Marta Orriols has been compared to Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. Selected to represent Catalonia at the London Book Fair this year, she is the author of a collection of stories and two novels, one of which has been translated into English: Learning to Talk to Plants, which was published by Pushkin Press in Mara Faye Lethem’s translation in 2020. Translator Samantha Schnee met with her in London to discuss translation between languages and between media, as her novel begins to be adapted for the screen. This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by Samantha Schnee.
Samantha Schnee (SS): Marta, it’s so nice to meet you; let me tell you a little bit about my background. Before I began editing Words Without Borders, I worked for Francis Coppola’s short fiction magazine, Zoetrope: All-Story, which published stories that were optioned for film development. He often spoke about how he felt the short story was better suited to adaptation for film than the novel because it gives the director more room to for his vision (as opposed to cutting things out of a longer work). I love your short stories, both the one we recently published in WWB, “Princess” (translated by Mara Faye Lethem), and the one you published in Asymptote last year, “Fiction” (translated by Laura McGloughlin). You have also written for the screen and would like to do a little more of that. Do you see your career developing along both paths, writing for the page and for the screen, at the same time?
Marta Orriols (MO): At university I studied cinematography and did some internships, but I never dedicated myself to film, although I would very much like to get more involved. In fact, the film rights for Learning to Talk to Plants were recently optioned; they still don't know if it will be a film or a series, but they asked me if I wanted to participate in writing the script, so I’m about to learn much more about writing for the screen.
I like your question because it is true that in all stories there is a subtext that cannot be seen. This is similar to cinematographic language, because in a script you can only write what the camera can show; the rest you have to imagine. For example, if you want to say that the protagonist is nervous, you can't say it in words—you have to make him bite his nails or tap his foot. This actualization of feelings as actions is also employed in the short fiction genre, which requires a much more active reader to engage their imagination. In a novel, the writer gives the reader lots of details, but in a story, you present the reader with a character who has a handful of qualities, and the reader has to guess a little about the character and fill in the blanks. So, I’m really looking forward to exploring these similarities between writing stories and screenplays.
SS: When are you going to start working on the script for Learning to Talk to Plants?
MO: The production company has just optioned it, and they’re still reading the book; I gather these things move slowly, which is fine because publishing moves slowly, too. I’m used to the editorial world of Catalan publishing; it’s tiny and we all know each other. The film and TV production world is much bigger, there are many more players, and the contracts are completely different. For the time being, this production company has an exclusive option, so we’ll see what they do.
SS: Will you work with a screenwriter or are you going to work alone?
MO: It’s a team of screenwriters who asked if I wanted to participate in adapting the story for the screen. The adaptation of a literary work always ends up being a different product, right? I think they invited me to participate because they want the story to be quite similar to the novel, to what I intended to express in the novel, the evolution of grief.
SS: One of the authors whom I translate just told me last week, “When you translate one of my novels, I feel that my book is changed, it evolves into something else and becomes your book.” Which is a very strong way of putting it. I would never call one of my translations “my book” because although the words are mine, the content is not; in a way, a translated book is like a Frankenstein.
MO: It's an interpretation.
SS: Yes! But isn’t it interesting that the relationship with the world of cinema is similar, because it is another form of art that inspires interpretation?
MO: There’s an author from Argentina, Pedro Mairal, who wrote a book called La Uruguaya, which was made into a film. When he was asked what he thought of the adaptation, he said it was as if he had undergone plastic surgery—as if he were looking in the mirror and it was him, but there was something new there, something different. Deep down it was the same—it was based on his text—but it had changed.
SS: I love that metaphor; in English we call it “going under the knife” because pieces are cut out and moved around, and that’s often what happens when a literary text is adapted for the screen.
You attended this year’s London Book Fair as one of the authors representing Catalonia, which was the Spotlight Focus country this year. What was your main impression of the fair?
MO: Above all, I think that the book fair and the Guest of Honor thing presented an opportunity to introduce authors of Catalan literature to a new audience. For those of us who don’t write in English, the Anglo-Saxon market is very difficult. Our work may be translated into many languages but not English; and since it is a universal language, many doors to other languages remain closed without a translation into English. It’s a problem because the North American and British market is huge and then many readers from other countries can read English, too. But my novel exists beyond a national context, because deep down what I wanted to reflect was a very universal feeling—the complexity of grief—and that can be translated into so many languages because it’s a universal human experience.
SS: So, have you worked with translators in several languages? More closely with your translator for English and less with others?
MO: I have not been able to work closely with most of my translators because I don’t know their languages. I met the woman who translated me into Italian because Italian is very similar to Catalan and Spanish, which makes it easier to understand the nuances of language. But I worked very closely with my English translator, Mara. Mara has lived in Barcelona for many years, but we did not know each other personally; one day she wrote to me and told me, “I'm going to translate your novel.” She said that we had received a scholarship to attend a Translation Lab at Ledig House; there would be five authors with their five translators in residence for two weeks, so I got to spend those two weeks working hand in hand with Mara, and it was very, very interesting. She said it was a luxury to be able to have the author right there and ask them things like, “Can I change this sentence?” or “Can we look here for another image?” I play a lot with metaphors, and sometimes if you translate literally, the translation doesn't make any sense or loses all the beauty it had in the original. So, we worked very closely, and we had a lot of fun.
SS: Do you also work as a journalist?
MO: I have written some opinion columns for El País and some Catalan newspapers, as well as a cultural magazine called Catorza, reviewing books. It’s cyclical work. Right now, I’m trying to finish another novel and focusing on that, but I have very little time because I am a single mother with two boys. I write in the mornings, and in the afternoons I dedicate myself to the family and the house.
SS: I know some authors don't like to talk about their books before they finish writing them, but would you like to let readers know something about your new book?
MO: Well, it's another novel, and it has a very strong female protagonist again, but this time the structure is different because it shifts a lot in time. It’s about someone who returns to their birthplace after having been away for many years.
SS: That also strikes me as quite a universal experience since people are moving more often due to globalization.
MO: The book will come out in the fall of 2022 in both Catalan and Spanish; I write in Catalan, but it takes some time to complete the translation into Spanish.
