Tommy couldn’t overhear us, and said what had to be said.

“There’s something not right about that guy. I overheard him talking to someone, sugar. I’ve got a hunch.”

“No way, babe. Tommy only wants to help us.”

“Come down from the clouds. He’s got something up his sleeve.”

“What he’s got is that lovely little butt that makes me want to eat it by the spoonful.”

“But we’re almost there.”

“And what if I go with him for a few days, and then meet up with you in Nogales?”

“And what if he does something to you?”

“What would he do? Come on, babe, you’ve had your taste, it’s my turn now.”

My heart was beating so loud, I thought my chest would burst, and I could feel the blood pounding in my brain.

 

There was no power in heaven or on earth that could stop my precious. Tommy promised the three of us would see each other real soon in Nogales. And I said good-bye to my Úrsula there in the street, in Tijuana. When they were walking away, just like a real couple, and I was ready to start screaming, Úrsula turned and handed me a scrap of paper with a telephone number and address: “Talk to my cousin Ezequiel.” I hugged her, kissed her, breathed in the scent of her neck, a smell like sweat and dust mixed with the rosewater she used. I gave her the little Virgin I always carried with me—it had belonged to my grandmother. All that time, Tommy was smoking, one foot resting against a streetlight. Úrsula shouldered her backpack and went back to him. I watched them walking away from me, until they became two tiny figures at the far end of the dusty street.

Some time later, when I’d already been working a while at Adam & Eve (I was a big hit in that club, honey), Ezequiel turned up waving a newspaper. I swear I haven’t read another since that day. I told him straight out not to come around showing me sob stories, or any of that dumb stuff. I said I preferred the society pages, because you can see wedding photos there and read about those romances I love. Or magazines where the movie stars look so gorgeous with those stunning curves.

I’d been fearing it for months, but now I knew for sure: Tommy was trafficking trannies, and any other kind of trans. Of course, his name wasn’t Tomás, nothing like it; he was, according to the newspaper, Luis Guillermo (Memo) Reyes, member of one of those kidnapping gangs. I didn’t read much because there, a little further down, I saw Úrsula’s face among some others. It was her passport photo, and she looked all stiff, with her hair gelled back, and the shirt she’d had to wear for the shot, but it was her, her round eyes, her almost black ears, her wide, thin-lipped mouth, those high cheekbones that made her so good-looking.

I don’t remember much about what happened that night. Just that I got drunker than ever before on the bottle of tequila I was keeping for the celebration when Úrsula arrived from Nogales. And I danced to that Paquita song my soul sister loved, the one about life being a carnival, and you have to enjoy it, dance your troubles away. You know the one?

That night I fell asleep in an armchair, and later, when the sky began to turn gray, and then got brighter and brighter, it was like someone was smashing the skull of the fucked-up fucker I felt I was. The whole apartment smelled of something like sulfur. Then I heard someone knocking on the door. The bell didn’t ring, it was three loud raps. Through a crack in the door, I could just see two police officers. One was tall and thin, the other burly, with a square jaw. The lanky one was clasping his hands in front of him, the other one was standing arms akimbo. I didn’t want to open up, I wanted them to stay out there, but it was too late. They knew I was inside. It would have been stupid to run, there’d be others waiting in the street. What I had to do was open the door and let them in.

 

“Good morning, sir. Rough night?” said the tall lanky one.

“Perhaps he prefers to be called Miss,” said the other with a sort of giggle, twisting his mouth.

“Miss, yes. What can I do for you gentlemen?” I answered in my lousy accent.

“We’re on a case. May we sit down?”

“Please, yes, yes. Coffee?” I was trying to keep my calm, but noticed my hands were beginning to shake.

“Well . . . why not? Coffee would be fine,” said the burly one.

I put water on to boil. Then I looked at the open window and got the urge to run, to talk to Ezequiel, ask him for help. Instead, I poured two cups of coffee and took them to the living room.

They were walking around, looking at my stuff.

I sat on one of the armchairs and crossed my legs, but then caught the lanky one looking at me. I was still wearing the previous night’s clothes, so I explained,

“I dress for work.”

“What kind of job do you have, miss?”

I hated that question, and hated having to answer it even more.

“I work in a bar.”

“Is this a special kind of bar?” asked the burly one.

“Yes, sir. It is that I love my work. I do it with love.”

I don’t know why I said that, but they were looking so hard at me, nothing else came into my head. And then I was real edgy. I think anyone would be, talking to the police.

They were silent for a moment, and my ears began to buzz, coz I guessed what they were going to say would be ugly.

“Do you know this man?” asked Lanky, taking a photo from a folder.

“Yes, I do. I know him in Mexico.”

“Do you know his real name?”

“I read in the paper, yes. I read his name is not Tommy. I read the news. He said he was going to marry me, you know? He said we could get married here, but I had a feeling. You understand?”

“Hold it, miss. We ask the questions, you answer. That clear? What about this young man?” he said, showing me a photo of Úrsula, dead. They’d cut her hair, the brutes, and she looked everything she wasn’t, but I knew it was her by the eyebrows. I always thought she had great eyebrows.

I felt as if a balloon was going to burst in my belly.

“Bathroom,” I managed to say. I vomited into the toilet bowl, pure bile, sweetheart. When I returned to the living room, they were both on their feet.

“Miss, Eddy? Is that your real name?” asked Burly.

“Yes,” I replied, feeling like my throat was on fire.

“Can I see your green card and passport?” asked Lanky.

“I think you’re fucked,” said Burly with a little smile.

 

You know the rest.

Have you ever seen iguanas standing so still on stones? They’re like creatures from another world, and they look at you with those eyes and seem to know everything. They’re like birds, but from down here, not from the sky. That’s the way the eyes of those people who judge me are, the ones who look at me as if I were the pits. But they can’t fuck with me, they can’t reach me. And I’m free inside, sweetheart, and I know exactly what I did, and what I didn’t do. I know I met Tommy by chance, that life set him in my path so I’d experience true love, if only for a short while. And I know no one will take my Úrsula from me.

They said so many things, honey, said I just passed myself off as a tranny to make contact with others and then exploit them. They said Tommy was my sidekick, that I just used him (he’s in the slammer too, but he’s been charged, poor wretch). Luckily that cat-eyed attorney they sent me put up a good defense and they dropped the charges. I was only accused of being an illegal, and that’s why they sent me here, with you. But who’s going to believe me? It puts me all on edge to imagine having to make my way back through those hills, in men’s clothes, walking, never stopping. I know I’ll get the urge to turn around and say something to my Úrsula, to tell her a joke, to chat, but I know too that when I do turn, there’ll be no one there, just the hills, the air, and me. And it’s really cold out there. But like I said, they can’t fuck with me, those people with their lost eyes. Hey, I can tell you one thing, honey: everything in this life is provisional. Everything passes, just the way these sticky grits will pass through my guts. Ah, well, what’s past is past. Tell me about yourself.

 

"Miss Eddy" © Milena Solot. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Christina MacSweeney. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2017 issue
from the June 2017 issue

Rainbow Families: Four Parents and Two Children

In this chapter from Polish journalist Karolina Domagalska's I Won't Apologize for Giving Birth: Stories of IVF Families, the author meets a Tel Aviv family of six: Dana and her girlfriend, Dafi; their two daughters; and the children's fathers, Ronen and Yanai, a gay male couple who have just broken up after seventeen years.

 

“Hey, Dana, I just wanted to ask which shoes Abigail's wearing today. The pink Crocs? Right, I'll pop over to your place before preschool and take the sandals. See you then, bye.” Yanai puts down the phone and sighs.

It's Thursday, Abigail is spending the night at his place. They will visit the grandparents: Yanai's brother has had a baby and they are throwing a small party. He really dislikes Crocs. But what can you do, Dana has never paid attention to clothes or colors. Just in case, he checks Abigail's room, looks under the bed, the desk with the old computer, the chest of drawers. But the silver sandals that would go with his daughter's dress are not there. He glances at the floor of the slightly messy living room combined with the open-plan kitchen, peeks into the recess with its desk and work computer. Well, such are the charms of having two homes.

Yanai takes the keys and the phone from a tall table separating the kitchen from the hall and leaves. Outside there is heat, noise, and the postindustrial landscape. He passes a freight elevator and a garage on the way to his car. He is the only resident in the area.

The preschool and Dana's place are fifteen minutes away. Yanai opens the gate, crosses the yard with its huge inflatable pool, and jogs up the stairs to the house. Dana's living room and kitchen also form one space, but they gleam with white and pale wood. A side wall is covered with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. In passing, Yanai greets Dafi, who has just gone to the glassed-in veranda for a smoke. He quickly locates the silver sandals and walks to the preschool, only two blocks away. Initially Yanai also lived in this leafy district, perfect for young families. But after a year he and Ronen broke up and he moved to the loft.

 

“That was a shock to us,” recalls Dana, a slim forty-year-old with strands of gray hair and a keen gaze. “At that point Yanai and Ronen had been together for seventeen years, and that was what attracted us to them. When my girlfriend and I met, I was twenty-six and Dafi twenty-nine. We always knew we wanted to have a family and we wanted the children to have fathers. Do you mind if I start making lunch?” she asks and stands behind the kitchen island with the sink and cupboards. I can hear splashing from the bathroom: after a few hours in the pool the girls are taking a warm bath.

"Why did you want fathers for the children?” I ask.

"Dafi had a very strong relationship with her dad, who's dead now. In her opinion a father is very important for the child. Besides, when she wanted to have kids, I was busy writing my thesis, I knew I wouldn't be able to combine that with parenthood. I thought that we didn't have to build a family like straight people do. I told Dafi: 'Go and find a father for your child.' And so she did.”

Dana opens one of the white cupboards on the wall, takes out pasta and tomato sauce, reaches for fresh vegetables from the fridge. Chopping the tomatoes, garlic, and onion, she tells me how Dafi went to the Center for New Families, which arranged dates for her with three gay men, but she didn't take a liking to any of them. The breakthrough came at their friend's fortieth.

"Would you happen to know a gay man who'd like to be a father?” Dafi asked an acquaintance. "Just a minute ago one asked me if we knew a lesbian who wants to become a mother,” was the answer. This is how Dafi met Ronen and a two-year-long period of dating began. All four of them—Ronen, his boyfriend, Yanai, Dafi, and Dana—had lunches together, partied, went away together for the summer, and even traveled to Lesbos. During all this time Dafi and Ronen kept discussing their expectations, and eventually, after two years, signed a contract. Before long Dafi and Ronen started the home insemination attempts but were only successful after a visit to the hospital.

 

"Daughter of Ehud Olmert Has Baby with Longtime Girlfriend,” the papers reported in September 2007. Dana is the daughter of Israel's ex-prime minister, member of the centrist Kadima party.

When Amalia was two, Dana decided it was time for her and Yanai. They signed the same contract, with small changes, and were successful with their first attempt at home insemination. Amalia felt threatened, rejected Dafi, wanted to be only with Dana. This first-born of four parents was now supposed to make space for her sister, and she didn't like it one bit.

"When somebody asks how many children you have, what do you say?” I ask while Dana picks fresh leaves from a basil plant in a pot.

"I say two. I was with Dafi during labor, not Ronen. He was waiting in the corridor. And I was the first one to hold Amalia. I consider her my first first child, and Abigail my second first child. Amalia showed me that it's possible, it's thanks to her that Abigail was born. Still, at first I didn't want Amalia to call me 'Mom.' I thought it's strange and confusing for a child to have two moms. It's interesting that she has no name for me. I'm a parent, but not a mom or a dad.”

 

Dana and Dafi are not legally married. Amalia is Dafi and Ronen's daughter, Abigail Dana and Yanai's.

"In the families of my lesbian friends who've used a sperm donor, the nonbiological mom would adopt the child and officially become the other parent. I am Amalia's parent, but the law doesn't recognize this. That's why we're thinking of changing our last names. All six of us will be called 'Alvi,' which means 'my heart' in Arabic and is a combination of our initials. It will be a long process, but we want to do it to emphasize that they're sisters, even though they're not biologically related. I don't want anyone—not the school, the world or society—to tell them one day that they're not sisters because they don't share a last name.”

 

It is hard to believe that as recently as twenty-six years ago homosexual relationships were a crime in Israel. Today, Tel Aviv is considered a paradise for gay men and lesbians, especially those who want to start a family. Nobody is surprised to see two men or two women laden with children and their odds and ends. That such families are commonplace here is evident in preschools and schools during the annual Family Day in February. All kinds of celebrations take place on that day and children draw portraits of their families. On those, the so-called new families appear alongside more conventional ones. Two moms, two dads, two moms and a dad, two dads and a mom. Amalia drew herself and Abigail, and four parents too—Ronen, Yanai, Dafi, and Dana.

And now for some facts: since 1994, gay couples have been eligible for marital benefits and the full extent of tax and inheritance law if they decide to formalize their relationship. In 2006, Israel started recognizing same-sex marriages solemnized abroad. In that same year, it became possible for gay couples to adopt a biological child of one of the partners, and two years later to adopt a child that was not biologically related to them.

