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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the July 2018 issue

After Midnight

Presented here for the first time in English, the cult writer Charles Chahwan—"Lebanon's answer to Charles Bukowski"—tells a tale of rival militiamen euphoric with violence.
 

Under the gentle afternoon sunlight, Serge’s body appeared limp and more slouched than usual as he rested against the back seat of the shared taxi, a Morris Princess. He was the sole passenger in the service as it made its way down the coastal highway, as if other potential passengers had unconsciously decided to leave him be, perhaps so he could burrow deeper into his solitude. The light streaming in generously through the window descended on top of his broad winter jacket and baggy trousers. That very light shaded a portion of his face and his crooked hand behind the smoke of a half-lit cigarette. His face was covered in deep creases that surrounded his two small, gloomy eyes. He was a young man, not yet thirty, but with the features of an old man. Everything about him—his face, his eyes, his hands, his clothes—seemed worn out, as if whatever was inside him was remote and forgotten long ago. It never occurred to him that the pain he suffered from at night or when he woke up feeling weak was caused by some chronic illness. My body has nothing to do with all that is happening, he would tell himself, the two things are unrelated. The body has no capacity to remember pain. Everything ailing me is rooted within myself. This thought always settled it for him.

Serge bit down on the end of his cigarette and tried to recall what the place he was headed to looked like. What he could summon were scant and hazy details. He fidgeted in his seat, and pulled a large black wallet from his jacket pocket, fishing out a flimsy, cropped photograph. He peered at the photograph for a moment, then took a pair of prescription eyeglasses from his other jacket pocket. He put on the glasses and peered again at the picture like someone gazing and trying to make out a figure far away. In the picture, he could see himself and his friend Francis, scrawny and laughing. They looked like a pair of mummies in the flesh—his friend Francis with his black hair and he with his long wavy hair. They were standing facing the camera with their hands on the balcony railing of Francis's apartment with its view to the harbor. The deep red and blue colors and their smiles re-ignited the spark of a lost simplicity within him, and he could picture once again the same image replicated in other disfigured photographs. He put the picture back in his wallet and peered into the area visible through the front windshield. In the opposite direction, the sun descending below the water created a radiant glimmer that mainly reminded him of the smell of fruit. The taxi turned off the highway and entered the harbor area, continuing its journey toward the shore. He murmured something to the driver to alert him where to let him off. Having lived there for a long time, he knew the area by heart. The taxi stopped at an intersection right next to an old textile factory and he got off. When he stood alone in front of the different roads branching out, he felt a tremendous, incomprehensible sense of warmth. He felt a desire to revisit and reconnect with many places he recognized. This feeling was all he needed before arriving at the house of his friend Francis. He knew full well that all he had to do was to free his emotions and open the door to anything that could put him on a different plane of consciousness. At that moment, what he felt was not that he was reliving old memories but rather as though he were a zombie. He was certain this was the explanation. When he looked out at the small square near Francis’s building, everything he saw appeared to be just as he’d known it. This feeling gave him great reassurance, so he continued moving forward with his head down; there was no need to look, this place was more real inside his head than it was in front of his eyes.

Francis lived on the third floor above the shop of al-Beiruti, the ice cream vendor. Serge had also lived in the same apartment, no. 14, for a long time. He slowly climbed the dirty stairs, stopping now and then in front of the open-air window in the wall facing the staircase to look at the buildings in the near vicinity. Opposite the building there was a small amusement park with its colorful steel rides and a giant elevated Ferris wheel adjacent to a large brick building. He reached the apartment and twice knocked weakly on the door, then looked again to confirm. Yes, this was it—no. 14. He knocked again, this time with more force. When the door suddenly opened, Serge was leaning on the adjoining wall. He gazed straight into Francis’s eyes for more than a minute, without either of them uttering a word.

They were like a pair of pouncing wolves as they embraced. They kept holding each other while shouting each other’s names. When they finally let go of each other, their gazes glowed with tenderness. Francis was the same age as Serge, but his facial features were quite different. He was tall and dark-skinned with pitch-black eyes, and although the rest of his body seemed scrawny, he had prominent, bulging biceps—a young man full of vitality.

At sunset, the two sat down on a couple of straw chairs on the balcony that looked onto the dilapidated swimming pool. They began slowly sipping cups of tea held between their hands, then placing them on the small coffee table between them. They carried on like this for a while. When they had finished their tea, Francis got up and slipped inside. Serge remained on the balcony for quite some time, watching the evening unfold in front of him. When Francis finally came back, he grabbed Serge by the shoulders. Serge wasn’t startled at all, not even bothering to turn around. When it was completely dark, Francis ushered Serge inside, shut the door to the balcony, and they sat inside facing each other. They exchanged words every now and then, but most of the time they grinned broadly each time their eyes met. Later, it began to rain. The rain became unbelievably heavy, to the point that the raindrops obscured most of the balcony’s glass door facing them. It soon became cold and Serge asked Francis to turn on the electric heater. When he did so, Serge took off his shoes and sat on the couch with his legs folded underneath him. Everything was peaceful. The rain did not stop for quite some time and it made strange sounds on the balcony and on the water between the boats docked nearby. When Serge told his friend that he liked these sounds, Francis's response emanated from the kitchen: “They mean nothing to me.” The apartment had no books, just an empty birdcage. Francis appeared at the kitchen door, and then suddenly flung himself onto the cot in the other corner of the living room. Serge looked over at him and saw his face was as calm as could possibly be, just as he noticed a black revolver below Francis’s pillow, and nothing else.

Neither of them felt like sleeping, and the room had become warm, almost hot. Francis started talking about his old car. At some point, Serge got up to turn on the television but then  decided against it. Each one was staring uneasily at the room in a different direction when there was a violent knocking at the door. They glanced at each other; then someone called out Francis’s name. Evidently, Francis recognized the voice. He got up slowly, muttering, “What could this guy want at this hour?” He arrived at the door, and when he opened it, he could not see anyone there (nor could Serge from where he was). Then he heard someone’s voice again call out from the end of the hallway. Annoyed, Francis stepped outside. Before he could see anything or react, bullets riddled his body and sent it flying all over the place as if it were dancing. His body did not land in front of the door; the bullets were like tremendous punches driving it farther and farther away.

Serge watched it all unfold but could not seem to hear anything. Then he suddenly started hearing everything and got as close to the door as he possibly could. The bullets coming out of the barrel of the machine gun flashed like lightning, emitting a thunderous, painful din. The gunshots ceased. He heard men jostling as they all bounded down the stairs. He could also hear them cursing filthily. He took a deep breath and picked up the revolver—the first time he’d ever held one in his hand. He felt certain he was breathing not air but hatred.

The rain outside had stopped. Serge threw on his loose-fitting overcoat and grabbed the revolver from the bed. The overcoat flapped from side to side as he charged into the hallway. With the revolver in his hand, he looked as if he’d come straight off the cover of an old crime novel. He stopped and knelt beside Francis, who was no longer alive. Serge began stroking his forehead, begging him to say something, to at least wake up. Francis’s eyes were wide open but he did not wake up, nor did he speak. Serge picked him up and held him close to his chest. He held him close to his beating heart, then pressed his face to his own and wept profusely. Then he heard the voices of the same men in the street down below. They were yelling like wild animals. He got up and ran down the staircase to a window on the landing. He took a look at the revolver in his hand, then looked at them below. They hovered around their dark-colored military jeep and appeared exactly like cold-blooded killers. The square around them was damp and glistening from the rain. It did not feel right to him, but he knew hesitating was impossible. He fired a round of shots in the killers’ direction and watched as some of them dropped to the pavement. He could hear their bodies hit the damp ground with a thud. The others returned fire, the bullets whizzing past him. When his revolver had run out of bullets, he retreated. The shots fired near the window continued unabated. In his dazed view, the brick houses across the street seemed crooked. That’s how they should be, he thought. He tossed away the revolver and knelt over Francis’s body to kiss him one last time. He could hear them coming up the stairs, screaming with a terrifying savagery. It seemed there was nowhere to escape but the roof. He started to run toward the stairs, then scurried up them until he reached the roof. The rain had begun again. He felt so frail that his body felt like a flimsy sheet of paper.

When the wind passed through his hair, he could feel it had grown slightly longer, as it was brushing against his shoulders. He stopped for a moment to look at the houses, then turned to look at the sea. He could feel both looking back at him, as if they were meant to do so. Then he suddenly found himself before the sloped brick roof of the neighboring building. Down below, he heard them again firing their guns and screaming like wild animals. Serge realized he was barefoot. It was not going to be possible for him to go back for his shoes. He hurried to the building ledge and in a single move jumped to the sloped roof, sprawling across the brick surface as he landed. When he sensed that he was all right and not in danger of falling, he started to carefully crawl along the edge of the sloped brick roof until he reached the iron ladder that led to the courtyard of the house below. He descended the ladder toward the courtyard and jumped over the fence to the neighboring courtyard. He climbed the ladder up to the neighboring house’s roof and then began jumping from one roof to the next. He looked like a white butterfly in the night flitting above a river of blood. When he reached the roof of the last building on the block, he went down its ladder into the building’s courtyard. While standing there, he could make out the sound of the heavy gunfire, which penetrated deep inside his ears with every shot. At that moment, the rainfall became heavier. His overcoat became wet and the moisture seeped through, soaking his body and chilling him to the bone.

Serge spotted a door on the balcony of one of the higher floors. He had no choice but to climb up to it on the building’s ladder. He climbed over the edge, then stepped closer and grabbed the doorknob. It was unlocked. He pushed the door open and went inside. Dripping wet, he continued until he found himself inside a bedroom. In front of him stood a young woman staring at him in the darkness.

“I beg you,” he said, then said in a hushed voice. “They’re going to kill me.”

There wasn’t another sound in that cold room high above the ground. There was complete silence as they stood facing each other in that cold room high above the street. The woman drew closer and gently caressed his face. “Don’t be afraid,” she reassured him.

He stood there as she locked the door. He said he could not see her well. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he was able to discern her a little better. He repeated that he was still scared. Only when she switched on the dim lamp near her bed could he properly see her face and body. She was remarkably attractive. She drew near again and ran her fingers through his hair as she gazed into his eyes. “You have a beautiful face,” she murmured.

“You need to take your clothes off,” she continued.  “Come here and sit on this chair. I’ll help you.” Serge went and sat down. Her bed seemed comfortable. She helped him remove his clothing, and when he was undressed, she brought a large towel from her wooden closet and wrapped it around his torso. “You’re so skinny,” she remarked as she tightened the towel around him, “but you have a pretty face.” Then she dried his long hair. The weak lightbulb gave off a strange purple light in the dimly lit room, which reflected eerily off her bedsheets.

When she was finished, she took Serge by the arm and led him, still wrapped up in the towel, to her bed. There, she removed the towel and covered him with a warm blanket. The sweet scent of the bedsheets penetrated deeply into his nostrils. His eyes followed her as she walked to the other side of the bed and slipped beneath the sheets until their bodies were touching. She began to run her hands all over his body, which was still cold. When he could feel her warm breath right on his chest, Serge closed his eyes.

© Charles Chahwan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Suneela Mubayi. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July 2018 issue

Philip Price

Gvantsa Jobava

Irakli Kakabadze

Teona Dolenjashvili

Naira Gelashvili

Lela Samniashvili

A Literary Road Trip: The 2018 Litlink Festival in Croatia

Gela Charkviani

Beka Kurkhili

The Watchlist: July 2018

First Read—From “Poso Wells”

Jennifer Swihart on Ingram’s “Be Worldly. Read Lit in Translation” Initiative

The City and the Writer: In Belgrade with Dejan Atanackovic

To Gut the Text like a Cadaver: A Brief History of the Argentine Writing Workshop

Ana Quiroga

Lucas Iberico Lozada

from the July 2018 issue

Through a Glass Brightly: Languages, Politics, and Contemporary Literature from Lebanon

If Lebanon can be said to be a collection of fragments that cohere uneasily, mirroring each other in unexpected ways, Lebanese literature can be called a kaleidoscope. One turn of the wrist this way or the other, and suddenly an entirely new abundance of writers comes into view, a sweeping array of cultures, politics, wars, exiles, religions—and, of course, languages: French, Arabic, even English.

Consider Etel Adnan, now in her nineties, whose 1977 novel Sitt Marie Rose (written in French) was one of the first to describe the devastating Lebanese Civil War that endured for fifteen years between 1975 and 1990. For many, she is the quintessential author and artist of her country—trilingual in her work and in her life. Her background, too, while unusually complicated, is typically full of the layers of nuance that so frequently define the lives of Lebanese. In a recent interview with Bookwitty, she said, shrugging:

People talk a lot about one’s “mother tongue.” Mine was Greek. My mother was from Smyrna; my father was Syrian, but had grown up during the Ottoman Empire; and my parents spoke Turkish together. 

Her father, who was Muslim, attended the military academy in Istanbul with Turkey’s Atatürk; her mother was Catholic.

Politics are the story of our region. At home I lived with two survivors from the shipwreck of the Ottoman Empire. My father was thirty-eight years old, and was an officer when his raison d’être vanished.

(Adnan’s mother, too, was living with loss: the Greek and Armenian neighborhoods of her city, Smyrna, had been utterly destroyed in a fire in 1922.) 

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon came under French Mandate rule until gaining its independence in 1943. Periods of regional and local political instability followed, gaining momentum until the civil war erupted.

Lebanon has played a defining role in Arab literature, and, as the Syrian-born French publisher Farouk Mardam-Bey observes, it has been involved in all of the regional revolutions of the twentieth century. Now in his seventies, he has helped transform the literary landscape in France as the director of the Sindbad imprint of the publishing house Actes Sud, overseeing contemporary Arabic fiction and nonfiction in French translation.

With few exceptions, Mardam-Bey says, Lebanese literature preceding the civil war represented “a friendly place, a land of milk and honey; the Mediterranean …” The war “swept all that away”:

There was a very important evolution in the 1980s and '90s, which, like everywhere else, saw a decline in a politically committed literature. There had been many intellectuals and writers who were politically engaged, but in their writing they became more interested in everyday life. They were no longer afraid to show the most sordid details of daily life, because war reveals these kinds of things.

This civil war generation, as it's called, includes many of Lebanon’s finest contemporary authors, such as Rashid al-Daif, Hanan al-Shaykh, Hoda Barakat and Najwa Barakat, Jabbour Douaihy, and Elias Khoury—all published by Mardam-Bey. He adds that women writers such as al-Shaykh and the two Barakats have authored some of the country’s best books in recent years.

Yasmina Jraissati, who founded the Lebanese literary agency RAYA, affirms that this wartime generation “is still leading the pack.” She, like Mardam-Bey, attributes this dominance to the capacity of that cohort to continuously breathe new life into their work. This issue of Words Without Borders includes an excerpt from Hoda Barakat’s latest novel, Barid al-layl (forthcoming in English as The Night Post), which is built around six letters that are each intercepted by an unrelated person. “It’s extremely modern,” says Jraissati of the novel. “She has a young readership.”

Jabbour Douaihy is also constantly reinventing himself and is in “full bloom,” according to Mardam-Bey. The excerpt in this issue from his novel Charid al-manazel (Chased away) plays with Lebanon’s numerous paradoxes and recounts the story of Nizam, born a Muslim and raised as a Christian.

Of the Lebanese authors writing in Arabic (as do Barakat and Douaihy), another stands out, twenty years younger than the war generation but old enough to have experienced it: Rabee Jaber, a talented, prolific, and reclusive writer (and in addition inaccessible even for professionals such as Mardam-Bey and Jraissati). So far, his impressive literary production in Arabic has met with only a handful of translations into French or English.

Work by the maverick author and poet Charles Chahwan (whom Vice magazine has called “the Arab World’s Answer to Charles Bukowski”) appears in English translation for the first time in this issue as an excerpt from Harb al-shawari‘a (Street wars)—a collection of short stories that was a huge success when it was published in 1991 but is now out of print. The stories depict the lives of rival militiamen during the civil war whose euphoria is driven by violence rather than by political ideology.

But the civil war would have yet another effect on the country’s literature: the actual language in which stories are written. Although Lebanon has always been a country from which people have emigrated, during the civil war forty percent of the total population—which at the time was estimated at around three million—fled the country. Emigrant children were schooled, more often than not, in French or English, which became their main written languages.

In a recent BBC radio documentary, World Book Café: Beirut, various Lebanese authors who write in English gathered at a Beirut bookshop to talk about storytelling. The author Nada Awar Jarrar said she felt that English was more accessible as a language; even if she wished she could express herself as well in Arabic. Some of the writers said they felt freer when writing in English; freer to address subjects such as shame, gender-based violence, or abuse.

The challenge, said Dima Matta, who founded “Cliffhangers,” a public storytelling community in Beirut, is to sound Lebanese in English. Another participant, poet Rewa Zeinati, who founded Sukoon magazine, had remarked in an earlier interview that her primary motivation in developing Sukoon was to help redress what she perceived as an absence of Arab narratives in English. “There weren’t many, or at least enough, platforms out there that sought to publish Arab Anglophone writers; it was mostly Arab literature that was translated into English, or literature by Arab-American writers, which is great, of course, and incredibly important; but what I was missing was what more closely represented me: the Arab story in English, and not only in the American context.”

Hoda Barakat was educated in French but made a conscious decision to write in Arabic and has had a love affair with the language ever since. Arabic was, at first, “a pleasant discovery,” she says, “and afterward it became essential”:

 … As far as the notion of Arabic being a sacred language, for me there is no sacred language; but this was sometimes a discourse held by Francophones who didn’t really know Arabic, and perhaps it wasn’t their fault because they had lived in and learned the French language first, given the colonization. And for others, Arabic was linked to reading and learning the Qur’an. For me, the Qur’an is a book among other books, and I always circle back to reading it because it teaches me Arabic—it helps me to deepen my Arabic language, but it is an exercise in style and doesn’t go beyond that. So there are sacred books, perhaps, but language is not sacred. I use this beautiful language that I continue to admire and discover the way we discover a space, a country, or a landscape, and it never ceases to astonish me.

Lebanon had already played an important role in the revival of the Arabic language since gaining its independence from France, says Mardam-Bey, because of its healthy media industry, which needed a modernized Arabic to write about events that hadn’t been described before in the classical variant of the language. Then there are Lebanese authors who began to write in English while in exile, such as Montreal-based Rawi Hage and the masterful storyteller and San Francisco resident Rabih Alameddine, who chose to write in English because, although he grew up in Lebanon, he was taught “mediocre Arabic.”

Of course, there are authors who write in French. Charif Majdalani’s work was finally translated into English last year, to acclaim, by Edward Gauvin (translator in this issue of Lamia Ziadé’s excerpt from Ô nuit, ô mes yeux): his novel Moving the Palace is now available to English-language readers, though he has long been widely read in France and Lebanon. Majdalani’s relationship to French is similar to that often described by African and North African authors, for whom it no longer belongs just to France: “I don’t write in French,” he says, “I write in my own French. I take the French language and I do what I like with it.”

Sabyl Ghoussoub is a young Lebanese writer who grew up in France. His first novel, written in French and from which we have published an excerpt, is called Le Nez Juif (The Jewish nose). Though Ghoussoub writes in a delightfully irreverent comic style, he is actually examining serious subjects: how his physical attributes provoke simplistic racism or how the Lebanese view their bellicose neighbor to the south and the danger of conflating “Israelis” with “Jews.” But it is also an examination of his search for identity in a world of exile and prejudice.

The artist and author Lamia Ziadé lives in Paris and also writes in French—but she spent her entire childhood in Lebanon during the civil war. After fifteen years working on subjects that were unrelated to the Middle East, she says that now it’s her only subject. Her art and her writing are historical and nostalgic, requiring meticulous research and stemming from a personal need to document a world that has all but disappeared. The excerpt in this issue is from Ô nuit, ô mes yeux (O night, o my eyes), an illustrated novel that describes the history of Lebanese and Egyptian divas throughout the tumultuous mid–twentieth century. 

Finally, we feature work by the writer and illustrator Lena Merhej, whose comics appear in Arabic, French, and English. Merhej is one of the founders of the nonprofit collective Samandal, dedicated to the art of comics. At its founding twelve years ago, its members felt that comics were marginalized in the Middle East, and so they created a platform to tell the region's stories in that medium. Merhej and her colleagues were at the forefront of a movement that went on to inspire other comics collectives in the Arab world, which explore issues such as homosexuality, homophobia, sexual harassment, feminism, poverty, and everyday struggles. She also represents what Yasmina Jraissati believes is a tendency, among the new generation of Lebanese in creative fields, to tell stories via graphic novels, illustration, music, and cinema, thus allowing more flexibility for mixing languages.

Jraissati feels that Lebanon’s younger generation is underrepresented among the literary submissions she receives: she is “still waiting to read the new, emerging generation.” The civil war is no longer the central topic, and she is interested in how younger Lebanese writers see their country. “We have always had an identity crisis, and then the war gave Lebanese literature substance and a certain meaning. But now …”

Farouk Mardam-Bey says his readers are “a little tired of all these war stories.” He, too, is looking for “a new tone,” and has found it in Egypt for now; but he is also waiting for young Lebanese authors to surface.

We are confident they will emerge, and in this issue of Words Without Borders we're pleased to present some evidence of the younger Lebanese sensibility alongside that of their self-renewing elders. We hope that translators, publishers, and readers will continue to seek out the work of still other writers as it comes to light. 

© 2018 by Olivia Snaije and Mitchell Albert. All rights reserved.  

Read more from the July 2018 issue
from the July 2018 issue

Standing on Ashes: Three Punjabi Poets on Aging

Time never forsakes memories. It just preserves them in quieter pastures. While preserving a culture through literature, the familiarity of daily life sometimes gets forgotten. Capitulating to changes around us, we change our creations. We are afraid of perceived mistakes and consequences, since life’s trials and errors present frequent dilemmas along the way. And as we become exhausted in our journey, we tend to become seekers—seeking the very nature of the energy that makes us, sustains us, and breaks us. The poets from the region of Punjab in India refuse to succumb under political suppression, but this hasn't incited them to pen confrontational and vengeful pieces. Instead they have preserved the seeker in them over centuries of not fearing probable predicaments in their quest to experiment with their literature. Treating conflict with restoration has enabled Punjabi poetry to survive years of it. Ruin has been a metaphor for rise, and hope never feels like a stranger in their poems.

Almost a thousand years old, Punjabi poetry stands on ashes, reinforced by a blend of spirituality and dissent. Life-friendly and full of natural resources, the terrain of India attracted expansionist rulers from around the world. Located in northwestern India, the state of Punjab has been subjected to numerous attacks, primarily by Muslim invaders for whom it was the principal entry point into India. The repeated conquest of the region resulted in disintegration of the sociopolitical and cultural scene in this part of India, and the reaction was literary dissent and the emergence of Punjabi poetry. Saints and Sufis used it against the invading rulers, while the masses used it to challenge the influence of Arabic and Persian, languages that were imposed upon them. Guru Nanak's Babarvani tells of Babur's conquests of India through four hymns. Nanak was a witness to the attacks by Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. His poems depict the atrocities inflicted by the army on the conquered population. From the forebears of Punjabi poetry—Baba Farid to the last Sikh Guru—Guru Gobind Singh—and from Bhai Vir Singh during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839) to Amrita Pritam, Punjabi poetry has traveled far and wide, through wars, spiritualism, experimentation and  frequent political upheavals. From the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, its influence extended even to Sufi poets like Bulle Shah and Ali Haidar. While Shah became prominent for his Kafis, short poems of about six stanzas, Ali Haidar was known for his Si-harfis—poems of thirty stanzas. The Muslim Punjabi poets wrote in Shahmukhi script, while the Hindu poets wrote in Hindi script. Though many Punjabi poets came under the sway of Persian and Urdu, the language stands strong, and of late translations of Punjabi poets have enabled us to re-explore and reexamine this region of India.

This issue features three veteran Punjabi poets still working today: Amarjit Chandan (1946), Ajmer Rode (1940), and Navtej Bharati (1938); each of their literary careers lasted four decades. They allow us to explore yet another aspect of Punjabi poetry: the metaphysical treatment of age, memories, and nostalgia. All three of them make us taste the burden of age as experience—clinging to elements and words that allow us to explore its intimacy through fissures in the body of time. Led by their past as we all are, these poets are sensitive to emotion, and their verses mend the wounds of the past, like time assuaging the heartbreak of mothers who have lost sons. They preserve the memory of bygone days in the layers of their intellect and perceptions.

Before moving to England, where he now lives, in the 1980s, Amarjit Chandan worked at Punjabi dailies, was the editor of an official Maoist publication, Lokyudh, and lived two years in imprisonment due to his Maoist activities in his youth. Chandan received a lifetime achievement award from the Punjab government in 2004. With his salvo of lyricism, Chandan pushes us to the depths of life, taking us on a tour through clocks, books, and bowls, projecting them as elements of remembrance. He tells us of a past reflected through inanimate objects. He pours nostalgia into everyday objects like a metal bowl and makes us hear voices of memories through it, and allows us to reflect upon the worth of living thus far. The poet meditates through his poems—upholding the significance of the unforgettable in his life through an indigenous astrological tradition in which the donor looks at his or her reflection in the mustard oil contained in the reflection vessel called chhayapatra before dropping a coin into it to counter the effect of malefic planets. Amarjit's poem "Chhanna, the Metal Bowl" offers an intimate shade to readers from the hard sun of forgetfulness.

Ajmer Rode's responsiveness to his muse and his poetic narration explore sundry subjects from daily life. Rode's first collection of poems, Surti, was published in 1979 and is considered a forerunner to Punjabi postmodern poetry. All throughout his poems, Rode measures the distance of his philosophy with themes that walk around us with a hush. The poet rides on practicality and daily objects in a thoughtful expedition of life​—digging deep inside a brooding mind. His poem “Mustard Flowers” is a cavernous contemplation on one's declining years and agelessness.​ ​The poet has an interesting take on taming agony in the second stanza of the poem,​ and implicitly acknowledges the postmodern philosophy—everyone is a slave of his own perspective. One of his poems, “Stroll in a Particle,” can be seen inscribed in bronze on a public wall outside the new office complex of Bill and Melinda Gates in downtown Seattle. ​He adroitly employs surprise at the end of his poems, hanging the conclusive lines in the space of ambiguity so that various ideas and feelings occur simultaneously.

Navtej Bharati​ ​does not shy away from exploring the pain​ ​of aging,​ ​and​ ​opens the envelope​ ​of​ ​dullness toward the end of life in his poem “While I Slept.” Words like rocks speckled with resolve populate his poems, and the poet delicately projects a narrative to declare age a myth. Bharati summons nature as a protector against the dark will of time. Elements of the natural world such as grass and drops of water are presented as possible evaders of time. His poem suggests that the end will certainly come but the exact time of its arrival is not certain. Many of his poems can be found in the book Leela, coauthored with Ajmer Rode, which is considered one of the most​ ​​​formidable​ ​works of twentieth-century Punjabi poetry.​ ​The Anᾱd Foundation jury of scholars​ ​stated that "​Leela remains unparalleled in the history of Punjabi literature for its courage to explore and experiment with poetic word, cultural memory, and our day-to-day existential struggle​."​ 

These poets never allow anyone or anything to ​​rob ​them of their​ ​personal identity. The conspiracy of time remains as an ​​allegory​ ​in their creations and speaks much about contemporary Punjabi poetry—​that often goes beyond mere word​-​play, to a place where imagining, nostalgia, and wisdom coincide. They do not​ ​interpret dreams​, ​but explore paths of​ ​dreaming. Compassion, tenderness, and a strange silence prevailing in their poetry lift us from our inner dilemmas to a more peaceful world. Their language​ ​is generous,​ ​rich​ ​in simplicity, and they are vigilant about the interplay of light and shade in life.​ ​The poems presented here are​ ​a subtle outburst, a​ ​powerful tribute to the past, a forgotten melancholy, and the will to restore the past and the melancholy. The​ ​eloquent mysticism​ ​through​ ​their​ ​thought-provoking gaze​ ​extends beyond the boundaries of the current combative world.