SS: Do you ever translate your own work?
MO: I did once, and I said that I would never do it again. I thought it would be easy because I'm bilingual—my mother tongue is Catalan, but I speak both languages. But when I had finished the translation, I realized that the protagonist, Paula, was not the same woman as the Catalan Paula. I don't know if it's because of the rhythm of the language, the musicality, or more informal expressions, but they weren’t identical twins. However, when I started reading the translation that Mara had done for Learning to Talk to Plants, into English, I realized that she had captured the exact same tone that I had in Catalan. And I thought to myself, you are not a translator, don’t translate anymore. That was when I truly appreciated the importance of a good translator; sometimes I write directly in Spanish, for example when I write an article for the Spanish press, but I had never written fiction in Spanish. And of course, when I was translating myself, I thought, who better than me? But when you study literary translation, they teach you how to capture that tone, even in the case of two languages that are quite similar, like Catalan and Spanish; my translation, though, was quite literal, and I quickly realized that there was something there that I didn't know how to do, particularly in the dialogue and the more informal parts. So, I said no to translating the next novel from Catalan into Spanish; I prefer someone else to do it.
SS: Regardless, it must have been a valuable experience because you were able to learn firsthand what a translator has to do.
MO: You translators must go to such a deep level of language, turning words and phrases around and around in your heads to capture not only the meaning but also the tone. It's a way of being, too.
SS: Last year I began teaching translation workshops for writers in English who want to improve their writing practice by gaining a deeper understanding of how language works. Writing is a demanding practice, and that’s why I think that every writer who can translate something should try, right? In Spain there are several well-known authors who have translated lots of English-language writers, like Javier Marías, who has translated dozens of English and American authors. Perhaps that’s one of the differences between literary culture in Spain and the Anglophone sphere. What do you think?
MO: The truth is that when it comes to literature, at least in our country, people read very little. I feel happy and fortunate to have publishers who want to put my books in readers’ hands. As long as people want to read my books, I'm going to continue writing.
I don't remember where I read this, but in Spain the level of book sales has risen quite sharply during the pandemic, which is incredible, no? I think that people rediscovered reading in that period of calm when everything was standing still, and no one could go out or do anything. And here we celebrate the festival of Sant Jordi on April 23, which is like our national book day, and I think something like 80 or 90% of annual book sales are on that day, because it’s our tradition to buy a book and give it to someone as a gift. Last year bookstores made a very strong online sales campaign and it worked incredibly well; because of the pandemic, people turned to buying online, and book sales for the year were saved thanks to that campaign. We may not read much, but we still hold the book as an object of value, something nice to give away.
SS: Every country should have a Sant Jordi Day!
Marta Orriols (1975) lives in Barcelona. Her debut was the short story collection Anatomia de les distàncies curtes (2016). Her first novel, Aprendre a parlar amb les plantes (2018), won the Omnium Cultural Prize for the best Catalan novel and has been translated into more than fifteen languages; the English translation, How to Talk to Plants, appeared in 2020. Her latest novel is Dolça introducció al caos (Sweet Introduction to Chaos, 2020). She is also an occasional contributor to the newspaper El País and her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, both in Catalan and translated into other languages.
© 2022 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.
María Gainza's latest novel follows the trail of an enigmatic, brilliant forger with intriguing results.
In February of 2016, I welcomed a group of students at Princeton University to a seminar dedicated to literary translation. I was eager to teach the course, but even more eager to learn from it myself. For it was precisely during that period that I was about to face my first formal translation project: the novel Lacci, written by Domenico Starnone and published in 2014, which I had read in Italian and loved.
The translation of Lacci was part of an ongoing phase of metamorphosis in my life. In 2012, I had moved to Rome with the objective of improving my Italian. The following year I began writing in Italian, and this experiment led to In altre parole, composed in Italian and published in 2015. I felt bold and adventurous, but in the back of my mind, in bypassing translation, I also felt that I had skipped a crucial step on the path to acquiring and genuinely knowing a new language.
When Starnone, whom I befriended in Rome, proposed that I translate Lacci, I accepted with enthusiasm, but also with apprehension. It was one thing for me to undergo a transformation from writing in English to Italian. It would be quite another to transform from a writer of my own novels to a translator of someone else's words. In some sense, the thought of undergoing this second metamorphosis felt more radical than the first. It came with a sense of responsibility I had not previously had to consider. And it required not only skills but a state of mind with which I was less familiar.
In planning the first translation seminar at Princeton, I asked myself how to begin, how best to introduce and open up the conversation. I had read many essays, many theories of translation in the past. I could easily have begun by citing essays by Walter Benjamin or by Vladimir Nabokov. Instead, I turned to Ovid's Metamorphoses, a work that never fails to illuminate life's mysteries to me. Let us keep in mind that Ovid's masterpiece is itself a translation, in a broad sense, of Greek mythology, inspired perhaps by the Roman poet's travels to Greece as young man, and his study of the ancient Greek language and culture. Like almost all Latin poetry, the Metamorphoses is a work that grows out of an encounter with, and rerendering of, a preexisting literature composed in another tongue.1 Within the poem, I thought immediately of the myth of Echo and Narcissus, and it began to orient me, providing me with certain keys with which to begin exploring what it means to translate a text from one language to another.
I began, on the first day of class, by saying that all translation must be regarded first and foremost as a metamorphosis: a radical, painful, and miraculous transformation in which specific traits and elements are shed and others are newly obtained. In this sense, I told the class, nearly every episode in Ovid's great narrative poem can be read metaphorically as an example of translation, given that creatures are constantly changing states of being. That said, the myth of Echo and Narcissus is particularly resonant when considered from a translator's point of view, and it speaks to me personally, acutely, about what it means to shift from writer to translator and back again.