In terms of reproductive medicine, it's easier for lesbians: they can use donor sperm, and the state—just as in the case of straight couples—finances all their attempts up until the birth of their second child. Surrogacy, however, was only available to straight couples until 2014, which resulted in medical tourism of gay men to the USA, India, Thailand, Mexico. Since 2010, the state has been granting Israeli citizenship to children born abroad to surrogate mothers.

“Encouraging people to have children and funding medical procedures are all part of the state demographic policy. Jews should be the majority in Israel, the demographic contest with the Arabs is still on. So whether you're straight, gay, or trans, you have the right to start a family. This, of course, is beneficial to the gay community,” explains Dana.

 

Anthropologist Susan Kahn's research shows that families that had been unable to accept their children's homosexuality change their attitude when a grandchild appears. This was also the case for Dana's parents.

Her parents, Ehud and Aliza Olmert, stand in the middle. On the left—two daughters and a brother with their families, on the right—Dafi, Ronen holding Amalia's arm, Dana with Abigail on her hip, and Yanai. In the family photo, Dana and her family unit take up the whole wing.

“My dad is very pragmatic,” says Dana. “He said: 'I won't make myself miserable because of the decisions you make.' When Amalia was born, he got that this was serious. Before then he thought something might change, that maybe I'm doing this to prove something to him. When I started a family, he understood this had nothing to do with him. It's not like my parents have suddenly become rainbow-flag-waving activists, but they have definitely come to accept my choices. The fact that the girls have fathers helps them—it's a bit like when a straight couple gets divorced. Actually, Mom sometimes calls Yanai my husband. She'll ask: 'Is your husband coming?' She calls Dafi 'wife,' loves her and treats her 100 percent like family.”

The girls have a huge family: lots of cousins, aunts, uncles, and four sets of grandparents. Dafi and Ronen's parents are as close to them as Dana's. They see the girls at least once a week. Yanai's family is the exception; he is reluctant to speak about them.

“My parents are from Yemen, they're very conservative. Instead of telling them I'm gay, I moved to Tel Aviv and kept my distance. When Dana got pregnant, I decided I needed to come out. My father wanted to kill himself, but in the end he got over it somehow. I still don't go there often, though. They don't understand, I can't explain to them what it means to be gay. Only Abigail and I exist to them, they don't want to know the others.”

 

The mom's house is the child's main abode.

Initially the child lives only with her. After a year she spends a night at the dad's. Ultimately, two nights and one weekend day (no overnight stay) at dad's.

Financial split: dad bears sixty percent of the costs, mom forty.

If one of the parents dies, the child stays with the other mom and her sister.

If one of the parents moves abroad permanently, they lose custody rights.

In the case of a temporary move abroad, the parent undertakes to finance visits from the other parent and the child three times a year.

In the case of a move outside of Tel Aviv, the parent who moves is obliged to provide the child with transport.

A parent who converts to ultra-Orthodox Judaism loses custody rights.

Those are some of the stipulations of the contract. Nobody has looked at it since it was signed. Yanai doesn't even know where he put it. The process of arriving at it was crucial; through it, all four of them got to know each other, their motivations and needs. Of course not everything can be regulated in advance. Because how can you maintain harmony in a four-parent family when, say, one couple separates? One home automatically breaks up into two. Initially Yanai and Ronen wouldn't see each other, so how to sustain contact between the nonbiological parent and the nonbiological daughter? Can the sisters sleep together at one of the fathers' houses? It was the overnight stays that sparked the conflict. According to Dana, Abigail should not sleep at Ronen's with Amalia, because she should have two homes, not three. Yanai, however, thinks that it would not hurt Abigail to spend the night with her sister at the home of her other dad, whom she loves.

“I'm the evil one in the family,” comments Yanai. “I don't want to move to Bicaron, I'm fine in my ruin of a house, I have lots of space and freedom here. I also don't let the moms interfere in how I spend my free time. It was hard right after the break-up, but I'm still friends with Ronen, we see each other at least twice a week, he brings Amalia over for dinner. Sometimes I feel like Dana wants to have me at her disposal. When Abigail is ill or something else comes up, immediately there's pressure for me to mind her. I'm also often reproached that I don't spend enough time at their place. But the truth is that although Dana and I argue, I wouldn't want to have a child with anyone else.”

           

Another issue that is difficult to regulate in a contract: new partners. How do you introduce them into the lives of the children and the whole family? What if one of the parents wants to have a child with the new partner too?

“It turned out that Amalia, who never said anything about our break-up, was very affected by it. At some point she said to Mom: 'I think Yanai left Dad because I cried too much.' We were all shocked. So when I met Aviel, my new boyfriend, I was very careful with the girls at the start, I didn't introduce them until six months later. They liked each other a lot, but unfortunately our relationship ended after two years. It's hard, but you can't worry about it too much either. Arab families used to live together, like tribes, and bring the children up together. People come and go in the kids' lives. For example, Amalia was recently transferred to another preschool and missed her old teacher a lot. It's natural.”

 

Bathtime over, Dana dries Amalia's dark blonde wavy hair and the mop of Abigail's dark curls (she takes after Dad: Yanai has curly hair too, hates it and keeps it very short). Amalia has unbelievably blue eyes—emphasized by dark eyebrows and lashes—and a melancholy look; Abigail has a jolly round face and eyes like chocolate. The elder goes to play with a friend in her room. The younger wants to play a game on an iPad, sits next to me on the couch. Dana throws pasta into boiling water.

“I used to like advising other couples, I even gave lectures at a center for gays and lesbians. Now I'm a bit more careful; this path is full of challenges. Negotiating the contract isn't enough, a crisis can happen. We talk a lot, we shout a lot. Like in a marriage. I am Dafi's wife, but Yanai's too. Dafi is my wife, but also Ronen's. Those relations are a little complicated. For example, Yanai frequently clams up in a conflict, doesn't want to talk. I can't do that. He sulked for a month once. When you have a child with someone you don't love romantically, you have to understand that they won't change for you, you can't expect them to. Now I know that.”

“Maybe an anonymous donor would've been better?”

“No, I'm very glad that Abigail has a father who loves her, that she knows who he is. I don't think biology is that important, it's more important who takes care of you. But I think it's vital to know who your father is. And besides, this way we have two evenings a week just for each other. I don't know how other parents manage. Abigail is going to be seven soon and I can say with a clear conscience that our arrangement works.”

 

From Nie przeproszę, że urodziłam. Historie rodzin z in vitro. Published 2015 by Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec. © 2015 by Karolina Domagalska. By arrangement with the Andrew Nurnburg Agency. Translation © 2017 by Marta Dziurosz. All rights reserved. 

Read more from the June 2017 issue
from the June 2017 issue

Queerying Translation

Translators and queers have a lot in common.

For one thing, we’re both invisible. You can’t tell just from looking at someone that they’re a translator or that they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer (LGBTQ). (Unless, that is, they’re wearing a T-shirt that proclaims “I’m a Queer Translator,” and now that I think of it, I’d like to get one of those.)

Furthermore, many people would like us to stay invisible. They often don’t want to see the fingerprints of translators in translated works or even to know they’re reading translations, and they don’t want to hear about queer issues or see evidence of queer “lifestyles.” I can’t overstate how many times people have told me they don’t read translations, and when I point out which texts they might have read that are translations, they often reply in an underwhelmed voice, “Oh. Well, does it really matter? Why do I need to know about the translator?” Similarly, I’ve had people say, “I don’t care what folks get up to in their own homes, as long as I don’t have to see it or be told about it.” It’s as though many believe that translation is confined to an office and sexuality or gender identity to a bedroom, and they’d rather not think any more about it.

Then there’s the matter of how both translation and LGBTQ topics are not studied enough. This relates back to the previous point: neither translated texts nor queer texts are generally considered canonical, and therefore they are not thought to be worthy of being more visible. Queer texts don’t necessarily get written, published, translated, acquired by libraries/bookstores, or studied in schools. Those who have traditionally held the power within the publishing industry and the literary academy have not always wanted to allow different voices to be heard or studied. Look at any syllabus for primary school, secondary school, or university, and count how many of those books are translations and how many are by queer authors or about queer topics. And if you’re feeling especially brave, count how many are translations of queer texts, perhaps even translated by queer translators—I have a sneaking suspicion the percentage would be incredibly small.

So it’s time. It’s time for LGBTQ texts to be translated and for those translations to be analyzed, and it’s time for translators to consider what it might mean to translate LGBTQ texts and authors, and whether there are, or should be, particularly queer methods of translation. After all, there are feminist or postcolonial translation strategies so why not queer ones, too?

For instance, feminist translators use particular translation strategies to highlight issues such as sexism or to emphasize an author’s gender or an author’s feminist views. Examples of strategies that translators and scholars such as Luise von Flotow, Sherry Simon, and Suzanne de Lotbiniére-Harwood have proposed include: supplementing, prefacing, deleting, footnoting, hijacking, or radical changes, such as invented spellings. In other words, translators can draw attention to gender itself and to related issues, such as the treatment of female characters, by choosing to highlight, to add in, or, indeed, to remove particular aspects of a text. They may not do this in all cases (for example, there may be a text where gender does not seem relevant, or where a translator does not feel like pointing the reader toward gendered ideas), but there are options for translators if they want to or believe there is a need.

Queer translators and translators of queer texts can do likewise. They can focus on the queerness of a character or a situation, or they can push a reader to note how a queer character is treated by another character or by the author, or they can otherwise hijack a reader’s attention by bringing issues of sexuality and gender identity to the fore. I like to call such strategies “acqueering,” as they emphasize or even acquire queerness. For example, a translator can add in queer sexualities, sexual practices, or gender identities or change straight/cis identities or situations to queer ones; remove homophobic, biphobic, or transphobic language or situations or highlight them in order to force a reader to question them; change spellings or grammar or word choices to bring attention to queerness; or add footnotes, endnotes, a translator’s preface, or other paratextual material to discuss queerness and/or translatorial choices.

On the other hand, a translator may choose—or be encouraged by the publisher to choose—strategies that remove or downplay queer sexualities, sexual practices, or gender identities, or that change queerness to the straight/cis norm. Doing so can be considered what I term “eradicalization,” as this eradicates the radical nature of queerness. We’ve all heard stories of writers who have censored themselves and have chosen not to include queer characters in order to increase the marketability of their work, or who have been forced to do this on orders from their editors or publishers, and therefore it wouldn’t be a surprise if translators do this at times as well.

The desire to make the invisible visible is one reason why I decided to explore the translation of queer texts in my own academic research. The outcome, I hope, is multifold, including: we can come up with new strategies for translating queer texts or for encouraging the translation of queer texts; we can analyze which queer texts get translated and by whom and how; we can support the publication of work by queer writers or work on queer themes; and we can likewise support queer translators as they enter and build careers in the translation industry. Perhaps we’ll one day be able to start a prize for translated queer fiction, just as there finally is a prize for translated work by female authors.

I started with a small project, looking at just two young adult novels and their translations to Swedish. The two novels are Aidan Chambers’s Dance on my Grave, which was translated as Dansa på min grav by Katarina Kuick, and Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush, which was translated by Moa Andersdotter as Sugar Rush.

Aidan Chambers’s Dance on my Grave tells the story of high school student Hal and his friendship, and then romantic relationship, with Barry. They become lovers, Barry cheats on Hal with a Norwegian woman called Kari, and then Barry dies in a motorcycle accident. The book was published in 1982 and is quite experimental/daring in terms of style and format, in that it is a mixture of newspaper clippings, psychologist’s reports, narration, and other pieces and styles. Hal is well aware that he is attracted to men, though the phrase he employs is that he is looking for “bosom palship,” such as the one David and Jonathan in the Bible shared. Barry, meanwhile, does not use such terminology, but he does make it clear that he is unwilling to be tied down to just one partner.

Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush is a more recent work, published in 2004. The novel is about Kim, an upper-middle-class teenage girl. Her mother leaves the family, financial difficulties ensue, and Kim switches from a private school to a state-run school. There she meets Maria “Sugar” Sweet and they become friends. They start a sexual relationship, but the passion is rather one-sided, and eventually it fizzles into “lesbian bed death.” Like Barry, Sugar has no wish to be monogamous, or to be intimate with only one gender, but Kim refuses to accept this. Sugar cheats on Kim with a number of men. As in Chambers’s book, the characters don’t use terms such as gay, lesbian, polyamorous, bisexual, or queer. Sugar never uses a term of any kind to define herself, and Kim is also quite reluctant to, even looking down on queer teens. Kim somewhat sarcastically refers to her feelings for Sugar as a “temporary pash for the naughtiest girl in the school.” The book was made into a Channel 4 TV program in the UK, which added more drama and made Kim seem much surer of her sexuality; the first episode starts with Kim masturbating with an electric toothbrush. The issue of queer adaptation is an interesting one that should be explored more elsewhere.

In short, both of these young adult novels show teenagers who aren’t fully out as queer but who certainly are involved in same-sex relationships and who are coming to terms with their sexuality. In English, the terms used to describe the characters, their feelings, and their sexual interactions are often subtle but still clearly sexual. In the Swedish translations, however, we see a different story, and this influences the queerness of the texts as a whole.