© 2018 by Sonnet Mondal. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July 2018 issue
from the July 2018 issue

The Night Post

Translator’s Note: Hoda Barakat’s slim novel The Night Post is composed of the texts of six letters interrupted midway through by short, fragmentary pieces of narrative prose. The following excerpt is taken from the beginning of the third letter. A young man, apparently pursued by the authorities, is at the airport when he sees a woman rip up and throw away a sheaf of papers (the novel’s second letter). He reassembles the torn pages and, prompted by their content, decides to write his own letter, to his mother—an equivocal missive of reconciliation and blame that unfolds into a desperate confession.  

My darling mother,

I write to you from the airport before they can take me, before I go through the security barrier. They’re worried about terrorism, you see. Watching the slightest movement. Soon as you’re through the main entrance they’re there, everywhere, patrolling about in civilian clothes.

It’s under control, though. I’m going to act like someone come to meet a passenger. I’ve no bag, and my shirt’s unbuttoned so they can see I’m not strapped with a bomb.

 

Darling mother,

I don’t know if this letter will reach you. That is: I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to stay here. How much time I have, that’s what I don’t know. I’ve bought myself a newspaper so I can pretend I’m reading, checking my watch repeatedly all the while, then over to the illuminated boards that display the landing times, and back to my seat again. Anyone watching me is going to think that the plane carrying my visitor is late, and they’ll leave me be.

Not much here for me to do, here on this threshold, people stepping quickly past me, in and out, and no one lingering for long. They come to wave good-bye, then they leave. They check their watches against arrival times and, even as they spot their passenger in the distance, they’re heading for the exits. They don’t linger. I can entertain myself for a bit watching people, all the shapes and sorts: the ways they bid goodbye to family or loved ones, each according to color, or origin, or creed. On appearance alone I can tell what they’re going to do. This woman, I tell myself, is Sudanese. She’ll cry when her son, the scowling young man at her side, leaves her standing and goes to the gates. And this plump blonde, fretting and rocking on her heels, never still, will leap for joy into the arms of the one she’s come for.

Not that I’m writing to you just to seem busy. No: I want to let you know what happened to me before you hear it from someone else. You won’t believe me, mother; you never do. Not never, perhaps, but in any case you’re all I have. You won’t be able to defend me, I know that. No one can defend me. But if I write to you you’ll know at least how dear you are to me and that I think of you when things are hard. This is the weakest kind of faith, perhaps. It is, perhaps, the only way I have of apologizing. Even if you won’t show me kindness in return, as you never did. From the time they first took me from the house you never showed me kindness. I told you, before they took me out, beating me as they went, that it was just a hashish case, that there was no need for you to worry. You didn’t believe me. You didn’t believe me, and you spat in my face. Maybe you wanted to make them see that I was a decent boy, that his people had raised him right and spat in his face because they were good citizens who took soldiers at their word. So I’m telling you now: I’m not angry at that gobbet of phlegm. You spitting in my face is the most beautiful memory I have, since what happened to me afterward, well . . .  You can’t imagine what I went through.

I should have listened to you. I should have hung my head and always done as I was told. I can’t tell now if Father’s repeated beatings with a leather belt or stick benefited me or if, to the contrary, they built up a kind of rage inside me. Not just rage. A persistent humiliation for which, to this day, I see no justification. To this day, my body aches from his blows. I was young, you see, and innocent. Never once did anything to deserve it. And he always beat me in front of others. Would drag me outside to show people that he was beating me, that he was raising his son right. That, sure, he might be poor, but that he was a decent man and took care of his family.

The time for blame is past. Even for blaming you. You never protected me from him once, did you? Why not? I know: because he would beat you, too; because it would only make him angrier. I know. But many a mother would stand up to the father, would hunch over the children to ward him off, and the blows would land on her. Except you. You’d wash the blood from my head and murmur, He’s right, you know, he’s right. He wants you to become a man, a man of principle. To be proud of you.

My father beat me by choice and with conviction, as though he was preparing me for all the beatings that lay ahead. God alive. And with time he really did manage to toughen my skin and bones against assault, to lessen my sense of pain. I could steel my nerves against the agony of the coming blow. I learned the importance of preparing for pain when I started going to the gym. The gym! We called it the gym but there was nothing gymlike about it: just the sack of dirt we’d launch into with half-wrapped fists. We’d wrap them with the inner tubes of tires that the coach would bring in and cut up into strips. Boxing, too, was in order to raise us right, to drive destructive thoughts from our heads, to dispel images of women’s bodies from our minds—obscene images that made us masturbate, made us practice the filthy habit which, if it didn’t do away with our sight altogether, might drain the strength from our muscles and sap the energy we needed to fight. Might kill our faith in higher ideals.

Why am I revisiting all this? Because I’ve so much time on my hands here and I don’t know what to do with myself. And because it occurred to me to write: you haven’t seen me for years, have heard nothing about me from the time I went out—was taken out—of the house that first time, and then the time after that, when I came back to stay and didn’t stay.

I should say that the idea of writing this letter was prompted by a woman.

She was just here. Middle-aged or maybe slightly older. She stopped just here beside the big plastic bin. I was people-watching and her confusion caught my eye. She looked around and then sat down. Pulled some folded pages from her handbag, opened them and began to read, and then, for about half an hour, she sat there staring into space. Then she ripped them up, tossed them into the bin, and walked quickly inside toward the departure gates.

I waited a moment and slid my newspaper into that same bin. A simple matter to trap the pages she’d thrown away with the same hand that held the paper. As though I’d changed my mind. I mean, you see, in case anyone was watching me. I didn’t hang around. Went to stand over at the arrivals board for an age. Techniques I’d studied closely at one time. Sooner or later everything finds its use.

And then I was startled to see the same woman back at the bin, hunting for the papers she'd tossed, and she looked so wretched when she saw they were gone that my desire to know what was in them only grew. Wretched—and extremely confused, because the cleaners the woman was now swiveling her head in search of had not changed the bins and the bags were full of rubbish.

The point. The point is that these pages—which she tore cleanly in two with a single rip; they weren’t hard to reassemble—contain nothing really important. To sum up: a woman waiting for a lover (or an old flame?) and disappointed because he didn’t show. But, in a moment of inspiration, I decided to keep the letter. Because she says she’s going to go after another man, in Paris, and track him down, but then she went to the wrong terminal: none of the airlines in that part of the airport fly to Paris. Odd. And then if there was nothing underhanded going on, why did she come back to look for the letter? This woman, who said (I mean, wrote) that she could never go back to her own country. From what she says I get the impression that this country might be Lebanon. And there’s something else. Another big secret. None of the gates in the terminal she went to have flights to Beirut. I checked this by reading and rereading the arrival and departure boards. So, I decided to use this letter to my advantage if they should track me down and find me here.

But enough of that. I want to tell you now that I’ve missed you, Mother, despite everything. It’s been a long, long time since we last laid eyes on one another, so long that I doubt you’d know me if you saw me. I have changed a great deal. My appearance has changed. I’ve become thin. Teeth have fallen out. A bald spot sits atop my head. You will say that I deserve all this. You’ll reject me, because I’ve become a child of the devil. And you’d be right. After all I’ve seen and done, is there any point in my asking you for forgiveness? I know you won’t forgive me. I know I’ve no hope of that. But at the very least, if this letter reaches you, you’ll know I’m still alive. And amid reports of the dead that batter down on us from the radio like stones from heaven, I stay hopeful that you are still alive, that you got away in time. By land or by sea.

So: I write my letter with no idea where to send it. With luck, I’ll be able to bring it with me and come and look for you, and if I find you I will place it in your hands and leave. To speak would be so hard, too hard, and harder still if I were to tell you my story, as they say. And if fate wills it that I must pay the price for what my hands have done, then it will be you who decides: forgiveness or punishment. You who’ll be my angel or my executioner. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or erasure but compassion for a son gone astray, who cannot understand how the rough wind came to knock him off course and make him what he is.

Darling mother: I am changed so much. Changed from the son you knew. I’m sick. Sick in body and sick in soul and no hope now of being cured. My only wish is to escape so that I do not die in prison. I dream of escaping to die in the open air; like a candle, flickering and dying on the wick out there in God’s wide world. Then the devil can claim my soul, my sick soul, and do with it what he will. 

From Barid al layl. © 2017 by Hoda Barakat. By arrangement with the Raya Agency. Translation © 2018 by Robin Moger. All rights reserved.

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from the July 2018 issue

While I Slept

Indian poet Navtej Bharati rejects aging in his defiant poem.
 

Time aged me
while I slept
I will not forgive it
for this treachery

I will not accept this old age
grafted slyly on my body
I will hide in the
leaves of grass
in the drops of water.
Will slip away
from its wrinkled hands.
 

Original text and translation © Navtej Bharati. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July 2018 issue
from the July 2018 issue

Mustard Flowers

An elderly man sees past traffic stops and car horns to something deeper from his morning perch in this poem from Ajmer Rode.


If you see an old man sitting alone
at the bus stop and wonder who he is
I can tell you.
He is my father.
He is not waiting for a bus or a friend
nor is he taking a brief rest before
resuming his walk.
He doesn't intend to shop in the
nearby stores either
he is just sitting there on the bench.

Occasionally he smiles and talks.
No one listens.
Nobody is interested.
And he doesn't seem to care
if someone listens or not.

A stream of cars, buses, and people
flows on the road.
A river of images, metaphors, and
similes flows through his head.
When everything stops
at the traffic lights it is midnight
back in his village. Morning starts
when lights turn green.
When someone honks
his neighbor's dog barks.

When a yellow car passes by
a thousand mustard flowers
bloom in his head.
 

Original text and translation © Ajmer Rode. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

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from the July 2018 issue

“Chhanna,” the Metal Bowl

Contemplating a family heirloom, a ruminative Amarjit Chandan finds the past staring back at him.
 

Clocks books and keepsakes
never tell what the time now is
inside them the clock strikes 11 after 1 
before 1 there’s zero

the flat-bottom metal bowl
balanced on the mantelpiece roils
letting out sounds as if
slipping out of hand a filled cup
has just emptied itself
or as if at midnight a cat
is raking darkness in a kitchen corner
or as if quaffing her thirst Mother
has just set the bowl down

this bowl is older than i
it is filled with memories
like salt dissolved in yogurt milk
Father licks his greased mustache
Mother giggles at something she recalls
from times long past

the cracked bowl is her only heirloom
the chhayapatra hovering in a nook
always holds my mother in the folds
of remembrance
 

The Sanskrit word chhanna is both a noun meaning a bronze bowl with its rim inclined inward and an adjective meaning  hidden, mysterious, secret. According to Indian astrology, a chhanna is used for chhayadan, a practice—believed to negate the debilitating influences of malefic planets—in which the donor looks at his or her reflection in the mustard oil contained in an alms vessel before dropping a coin into it. That is why the vessel is also called chhayapatra, meaning, literally, "reflection vessel."
 

© Amarjit Chandan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Sarabjeet Garcha. All rights reserved.

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from the July 2018 issue

Checkpoint

At an armed checkpoint, sectarian tensions come to bear on one man's suspect identity in this excerpt from Jabbour Douaihy's novel Chased Away​.

Nizam went with Olga to Jounieh Saturday morning in her red and white Mini Cooper. She’d barely finished introducing him when her mother launched her assault.

“You just can’t get your fill of handsome young men, can you, Olga?” she shouted, having grown very hard of hearing. 

Olga responded full force despite her mother’s age.

“Like mother like daughter!”

Olga could see that her mother was in good health. She’d claimed she was dying so Olga would come see her. She preferred not to stay overnight at her mother’s because they would spend the time quarreling over every little thing.

Her mother invited them to stay for lunch but apologized for having to leave for an hour to go to Mass.

They decided not to wait for her and headed back to Beirut. The streets at that time of morning were jam-packed with pedestrians and cars, so Nizam signaled for her to take the coastal road toward the port. That’s when they suddenly found themselves stuck at a makeshift checkpoint.

Up to that time, Nizam had never shown his ID to anyone, except the police sergeant who’d barged in on them at the apartment in al-Manara. Touma had procured the ID for him from the Sérail in Tripoli. Touma was always telling the story, in front of his friends, claiming it was the Civil Registry Officer who entered all the personal data information into the application, based on what Touma told him in Nizam’s absence, but Nizam's ID didn’t reflect what he’d said. Touma also tried to get the employee to leave the part about religious affiliation blank, but he insisted on following the rules. And so Touma resorted to erasing the phrase “Sunni Muslim,” which the registrar had entered under “Religion,” himself. Nizam remembered seeing the phrase on his ID at one time, but then noticed it was gone, with some evidence of tearing where the paper had been rubbed with an eraser. Nizam had passed through numerous armed checkpoints before, and every time it was the same. The soldier or policeman or armed militia man who was in charge of checking the IDs of all the car passengers, waiting for him to signal and peer through the window at each one’s face, would get to Nizam, take a quick glance, and look away. Generally speaking, the guards at checkpoints were comfortable with Nizam’s appearance. None of them ever asked to see his ID.

The gunman who now had his ID wasn’t looking at people’s faces. He was looking all about, preoccupied and nervous about what was going on around him, worried there might be some threat to his own safety. No actual checkpoint had been set up. Gunmen appeared from side streets or nearby buildings and pounced on the cars. Just like that, the place was suddenly swarming with them. They were dressed in civilian clothes with belts of ammunition strapped around their waists, some with hand grenades or revolvers, too, in addition to automatic rifles. They spread out. Some performed patrol while others pounded on cars signaling the drivers to stop.

 “IDs. Quickly!” the gunman shouted at the passengers, without looking at them.

The young man who’d given them the order was agitated, flustered, afraid. He frightened them. Olga winked at Nizam and handed the young gunman her ID. He glanced at it, then leaned in to get a good look at its owner. The car was low to the ground, and he was tall. It was hot, and Olga was wearing a lightweight dress that showed her shoulders and a bit of her back and chest. His stare lingered. Then he glanced over at Nizam. He liked Olga. All men liked Olga.

Nizam felt that older men did not see him as a barrier when they were hitting on Olga. He appeared small and nice and was most likely a relative, worst-case scenario. He did not provide her with sufficient protection in the face of those with sudden desires. Their hungry eyes gobbled her up while flitting past him in contrast, merely to ascertain what his relation to her might be.

Cars were lining up behind them. He returned her ID, bidding her farewell with a piercing stare. He was about to wave her along when he remembered Nizam.

“You. Give me your ID.”

He started looking around again, troubled. He was quick to lose his patience.

Nizam heard the first round of gunfire from somewhere nearby. A gray-haired man in the car that was stopped behind them stepped out of his car. The gunman yelled at him to stop and get back in his car. The man obeyed. 

Nizam could see that the armed man was Christian by the cross dangling from the gunman’s neck as he inspected IDs. He was holding Nizam’s ID and still hadn’t taken a look at it, due to his preoccupation with the situation developing around him in the street. Nizam reached out to take it back. Only then did the gunman lean in to take a look at him. As usual, he did not find anything in Nizam’s appearance to cause concern. He had the ID in his hand but wasn’t reading it, as if he’d really been taken by Olga and didn’t want to let them go in that sea of cars and was searching for some pretext to keep them there. They heard some more gunfire from behind the customs building. The popping sound of the exploding ammunition was somewhat muffled: bullets hitting their target, not fired into the air. Dozens of cars were backed up in line, waiting for the gunmen’s decisions. No one dared speak or get out of the car as the gunmen hopped between the cars, barking out orders, and calling to each other by their first names, more like neighborhood buddies than members of a political party.

Rather than reading the ID, the gunman asked Nizam for his name. His eyes were darting about incessantly. The name Nizam didn’t faze him. Just as he was reaching to hand back the ID and reluctantly let them go, he caught sight of Nizam’s father’s name on the ID.

“Mahmoud!” he suddenly shouted, as if finding what he’d been searching for. “Get out!”

Olga said his name was Nizam, not Mahmoud. He looked at the ID to check and then ordered him again to get out of the car. Nizam got out, and the gunman signaled for Olga to move along. Flustered, she tried to shift the gears, but the motor stalled. He shouted at her to get going. The sound of gunfire in the nearby streets was accompanied by distant shouting, like someone pleading or protesting. Traffic was jammed, so one of them fired his machine gun into the air while his buddies screamed at drivers to get moving. The gunfire subsided. The gunman who ordered Nizam to get out of the car spoke to one of his buddies.

“George. Take him . . .”

George was holding some black cloth sacks. He quickly put one over Nizam’s head and started nudging him along with his hand. Most likely he was taking him to where the voices and sounds of gunfire were coming from. George was a gigantic, heavy-set man with a beard but not one of the killers. His job was to hand people over to his comrades hiding behind the building.

He ordered Nizam to walk. Nizam wasn’t sure where to step on that crumbling sidewalk. He could hear Olga’s voice in the distance, from where she’d driven ahead. She was saying that he wasn’t a Muslim and he was innocent. She added in Nizam’s direction that she was waiting for him up the road a little way and asked him not to be afraid. She was forced to move forward quickly beneath a flood of shouting from the gunmen. Nizam held his composure and kept silent for a few stumbling steps, the bag over his head having turned him into a blind man. They were getting closer to the customs building. His escort had his hands on his shoulders, guiding him in the right direction. As long as Olga was driving parallel to them and he could hear her telling him not to be afraid, that they would let him go, he felt he was still hanging on. But when one of the gunmen yelled at Olga to shut up and drive away, and they nearly reached the source of the gunfire, Nizam broke down.

He came to a complete stop, unable to move his feet forward any longer. George called out to him. Nizam reached in his direction, searching for him, groping from his darkness. He suddenly blurted to George that he was Maronite. A Christian, like him. He pleaded for him to believe him. True, he’d been born a Muslim, but his grandmother on his mother’s side was a Christian from Syria and he had become a Christian. Nizam was speaking loudly enough for his escort to hear. He tried to remove the bag from his face, but the gunman prevented him. He was speaking quickly and nervously. True his father was called Mahmoud, but he didn’t grow up with him or any of his father’s family. They never asked about him, and he never asked about them.

The gunman grabbed him and firmly pushed him forward, forcing him to keep walking. Nizam took one or two steps with a great deal of difficulty. He remembered his ID and begged him to look at it to see there was no religion listed on it. The gunman took the card, looked at it quickly, and put it in his pocket. The sounds of machine guns firing increased. The man told Nizam to be quiet, but he didn’t obey. Instead he told him how he’d been baptized in a church up in the mountains near Hawra.

“You know Hawra?” the gunman interrupted.

Nizam continued his story, about the priest pouring water over his head, how he was twenty-one years old at the time. The gunman was still pushing him, but Nizam felt he was slowing down a bit. Nizam was blabbering on, saying anything that came to mind. He told him the woman driving the car was a Christian. He was planning to marry Janan Salem, whose father was in charge of protocol at the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he said, waving his hand in the general direction of where he guessed the ministry was located. He told him to check her phone number, which was written on the back of his ID. Nizam didn’t stop at just talking; he slid his hand inside his shirt, wanting to pull out the little medal Rakhima had given him before he set out for Beirut—the medal of the Immaculate Conception. He felt around with his trembling hand, being careful not to pull out the Ayat al-Kursi pendant with its Koranic verse by mistake. The Ayat al-Kursi was square, with sharp edges. The medal was oval. There was the blue-eye pendant, too. He fished out the little Immaculate Conception medal and pulled it out from inside his shirt. He yanked it from his neck, breaking the chain, and started kissing it like a lunatic. He practically started gnawing on it with his teeth. He gave it to the gunman, who slipped it into his pocket with the ID.

His escort stopped pushing him, giving him a little rest, but Nizam didn’t stop talking. They were definitely getting close to the customs building. Nizam started reciting the Our Father and the Hail Mary. He didn’t say the whole prayer, just the opening line of the first one and the opening line of the second one, to prove he knew them. He felt compelled to heap on proof, so he moved on to, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth . . .” He said all his friends were Christian and that he’d gone to a school run by Lazarite Nuns. He started rattling off the nuns’ names—Sister Basile, Sister Francesca, Mademoiselle Laure. He no longer felt the gunman’s hand on his shoulder pushing him forward. Encouraged by this, Nizam put forth his biggest piece of proof: he started chanting funerary prayers in Syriac. He intoned them the way he’d heard them, in a loud voice, amid the intermittent gunfire and commands barked at drivers and their passengers in the line of cars.

Choboho el morio kolkhon aame w el etran besme tobe w rih mdoran nasimo nehwen . . .”

George shouted at him to stop, but his tone was much softer this time. Suddenly, he removed the bag from Nizam’s head and looked him in the face.

“It seems you’re a Christian. Get out of here,” he ordered and then added, “And don’t come this way ever again.”

Nizam reached for George’s face, to kiss him, but George barred him with his shoulder. Nizam grabbed his right hand, brought it to his mouth to kiss it, but George wrestled it away. He yelled at Nizam to get going and warned him not to run.

The situation and manliness and death all made kissing out of the question.

Olga had been watching them from the distance. She saw Nizam try to kiss the fat gunman’s hand. George turned to head back to where his buddies were making many other passengers get out of their cars. If they happened to find one they were looking for, they’d turn him over to him. Nizam was left all alone there on the sidewalk. He didn’t run. He walked quickly, barely looking right or left, expecting a bullet any moment. As he passed in front of the customs building, he heard voices and clamor and a shower of gunfire. He trembled with fear. He felt there was nothing left of himself except his head and his two eyes nailed to Olga’s car parked waiting for him. She opened the door for him and he collapsed into the car. He sat down, drew in a deep breath. He said the man who let him go was called George.

“Bless his namesake!” Olga cried. Nizam rested his head on his knees and sank into utter silence, as if he’d said everything he had to say to that burly gunman, in one go. Olga asked Nizam if he’d seen what was going on behind the customs building, but he didn’t answer. He had seen, but he didn’t tell her. He’d seen them piling the corpses on top of each other. Lots of men and some women, too. There was a young man among them wearing military garb. They would bring the detainees over, with a bag over the head, to another man who would shoot them—perhaps the shooter didn’t want to see his victims’ faces. Then they’d remove the bag from the dead person’s head and toss him aside.

From Charid al-manazel.  © 2010 by Jabbour Douaihy. By arrangement with the Raya Agency. Translation © 2018 by Paula Haydar. All rights reserved.

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Fairuz in My Grandfather’s Shop

A famed diva walks into a Beirut shop and creates an indelible memory for a five-year-old. 

Fairuz represented a new kind of Arab star. In making the Rahbani brothers a household name, she offset with their music the predominance of Egyptian song but conducted herself in a fashion far from common to starlets of her standing. Her songwriter, manager, and, later, husband Assi Rahbani had laid down new rules for the game, and these were at polar odds with longstanding custom. Assi turned down all offers for her to sing at private gatherings. No palaces, no villas, no presidential dwellings. Fairuz was only to sing on stage. Let the high and mighty of the world come to hear her at the theater if they so desired. When the Shah of Iran and Malake Soraya came to Beirut in 1957, supplications from the presidential palace and the Iranian Embassy fell on deaf ears. Assi turned down a request for a private concert in their honor. The same went for Habib Bourguiba in 1965. This was unheard of. The giants of the past had performed all their lives for royalty! Umm Kulthum, Farid al-Atrash . . . Mohammed Abel-Wahhab, who in his younger days was nicknamed “singer to princes and kings.” He had already sung before Faisal’s court in Baghdad as early as the 1920s and by the late 1970s still kept up close ties with Hussein of Jordan and Hassan II of Morocco, his greatest admirers . . . And then there was Asmahan, who had practically only ever sung at private parties! But not Fairuz. Assi’s unyieldingness became a claim to fame. Not content simply to turn down private concerts, he also made it his code of conduct never to write paeans to any leaders. But Umm Kulthum and Abd el-Wahhab had sung in praise of the young Farouk I. And they now lent themselves to the glories of Nasser. So be it, but not Fairuz. Not the Rahbanis. It was a matter of principle. And it was a principle dictated by moral comportment on Assi’s part that no one questioned, certainly not Fairuz. Fairuz, whose fame was the plague of her life. Pathologically shy, she took no advantage of her renown, loathed the celebritariat, wanted to act as if nothing had changed. One day she walked into my grandfather’s shop on Souk al-Tawileh, the main street of Beirut’s commercial heart. I was there. It was the early ‘70s. Though I have only patchy memories of the time, since I was only five, that blessed spring day is forever graven in my memory. She was with her sister. She had on a scarf over her head, tied under her chin, and a raincoat. Sunglasses she’d taken off as soon as she came inside. Her face was as familiar to me as a neighbor’s down the street, but I didn’t recognize her at first, despite the silence that in a matter of seconds had swallowed the shop whole. Nor did the whispers and agitation from the employees and customers tip me off. It really wasn’t until I heard the miraculous words “Ahlan wa Sahlan Sitt Fairuz, kif halik?” from my grandfather’s mouth—Welcome, Madame Fairuz, how are you?—that I took a good long look at this woman, unremarkable yet bathed in an inexplicable aura, that it suddenly dawned on me. Identifying the idol I’d only ever seen on TV terrified me immediately, I who was also pathologically shy. And when she spoke the words “Kifak inta Khawaja” in reply—And yourself, Monsieur Antoine?—to the formal pleasantry with which my grandfather had welcomed her, I was petrified. For I had just recognized her voice.

“Fayrouz dans le magazin de mon grand-père," from Ô Nuit Ô Mes Yeux. © 2015 by P.O.L. Editeur. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2018 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.

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from the July 2018 issue

Painful Games

from the July 2018 issue

The Jewish Nose

In this excerpt from Le Nez Juif, Sabyl Ghoussoub's expat filmmaker gets an unexpected review.
 

Mossad: Thirty Self-Portraits

Let's face it: I can’t stand Arabs anymore. That’s what I really wanted to get across.

I was a professional photographer, but I didn’t want to photograph anything other than my registration with the Mossad. The idea had tickled me for some time; I’ve always been fascinated by spies.

Name, surname, address, spoken languages, leisure activities—the questionnaire resembled a Facebook account sign-up. Accessing the website was as easy as any other. The choice of languages took me by surprise, though: Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and English. The Mossad totally gets it. In just a few seconds, the agency offers a fallback position to reluctant Arabs in need of money. If you want to work for the Syrian, Lebanese, or Iranian secret services, you can search forever on the Internet: impossible, you won’t find a thing. To say nothing of the French, who demand a master’s degree.

I completed the entire first stage of the registration. Then, suddenly, I asked myself what exactly I was doing on this website. What would make me want to register any interest with the Mossad? There was nothing normal about that! I shut off my computer and took a long look at myself in the mirror. I looked like a Jew, an Islamist, a Portuguese, an Iranian, an idiot. I had a big nose and the face of a Brazilian footballer or the “daddy’s boy” son of a Saudi billionaire. I didn’t have a Frenchman’s face, or a German’s. I had the face of a Turk, or an Armenian. I looked like a Sicilian thug. I was screwed.

I had a camera, a tripod, and a black backdrop. I figured I’d have some fun: I bought a keffiyeh, a Lakers cap, and a David Luiz wig. I made myself a yarmulke, and some other wacky objects. And then I took thirty self-portraits.

I hung the prints on a clothesline at my place for five days. Every morning, I thought the same thing: This project is really crap. But I sent the images to some friends I knew who were specialists in contemporary art and they loved them.

I tore up all the prints. I looked like dozens of people from different backgrounds. Sure, I could be a spy—but above all, an actor. Then I remembered Sophie, a talent agent I’d met one night in Paris. I sent her an email, and she gave me an appointment for two days later.

I grabbed the first flight to Roissy–Charles de Gaulle.
 

The Choking Game

Two children indulge in the choking game. One of them is named David; the other, Ziad. Things become complicated when Ziad strangles himself with his father’s keffiyeh one Shabbat while staying with David’s family. In the wellspring of violence, the angels have no pity.

Based on this pitch, I found a bit of cash in Lebanon to fund the production of a short film. The story takes place entirely in Paris. The screenplay got written, and the film was made by a Franco­–Lebanese director. Once the film was made, he sent it to me; the Beirut Film Festival had selected it as an entry.