Let's begin by refreshing our memory of the myth, found in book 3 of the Metamorphoses. A doomed love story, it is one of a series of tales in Ovid in which both the lover and the beloved are transformed. Echo, a mountain nymph known for her sonorous voice, is enlisted by the philandering Zeus to distract Juno by chatting with her. When Juno learns that she has been deceived by Echo's talkative nature, she condemns her to say only a portion of what other people have already said. Her capacity to speak is altered, reduced to a partial repetition of words previously generated by others: "Nevertheless, when chatting, her powers of speech / were no different then than now; that is to say, / she could only repeat, from several words, the very last of them" ("et tamen usum / garrula non alium quam nunc habit oris habebat, / reddere de multis ut uerba nouissima posset," 359–61).
Translation has always been a controversial literary form, and those who are resistant to it or dismiss it complain that the resulting transformation is a "mere echo" of the original—that too much has been lost in the process of traveling from one language into another. Ovid's story draws attention to the nature of this loss, or impoverishment, as personified by Echo, a figure who inspires the word, also Greek in origin, to explain an acoustic phenomenon: a sound that, as a result of moving in a certain way and encountering a barrier, "returns," replicating a portion of the original sound. We must be careful, however, not to equate the word echo with simple repetition. The verb Ovid attributed to Echo, once condemned, is not repetere but reddere, which means, among other things, to restore, to render, to reproduce. It can also mean to translate from one language to another.2
At first glance, it seems that Echo, who starts out as a talented storyteller, is converted, thanks to Juno's curse, into a translator. For, like Echo, part of the translator's task is to "listen" to a text by carefully reading it, absorbing its meaning, and repeating it back. The translator reproduces words already written by duplicating them. Like Echo, the translator's art presupposes the existence of an original text, and also presupposes that much of what makes that text beautiful and unique in the original will be impossible to maintain in another linguistic context. In Ovid's myth, Echo's condition is clearly a punishment, a deprivation of her own voice and words. But she who translates, ideally, converts this "punishment" into a stimulating challenge, and often a joy. The translator "repeats" and thus "doubles" a text, but this repetition must not be taken literally. Far from a restrictive act of copying, a translator restores the meaning of a text by means of an elaborate, alchemical process that requires imagination, ingenuity, and freedom. And so, while the act of repeating, or echoing, is certainly pertinent to the subject of translation, it is only the starting point of the translator's art.
Let's proceed with our myth. Echo, one day, falls in love with Narcissus, and as a result her condition, already compromised, turns tragic. Lacking her own words, she is unable to call out to Narcissus, whom she desires. When she eventually approaches him, he repudiates her, and in a cruel comedy of errors, Narcissus, in the course of resisting her advances, falls in love with himself. Echo, in her shame, wastes away, her body vanishing, to the point where she is nothing but a heap of bones and a voice. Ovid's language is emphatic and haunting: "Only voice and bones survive. / The voice endures; the bones, they say, assumed the look of stones" ("uox tantum atque ossa supersunt: / uox manet; ossa ferunt lapidis traxisse figuram," 398–99). The repetition of the Latin vox, voice, celebrates Echo's very curse, acknowledging her original talent. The word, literally echoed, elevates the insubstantial, invisible, but enduring part of her, drawing it paradoxically into sharp relief.
These plot points are charged with meaning from the translator's point of view. Two details are fundamental, and both refer to Echo. First, the act of desiring, of falling in love, which, under ideal circumstances, is what instigates the impulse to translate. Passion, as I said, was what moved me to translate Lacci, and everything I have translated since. I have been fortunate thus far to pick and choose my translation projects. There is no better or more satisfying way to satisfy one's love for a text than to translate it. To translate a book is to enter into a relationship with it, to approach and accompany it, to know it intimately, word by word, and to enjoy the comfort of its company in return.
One of the conditions of this relationship is the act of following, of being second and not first. Like Echo, who in Ovid "sees and burns for him, furtively following his tracks" ("uidit et incaluit, seguitur uestigia furtim," 371), a translator comes to know an author's work by literally following its tracks, by pursuing it attentively. Fittingly, we often praise a translator's efforts when we say that he or she has "captured" the spirit and sense of the original. One might say that a figurative hunt is involved, represented not only by the inevitable toil of hunting down the right words to re-create the text, but by a stealthy shadowing—the result of countless readings and reflections upon the work itself—in order to best understand its form, its structure, its meaning. Ironically, Echo—in one of the many surprising role reversals in this myth—is the principal hunter, while Narcissus, who is described as a hunter, is the one, for the most part, running away. Though Echo's hunt ends in failure, she helps us to better appreciate the translator's contradictory role as someone who both comes second and exercises a certain degree of power in the course of wrestling a text into a new language.
I would like to pause for a moment on the ramifications of being first as opposed to second. Now that I have become a translator in addition to remaining a writer, I am struck by how many people regard what I am doing as "secondary" and thus creatively inferior in nature. Translation, it seems, is considered imitative as opposed to imaginative. Some people, when I tell them I am translating someone else's work as opposed to writing something of my own, appear almost sorry for me, as if translation projects represent a dearth of my own ideas, the solution for a fallow period, a drying up of my original voice. Readers who react with suspicion to a work in translation reinforce a perceived hierarchy in literature between an original work and its imitation. This hierarchy, sadly prevalent, between what is authentic and what is derivative—one might take another step and say, between what is pure and what is tainted—influences not only how we regard literature but how we regard one another. Who is original, who belongs authentically to a place? Who does not? Why are those who are not original to a place—migrants who did not "get there first"—treated as they are? I will turn to these implications further ahead. For now, let's return to our myth and to translation. The second salient point regards Echo in her final "incarnation," as it were, as nothing but a voice. Translators are often described as being invisible, discreet, self-sacrificing presences. Their names are frequently absent on book covers; their roles are meant to be supportive. Once the book has been translated, they are expected to erase themselves out of the picture and allow the book to speak for itself. Indeed, feminist scholars have argued that the practice of translation corresponds to traditional feminine archetypes in which a woman's position and identity were subservient to a man's. Echo's wasting away, her loss of flesh, also brings to mind the penitential practices of medieval saints.
In a span of three years, I translated both Lacci and Scherzetto by Starnone. On both occasions, I wrote introductions that expressed my admiration and critical appreciation of Starnone's works, with the exclusive aim of presenting him to a new readership. For my efforts I was chastised by critics, more than once, for interfering with the reader's relationship with the book, for drawing attention to my own thoughts, and for casting light upon my role as translator. One reviewer (both were men) pointed to my introduction as an example of "energysapping intellectualization." Another's advice: "Maybe next time, Lahiri could just skip the introduction and let Starnone do all the talking."