In Kuick’s translation of Chambers’s novel, many terms that reference sex, sexuality, or genitals are changed or deleted. For example, “nut-cracking scared” (p. 19) becomes “skiträdd,” or “shit scared” (p. 22), and “impotent sails” (p. 22) becomes “slaka seglen,” or “slack sails” (p. 25), and “his presence fingered me pliant” (p. 126) turns into “blev jag alldeles knävsvag av hans blotta närvaro,” “I got weak in the knees from his very presence” (p. 139). Much of the sexuality in this book is quite euphemistic, so it is possible the translator didn’t recognize the sexual connotations, but it also changes the tone so it is less sexually charged. It does make me wonder whether queer translators would be the best choices for queer texts, but of course that implies that a queer person would be familiar with all sorts of sexual terms and practices, which isn’t necessarily the case, nor would it always be straightforward, so to speak, for a publisher to find a good translator who works with a particular language pair and is also queer.

In Chambers’s book, terms that subtly suggest gayness are also changed and softened. For example, “effete” (p. 29) becomes “dekadenta," or “decadent” (p. 33), “You crafty young bugger” (p. 95) is “Din smarta lilla skit,” “you smart little shit” (p. 104), “Lazy bugger” (p. 99) becomes “lata jäkel,” or “lazy devil” (p. 109), and “hello-sailor clothes” (p. 175) turn into “matroskläder,” or “sailor clothes” (p. 194).

At one point in the story, bullies stop Hal and Barry and seem to recognize them as a male-male couple. The bullies taunt them with phrases such as “a little Southend pier” and “a couple of bottle boys” (p. 133), while also pretending not to know if they are male or female and acting camp as a way of mocking them. In Swedish, this scene is shortened and simplified so that the taunts are just well-known slang words for “gay” (“akterseglare” and “fikusar”) (p. 147). So in translation, the insults and the threats seem less scary and there is also less of a poetic, euphemistic feel. On the other hand, one could argue that using the slang words gives a stronger sense of queerness here, even if it changes the style of Chambers’s writing.

There are also many references to “body” in the book in English, and these are most often translated as “lik,” or “corpse,” rather than “kropp,” or “body.” While “corpse” is relevant in some places, as Barry is dead, these changes also make the book less physical and active. The vital, sometimes confusing sexuality of the original has become dead and passive in translation.

In short, the subtle references to sexuality in Dance on my Grave, especially gay sexuality, are removed in translation, and the book generally feels less sexual and less active.

In Andersdotter’s translation of Burchill’s book, too, sexuality is deemphasized in translation. For example, words such as “frig” (p. 56) are deleted and terms such as “hot perving date” (p. 81) are softened into “het date," or “hot date” (p. 86). “Wanker” (p. 42) becomes the English word “loser” (p. 48), “het up” (p. 49), with its subtle nod to heterosexuals, becomes “upprörd,” or “upset” (p. 55), and “buggered” (p. 51) turns into “fan,” or “damn” (p. 57). Perviness and sexuality are removed from the story.

Also, besides the English word “loser” being added in, lots of challenging, taboo, and/or sexual words are simply kept in English rather than being translated (“bitch,” “freak,” “ladee-lovers”, etc.). This occurs throughout. Perhaps there is the assumption that Swedish teens will understand these words since they tend to have studied English (after all, the title is kept in English, too). Or maybe the translator (or editor or publisher) felt that these words were impossible to translate, or inappropriate to translate. But one could say that readers are kept at a distance from the meaning of the novel when the words are not translated; if readers wanted to read the text in English, presumably they would have chosen to do so.

One of the most interesting aspects of Sugar Rush is that Sugar explains how she does not want to be tied down to one person. Though she doesn’t call herself polyamorous or discuss having multiple lovers, she repeatedly states that she doesn’t want just one partner. She compares love to liking music; just because you like one song and want to play it a lot, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy other songs as well. Kim, on the other hand, clearly wants a traditional monogamous relationship and finds Sugar’s poly tendencies threatening. So Sugar is queer both in that she is having a relationship with a woman, but also in that she is probably what we would call polyamorous.

It’s pretty clear to a reader that Sugar will not be able to stay in a monogamous relationship with Kim, and sure enough, toward the end of the book, Kim finds Sugar having sex with four boys. The Swedish translation, however, changes this to one boy. In English, Sugar is with four boys (p. 207) and she is described as “ENJOYING BEING GANGBANGED  . . . with four boys” (p. 209, caps in original) and to be “THEIR Sugar” (p. 210). In Swedish, she is with one boy (p. 210), is said to “NJUTA AV ATT GÖRA DET . . . med en kille,” or “ENJOY DOING IT . . . with a boy” (p. 212), and to be “HANS Sugar,” or “HIS Sugar” (p. 213). In other words, Sugar’s polyamory becomes sex with just one guy in Swedish. Perhaps the idea of sleeping with four boys, one after the other, was thought to be too queer for translation. Or perhaps the translator was uncomfortable with this scene of hedonistic orgy, or even felt it was antifeminist to show a young woman being gangbanged, though Sugar is clearly said to be “enjoying” it.

Whatever the reason, Sugar’s radically queer nature—her pleasure in being gangbanged by four boys at once, while her girlfriend is first just inside the nearby house and then outside watching—is drastically eradicalized in translation.

Indeed, both of these queer YA texts are not so queer in translation; eradicalization and not acqueering have been the overarching strategies here. In the Swedish translations words/phrases about the protagonists’ sexuality are toned down, changed, or even deleted. Perhaps the translators, editors, or publishers were uncomfortable with queer sexuality and/or didn’t think it was appropriate for Swedish readers. Or maybe the translators didn’t even recognize all the queer aspects of the books. Maybe some of the euphemistic language was too difficult.

While this is a fascinating case study and should be explored in more depth, it’s only the beginning. We need to do more research into queer texts and translation, and into how queer authors/works get translated. Should only queer translators translate queer texts? What distinct strategies can translators use with queer works and how drastic might some of their interferences/hijackings/approaches be? Do queer texts from different cultures need different approaches? Those are just a few of the questions we need to consider.

Let’s continue to queery translation and to make both translators and queers more visible. In the meantime, I’ll be ordering my “I’m a Queer Translator” T-shirt right away.

 

© 2017 B. J. Epstein. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2017 issue
from the June 2017 issue

Triptych

          I

That sturdy show
time
still surprises,
assaults,
unsettles words.
All was not said
nor did you then
dress your gaze
in blue.
All was not said,
the rain a kind of tango.
It was dawn.

 

                                                          II

                                               What’s sacred is the voices
                                               never the words.
                                               Friends,
                                               poetry is no longer enough.
                                               Desert without mirrors
                                               or mirages.
                                               Time
                                               where dreams
                                               no longer profane.

                                               Poetry
                                               mass grave
                                               to so much masquerade.
                                               It had all been said
                                               definitive voices
                                               can only silence.

 

          III

Sadness is not so sad
nor so arrogant
the hand of the sun.
It’s this: we’re seeking water
Where there is only thirst. 

 

© Raquel Lubartowski. From Raras. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Carolina De Robertis. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2017 issue
from the June 2017 issue

Brother

This excerpt is adapted from David Albahari's novel Brother (first published in Serbian in 2008). The novel's protagonist is Filip, a writer living in Belgrade whose novel, A Loser's Life, idealizes his childhood and family. Filip receives a letter from someone he has never heard of, a man named Robert, who claims to be Filip's older brother. Robert writes that he has just arrived in Belgrade from Australia where he, too, was working as a writer, and would like to meet with Filip. The very fact of the existence of this brother he knew nothing about brings into question everything Filip thought he knew of his life.

They agree to meet at the Brioni, a restaurant named after the late President Tito's lavish Adriatic-island summer residence. The restaurant itself encapsulates Belgrade's postwar transformation: a squalid bar remodeled into a luxury watering hole for the Belgrade postwar elite who made their millions as war-profiteers and through the sleazy dealings that so typified the post-Communist economic transition.

During the dinner Robert upends all of Filip's cherished childhood memories. He produces a letter from their father that corroborates his story of how, during a dangerous political moment in the 1960s, their parents actually sold Robert, for a diamond necklace, to a couple who were unable to have children, who then moved with Robert to Argentina. Robert is obsessed with the necklace but Filip deftly evades Robert's ever more desperate demands to see it. In response, Robert's behavior grows wilder as the night progresses.

David Albahari's novels and stories often revolve around two bickering characters, in this case Filip and Robert. His narratives engage us with the implicit suggestion that the quarreling characters may be read both as distinct individuals and as a single person inside of whom the quibbling voices clash. Nowhere in Albahari's opus do these two possible readings merge, interlock, and challenge us as richly as they do in Brother.

 