But before it could be screened, I was obliged to clear it with the censors. The censors were usually men who sat with their legs apart, ate with their mouths open, and explained what one could say and not say, show and not show, write and not write. I liked them because, contrary to my colleagues in the film industry, I understood their point of view—this sympathy came, no doubt, from my experience in the Socialist Party. They, too, appreciated me: I was my uncle’s nephew, and thus one of them, part of the anti-Israel camp. I had no doubts that the film would pass their scrutiny without incident.

So when my grandmother called to warn me that some men had arrived in a car from State Security and knocked at her door early one morning, wanting to take me in, I was speechless. Terrified, she had lied to them: “He’s not here, he’s traveling.” (Luckily, I’d registered my production company at my grandmother’s address.)

“There are Israeli names in the film credits,” the security agents told me when I went down to their offices later to speak with them.

Israeli names? What do you mean? They can have Jewish names; it doesn’t mean they’re Israeli.”

“Goldberg, Braunstein, Levy—are you trying to tell me these aren’t Israelis!”

“No—they are absolutely not. This is a Franco–Lebanese coproduction, filmed in France. Many Jews live there; it’s to be expected that some of them will work in the film industry. But they’re French.”

“A Jew can become an Israeli citizen in a month! It’s the same thing! And if they become Israelis, they have to do their military service in an IDF unit. Look, because it’s you, we’ll let this go—but next time, not a chance. Understand?”

“And you needed to wake up my grandmother just for that?”

“We didn’t know—it was you who provided us with this address. And you didn’t answer your phone.”

“That’s because at eight o’clock in the morning I’m asleep!”

“All right, get out of here and don’t let us catch you again with another film like this.”

I had to share this story with my uncle, so I invited him for a meal. He defended the position of the censors and even tried to justify the ban on screening Israeli films. After we finished eating, he concluded: “You, the Frenchman, you can’t understand, you’re a Westerner. You’ll learn, with time, to recognize the enemy.”

I shut myself up in my flat for several days after that, reading. Only through literature could I reconcile myself with my fellow man . . .
 

Le nez juif © Éditions de l’Antilope, Paris, 2018. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2018 by Olivia Snaije and Mitchell Albert. All rights reserved.

 

Read more from the July 2018 issue

July 2018

from the July 2018 issue

A Quietly Radical Tale of the Rise and Fall of Communist Russia in Eugene Vodolazkin’s “The Aviator”

Reviewed by Sam George Jackson

As a young man, the late Russian scholar Dmitry Likhachev spent several years in a Soviet prison camp in the Solovetsky Archipelago. The stone complex in which he and his fellow inmates were detained had once been a monastery, founded in the fifteenth century by Russian Orthodox monks. The islands lie in the far north of Russia, but despite this remote location the Solovetsky Monastery was once a bustling center of religious and commercial activity. Likhachev, an enthusiastic young student of linguistics, did not allow imprisonment to interrupt his research. During the five years he spent in prison, Likhachev conducted a thorough study of his fellow inmates, with a particular interest in their speech patterns and the card games that played an important role in the daily life of the monastery’s new population.

Likhachev would base several scholarly works on his observations, including Card Games of Criminals. Among his research subjects were thieves and gang members, negotiating social hierarchies through games of chance. But most of the prisoners at Solovetsky were criminals of a different sort: intellectuals, students, and scientists, accused en masse of anti-revolutionary activity during the first decades of the Communist regime. They were rounded up from all corners of the Soviet Union and sent to what quickly became the USSR’s first political prison.

One of the most harrowing passages in Eugene Vodolazkin’s new novel, The Aviator, is set in the hold of a Solovetsky-bound barge heaving through the frigid White Sea with a shipment of human cargo. Our hero, Innokenty Petrovich Platonov, is one of the lucky ones: among the last to board, he is close to the top, out of the crush of bodies in the bowels of the ship. When the barge makes landfall, he must drag the remains of those less fortunate across the deck to shore. Vodolazkin does not spare us the gruesome particulars: the groans of the dying, the stench of the seasick. The Aviator is filled with scenes like this: intense flashes of lived experience, crisply focused, rich in sensory detail. 

Like his mentor Dmitry Likhachev before him, Volodazkin is a medievalist who works in the Department of Old Russian Literature at Pushkin House. Whereas his last novel, Laurus, centered on a medieval holy man and healer, The Aviator probes the tragedies and contradictions of the twentieth century.  At the opening of the novel, when Innokenty awakens in a hospital bed, he has virtually no memory of his previous life. But as vivid snippets rise up into his consciousness he records them in his journal, which makes up the text of the novel. The plot, then, is not a life as it was lived but a life as it is remembered. Images, impressions, and bits of speech are jumbled together, stripped of context, and delivered in all their immediacy. Gradually, as names and dates return to Innokenty, the outline of his life comes together. Born in 1900, he is “the same age as the century,” and he remembers childhood summers at the family dacha, the confusion of the October revolution, an all-consuming romance, and the betrayal that sent him to Solovetsky. Eventually only one great mystery remains: how he came to be in a modern hospital, in 1999, with the body of a young man and memories that barely reach the 1930s.

Innokenty’s situation gives him a unique perspective on history. He has a seventy-year blind spot, a gap that includes some rather important events—Stalin’s Great Terror, the Holocaust, the collapse of the Soviet Union. He comes to in a new country, a thoroughly futuristic Russia that, what with its pop music, its advertisements, and its conspicuous consumption, is a world away from the chaos and repression of the post-revolutionary years. Yet despite this historical blindness, Innokenty’s memories are a miraculous window into the first decades of the century. He recalls the main events and the minor, and, more importantly, he recalls the way it felt to live through them.

The Aviator is rather obviously the work of someone who thinks a lot about the past. Innokenty’s situation, contrived as it may be, is an opportunity to investigate the relationship between memory and history. There is a constant tension between the impressions and the emotions that make up Innokenty’s reminiscences, on the one hand, and on the other hand the epochal events that fill history books. It is tempting to imagine that conversations between Volodazkin and Likhachev lay behind this—the respected academic reminiscing about the forgotten texture of Soviet life, his student musing about how these personal details always escape the official record.

Innokenty’s journal is animated by this tension between the personal and the social. After news of this defrosted Soviet leaks to the press, Innokenty becomes something of a celebrity, and one day he sees a piece about himself on the news. As he watches archival footage of Solovetsky, he feels that it is strangely devoid of human meaning: “in some way, the black-and-white figures darting around the screen stopped corresponding to reality: they are only its faded signs.” This film may be a genuine document of camp life (watered-down and censored as it may be), but somehow it captures nothing of what it felt like to be a prisoner. It lacks the data of the senses: the sound of “a head striking the bunks when a guard came in, took a zek [an inmate] by the hair, and beat him . . . or the snap of nits pressed by a fingernail.”

This is one of Innokenty’s favorite theories (and Volodazkin’s too, presumably): that the documents of the historian, important as they are, lack that vital living essence that can only come with experience. Our protagonist has other pet subjects. His journals contain much musing on the nature of guilt and the difficulty of holding someone accountable for their actions (however despicable and inhumane) when we take into account the powerful social forces that pressured them to act as they did.

If this all feels a bit academic, well, it is at times. The Aviator is not verbose, but it certainly wears its ideas on its sleeve, and the arc of the narrative is as simple and clever as a philosopher’s parable. But this is also a deeply emotional book, and often it is these probing questions that give human depth to the characters. These are intelligent, curious people, struggling to understand their impossible situation. In this they are not alone in Russian literature, nor indeed in Russian history.

The subject of memory is a potent one in Russia today. As the Soviet Union collapsed, various museums were established that documented the history of the Gulag system; fittingly, the first was at Solovetsky. It was closed in 2016. It seems that the memories of the Gulag’s victims, and the desire of their descendants to understand and commemorate their suffering, do not mesh with the nationalistic take on Russian history in ascendance today. In this climate, to remember is an act of protest. The Aviator is a quietly radical novel, animated by the spirit of Dmitry Likhachev, an academic who knew what it was to suffer the blows of history first-hand.


© Sam George Jackson. All rights reserved.

In One Long Breath: An Interview with Choi Jin-young

한 번은 긴 호흡으로: 최진영 작가와의 인터뷰

Ghenwa Hayek

Mandana Naviafar

The City and the Writer: In Accra, Ghana with Meshack Asare

Introducing Mandana Naviafar

Panic: An International Exquisite Corpse

Daniel Hahn, Canan Marasligil, Mui Poopoksakul, and Angela Rodel

José Eduardo Agualusa, Theodora Dimova, Naz Tansel, and Prabda Yoon

First Read—From “The Hospital”

Chi-Wai Un

from the June 2018 issue

Gaël Faye’s Debut Novel, “Small Country,” Sets a Coming-of-Age Story amid the Rwandan Genocide

Reviewed by Emily Roese

Gaby is just a boy. He steals mangoes and disobeys his father. He patrols his block with friends. He imagines his first love, his school pen-pal, freckled and green-eyed in her Orleans garden. He likes the sugar in ice cream but not the cold, swimming but not the chlorine. Gaby is just a ten-year-old living in Burundi.

 

“The war between the Tutsis and Hutus,” Gaby asks his father, “is it because they don’t have the same land?”

“No,” his father responds, “they have the same country.”

“So…they don’t have the same language.”

“No, they speak the same language.”

“So, they don’t have the same God?”

“No, they have the same God.”

“So... Why are they at war?”

“Because they don’t have the same nose.”

           

In wry and quick strokes, this dialogue captures a young boy’s ernest inquiry and a father’s ironic but not altogether dishonest attempt to explain the origins of the Rwandan genocide. The father's answer is a formidable combination of humor and threat, at once a punch line and a reckoning of implausible violence, a nuanced complexity that is a distinguishing feature of Gaël Faye’s prose in his debut novel, Small Country. A French bestseller and winner of the Prix Goncourt des lycéens, Small Country, translated by Sarah Ardizzone, holds a mirror to the childhood of the Burundi-born rapper and author. In 1995, Faye emigrated to France with his French father, Rwandan mother, and younger sister. They were a Tutsi family living in Bujumbura and decided to flee when they realized that the conflicts in war-torn Rwanda threatened their hometown. Not unlike Gaby, Faye contended with the violence in his homeland and neighboring Rwanda, and the sudden shock of a new life in a congested Versailles apartment following his family’s flight. In his perceptiveness, developing love of literature, and nostalgia for a prewar idyll, Gaby’s character reflects not only Faye’s own experience, but the artistic path he would follow after leaving Burundi.

Through the eyes of young Gaby, the world is often distilled to simple answers. History narrows to an Occam’s razor thrift: a conflict born from a nose. The early dialogue between Gaby and his father is formative in Gaby’s understanding of the regular ethnic clashing. Around town Gaby and his friends study noses and draw conclusions. They make mistakes. Their games are not malicious, but plain and curious, rooted in a history they do not fully understand. But as Gaby ages and genocidal violence continues nearby, drawing him and his family into the fray, nasal distinctions fail to explain the polarization, hatred, and increasing ethnic attacks. As Small Country develops, Gaby labors to understand the historical pitting of Hutu against Tusti, a fight that unfortunately extends its ideological and physical battlelines to Bujumbura. Simultaneously, he feels the friction between childhood and impending adulthood, Rwanda and Burundi, words and their meanings, placing varying tensions in complicated centrifuge.

On the way to a family wedding, Gaby and his relatives dance in their seats to the radio. It is a carefree scene in which Gaby, not one for dancing, courts a moment of self-possession. But the rhythmic order is quickly surrendered to a strange and quieting stillness. Suddenly no one but Gaby is dancing. Something has come to pass, he realizes. A phrase from the radio host has silenced the others. “‘He said all cockroaches must die,’” Gaby’s mother explains. “Inyenzi,” she says: cockroaches, Tutsis, us.

The reveal is two-fold. Gaby has had a sudden confidence in allowing himself to dance, one of many advances that trace Gaby’s move into adulthood. But his development is double-edged, as this transition implies an undressing of innocence, a recalibration of the peace Gaby knows, and the dismantling of a worldview in which a cockroach is a brown slick insect and nothing more. Bildungsromans are traditionally presented as the struggle of two selves against the backdrop of an impassive world. But Small Country holds the Bildungsroman trope not against a neutral world, but a convulsive one, one that is also contending with itself, shifting in the background as Gaby shifts in the foreground. While Gaby matures there is another battle playing out on a larger stage, sometimes darting forward to meet Gaby head on.

There is a beauty in these tensions existing on the same plane, and a form that emerges from their interlacing development. A moment of personal shift is often married to violent progressions of civil war. Gaby’s courage to jump into a pool from a high post is followed by an encounter with a shetani: the black shadow of a horse, a militant force passing the car where Gaby sits wet and proud and miraculously alive from his earlier bravery. At other times, personal and historical tensions are conflated: Gaby is asked, by his friends as well as military men, to set fire to a car bearing the trapped body of a rival Hutu.

Small Country maps personal and historical conflict by attending to their subtle connections. Gaby’s world contains no hierarchies, and without these distinctions, oppositions fail to find clear counterparts: childhood is not necessarily the opposite of adulthood, and the tension between Hutu and Tutsi is not separate from growing up. Rwanda does not just rub against Burundi, but grates against childhood, just as adulthood struggles against Hutu and Burundi against Tutsi.

Faye forces conceptions like childhood and adulthood and The State from their rigid definitions, and asks the reader to consider what they mean, how words might be susceptible to or formative of one another. When words are vulnerable to new meaning, how does this shift the larger view? What dangers and new possibilities open up when we let words—small words, weighty words—slip from held meanings? Small Country carries these questions through its entirety, comporting its inquiry with deft prose and empathic characters.

Before Gaby’s family flees, before ethnic cleansing and violent summits, Gaby and his friend, Gino, sneak into the cabaret, “the greatest institution in Burundi.” The cabaret is a singular draw, famed for free speech and copious drink. Here, under a dark iron canopy, men unwind, shedding their skins of rank and status to engage, unburdened, in political conversation.

Gino orders beers for himself and Gaby. The boys spend the evening drinking and listening. Maybe it is the dark, maybe the boys are drunk, but words here seem to drift, unattributed, taking form through repetition or else sinking below the surface of conversation. The drinkers speak of the upcoming presidential election, of fear, of false democracy, of the encroachment of western influence, and between these substantive exchanges Gaby hears the repeated “I’m thirsty.” The political talk increases, the feeling of impending crisis rises, and still, between provocations and pontifications comes the familiar, I’m thirsty, I’m thirsty. At some point, political talk collides with the intermittent thirst and the dialogue transforms. Simple demands bleed into the theoretical, and in this way political sentiments form in the dark.

This scene seems to pause, draw time inward, and hold Faye’s novel still for a beat. Time is not made in this scene, but gathered paused, considered, and for a few pages the metronome’s pace is different. Although this scene is not the last, Small Country managed to leave me here, or rather, to draw me back even after moving me forward. It left me at the sensitive space between countries, between anticipation and arrival, between awareness and conclusion. It left me with young Gaby in a state of potential, slightly drunk, eddying between what is and what will be.

Stream These for Pride Month: Seven Foreign Films Based on Fiction

Veronica Scott Esposito

Sam George Jackson

The Watchlist: June 2018

We’re Hiring: Development Assistant

Behind the Art: “untitled self-portrait (time for tea)”

Emily Roese

Best of the B-Sides: Keeping House

The City and the Writer: In New York City with Colum McCann

Writing in and as a Foreign Language

Words Without Borders Fall 2018 Editorial Fellowship

from the June 2018 issue

Beyond Queer: The Queer Issue

Welcome to our ninth annual Queer issue. As some readers have asked (and as we ask ourselves): Why publish a Queer issue? Queer writers and topics certainly appear in our pages throughout the year, and even the appearance of restriction to one issue suggests marginalization, isolation, or “other”-ing. Yet every issue we publish is predicated on “others”: writers in foreign countries, producing work in non-English languages, with themes and settings largely unfamiliar to an English-language audience. And just as the writers in those issues have multiple identities—nationality, language, sex, sexual orientation, religion, genre—the contributors to our Queer issues produce narratives that elude facile compartmentalization. At a time in US history when every advancement in gender rights and protections seems to be countered with a reversal, we think these dispatches from gay writers around the world are more important than ever. From an almost forensic account of a French philosopher in 1950s Warsaw to a prose poem on the limitations of pronouns, the prose and poetry here capture the range and variety of international queer lives.

We’re delighted to introduce to our readers Mortazar Gzar, the first openly gay Iraqi writer, now living in Seattle after receiving political asylum. In his “While He Was Sitting There,” set in an unnamed town during the US occupation of Iraq, a local college student occupies himself with a series of casual encounters at the gay bar frequented by American soldiers. Assuming various pseudonyms and playing into exoticizing stereotypes, he hooks up with a soldier who drives home the side effects of war.

Remigiusz Ryziński’s Foucault in Warsaw reconstructs the year in the late 1950s when the philosopher-provocateur served as the head of the French Institute at the University of Warsaw. Openly gay and a foreigner, Foucault was an immediate target of the secret police, who put him under surveillance, tailed him and his new friends around underground Warsaw, and eventually arranged a honeytrap operation in hopes of expelling him from the country. Ryziński combines police records, interviews with Foucault’s Warsaw circle, and historical research; the result—which reads like a Stasi file crossed with a gossip column—provides a unique portrait of gay life in a virtually undocumented time and place.

Set in an apocalyptic future, Choi Jin-young’s “Dori and Jina” depicts romance blooming in the face of death. Jina, a young Korean woman fleeing a fatal epidemic with what remains of her extended family, befriends the independent Dori and impulsively invites her to join their group. As the narrative switches from Dori’s perspective to Jina’s, we sense that at least one sort of safety is at hand.

Cuba’s Abilio Estévez contributes a dreamy coming-of-age story with “The Lagoon.” On his sixteenth birthday, the narrator wades into the murky, weed-choked waters of the titular location. Daydreaming about his older friend, he takes a step in the wrong direction. Estevez’s depiction of the terrain and the characters’ deep connection to it suggest that this misstep, and what follows, reflects the intertwining of human fate with the natural world.

The Lebanese writer Sahar Mandour’s Mina depicts a relationship rocked by external forces. On the eve of her departure for the Cannes Film Festival, a famous actress is outed in the Beiruti press. Enraged and panicked, she talks through options with her more equable lover; their decision is mutual and irreversible.

Vietnamese poet Nhã Thuyên’s “Nihilism” howls with frustration at both language and what it represents. Uncurbed by either pretense or punctuation, this headlong monologue of nothingness first rejects gendered pronouns, then declares the narrator’s intention to destroy the loved one as well. It’s a compelling portrait of absence and meaning.

Thailand’s Prabda Yoon, who made his WWB debut in our October 2017 issue, returns with the tale of a transgender woman at the end of her rope. Fed up with disappointments and limitations, the fabulous ‘Mantique (“My real name is Ro-man-tique, darling”) decides to end it all. The result is as fantastic as ‘Mantique herself.

In contrast to the florid world of ‘Mantique, Tina Åmodt’s “The Light Doesn't Come Here” takes place in the hushed, monochromatic atmosphere of a Nordic winter. A bickering Norwegian lesbian couple moves to an isolated, long-vacant house. One of the women spent summers there as a child, and her happy memories are quickly undercut by the extent of the house’s deterioration. As the women face the realities of their decision, it’s clear that the chill that descends is caused by more than the weather. 

We hope you’ll enjoy these varied portraits of queer lives around the world. As we open this month traditionally devoted to saluting gay life, and present our own annual observation, we continue to celebrate our fifteenth anniversary and the rich and varied array of voices, queer and otherwise, that we’ve brought into English through the years.

© 2018 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2018 issue
from the June 2018 issue

Puma

In the wake of loss, a woman fills her life with a mouthy and ever-growing new feline companion. 

The cat had died at dusk. The breath of that life had slipped away along with the last streaks of sunlight.

“As the body grew cold and stiff, it turned into a swamp you could easily sink into.” This was the explanation I’d always planned to give him for why the cat had left so many empty spaces in my rooms. I couldn’t wait to tell him; it was like being chased by a wild animal and trying frantically to flee to safety. But he wouldn’t open his door. He didn’t answer my phone calls, stopped answering my letters, and no longer showed up at my house or in my dreams.

Ultimately, I ended up in a situation that was similar to knitting a sweater—an excuse to be perpetually engaged in creating something in order to make up for the rapid decomposition of the cat’s body. 

“It would be impossible to vacuum up all of the cat hair that had accumulated in every corner of the apartment. That’s why, after I fall asleep and my breath becomes even, cat hair comes pouring into my nose and down my windpipe to block my lungs.” This is what I told the therapist about the origins of my growing sense that I was being suffocated. He withdrew his gaze from the window and the half-constructed buildings beyond, and as he turned toward me, he said: “You should get another cat.” He continued: “Only a new pet can help desensitize you to the allergies that you acquired from the hair of your previous pet.” He picked up a fountain pen and started tapping the nib on the desktop. It sounded like a woodpecker pecking at a tree trunk, tack, tack. “Human society has achieved such a high degree of development that people have become imprisoned in a logic of our own construction. Our distance from our natural state has gradually increased, and while the human eye cannot discern these changes, a person may have to avail themselves of a furry creature in order to compensate.” The nib of his pen had dug a pit in the wooden desktop, and the edges of that hole were spreading ever outward.

It looked like the impression left behind by my dead cat—although it looked even more like the embryonic Puma, sleeping soundly, a soft gestating body lying weak and limp on the floor not far from me, belly rising and falling, deeply and evenly, like a volcano that was about to erupt.

In the beginning, the cat’s body had been as tiny and harmless as a comma; that was before the cat had learned to walk steadily or form a full sentence.

“This is the one for you!” The cat seller was leaning against the wall. He added: “This cat was born for the moment you would enter its life.” I looked up at the man’s face and saw there a coldness verging on cruelty. There wasn’t so much as a trace of flattery, which left me wondering what he wanted from me. I don’t know when it happened, but Puma had been placed in my arms, quaking like water inside a thin membrane. If you didn’t secure it in time, it would spill out everywhere. Although this boundlessly energetic creature was sure to rampage around the cramped rooms of my flat, I knew that the same little fur ball didn’t have any survival skills. If nobody adopted it, it would die right here and probably be tossed into the gutter.

Even after the cat seller heard my decision, his expression remained implacable—nothing could chase away the gloom that clouded his face. Glancing up at the pale gray sky, he ran over to another room and brought back a nylon tote bag. He took Puma out of my hands, and as he tossed the cat inside it, he said to me: “Don’t go thinking that cat selling is a simple art. Breeding them is tough, it’s a lot of trial and error. People don’t have a clue about their own needs. Sometimes, you’ll be pressing a cat into the hands of a prospective adopter, a person the cat seems practically tailor-made for, but the guy’s eyes might still be fixed on something he can’t ever have. That’s why more and more cats are abandoned every day.” I took this as a personal affront and grabbed the nylon tote and ran away from that seaside building as if I were being chased.

Not until I was aboard the boat and the boat had left the harbor behind and reached open water did I recall the words he’d shouted at me as he’d pursued me out the door: “Nobody realizes this, but the whole purpose of breeding cats is to fill the gaps that are all around us. People misunderstand breeders, just like they misunderstand gamblers and speculators. People think we’re all just profiteers . . .” It was starting to make sense to me: his urgent tone and need to pour it all out may have come from a desire to apologize; or maybe he just wanted affirmation. I unzipped the woven nylon bag and searched its interior. Turning toward the sound of the zipper, the cat gazed out through that precious fissure, its fierce eyes and delicate body creating a powerful contrast. As I zipped up the bag again, I knew that although I’d left the cat seller behind on that desolate little island, I was not the sole perpetrator of this crime.

Puma still didn’t have a name then. When I fished the little cat out of the tote and set it down in the middle of the wooden floor, it instinctively crawled over to the containers I’d filled with food and water and began consuming it all with gusto. After that, the cat retired to a shady corner, lay down, and fell fast asleep. I squatted on the floor and watched, and I had the sense that this wasn’t a young animal and resembled instead a plant that was about to sprout, like a little bean.

I had thought of myself as dried up—I was just waiting for my life to crumble away with the passage of time, but every night the cat would get into mischief. I would hear it leaping and scampering around in my dreams, or creeping on tiptoes along the base of the walls, or maybe just licking its coat. This created for me the illusion that the wounds that had opened up all over my rooms were being torn apart at a more gradual pace, in slow motion, as if I’d been drugged. Before long, I would go back to sleep. One day, long after, I realized it had been the constant drowsiness that had enabled me to escape, if only briefly, the misery of life and death and the torture of being trapped between the two. Mornings, when I awoke, I would always see my cat stretched out along the seam where wall and floor met, and the gentle curve of its long body let me forget the dense array of windows, the noise of passing cars, and the sound of passersby cursing one other outside my own windows. I could focus on my work, or fall into a reverie, gazing at the wayward tangle of lines on my upturned palms.

When my doorbell rang, I tiptoed over to the door, lest the person on the other side become aware of my existence. I put my face up to the peephole, mindful of maintaining a safe distance from the door, and saw a slovenly looking man standing there. I could tell from his clothing that he wasn’t delivering mail or delivering food. When I turned around, I saw that the cat had arched its back in warning and was staring at the front door. “I don’t know him,” I explained to the cat. Before long, the cat had zipped discreetly back to the inner room and hidden beneath a chair. The doorbell rang again, forcefully, and for a second time I concentrated all of my attention on that little aperture. Suddenly the impatient expression on the man’s face reminded me of a long ago therapist, and I realized then that that’s who was standing outside. I’d forgotten him, or perhaps I’d forgotten the me who had needed a therapist. “Are you OK?” he asked, poking his head in. With the gaze of a man investigating something suspicious, he swept his eyes over the room, peering into every nook and cranny.

I didn’t feel as though I could keep my door closed to this unexpected guest, just as people submit to a doctor’s demands in the name of an examination and silently strip off their clothing. Soon, his shoes were walking across my floor, bringing the filth of the outside world into my rooms. I had thought of silence as the harshest form of interrogation, but he was utterly oblivious. Eyeing my face suspiciously, he spoke: “It smells like cat in here.” I tilted my chin toward the chair: “It was your idea, wasn’t it?” He dropped into a squat and stared at that spot for a long time.

It didn’t take him long to render his judgment. “It looks too strong.”

I nodded, unable to help agreeing with him: “Yes, this cat really is very healthy.” Still, I told him that after this cat died, I would never touch such a scrawny animal again. 

“An animal that’s too strong will inevitably present all sorts of dangers,” he interrupted. As he spoke, he pointed out how one could see from the bone structure and coat that the cat was still growing and was eventually going to be enormous. “It’s not a human being, it’s an animal,” he warned emphatically.

After he’d left, I couldn’t dispel his invasive looks, postures, or aura; but luckily, the cat slowly emerged from its dark corner, and it was on that afternoon that the cat began talking to me. Of course, it wasn’t human speech, and it was full of a cat’s innate attitude; but the cat was able to convey information, in fits and starts, in a way that I could take in. This couldn’t have been what the therapist had feared; rather, it must have been a seed planted by his strong desire.

The cat let me know that he was Puma, and from then on I called him by that name.

“Therapists need patients in order to affirm their own status.” He extended his right leg and vigorously groomed his fur while he was telling me this. Then he raised his head and a profound light beamed toward me, unwavering, from his big, round eyes: “The question is this—do you intend to cling to the identity of a sick person?”

That night, for the first time, he didn’t careen around the living room but instead hopped onto the bed and lay on his back beside me. That became his nightly habit from then on. He was still only long enough to reach as far as my upper leg, but he grew much faster than I could ever have imagined. In the middle of the night, when all living creatures take off their masks, we talked about so many things that at times we forgot our boundaries, and it was easy for me to imagine that we were on the cusp of becoming intimate companions. But I wasn’t the least bit afraid; he was a cat, and always would be.  