Like Echo before she is cursed, I was made to feel that I had been loquacious. I have no interest, here, in defending myself. What I find relevant is the ongoing desire to render the translator innocuous and unobtrusive. After being rejected by Narcissus, Echo turns physically absent: "Ever since, she lurks in the woods and is spotted on no mountain" ("inde latet siluis nulloque in monte videtur," 400). The very next line, however, reads: "She is heard by all: sound is what lives of her" ("omnibus auditor: sonus est qui uiuit in illa," 401). Her invisibility is countered and compensated for by the presence of her voice. Again she is a contradiction, nowhere to be seen, always to be heard. How should translators, who strive to echo works of literature on their own linguistic terms, according to their vision and interpretation of it, strike a balance?
1. Glenn W. Most, in discussing the crucial role of translation in Roman culture, includes Ovid in his list of Latin poets who "continued to enrich the resources of the Latin language, to broaden their reader's experience, to refine their own techniques, and to establish a cultural identity for Rome, by translating into Latin whole works, portions, or even just famous quotations from the Greek they read at school," p. 388.↩
2. See Cicero, De Oratore 1.34.55 ("quae legeram Graece, Latine redderem / I translated into Latin what I had read in Greek") and Ovid, Tristia 5.7.53-54 ("unus in hoc nemo est populo, qui forte Latine / quaelibet e medio reddere verba queat. / In this population there is not one who, by chance, is capable of translating even commonplace words into Latin.")↩
From the essay "In Praise of Echo: Reflections on the Meaning of Translation," in Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri. Published by Princeton University Press. © 2022 by Jhumpa Lahiri. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
I was just like hundreds of others: simple, without any particular desires, without an excess of ambition, I just was. I loved when everything was clean, when it was loud, when the kettle whistled and the aroma of cheap Nescafé Classic and Slava’s Bond Red cigarettes filled the air; I loved when people visited me—lots of people, so many that there wasn’t enough space for everyone; I loved when the neighbor children ran over because I always kept candies hidden in the bottom drawer of the cupboard—you know, those Royal Masterpiece chocolate hazelnut truffles from our own Donetsk chocolate factory—who doesn’t know them? So Slava’s buddy Valerka’s kids, Vanka and Zhenia, knew about these small “masterpieces” and came to get some every Friday. Right behind them would be Valerka himself. “Just don’t tell Mom that you’ve eaten a bunch of chocolate again. Plus you have to keep up our end of the bargain and eat dinner.”
Valerka . . . I loved him too. I think he and my Slava were together from the beginning. They started everything together: looked for the goods, the warehouses, the wholesalers. They drove around the country in a truck together. Valerka even lent Slava some money at the end of the crazy nineties so he could buy me—me, a kiosk at the market. Valerka really liked coming over as a friend; his own kiosk was right nearby, but he loved to say that he liked my “ambience.” Perhaps. It was all because I loved books—not to read them, but to have them stand in a line on a shelf and show off their spines. I liked nice music, so something pleasant was always playing in the corner. I liked my walls, which were covered in interesting black-and-white photographs that Slava’s daughter sent. Lots of people were surprised that she turned out so starry-eyed and “old school”: once when Slava wanted to give her a new camera for her birthday, she turned him down and asked instead for more developer. His daughter, of course, was already grown and rarely visited the city of her childhood. She had been working in the capital for a long time, but every month she mailed him black-and-white photos from her trips. I loved her photographs; so did Slava. Valerka obviously loved them too because he always came and looked at them and said they were the pinnacle of my “ambience.”
That’s what I was like. I resembled the hundreds of others, but I was different too. I woke up very early—by six in the morning work was already in full swing—but I also went to bed rather early. I was an early bird, or whatever it’s called. But I guess we were all early birds there. It was that kind of work. The market. Hustle and bustle.
And then it suddenly started. I didn’t understand anything, people just kept getting angrier and it really saddened me. Shoppers would approach Slava and it would start up—curse after curse, and I had to listen to it all. Where could I have gone? There was exactly nothing I could do. I knew I was born here and I would die here. I stopped enjoying when it was loud. It was an unpleasant loudness, scary, hostile, and it filled the air with horrors and endless grief. And the air . . . It had become different, thick with panic, aggression, and pain.
I watched as my neighbors were shuttered and the crowds grew thinner with each passing week. There were more and more “closed” signs. But Valerka stayed and believed it would all “work itself out,” that it was just a passing threat, even though this menace almost caused him to divorce his wife, who also believed everything would end soon, just in another way. But then everything went sideways.
I remember that Friday very well. From early morning it was dark all around. Clouds huddled in the anxious sky. The deadly sounds, which we had already gotten used to, were raining down from “that side.” There were almost no people, but I was still open for business. Zhenia popped in to say hi to her dad. Her younger brother had by then been taken away to their grandma in Berdiansk. But Zhenia wanted to stay in the city and be with their dad. She was always waiting for him to wrap up work so they could go to the warehouse together. She proudly sat in the front seat of her dad’s Sprinter and carefully studied passersby through the windows. Even this small kid noticed that there were fewer people on the streets of this once densely populated city. She also noticed that there hadn’t been traffic jams on Kyiv Boulevard for some time. What she didn’t know was that that morning Valerka had told Slava they were leaving because the neighborhood had become less safe and it made no sense to wait any longer.
Sometime after lunch, a few customers visited Valerka, and Zhenia took the opportunity to run and get some candies from me. She was holding on tight to a water gun as if she was afraid someone might take it away from her.
“Ahh,” the girl screamed. Suddenly it was loud and scary. We were all frightened. “Zhenia? Where are you?” a frightened Valerka shouted.
“Daddy, they’re going to bomb us.” She laughed. “If they start to bomb us, we’ll run away again and hide.”
This phantasmagorical girlish laughter against the background of bullets whistling by very close was the last thing I remember. Slava started quickly grabbing some things.