Robert was still rocking back and forth, now more powerfully, so the chair beneath him creaked and rasped, and the heads of the other customers began again to turn toward them, and Filip finally had to reach over, grab Robert by the arm, and say, in a firm voice: "Enough, now this really is enough." Robert stopped the rocking, then he opened his eyes slowly, and for a moment he looked like someone who had wandered off and wasn't sure of where he was. Enough, he repeated, now this really is enough, and Robert looked straight at him and said: "You don't believe a word I've said." It hadn't occurred to him to doubt, but from that moment on he couldn't stop thinking about the question of believing. Why would he believe Robert? How could he know that this truly was Robert or, if he was Robert, how could he know that what Robert had been telling him really happened? Until that moment, Robert hadn't offered him any evidence, no photograph or document, except the twenty pictures in which he was always alone, and, despite trusting his heart more than the statements of a witness, still he would like to see something tangible, something that could dispel his doubt the way an evening breeze disperses the clouds that obscure a sunset. All that time Robert was eyeing him, openly showing he was hurt. Then he snorted, and with a wave of his hand he leaned over and pulled a red file from his bag. Without a word he rummaged through it. He rummaged for a long time, as if leafing through a telephone directory, and then he set down in front of him an old envelope from which someone had cut away the corner where the stamps had been. For a time the two of them stared at the envelope, and then Filip took it and pulled out a sheet of thin paper. He immediately recognized his father's handwriting, though he didn't say so to Robert. He took the sheet of paper and began to read. In short, it was a letter in which his father confirmed Robert's story, while clearly evading anything explicit. His father expressed his hope, the letter said, that the little angel was prospering, that he'd enjoyed the long journey. We all like a change, after all, no matter how old we might be, said the letter, so presumably the little one was no exception. A person so easily grows fond of angels, the letter went on to say, one need only spend a few hours or days with them and you already begin to miss them. We trust in God, said the letter in closing, that what we've done was the right thing and that we will all ultimately be sufficiently happy. He thought that he'd start to sob, but the tears didn't come so in the end he just smiled. Robert watched him closely, and then he took the letter and put it back in the envelope. He hoped now everything was in order? asked Robert, and Filip nodded in assent. His father's letter had indeed put everything in its place, dispelled all doubt, and, at the same time, partially destroyed the sense of mystery that had cloaked the whole event. He finally realized that Robert had probably heard the whole story from his new parents, and he guessed this might have happened when one of them was near the end of their life's journey and wanted to ease their heart of the burden. He could picture Robert coming attentively over to feeble father or fading mother, falling on his knees and taking up the proffered hand, which then slipped from his grasp and moved to his head. He couldn't hear what the father or mother said to Robert, but he sensed the horror of the shock that must have come over him. There was suddenly nothing left, and all that was reliable was emptiness. The world caves in at moments like that and it seems as if it will never reformulate itself. If you look in the mirror you see nothing, you aren't there, as if you never were. Of course, all of life is like that, Filip thought, and in the end you have no idea why the beginning existed in the first place, but at least you live in the conviction that everything is precisely the way it seems to be, and when they pull the rug out from under you and you start to fall it's terrifying. That is how he felt when he learned he had a brother, an elder brother no less, and that must have been how Robert felt when he learned that his parents were not his parents and that he'd been purchased for a handful of jewels. Filip deliberately avoided the phrase that he'd been bought for a lousy necklace, because he didn't want to provoke a new onslaught of Robert's rage, but such a miserable action contributed to making everything else seem equally miserable. He’d never thought that the truth about him and his family might be anything different from what he’d described in his novel A Loser’s Life; and, after all, if he’d thought of them differently he never would have written the book he wrote. Now he’d have to rewrite it, or, better yet, write a new book in which his newfound brother and he would sit at the Brioni and try to make sense of the chaos their lives had become. The book, of course, would have to mention the part about how the Brioni was no longer the dive bar it used to be; now it was a fancy restaurant with a menu in multiple languages, and this fact might serve as a handy segue to the part where he’d explain why a shared life wouldn’t be possible and why, after all that had happened, they were left only with chaos. When he entered the remodeled Brioni, it didn’t occur to him that this fact could be treated as emblematic of all the other changes going on, but now he saw that everything was intertwined and improvement to one side would bring deterioration to another. In order to add something,  something must be taken away elsewhere, that’s one of those calculations doable without knowing any math. All this, thought Filip, could be handled easily enough, though the same couldn’t be said for the dilemma that had now become his obsession: the question of how to write about what his parents had done. In A Loser’s Life, they were portrayed in an ideal light as unerring, self-sacrificing parents who never hesitated to do everything they could possibly do for the welfare of their children. The story of the necklace and the sale of their child did not fit into that narrative, but if he didn’t include these new facts he was lying to his readers and to himself. And to Robert, who was sitting across from him, eyes half-shut, reminding him, for a moment, of a cat eyeing its prey. When he weighed everything in this light, Filip thought it might be wisest to give up now, but he couldn’t because the wheel had already begun turning and the pendulum swinging. Fate has a logic all its own, and nothing can be done, especially when it goes berserk and shoots off on a trajectory no one expects. Meanwhile, Robert was amazingly quiet, as if he’d settled something with himself and had found peace, or had decided that what was happening was of no concern to him. It’s incredible how we mount our own barriers, first you’d die for something to happen, then you die wishing nothing were happening. No matter which way you go, you aren’t satisfied, you drop things, your memory melts like ice in the sun, no matter where you go nothing changes, as if you’re marking time. Then he asked Robert whether he had ever felt as if he were marching in place, and Robert, without hesitation, answered in the affirmative. There were moments, said Robert, when he even felt that the ground under his feet had been packed stone-hard by the power with which he’d pounded it down with his shoes while marching in place. Then the waiter who was removing dishes from the table started whistling the “River Kwai March” and both of them burst out laughing. The waiter glanced over at them, shrugged, and went on whistling, and Robert stood up and began marching in place. He marched with growing zeal, swinging his arms briskly and lifting his knees high, thumping the floor with all his might, he pushed his chair away with his heel and it skittered over to the next table, and then Robert bumped into their table which didn’t tip over only thanks to a hasty intervention by Filip, and then he began emitting full-throated bloodcurdling shrieks. The shrieks were truly terrifying; when he'd read the adventure stories by Karl May as a child Filip imagined Indians shrieking like that when they went after the scalps of pale-faced invaders. He felt absolutely certain that they’d been described that way and he was also certain that the horror stirred by Robert’s shrieks was genuine. The whole café stared at them again, including the cook, who peered out of the serving hatch. Robert uttered his final shriek, though it was more a whimper, and dropped into the chair next to Filip’s. His own chair was still lying on its side next to the neighboring table and nobody showed any inclination to right it. He could see the waiters conferring in whispers and at a corner table a vehement dispute appeared to be underway; a man kept leaping to his feet, the others dragged him back and made him sit, and all of them kept turning to face Robert and Filip, somebody even shook a fist at them. Robert dropped his head, resting first his forehead and then his left cheek on the table. He was panting, his mouth agape, and Filip could see Robert’s tongue and teeth quite distinctly and a string of spit dribbling from his mouth. His eyes were closed and, if he hadn’t known Robert was alive, he’d have written him off for dead. In a sense Robert was, indeed, dead, at least in Filip’s heart. At first, his heart had been overjoyed at the prospect of having a brother, it had beat inside his chest as if prancing in a hip-hop dance, and then it gradually slowed, cooled, and in the end informed Filip he could no longer rely on it, just as he could no longer rely on Robert. Oh Robert, Robert, Filip repeated to himself, why have you forsaken me, but Robert was silent. His eyes were still shut, and only a gentle shiver along the rim of his right nostril suggested he was breathing. Filip reached over and laid his hand on Robert’s head. He smoothed his hair, feeling the beads of sweat on his fingertips, seeing how the locks of hair rippled back. Robert sighed. His was such a long and ponderous sigh that it sent Filip back to thoughts of death. Not his own, of course, but Robert’s. He wasn't picturing Robert himself, he summoned no images. It was the sentence “Robert is dead” that he thought of and this is what he saw. He saw a sentence that was more final than an image could ever be, because after it, after the sentence, there was nothing left. The sentence notwithstanding, Robert was alive. First he shut his mouth, then he opened his eyes, then he lifted his head slowly and looked around. “Damned parents,” he said in a soft voice, “look what they’ve made of me.” Filip wondered whether Robert might be about to sob, and he was already bracing himself for new unpleasantness and the intrusive stares of the other guests, but Robert grinned and announced that everything was fine, especially now that, after so many years of searching, he’d finally found his brother. The only thing that he regretted, said Robert, was that he hadn’t come here sooner, where his life with his brother would have been so much nicer than his life had been in Australia or Argentina. Filip said nothing, not because he had nothing to say but because all of this was starting to bore him. Inside, his loser blood was stirring, and instead of the sentence “Robert is dead,” which had, he confessed, soothed him immeasurably, he now saw the sentence “Robert has betrayed me,” which left him unmoved. When he thought of all the joy and dread with which he’d anticipated this meeting, he couldn’t fathom his own absence of emotion and empathy. He wanted to go, walk straight out of the Brioni, and forget everything, though he had to ask himself whether one could ever forget a newfound brother. The heart never lies. First it rejoiced and then it retreated, crawled into itself like a snail into its shell, and announced fair and square that this brother, Robert, genuine or otherwise, was no longer interesting. Apparently, nobody was interested in this brother anymore, but then he heard a ruckus and turned to see that the man who’d been quarreling with the others seated at his table had finally pulled free of them and was lurching toward him and Robert. As he staggered, the man veered into chairs and tables, though it was unclear whether he was drunk or merely agitated. Filip did his best to ignore the man. The man, however, came right to their table, swaying a little, and leaned on the armrest of the unoccupied chair. That was the third chair, empty, while the fourth chair was still toppled by the adjacent table. Listen, you fags, said the man, time to go. Vamoose. He had come to have a nice time at this café and not to be subjected to such offensive rubbish. If they didn’t quiet down he would personally boot them out, so wise up. He was barely able to stand, and as he turned he began to stumble and Filip leaped up to steady him. The man refused the offer of help, shoved Filip’s hands away, and said he would have nothing to do with homos. Don’t you touch me, said the man, because he didn’t want to contract some vile fag disease. He swerved back to the table where his company was seated and no longer turned around. He didn’t even turn when Robert suddenly howled, in English, “Hey, mate! Fuck you, mate!” Robert alarmed Filip more than the man who’d threatened them, who probably knew no English, though it was hard to believe a person could not know that most familiar of English vulgarities. He tried to explain to Robert that it’s risky engaging a person like that man in conversation, especially when he’s drunk, but Robert was already counting this as a victory and wouldn't listen. At that point Filip still didn’t know how the elements of future events had already fallen into place, how pathways, coincidences, departures, and encounters had been predetermined and how there could no longer be any reversal or change of direction. Once, long ago, Filip had dipped into the I Ching, but when he saw it only gave him as much wiggle room as he needed to serve heaven and earth with patience he dropped it. Sure, on the surface everything confirmed that you’re a master of your fate and you could change and adapt it to your needs, but that was an illusion. All of fate is an illusion, though he would rather believe in at least a modicum of control over fate. Up to a point, we choose for ourselves; from that point on someone else chooses for us. The art is in recognizing the point and helping to determine it. This was what he meant to explain to Robert, but, as before, Robert wouldn’t listen. He had no interest in fate, shot back Robert, and with creeps like that asshole there’s only one way to communicate. He took a deep breath but before Robert uttered a word Filip clapped a hand over Robert’s mouth. Robert’s eyes rolled for a moment over Filip’s hand and then they went still, and not only his eyes, his whole body slumped, it shrank and sank into the chair. In seconds, the brazen flinger of curses had become a defeated manikin, and this worried Filip even more. He warily pulled his hand away from Robert’s mouth, still fearing a furious outburst. Nothing. Crumpled on the chair, Robert looked like an advertisement for despair, the only part missing being the caption about anti-depressants that lift the spirits. Then, while gazing at Robert, possessed by presentiments he couldn’t explain that upset him even more and heightened his sense of dread, Aristotle popped into his mind. The brother he had just seen for the first time in his life started to fade before his eyes as he groped for an answer among Aristotle’s musings. Something was very wrong here, and he should have chided himself more seriously, but too late, he was already awash in passages from the Poetics and soon he saw Robert and himself as exemplars of what Aristotle described as tragedy. He could not, of course, recall all of Aristotle’s statements, his acquaintance with the classics had been piecemeal at best, he said, but he was sure that the customers and waiters at the Brioni could be deemed the chorus, the Brioni—the stage, and the participants—the audience. They were a performance, he said, watching itself perform. He tried to explain this to Robert, to draw his attention away from his self-obsession, but Robert didn’t understand or chose not to listen. Impossible that he knew nothing of Aristotle. Someone who has written about Borges would have to know of Aristotle and another thousand or so creative figures from ancient China to our times. And he had to know the essential premises of the Poetics, because they were huge in shaping the genesis and development of all literature. Then, as Filip was talking about Aristotle, Robert sat right up, looked around, rose to his feet, picked the chair up that had toppled over, and brought it back to the table. Some numbskull, said Robert, knocked over the chair and didn’t put it back. He set the chair in its place, stepped back, and looked at it the way one usually looks at a picture just hung on the wall. He was not entirely satisfied, so he went back, adjusted it a little, first to the left, then to the right, and then he sat back in his seat and said: Aristotle is interesting, but he had it all wrong, the genesis of poetry, the role of rhythm, the significance of mimesis, and the necessity of a unity of time, place, and action; what he offered was the most ordinary form of cultural dictatorship, the kind that insists that a good work be written in such and such a way and no other, this being the worst advice to give to a person who would like to write something good. There is only one way to write something good: by destroying everything that would, following Aristotelian logic, be considered a hallmark of what is good. He had said all of this in one breath without looking in any particular direction. Then he focused a long, pleading gaze on Filip and asked him whether he’d say now where the necklace was. Filip hesitated before he answered, fearful of Robert’s reaction. He finally mustered the strength and a little primly, enunciating every word, said the necklace was in a safe place and that Robert had nothing to worry about. Damned parents, muttered Robert. He covered his face with his hands as if ashamed and said that Aristotle wrote the best text about parents, but this one, like most of his texts, had been lost. In it, Robert went on, Aristotle describes parents as parasites who only have children so that the children will take care of them, though they accuse the children of exploitation. Robert even believed that Aristotle’s texts had been destroyed, at least in their original form, only because parents had been determined to destroy his words on parenting so they destroyed everything they could grab. For this very reason, said Robert, since Aristotle’s works are not originals but imitations, the literature written under their influence is not original but a pale imitation. Only a few writers, Borges among them, succeeded in shrugging off the deadly influence of Aristotle’s ironclad, dictatorial Poetics to create works that were original from their first word to their last. All that, said Robert, could be read in his senior thesis on Borges and in the articles he’d written for assorted magazines, collected in his book of essays. He hadn’t brought the book with him because of the weight restrictions on airplane luggage. And, besides, when traveling all the way from Australia one carries more than usual and every ounce is precious. Robert was of the opinion that Australia, for many people, was more exotic than Africa. Africa, he said, had appeal for the descendants of white colonizers because they were torn between being colonizers and identifying with the colonized. Every outcast, he said, could relate to what he was talking about, as could any émigré. It’s always the same story, though he couldn’t say why he was bringing it up at all: he was no émigré, nor was he an outcast, and he didn’t want to stick his nose into other people’s business, but sometimes a conversation takes a turn we don't expect and at that point walking it back is difficult. And so Aristotle stayed with him despite Robert’s remonstrances and occasionally reminded him of their similarity to ancient Greek drama, the way a parent prods a child to eat the rest of its cereal and finish its breakfast. Then he remembered that he hadn’t asked Robert what they’d called him, Robi or Bobi. Earlier that had seemed so critical, though now he was no longer sure: Robi, Bobi, Bobi, Robi, there wasn’t much difference, perhaps because he'd already gotten used to calling him by his full name, but still he asked him what his best friends called him, Robi or Bobi? Robert shot him a surprised glance, as if no one had ever asked him such a question, and then he burst out laughing. He laughed with a wheeze, with halts and gasps, and soon all the guests and the waiters at the Brioni were staring at them again. Then Robert began thumping his hands on the table and his feet on the floor, and Filip saw out of the corner of his eye how the man was pulling free again of his associates and Filip laid a hand on Robert’s arm and asked him to quiet down. Robert stopped immediately with his awful, forced guffaws, but in response he tenderly took Filip’s hand in his, turned it, brought it to his lips and planted a moist kiss on Filip’s palm. Filip jerked his hand back, not daring to glance anymore in the direction of the table where the man was sitting. Robert looked him straight in the eye a while longer and then he said, “It wasn’t Bobi, or Robi. They called me Alisa.” Filip grinned, but when he saw Robert watching him solemnly his smile froze. He tried to interpret his gaze, keeping an ear out for any sounds coming from behind his back, but he failed. Before him there was only emptiness and the more he tried to focus on Robert’s response and his gestures, the emptier the empty space became, until it finally filled him completely, though perhaps it would be more precise to say that it emptied him completely, he became his own absence and all he felt, the only thing he felt, was fear that he wouldn't succeed in returning to his old form, that he would always remain brimming with emptiness, hollow, unreal, and mute.

 

© 2015 David Albahari. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Ellen Elias-Bursać. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2017 issue
from the June 2017 issue

Shit about Love

Santiago had seen the young man watching from afar for some time. While he related his story, he noticed—out of the corner of his eye—that the kid was trying to get Pérsio’s attention. He moved around nonstop, speaking loudly, but Pérsio was entirely immersed in Santiago’s words, a man-boy listening to a tale of fairies, witches, princes. He had even forgotten the burning tip of the cigarette between his fingers, his mouth ajar, eyes open wide, almost green with the light striking the pale iris directly like it was. Santiago wanted to warn him—wannabe celebrities, he remembered Pérsio’s words from before—but the young man crept up from behind, stealthy, catlike, before laying a hand on Pérsio’s shoulder. Spooked, Pérsio started, burning his fingers.