Awkwardly posed, he grew rapidly in the night. After he fell asleep, his head resting on my stomach, his trusting face enabled me to pretend that he was actually my child, especially at the times when he was immersed in a dream and his whole body was twitching. He filled my emptiness better than any kind of food. Before long, he had grown enough to reach my heart, and with his thin, cool ears fanned out against my chest, I couldn’t help weeping. A scant few days later, he had grown to be practically as long as I was tall. It was the coldest day of the year, and he held me against his belly, so that my body, which had been numb with cold, stopped shivering. He pressed on my back with his soft paw pads and licked the tears from my face: “Once it’s light out, clip my claws for me.” A low rumble emerged from deep inside him, as if an inexhaustible mountain spring was gurgling inside him. I understood that he wanted to spare me his sharp claws digging into my skin and couldn’t resist burying my face in his thick fur. I didn’t detect the slightest gamy odor on him, and I concluded that he was very fastidious.

“I’m smaller and weaker than you now.” I looked up and gazed directly into his eyes, unable to hide my fear. “Will you pounce on me and eat me in my sleep?”

He looked back at me, and his bright eyes were suddenly filled with pain. “When I was still tiny, did you want to butcher me and feast on cat meat?”

“That’s not what I meant.” When I looked down, my gaze passed over his mouth, and a different kind of worry bubbled up in my mind. I had the sense then that Puma was a partner who could share the burden of my foul moods. “So,” I asked, “do you want to look after me and make me your pet?”

“Only human beings have this notion of subordination.” He shook his head rapidly, as if trying to flick away something annoying.

I relaxed and leaned against his back, half asleep. It was as if he could fulfill the role of my lover, my mother, the friends I’d lost touch with, or the people who had hurt me in the past and whom I could not forget. But when I opened my eyes and saw Puma stretching or shaking limbs that he hadn’t moved for a time, it seemed as though he’d grown a little more, and I knew that he couldn’t be those people; but thanks to this fact, we could build a new kind of relationship.

The night had not completely melted away, but we weren’t sleepy anymore, and we stood side by side at the window and watched the streetlights blink out one by one, as the color of the sky continued to fade, and the street slowly woke up.

“I’m only going to be able to grow a little bit more before I’m too big to fit here. If the neighbors happen to catch sight of me through the windows, who knows, they might call the police.” His tail swept from one side of his body and then to the other, back and forth; he might have been happy, but he might have been sad. “Before my body gets too bulky to pass through the front door, I’m going to have to leave.”

“Where will you go?” I asked him.

“Somewhere where there aren’t any skittish people or big-game hunters.” He looked at me calmly with his wide eyes.

“Does a place like that really exist?” I had my doubts.

 “The point is, I have to get there, no matter what.” He wiped some dirt away from the corner of his eye with a forepaw and asked me, “Do you want to stay here, or will you come with me?”

I couldn’t help looking around at all of the clutter in the room—books, clothing, jewelry, cups and glasses, umbrellas, handbags, shoes . . . Puma saw it all: “No matter where you go, the only thing you’ll ever possess is yourself.”

We looked into each other’s eyes for a long time, until finally I leaned forward and unfastened his collar, which had grown too tight.

When I got to the leather goods shop, the leatherworker had just finished eating lunch. He glanced at the collar in my hand. I’m sure he thought it was a belt for someone with a rapidly expanding waistline.

I told him I wanted to have him make a longer belt that I could attach a leash and ring to, so that I could fasten an animal to it. The artisan gave me a meaningful look, then stared at the strip of leather, but he managed to observe the virtue of silence throughout. My gaze came to rest outside the shop, where people schooled like goldfish in sunlight like flowing water. Soon, nightfall appeared before me, viscous. All grew quiet, and I saw myself riding on Puma’s back, firmly secured by a rope attached to his collar. I didn’t know which direction we were headed; I had to trust his intuition, but I could be certain that Puma’s range would keep expanding, becoming ever wider and broader. He ran hard and fast, guided by instinct, intoxicated by this rare and precious freedom. Once again I buried my face in the deep gray jungle of his fur, that dark, profound night.
 

Originally published in Lost Caves 失去洞穴. © Hon Lai Chu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Andrea Lingenfelter. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2018 issue
from the June 2018 issue

Chewing on Words

Speech and writing aside, there must exist other routes to the heart of language. Perhaps the “chewing words” method buried along with City 1997 was merely one of those.  
 

The International Fictional Cities website (www.internationalfictionalcities.com) makes it easy to find cities as tiny as those numbered 1982 to 1996, or 1998 to 2007. Users can locate them on interactive maps, view 3-D photos of any street they like, and learn about the latest developments from a virtual guide. But City 1997 is like a runaway mystery train, never stopping at stations, tearing past blankly staring passengers as quickly as a dream, as though it were never there.

And yet I can't shake the memories of sitting with my mother on the 1997 subway platform. With my bottom glued firmly to the plastic of its gaudy yellow benches, I’d insist we keep on waiting. Back then, my mother's job meant we were always shuttling between 1982, 1999, and 2003. These were microcities, as tiny as fleas; their populations ran to a few hundred thousand at most, and they were very close to one another—sometimes, the ride between 1982 and 2003 was less than half an hour. Even so, we’d spend hours on the platform, watching one train after another flash before our eyes, waiting for one of the N30 models they'd stopped buying in the year 1997.

My mother never forced me onto the new-style trains that I so disliked and, even now, I can still feel the intensity of her self-restraint. According to her, I’d inherited my stubbornness from my father. And, without a doubt, she'd been just as tolerant of him; she loved us more than I can fathom. This love was tested more and more as the N30 trains were steadily phased out, leaving us waiting on the platform for longer and longer stretches.

At times, my mother would forget why we were waiting. Would appear to forget, also, the source of all the torment—me, sitting there beside her. Her eyes bored into the half-built skyscraper opposite, as if seeing through to a formless world beyond the bustle. She worked as a translator but in these moments seemed to shed language, slipping into a silence that was almost tangible.

City 1997 seemed to have disappeared into the same black hole as language. It was as though someone had suddenly pulled the plug on a speaker, letting the sound slide down the coil of the cable, then locking it inside the black box of history. As trains raced past, they robbed waiting passengers of their conscious minds, and in the resulting vacuum I could visualize more clearly what my mother had told me, about everyone losing their voices. Faces were squashed against the train windows, mouths frantically opening, but beneath the engine’s roar they were nothing but a silent tableau. When the trains were gone, the air was hazy, filled with an unidentifiable dust.

There'd been a morning, ice-cold as a dream, when residents of 1997 suddenly lost the ability to form words. To begin with, everyone assumed only their own throats were afflicted and, in their shock, shrieked incomprehensible sounds into the air, then heard them echoed from the gaping mouths of everyone else. They looked at their windows and the familiar grain of their wooden floors. Elevator doors opened, took them in, carried them down to the street, where the traffic lights still changed color every fifteen seconds. The sky was a dusty blue, inverted in the concave glass cladding of the skyscrapers. The city seemed the same, only now there was a person crouched on the ground, squawking like a bird, pointing up at a street sign. Someone else ran by and noted the sign's four strange, primitive pictograms, but had no idea what they meant. In a well-practiced gesture, a doctor pulled a beloved fountain pen from his pocket, only to find the first drop of black ink on paper sent all the words running from his brain.

Silently, the people of 1997 arrived at a consensus: It wasn't their voices that they'd lost, it was all memory of their language. Everything they saw was familiar, but they could no longer name it.

Language was replaced by shouting, crying, laughing, and gesticulating, as though the city had regressed into a second infancy. All day long, TV stations broadcast meaningless static. You had only to look out of a window to see fighting and bloodshed, although no one could explain why it was happening.

My mother was three months pregnant with me at the time and couldn’t bring herself to worry about the chaos all around her. Instead, she reclined silently on the bed and watched my father, who sat at his desk with his back to her. For days, he'd been staring dumbly at the tall stack of papers that made up the handwritten manuscript of his just-finished novel. My mother waited quietly for him to acknowledge her existence, having already tried shouting, crying, hitting, biting. But he couldn't tear his eyes from those alien words. After three days without eating, he fell to the floor, where my mother could still see the grief on his ashen face, overriding his hunger.

Like most residents of 1997, my mother had no idea that ours was the only language destroyed by the disease—that is, assuming it was all caused by a mutated virus, as people would later claim. By the time residents came to the dim realization that they'd been invaded by foreign powers (although I know most 1997ers disagree with this terminology), the television stations had been taken over and were broadcasting all kinds of foreign-language news and entertainment programs. Before long, there were neighborhood patrols and a provisional government, and our city was swamped with outside medical personnel and accompanying armies. Experts from all over offered opinions on how the original residents should be settled and governed, and while they had their differences, all agreed it was not feasible to reinstate residents' memory of their native tongue; the only way to save the city was to make them learn a new one.

Reportedly, involvement from those various governments quickly restored order to 1997 but also caused the formation of linguistically segregated neighborhoods. The breakup of the city became unavoidable. According to International Fictional Cities, this was when the boundary was established between the up-and-coming cities of 1982-1996 and 1998-2007. You won't find any trace of 1997 among those new-build developments now. The old city records linger like anguished spirits with their tongues cut out, the complex brush strokes and lithe, graceful characters unable to impart information to anyone ever again. Now, the deceased city is conjured only through translated literary works—their fidelity no longer possible to determine—and the meandering, unreliable narratives of the elderly.

The residents of 1997 suffered, of course they did, but felt enormous gratitude for the troops who had come to save them. They babbled their new languages like infants learning to speak, as though devoid of all history. My mother was a determined woman: in those challenging times, not only did she single-handedly care for my father, she also learned several new languages, having discovered a hitherto unknown aptitude. By contrast, my father's silence seemed to have become an immutable fact of life.

Was my silence due to some leftover strain of the same virus? My mother would button up my coat and take my hand as we left the house. I wouldn't talk, so she kept taking me to the hospital for tests, where the doctors would place different kinds of fruit in front of me. “This is an apple,” they'd say, opening their mouths exaggeratedly wide, describing perfectly commonplace items until I burst into loud peals of even more exaggerated laughter. Next, they'd place their ice-cold stethoscopes on my chest, as though listening for all the words I hadn't said out loud. Every single one diagnosed me with Type-7 autism, but I knew my mother wasn't convinced; she thought there was something else behind this silence that had afflicted first my father and now me.

If I could still see the two of us reflected in the train windows as it pulled into the station, my mother’s eyes would be brimming with hope. She'd be willing me to stand up and step into the carriage; to tell her all my secrets. I sympathized, I really did, but even though I wanted to please her, my reflection always stayed on the bench, straight-backed and blank-faced, until the signal sounded, the doors closed, and the train departed.

Over time, there'll be fewer and fewer former 1997 residents inclined to resist the new languages. And, like my father, they'll be less and less understood. When the new cities were allocated their share of 1997, they busied themselves celebrating. The pop and flash of fireworks seemed to occupy every last inch of space, and those silent leftover 1997ers shrank into the shadows. As people would later declare: 1997 became a city within a city; the shadow behind the light.

Why did my father choose to leave without saying good-bye, just before I was born? All I can say is, while he never learned to understand my mother's languages, neither did anyone ever truly understand his silence.  

My mother had no idea. While she was in the hospital giving birth, my father mutely loaded his manuscript and book collection into a handcart, then wheeled it out of the house and over to a temporary rubbish dump. This was an enormous junk pile inside a vacant lot bounded by a chain-link fence. He would have seen a whole city of old, discarded objects and, perched on top, an assembly of blank-faced humans. They all looked off toward a clock tower in the distance, as though waiting for a particular moment to arrive.

And so he sat down among them, calmly awaiting that unknowable juncture. If someone were to have laid a fire—well, then they'd have watched together as their city died. But they must have been hungry, sitting out there on top of the rubbish. Such a fine collection of books, why not rip them apart and stuff them into their mouths? I don't know who was the first to think it, but whoever it was snatched a small scrap from my father's copy of A Beautiful Era. At first, the paper was a little dry and bitter, and he had to wash it down with mineral water. But, gradually, his face suffused with an unprecedented clarity.

Time and time again, I chew thoughtfully on my father’s manuscript and, as I do, I inch closer to experiencing how he and those others must have felt.

For the first time, they would have been able to taste the texture and flavor of those supposedly dead words. They would have delighted at how this deepened their understanding of language, to a degree more profound than they'd ever experienced before. But, very quickly, they would also have realized that they had no way to express this new understanding to anyone else. Yet they kept cramming the words into their mouths. Kept cramming, despite the pain of knowing that, once eaten, the words would vanish from history.

My father must have wanted to share this joy with others, which is why he brought his manuscript home untouched. Did he have a premonition that I'd be both its first and final reader?

Waiting on the platform with my mother, as the trains rushed past us and disappeared, how I wished she, too, could have understood all this.
 

© Dorothy Tse. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Natascha Bruce. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2018 issue
from the June 2018 issue

Apple

In this bizarre tale by the Hong Kong writer Xi Xi, a once banal, everyday fruit intoxicates the popular imagination of Fertile Soil Town. 
 

1

“How come so many people are applying for travel documents?” an official from the Immigration Department asked.

“Thousands and thousands of ’em are turning up out of the blue—it’s really strange.” The official who processed paperwork inked stamp after stamp.

 “If this were a bank, it’d be a run.” An achy-handed official signed certificate holders’ photographs over and over and over . . . 

 “Is our country hosting the world’s largest beer festival?” The consular official filled in numbers in the “Visas and Comments” section.

“Maybe everyone wants to have a white Christmas.” A flying eagle emblem landed on the lower left-hand corner of the fifteenth page of a hardcover booklet.

“The European consulates are swarming with people. Aren’t the Spanish Olympics over?” A stamp depicting the king’s profile was superimposed on top of another stamp.

“The tourism industry is booming!” The staff member from the travel agency’s ticketing department held the phone receiver and said, “I’m sorry, this month’s plane tickets are all sold out.”

“But why haven’t any of the usual tour groups been organized? Everyone’s setting off alone. Is this the age of traveling the world solo?” The young tour guide hadn’t led a group in half a month.

“Most of the people traveling alone aren’t young but middle-aged—there aren’t any elderly people or children, either. It’s really quite something.” The airport restaurant waiter was unexpectedly idle. The large air-conditioned eatery buzzed with a single fly.

“Business is going great. I never thought it’d be so good. People are turning up in droves to buy thick plush socks and gloves, along with those woolen caps that look like chimneys, the kind that only expose the eyes. What’s going on—is everyone planning to climb Mount Everest?” the owner of a small shop specializing in mountain-climbing supplies asked, rushing to wire an order for additional merchandise to replace what had been sold.

“My business is just as good. People sure love traveling in winter! They keep coming in to buy heavy-duty rainproof and windproof pop-up tents, down sleeping bags, camping knives, camping lights, cooking utensils, compasses, and maps. Folks today are full of get-up-and-go.” The manager of a sporting goods company pushed the latest novelty, a mountain-climbing motorcycle, into the display window. A jeep that could wade through water and trample duckweed was already parked at the store entrance.

“So then, what’s the reason that my business is doing so well? Everyone’s clamoring to order the most comfortable beds and bedding,” the agent from the furniture store said.


2

That particular summer, Fertile Soil Town was bustling like never before. As in previous years, when summer came around, it was customary for the town to hold a large-scale cultural festival that, in addition to a variety of drama, music, dance, painting, and sculpture exhibitions and performances, also featured a special contest. Due to boycotts and protests from women’s groups, the Miss Fertile Soil Town Pageant of yesteryear had been replaced by competitions such as Fertile Soil Town Soccer Player of the Year, Fertile Soil Town Model Youth of the Year, and the like, all of which made for exceptionally lively extravaganzas. This year broke relatively new ground: in honor of the first Internationalization Campaign, they decided to put on an Apple Pageant. Various groups would nominate the world’s most outstanding, most popular, most admired, and most praised apples of all time, and then a bronze statue would be erected in the square in front of City Hall to commemorate the winner.

Before summer had even arrived, the whole town was already brimming with excitement. Fruit stands made apples the star of their promotional campaigns. Cafés rolled out apple-themed meals. Coffee shops sold apple pies. Italian markets crafted specialty apple pizzas. Streets and alleys overflowed with apple cider, apple ice cream, apple candy, and apple yo-yos, along with apple-branded clothing, hats, scarves, swimsuits, and so on. Everyone sang songs about apples. All of the medical clinics gave out apples as a token of thanks to every single patient who came in for a consultation.

Before summer had even arrived, the contest nomination forms poured in to Fertile Soil Town’s Ministry of Culture, which then, after preliminary review, selected five finalists. One of the forms, submitted by the Fertile Soil Town Women’s Club, nominated the golden apple from Greek mythology. This apple, as everyone knows, was intended to be awarded to the fairest of all the Greek goddesses. Every goddess coveted the golden apple, but the judge, Paris, presented it to Aphrodite, as Aphrodite had promised him Helen’s hand in marriage. Helen, however, was already betrothed to Menelaus, but Paris didn’t care and abducted her, which resulted in a ten-year war in the city of Troy. There’s a famous poem by the Greek poet Homer that recounts this incident. As Helen was the most renowned beauty throughout history, there was profound meaning to the Women’s Club’s nomination.

The police force, Civil Aid Service, armed forces, and martial arts community jointly nominated William Tell’s apple because of his godlike marksmanship, which rivaled that of the famed Han dynasty general Li Guang: with the single shot of an arrow, Tell was able to split an apple on his son’s head exactly in two. Given this demonstration of abundant military skill and outstanding courage, William Tell naturally was an adored and venerated heroic figure.

The academic community nominated Newton’s apple. Academic circles seldom participated in these competitions—they kept their heads buried in work, rarely displaying any sort of romantic feelings. This year, however, they made an exception and put forth their own nomination, as Newton was a scientist whom they greatly revered. It was a tiny, tiny apple that led Newton to discover gravity.

Religious groups nominated the fruit from the Garden of Eden. After Eve ate this fruit, she was expelled from paradise, and henceforth, humans were born with original sin, paradise lost for all eternity. In the preliminary round, the jury hesitated when it came to Eden’s forbidden fruit, since no one could prove whether the forbidden fruit that Eve ate was actually an apple. Painters have flipped through countless catalogs, concluding that it was probably an apple, since many well-known paintings have clearly so depicted it, but scholars have had no luck in their various efforts to research, trace, and seek out its actual identity, since the Bible only refers to it as the forbidden fruit, and there is no evidence of the word “apple.” Perhaps this is why the forbidden fruit wasn’t the recipient of the Apple Award Grand Prize.

Educational circles nominated an apple from a fairy tale: the apple that Snow White ate, prepared just for her by the Wicked Queen. After eating it, Snow White fell into a deep slumber until a handsome prince came to save her, whereupon they lived happily ever after.

The whole town voted for the Apple Award. The entire population of five million, including the elderly, children, tourists, and green card holders, were all eligible to vote. In the end, the apple from “Snow White” was crowned the winner. People voiced numerous opinions about the Apple Pageant, and every day the newspapers published their critiques. Some said that while the golden apple itself was good, it led to war, and war was definitely not good—there wasn’t one person in Fertile Soil Town who welcomed it. Some found William Tell’s apple to be truly worrisome: it scared the living daylights out of mothers, as the whole thing was too close a call and simply came down to a stroke of luck. Some declared Newton’s apple to be pretty good but noted that gravity had already existed—Newton merely discovered it but didn’t actually invent it, so it didn’t seem to be that significant a contribution to humankind, unlike electric lights, rice cookers, televisions, and videogames, all of which were comparatively more useful.

People unanimously praised the apple from “Snow White.” What an extraordinary apple! they said. If you eat it, you can avoid all disasters, and when you wake up, you’ll meet a handsome prince and thereupon live happily ever after. Happily ever after was the life for which each Fertile Soil Town resident yearned.

Before long, statues of Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs, the Wicked Queen, the handsome prince, and the magic apple were unveiled in the square in front of City Hall. Everyone cheered, applauded, shot off fireworks, knocked back a few drinks, and feasted on apples: a wholly festive summer. Within a week, bookstores sold a million copies of children’s books, especially anything having to do with Snow White. Supermarkets sold out of applesauce. Young people all pinned apple brooches to their lapels. The elderly clutched their applewood canes. Women went out and about coiffed with apple hairdos sprayed red and green. Adults filled out membership forms to join the new Apple Club, an Apple MasterCard tucked in every pocket.

Only one person sat motionless beneath an apple tree, waiting to finally see an apple flying toward the sky, in order to confirm that the Earth had lost its gravitational pull.


3

“I’m sorry, we’re all out of storybooks about Snow White,” the children’s librarian told a group of adults waiting in line.

“We’ve sold out of every last book about witches,” the bookstore clerk called out from his perch on the highest rung of a steel ladder.

“Apple seeds? Apples aren’t houseplants—how about planting some other fruits and vegetables? We have seeds for tomatoes, chili peppers, Chinese okra, papayas, and peas, as well as sword beans, red beans, mung beans, and corn . . . ” the woman who owned the flower shop said.

“You’ve asked us to keep airing apple-themed programming, so today we’re going to teach you a few more apple recipes. Now we’re going to introduce apples with fish slices, apple-stuffed shrimp, and apple salad. Apples contain no fat and have natural sugar. Each apple has an average of only eighty calories . . . ” the guest host of the TV show said.

“These people never know how to address their envelopes clearly,” a young bespectacled employee in the mail-sorting office grumbled to a letter.

“There are still undeliverable letters without street names and house numbers?” A clerk who also wore glasses held up a piece of mail at nose level.  

“Once again, someone’s written Fertile Soil Town as Floating Soil Town. They always write Fatal Soil Town, Floating Soil Town, Flying Soil Town, or Futile Soil Town, but can never leave well enough alone and write Fertile Soil Town.”

A Christmas card sent from the state of Illinois contained the following typewritten line: What? Is Floating Soil Town going to be swallowed up?

They all went out searching. I knew that they were looking for Snow White’s stepmother. They were on a quest to find that extraordinary apple. They wanted to eat the apple, and then they could lie down and sleep for a long, long time, and when they awoke, all of their nightmares would have vanished, and everyone would live happily ever after, forever and ever. Let’s go look for that extraordinary apple, they said. Let’s take a bite of that apple and go right to sleep, they said. Let’s sleep through all of the unpleasantness and our dire fate, they said. Let’s wake up to a beautiful country, where people can live and work in peace and harmony without a care in the world, they said.

So they all set off in search of the apple. Would they be able to find Snow White’s stepmother? Was she still alive? Did she still have that extraordinary apple? Was a happy country still waiting on the other side of sleep? I had my doubts, but they all went looking. They said, What choice do we have? There’s nothing we can do anymore except look for the apple. So they all went off to find the apple. And as for me, what was I to do? Merry Christmas.

蘋果 originally published in Plain Leaves Literature 素葉文學; reprinted in the author’s A Woman Like Me 像我這樣的一個女子. © 1982 Xi Xi. Translation © 2018 by Jennifer Feeley. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2018 issue
from the June 2018 issue

Reimagined Cities: Fabulist Tales from Hong Kong

1997

or 9971

what’s it

to me

—Xi Xi, “Pebble”

 

Hong Kong’s unique geographical, cultural, and historical positions offer much to inspire the magic realist and surrealist literary imaginations. Since the 1840s, the territory has undergone British colonization, Japanese occupation, and, depending on one’s perspective, a return to the motherland, or, alternatively, a Chinese recolonization. It is part of China, yet the two are separated by immigration checkpoints, as well as palpable institutional and lifestyle differences.

For several decades prior to 1997, when sovereignty over Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, the British Crown Colony was caught in between the political struggles of the Nationalists in Taiwan and the Communists in the PRC. The result was an alternative Chinese space with no national identity, the freest in the Sinosphere until martial law was lifted in Taiwan in 1987. One could openly read literature that had been banned in China for being too “rightist,” literature that had been banned in Taiwan for being too “leftist,” and Republican-period Chinese literature that had been banned in both places, in addition to foreign literature translated into Chinese. It was an ideological battleground as well as a neutral space, where pro-Communist and pro-Nationalist newspapers were sold side by side. It served as a point of refuge from the Chinese civil war in the 1940s and later from the authoritarian governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. From the 1950s through 1970s, mainlanders flooded into Hong Kong in search of better lives. Many swam all night across treacherous bodies of water; some drowned or were eaten by sharks, or were shot dead by People’s Liberation Army soldiers. Others were returned to China by the Hong Kong police. Those who safely made it became vital contributors to Hong Kong’s economic boom in the ’70s and ’80s.

Since the early 1980s, when Chinese and British government officials began discussing plans for the territory’s future, the year 1997 loomed as a specter in Hong Kong literature, a reminder of the city’s precarious future. What would happen when the clock struck midnight on July 1—like Cinderella’s magnificent carriage, would Hong Kong suddenly transform into a pumpkin, or did a happy ending await?                                                                                                                       

On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the handover, in 2017, a statement issued by a spokesperson from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sparked international controversy for seeming to belittle the Sino-British Joint Declaration as a historical document no longer of “practical significance.” Signed in 1984, the international treaty laid the groundwork for Hong Kong’s subsequent transition from a British colony to a special administrative region of China. Enshrined in the Joint Declaration is the governing formula of “one country, two systems” that grants semi-autonomy and civic freedoms to Hong Kong residents, guaranteeing the territory’s right to maintain independent executive, legislative, and judicial institutions through at least 2047. Since the recent anniversary of the handover, Hong Kong has been under increased scrutiny, and for many, the spokesperson’s remarks confirmed their sense that the Chinese central government is encroaching on the city's autonomy and eroding freedoms that are supposed to be protected by law. These views were reinforced when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong last summer to commemorate the anniversary, delivering a sternly worded nationalistic speech and presiding over a grand parade that showed off Beijing’s military might.

Though Hong Kongers have asserted their voices at various points throughout history, they have never been able to truly self-govern. The desire for genuine universal suffrage triggered the 2014 civil disobedience campaign, Occupy Central, also known as the Umbrella Movement, in which democracy activists occupied several of the city’s main thoroughfares for a total of seventy-nine days, making it one of the territory’s longest-running protests. In late 2015, five of the city’s booksellers who’d published politically sensitive material were allegedly abducted and later reappeared in the mainland, causing concern that China had breached the terms of the Joint Declaration. Last July, the Asia Society Hong Kong Center refused to allow student activist Joshua Wong to speak at the launch of PEN Hong Kong’s anthology Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place, prompting PEN Hong Kong to relocate the event (which Wong ultimately missed to participate in a sit-in protesting President Xi’s visit) and leading to accusations that the US-based Asia Society was “kowtowing to China.” Moreover, six pro-democracy “localist” lawmakers were disqualified from serving on the Legislative Council for failing to display the “requisite solemnity and sincerity” during their swearing-in ceremonies.

For the past two decades, Hong Kong has been “an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.” Its economy is largely dependent on the mainland, and Chinese visitors regularly flock to the city. Yet these closer ties actually have illuminated the territory’s uniqueness. Localism is on the rise, especially among the younger generation, with writers, artists, and intellectuals striving to preserve Hong Kong’s distinct history, culture, and memories. One of these undertakings is the Atlas Project, funded by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, which brings into English several previously untranslated works by established and emerging literary voices, including the three authors in this feature. Similar endeavors that promote the vibrant polyphony of local literary voices include the journal Fleurs des lettres, co-founded by Dorothy Tse; The House of Hong Kong Literature; Penguin’s recent Hong Kong Series; compilations of literature written by the city’s Southeast Asian domestic workers; the newly established academic journal Hong Kong Studies; and the above-mentioned PEN Hong Kong, among many others.