“Slava, what’s taking you so long? Let’s go!” Valerka shouted.
“Uncle Slava, let’s go. They’ll bomb us,” Zhenia repeated.
Slava, meanwhile, was looking for his keys, but no sooner had he found them than his phone rang. It was his wife. He was about to answer when something exploded very close by. The shock wave was so strong that Slava’s keys and phone flew out of his hand with the roar. For a few seconds everything around us froze like in a blockbuster movie full of special effects. Then Zhenia started to cry, Valerka began comforting her, and Slava finally locked me up. They ran away, leaving behind their former life with the aftertaste of cheap coffee and Bond Red cigarettes. They ran like ants whose anthill had just been obliterated.
Later they found out that their Putilovka, that is, my home, was shelled by heavy artillery. But that was later, when Valerka, Zhenia, and Slava had made it to safety.
As for me . . . I’m no different from everyone else, but I guess I got a bit luckier. After the terrible shelling, I remained intact, unlike many of my neighbors. I preserved their past within me along with the books, photographs, unfinished coffee, forgotten eyeglasses, and TV guide from August 2014.
Over these years I have carefully held on to the past Slava left inside me when he saved his own life. I heard the unbearable sounds when my neighbors perished, when the bricks were turned to dust, when the glass shattered mournfully, sending millions of little pieces up into the air.
I again saw the world two and a half years later, when Slava arrived to gather the things he’d abandoned and say goodbye. After three years of war, after countless kilometers of hope and tears, he and his wife were forced to go live with their daughter in the capital. “Well, buddy, see you later. Thank you for keeping all this and thanks for holding on,” Slava said, taking a look around me. When he was gathering his things, Slava found the candies that had expired in 2014 and a forgotten pack of Bond Reds. “Ukrainian! What a treasure. There’s nothing like this in the city anymore.” He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, looking around at the surrounding kiosks that had been bombed to the ground. The market had been closed for a long time. The body of a missile was sticking out of the roof; the earth was sown with glass and shell casings. Valerka’s neighboring kiosk was also destroyed, just like his life.
“What’d you have to see and hear, my friend?” Slava said to himself. Then he quickly grabbed his things, closed me, and left.
© Kseniya Fuchs. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by Ali Kinsella. All rights reserved.
We’d extend our hands
assessing their edges’ cracked skin.
It’s a scene visible
behind a part of me retreating,
light sustains all things
paper and digital; you sustain yourself
delivered to the door where
emerging onto the ice you open me.
This second scene leaves me creature among mankind,
you man among the creatures degrading—
balcony, copper pipe, tangle of clouds,
a silhouette that speaks.
In the third scene we talk
motionless across a screen in the ether
particles or material subspecies
the acts they call language
or true language, sinuous, unconscious.
I can tell you
real time, in real time you can
tell me, both blinded by the blue light,
the luck of knowing how to open
a fourth scene
where the fragments of others enter
and we recover, banding ourselves
to a schedule and a word—
the red, imaginary news
has sunk behind the horizon,
one moment for the world to become—
when there in the fifth, sixth, seventh scene
will be the mailman or the guy from the bar
or even your father and my mother
sinking always further into themselves.
In this way I’d returned, in the fifth scene,
to the secret you had erased for a world
that entered the room withdrawing.
Then in the sixth we were in line
at the station, with our eyes and a bill
folded between hand and table—
a self-trust, a respect.
In the seventh scene I return
breathe in that unreal product
of screen, color, face and voice, far
and bright, chaotic collisions, temperatures,
while the pure thought of me
is no longer me
though you save it, and the eager trials
of this fight for our place
A primitive, guttural sound:
the sending of nothing to others is nothing—
our seventh scene is the seventh day,
the life they want to steal
blank is naked.
From Transparencies by Maria Borio. © 2022 Interlinea Editions. Translation © 2022 by Danielle Pieratti. Reprinted by arrangement with World Poetry Books. All rights reserved.
the lights of the Donbas flare up
like a hastily wrapped robe amid the drafts of deportation
they called that an “evacuation”
abandoning them in the border region
poisonous sources of propaganda, bright as wolfsbane, look, they bought up
another Luhansk Telegram channel
jailed the people running it
just yesterday you sent some stuff criticizing the government of the “republics.” what’s next for
human history? words in scare quotes like wrongfully convicted
words in handcuffs.
several centuries ago, but it all started much earlier. at first
there weren’t any words, then we filled up Africa
where we all once lived and burgeoned across continents like living campfires of movable rhizomes and jungles,
started keeping a tally of murders
and painting blood with ochre
mingling with them, we outlived other varieties of hominids—like the last branch on a tree, flung
against the window of a chemistry classroom
with no notion of who would be the next dominant species
sent machines into space
but stayed down here so we could keep destroying the planet
though we still haven’t found a way to keep people in our own city from digging through
garbage in search of something useful, or sleeping outside
the agenda for the day and the agenda for a night of news from the occupied territories
and a summons for military duty delivered to a house where nobody lives but a mother
Crimean Tatars detained once more on that desiccated peninsula
the editor corrects my automatic attempts to write “Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics”
“what, have we already recognized them?” he asks
we haven’t—but he has
or when I write “ORDLO” referring to “certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts”
the editor thinks that abbreviations are dehumanizing
for now, that’s what politicians call them
for now, media people say that
soldiers say something else, but they have their own language. what's all this for?
what muscle are they trying to contract into an acronym? what heart
do the words possess from end to end
with forceful meaning?