“Shit,” he snarled, smashing the cigarette butt in the ashtray. He turned toward the grinning young man, an excess of large teeth lined up above a turtleneck, a ’50s quiff with short back and sides, his hands tucked into the pockets of his cargo pants. A huge pendulous keychain jangled as he leaned over.

He greeted Pérsio, “Oi, remember me?”

“Oi.” Pérsio licked his burned fingers, extended his hand. “Of course I remember you. How’s it going? You’re in the cast of Oedipus?”

 “Antigone,” the young man corrected him, “The chorus, I’m Carlinhos from the chorus."

“Of course, of course. The chorus, I remember. Didn’t you bring the photos and the press release in to the newspaper? How’s the show going, Carlinhos from the Chorus?”

“Not great—you know how it is.” He dug his hands into the depths of his pockets, rocking forward and back as though having a catatonic episode. “We canceled today. Only half a dozen people. This fucking crisis, right?”

“SO fucked,” Pérsio agreed, and then, looking directly at the three girls at the next table, he repeated, “So fucked. I don’t know where it’ll end. The theater, don’t even start. The arts, in general.”

Perfect cue. Santiago went back to taking slow drags on his cigarette, the cognac, the wine, to his myopia, to looking around. But there was nothing going on: the three girls at the next table fought over the last slice of pizza (anchovy, he noted), one of the babies at the large table slept, sunk into its mother’s full breast while someone sang la stata sera cominciata e giá finitta in a melancholy tone, the wind blew outside, the guy with the pencil-thin mustache and the fat girl with the braids had left and some frenetic Japanese had taken over the table, speaking a language full of tiny little spasms.

Practically breathless, Carlinhos swooped. "So yeah that’s why we need support you know we’re a cooperative we’re all young people everyone’s put money together it’s super-tough you know so if you could lend a hand there at the paper, you know how it is, the publicity always helps, it’s vital, it all depends on the good nature of a few just a matter of believing in the project and getting behind it.”

Pérsio put Santiago’s glasses on. He crossed his arms, tilting his head with a professional air. “Fine. I’ll see what I can do. It’s not up to me—there are the higher ups, you know, who have more say. You have your director, I have my editor. It’s they who decide.”

“We are grateful.” Carlinhos bowed his head. He made a belated and gracious gesture that said I-don’t-mean-to-interrupt-anything-between-you, squeezed Santiago’s hand somewhat complicitly, and disappeared between the tables.

Pérsio removed Santiago’s eyeglasses, crossed his silverware, and pushed his plate back. He seemed miserable. He grabbed another cigarette and lit it with the butt that Santiago was about to put out. “Christ. There’s always one. The next time I say some place is normal, spit in my face, got it?”

“Or I could call Rejane,” Santiago joked.

“Wonderful. Call Rejane and order her to stand at the door and scream ‘Faaaaaaaaggot!’ at the top of her lungs so that everybody can hear.” Pérsio licked his burned fingers again.

“Shit. A shit profession. Do you know what I did last night? I wasted three sheets of paper bar-ba-rous-ly savaging that Antigone. Especially the chorus, who appear to suffer from a lack of motor control, squirming around like contortionists. Who didn’t memorize the script. Who should go back to making asinine children’s theater, the kind with hand puppets. Who would have thought that Antigone would come to an end in Mooca? And I—who actually enjoyed the theater—am sick of it. I see a stage and I want to go out and smack everyone. The chorus has at least twenty people. That’s twenty enemies, you realize? You need a patron saint strong enough to protect you. Don’t you find it the absolute worst thing to keep offering opinions on other people’s work without really knowing the other guy’s story?”

“I grade tests.”

“Ten years. Drama class. All those monsters screaming in the street. Ask for the check, I’m fed up with this place. Poor kid, he must live in Pirituba. He has to eat quickly because he takes the metro back. Does the metro go to Pirituba? He lives in a BNH housing complex, with his sister the seamstress and his disabled mother. He sleeps on the top bunk of a bunk bed. His brother, who’s a riot cop, sleeps in the bottom bunk. And tomorrow it’ll appear in the newspaper what an idiot he is. Signed by me.”

Santiago told him he was exaggerating, that he was just playing a role, that it wasn’t as serious as he made it out to be, but he wouldn’t stop. Santiago called the waiter.

God!” he said in English. “Ten years. Did you take it in the ass in those ten years?”

“Huh?”

Pérsio tapped his knife against the wineglass, his eyes bloodshot. “Your ass, that’s what it’s about. Ultimately that’s what it boils down to. If I just did this with my fingers, Carlinhos would fall at my feet and take it in the ass in public. Or he’d fuck my ass. It might even be nice. At his size, he must have a great dick. Carlinhos, Paulinho, Luizinho, all the inhos with their huge keychains. I’d like to smack them all. Ass, ass, ass,” he repeated. The girls at the other table stood up, watching the whole time. “Those monsters—for fuck’s sake, I was only thirteen. I was disgusted. Between men, love is sex is ass is shit. Did you know I can’t stand shit? I see a guy and I like him and all, and then I think, Deus, soon we’ll go to bed and suck here, suck there, grasp, drool, grind, bite, and in the end there’s the ass and shit everywhere. You always end up taking it in the ass or fucking the other’s ass. If you take it, that’s not even the half of it. There’s the pain, the fucking pain. Hell, it hurts like hell. Even so, there are ways, spit, creams. But it’s disgusting to think that the other guy’s dick is going to come out of there covered in your shit. Even in the most respectable cases, can you imagine Verlaine fucking Rimbaud? And if you fuck him, you have the other guy’s shit glued to your cock. Even in the dark, you feel it. It’s impossible not to be aware of it. No matter how clean you both are that smell endures, that smell of shit loose in the air. Sometimes I go to the bathroom in the dark and wash my dick with my eyes shut, soap it up good with the tap full blast, so that I can pretend that all that snot-like filth is from the soap, not from the shit. But the stench of the shit is always stronger. Stronger than anything. Is there a love that can fend it off? Now you tell me,” he banged Santiago’s eyeglasses against the table, so hard that Santiago was afraid the lenses would break. But they didn’t break. “However many flowers and laughs and kisses and caresses and, crap, mutual understanding and ma-tu-ri-ty. However much in love you are, however amazing. For me, never. Everything smells of shit. Even if you don’t see it. Can’t feel it. In the dark. The next day, straightening the sheets, by chance you end up finding a small stinking stain: shit, pure shit. Don’t talk to me about sexual liberation, tell me it’s natural, or nothing is too much trouble, or it’s a choice like any other, or whatever else. Who’s gonna stop me being sick of the smell of shit? Love between men always smells of shit. That’s why I can’t stand it. One month, two. You cover it up, disguise it, use Vaseline, soap, but the smell of shit stays stuck to your skin. I can’t accept a love that’s synonymous with the asshole, with the smell of shit. So I say this to my therapist and he’d always repeat, ‘But what’s sooo disgusting about shit, anyway?’ Really? What do you mean, what’s sooo disgusting? It’s more than disgusting, fuck. And not just in terms of homosexuality. Actually, I will never accept that human beings have assholes and shit. Can you imagine Virginia Woolf shitting? I’m only talking about this now because we finished eating. If I’d said something before, no one would have been able to eat anything.”

The waiter brought the bill and two coffees. Pérsio continued.

“Last night I underlined some sentences in a book by Anderson. The girl with the red shoes. The curse, when the angel says . . .”

“‘Dance you shall, you shall dance forever.’ Isn’t that it?”

“How did you know?”

“I saw it in your room. It was open.”

“Well, it’s like that. A curse. Forever. It only stops when they amputate the girl’s feet. When you die, do you lose a piece of yourself? When you negate yourself? When you swear off and never fuck again? I can’t do that. Jean Genet would spit in my face . . . Then you say, so stop. I try. I manage a week, two weeks without fucking. Then I miss it. So I go to the corner and grab the first guy who walks by. I ask how much, anyone, nordestino, hustler, crioulo, no problem. It’s quick: towels, sink, condoms, that’s it. The money, defined roles, no entanglement. They’ve robbed me before, one day they’ll kill me. But is that what they call love? Your story, I haven’t had anything like it. I’ve just had glimpses, it seemed promised, all set, but it never happened. I never managed it, I wasn’t able, it must be my fault. Oh, how banal. To what extent did circumstances not favor me, or was it me who didn’t favor the circumstances?”

Santiago put his eyeglasses back on. He reached his hand out to take the bill.

“How much was it?”

“I’ve got it, don’t worry.”

“We’ll split it then.”

Santiago placed two bills on the small plastic dish. Pérsio foraged through the pockets of his green jacket on the back of his chair. He grabbed the two bills and wrote a check. He insisted.

“Tell me.”

“What?”

“The shit, man. What do I do?”

“You forget it. I don’t know. It’s not that important. And if it was stronger?”

“The shit?”

“No, of course not. Love. I don’t know, such a ridiculous word.”

“Love doesn’t exist. It’s a capitalist invention.”

“All right. But what if . . . Let’s suppose that the two people, the two guys, really like each other.”

“Which is difficult enough.”

“Maybe it is, but . . . Let’s suppose. I’ve already experienced that. And if they really like each other? If the touch of the other was somehow, suddenly, good? If the smell of the other’s sweat was good as well? If all the smells coming from his body were good: his feet, his mouth, early in the morning; good, normal smells, just because they belong to the other person. Because they’re familiar smells, secret. Because no one else knows about them who hasn’t stuck their nose in there, their tongue in there, deep inside, deep in the flesh, right into the smells. And if everything that you find disgusting was precisely what we call love? That’s when it happens, when you become most intimate. So intimate, but so intimate that all of a sudden there is no disgust at all anymore. You have smells too. People have smells. It’s natural. Animals smell each other. What do you want? Virgin white lace? Couldn’t it be that love starts when disgust, hygiene, or any one of those words—sorry, you’re going to laugh—when any one of those bourgeois little words no longer have meaning? If all of this, if you throw yourself in shit, if you don’t just tolerate and accept the other’s shit but rise above it or even enjoy it because all of a sudden you can even enjoy, without it having to be a perversion, what if all this was what they call love? Love in the sense of intimacy, of profound knowledge. Of the poverty and also the nobility of the other’s body. If love were the courage to face shit itself. And then, a moment later, it wouldn’t even be courage at all, because it would no longer be important. What matters is having known the body of another person as intimately as only you can know your own body. Because then you can love yourself as well.”

Pérsio put his jacket on, cigarette pressed between his lips.

“Very inspirational,” he said, squinting his eyes to avoid the smoke, “But who knows, who knows? So therefore you’ve concluded that I don’t understand shit about love.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“But it could be true. My problem is a maturity problem, caused by a closeted adolescence. Or one of a bourgeois kid who took their First Communion and will eternally feel guilty about the possibility of pleasure. It’s all so Christian.” He rolled his eyes, “Ah, martyrdom, hair shirts. I must have come to a sudden halt at Peter Pan. Flesh is unbearable, I either act like a sort of sexual prude—purely nonphysical—or else I’m voraciously lewd.”

Pérsio was going to say something else, but he suddenly extended his arms across the table and grabbed hold of Santiago’s shoulders. He squeezed tight. The warm scent of leftover pizza floating in oil, full ashtray, empty glasses, plates piled between them, pieces of linguiça, olive pits, melted cheese, greasy strips of ham. Santiago almost couldn’t make out what he said, the confused words spilling out from between teeth which clenched a cigarette.

“Did you know I like you? I like you very much, babe.”

 

From Pela noite. By arrangement with the estate of Caio Fernando Abreu. Translation © 2017 by Ed Moreno. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2017 issue
from the June 2017 issue

Lida, Danilo, and the Others

Biljana Jovanović's novel Psi i ostali, published in Yugoslavia in 1980, explores the life of a tragic and dysfunctional family in Belgrade in the 1970s. The matriarch of the family is the ailing, elderly grandmother, Jaglika, who is of mixed Hungarian-Montenegrin descent; the rest of the family are Serbs who have grown up in Tito’s Yugoslavia, with its increasingly urban and modern style of life. The family members include Lidija (also known as Lida) and her troubled brother, Danilo; their largely absent mother, Marina (Jaglika’s daughter); and Marina’s two brothers, Lidija’s uncles, identified only as F. and K. Milena is a family friend who becomes Lidija’s lover.

 

Marina, my mother, had two brothers; in addition to having hate-filled dreams about them, I also had real experiences with them when I was a child. In fact, those experiences form part of my “liberated” memory.

At the time, the two of them lived here; they used to come periodically to our place on Svetosavska Street, and their thousand and one pieces of junk would come with them—oh, screw it—they never brought anything; they came over and gossiped and ran off at the mouth, spitting, chomping, and, like everybody in the building on Svetosavska Street, shamelessly exploiting pathetic, beleaguered old Jaglika, my grandmother: she cooked for them, washed, cleaned, and, to top it all off, we took her pension for ourselves; she took care of all of us on Svetosavska Street, languished day and night, and declined, inevitably declined. We bustled here and there and didn't even take her on an outing, not to mention a summer vacation.