Hong Kong is situated at the convergence of multiple literary and linguistic traditions. Its official written languages are English (a colonial language) and Chinese, the latter only becoming official in 1972. While there is no official Chinese spoken language, the majority of Hong Kong residents speak Cantonese, though since 1997 Mandarin (for some, also a colonial language) has become more widespread, especially in public announcements, which are usually broadcast in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. There are writers, especially graphic novelists, who have incorporated Cantonese into their work, and perhaps the future will see the rise of a Cantophone literature. At present, however, Chinese-language literature in the territory is primarily composed in standard written Chinese, including the three stories in this feature. Standard written Chinese has a different grammar, and often a different vocabulary, than Cantonese, creating a gap between the written and spoken word. As Andrea Lingenfelter observes, most outsiders, and many in the mainland, regard Cantonese “as a dialect, a language that sinks beneath the surface of the written word (standard written Chinese) and is thereby rendered inaudible, unless a Cantonese-speaking author is reading his or her work aloud.”* Nevertheless, a benefit of writing in standard Chinese is that it allows for Hong Kong literature to be read in Taiwan, mainland China, Singapore, and other Sinophone communities—for example, the authors showcased in this feature all have dedicated audiences in Taiwan, where they regularly publish their work and have received major literary prizes. Yet even “standard” written Chinese has its variations, and a Taiwanese or mainland editor might ask a Hong Kong writer to change certain words or phrases to better accommodate readers outside the territory, thus domesticating the language for a different region while further distancing the text from its roots.

The three writers who are the focus of this feature—Xi Xi, Dorothy Tse, and Hon Lai Chu—mainly write outside of the realist literary tradition. Much of Xi Xi’s writing is labeled as magic realist or fairy-tale realist, and Tse and Hon are noted for their surrealism and absurdism. Similar to Kafka, who hailed from a Central Europe of ever-changing borders and coexisting languages, they fuse together elements of reality and fantasy, crafting fanciful worlds that are grounded in the mundane. They rarely mention Hong Kong by name, either dreaming up alternate designations for the city, or not referencing it at all. Xi Xi’s fictional stand-in for Hong Kong, Fertile Soil Town, is a place with mythical origins that floats to and fro, no destination in sight. In “Chewing On Words,” Tse recreates Hong Kong as City 1997, a flea-sized micro-city that “seems to have disappeared into the same black hole as language.” While the city in Hon’s “Puma” is unnamed, development and urbanization lead to its inhabitants’ imprisonment and alienation. Renaming or not naming Hong Kong gives these authors the freedom to construct competing versions of the city vis-à-vis its official history, enabling them to invent their own limitless realities.

Xi Xi was born in 1937 (though until last year, she thought she was born in 1938) in Shanghai and immigrated with her family to colonial Hong Kong in 1950, one year after the PRC was established, placing her among the first generation of writers to have grown up in the territory. Born in the late 1970s, Dorothy Tse and Hon Lai Chu are part of a younger cohort of writers. Like Xi Xi, Tse and Hon frequently write about Hong Kong, as evinced in the stories that make up their coauthored collection, A Dictionary of Two Cities, where they express raw, heartfelt emotions toward their home. The three women also share a fascination with the fantastic, and Tse is in the final stages of writing a scholarly monograph about Xi Xi.

Xi Xi wrote the earliest selection in this feature, “Apple,” in December 1982, three months after Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping began the first formal negotiations of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and fifteen years prior to the handover. It initially was published in Plain Leaves Literature, the noncommercial literary journal that Xi Xi cofounded with friends, and later reprinted in her famed short fiction collection, A Woman Like Me. In fairy-tale fashion, “Apple” tells the story of Fertile Soil Town residents who become entranced by Snow White’s poison apple and set off on a quest to find it so that they may fall into a deep sleep while misfortune passes them by. The story’s whimsical style belies an underlying ambivalence; unlike the children’s tale to which it alludes, there’s no guarantee that the townspeople will end up living happily ever after, thus reflecting the anxiety and uncertainty felt in Hong Kong in the early 1980s regarding the territory’s eventual return to Chinese sovereignty.

As a former primary school teacher, Xi Xi regards fairy tales as specially significant. The first book she recalls reading as a child was an illustrated version of Snow White, and she found herself particularly delighted by the characters’ colorful clothing. She counts Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” and the writings of Hans Christian Andersen among her favorite literary works. One of the characters in “Beard with a Face,” her short story based on Italian author Gianni Rodari’s Fairy Tales Over the Phone, muses that as long as there are readers, fairy tales will continue to gain new life through their countless retellings and reinterpretations. Xi Xi believes in the enduring relevance of fairy tales for understanding contemporary society, and while she prefers to use a light touch to broach serious topics, she cautions that her predilection for comedy as a literary technique shouldn’t be mistaken for comedy itself.

Whereas Xi Xi’s “Apple” leaves the future of Fertile Soil Town open-ended—will it be swallowed up by foreign invaders and the sea, or will everyone get their happily ever after?—the fate of Dorothy Tse’s imagined city in “Chewing On Words” is downright chilling. Tse envisions a dystopian universe dotted with micro-cities that calls to mind Wong Kar-wai’s film 2046, where passengers journey by train to the future—one year before the expiration of the “one country, two systems” policy—in order to “recapture lost memories.” In Tse’s unsettling piece, City 1997 (whose name references the handover) vanishes from existence, and its former inhabitants lose all memories of their language and thus are unable to speak. This anxiety over the disappearance of language is evocative of real-life fears that in Hong Kong, Cantonese eventually will be eclipsed by Mandarin, as depicted in one of the shorts from the recent film Ten Years, where a Cantonese-speaking taxi driver is no longer understood by his passengers. Natascha Bruce, the translator of this piece, notes: “I like that the story manages to be clearly didactic and politically charged without being predictable or heavy-handed in how it goes about it. . . . There’s also something delightful, as a translator, about translating a story about lost meanings, barely grasped meanings, and untranslatability.”

Tse muses that “the political implications are almost too obvious, which I think is not the best thing for a story, and most of the time something I try to avoid as a fiction writer. However, I also believe that writing is about experiments and interactions with life that should appear in as many ways as possible.” “Chewing On Words” is from the book she cowrote with Hon Lai Chu, A Dictionary of Two Cities. The stories in this collection were first published in the journal Fleurs des lettres between 2006 and 2012 and reflect Tse’s and Hon’s impressions of Hong Kong society during that period.

While the residents of Tse’s City 1997 are rendered mute, Hon Lai Chu’s “Puma,” from her short-story collection Lost Caves, conjures up a world in which an absurdly large house cat inexplicably is able to use language to engage in intelligent communication with his owner. Transformed and deformed bodies appear in both of Tse’s and Hon’s stories published here, as well as in many of their other works. In Tse’s “Chewing on Words,” former City 1997 residents are presumed to be suffering from some sort of disease due to their inability to speak. In Hon’s “Puma,” the cat outgrows his owner and eventually can no longer be contained in her apartment, and he questions whether she desires to “cling to the identity of a sick person.”

Andrea Lingenfelter, the story’s translator, points out that both “Puma” and another of Hon’s feline-themed stories, “Notes on an Epidemic” (included in Lingenfelter’s translation of The Kite Family), display Hon’s “affection for cats and her acute sensitivity to issues of social control. . . . Pets do indeed provide meaningful companionship to people, and this is what Hon explores in ‘Puma’— that intimate relationship and the special communication that passes between humans and other animals. It also touches on the ethics of ‘owning’ animals and explores and overturns the power balance inherent in human-pet relationships.” In this reversal of species hierarchies, it is the cat who ends up rescuing his owner, encouraging her to cast off the clutter of modern urban life and become free. Hon regards the cat as “an intimate friend, a soul partner, or a guide to the ‘I’ in the story. He is a bridge between her conscious and subconscious, the self and inner self who helps her reconnect with herself and nature.”

In each of the stories featured here, the fictional proxy for Hong Kong disappears or is left behind: The denizens of Fertile Soil Town embark on a worldwide trek so that they may escape their unpredictable fates; all traces of City 1997 are erased from history; and the narrator in “Puma” abandons her city to find solace and freedom in the wild. Yet in spite of these erasures, all three works ultimately could be read as tales of survival—surviving an unknown future, surviving a new form of governance, and surviving modern urban society.

*Quotations from the authors and translators in this essay come from personal correspondence.

© 2018 by Jennifer Feeley. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2018 issue

June 2018

from the June 2018 issue

While He Was Sitting There

In this story of sexual desire by Mortada Gzar, an Iraqi student at a gay bar hooks up with an American soldier who drives home the side effects of war.
 

It’s got to be the tenth time this has happened to me. I go out into the back alley of this bar to smoke and he approaches me with a greeting. “Cheers!” he says, clinking his glass against mine. Then he laughs, utters a few words in ammiya, says he was a soldier at Nasiriyah or Baqubah or Ramadi. Then he starts crying, then laughs again and hugs me, squeezing my ribs, then leaves, vanishing into the shadow of the back door.

He’s the third white soldier I’ve met this month. If I went every Tuesday, I’d meet a whole battalion of them, all soldiers from the occupation. I don’t give them my real name, but say something like Jibran, Miran, or Uftan, starting up my mental crane and pulling out easy, musical names. If they ask what it means, I say Jibran is a mountain in the south, Miran means “happy boy,” and Uftan is the heavenly angel who comes down to rub the bellies of married couples to spark in them lust for a night of passion. Then there are Zabdan, Shahman, and Kashamshan––I pretend “zebras,” “darkness,” and “raisins” are faithful saints who lived in the last century and have famous shrines.

 “Oh, nice name, I like your name . . . ” they tell me. “Say that again, Kashamshan? That’s adorable, man.”

Even Jeffrey, the black soldier with a silver nose ring, likes my many names, repeating each with appreciation, stopping every time to listen to my conversations with the soldiers. Jeffrey is a regular at this bar, one of its features, part of its scent.

“What brings you here?” the soldiers always ask.

“Studying,” I always reply.

Jeffrey mentioned recently that someone was asking about me. “Which name did he use?” I asked. I remember well where each of my names travels; I would know who he was by which one he used.

 “He didn’t use a name. He said ‘that Middle Eastern guy who looks like he’s from India and talks like he’s from Puerto Rico.’”

“Do I really look like that, Jeffrey?”

“I don’t know, to me you look like one of those Saudi students and talk like you’re from Iran.”

During the four months that followed, I rarely left home except to go to class, visit the doctor, shop for food, and see a friend in the north of the city. My curiosity jinn slept, and I never thought about the guy looking for me at the soldiers’ gay bar. But when I passed my oil and gas exam, I decided to go get drunk. It was raining, so I bought an umbrella, then went out to wait for the bus going down the hill so I wouldn’t end up at the Tuesday bar.

After half an hour, I decided the downhill bus wasn’t coming and crossed the street to board the bus going the other way. Realizing this would bring me near the Tuesday bar, I surrendered to its alluring pull and headed that way all the same. I convinced myself that these soldiers, guilt-ridden as they were, could teach me a thing or two, and that it would be unkind of me to avoid them.

Happy to see me there, they all bought me drinks to assuage their guilty consciences. I stood in the middle of the crowded bar, soldiers surrounding me like a circle of dancers, their affection taking the edge off their regret. I didn’t fill up on all the bullshit; I knew I only matched their stereotype and perfectly performed the Hollywood image of me. An Iraqi like the Iraqis in Hollywood war films, encircled by Americans like the Americans in Hollywood war films. My reward: glass after glass of vodka and lemon soda.

My Tuesday bar is open every day; it’s cheap, and has filthy bathrooms, walls scribbled with insults and expletives. These are their memories and stories, their questions and jokes, their truths and lies. One of my made-up names is written on the wall in congealed grime, and what looks like my face has been sketched on the door beside a series of badly written Arabic letters, a soldier’s memory of the last thing I had tried to teach him.

Jeffrey told me, “That guy is here, the one who’s been asking about you for the last four months. There, in the corner.”

As I got up, I saw a gigantic pair of legs sticking out of the corner. This guy is made of legs and nothing but legs! I told myself, and, turning back to Jeffrey, whispered in his ear, “You never told me he was a giant!” Jeffrey's ears were pierced, like his nose. It made you feel as if words would have no effect, as if they would go in through the hole in his ear and out the one in his nose.

I turned toward the gloomy corner and approached the legs. The man sat on a stool at one end of the bar, his legs like two wings, like hands on a clock tower, like scissors, like two words with the same meaning.

Our conversation was unremarkable. I had anticipated a little more excitement from him, since I was the man he'd been looking for. But when he told me that he had been a soldier in a Baghdad battalion, he recited the words coldly. Was I not the one he’d been asking about all this time?

He seemed agreeable and at ease in spite of his coldness, untouched by the war. One thing I didn’t understand: Why did the eyes of the other men avoid him, even though his body brimmed with appeal, charm, and gay virility? I don’t think someone is beautiful unless he attracts the eyes of onlookers and passersby; those eyes belong to him, like accents and accessories on his body. Why didn’t they care about this man, adorn him with their gazes? Why didn’t they compete for his love, his attention? My ardor wavering, I forgot the issue of the Arab beast trapped in my pants.

I asked him, “How come you show no sign of shell shock, no side effects of war like they do?”

He got up from the stool, licked his lips, and said, “You want to see my side effects?” Without waiting for a reply, he walked out the back door and disappeared into the dark, narrow alley. Follow me, the muscular ginger’s shadow seemed to say, neither lying nor joking. I must admit, I had felt strangely aroused when he uttered the phrase “side effects”! My Arab beast, awakened by visions of his size and roughness, began to stir, and I went after the ex-soldier with the two gigantic legs.

I found him leaning against the wall and took him in my arms. He loosened my belt.

When I raised up his body, he asked, “How’s that for a side effect?”

I said, “Yes. I liked it.”

His breathing quickened. “I was looking for you to tell you about my side effect.”

I said, “Yes. I liked it.”

Then his body relaxed suddenly and my beast came out, now dangling like a rat kicked out of a mosque.

Afterward he asked, “Are you done?”

I said, “Yes. I liked it.”

I backed away from him, giving him a smile of thanks. He sat down and adjusted his khaki shorts, and while he was sitting there, while he was sitting there . . . something scraped against the pavement and I heard him curse loudly, and as I reached out for him I saw his leg, his plastic leg, tumble to the ground.
 

© Mortada Gzar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Claire C. Jacobson. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2018 issue
from the June 2018 issue

From “Foucault in Warsaw”

In this excerpt from his literary nonfiction debut, Remigiusz Ryziński looks back on the French philosopher-provocateur's 1950s stint in Poland, which drew the attention of the secret police. 


Urban Legend

Michel Foucault came to Warsaw in October 1958.

He took a position as the first director of the newly founded French Cultural Center at Warsaw University.

It was in Warsaw that he finished his doctoral thesis, later published as A History of Madness.

Yet in mid-1959, he was forced to leave Poland.

The reason was a certain boy.

Jurek.

To this day, no one knows who this boy was.
 

*          *          * 

The Boys

Meeting

Waldek put on his best pants, brushed his hair, rubbed some of his father's aftershave on his cheeks, and left the house. It took him and the boys nearly an hour to drive from Saska Kępa, on Warsaw’s right bank, to Okęcie airport. It was evening—warm, because it was summer.

Foucault was waiting in the arrivals hall, back from a short trip to France. Waldek smiled and held out his hand.

He wanted very much to go to France. And here was his chance: a man who came from there!

Waldek was nineteen and looked like a kid. He was just discovering the city and himself—but it was happening so fast, like an avalanche.

He was going to the cafés. He had a lover—Stefan—and a few close friends.

That summer evening, Waldek, Stefan, Jurek, and Mirek went to Okęcie. Later, they were joined by Henryk, whom they called “the Countess.” They went from the airport back to the city center, straight to Rutkowski Street. They threw a party. Wine, vodka, and some snacks to go with it.

This was their group: Foucault; the host, Waldek, with Stefan; Mirek, who was in love with Stefan; and Jurek, single and always in high spirits, the real soul of the gathering. And Henryk too, though he acted mainly as translator. All he wanted was to look at and spend time with young men, that was enough to keep him happy.

Waldek and Michel gazed at each other and exchanged a few words.

Nothing took place.

Waldek’s lover, Stefan, was the obstacle. So was the lack of a common language and Waldek’s modesty.

Some time had to pass before finally, one balmy night, Waldek spent the night at Foucault’s.

That was how it happened.

Like an avalanche.

[…]


Recruitment

On April 21, 1962, secret police agent Henryk Terakowski knocked on the door of Waldek’s apartment in Saska Kępa. This operation had been carefully planned. From previous intelligence, he already knew that Waldemar Ś. had: Polish ethnicity and citizenship, an engineering degree, and a working-class social background. On his documents, under “current social position,” was written intelligentsia. For “Party membership”: non-Party. Beyond that: a bachelor, no criminal record, no previous work with other intelligence organs. Terakowski had a photograph of Waldek and a description: boyish looks, a naive expression, auburn hair brushed to the side, an oval face, short stature. There were two options for the terms of recruitment: voluntary and forced. In Waldemar’s case it read: voluntary.

The agent knew Waldek was homosexual. On that basis he had selected him as a possible lure in a case he was conducting on a Frenchman, codenamed “Patek.”

He did not yet know that he had uncovered a much more valuable source.


The Report on Foucault

Before Waldek was introduced in detail to the “Patek” case for which he had been recruited, Terakowski requested he give precise and comprehensive information on persons known to him, particularly homosexuals. He told Waldek to make special note of foreigners.

A few days later, Waldek gave Terakowski a memorandum he had prepared. He wanted to have something to show, he wanted them to leave him alone and in peace, so he considered this first batch of information particularly important. He therefore cast his memory back to 1959 and described the only foreigner he knew at that time: Michel Foucault.

“Probably in the summer of 1959, I learned my friend had made the acquaintance of a Frenchman by the name of Foucault. Because I knew a little French, it was decided I should meet him, which I proceeded to do. At a time when Foucault was to return by plane from Paris, Stefan O., Jurek R., and I went to the airport to welcome the foreigner. (I stress they both already knew Foucault.) Upon greeting him, we all went to his home on Rutkowski Street. In the apartment I also found Henryk R., whom I had known for some time and to whom I was close despite our difference in age. I returned to Foucault’s apartment a number of days in a row. Each day, I found the company I mentioned above, though with small changes, because, as I realized, this foreigner was a homosexual who enjoyed changing his ‘bed boys’ fairly frequently. Despite our acquaintance, nothing intimate transpired between me and Foucault in the course of those days, because of Stefan, who was my friend and in front of whom it was unsuitable to do anything. We were only intimate once Stefan had left Warsaw with Mirek from Mazowsze, since they had met in that apartment and, I felt, were attracted to one another. I then spent the night at Foucault’s and relations took place between us, naturally at my companion’s initiative. I only returned to the apartment another few times, and as a result I did not even know when Foucault had left Poland. I of course found out about it, but only later from friends.”

In a secret police memorandum prepared the day after his meeting with Waldek, Terakowski wrote: “The Foucault referred to in this report is a frmr. French lecturer at WU. Currently the informant maintains no contact with him. However, he knows from acquaintances that Foucault currently lives in Paris with a friend/lover of his.”

That “friend/lover” was Daniel Defert, Foucault’s partner. This Waldek knew from Jurek, who used to look after Foucault’s apartment and knew him best back then.
 

Jurek

There is not much that can be said about Jurek.

Perhaps only that he was born, he lived, and he died—prematurely. Someone might recall that he had two successes in life: the “Countess” and Foucault.

Jurek wrote an autobiographical statement when he was applying for work in the performance ensemble of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In it, he stated that in 1958 he had passed the entrance exam to the State Theater College in Warsaw, then dropped out a year later and gone to Gdańsk, where he sometimes performed at the Teatr Rapsodyczny. He was young, good-looking, and loquacious. He had every chance in the world, yet he quickly realized that neither a diploma nor even a stage could guarantee popularity—only the proper contacts could do that.

After returning to Warsaw, Jurek performed at various theaters as secondary characters, replacements, and understudies. In the evenings, he did popular shows at the Adria, the Kameralna, or the Astoria.

But he never made a name for himself in the foreground of the stage.

No theater archive has any mention of him, except one saying he was an understudy for an actor in the chorus.

The opinion of the manager of one of the theaters where he worked: “He made himself known as an employee of middling acting skills.”

Another theater fired him for disciplinary reasons, because instead of acting in the show, he accepted a well-paid, one-off job performing in a program in honor of Lenin’s birthday.

He’d hoped that would be a mitigating circumstance.

It was not.

When went to meet Foucault at the airport, it was Jurek who brought the keys to the Frenchman’s apartment on Rutkowski Street. Whenever Michel was away, he would leave the place to Jurek with the refrigerator full. A few times, Jurek had invited guests over and thrown raucous, drunken parties. One event that attained mythical status was an orgy including two prostitutes (women) who were secret-police plants.

Yet Foucault trusted this boy who had no money, no job, who didn’t know the language—whose mind swirled with dreams of a spectacular career, of photos, lights, and champagne.

Yet no grand stage and no champagne ever featured in Jurek’s life. More often, it was gloom and vodka.

There were legends circulating about the holes in the walls of his apartment. These were peepholes drilled through a wardrobe from the living room to the bathroom. They were for spying. When a soldier or laborer came to the apartment, Jurek told them to take a shower, claiming he was very clean and a stickler for cleanliness in others. The boy would go to the bathroom, undress, wash, and behave freely. Meanwhile Jurek would go into the wardrobe and discover the joys of voyeurism.

“It was about emotions,” recalls one witness. “That this soldier would take off his uniform, pull off his suspenders, and climb into the tub naked. That was what added spice to the whole story. As for spending the night, so what? They did their thing, turned their asses to one another, and slept.” 

Jurek was a bachelor, but at the age of twenty-eight he adopted a boy—Maciej.

To this day, this is a great mystery: how was it possible?

The adoption was “complete and entire,” meaning the total severance of any links between the adopted child and his biological family, while his new guardian’s status was indissoluble. Jurek was therefore a father by law—though in life, not so much.

Jurek’s mother looked after the child. The mother, Jurek, and Maciej have all passed away. No one can explain the true story behind the adoption. Jurek’s granddaughter never met her grandfather. Today, she recalls her family saying, “He wasn’t an interesting person.”

“My father didn’t actually talk about his family, and my mom didn’t ask,” says Zuzanna. “It seems he was aware he was adopted and didn’t trouble his head with it. But it’s unclear to us why the family decided to adopt a child and how it was possible. Unless by some accident this Jurek was his biological father? Only then, why would they put off the adoption for three years? My father believed he was adopted around that age because he had flashes of memory from the orphanage.”

Zuzanna knows her grandfather was gay. That wasn’t spoken about at home either. She never thought to dig into the past, although—she wonders—in the end, maybe it’s worth doing?

Today, only one person lays flowers at Jurek’s grave in Bródno Cemetery: an old acquaintance from the Alhambra club, Andrzej. He doesn’t know how all this was possible either.

How was it that solitary Jurek adopted Maciej?

Why was he the one with the keys to Michel Foucault’s apartment?

Was this the Jurek who made Foucault have to leave?

Andrzej, like everyone else, only remembers vodka on the table first thing in the morning, all-night drinking bouts, and peepholes in the wardrobe, through which Jurek used to watch naked soldiers.
 

The Countess

The closest friend Jurek made was Henryk, nicknamed “the Countess.”

The Countess—born in January 1912—was not an aristocrat in the slightest. He knew many people, visited many people’s homes, and for one reason or other everyone thought the Countess’s blood really was blue. Maybe it was because of his manners, which were excellent. He also spoke perfect French. He wore a morning coat with striped pants and minced around like a dandy. He was the picture of an aristocrat.

There are two types of people who knew him: those who didn’t know he wasn’t a count and those who didn’t how he earned his living.

The Countess’s name and address appear in Michel Foucault’s private notebook from this period. Nothing connected them beyond friendly and free-flowing conversation. Foucault’s everyday life in Warsaw was divided into his daytime professional routine and his evening recreational one. At work in the French Center, he could only talk about philosophy and literature. Meanwhile he was still young and single, interested in young men and madness.

He was on the lookout for evening-time possibilities, but at that time language was an obstacle. He didn’t know how to make himself understood to the boys of the city. So maybe it was Henryk—a Francophile of the old school, a young spirit curious about the world—maybe it was he among Michel’s Polish acquaintances who introduced him to the street life of Warsaw?

In at least one case, this was certainly so.

Henryk was very insistent that his charge, Jurek, should move in good circles. He knew the boy was lacking in talent, but he was handsome and sociable. The authors Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Jerzy Andrzejewski, the composer Zygmunt Mycielski, the poet Paweł Hertz—they each had a young man of their own. So Henryk wanted one too. He introduced Jurek to Michel Foucault and turned a blind eye to their romance, and by the end was only with them when playing the role of translator.

When the two of them were alone, they could understand each other without words.

“He was a personality,” says an old friend of Henryk’s. “People used to bow down before him when he walked into a café or to the bathhouse at Messalka’s on Krakowskie Przedmieście. Which he did often. Because there, the Countess was the queen of the establishment. She was well known, distinguished, and openhanded, so young boys gathered around her who were on scholarships or not on scholarships, or who in any case weren’t earning much or got small allowances. The Countess would always take them for dinner, for coffee—in a word, she helped out. Even so, her relationship with Foucault was close but definitely not physical.”

Little information about Henryk R. can be found in the secret police archives of the Institute of National Remembrance. His passport files only indicate numerous journeys—with his wife and children. Under “profession” it reads: man of letters, which perhaps encompassed most broadly the Countess’s innumerable talents.

According to information from Division VIII of Department II of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, from 1958 to 1971 Henryk maintained “extensive contacts” with employees of the French embassy. He went to receptions and cocktail parties and met privately with representatives of Francophile organizations, doubtless including Michel Foucault.

Many people say Henryk was a wonderful character: loving and admirable, friendly and helpful in every situation. The only competition he had was Karol Hanusz—the cabaret artist known as the king of the Roxana.
 

Mirek from Mazowsze

The secret police notes on Mirosław cover the whole of the 1960s. That was when Mirek was at the height of his career in the Mazowsze State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble. He traveled abroad, fell in love with Stefan, and thanks to him, met Michel Foucault.

In one photograph, he had a long, oval face, very pale, a long nose, eyes with straight brows, rather thin lips, large ears, a high forehead, his blond hair combed up high.

A romantic type.

Agent “Zygmunt” reported that Mirek was a “very hardworking, conscientious, and dutiful” fellow, which he felt might be surprising given the dancer’s young age. Unfortunately, despite his discipline and hard work, to the agent’s mind he was not suited as a soloist. Perhaps not even for want of talent, but rather due to “the strong competition and his delicacy of character.” In addition, the agent noted, “the boy’s life lacks order and he is politically immature.” On international trips he was “well-behaved and cause[d] no trouble.”

Mirek was so modest and quiet that his male colleagues from the ensemble made fun of him, so by day he preferred the girls’ company.

“He really stuck with the girls,” says Maria Jopek, a soloist in Mazowsze who made friends with Mirosław. “But you could tell there was no more to it than that. We knew Mirek was looking for a different kind of relation.” 

That’s why his marriage to the daughter of one of socialist Warsaw’s few successful capitalists came as such a surprise. It shocked his friends from the Roxana, but no one said a word.

Such marriages were common in those days.

Mirek’s close friend from Mazowsze, Marek Keller—Jerzy Andrzejewski’s lover and today a philanthropist and donor to institutions including the Fryderyk Chopin Museum in Warsaw—adds that Miroslaw was a favorite of Mira Zimińska-Sygietyńska, who took the charge of the ensemble in 1957 and became its icon. As manager, she frequently defended him from the aspersions of his colleagues and the schemes of the secret police.

“Mrs. Zimińska was an institution,” says Keller. “Whenever the latest denunciation arrived, she would take the person in question to one side and tear up the paper in front of them, without reading it. And she loved gay men. Nothing surprised her, because in that profession it went without saying.”

In other places, people thought differently. One comment in Mirek’s file is a handwritten note from an agent, asking (we do not know whom): “Can’t we chase these types out of Mazowsze?”

Another agent, “Krzysiek,” noted of Mirek when describing the ensemble’s trip to the United States: “One of the most active homosexuals. He has had a large number of contacts with men in nearly every city. As he left one city, he would obtain contacts of this type to men in the next. He constantly went around with them at night. He would receive gifts and money from them. He made friends with a homosexual through an American producer. [. . .] Politically, he gives the impression of devotion to People’s Poland. Discussing the matter of ‘how things are in Poland,’ he always defends his country. He has had a rather ironic relationship with the Americans. Through F.’s contacts he has caused fear he might stay in the United States or something similar, where he could arrange work for the others. That was my impression, of fear.”