all that is somewhat in the past, today he recognized
their alleged independence
then he officially ordered his troops into the unrecognized territory
no more bashful “werenotthere”
now it’s just “hereweare”
and we will liberate you from yourselves
what if she says “stop!” but he
what’s the right thing to call women and Roma? just don’t touch them for a start
wait a minute, there are topics that are hard to talk about—it’s like it’s always too soon [for some people, gender-neutral language is one]:
these topics have to do with authoritarian regimes and their citizens and they have to do with accusing them of being unable to replace their unfreedom with something else, or replace their dictator like a rotten lock on their door, but it’s not as if those wounds are still too fresh, no, you can see the knife incising like the Nord Stream 2
across their gaze, under their skin, it lets the blood run
like the kids on the playground outside their apartment building who don’t come back home—
something struck them: abandonment, solitude, or maybe a shell
they snatched kids right off the street, threw them in a car and took them off to the Rostov
region, tempting them with candies fired from a Kalashnikov
those people who say “thank you, Russia” into the camera “for bringing us here and feeding us”
while they’re sleeping in buses, lulled by sirens
if you run into them at the store, what are you supposed to say to them? if you meet them someday?well, I hope for their safe return
whatever their views might be
but I doubt I could go see them
and come back
when I’ve been writing about the people tortured in Russian prisons, torture that runs like a
they don’t know, they don’t know about it, they read the wrong Telegram channels, watch the
wrong TV stations
not that there’s a station that would speak to them in their language
and I don’t mean a language you can pick up and learn
or reject, or forget
when I write that nobody is speaking to them in their language
“Dom”1 can’t be the channel
or do they really think the other government sees any real difference between them and the
people they plant half a gram on down in the metro?
or when they impose sentences for having anarchist views
like it’s an aggravated offense?
all those political topics, headlines on Mediazona, terms, speaking directly or indirectly, reading
something or someone, running your eyes over the notice on every journalist’s post marking them as a “foreign agent”
picking yourself up after half a night of insomnia once again to understand it but not master it,
that’s how it will always be, until
then there’s the war
that flabby, shriveled, animal word “war”
how much more do I have to write about it? what will it grow into and will it ever reach the age
of legal majority?
1. Dim/Dom (“home”) is a Ukrainian Russian-language state television channel created in 2020 with the goal of airing broadcasts for residents of the occupied territories. Over the course of Zelensky’s time in office, however, the government began to transform it into his own propaganda tool to influence audiences in free Ukraine. Update, March 2022: please note that I and many other Ukrainians understand that this is not the right time to be too critical toward Zelensky, as we all are attempting to survive.↩
© Danyil Zadorozhnyi. Translation © 2022 by Yuliya Charnyshova and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. All rights reserved.
Each month, Tobias Carroll shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation that he’s especially excited about. This month's selection includes books translated from Ukrainian, Indonesian, Persian, Japanese, and Spanish.
From Astra Publishing House | Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and the Depraved of Chornobyl by Markiyan Kamysh, translated from the Ukranian by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Hanna Leliv | Nonfiction | 160 pages | ISBN 9781662601279 | US$22.00
What the publisher says: “In Stalking the Atomic City, Kamysh tells us about thieves who hide in the abandoned buildings, the policemen who chase them, and the romantic utopists who have built families here, even as deadly toxic waste lingers in the buildings, playgrounds, and streams.”
What Publishers Weekly says: “Mixing travelogue and reportage, Kamysh, whose father helped clear the site of contaminated debris, finds a stark metaphor for post-Soviet depravity in the derelict world he explores. He describes hiking 20 miles through waist-deep snow to climb 500-foot radar antennae; sleeping in an abandoned building near the rotting corpse of a wolf; being ambushed by police; and his ‘radiation fetishism’ for contaminated graphite rods and ‘still glowing’ liquidator’s helmets.”
What I say: Every once in a while, I’ll read something about tourists venturing into the area around Chornobyl for a day or two, and the effect is somewhat dizzying. Markiyan Kamysh’s new book is infinitely more so—this is an intimate, lived-in account of a ruined landscape and the people who find themselves drawn to it. It’s a haunting, immersive read.
From Penguin Classics | People from Bloomington by Budi Darma, translated from the Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao | Fiction | 208 pages | ISBN 9780143136606 | US$14.00
What the publisher says: “In these seven stories of People from Bloomington, our peculiar narrators find themselves in the most peculiar of circumstances and encounter the most peculiar of people. Set in Bloomington, Indiana, where the author lived as a graduate student in the 1970s, this is far from the idyllic portrait of small-town America.”
What Asian Review of Books says: “The author lists as influences authors as varied as Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, but he also seems to be channeling Roald Dahl, another writer whose short stories feature vaguely off-kilter protagonists in unhealthy (literally or figuratively) situations, yielding a similar sense of unease and discomfort that remains behind after the stories conclude.”
What I say: When I picked up People from Bloomington, I expected carefully wrought character studies and thoughtfully drawn characters. What I wasn’t expecting was how weird (or, perhaps, Weird) this book could get. Darma zeroes in on his characters’ obsessions and violent impulses, with the end result playing out something like—to invoke a completely different art form—Kieślowski’s Decalogue run through an A24 horror filter.
From New Directions | Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season by Forough Farrokhzad, translated from the Persian by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. | Poetry | 128 pages | ISBN 9780811231657 | US$16.95
What the publisher says: “This thoughtfully curated, deftly translated selection of Farrokhzad’s poems includes work from her whole writing life, early to late. Readers will thoroughly treasure this expansive poet of the quotidian; of longing, loss, and desire; of classical reinvention; of lexical variation and sonic beauty; of terrifying wisdom, hope, and grief.”
What 4Columns says: “Farrokhzad has a mystical sensibility, which is a challenge for the translator, who must strike a balance between the poem’s worldly material and spiritual tone. It is a mark of their success that Gray’s renditions pull the reader along as they attain liftoff.”
What I say: This collection of Farrokhzad’s poetry, spanning the breadth of her life, offers a fantastic look at the violence of men and the intimacy that can occur between two people. It’s tactile and visceral when it needs to be, with a compelling amount of the mystical to boot: “I speak from the limit of night / I speak from the limit of darkness / and of the limit of night.”
From Two Lines Press | At the Edge of the Woods by Masatsugu Ono, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter | Fiction | 184 pages | ISBN 9781949641288 | US$16.95
What the publisher says: “An allegory for alienation and climate catastrophe unlike any other, At the Edge of the Woods is a psychological tale where myth and fantasy are not the dominion of childhood innocence but the poison fruit borne of the paranoia and violence of contemporary life.”
What Foreword Reviews says: “A chill permeates the book, in which the lines between reality and illusion are blurred. Television news programs report floods and endless lines of refugees; the lines also appear on nearby roads, or seem to. Nature has gone haywire. The woods are full of menace and danger, shapeshifting and alive. The few people whom the family sees are hostile and grotesque.”