First I dreamed about my maternal uncle, F. He was the older one, taller and skinnier than Uncle K. It was approximately a year ago, and the long and short of it was this: in his room—in his house in Ljubljana (both of them live there now)—I killed him, with a listless movement of hand and knife; there wasn't terribly much blood; he was standing with his back turned to me and the patio and an important picture on the wall—everything simultaneously: picture, patio, me, and my uncle's back; I couldn't resist, and why would I? I stuck him with the short blade, planted it right in the center, between those shoulder blades of his that I thought were too close together (that's how skinny he was), noiselessly and effortlessly: Uncle K. didn't make a sound; then, somehow—I’ve always known that I was as strong as a horse, and that there are things that I could handle that not even a horse could, and not even in a dream could a horse carry such things . . . I carried him onto the terrace, where a great cauldron was already set up over a fire (like in a fairy tale); I thrust him in and cooked him, until the water (his blood) turned completely white—now that was some wondrous alchemy! Afterward his body grew stiff and shrank—the handle of the knife, however, was still jutting out, completely undisturbed, from the middle of his narrow, gaunt back, like from the center of the cosmos. I removed him from the cauldron—he had been reduced in size so much that I only needed to use one hand—as if I were picking up a big loaf of black bread, let's say—in the grocery store; I've known for ages that in actuality I'm pretty much as strong as a mouse—and I slung him up onto the railing and shoved. A hundred years after that, some people appear, let's say they represent the “dream police”—they're all sweet, sympathetic, but also pretty shrewd, something that was very much in evidence after these one hundred new years. They asked if I had any ties to the rubber doll down there in the garden; by that I mean down there in the park; what connection did I have to this figure made of some odd composite that was so irresistably reminiscent of Mr. F.? I betrayed my own secret to them, naturally enough: I said that the doll down there, of rubber, was the head of my former uncle F., of flesh and blood. Several of them smiled, and then off they went, all together. After three hundred more years, they returned; and now Marina was with them. She was the first, and this can be attributed to her innate fastidiousness, to see the great stain on the carpet in the bedroom—the room in which Uncle F. had had a knife stabbed into the middle of his back. It was, I assume, my uncle's blood, which must have been dripping, leaking out of the wound the whole time, until I transferred him, with the strength of a horse and a mouse simultaneously, from the room to the terrace and into the cauldron.

 

My dream about the other uncle took place in circumstances that were no less grim. All the relatives had gathered for a family celebration—there were so so many of them that they seemed to spill out like ants into Svetosavska Street, both the living and the dead. Uncle K., who was younger and heavier than Uncle F., I castrated with a razor blade; although I'm no longer sure whether it was a razor blade or a pair of those scissors for clipping nails; but it seems most likely that there was a dark brown penknife in my hands—in one hand, just in one hand. First we all played some dreary party game: we hid ourselves in all possible locations. A few of them came into the wardrobe; Daniel's and my clothes started falling out; in that part of the dream, a towering burst of rage came over me: I attacked people, with the intention of throwing them out of the wardrobe, or out of the house; after Marina intervened, they remained, there at Svetosavska Street, but now they were hidden; instead of being in the wardrobes and cabinets, they were under all the tables; as if it were a present, I got a dangerous look from Marina—which had to mean, and still does mean, this: “If you dare do it, I'll kill you after they leave, you little bastard, you scourge of God!”

 

The next dream sequence, the main one, actually, was: sexual intercourse with Uncle K., and immediately afterward the castration; he didn't make a peep, just as Uncle F. didn't, when I plunged that knife into the middle of his back. Uncle K's phallus was wrapped up in a wad of rags; nicely, that is to say politely, and that means in a soft (courteous) voice, I asked Jaglika to toss it down the garbage chute when she went out. Jaglika merely nodded her head and crammed her son's phallus into her pocket. After that point, the events got less dramatic: Marina's husband showed up in a clean white shirt and a tie with dots all over it (red and blue, quite the prosaic combination) and a pipe in his mouth, to boot. In the corner of the room an unknown woman was seated; she was wearing an old-fashioned evening gown and sitting right below the portrait of a man on the wall who's also unfamiliar to me. When I caught sight of them, I went directly over (both to the man in the photo on the wall, and the woman underneath the photo); and a moment later I took down the picture, sliced it into pieces (but I carefully set aside the pane of glass) and then began making a few pictures of my own—which I then later glued to the table. Jaglika in a tuxedo, although perhaps it was Marina, I don't know. Marina was more corpulent, wider, as if she'd been inflated. She was pulling me out onto the dance floor, and ultimately I felt like we were just hopping around in front of the woman in the ball gown.

Once, a long while after that, when I told Danilo's doctor about this dream, he said to me—and good Lord I never doubted his skill, even if I did harbor suspicions about his virility; most assuredly I had no doubts about his skill—he told me that the picture on the wall and in my head was actually my father, and that cutting it up was the expression (what an expression!) of my ambivalence toward my father; and then he went on to tell me that the woman in the evening gown beneath the picture was in part my mother, and in part not, and it was even to a small degree me. Psychiatrists, not all of them, but for sure all the stupid ones, and thus all of them, come to think of it, simply pull a formula out of thin air, as casually as if they were striking a match or having a bowel movement: ambivalence and so forth, right on down the line.

So what happened involving me and Marina's two brothers, the skinny, older one F., and the chubby younger one, K.? One day, F. and K. burst into (with the best of intentions in their hearts) the place on Svetosavska Street: from the moment they crossed the threshold, they were strutting around and bragging about their plans for that afternoon; it was a Sunday, and I think it was at the beginning of spring. They had come to pick up Jaglika, Danilo, and me to take us to Topčider Park. We took a taxi; or, I mean, actually, we should have gone by taxi. From Svetosavska Street all the way to the National Theater we went on foot, sometimes on the sidewalk and sometimes in the middle of the street. Danilo was ten at the time, and I was eleven. The first thing we did was go into a poslastičarnica, a bakery or pastry shop, there in the vicinity of the theater. I was looking for some cream pie, and Danilo wanted angular baklava and oblong tulumba. Uncle F. (he's the older and leaner one, with the knife in the middle of his back) said, while Jaglika stood there drinking some boza: “That's a lot, Danilo . . . You're going to get a stomachache.” Then Danilo demanded two more cream puffs. I ate two pieces of šampita, whipped cream pie, as I mentioned (earlier, at the beginning), and then I was just sitting in a corner of the nearly empty sweetshop, rocking back and forth in a chair. Now Jaglika got herself a lemonade, too (what the heck!); Uncle K. was sucking in the smoke from one of his Drinas from Sarajevo, while sitting directly below a sign stating that smoking was prohibited. Then F., the older one, said yet again: “That's too much, Danilo. You're going to get a stomachache. You'll see!” But once more Danilo asked for some cake; he wouldn't stop chewing and smacking his lips, so that I had to think that after this Sunday morning there wouldn't remain a single serving of cream puffs, or baklava, either Greek or Turkish, or Cremeschnitte, for the children who'd be coming by later. Now the pastry chef placed two pieces of chocolate cake and two mignons of fruit and candy on a plate in front of Danilo; and Danilo spotted the hair, long, black, and sturdy (as if it were from Uncle K.'s head, which was, truth be told, impossible, completely ruled out by the fact that Uncle K. was standing a good six feet away from the plate, and from Danilo, and from the pastry chef; however you chose to look at it, that is to say, however one might measure that distance, it was not possible that a hair from the head of Uncle K. could have found its way to Danilo's plate and assumed this position across those two mignons). The only link that could be established between the hair in question and Uncle K. was the marvelous similarity of the hairs on his head and the one on Danilo's plate. It certainly did not belong to the baker; his hairs were light brown, thin, and soft. I believe that Danilo would've passed over it in silence if the hair had come from the pastry chef's head; but because it could not have been thus, he was convinced that Uncle K. had deliberately placed the hair on his plate, and he couldn't restrain himself, I know it; he could not do so by any means, and what happened later was necessary; things just had to happen like that. Therefore, when Danilo caught a glimpse of the long, black, thick hair on the plate (I also saw it at the same moment, and I presume that no one aside from the two of us saw it), he cupped his hand, very calmly, over the mignons and the pieces of chocolate cake, and he simply wiped them silently from the plate. He threw them to the floor, together with that long and magnificent black hair that looked as though it was from his uncle's head, and then with his shoe he smeared the cakes onto the floor. Jaglika was beside herself with horror at this (this was her second boza, which she ordered after the lemonade: oh, good grief!), while Uncle F. jumped up and led Danilo outside, carrying him through the air by his left ear; Uncle K. (who was the cause of the entire scandal) asked the proprietor in a very proper way not to be angry “at this impudence—the kid's going to get what he deserves,” and then he paid him for the pastries we ate, and the cake on the floor, and the mess that'd been made, and then all three of us, Jaglika and he and I, went outside; ten or twelve feet away, Uncle F. was giving Danilo a thrashing. Jaglika said: “He had it coming. This is exactly what he had coming.” Unce K. lit up another Drina (from Sarajevo), turned his head the other way, and whistled nonchalantly—what a lack of feeling! Then I, angry to the point of danger, went up to Uncle F. and, with all the force I could muster, I kicked him in the shin with the pointed toe of my polished, hard-soled shoe, the left one. Uncle F. did not seem to notice, or maybe he didn't feel it, the blow I mean—and he continued beating Danilo fervently and methodically; I struck again, this time in the other leg, and then Uncle F. left Danilo alone (my goal along); but his next gesture exceeded all my expectations, or to be more precise, it shocked me: he smacked me across the face, so fast (the first slap in my life—is this happening to me, the shock you feel at something you never expected) that I burst out crying that very instant. Jaglika said: “Dear God, these children—it's like they're little demons!” and she crossed herself. Uncle F. then announced that the excursion to Topčider was off, and that we were going home. And I thought that meant all of us, but then the three of them turned the other way and disappeared. the three of them, Jaglika and her two sons, F., the older one, and K. the fatter younger one, as they disappeared down the street the other way. Through my sobs, I said to Danilo: “It's all your fault. What're we going to tell Marina?” But Danilo was happy, and quiet, as if he had not just had the stuffing knocked out of him by Uncle F., and he replied: “Let's go across the street, Lida, into that little park! I really wanna do it." We didn't get back till evening, after having gotten some stamps in the park in exchange for all the marbles we owned, which were a rarity in those days (and which Uncle K. brought us from somewhere) . . .

 

 

It was hard for me to grasp, even later; but this is how it seemed to me in my state of mind then: the same things happened to Danilo and me; we loved the same faces, all the same ones, including our own; there was, however, in everything just one itsy-bitsy difference: Danilo acted, he thought about these things, these people, but I shrewdly (cunning is a distinction of the stupid) took up the role of a nonexistent person who does not think about these things, who doesn't act, and is narrow-minded and scorns these things and these faces. I poured forth a torrent of insulting words, curses, and everything else I could onto Danilo's otherwise superior being, at his otherwise more beautiful face; and no matter how much the tide of insolence and imagination grew, I grew correspondingly crueler. More and more—for Danilo's beautiful face remained beautiful and calm . . .

Never, not for one instant, did I believe even a single one of the words with which I usually pushed back at Danilo's daydreams, at Danilo's deliberate tomfoolery; but I spoke with authority, with my mouth full, clear-eyed and with my hands loose at my side; although with my palms slightly turned out, too; like a self-assured person who is unaware that she's uttering the wickedest lies that are both as heavy as a ton of stone dropped onto someone's head and as sharp as a metal blade used to slice a thin precise line through the throat of a lamb or a human being. Whenever Danilo would say, “Lidija, I had another dream about long, narrow hallways. The way they make you dizzy with their curving and twisting." (I felt like I needed to vomit.) "And it made me want to vomit, Lidija!”—I would slip him a lie, like a piece of chocolate in a scrunched-up hand. Actually I would smear it on his confused face and rub it in. Don't be a drag, Danilo. Other people have dreams, too, and they don't make a big fuss about them. Stop thinking only about yourself. Other people . . .” And ad infinitum about those “other people.”

To all appearances, my fabrications regarding “other people” seemed rather innocent. When he asked, the way all children do, “Lidija, are you sure, really really sure, that there's nothing for me to be scared of?” I would also tell him a story about the other people who aren't afraid, while I myself wondered, really, what does he have to be afraid of.

Danilo and I both had incidents on buses. Danilo's had occurred in a crowd, in the throngs of people, other people; he had never been afraid of the extreme proximity of human bodies, or of lousy human smells, menstrual, ammoniac, fecal, urinary . . . as a result, it was perfectly natural for the thing between him and the woman driver to take place right there in the presence of “other people.” In situations like that, all I have are the instincts of a frightened dog; I had always been afraid of these sweaty, anonymous packs of flesh who jostle me from behind and press against my back, against my pelvis my stomach my head. Although other people are just a deftly prepared illusion, I did truly fear that they would gouge out my eye, like on a slaughtered lamb, that they would spit in my mouth, down my throat, like in a public urinal, spilling their stinky syphilitic semen down my leg, the way a dog pisses against a tree . . .