Nothing connected him to Foucault apart from Stefan. He loved Stefan so much that he wanted to throw himself under a train because of his relationship with Waldek. Foucault wasn’t on the boys’ minds at that time, because the three of them were caught in a love triangle.

Many years later, Waldek ran into Mirek on the street. He remembers Mirek had a handsome figure, of course, being a dancer. He was tall, he could be attractive.

“But he was effeminate, you could work out he was a fairy.”

And to Waldek, the most important thing of all was masculinity.
 

The Boys from the Report

They all met with Foucault:

The Countess, because he knew the language.

Jurek, because he knew the Countess.

Waldek, because he wanted to go to France.

Mirek, because he followed Stefan everywhere.

And Stefan, because he liked a good time.

Apart from them, everyone in Warsaw knew one another. It was a closed environment. They also knew Michel Foucault. People said: that Frenchman, you know. And everyone did know.

From Foucault w Warszawie (Warsaw: Instytut Reportażu, 2017) © 2017 by Remigiusz Ryziński. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Sean Gasper Bye. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2018 issue
from the June 2018 issue

Dori and Jina

In this excerpt from Choi Jin-young's To the Warm Horizon, Dori, fleeing a pandemic that's wiped out the country, meets the nonchalant Jina and finds herself desiring more than mere survival.
 

Dori

I opened my eyes. The bonfire had gone out. I could hear a babble of voices. Speaking Korean. It sounded like more than a couple of people. It was still dark outside. I woke Miso up and took a peek. There were two large box trucks parked in the vegetable garden. I did a head count. There were more than ten people. Several of them waved their flashlights into the house. I hid in the farthest corner of the room with Miso in my arms. People were busily lighting a fire and heating up their food. They made hot water from the snow and washed their hands and faces. The smell of grilled meat wafted in. I gagged. I held Miso tightly in my arms. So she wouldn’t be able to smell anything. So she wouldn’t be able to see anything. With only a wall separating us, these people ate and drank and spoke in Korean. They called each other honey, you, sir.

—Jina. Jina.

A man spoke in a low but resounding voice.

—It’s dangerous. Don’t go off on your own.

This “Jina” didn’t seem to listen to the man. The man called after Jina several more times. Along with a flashlight beam, a small head suddenly popped through the window. A little later I heard light, quick footsteps in the direction of the missing door. I hid Miso behind my back and took out my jackknife.

The flashlight beam that had suddenly appeared out of the black empty space shined on me.

—Jina, get back here. Don’t go just anywhere. I’m telling you, it’s dangerous.

The person who had lowered her flashlight before approaching me leaned out the window and shouted.

—Fine! I’m coming, I’m coming.

Jina turned from the window and looked over at me without a word. I held the jackknife up to my chest. Jina did not draw any closer. She laid down the flashlight, pointing the light at herself. With her face and body totally bundled up in bulky winter clothes, I could make out only a pair of eyes and a nose under the hat. Jina, who was staring at me intently, suddenly took off her woolen hat and revealed more of herself. Her hair was a dark blood red. I recoiled in surprise. Miso squirmed and stuck her head out from behind me.

—Oh.

Jina broke the silence.

—I see there’s a little kid, too.

She drew a little closer.

—Is she your little sister?

She asked without hesitation, as if to chat up a friend.

—Surely she can’t be your daughter.

She murmured like she was thinking out loud, combing through her disheveled hair with her fingers.

—Is it just you and the kiddo?

Jina did not put up her guard with me.

—You’re from Korea, right?

I did not let my guard down. Jina scratched her cheek, looking at me as I said nothing in response.

—A-im peurom Koria.

Out of the blue, she spoke English.

—Wheo al yu peurom? 

I sensed a slight Gyeongsang dialect.

—Naiseu tu mit yu.

She took another step toward me and extended her hand.

—If it’s not this either . . . Hajimemashite.

After greeting me in Japanese, Jina quietly gazed at me for a moment, fixed her fur hat, and switched back to Korean.

—Don’t worry. We’re not bad people. No one’s infected, and we don’t eat kid liver. We’re going to spend the night right out there and leave in the morning . . . But still, I won’t tell anyone that I saw you here.

With a faint smile, Jina slowly backed away into the distance. The light faded, and the air fell dark again. I felt like I had dreamed with my eyes open. My heart was pounding hard. Not because I was afraid . . . No, I was afraid. No, it wasn’t that I was afraid . . . I was afraid.

Miso signed.

—Are we leaving now?

I nodded, then shook my head. I signed back.

—Let’s stay here tonight.

 

Seated upright, I kept dozing off. Between my catnaps, the view outside the window gradually deepened into a black blue. At last I ended up lying down on my side. My consciousness poured into a black pit as if I were plunging into hell. Even in my sleep, I remembered Jina’s English and chuckled. My laughing surprised me, and I woke up. A small bonfire was blazing. I sat up. Jina held out a small cup.

—Coffee.

Jina placed the cup in my hand. Wondering if this was a dream, I merely watched the pure white steam bloom and rise from the black liquid. Jina wrapped her hand around mine, tipping the cup to try the first sip. Then, without letting go of my hand, she tipped the cup to my lips. My lips were gently wetted by the black liquid. It was real coffee. Real. Coffee. I sipped it sweetly. I felt the warmth spread inside, and it felt like every cell in my body was startled awake. I did not take my lips off the cup and kept taking little sips.

Jina muttered, patting my shoes.

 —Your shoes are a mess.

Her hair was blood red last night. I was thinking about how much I wanted to take off that fur hat to see if I’d dreamed it all up—just thinking about it—when my hand tugged at it, exposing her red hair.

—Agh . . . My hair’s probably super gross and oily and matted down . . .

She muttered again as she ran her fingers through her hair, but she did not show any sign of embarrassment.

—You’re also from Korea, right?

She warmed her hands by the bonfire.

—What should I call you?

I was flustered.

—You can call me Jina.

Jina came into focus, right before my eyes. Hers were the color of ash. She rubbed her nose.

—By the way, where are you going? Have you decided?

My eyes could not lie, and Jina kept trying to meet them. I lowered my head and drank the coffee. Jina laid her hand on mine and pressed down a little. It felt like she was saying, Lift up your head and look at me, so I looked up. 

—Do you want to go with me?

Jina, with those gray eyes and that red hair.

—Let’s go together.

I knew. What it was I needed. Where it was.
 

Jina

The early risers were filling the open air with their voices and clatter. I stood outside the window and waved Dori over. She held Miso’s hand and walked up next to me. I pointed to each person, explaining who was who. Then I locked eyes with Dad. He remained unperturbed even when he saw Dori. My dad was a hard man to surprise. In Korea, my extended family all lived together in the same neighborhood. There used to be more than fifty of us altogether. More than thirty people died among us. In a matter of two days. Even then, Dad did not panic. My aunt who lost her parents and her children hanged herself. My uncle who lost his wife and his children jumped from his apartment building. My dad, who lost his parents, his wife, and his siblings, declared with a terrifying look on his face that he would not let anyone else die. Dad started accepting gold and diamonds left and right, selling off all the cars from his used foreign car dealership. Except for two box trucks, sturdy and large. He crammed our living relatives into those trucks along with a load of necessities, and we made our escape from Korea.

People used to tell me that I’m a lot like my dad. After hearing this repeatedly growing up, I really thought I resembled my dad. Now I see it differently. It’s not that I actually resemble my dad; it’s just that I grew up hearing that I resembled my dad. Which, in turn, made me a lot like my dad.

 

I said I wanted to take Dori and Miso with us. Dad didn’t think long about it.

—Just this once.

That was his answer.

—You can’t take anyone else now.

He added, to be safe.

—In order to ride with us, you’ll have to compensate us in some way.

He looked directly at Dori.

—If you happen to be carrying a gun, hand it over already.

Without a word, Dori opened up her knapsack and let my dad rifle through it. He then patted down Dori and Miso. When Dad found a jackknife in Dori’s pocket, he burst into laughter.

—What can you even do with something like this?

Dad mimed opening a can with the jackknife without wiping the patronizing smirk off his face. But when Dori said she had escaped Korea and traveled on foot from Ulan-Ude with Miso, he was briefly at a loss for words.

—Without anyone’s help?

Dad eyed Dori’s blank expression.

—Without killing anyone?

Dori didn’t answer. Miso, despite the scared look on her face, smiled a little when she met my gaze.

—How long did it take?

—I didn’t count the days.

He paused for a bit.

—Sure.

Dad put her jackknife in his pocket. Dori asked him to give it back.

—It’s too dangerous for you to carry.

—The itty-bitty thing that can barely open a can?

—Doesn’t matter. No. 

—Please give it back.

—I’ll give it back to you when I can trust you.

—There’s no need for that. Please give it back now.

—What do you mean?

—I’m saying, it’s OK if you don’t trust me. Because I won’t be trusting you, either.

Dad fiddled with the jackknife and stared at Dori for awhile. She did not avert her gaze.

—I suppose it’s better than asking you to blindly trust me.

He returned the jackknife to Dori.

—You cannot disobey my orders from now on. If you do, I’ll have no choice but to kick you out. And it’s best that you not expect us to treat you like family.

Several of my relatives aired their grievances when they heard Dad’s decision to take Dori and Miso with us. The reproach: How many strays are you planning to pick up off the side of the road? The complaint: You must think there’s plenty of food to go around. The suspicion: Since you decided to give them a ride without knowing anything about them, what are you going to do once they start stealing from us? The concern: We might get randomly attacked just for having a little girl with us. But no one could really go against his decision.

I locked eyes with Gunji, who was reclining on a truck tire, combing his hair over his forehead, assuming a serious expression. He was the only one among us who wasn’t family. Gunji, too, came to ride in our truck because of me. We were neighbors for over a decade. Gunji spent more time at my house than his own. Gunji was often beaten up, both at home and at school. My mom even went to the school and fought with his teacher. She paid a visit to each of the parents whose children hit Gunji and argued with them one by one. But she could not fight Gunji’s dad. Such an effort could have led to her death.

After Gunji’s mom became sick and died, his dad drunkenly tried to kill Gunji and himself. Gunji hid in our cellar and refused to come out, even after his dad died. I was not able to look after Gunji, who had starved for several days, stuck in the dark cellar. Recalling those days . . . time collapses on itself. I can’t recall the events in order . . . No, there is no order. Everything happened at once. Gunji’s dad and my mom and my relatives and our neighbors all died in an instant. The sun came up even when I did not sleep. I could not breathe, but I did not die. I was in a state of consciousness where I could not distinguish whether the things I was seeing and hearing were nightmares or reality. Looking at a burning building, I wondered if it was something that I had done. Looking at the people who had died, I trembled with fear, unsure if I had killed them. The world spun on in a macabre dance. A distorted melody sounded from every direction. Though I did not speak, a spell of curses leaked out on their own. Though I didn’t cry, tears flowed down my cheeks. When I got on the truck to leave, I met eyes with Gunji, who had been quietly watching us from behind the cellar door. Only then did I realize that Gunji was still alive. I sprinted over and grabbed him by the hand. Gunji held on to the door and refused to come out. Even when I pulled so hard that I nearly fell backward in that high-stakes game of tug-of-war, Gunji would not budge one bit. Dad jumped out of his truck, threw me on his shoulders, and tossed me into the cargo hold. Shrieking at the top of my lungs, I ran back to Gunji. If they wanted to take me with them, they had no choice but to take Gunji along as well. My family did not take to Gunji, who was not family to them. But Gunji kept his head up. He grew much more assertive than he ever was in Korea.

 

—Sis.

The other day, Gunji had talked to me with a dazed look on his face.

—I just remembered this time I was watching soccer on the salon TV, a game against Qatar or something. Anyway, some old man getting a haircut was watching it too and got all riled up and started cursing. Then he said, “Ah, they’re such crap, it’s like they’re playing with their feet!”

I waited for Gunji to continue.

—He was mad that they were playing soccer with their feet.

Gunji said again, this time with emphasis. Only then did I understand and burst into laughter.

—So the lady was like, “They run around and kick the ball with their feet. What are they going to do, run their mouths like a certain somebody around here?”

I could picture that whole scene so well that I was giggling for awhile, then stifled myself mid-laugh. I felt the adults’ icy stares.

We who had lost our family and become refugees could not laugh.

We had left our jokes and our laughter behind in our hometown.

The adults did not speak unless it was absolutely necessary. To them, words were like a bucket used to draw from a well of emotions. The longer they talked, the more biting sentiments like criticism and resentment splashed past the brim. And though they never raised their voices or spat out horrible insults, conversations kept cooling off. The self-recrimination and guilt—the belief that it was a sin to have survived and a further sin to continue evading death, that you and I were wicked humans all the same—had struck deep into people’s dim eyes and speech. I knew. That our misery made us like this. That we were pinned down by death. That we could not be free from memory, that we were too exhausted to look out into the future. For those reasons, I was even more certain that I did not want to gradually resemble misery. I did not want to belittle life. I did not know what death or life really was at this point, but I at least did not want to think of it as some kind of mistake or punishment. With that sort of thinking, I could cope with neither Mom’s death nor my life.

—I might be wrong to think this way, but . . .

One night, Gunji spoke as if he’d entered a confessional booth. He said there were times when he actually felt relieved to live in the present, where he didn’t have to go to school and his dad was gone and everyone was equally unfortunate. That now he didn’t think about wanting to die, at least. That he felt confident about not getting beaten up by anyone if he were to return to Korea and attend school again, but didn’t want that sort of “what if” to materialize.

—So you don’t want to go back to Korea?

—There’s nothing good there anymore. Your mom’s not there, either.

—Do you have somewhere else you want to go, then?

—I’ve been thinking about that all this time, and . . .

Gunji was thinking about the future. The kid who used to have a habit of repeating, “It’s better for scum like me to just drop dead.”

—I think an ocean that’s warm year-round would be nice.

Gunji said even if it took a long, long time, he would keep moving forward and never give up and reach a place like that at any cost. He said he would build a house by the beach and swim in the ocean. He said he would catch fish and pick sweet, tangy berries and give them to someone he loves. Gunji had a dream. This dream that he’d never had in Korea he developed after the disaster.

—Sis, do you want to go back to Korea?

I thought I’d for sure go back to Korea once everything settled down. How could I have thought such a thing? What was in Korea? There was nothing there. Just as there’s nothing here. No. Here, there’s family. There’s an endless road before us, and a tomorrow we can’t predict. Back in Korea, I wanted to be a fashion designer, but now a dream like that is useless. A warm ocean where I can build a house and swim around and catch fish and . . . I must dream such dreams. Because fashion designers may no longer exist, but an ocean that’s warm year-round must exist somewhere. Because regardless of how much time passes and whether humans go extinct, the ocean would be there.

—Or, do you wanna come with me?

Gunji’s eyes shone with determination, something I’d never seen before in him. To dream. To share that dream. For Gunji, a dream was something new that he’d never touched before, something like first love that could be simply embraced without alteration or calculation because he’d never failed at it before. I tried imagining the warm ocean of a world in ruins. Like the silence that lingers after a long symphony, the image grew empty and forlorn somehow.

 

I tried to give Dori my shoes, but she wouldn’t take them. She turned away even when I slipped her some food that I’d saved for her. Dori didn’t touch anything belonging to the truck. She’d sit only on the outermost edge, where she could, at any moment, open the door and jump out; in the meantime, she sat in her corner like someone who could neither see nor hear, or like a bundle of blankets. Seeing Dori act that way, one of my aunts commented that “at least she knows her place.” My aunt-in-law was less forgiving, though, saying, “That girl is too cold-hearted. When an adult asks her something, she should at least say something in response.” Even as the adults exchanged such words with one another, Dori didn’t change her silence or her blank expression. She sat still like a doll and even breathed silently, and only appeared to become human when she looked at Miso. I, in turn, became a doll as well. I sat across from them and just kept staring at Dori.

Every part of Dori—her eyes, nose, lips, ears—was slender and long. Her slim, petite body looked like a sapling one would plant on Arbor Day. I wanted to comb the tangle of hair coming down from her fur hat. I wanted to comb it and put it in a nice braid or just cut it to her shoulders. I wanted to tell her, You’re really cute. How old was she? Where had she lived? What had she done for a living? What had happened to her parents? How had life in Korea been for her? Though I was curious about all of those things, I didn’t ask her anything. I didn’t ask; I simply gazed at her. Inside the bumpy car I’d made conversation only in my head, taking silence as a reply, and so I thought it was fine to not know those things. I didn’t know Dori’s wounds, and Dori didn’t know mine— perhaps that’s why we could see each other as we were in that moment. It was even possible for us to build a new story of our own.

 

After speeding down a two-lane expressway all day, we drove into a city in ruins. Like all the places we’d passed through so far, it was shrouded in snow and darkness. I occasionally spotted some people but couldn’t tell if they were locals who lived there or drifters stopping by. The streets were bleak and dirty, and every store bore traces of having been looted. We decided to repair the car and spend the night there.

Even when my family gathered for dinner, Dori and Miso sat far away from us as they ate a little bit of canned food and drank bottled water from their bags. And then they disappeared. I worried that they’d maybe left for good, but they returned before dark. Dori was wearing shoes that weren’t new but didn’t have holes in them. Miso’s shoes were different, too. Dori made a small fire using the building near our truck as a windbreak and laid out everyone’s sleeping bags. Watching her do that made me angry. Especially because I was wound up after spending the whole day fretting over Dori: where she was and what she was eating and how she was feeling.

—Go sleep in the car instead. If you’re uncomfortable around the adults, you can just stay by my side, y’know.

Dori tucked a blanket over Miso and checked on the fire.

—I’m telling you, even if something bad were to happen, it’s safest to be by my side.

Dori shook her head and muttered.

—There’s nowhere safe.

—Yeah. So let’s stick together.

—I’m fine out here.

—But I’m not fine with that.

—Don’t worry about me.

—How can I not worry about you? I’m the one who put you in this car. 

—I really do appreciate it.

Dori spoke very slowly.

—I’m being careful for a reason. Everyone’s lost their family. They probably don’t like me showing up out of the blue and acting like I’m part of the family. Why did my kid die, and why is that kid alive. Why is that kid eating the food that my kid should’ve eaten. That’s how they look at me . . .

—Fine. Suit yourself.

Because I couldn’t tell Dori she had it all wrong, because I couldn’t hate her for saying what she said, because I couldn’t argue any longer, I was about to turn around when Dori held my hand and promptly let it go. A small box sat in my hand, like a magic trick. I opened the box. Lipstick. Glossy and rose scented.

—Where did you get this?

I murmured, unable to take my eyes off the tube. Dori gestured to my hair.

—I thought it’d go well together.

I put it on immediately. My lips being dry and chapped, I couldn’t apply the product as smoothly as I had in the past but felt better just smelling the sweet rose scent right under my nose. Dori cleaned up my lip line with her finger. I tried to put it on Dori as well, but she dodged and refused. Elated, I jumped around Dori like a filly, and then brought over my sleeping bag and blanket from the truck.

—Didn’t you say you didn’t want to sleep in the car? I can sleep here, then.

—Your dad won’t like that.

—Doesn’t matter.

—If your dad doesn’t like me, then I can’t ride in his car.

—You should lie down soon.

Dori didn’t listen to me, and I didn’t listen to Dori either. I clutched the lipstick, lay on my side, and looked at her. The moment Dori gave it to me, I realized how much I’d been wanting it. On this desolate, frozen expanse of land—on this endless, endless road—amid these people weary from misfortune and despair, I’d been wanting exactly this sort of thing. Something that I couldn’t eat or wear, but made me more myself. Something that I couldn’t do without, like jokes and laughter, despite everyone calling me pathetic. And then I was filled with regret. When we left Korea I’d grabbed only a few photos as keepsakes of Mom, but I really should’ve held onto more things like the lipstick. Mom’s makeup, Mom’s scarves, Mom’s pajamas, items that bore Mom’s scent and trace.

My mom’s hair salon was a fun playground. I played with the brushes, wigs, and makeup there from a very young age. It always smelled nice in the salon. The yogurt in the fridge and the coffee mix never ran out, and there was always some snack, like pastries or rice crackers or boiled sweet potatoes, set on the old table in front of the sofa. Mom didn’t have to prepare the food herself because the neighborhood ladies kept bringing it over. They reminded me of the rabbit in a children’s song, who comes to the spring to wash his face, but leaves after only drinking the water; they would bring food to share, chat about all sorts of things, and then suddenly clear out of the salon saying, “Oh, look at the time.” The regulars were like sparrows that delivered all sorts of fun stories in their beaks.

The summer I turned fifteen, I was playing with the straightener, alone, when I completely burned off the ends of my hair. That was when Mom cut my hair short. I was very pleased with myself in the mirror. Because Mom had shaped my hair well, I sometimes cut my own hair. It was very easy. I just had to cut away my hair with salon scissors as I’d cut down weeds. Once I even cut Gunji’s hair. When I finished, he erupted like a volcano. I insisted on how cool and unique his new hairstyle was. Despite being persuaded, Gunji came back from school the next day and erupted again. I also learned how to do makeup from my mom. Mom was good at finding colors that complemented my skin tone. Mom was someone who loved beautiful things, was beautiful herself, and knew how to find beauty. Grandfather had left it up to Mom and Dad to choose a name for me because I was a girl. Mom named me in a heartbeat. I loved my name. Because it was the first present that my mom ever gave me. Even when I got into a fight with a friend, my annoyance would subside as soon as she called my name. I’d think, How important could this petty grudge possibly be?

—Jina.

Dori called my name, caressing my cheeks.

—Please, I’m asking you. Go sleep in the car.

Half asleep, I still managed to shake my head.

—We have to stay together. That’s the only way we can be safe.

I don’t know if I said that before I fell asleep or while dreaming. I’m not even sure if it’s something I said or something Dori said. When I opened my eyes in the morning, nothing else but those two sentences had stayed with me so vividly. Like a tattoo across my heart, of a maxim that only I could recognize.
 

From 해가 지는 곳으로 (Seoul: Minumsa Publishing Group, 2017). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2018 by So J. Lee. All rights reserved.

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from the June 2018 issue

Nihilism

Uncurbed by either pretense or punctuation, Vietnamese poet Nhã Thuyên plays with nothingness as the tangibility of meaning. 

___________________________________________

In the ongoing fruitless search for a third-person-singular and gender-neutral term that remains both familiar and human in English, as "hắn" does in Vietnamese, the author and translator have settled on “that one.”

I don’t want to construct an obvious figure, actually, I can’t stand the model who fuels inspiration into this short story, I can’t stand that one the way someone with a chronic sinus infection can’t stand abnormal shifts in weather, I can’t stand that one to the point that every time I happen to be sitting among that one in a crowd, I start to feel short of breath, or whenever I feel short of breath, I immediately know that one’s scent must be in the air, though when am I ever not short of breath, I don’t want to even give the damn name there a form a hair color of sun-charred rust, a complexion of leaden motor oil, owl eyes or a hawk beak nose, with teeth just begging to tear apart the sky, I would rather no one remember anything about that one, I would rather that one have nothing “memorable,” and forget about the reader’s asking me for that one’s biography, matter of fact for that one’s mood to be more “truly human” of course, such luxury, no I will not stoop to placing a name on this figure, I would even toss those third-person-singular words that I feel are still too overly neutral and objective, like “one,” “guy,” “it,” “he,” “she” unless there was some one-syllable word more deserving, more potently biting to use as a replacement, I couldn’t call that one “zero,” you know very well it’s got two syllables there, and such plump, beautiful ones too, and I couldn’t call that one “shit” or “pig” or “trash” because unfortunately I’m someone inherently fair to all substances and categories of existence, like I said already, I’m not strong enough to kill that one with a gun, anyway how would I even get a gun, I can’t strangle that one, can’t strike that one down, cannot, I’ve got no strength at all, you know very well already how unsavory I am, matter of fact what a loser I am, on my ass all day eating, unemployed, without salary, and the fact that I love indulgently, live crudely, erratically, numerously, the fact that I’m scorning others, and for all that I still don’t have the spine to live quite as brutally as my deep wish is, to complete the self-portrait, like I already said, I decide to write about that one now, without biography, without mood, without name, without a single moral or immoral thing about that one, nothing at all, only to act out my impotent wish, downright tragic, I should find a way to erase that one, erase that one bit by bit, till that one’s extinct, there, there, the loser incapable of adding anything to this colorful diversity of existence, incapable of doing even one empty thing, right there, right there, the damn name watches me in a puddle of filthy water as I piss, a field of loser existence piss.


"Hư vô chủ nghĩa" © Nhã Thuyên. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Kaitlin Rees. All rights reserved.

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from the June 2018 issue

Mina

In this excerpt from Sahar Mandour's novel Mina, a Lebanese actress is blindsided when she's outed by the press. 
 

Mina comes out of the bathroom in her short white bathrobe, hurries toward her bedroom, darts in, shuts the door behind her.

Her room brims with soft warmth from the electric heater, in stark contrast to the weather, to the rest of the house; her lips lift in a smile as she sits on the edge of the bed, getting ready, getting in, full of love.

Her cell phone rings. She freezes.

A single peal, then silence.

She’s startled.

Karma sticks her head out from under the covers, face and voice sleepwhacked, says: What time is it?

Four! Weird . . .

Mina turns toward the sofa, her bag, her cell phone inside it. She takes out the phone, sees “Number withheld” on the screen.

A drop call from an unlisted number?

The phone is in her hand, she’s moving back over to the bed, alarm and exhaustion colliding as they wrestle their way across her face. She sets the phone down on the nightstand, says: Maybe it was a wrong number, let’s not freak out for no good reason.

Karma replies: Let’s not freak out at all! Nothing happened. A phone rang, that’s all.

Mina smiles. Perhaps one day she’ll learn Karma’s knack for trusting the moment rather than constantly fearing the worst.

She slips into bed, lies down beside Karma, puts her arms around her, sinks her face into her lover’s neck, shuts her eyes on the outside world, plunging her whole being into the scent of her beloved’s skin, the scent that so often lulls her into a delicious healing sleep.

The sound of a text message hitting Mina’s phone.

They both give a start.

Mina grabs her phone, opens the message. A URL. She clicks on it, her browser opens to a site with a series of photos.

She winces; she cringes.

The lifelight drains from her eyes.

Her skin crawls, hot prickling horror spreads outward from her neck. She snatches a breath, then another. All she can hear is her heart pounding in her ears.

Reading Mina’s body language, Karma snatches the phone from her hands, looks at the pictures and blinks, blinks again, then holds her gaze steady on the stream of images flicking by. She’s stoic. She grinds her teeth.

Suddenly sensing movement, she looks up, finds Mina throwing her clothes on, her actions so violent they almost mask the shakes rattling through her body, her face contorted, her jaw clenched.

Should Karma reach for her? Or give her some space? What’s going to happen? Mina’s life—will it change completely? What does tomorrow hold for them? And today? Right now? Futile thoughts, an onslaught of questions buffeting her, sideswiping her, sticking into her like pins—until Mina sweeps them harshly aside, trying desperately not to cry, saying: I’m going to move up my trip to Paris, I’m going tomorrow, not Sunday. And I’m not coming back. I don’t want to be here anymore. Fuck this country!

Strangulated words breaking through the tears she’s choking back. She doesn’t want to be weak, but how can she not be weak when she’s as exposed as this?

Suddenly Karma is on her feet and pulling her into her arms, hugging her, holding her tight, Mina’s tears bursting forth and streaming at last, her resistance and her words swept away, her voice breaking.

Mina wailing, Karma holding her tighter and tighter.

Karma knows Mina very well, knows that she won’t fully take the situation in or find her way through it—even by fleeing—until she’s drained herself of tears. She strokes her hair, her cheek, waits for her to calm down a little.