What I say: What happens when a consensus reality begins to break down? At the Edge of the Woods is about a family living in isolation, who are then further divided over the impending arrival of a baby. What makes this book memorable isn’t just the dissolution of bonds between family members but also the way in which a logical reality seems to come untethered: what’s with the old woman who befriends one of the family’s children? Are they actually surrounded by creatures from folklore? The levels of delirium advance meticulously toward this novel’s denouement, and I am very much here for it.
What the publisher says: “When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold analyzes four homicides carried out by Chilean women over the course of the twentieth century. Drawing on her training as a lawyer, Alia Trabucco Zerán offers a nuanced close reading of their lives and crimes, foregoing sensationalism in order to dissect how all four were both perpetrators of violent acts and victims of another, more insidious kind of violence.”
What Asymptote says: “The Remainder sealed its author as one of Chile’s most recognized and poignant debut novelists, and central to its story is the same uneasiness of forgetting that pervades When Women Kill; what is true, in a lawful sense, is curled and uncurled in this text, making it one of the more incisive intersectional feminist analyses of myth and murder.”
What I say: Alia Trabucco Zerán’s When Women Kill takes on an ambitious series of goals—to recount the stories of four killings, to find connections between all of them, and to show how they relate to a societal progression in Chile. To her credit, she succeeds—and the resulting work is one that true crime buffs and fans of cultural history can appreciate in equal measure.
What the publisher says: “Through deconstructed dictionary entries and powerfully syncopated, recursive texts, Copy is a prose poem sequence that insinuates an experience of violent removal: a person’s disappearance from a country, from normal life, and forcible reintegration into a new social and existential configuration.”
What Poetry says: “What makes this work at times inaccessible is also what makes it profound. The writing is elusive and inconclusive, provocative, even brutal. More than anything, it’s enigmatic: Is the above a liberatory invitation? A demanding ultimatum? A delusional mandate? Ultimately, the text asks us to buzz in this ambiguity, in its relentless interrogation of identity and self . . .”
What I say: Copy is a vertiginous work that defies easy classification. At times, Dorantes’s staccato phrasing gives things a harrowing energy: “Nature. This inner emptiness. It tends to escape others’ perception. Because you know how to manipulate your behavior. To mold oneself. In fulfillment of duty.” The references to interrogations and checkpoints scattered throughout suggest a wider, more menacing world—and turn that energy into something like out-and-out propulsion.
Copyright © 2022 Tobias Carroll. All rights reserved.
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Tuhin Das is an exiled poet from Bangladesh who is now a writer in residence at the City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. His new book, Exile Poems, is forthcoming from Bridge and Tunnel Books in Arunava Sinha's translation. About this poem, Das writes, "Sampsonia Way is often hushed, being at a distance from the main street, West North Avenue. Of course, it’s not a bad thing to have found a quiet place to write. My exile is not just for my body but also for my mind. Loneliness is unbearable on some evenings. This poem was written on such an evening."
It’s a little too quiet everywhere.
After evening fell,
enemy planes have dropped
on my house
a bomb of silence.
The sound of its engine,
like a giant dragonfly,
made me bury my head in the pillow,
and then run out of my home.
I wander in the streets,
and consider signing
a defense pact
with the ambassador of silence.
Afterwards, heads of hushed army snipers
pop up on every rooftop.
Observing that I am returning home,
they tip their helmets to salute me.
From Exile Poems: In the Labyrinth of Homesickness, published 2022 by Bridge & Tunnel Books. © 2022 by Tuhin Das. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
Elena Ferrante's essay collection examines the pleasures of reading and writing with the author's characteristic flair for violent honesty.
“For me true writing is that: not an elegant, studied gesture but a convulsive act.” Elena Ferrante has regularly used violent imagery to describe her writing process, so this sort of visceral language in her craft book, In the Margins, is not entirely unexpected. Her 2016 collection Frantumaglia contains decades of her letters and interviews in which she asserts again and again that turbulence is fundamental to her process, and the book’s title echoes the theme: “The frantumaglia is an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self.” More bluntly, in 2020 Ferrante told the Guardian that writing is “twisting the knife in the wound, which can hurt a lot.”
Honesty, brutal honesty, is Elena Ferrante’s brand, the quality that a global audience has come to expect from her novels about messy women living complicated lives in a violent world. In the Margins is a cool, slim volume that ventures to reveal how Ferrante does it, how she wields the pen like a blade to puncture the flesh of the page. From the chunks of glass a man discovers in a dish of pasta in the novel The Days of Abandonment to the hatpin stab to the gut in the novel The Lost Daughter, Ferrante frequently, and not unintentionally, draws blood.
In the Margins is comprised of three lectures on the craft of writing commissioned by the University of Bologna, plus an essay on Dante’s Beatrice that feels a bit tacked on at the end. In 2021 an Italian actress played the role of the notoriously enigmatic writer with the pen name of Elena Ferrante and presented the first three lectures to the public (a Dante scholar later delivered the fourth at a conference devoted to Dante).
Consider the strangeness of such a spectacle for a moment: Ferrante is a master of pulling the mask off of polite society and exposing the unseemliness beneath, yet she chooses to present herself with near-total artifice. Think of Ferrante giving readers beautiful insights into how she translates her own thoughts into written works. Then think of her Italian to English translator Ann Goldstein, who once again has gracefully taken Ferrante’s words and turned them into an art of her own. Finally, think of the actress translating Ferrante’s prose into a spoken-word performance in which she embodies an author whose physical appearance remains mostly unknown. It’s the most exquisite game of Telephone: every whisper gives you goosebumps, but it’s hard to know what’s real.
What is real throughout In the Margins is a dilemma that Ferrante says she’s learned to forego after early failures in her attempts at writing realism, in which she was too bogged down in detail. Inspired in part by her reading of Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, she had a realization: “Trying to tell the thing as it is can become paralyzing,” she writes, so “I will therefore try to tell it as I can, and, who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky and tell it as it is.” If reality will always be influenced by the storyteller’s own experiences, then subjectivity requires the writer to value what is true over what is real. In other words: what is true?