Because of all that, I only rode buses that were almost empty; that time, when my thing happened, there were barely even ten of them, other people, in the bus. Next to the entrance door, a girl was standing with her back to me; I could not see her face; in fact, I couldn't see anything save her tall, elongated figure and the small, round, perfectly round butt in her pants; the eyes of the other passengers like mine, were glued to the fabric of her pants, but I alone reached out for it, with my hand—I think I wanted to verify one very simple thing: that the curve of that perfect ass differed beneath my fingertips from the same lines of the same ass that just moments before was the object of eyes—mine and those of the others—of all the people around her. And as soon as I touched it, everyone on the bus—all of a sudden there were a thousand of them—began to croak, maliciously: “Shame on you” and “Throw her off the bus” and “Pervert” and “Yuck, a lesbian,” but I don't think the young woman even felt my touch. Ultimately, that rear end, round and petite, had no connection of any kind to the girl's body, and not to mine, either.

When I told Milena about this, she waved it off, laughed at me, and said: “Oh, get real, Lida! We both know that satiny little ass is just meat. Tender or chewy, it's all the same!”

 

 

Our friend Milena only came over so she wouldn’t have to be alone when she talked to herself. Later I realized that this wasn't self-absorption, or anything else along those lines; I can even affirm, although it doesn't do anybody much good now, that it was Danilo who first sensed the seriousness of Milena's isolation. Milena's ardent penchant for humiliation (never once did I try to hit her; several times I pinched her, left blue streaks behind; I told her everything that a person can say to herself, to another person, to no one, everything that can be thought up, imagined, and then forgotten) proved to be a grave matter. After all, only out of a sense of seriousness is it possible to permit the things that Milena permitted.

           

The one person who felt guilty was me, always me; Milena was constantly somber; Danilo worried, and sometimes he cried.

I fantasized that it would be possible to spend the rest of life without moving: Milena and I, as a double static figure in Svetosavska Street; Milena with her legs hooked, thighs around my neck, and her head between my legs—never-ending wetness—and all around, the moving world: Danilo and that bug-eyed friend of his, whispering, prodding each other, and walking on tiptoes, going, coming, the both of them peering through all the keyholes; Jaglika and her homecare aide sending postcards with their regards, walking around the big park at Košutnjak, Čeda sticking right by Jaglika's side; my boss issuing various orders, going out to the movies with his wife, never failing to reflect on the fate of the world in front of the shop window featuring fancy leather goods, and yawning in the library; and Milena and I like stalactites.

Of course, I was not able to avoid ensnaring myself in Milena's serenity; no matter what I did, no matter what I said to her, Milena would always just curl up the corners of her lips, grinning, sneering at me with those gleaming front teeth of hers that were so large, and the big, retracted lower jaw, which she would then pull back even more, always but always repeating: “Oh for God's sake, Lida!”

And when I slapped her one time, Milena said: “Oh for God's sake, Lida!”—and she left with a smile on her face. From the balcony I shouted down; I asked her to come back; and she turned around once and grinned again, as if she were waving, but said again: “For God's sake, Lida!” Creep! I ran to Jaglika; I squeezed onto her lap and cried and kissed the backs of her wizened, gnarled hands, slobbering and whispering into her lap (my head was moored to the bottom of her stomach—and her lap was right there on that itsy-bitsy spot way down low): “Baba, may God help us, you and me,” and Jaglika would say, bewildered, “Get off me, child . . . Why me? I didn't do anything to anyone. Go on, move. Move when I tell you to!”

 

From Biljana Jovanović, Psi í ostali (Beograd: Prosveta, 1980). By arrangement with the author's estate. Translation © 2017 by John K. Cox. All rights reserved.

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from the May 2017 issue

“The Revolution of the Moon” by Andrea Camilleri

Reviewed by J. A. Tyler

If someone were to tell me there was a new novel in translation from a much-lauded Italian author, I’d probably be as game for it as the next nerdy lit-phile with a shelf of splendid but still unread books towering precariously on a nearby nightstand. But, if that same someone were to add, by the way, the novel is about political upheaval, partisan treachery, and ground-breaking law changes made to a city system in extreme duress, I’d just as well continue in the eye-gouging malaise of a CNN viewer.

Yet, Andrea Camilleri’s The Revolution of the Moon beats the odds, rendering a fascinating story built on a true historical moment and managing to sell me a political novel in a time when I’m the least likely to read anything political.

When the elephantine Viceroy don Angel de Guzmàn, marquis of Castel de Roderigo, slumps silently and deathly during a session of the Holy Royal Council, the void his grotesque body leaves in the structure of the Council is pronounced. This happens in the first few pages, a scene which then slides deliciously forward, setting into motion the crux of the novel: how the late don Angel’s newlywed wife Donna Eleonora di Mora becomes Viceroy in his stead––“the only woman in the world at the time to rise to so high a political and administrative office.” This last sentiment is pulled from Camilleri’s postscript, where it is shared that The Revolution of the Moon originates from the factual, though often footnote-relegated, chronicles of the Spanish viceroys of Sicily, when the real widow doña Eleonora di Mora succeeded her late husband as the first female to hold such a powerful political position.

From this historical aperture, Camilleri spins a novel webbed in law changes and Council decisions, as Donna Eleonora undoes the whole of the grifting, glutted, corrupt landscape of Grand Captains, Councillors, and Bishops.

Donna Eleonora crossed the great hall before the spell-bound eyes of all present, stopped in front of the empty throne of the king, bowed her head, stepped aside, gracefully ascended the three steps, sat down on the thronelet, adjusted her dress, then slowly raised the black veil, uncovering her face.

It was as though there had suddenly appeared, in the darkness of the hall, a point of light brighter than the sun so dazzling that it brought tears to one’s eyes.

“You must all give me el signo de vuestra obediencia.”

There too is a particularly interesting and applause-worthy feature of Stephen Sartarelli’s translation, where emphasis is often placed on embedded bilingual dialogue without subtitle or express definition. Some are easily recognized—“I would like to know la situación actual del public treasury and how much dinero there is personally available to the viceroy”—while others are left more palpably difficult, such as this short conversation between Donna Eleonora and the protonotary:

“No está de acuerdo?”

“With all due respect, no.”

“No está de acuerdo sobre el subsidio o sobre la procedura?”  

While this technique can occasionally bind a reader for a moment or two, the embedded language is always contextualized and also serves to give the reader an eerily parallel experience to the men who surround Donna Eleonora, ranking political figures who, although familiar with her language, often can’t understand her ways and are left swimming in her careful and calculated decisions.

And there, in the ever-wise and gentle governing decrees of Donna Eleonora’s reign, is the heart of the novel. When she takes power as viceroy, the city of Palermo has just recovered from years of famine and disease that left an implacable mark on the city.

 . . . little by little the carnage ceased. But the consequences lasted a long time, in the form of orphaned boys and girls of all ages who had nothing to eat and resorted to stealing and alms-begging; widows and girls who had nothing to sell but their bodies; and continuous acts of violence and rampant corruption common to all.

But in 1677 Palermo, Donna Eleonora is fighting so much more than their history:

 . . .  if a man hadn’t been able to resolve them, certainly a woman couldn’t either.

Since, in fact, it was well-known that a woman was worth far less than a man. And sometimes even less than a good animal.

And if, by chance, she should get it into her head that she was worth more, she must be put back in her place at once.

The fight here is not just political, but gendered, illuminating the power and intelligence of this woman, her fortitude and resilience in the face of such degradation. Donna Eleonora creates, in the single cycle of the moon, a new world where overburdened fathers are given recompense, bread prices are halved to feed the hungry, all guilds enjoy equal support, and orphaned and prostituted women are lifted from the gutter and placed in caring and incorruptible establishments. Even in the face of unspeakable acts between bishops and young boys, Donna Eleonora does not hesitate:

“But now you’ve got me wondering whether this isn’t all a maneuver whose ultimate purpose is to absolve the bishop of the accusations.”

“As long as I am here, that will never happen,” donna Eleonora said firmly.

Camilleri is the bestselling author of the Inspector Montalbano series, and fans of his other novels already in translation will find the familiar tenets of investigation and mystery, murder and deceit in the pages of The Revolution of the Moon, yet there is so much more. Based on a truly captivating moment in history, Camilleri shows us how a woman triumphed over remarkable obstacles and, in the face of ceaseless scrutiny, how she proved to the world that she was as an unwavering as the brightest moon.

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Marta Dziurosz

Milena Solot

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Roop Bhawani

Dīna Nāth Nādim

Rasul Mīr

Biljana Jovanović

Beldan Sezen

Charlotte Collins

Arshia Sattar

Sonam Kachru

Neerja Mattoo

Ed Moreno

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Chiara Marchelli

The Last Orchard

Liran Golod

Raquel Lubartowski

Three Fires

from the May 2017 issue

Cardinal Points: Four Basque Poets

When I was asked to make a selection of four Basque poets for Words Without Borders, my mind filled with possibilities. I thought: oh, my fellow coastal poet Kirmen Uribe and his seafaring poems, or what about the tortured Parisian Jon Mirande, the irreverently clever Ricardo Arregi, the always on-point Bernardo Atxaga, the fantastic love poet Padron Plazaola, the newbie Alaine Agirre and her raw, distraught poems, the richly oblique Felipe Juaristi, the difficult but rewarding Koldo Izagirre, or even the father of modern Basque poetry, Gabriel Aresti (whose works have just been published by University of Nevada Press.) There were others, too, names flew in and out of my mind: Itxaro Borda, Arantxa Urretabizkaia, Amaia Lasa, each poet a rich fragment of Basqueness. How to choose, how to represent.

And as is often the case when given strict delimitations, my mind focused. In the end, I thought, what do people know about Basque literature? Not much. So how could I provide a good sketch of Basque literature in four poets then? The idea of four made me think of the cardinal points: I come from fishing people, so I can’t help the tendency to think in terms of north, south, east, and west, the corresponding winds, what comes with each, what landmarks (seamarks) I see, where I stand with respect to each. (I don’t know many other people whose first gesture in entering a place they’re considering to rent is to flip open a compass). It’s in my blood to define territories, to craft maritime charts, to fish, to swim, to sail boats, and now, thanks to the new world, to European ideals about the free movement of peoples and the decline of the fishing worlds, I’ve translated the skills of my ancestors into this, this crafting of literary maps, this fishing for the next rewarding catch.

In the December 2015 Translator’s Relay, I wrote about the Basque language, about how old it is and how complex its history and literary traditions are—oral and written literary traditions in Basque follow two very distinct paths, both very rich and alive; the first is very old, and the other . . . a babe in arms. The paradox of this old but new literary world. For the purpose of giving context to my selection, I’ll need to explain that the first book in Basque was published in 1545 and that very little else was published in the following four hundred years and that the few things that were published in that time were produced by priests (mostly Franciscans and Jesuits). They wrote devotional books, translations of sections from the Bible, spiritual guides. This is no anomaly: for centuries and for better or worse, churchpeople have been the keepers of languages across cultures: annotating them, translating them, writing into their traditions (think of Saint John of the Cross, Teresa de Jesus, Julian of Norwich, even the patron of translators Saint Jerome). The Basque literary tradition has its own collection of writer-priests, starting with the first person to ever publish a book in Basque, Bernard Etxepare, the French-Basque vicar who wrote Linguae Vasconum Primitiae in 1545. But the Basque church’s monopoly in all matters literary began to wane in the twentieth century and, with that, the need for other manifestations of writing in Basque began to emerge.

And to understand this shift and how it manifested, we need to envision and understand mystical geographies.

There exists in the Basque Country a place that is a bit like Camelot. It sits in the middle of the most beautiful network of mountains and valleys, a hiker or horse-rider’s true paradise. It’s called Arantzazu and it’s a Franciscan sanctuary: in 1468 a shepherd claimed to have had the Virgin appear to him among the hawthorns (arantza means hawthorn) and, well, the usual rest ensued. It was declared a sacred site in 1885 by Pope Leo XIII, and in 1950 a huge, ambitious architectural undertaking started to develop on the site of the shrine. And this is where things start to get really interesting, because this apparently benign, tranquil, bucolic site of pilgrimage became the place where the soul and the brain of a new Basque revolution were forged. People forget, but the first few ETA [Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, "Basque Homeland and Liberty"] ideologues were Franciscan and Jesuit fathers (this was before ETA became a military organization—it was a purely political concept first), and it was precisely in Arantzazu, and during the years in which the Arantzazu Basilica was built, that the shift to Basque modern expression (in thought, in architecture, sculpture, literature and music; even the new standard Basque, euskara batua) coalesced. Keep in mind that these were the very harsh years of Franco’s dictatorship, when everything Basque was forbidden—what better place to plot the dawn of a new Basque era than a Franciscan Friary in a mythical site? No one was watching. The Virgin might have appeared in Arantzazu in 1468, but the Basque goddess Mayi and her forest, mountain, and river creatures were there already by the time the Virgin came along, and still are; those mountains are a magnet for magic, there’s a sense of being hidden and protected and left in peace in the ancient caves and steep forests that surround the basilica, on the rocky peaks enhancing the horizons. I rode a horse for the first time there, aged nine, a Basque pottoka (a long-haired, feral mountain horse—they’re as cute as they’re stubborn, and will take you wherever they please) who, over the years and in my many visits to Arantzazu, taught me to trust the wisdom of his meanderings. His name was Gorri ("Red," for his mane).