Mina raises her head to take the tissues Karma is offering her, almost laughs at Karma’s earnest attempts to mop the tears and snot from her face, her nose, her eyes. She pulls slightly away from Karma, her head falls into her hands, sharp movements and raw grating sounds, then her face reappears, as if she’s just come round after fainting.

Mina says she’s devastated, overwhelmed, feels like giving up.

Karma tells her she knows, and that it’s fair enough to feel that way.

Mina says she hates her life.

Karma tells her she loves her.

They agree that it’s only natural for them to feel weak, under the circumstances. And they agree, also, that they’ll have to conjure up some strength, even if it has to be summoned from total weakness.

They both feel a certain sense of inferiority in the face of society’s power, but they both respond by affecting an attitude of superiority—so as to overcome violation, and its aftermath.

One day this violation will be in the past, consigned to oblivion, long forgotten. But it’s not in the past yet.

It’s now. Now, with all its constituent parts.

Karma says: Are you sure you want to go to Paris? Don’t you want to stay so we can figure out what the story is?

Mina is agitated: What story?! Is it a story?! No, I don’t want to stay, this whole thing makes me sick, there’s no way I’m staying, it’s not worth itwhat is this, a battle? Is my life a battle? This isn’t a battle, this—it’s a load of shit! It’s . . .

Karma squeezes her tight, trying to reel her back in after losing her to this fit of fury, a fit now culminating in a new flood of hot tears, rising, submerging her rage, and now she’s laughing, giving way. It’s a laugh of submission, and Karma joins in.

Karma knows how Mina works, knows that in the exact moment that Mina laughed she stepped outside of reality, looked back in at herself through the mirror, and saw a woman who had been violated. Humor can flash through any tough situation if the person at its center catches a glimpse of herself performing it rather than actually living through it. Mina had suddenly spotted herself getting drawn into her part, merging with the character she was playing, so she laughed at herself to liberate herself. Knowing this, Karma is tickled, relieved, laughs along. She knows only too well that the best way for Mina to get herself back together is for her to get a little way out of herself.

She slackens her hold on Mina a little, Mina pulls back, straightens up slightly, wiping her eyes, says: Paris, yeah, definitely. But then what? Call the magazine and complain? Sue them? Issue a statement of denial?! Let’s not be ridiculous. The film’ll be shown at Cannes, and everyone’ll forget about this . . . But how am I supposed to forget? Karma, I’m going to Paris, and that’s final!

Do you want me to come with you?

Did you even think for a moment of sending me there on my own?!

I was thinking you might want some space to—

I want you with me.

Karma hugs her again, and leads her into the kitchen to drink some coffee, hoping for a moment of calm before they pack.

Their discussion continues while they make the coffee.

The feature is entitled “Scandal: Mina’s Sex Life.”

So how does one deal with a “scandal”?

At least if it were a blackmail operation there would be a motive. But what’s the justification for this “scandal”? There is none. The scandal itself is the aim of the feature: it’s gratuitous, just like the damage it’s causing.

And in order for the scandal not to be revealed as what it really was—society’s deep craving, the thing that turns people on—people would use it as a screen onto which to project their own supposed purity, and to celebrate their position, and that of their children, up on the moral high ground. It would be an occasion for celebrating the Self, for dancing around the corpse of the Other.

No one would query the "crime," question the scandal, ask what all this meant. They would read the word “scandal” and accept it as the right label for the story. They wouldn’t think for themselves, they wouldn’t extricate themselves and their judgment from the title. They’d close ranks, they’d snap their shells shut, and the ritual sacrifices to the god of Self would begin.

Karma and Mina stop talking at this point, now fully saturated with hatred.

They pack their bags. They catch the plane. Her film wins the Palme d’Or.

She doesn’t go back to Lebanon for two years.

From Mina (Beirut: Dar Al-adab, 2013). © Sahar Mandour. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.

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from the June 2018 issue

The Light Never Reaches Here

In this narrative by Norwegian author Tina Åmodt, two women travel to a remote house in the mountains where past and present create an air of desolation. 

If you move to the wilderness, you need to be prepared for how memory can betray you. In the wilderness, you live in a simple house, you wake to your beloved’s face, you almost exclusively hear her voice. No racket disturbs the nights. No one rings the doorbell with a menacing desire. The recollection of clothes you don’t wear anymore fades. People with whom you daily interact assume indistinct features. Your own face changes. You talk about your surroundings and fishing and stinging mouth sores. You trust what you see. There is no sun. After a while, you stop thinking much about the house, how you behave in it, how well water tastes, with what strength your fingers tackle your lover’s body. In dreams you’ve watched your ordinary life recede. You don’t miss it. You’ve willingly moved out here.

*

The daylight disappears long before we cross the plateau. It’s night. The landscape is blue-white and vast, with gentle rises and declivities. We drive fast, as if all hazards have disappeared because the goal is approaching. The goal is an unwooded spot. The road a dead end. You can glimpse us through the half-open car windows. We’re two women, one dark-haired and one ash-blonde. It’s the dark-haired one who’s driving. She sits slumped with a hand on the wheel. That’s Eli. I’m the one sitting at her side with light bleached hair that blows into my eyes as I wipe the windshield with a variegated green scarf. That’s my job. I scrub a clear view of the star-glinting sky and the snowbanks and the icy, dark road.           

“Thanks,” Eli says. I ask if she’s absolutely sure she doesn’t want me to take over, but she shakes her head. “Relax,” she replies, “I’m not that desperate.” Eli seldom complains. She carries the heavy bags, lets me pee first when we stop, wasn’t impatient that we had to drive in column formation yesterday. Although now she’s driving far above the speed limit. Three cars are approaching, I can’t avoid staring at the headlights. We dim the brights way too early. As the first car passes, Eli sits up. “Sara,” she says, “do you see that peak there?”

When Eli wants to show excitement, she raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth, holds the gape just a little too long. It’s normal to imitate each other’s body language, but I don’t think we’ll ever become too alike. She points toward a rise. “Over there is where Uncle Aslak and I used to ski,” she continues, “you can make it from there all the way back down to the house.” She tells me it was Aslak who taught her to shoot grouse. That she finds it almost moving to recollect her youthful perseverance. “I went on hike after hike with a shotgun,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see something again that hasn’t changed.” “I didn’t know you could hunt,” I say. “We have to go on that path,” Eli says, “surely you can find someone to loan you a pair of skis.”

The cars’ red taillights disappear from the rearview mirror. We’re alone again. Right then is when I notice the pressure in my ears. We’re headed into a valley, the snowdrifts are lower. When we round a curve, we can see straight toward the fjord, spreading black between the mountains. “How beautiful it is,” I say. It’s important to say this spontaneously.

At the valley floor, the road divides. The destinations that appear on the signs are unknown. Rufjord. That’s where we’re headed. The road stretches along frozen coasts, cliffs, and winter-white fields. Random houses appear behind snowplowed borders. At some of the houses, she turns her body around almost completely. I can no longer distinguish her face, the exaggerated expressions that at times make me ill. Then we turn off.

The house is darker than the sky. It’s located on a small rise. The fjord lies directly behind it. The headlights strike the walls. The house isn’t large. As a child, I might’ve called it a cabin. She parks directly in front of the entrance and shuts off the ignition. For a moment she sits staring at the wall, she doesn’t let go of the steering wheel. “Are you awake?”

The air is still and sharp. Around the house is a field, beyond the field another house. Gentle mountain slopes stand motionless behind us. Eli is in front of me, she doesn’t glance around. She heads straight for the steps. I stretch my arms above my head. Eli finds the key under the doormat. As she turns the key, I put my arms around her. She doesn’t resist long. The back of her head presses into my chin. Her hair is shorter and thinner than mine. She smells of hair wax and french fries. “I think I’m the one who made the sign,” she says. I look at what's engraved on the piece of wood nailed to the doorway: Aslak Jensen and some flowers created with a woodburning pen. I say she must’ve been his favorite niece. I kiss her right eye, then her temple, then the top of her forehead. Her arms hang by her sides. I wonder if she can feel my heart beating against her back. “Eli,” I say, “I’m sorry I’ve been behaving so terribly.” Her cheek is smooth and hard against my lips when she says I haven’t been terrible and I shouldn’t think any more about it. “Do you mean it?” I say. “Trust me,” Eli says. She opens the door. We go inside.

*

What I should really do is fill our arrival with phrases she can note and retrieve when she later suspects that I’m no good. But I can’t think of anything. I’ve never liked coming to uninhabited houses. Locked-up cabins with drawn curtains and nooks full of canned goods and emergency rations. I always got just as antsy when we were in the summer house and my brother hid in the space beneath the loft. He’d grab my legs as I climbed up. Since I was the one who hit back, I had to hang from the ladder by my arms. If I let go before the time was up, Papa would record the penalty seconds in the almanac.

Eli kicks her shoes off, one hits the wall. She turns on light after light. First above the overalls hanging in the hall by the attic stairs. Then the kitchen. It opens toward the living room. I glance around. The wallpaper is yellow, the ceiling dirty with soot. The space is cramped, but more furnished than I expected. Someone has crocheted the curtains, picked out porcelain angels, and embroidered the Bible quotes decorating the kitchen wall. Around the dining table beside the window are three spindle-back chairs. Over the 1960s turquoise couch hangs a shotgun.

The shelves above the steep, narrow stairs are full of knickknacks. Ivory figurines and wood antelopes and plastic flower wreathes. I ask if Aslak missed his seafaring life. Eli replies that the winter she lived here, she was too absorbed in her own problems to notice what Aslak dreamed about. I wish I could’ve met her seventeen-year-old self and held her close to me. I could’ve said that.

The attic has three small rooms. We head for the one she says is best. Lace curtains obscure the sea view she’s bragged so much about. The slanting roof hangs low. Up beneath the paneling I spy a black fly cluster in a crack. Eli grins as I pull her back outside and slam the door.

I don’t spy any overwintering insects in the second room, but two beds with teak frames and yellow foam mattresses, each occupying one side of the room with a nightstand in between. She leads me inside and then says she can’t wait any longer. She needs to piss. I push the beds together next to the window. Flip the light on and lie down on the outside bed. In the beginning, we used to share one blanket. Wake up at the same time. The mattress is thin. Inevitably, this kind of bed frame reminds me of a rib cage. My legs are cold. Arms behind my head, I consider the nearest mountain, the dark boulders like boils pushing through the snow.

Live here. In the wilderness. Just Eli and me. The thought is overwhelming. How long have we known each other, nearly a year? A terrible year. We’re used to being alone. We’re used to making our own way.       

The week after we moved out of the apartment, we lived separately. When she came to pick me up, I was almost surprised by how easy it was to leave. Eli sat in the car while Kjersti helped with the luggage. There wasn’t much to carry out. The furniture stays for the next renter, the summer clothes are lying in boxes in Kjersti’s overstuffed storage area. Kjersti hugged me for a long time, as if she were trying to make me cry. You know you can crash here anytime, right? Our friendship required that phrase. When I settled into the passenger side, Eli said that she’d missed me, even though it had only been a few days. She leaned over the handbrake. Are you ready? she asked. She was wearing a shirt I hadn’t seen before. Her kiss was dark and betrayed no accusations.

The house is loud. I hear Eli flush, but I don’t hear her wash her hands. “Sara,” she yells, “I think the water’s frozen.” I grip the banister, I go down to her. In the bathroom, she’s seated on the tub’s edge. Dusty pink-marble laminate covers every surface. She eyes the faucet. “Maybe the water’s turned off,” I say. “If the pipes are shot, it can be so freaking expensive,” Eli says. When your loved ones are out of sorts, it’s an opportunity to prove yourself good and reliable. “Mom didn’t actually manage to clean it out,” she says. “The toilet’s completely overgrown with crap.”     

I observe that she’s worked at institutions, she can tackle a little manshit. I suggest we leave the faucet open, turn up the heat in the house, and see if the water will come. “What an idiotic idea, coming out here,” Eli says. “Hey, you,” I say, “what is it?” I take her hand, even if it’s not washed.

For both our sakes, I leave. I go to get our things from the car. The overhead light doesn’t come on without the key in the ignition. First, I grab the bags with clothes and books, then the sacks with food and paint cans from the trunk. I paid for it all. It’s been a while since Eli has had a salary. We bought five big cans, all white, and they cost more than I expected. The bags twine around my fingers. The snow reaches my ankles.

The radiators in the hall and kitchen are turned to the lowest setting. I adjust them while Eli lights a fire. As she kneels before the furnace, shredding an old Vi Menn magazine and staring at the flame growing in the paper, she presses the knuckles of her pointer and middle finger against her mouth. She does that often when she’s anxious. I feel a rush of tenderness. A rare emotion. It’s almost like Eli notices. Carefully, she tears out some pages and turns toward me. “Here,” she says, “we might as well save the erotic story.” She chuckles a bit as she hands me the double pages. THE DIRECTRESS, I read. I can’t remember the last time I was voluntarily aroused.

There’s a pile of the magazines beneath the table. I say that I’ll read all the stories aloud to her at the bedside. Or memorize them so she’ll have entertainment on the nights she can’t sleep.

She laughs again but not at me. “Uncle subscribed to that magazine as long as I can remember,” she says. “Often, he’d leave them out so that I couldn’t avoid seeing the pages.” “But that’s sick,” I say. “Not really,” she responds, “I think he was just trying to enrich my life.” I ask her what year that was again. She tells me. “And back then you were?” “Twelve,” I say, and she smiles but not scornfully. I know she likes it that I’m a little younger and firmer. That I still vote blood red and smoke extra thin menthol cigarettes because it was so forbidden when I was growing up, not to mention it makes me feel desirable. “Twelve years and horse crazy and overly made-up and way too loud,” I say. “That I have difficulty believing,” Eli replies. She gapes with a wide open mouth. She’s clear on what I think about it.
 

From Det blir aldri lyst her. © Tina Åmodt. Published by Kolon, 2018. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2018 by Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.

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from the June 2018 issue

Belly Up

Thailand’s Prabda Yoon, who made his WWB debut in our October 2017 issue, returns with the tale of a transgender woman at the end of her rope. 
 

He picked up the nickname ’Mantique from his friends during his time at university.

Because among the guys in his class—all rather busted-looking—he was hailed as the most romantic.

Because he already had the nickname Man.  

Because he didn’t like the nickname his father had given him and preferred to style himself more femininely as Tooktique.

Because Man was romantic, because Man was Tooktique, because Tooktique said flamboyant, because flamboyant said femme, because he was she.

Thus, Man was ’Mantique to her friends.

She was proud of the moniker and fully embraced it when referring to herself.

“’Mantique thinks… ” She often started a conversation that way, substituting her name for the first-person pronoun, because every sound that found its way out of her mouth really communicated ’Mantique’s thoughts, not Man’s, not those of Apichart Piangwang—the full name on her national ID card. Whenever anyone asked, “’Mantique, what’s your real name, missy?” the question tended to make her head do a prissy little spin, because it wounded her feelings, being suddenly reminded that her true name was Apichart.

What is true, what is false, what is real, what is fake? For ’Mantique, ’Mantique’s real name is just ’Mantique. As for that Mr. Apichart, that was a technical error, a flub on the part of ’Mantique’s parents who got frisky before they knew better. But ultimately, the one who’s going to write the script of ’Mantique’s life is ’Mantique, that’s what ’Mantique thinks.

“My real name is Ro-man-tique, darling.”

*** 

’Mantique thought today at sunrise would be a good time to kill herself.

Each to his own perspective. Some people look down on suicide as a cowardly choice, as an easy and irresponsible way to escape problems. In Thai, a euphemism for suicide is “shortsighted thinking,” but ’Mantique thinks you should give credit to people who have the guts to really carry it through all the way to the end. Us mortals, we’re usually afraid to death of getting hurt. To get themselves to the point of jabbing, stabbing, hacking, slicing or shooting at their own flesh, people need steely resolve, the resolve to go through with it once and for all (or more than once if they don’t quite die. Hahaha!).

’Mantique thinks ’Mantique’s jealous of these people, because ’Mantique’s not decisive, ’Mantique’s half-brave, half-skittish, half-dreaming, half-doing, half-this and half-that, but ’Mantique never “goes ahead with it,” as they say in English. Because of this, no one believes in ’Mantique, no one loves ’Mantique for real. They dupe ’Mantique then dump ’Mantique, then dupe then dump, like that, over and over. ’Mantique’s no piece of trash. Ah! Ah! Don’t dump ’Mantique—the Magic Eyes of the trash campaign see you!

’Mantique’s sick of ’Mantique’s own inadequacy, sick of having to be lonesome again for the umpteenth time, sick of the tiny little rented room that doesn’t have a chic vanity table, sick of the nocturnal life that leaves ’Mantique’s under-eyes puffy . . .  So, this morning, ’Mantique thinks ’Mantique’s going to commit suicide.

Eeeek! But the thought of stabbing ’Mantique’s own plump and tender organs with a sharp object, ’Mantique can’t, darling. The idea makes ’Mantique shudder. Pouring drugs down ’Mantique’s own throat, that’s not ’Mantique’s strong suit either. ’Mantique has a history of allergies to too many kinds of medication, and ’Mantique doesn’t like how they taste. So, after sitting down and mulling it over, ’Mantique thinks ’Mantique’s more suited to jumping from a great height. By the time the blood spills and splashes and splatters, ’Mantique won’t be around to witness it any longer. It seems like a more pleasant way to go.

Once the method was chosen, ’Mantique jumped right on it, darling, dashing upstairs to reserve the rooftop of the apartment building for the occasion. In a million years, ’Mantique had never graced it with ’Mantique’s presence, no. It’s a filthy place. Late at night, often there are teenagers sitting around in a group up there, drinking and keeping themselves entertained with dirty tales. It’s a cross between terrifying and disgusting, a combination that’s just too intense and probably very dangerous for a prim and pretty person like ’Mantique. So ’Mantique had always refrained from wandering up there, for the peace and prosperity of all involved. But this morning, ’Mantique was on a special mission that necessitated the climb.

Let ’Mantique tell you about it . . . It can count as ’Mantique’s daily dose of humor.

’Mantique went up there and stood awkwardly on top of the cement parapet on the rooftop, peeking down at the concrete surface of the road below. Because it was still early and the sun hadn’t entirely detached itself from the horizon yet, mosquitoes swarmed and swooped all over the place. Upon seeing ’Mantique’s gorgeous skin, they probably felt peckish, so the whole horde of them started biting and nibbling on ’Mantique along the entire lengths of ’Mantique’s arms in a feeding frenzy. It bugged ’Mantique, even though ’Mantique was just about to jump off the side of the building toward death. But ’Mantique couldn’t stand it and had to spare almost forty minutes swatting the mosquitoes. Darling, ’Mantique had a fortress set up to fight off the enemies. ’Mantique stood there, slapping, intent on eradicating them all. There were over a hundred dead bodies before ’Mantique was finished. Hands all smudged with tiny little bloodstains, ’Mantique was worried about ruining ’Mantique’s fine skin, so ’Mantique had to run back to the room and wash the grossness off and rub moisturizer on after. Once that task was accomplished, ’Mantique went up the stairs again, intending to face death once more.

Too late! Not the time of day, darling, because it wasn’t quite seven a.m. yet then. The air was still fresh, with the moist scent of morning dew periodically grazing the nose. The elements of dawn were all there. But it was too late because when ’Mantique craned ’Mantique’s neck to look down for the second time at the ground below—gray, trimmed with white-ish, yellow-ish lines—the fear of pain poked up in ’Mantique’s bosom. ’Mantique was thinking, that’s concrete, darling self. That’s no cotton wool, no silicone, no waterbed, no bouncy rubber, no velvet, no wool—that’s something really hard, like, painful-hard, hard enough to crack your bones in the blink of an eye, and it’s not the kind of hard ’Mantique likes either. No, thank you. ’Mantique thinks it’s too cruel, it’s not romantic. ’Mantique thinks a person like ’Mantique should at least get to go in a tasteful and graceful manner, like a well-composed painting that possesses elegance, that’s moving, that conveys death in the abstract.

’Mantique thought a change of plans might be better: to die by jumping off a bridge.

Because that would be a true return to one of the four elements of life, a romantic separation from the earth, ’Mantique-style.

’Mantique thinks ’Mantique should get dressed, flag a taxi in front of the building, and tell the driver to step on it to get to the Suspension Bridge before 7:30.

And then she really did so. At the foot of the bridge on the Bangkok side, when ’Mantique shut the door of the pink-and-white taxi behind her, most people’s clocks and watches read 7:23. ’Mantique thought she had correctly estimated the time, but she had no way of knowing for sure because she had decided not to put on a watch before leaving home, and the clock in the taxi was defective. For upward of a month, it had said that the time was 4:36, that was what the driver told her. Only we know that ’Mantique had arrived at her destination a good several minutes ahead of schedule.

Walking up the curve of the bridge, ’Mantique didn’t even so much as glance at the water flowing alongside her below because she didn’t want to lock eyes with her own graveyard before the necessary moment.

But then the necessary moment caught up to her fast, at the bridge’s midway point. ’Mantique thought the coldness of the water she saw below was probably no laughing matter. She clenched both fists, as if doing so was a means of gathering the strength she needed to jump, ignorant of the fact that hardly any physical power was required. Really, what ’Mantique should have been gathering were memories, those that might have been hiding deep within or fallen through the cracks in the nooks of her brain or the crannies of her heart, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the battered, the memorable and the forgettable.

Had ’Mantique ever wondered why memories that deserve to be forgotten manage better than the ones that deserve safekeeping, to keep flaunting themselves, taunting us? Because even though it’s impossible, deep down everybody hopes to have a chance to do over something that won’t stop gnawing at us. Even though it’s unrealistic, everybody wants to have a giant eraser hidden inside of them that they can pull out and use whenever they make a blunder.

They say memories are like scars. ’Mantique doesn’t like scars. ’Mantique wonders why these so-called living wounds must stay alive. An entire person has to cease to exist in order for these permanent marks to give up their existence. ’Mantique thinks it’s such a waste of a life. But that’s that. What can you do if it’s the only way?

’Mantique thought she should have her eyes closed when she stepped off and let herself fall from life, so she wouldn’t have to witness the vertical rush of the world zooming by. ’Mantique thought she might throw up otherwise.

The second she threw her body over, what was going through her mind?

’Mantique thought her body might get nibbled on by fish in the near future. What an unpalatable image.

Layers of air never helped buoy anyone up. Shivers ran through her whole body, as if the soles of her feet had holes allowing air to enter and squirm inside of her, forcing blood cells of both colors to become jammed at her temples. ’Mantique couldn’t think anymore.

Then, before she hit the surface of the water, her body started to fall more slowly, which she found rather strange. ’Mantique still didn’t dare peel her eyes open, fearing that she would see something unpleasant, like a reddish liquid or some roundish gobs sticky with mucus.

But ’Mantique’s curious bone couldn’t resist. ’Mantique’s thinking, what’s happening here? Suddenly, the belly feels bloated and stretched taut, as if it’s struggling to push something out, as though it’s slowly inflating like a balloon—yes, like a balloon with an air pump sticking into it. But there’s nothing sticking into ’Mantique. There’s only air that’s going by in the reverse direction, but that shouldn’t be spiky enough to pierce the body and make it expand. ’Mantique thinks it’s time to inspect the situation with ’Mantique’s own eyes and see what’s going on with ’Mantique’s svelte body.

Aaah! ’Mantique’s belly is puffed up as round as a ball. It’s ripped to shreds the trusty T-shirt that was meant to be taken along on ’Mantique’s tour of the next world, and now ’Mantique’s outie belly button is exposed, looking oddly like the stem-end on a fruit. And ’Mantique feels, too, that instead of dropping further down and into the water according to plan, ’Mantique’s inflated belly is buoying up ’Mantique’s body, preventing it from falling with the motion of gravity. If that isn’t strange enough, it’s now gradually shooing ’Mantique back upward, encouraging ’Mantique to float exactly like a balloon. Or is hell turning ’Mantique away? Or perhaps ’Mantique’s extreme romanticism is better suited for angels than for the Guardian of Hell?

There’s nothing ’Mantique can do. ’Mantique is floating up higher and higher. ’Mantique wonders whether anyone on the streets below notices this miracle. ’Mantique thinks it would be good to try flapping ’Mantique’s arms, just for kicks, so ’Mantique looks more elegant, so it looks as if ’Mantique were the one directing this upward movement. Otherwise people will think ’Mantique swallowed a cheap balloon from a temple fair into the belly—that doesn’t sound romantic at all. ’Mantique’s flapping ’Mantique’s arms, pretending they’re wings of a bird. If ’Mantique flashes a little smile, it’d probably look like ’Mantique’s having a good time flying.

Hey you, Suspension Bridge, we’re at the same level again. ’Mantique didn’t think we’d ever meet again. Oh, whoa! Bye, Bridge, ’Mantique’s belly is so impatient. Is it in a rush to shoot up and go explore Mars or what? The higher it’s getting, the more speed it’s picking up. This is freaky in a different way. Good thing ’Mantique’s not afraid of a little height (not just not afraid, loves it even. ’Mantique likes them tall and fair. Hahaha!). ’Mantique’s never been on an airplane. ’Mantique’s only heard people talk about how, from the window, everything below looks tiny like toys, like Barbie’s stuff. ’Mantique’s getting a pretty good sense of that firsthand now, and ’Mantique’s liking it.

Reflections on the surface of the water look so beautiful from here. The orange sunlight is skimming the raised bits of the water section by section—’Mantique’s not describing it well because ’Mantique’s not gifted at using words nicely to describe an image in a way that tugs at people’s heartstrings. But ’Mantique likes to try because ’Mantique likes to read touching poems. Reading them gives ’Mantique the feeling that something nice-smelling is blooming under the eyelids. What’s happening to ’Mantique now lends itself to being turned into beautiful phrases, but sadly ’Mantique can probably only do what ’Mantique’s abilities will allow. If ’Mantique floats past a S.E.A. Write poet’s window, ’Mantique will drag him out and ask him to help compose a poem, but probably no S.E.A. Write poet’s awake yet.

Where is ’Mantique floating to? It’s starting to get higher and higher. Ahhh! Real birds! A whole flock of them. Give a little way, pretty, please. Phew! Even in the open sky, you can still run into things that make your heart race.

Why didn’t ’Mantique die, even though ’Mantique was dying to? What’s happening to ’Mantique’s belly? What sneaky thing has wiggled its way in there? Or has it had these parachute-like qualities from the time ’Mantique’s eyes opened to see the world for the first time? ’Mantique doesn’t recall being aware of this. Or is ’Mantique pregnant! That’s going a bit overboard. Even if pregnancy were a possibility, it’s unlikely that it would be so lightning-fast. In sum, ’Mantique thinks it’s impossible to know the real reason why the belly inflated…

***

“Hey, isn’t that Man?” Mrs. Urai Piangwang flinched when she saw a round-bellied human floating in the bit of sky outside her window. 

“Don’t utter that name within my earshot.” Mr. Apichai Piangwang doggedly kept his eyes on his newspaper, his right hand holding a plastic coffee mug by the handle.

“But—our Man is floating in the sky with his belly puffed up. Look!” Her voice was animated and concerned. When she became certain that what she saw before her eyes was her only son, she was even impelled to slide the sash window up (and it was a window that hadn’t been washed or opened for years) and stick her head out to get a good look. “Man! Man! Man, my son!” She yelled into the morning air.

“Don’t bother with him. It’s his business what he’s up to. Since he doesn’t care about our feelings, why should we care about him?” There was so much bitterness in Mr. Apichai’s tone that he was gagging on it. Whenever his wife mentioned their son’s name, he inevitably gave the same speech, as if he had it memorized. The wound deep in his heart that was still raw had never begun to heal, no matter that a new forest could just about be melded out of the calendar pages that had been torn off.

“But—our son’s floating in the air! He’s not just walking by the house. Aren’t you going to look? How the heck did he get himself into this?” Mrs. Urai turned to say to her husband and then quickly slipped her head back out, tilting her face toward the sky. “Man! Man! Can you hear your mother?”