So here we are, 1950s and 60s, in a radical sanctuary built by a pair of young architects who enlisted the help of the three most avant-garde Basque artists: Txillida, Oteiza, and Basterretxea. Txillida made the bronze doors (and called them the gates of hell); Oteiza sculpted the apostles (fourteen, because there were surely more than 12, and one was Mary Magdalene) and the pietá (Mary raging at the skies with a hole in her heart); Basterretxea painted frescoes in the crypt, which the Vatican ordered be destroyed. So, yes, a Catholic, Franciscan sanctuary . . . but a radical, mystical one, hyperaware of its own key role in the preservation and permutation of Basque culture and identity.

And it is in this contradictorily pagan, spiritual, political, and modernist context that we find Juan Mari Lekuona (1927–2005), an ordained priest who was a member of the Basque Academy of Letters and the first director of the Basque Society of Authors, and best friends with two key figures of Basque modern thought: the sculptor-philosopher Oteiza and Joxemiel Barandiaran, the linguist-anthropologist who largely designed the standard Basque (euskara batua) in use today. In this cardinal initiation to Basque poetry, Lekuona is North, because of the special role priests have had in the keeping and development of Basque literature, and because his poem, "Hand 3," was born in the years Oteiza was sculpting the frontispiece, the apostles, and the pietá in Arantzazu, and it is born of Lekuona’s conversations with the sculptor-philosopher. I can’t help thinking "Hand 3" is about Oteiza’s hands, and about Oteiza and Lekuona’s conversations, and their attempts to create a new aesthetic-poetic interpretation of the Basque soul.

I mentioned earlier that Arantzazu was also key in the development of the ideology that would produce the ETA. In the context of Franco’s oppressive regime, Catholicism was an instrument of rule and coercion, but, in the Basque Country, it also became a means of hiding in plain sight. With the excuse of bringing the word of God to those unruly Basques, the Franciscans and Jesuits (who created the academic Camelotian equivalent to Arantzazu, the University of Deusto) aligned to shelter and protect the language, and educated a new generation of unapologetically Basque thinkers. Joseba Sarrionandia (1958) was one of them. In this clockwise literary trip, he is East, because he had to leave, and headed East, and in the process became the Morning Star of many politically engaged young Basques, who saw him both as a martyr and a beacon of light. He studied Basque philology at the University of Deusto, where he came across the early ETA ideologues. He became a member, and in 1980 he was sent to prison for twenty-two years for his affiliation with the terrorist band. By then, Sarrionandia was already one of a group of prominent new young Basque authors. Together with Bernardo Atxaga, Jon Juaristi, Ruper Ordorika, and other authors and musicians, they created a magazine, Pott, that brought together new works in Basque, the likes of which no one had ever seen or heard before. They were proponents of modernism and the avant-garde and eager to create new Basque literary territories where none had existed before. In today’s parlance, we understand someone like Sarrionandia as a cultural and political activist; in the burning years of the “transition to democracy,” he was somone to make an example of, the “unlucky one” in that group of like-minded writers. Luckily, in 1985 Sarrionandia made a legendary escape from the Martutene prison, hidden inside one of the speakers of a band who’d come to play a San Fermin concert on July 7, the first day of the famous festival. He has lived in exile since, unable to return to the Basque Country. The life of the exile, the issues of banishment and colonization, therefore, loom large in his works. But he is also a literary translator: one of his first publications was an anthology of his translations of his favorite poems, Izkiriaturik aurkitu ditudan ene poemak (published in 1985, its title translates to “My Poems, Which I Found Already Written"). He is the translator of canonical works by Cavafy, Pessoa, T.S. Eliot, Coleridge, Schwob, and many others into Basque, and this worldliness bleeds into his work. Sarrionandia’s works ooze loss and world-weariness, a deep understanding of history, mythology and human nature, and sing with the defiance and the high moral ground of the honorable loser.

Miren Agur Meabe (1962), our South in this seacrossing, also studied Basque philology with the Jesuits, and is the most widely published and translated Basque female poet. I place her South in my selection because the South is my favorite destination, and I’d like to put all known and unknown female Basque writers there. The history of Basque literature has not reserved much of a place for women (all those priests), but things are beginning to change and Miren Agur Meabe leads the charge with the unashamed femaleness of her writing. She writes from the body, from the certainty of her here and now lived experience, and from the void of female representation in Basque letters—she is also a member of the Basque Academy of Letters (she told me there were no female restrooms in the building when she was made a member in 2006—think about that). She anchors her tradition to that of the universal female writers and poets that preceed her, and writes from a perspective of defiance. Making sure she writes everything a good Basque Catholic girl brought up by nuns and priests should not write, using the most beautiful, lyrical Basque. Writing the female everything that isn’t there in Basque letters. The chain of kitchen and family, the trauma of religion, the rawness of sex, the disappointment of imposed limitations, the words that just aren’t there, or aren’t said: menopause, orgasm, desire. Hers is a woman’s struggle to voice and claim an artistic discourse while writing in a tradition with few literary forebears—none of whom are female. I just finished translating A Glass Eye, her memoir of disappointed love and writing and her own glass eye as metaphors for transcending pain (it’ll be published this summer). When I first heard Miren Agur Meabe had written this book, I was surprised, and scared for her—with that protective instinct of friendship. I’ve known this author for fifteen years, we are friends, we come from similar backgrounds (we’re from neighboring fishing villages, fishermen’s daughters), and in all this time she never told me what happened to her eye. I accepted her glass eye as part of who she was, learned to look into her “good” eye when we spoke, and thought that she would tell me about her “bad” one in her own time. With this book, she tells the world what her eye has taught her, what her glass eye has molded her into, what life looks like through a glass eye. My initial fear, I understand now, emerged from the fact that I had perceived her glass eye as a weakness, a disability, something that made her vulnerable. Instead, I now know that her glass eye is her strength, the golden anchor to her otherness. The compass that leads her to claim new territories in an old tongue.

Harkaitz Cano (1975) is West, then, the spirit of dusk, a writer who famously writes through the night with his eyes firmly on seen and unseen horizons, and who belongs to the first generation of Basque children who were able to go to school and be taught entirely in Basque. He is an avant-garde writer who mixes genres and often works in collaborations with other artists (musicians, painters, chefs—including his brilliant culinary-literary-musical experiment with Mugaritz’s iconic chef Andoni Aduriz, BSO). Cano’s works are hard to classify. His slim novel Blade of Light imagines Hitler won World War II and conquered Manhattan, which he rules from a golden tower (ahem). Hitler’s archenemies and the greatest threat to his newly imposed world order are Charlie Chaplin, whom he’s kidnapped and beaten half to death (he escapes), and Hollywood. I’ll confess that in these last few months the prescience of that little book I translated in the hallowed rooms of New York Public Library in the summer of 2010 has haunted me: it’s a great ode to the power of the word, cinema, and imagination in the face of fascism. Another main character in Blade of Light is a dispossessed French stevedore who, after loading the Statue of Liberty into the ship, hides inside the head in her journey from France to NY to make a new life for himself in the new world. Really, everyone in the US needs to read Blade of Light. It’s not a book about the Basques, but only a Basque could have written it. Twist, however, Cano’s latest novel, forthcoming in English translation [in October), is definitely a book about the Basques. A novel about a very famous case, the Lasa and Zabala case: two very young members of ETA (affiliated with the band but without blood crimes on them), were “disappeared” by a paramilitary group organized by the Spanish government to fight against ETA. Lasa and Zabala’s bodies resurfaced ten years after their disappearance, and the legal process that ensued unraveled a network of police corruption and political complicity in the assassination of Basques that brought down large sections of the Spanish political apparatus that existed to support the government-sanctioned GAL paramilitary group. For obvious reasons, all the names of the real-life characters in this story have been changed in Twist, but the events are there in all their gory detail. Twist is surreal and ironic and deals with hard, hard facts (assassinations, kidnappings, survivor’s guilt, the tangled mess of Basque identity and politics) to weave a dark, gripping, sometimes hallucinatory tale (the bones wake up in their shallow grave) that takes you places you didn’t want to go to. And yet, once there, you can’t look away. In fact, you want to stay.

And so, here we are, almost at the end of the journey. Looking West, the sky aflame. Literature and revolution. Bearing witness, torch in hand. In my meandering, Gorri-influenced ways, I’ve led you here. I wanted to give you four characters for this trip, this quick visit: the priest writer, the terrorist-activist writer, the fallen female Catholic rebel writer, the young avant-garde writer who’s written a book (Twist) that contains all of the above characters in it. To explain what cannot be explained but must be explained: the parallel burdens of pride and guilt, of shame and duty, of history and identity; and the joyful, painful mandate of carrying on, regardless, of carrying forward, regardless, of carrying over, regardless, this old language of ours. As far as it will go. Because it’s very much needed still, in this new world.

© 2017 by Amaia Gabantxo. All rights reserved.

Read more from the May 2017 issue

May 2017

from the May 2017 issue

Life with a Tiger

Never mind how it got here.
If the previous tenant left it behind thoughtlessly or on purpose,
if it sneaked in through a window while we weren’t looking,
if, maybe, the neighbor who hates our vinyl collection put it here to fuck us over
or was it maybe the man in the blue overalls
who comes monthly to check
the water, the gas, the electricity meters.

I’ve consulted my favorite thinkers: Wittgenstein, Cioran, Steiner,
but they have no answers.
All I know is there is a tiger in our midst.

Even when days pass without a sighting
we no longer voice the hope that he might be gone,
like we used to,
because we know he’ll return and he does, he does.

A tiger is not a cat, so it’s hard to know
if his lives have run out at last.

Often the mere thought of him out there can make it hard to leave the bed.

The tiger should have awakened our desire to hunt, but… nope.

So many siblings we were yet we aren’t all here now,
but, can we blame the tiger?
There was always a fight just before
each one of them left forever but,
we couldn’t be sure of his guilt,
even though it can be handy sometimes
to have a tiger at home
to pin the blame on.

Late for work, we tell ourselves: it’s all because of the tiger.

Sometimes it’s true, others… not really.

Clocks run slow when you live with a tiger,
it seems so early that, suddenly, you realize, it’s very late.

It’s never as early as you think.

It seems impossible that a tiger, with such paws,
could move the hands of a clock.

It’s a grandiose statement but it’s true: tigers can stop time.

Maybe we didn’t interpret the signs correctly:
the food missing from the fridge, the wardrobes in a mess,
all the torn-up clothes.

You have to be watchful with a tiger in your midst.

He’s not a tiger cub anymore,
although maybe he was younger once.
Did he grow up with us? Was he an adult tiger from the start?
Maybe he isn’t just one tiger? Maybe there are two? Three, you say?
We can never be certain; it’s a mystery.
At home, we never agree,
because we have rarely seen all of him:
sometimes he is only a vague presence behind us,
something that breathes, something that stinks:
he spies on us when we party,
he scrutinizes our dreams,
he’s jealous of our laughter,
our tears intrigue him, he wonders what causes them.
We turn our heads to just catch a glimpse of his tail                                                            all velvety sneaking away.

Paw prints on the carpet,
wild roars,
creaking wooden floors,
little trails, practically invisible,
signs that he’s still there.

I hear the experts on the radio:
the tiger this, the tiger that, the tiger blah blah blah…
And I tell myself: “You wouldn’t say that
if you had a tiger at home.”

We taught our youngest to walk very soon
because we worried the tiger wouldn’t take kindly to
seeing someone else
walk on all fours.

Hardly anyone comes to visit when you live with a tiger.

Often we forget that we have a tiger with us,
we forget him for days until, damn,
he is suddenly right there
one thoroughly uneventful day:
let’s say a Wednesday, let’s say in the Fall,
let’s say on our way back from work,
tired, whistling.

Some tigers are noble, you say?

Tigers are tigers. I’d hesitate to say much else.

This isn’t government housing but we shelter a tiger here all the same.

We’ve thought about it: sell the house, say nothing to the buyer,
open all doors, wait for him to leave,
open all faucets, get the hell out.
All possibilities have crossed our minds but, you know what, in the end,
we just got used to living with this tiger.

Can love for a tiger happen, and then grow?
It can happen and it can grow, but a tiger is a tiger,
he’ll never lose his stripes.

Is he male or female? Is he fifty years old?
Fifteen? Seventy-two? Five hundred?
After dinner, while we munch on the few walnuts he didn’t eat,
we ponder the tiger’s age, quietly:
Has he aged at all? Did he get softer, or sharper instead?
Could it all be a lie?
Could he, maybe, be a devil wearing
a tiger’s mask?

I would like to write clearly and concisely on the tiger’s oblique stripes.
I look at people in the street and dare not ask:
Do you live with a tiger? Tell me the truth: doesn’t everyone?
Isn’t Gash the name of the nation we all live in?
Isn’t it true, what they say, that all men and women are alike?

I live with a tiger and, honestly,
I don’t know
how
I’d make sense of life
without one now.

 

"tigre batekin bizi" © Harkaitz Cano. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Amaia Abantxo. All rights reserved.

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