“That’s not out of character for him, these wacky, weird things. He just loves to seek out outlandish things to amuse himself with, absurdly going off and doing this and that. Any moral compass he ever had was shattered to pieces long ago. We’re lucky he isn’t living here with us anymore. Otherwise we’d embarrass ourselves all the way from here down the whole street.” Mr. Apichai cleared his throat as if to hack out a ball of pain.

“Man!” Mrs. Urai tried again.

This time, ’Mantique happened to be looking her way.

’Mantique thinks the little woman at the window over there looks familiar. Aaahh! It’s ’Mantique’s own mother! ’Mantique hasn’t seen her for ages. Must wave hello before the belly takes ’Mantique floating up too far for us to see each other.

’Mantique frantically waved her right hand again and again.

“Hey! Man’s waving to us!” Mrs. Urai shrieked with joy. 

“So what!” Mr. Apichai said, teeth gritted.

But he took a peek out of the corner of his eye.

The hole in his heart had never closed up . . .

 

From Moving Parts, forthcoming 2018 from Tilted Axis Press. © Prabda Yoon. Translation © 2018 by Mui Poopaksakul. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2018 issue
from the June 2018 issue

The Lagoon

In this short story, Abilio Estévez's narrator wades into reminiscences of the murky, weed-choked waters of his adolescence in Cuba and an indelible experience with an older friend.
 

1

This is the story of a small happiness that, for some inexplicable reason, occurred the day I turned sixteen. Now, after such a long time, I can’t be sure if what took place had anything to do with my birthday. In any case it undoubtedly was a Sunday, gray and humid, because I went to the lagoon only on Sundays; further, winter was finally shaking the branches of the nearly leafless mango trees, the aralejo trees, the cedars, with its light northern winds, as it always did when my birthday was approaching, releasing its first misty rains, an uncertain drizzle that dissipated like a fog before landing to earth. Winter’s timid arrival heightened the excitement of the Sunday trips. The winter was so sudden and so fleeting, its presence transformed the landscape, as if we’d suddenly awoken in a different place entirely, as if, after so much sun, the country was not our country but a distant region of hideaways, storm clouds, glimmers, and shadows. And that ephemeral illusion, like any illusion, added pleasure to already pleasureable Sundays.
 

To get to the lagoon I usually took the eleven o’clock train. I say “train” because it traveled on rails and because it must have been one once, and because we continued calling it a train with that stubborn determination to maintain the nobility of things and times past. In reality I’m talking about two decrepit passenger cars, nearly roofless and lacking windowpanes, pulled by an ancient locomotive that, if it wasn’t a steam engine, gave the impression of one with the inexplicable trail of white smoke it left behind. It wasn’t the only train that crossed through my town, but it was the only one that made the zigzagging journey from Marianao to Guanajay, traversing the most remote villages (El Guatao, Corralillo, La Matilde, La Fautina), reaching Vereda Nueva and beyond, and the only one, moreover, that stopped not only in every town (and was accordingly dubbed “the ice cream truck”) but at each and every station, lost or illusory though they might seem. It passed by twice, departing at ten or eleven in the morning and returning at four or five in the afternoon. It never stopped exactly at the station, but a little ahead, practically at my front door. Maringo B., the conductor, was a friend of the family and always came down to share a pot of coffee. Thanks to Maringo B., I was able to make those trips, completely alone and at ease, all the way to the lagoon in search of güin reeds for my cages. Maringo B. made the trips peaceful, trouble free. 

I should mention, with all humility, that in my town (and even among many of the surrounding towns) no one made cages like me. I’d learned from my grandfather, and I’d learned well. Not just well, extraordinarily well. Even better than my grandfather, if I could believe what I heard from people who knew him. In my hands the güin reed held no mysteries. I must be honest and confess that never, since that time, have I seen any birdcages like mine. It’s also true that they hardly exist anymore; it’s a lost art, like many other things that disappear from this carefree, dizzying, distracted world we’re living in. Like every art, cage-making required not only skill with my hands but also a blend of fretfulness and serenity, of confident apprehension, with my stubborn patience, with the tenseness of my reasoning and the balance of my imagination. In any case, they were admirable constructions, I know. Magnificent even. They rose with delicate skill, almost miraculously. Tiny castles for mockingbirds, finches, canaries, and goldfinches. Palaces that I first “saw” with eyes closed, always lying on the cold tile floor of my house or on the moist grass in the yard near the septic tank, and that later my hands were charged with turning into something tangible, crafting, with expertise that surprised even me, the pliable slender fibers.

Regarding what we called, grandiosely, “the lagoon” . . . it was nothing of the sort. A little no-name pond, not far from the real lagoon, Ariguanabo, where I found the best güin, the straightest, the most sturdy yet malleable I would ever find.

Usually, the train was full of families in their Sunday best, traveling from one town to another to get together with other families, to eat, drink, give thanks, and celebrate the day of rest. They knew me. They greeted me. When we got to the crossing at El Anón Farms, Maringo B. would slow the train and wave good-bye to me with his gray engineer’s cap. I'd leap jubilantly down the red road, with my backpack on my shoulder. The families would tell me good-bye too, with the delicious melancholy that Sundays tend to provoke, especially when trains are involved. I'd wave my arms with the strange delight that jumping from a train tends to inspire on any given Sunday out in the country. “Good-bye, good-bye,” I would yell. And I’d continue down a path only Igor and I knew, through spaces where the brush became less tangled. A path we ourselves surely cleared, which descended through brambles and sicklebushes on a gentle decline to the lagoon covered with water hyacinths, tucked in among those small, stiff reeds we called güin. I’d approach and feel the lagoon water on my skin. My sweat wasn’t sweat but an omen. In the middle of the oppressive silence of the forest, one could hear a scratching of leaves, the leap of a toad, an avocado, too tender and too green, that the wind threw into the lily pads. And the scent of the water would hit with the same intensity as that scent of September downpours plunging to the dry earth yearning for storms. And I would sense the sweet, gratifying taste that moistened my lips.

I usually sat down on the trunk of a fallen palm tree. It was essential to become immersed in the respiration of the lagoon before starting to cut the güin. Above all, one had to allow the silence to penetrate with full dignity and, of course, had to know with precision the proper way to cut the small reeds. It wasn’t something just anyone could do. If it was cut poorly, it dried poorly, lost its firmness, folded like a dead stalk, and was no longer useful for cages or anything else. I sat, too, to wait for Igor to arrive from Cayo La Rosa, where he spent the weekends at his grandparents’ house. He would come walking, or running, because my friend didn’t walk, he always ran, and he had the most powerful legs for running I’d ever seen. Besides, to get to the lagoon, from anywhere, there were no uncomplicated routes for bicycles or mule carts. In the afternoons, with the güin necessary for the week’s work, we would go together to El Anón crossing and wait for the train to pass with Maringo B. and his gray cap, and we’d sit satisfied between the families returning with their bags full of mangoes and a weariness completely distinct from the everyday kind: the comical burden of armchairs, jokes, laughter, meals, beer, rum, and endless games of dominoes. 
 

2

That Sunday in January, however, when I (finally) turned sixteen years old, the day’s events didn’t follow their usual course. Naturally, I wasn’t capable of understanding then. The present, very often, takes its definitive shape in the past, so that only now, after so many years, do I feel certain we hadn’t woken up to an average Sunday. Although even today I still don’t know for certain if its being my birthday was or was not connected to the things that occurred. Minor details, small signs, I would say, took place starting early that morning, like Maringo B. not coming down to have coffee, for example, and with what could be taken for rudeness letting my mother bring the coffee to the locomotive. I saw them talking in hushed tones, with a concentration that felt unsettling. My father came in from the fields, his clothes dry despite the misty rain. His machete was missing from his belt too. He joined my mother for a moment, and I saw him talking to the engineer with the same deliberateness. Also, the train was empty. Well, almost empty. There was a traveling scissors-sharpening man sitting on a faraway seat in the back car. When I approached, to sit across from him, I saw he was an old black man of uncertain age. It seemed to me that like all black men with white hair and gaunt, he could just as easily be one hundred as he could be seventy. He wore a sleeveless white T-shirt with gold snaps at the neck and linen pants rolled up to the knee. I was struck by how clean his clothes were, astonishingly clean, an impeccable white, and by the fresh scent he gave off, of flowers and lemongrass, that reached me with more strength than the smell of the bay trees wet with mist. The immaculate clothing was at odds with his bare feet, which were like hardened leather and covered in dirt. Next to him, a fraying woven balsa fan, a small bag, and the big blue grinding wheel mounted on a crank, which is, together with the pan flute, the universal instrument of scissors sharpeners. He didn’t respond when I waved. He didn’t move. He didn’t even blink. After a few seconds I felt the courage to look directly at him, and I noticed his eyes looked opaque, erased and pupilless, as if they had been formed from a mixture of glass and ash.

When we got to El Anón crossing, the train slowed down. Maringo B. did not wave good-bye with his gray cap. I stepped off the train with a feeling that was hard to describe, as if everything I was doing on the Sunday of my sixteenth birthday was routine and, even so, happening for the first time. The path to the lagoon, I should mention, was the same one as usual, but more humid, more green, less stifling, though with the same brambles and sicklebushes, the identical rejoicing of sparrows and parakeets, and the inevitable prophecy of the water with its lily pads and the earthy smell I loved so much. I sat down on the trunk of the fallen palm tree. Something told me I should wait a while longer for Igor to show and for the precise moment to cut the güin reeds.

Igor arrived a little after noon, looking tired and sad. I’m unsure if “tired and sad” are the precise words. In any case, it was certainly not the Igor I knew and needed: the one who was always smiling, strong, impatient, friendly, ready for anything that meant “springing into action.” He was two years older than I, and he made me see life through his exhilaration and his strength. And despite being only eighteen, Igor was a grown man, tall, light-complected, almost blond, seemingly built of steel cables. There was a noticeable contradiction between his powerful body and his soft gaze, clear and cheerful, with green eyes that seemed wise beyond their years. He knew no discouragement. And above all, he cut the güin like no one else, even if he lacked the patience necessary to create anything out of those yellowish stalks. He would eye my cages with amazement, as if they were acts of magic. I admired his confidence, his kindness, and his strength. He admired my concentration, my dedication, and my skill. But the Igor that arrived that Sunday was somewhat distant. He was smiling, like always, and yet not smiling like always. His eyes had darkened; they had lost, in a sense, their warm elation or their wisdom. Even his dominating body showed uncommon weariness. I asked him what was wrong. He stayed silent a long while before responding that he didn’t know, that something must be going on but he wasn’t sure what, maybe it had to do with the day, the drizzle, the muddy road, or having skipped breakfast, he didn’t know, honestly he didn’t. I reminded him it was my birthday. He threw himself on top of me, smiling, pretending to beat me up, and even that game, so routine, lacked substance, authenticity. We stayed lying on the grass, without talking, looking at the reddish gray sky, the branches of the aralejo trees, the fragility of the raindrops disappearing between the dark green leaves.
 

3

I took off my clothes. I said I was going to swim in the lagoon. It wasn’t something I did often, swimming (an inexact word) in the always cold, always dirty waters of the lagoon. It wasn’t pleasant wading into that pond. I think I’d only gone in once or twice before. And on those few occasions the water hadn’t risen higher than my knees. Igor did go in often. Every Sunday he took off his clothes and went in the water, and when he came out it looked as if he had emerged from the center of the earth: his skin was smeared, covered in mud, leaves, black stems looking like leeches, and with a strong smell of moss and muck that stirred a strange uneasiness in me. When the lily pads were parted and one’s feet touched the bottom, the lagoon bed always seemed to move, or rather it truly did move, and the surface, already muddy on its own, became indistintinct from the bottom. It unnerved me to have parts of my body—in this case my feet, my legs—come into contact with what was hidden. It was disturbing that my eyes could not control anything happening below my thighs. I always feared, and still fear, the things I am not capable of seeing.

I entered the water feeling apprehensive and cold. Nakedness proved ill-suited to the January day. The water, the soil with the appearance of water that is a lagoon, was even dirtier than usual, and looked as if covered by a layer of ice. My feet sank in the mire. They experienced the unpleasant contact with sludge, oily rocks, and the roots of the water hyacinths. I walked toward the center of the lagoon as if pushing a heavy obstacle. For a time the water lost its immobility. It moved, though only in my immediate surroundings, in tiny waves that promptly disappeared. From the bottom rose an odor of moss, of cave, of darkness, of rotting plants. I’d have sworn the lily pads made way for my steps. I sensed what seemed like enormous rocks falling into the water and supposed they were frogs and toads. I knew that swimming there was impossible, yet I tried it. My body sank among the green leaves. I managed to close my eyes. I returned to the surface with the inevitable sensation that I was emerging not from water but from earth. I breathed deeply. I looked high above. I thought I saw a white bird passing over. I imagined I should return to the edge. Instead, I waded deeper. The water covered my chest. My eyes were level with the water hyacinths. There was no lack of beauty on that green surface, where white flowers opened, surrounded by the defiant güin reeds on the banks. I realized that from there the world looked different, as if it were sheltered by cathedral ceilings. I called out. I strained to hear an echo that didn’t come. From the high branches of the aralejo trees fell slow, black leaves. Except for those falling leaves and the distant, brief barking of a dog, it was as if I'd found myself in a painted landscape, as if I were the motionless figure on a gigantic canvas. I think, in that instant, I imagined things, more things than I am able now to recall. I imagined, for example, a round cage, topped with a wide green dome of güin. I imagined music for that cage, music new to me. I imagined a silver bird, metal, immobile, with its wings open. I imagined the cage on a crystal terrace, and that the landscape beyond appeared white, white as snow, or at least how I then imagined whiteness and snow. I imagined Igor there, on that terrace next to me. I closed my eyes with the hope that what I had imagined would not be undone. Closing my eyes caused me to take a step where one did not exist. The water of lagoons does not permit false steps. It wasn’t a step so much as a flawed movement. As if I were walking on air, in the sky. Lagoons resemble the air, the sky. I lost the bottom. The slippery sensation of the rocks disappeared; the plants at the bottom were gone. Without opening my eyes, I kicked my feet to stay afloat. As I was not in the ocean, nor on land, my action was fruitless. I realized something was pulling me down. Attempting to resist that pull, desperate and instinctive, my feet found roots, vines, the long stems of the lily pads. Something tied itself to my left leg and pushed toward the bottom. Uncertainty, or more precisely, fear. Perhaps I opened my eyes. Perhaps I discovered only confusion and opened my arms. As if in the sky, as if trying to fly. And, of course, just as I would have been unable to fly in the sky, I couldn’t in the lagoon either, or anywhere else. These are things one learns quickly, that simply become known without having to be learned. The water conquered me with a speed that was, simultaneously, a peculiar slowness. And it wasn’t a sinking into water, clearly, but into mire. I’m certain it surprised me the way time seemed to stop. I’m certain I stopped breathing during that eternity.

The arms lifted me, held me under my shoulders, carried me to the güin reeds on the banks. When I opened my eyes with a long sigh, Igor was over me, pushing on my abdomen, opening my arms, pressing his mouth to mine, attempting to transmit the vitality of his breath to me. When he saw me responding, he held still watchfully; his green eyes, locked to mine and wide with disbelief, gradually recovered their cheerfulness and their wisdom. He soon sighed, smiling in a way I will never forget. A smile just shy of bursting into roaring laughter. He hurled a few curses and hugged me and again pressed his lips to mine to give me his breath. I pulled him tight against me and closed my eyes. I’m not sure how much time passed before he jumped up. From where I lay, I saw him as he was in that moment, a giant. We both were covered in mud and plants. Anyone observing the lagoon landscape from afar would not have discovered us; we were indistinguisible from one another and from everything surrounding us, vegetation, water, dirt, all of which I feel and taste even now. Igor’s saliva was inside me, Igor’s breath inside my body, inside my breath, and that, I confess, made me extraordinarily happy.

We got dressed unhurriedly, without looking at each other, almost without realizing what we were doing. I didn’t notice whether it continued drizzling, nor did it matter to me. As might be expected, we did not gather the güin reeds for my cages. We sat next to each other on the fallen palm trunk, and we held hands. I think we were looking at the water hyacinths and the water lilies, and I think we were looking at nothing. Or at least nothing that was there in the pond that, with so much enthusiasm, we called “the lagoon.”
 

4

We returned to town walking, or rather, balancing our way down the railroad tracks like a couple of kids. My raised right arm connected with Igor’s raised left arm, and despite my friend's being taller, with more developed extremities, we somehow found the exact angle to keep ourselves stable on the rails while making the long trip back home. We sang quietly as we walked, whispering: “Give me your calm stillness, spill out your water of peace over the fierce flame.” Long before we approached the first houses, the night had already fallen. A swift night, cold, without moons and without stars. The wind forcefully shook the branches of the aralejo trees. It wasn’t raining, or maybe it was, I can’t be sure. Most likely the drizzle had changed into a fog that erased the profiles of things. It was quite late when we reached the edge of town. The streetlights were off. Dark like the night, the town formed part of the night; they shared an identical silence. We knew the town wasn’t abandoned because we heard children crying and the voice of a woman trying to calm them, singing a lullaby. We heard the crow of roosters too, the town’s deranged roosters that crowed at all hours. At the door of my house, Igor slid his hand around my waist, drew me close to him. He didn’t kiss me, but I felt his breath, and that was better. His breath and the smell of his body, his warmth. With so much darkness, I couldn’t see the wisdom of his green eyes. However, his hand on my head revealed what his eyes held, everything he would have wanted to say and didn’t say. I don’t think he smiled either. My memory, though, sees him smiling. “See you tomorrow,” he said. Just that. Not that anything else was needed. I entered my house without making a sound, like a ghost. I suppose my parents were sleeping. The only life there seemed to emanate from the flame of a candle lit in front of an image of Saint Martín de Porres. I lay down on the floor, without undressing. The tiles were cold. The house smelled like flowers, but my clothes, my body, smelled of earth, of cave, of moss, of roots. I tried to sleep. Though with such elation it seemed impossible that I’d be able to close my eyes.
 

“La laguna” © Abilio Estévez. First published in Mañana hablarán de nosotros: Antología del cuento cubano (Editorial Dos Bigotes, 2015). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by David Lisenby. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2018 issue

Bhujang, My Friend

The City and the Writer: In Paris with Yannis Livadas

Sarabjeet Garcha

Anita Gopalan

Geet Chaturvedi

Việt Lê

Tarsila do Amaral: Translating Modernism in Brazil

2018 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Antonio Muñoz Molina

2018 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Camilo A. Ramirez

Interviews with 2018 Man Booker International Prize Finalists

2018 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Ahmed Saadawi

Sabyl Ghoussoub

2018 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Jonathan Wright

2018 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Deborah Smith

from the May 2018 issue

“Bad Words” Illuminates Ilse Aichinger’s Bouts with the German language after the War

Reviewed by Anne Posten

I first encountered the work of the Austrian poet Ilse Aichinger about seven years ago. I was translating an article by a friend, in which Aichinger’s poem “Versuch” (“Attempt”) appeared, along with a reference to the poetic essay “Schnee” (“Snow”). I dutifully translated the poem, which read to me like a random assortment of nouns, plus a verb and an adjective, and the quotes from the essay, which I found intriguing but, in their linguistic particularity, frustrating to translate. I did not think about Aichinger again until the same friend happened to send me a few of her short prose texts last year—the very same “Snow,” and “Dover.” Upon reencountering them, I could not imagine how I could ever have read her work so carelessly.

There is something about Aichinger’s writing that requires attention and readiness, it seems, for I am not the only one who managed to forget about Aichinger after a first meeting. As Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey point out in their brilliantly concise introduction to Bad Words, it was Aichinger who indirectly brought Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan to “Gruppe 47,” the seminal meetings that significantly shaped post-war German literature. But while Celan and Bachmann are known and treasured in the English-speaking world, Aichinger remains undertranslated and nearly forgotten outside of her home language—a language which, ironically, she wrestled with, loved, and tried both to reclaim and to unmake.  

If it is a matter of readiness, the time is surely long-since nigh. The most striking thing about the late short prose works collected in this volume is their contemporary feel. Pieces like “The Jouet Sisters,” with its snap-the-whip, knockout ending, for which the reader is both ready and totally unprepared—“I’m waiting, I’m waiting—for monkey bread and peanuts, for cotton balls, pastry, and the heroes of the fatherland. For Ascension day and its one-way mission to heaven. My sweet doves, my wooden lights. How can I say Amen before you say it?”—could be mistaken for an Emily Berry poem. “Privas” seems a close cousin of Lydia Davis’ “Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall.” “Albany” is a few pages fallen out of Beckett’s The Unnameable. Yet Aichinger spoke her own tongue, wrote with her own logic. She was everything avant la lettre, and although her work may be read in light of such affinities, and may even allow us to look differently at other, better-known authors, we should be careful not to lose sight of what is most peculiar to her writing. It would be a disservice if these associations saved us the effort, and pleasure, of reading Aichinger on her own terms.

Born in 1921 in Vienna to a Jewish mother, Ilse Aichinger survived the Holocaust, though many of her relatives did not. Her early works, including Das Vierte Tor (The Fourth Gate) and Die Größere Hoffnung (The Greater Hope; Herod’s Children in an earlier translation) were explicitly concerned with the Holocaust, persecution, and recent European history. In the texts collected in Bad Words, which were written and published later (Eliza, Eliza in 1968 and Schlechte Wörter in 1976), the Holocaust still shapes every word, but it is not even remotely mentioned. Reading overt political sentiments into these works takes imagination; the closest one gets is “Rahel’s Clothes” (“do you have any idea why Rahel hasn’t asked for her things to be sent after her? After seventeen years?”) or “Balconies,” which can be read, among other things, as anti-nationalist satire.

But even these two texts, like all of the pieces in this volume, are ultimately concerned not with subjects or storytelling but with language itself and so are political on a level that is at once much deeper and more oblique. In contrast to Germany, post-war Austrian society did little to face or reckon with the horrors of its past; when Aichinger wrote, the past was still alive and still breathing through the German language. For this reason, Aichinger, like others of her generation, saw it as their task to grapple with, to write with or against or through a language that could no longer be trusted; a language become foreign, which could only be reclaimed through further foreignization—or through silence. In her acceptance speech for the Nelly Sachs prize in 1971, Aichinger spoke of an “attempt to translate muteness into silence, engaged silence, without which language and conversation are impossible.”

This attempt presents itself as rebellion against everything one expects of writing and language. Everyone who has taken a writing class or been edited has been enjoined to be precise. Aichinger revels in doing the opposite: She gives us named figures that appear to be characters but then lack the qualities that would mark them as such: they serve a poetic function, rather than a narrative one. She introduces such “characters” a paragraph before the end of a piece without so much as a polite nod at the reader’s perplexity. She writes impossible anti-narratives that turn ninety degrees in every sentence: rabbits suddenly reveal astonishing vocabularies, and humans turn out to be made of straw. The paradigmatic Aichinger sentence is one with two seemingly unrelated halves linked by a conjunction: “Day is breaking, but the stains are still here.” Nor is one mystery per sentence sufficient, as in “Or the mushroom pickers whose voices and steps I often hear, though it doesn’t make me happy.” Or what? What mushroom pickers? Why would they make anyone happy, let alone the speaker, who may or not be “The Mouse” of the title? There are sentences, too, beautiful sentences that, to borrow an image from Anne Carson, “stop themselves.” “I will try to act like someone who never arrives, someone untempted, someone untamed by having no silhouette,” is one. The sentence is perfectly grammatical, but we cannot take it apart to find its meaning. We cannot get behind it; it remains indecipherable, yet meaningful in its irreducibility and materiality—like a foreign word, a foreign sentence, perhaps.      

But Aichinger’s rebellion is not unprovoked. It is a counter-rebellion against a language grown unruly and unusable (“Down, words! Bad words, bad!” I like to imagine her saying in the title story). In several of the pieces, she makes her attitude toward language explicit, by turns sorrowfully, by turns playfully. “Bad Words” is something of a manifesto against precision, against “good” words: “They are too close to what they stand for,” she writes: “I know what I’m doing. I know that the world is worse than its name, and that because of this, its name is also bad.” In “My Language and I,” language is an indifferent companion that the speaker caters to and attempts to engage, to no avail. Speaker and language are locked in a relationship from which all romance and understanding has disappeared, though not all love: “I will do what I can for it. The conversations alone will help . . . in time, no one will want anything from my language. And I will do my part. I will weave in a sentence here and there to make it free of suspicion.”

In other pieces, Aichinger’s struggle with language is tacit but uncompromising. In “Hemlin,” for example, a central proper noun functions as a sort of totem, but its meaning changes—it is a child, a place, a woman, an object, a feeling. A proper noun is that most specific of the parts of speech, that irreplaceable, specific name that means only itself; to change its meaning challenges the very possibility of signification. And this is precisely Aichinger’s aim: to reject the rules of language, to reject the (power) structures that have shaped all of the world’s bloody history but without rejecting language itself. She chooses a different way: and who is to say that crossbeams don’t have “certain connections to floodplains,” after all?

The different way is often sound, and what masters of it are at work in this volume. Aichinger and her translators have a sense of rhythm that never falters, from the first line of this volume to the last. Whole paragraphs of  “Dover” could be sung like jazz—there is the same blend of freedom and certainty, the alternation of a kind of staccato scatting and lyricism.  Every word is perfect, not, of course, in its precision, but in its music:

And what about friendships made in Dover? Do they survive, or do they dissolve once they’re up against the familiar commensurabilities? It’s either this way or that. Dover doesn’t rely on friendships. Dover has its droolers, its rope-jumpers and pebble-players and its seldom-stranded sailors. It’s either this way or that with friendships in Dover, you get what you get. And if it’s this way or that, and if that’s what you get, then Dover will always plead for us: whether in Denver, in Trouville, or in Bilbao. It will entreat the places of the world for us with its easy gaze. It will keep an eye on the madhouse of Privas and all the other madhouses, too. It will not omit the things that don’t measure up to it—it will draw on their weaknesses, and on its own weakness. It won’t forget about industry, diligence, naïveté, nor that everything will be over soon. It will not shove aside our failed desperation, which is all we have. Not Dover.

That this text holds its sonic magic in translation is a testament both to the extraordinary ears and poetic wisdom of the translators and to Aichinger herself. Each word feels both surprising and inevitable: in English as in German. This surety of voice is rare, and the integrity of the English text certainly has much to do with the palpable kinship between Wolf, Hawkey, and Aichinger—in the fearless pleasure in subverting and remaking language and its constructs—but it is also a result of Aichinger’s translation-like approach to writing. She unmasks all writing for the process of translation it is and mocks the norms that suggest otherwise—the norms that crave clarity and correctness and logic: “I won’t care whether you can say pound when [rain] only gently touches the window panes—or if that would be saying too much. Or too little, if the rain threatens to shatter the windows. I’ll leave it at that for now. I’ll stick with pound—let others worry about the rest.” These are the same norms that see translation as an art of failure, and Aichinger, Hawkey, and Wolf laugh in these norms’ faces. It is a bitter laughter, perhaps, a laughter that knows loss and destruction—a laughter that knows what it means to be laughed at.

The volume ends with “Snow,” the essay that eluded me on first reading. It is a perfect ending in that it doesn’t let the reader off the hook and doesn’t float away into the unparseable poetic prose that we have been allowed to revel in for so much of the book. Instead, it reminds us that all this—the words, their connections, our use of them—matters.

These are our choices, something we can compare. One can also rightly maintain that rain comes before snow in more than one respect, but I’ve been suspicious of everything one can maintain rightly for a long time . . . Maintaining and raining usually go too far but in most cases don’t achieve what matters. If at the time of the Flood it had snowed and not rained, Noah’s selfish ark wouldn’t have helped him one bit. And that’s only one example.”

2018 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Virginie Despentes

2018 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Frank Wynne

2018 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Olga Tokarczuk

2018 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Jennifer Croft

Robin Paterson

José Luís Peixoto

Roberto Echevarren

The Watchlist: May 2018

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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Jonathan Galassi

First Read—From “The Baghdad Clock”

Before Han Kang: Three Korean Modernists You Should Know

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