In Elena Ferrante’s world, truth and ugliness are intertwined: “Beautiful writing becomes beautiful,” she writes, “when it loses its harmony and has the desperate power of the ugly.” Which is not to say that Ferrante rejects the idea of proper form. In the Margins details the joys of reading (Ferrante is as well-read as you’d expect her to be) and the necessity of broadening one’s understanding of what literature can do.
Countless writers have expressed a similar sentiment: that you must understand the rules of craft before you can joyously break them. But Ferrante unleashes her beautiful violence on even the most trite writing advice, which makes it thrilling: “We have to give up the idea that writing miraculously releases a voice of our own, a tonality of our own: in my view that is a lazy way of talking about writing,” she writes. “Writing is, rather, entering an immense cemetery where every tomb is waiting to be profaned.” If this quote doesn’t inspire you to start a draft of a new novel, you’re probably not a writer, or at least not a writer who majored in English.
So, true writing, according to Elena Ferrante, requires discipline and planning and knowledge of craft, but also an impulse to forsake polish in favor of chaos: “For much of my life I’ve written careful pages in the hope that they would be preliminary pages,” she writes. “And that the irrepressible burst would arrive, when the writing I from its fragment of the brain abruptly seizes all the possible I’s, the entire head, the entire body, and so empowered, begins to run, drawing into its net the world it needs.” The ideal state for a writer, then, is one in which she loses all self-consciousness and gives free rein to the voice inside her head. This irrepressible burst is Ferrante’s holy grail of writing, the spark of inspiration that allows her to turn off the cautious parts of herself and aim to deface and deform all that has come before. I like to believe that this is what writers mean when they say things like, “The characters just spoke to me” or “the story wrote itself.”
Ferrante’s conception of true writing as a kind of id-versus-ego endeavor may not be unfamiliar to a vast audience of readers who’ve found themselves blithely stricken with Ferrante Fever over the past decade. But In the Margins makes explicit an idea that readers of the Neapolitan Novels might have suspected, or at least one that I had suspected, but never confirmed until now: that Elena and Lila are the absolute embodiments of their creator’s ideals and frustrations about writing. Perhaps no two characters in literature map so directly onto the writing process of their author, with each woman representing an opposing side of the problem. Elena, also known as Lenù, is a model of discipline and study. She has a proper regard for the classics and a great work ethic, but she’s plagued by the self-doubt with which so many writers, including Ferrante, must contend. Lila, on the other hand, is all impulse and dazzling genius, a born truth-teller who defies norms and fucks people up without thinking twice. Lenù and Lila work best as a team, with each one acting as a moderating influence on the other’s weakest qualities, much as how Ferrante’s conflicting writing styles require balance.
Now think back to the actress playing the role of the author delivering the lectures of In the Margins. Such elaborate obfuscation in presenting a book as “candid” as this one reveals two contradictory impulses (the Lenù and the Lila, if you will) that seem to linger at the heart of Ferrante’s work: the desire to be intimately known and to not be known at all. Such a paradox makes Ferrante’s decision to remain anonymous throughout the successes of her career all the more understandable and yet still mysterious, even troubling.
I’m not suggesting that Ferrante must reveal herself, or that any author should be beholden to the marketing of their books, receptive to all journalists and bookstores and fans and, even worse, available on social media. I imagine the literary world would be a much better place if the job of the author contained more privacy and less shilling, more time for writing and less time for worrying about how they present themselves to the world. But In the Margins is a strange work to consider for this very specific reason, as it examines the desire to tell the truth by functionally losing control of boundaries. It’s a precise, academic, often brilliant book that contains very little of the brutality that we come to Ferrante for. But perhaps when we turn to a book on the writer’s craft, we’re looking more for a gentle nudge than a forceful push.
© 2022 by Maris Kreizman. All rights reserved.
If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Manila as you feel/see it?
Mega Manila is a million moods. In this city there are cities—in those sixteen cities, more cities, twenty-one point eight million cities walled high and crowned with broken glass, barbed wire, safeguarding oily pressure cookers and shared beds and gasping karaoke machines that minister to this city’s endless cities: thirteen million four hundred eighty-four thousand four hundred and sixty-two, every day making even more, out of love, desire, need—each filled with chaos and solitude, worry and yearning and long commutes to dreams that may never be reached (but that’s okay—the radio’s always on, playing something familiar and sweet).
In the daylight this city boils like it’s rushing before night, preparing for a party or an apocalypse (because to us they should feel like the same thing). In the darkness the city dances like it’s arrived, like this is what it should be: a celebration before rest then toil again through the hurtle and grind of another day—except holidays, pandemics, and when a champion fights on our TV screens from a world away to make us proud that we each stand up again every time we fall.
Faith, surrender, like in all other religions—these are the currents of this one, Manila, cradle, creed, cremator.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
The boy my students’ age slumped against a wall by the sea, hole in his head leaking black-red. A living room scattered with brass shells and splattered with brine-reeking blood streaked and pooled around shopping bags stuffed with prenatal essentials and toys for a couple’s first baby. A jail so stuffed with sweat and humanity and the hundreds of innocently guilty that they must take turns just to sit down. The wakes and the eyes too exhausted to weep, and plexiglass, above yet another dead beloved’s face, under favored candies, photos from happy yesterdays, and pecking chicks placed there to chirp should the killer ever dare come close. The mass burial of unclaimed bodies stacked into niches in a paupers’ graveyard, crumbling tombs relinquishing skeletons, and dogs with bones in their mouths running for safety in a city that offers none. The stories of addicts recounted desperately, too generously for my notebook to keep up, there in that basement of a church run by a Tagalog-speaking Italian priest who’d offered sanctuary against the police and their president-protector. In the shadows of the ruins of this Pearl of the Orient, decimated by the stubborness of the Japanese and the bombs of the Americans and the pillaging of a despotic dictator and the ongoing neglect of us Filipinos, this drug war claimed tens of thousands, only a fraction of which I could see or fathom or bear or hope to ever forget.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
The sea, of this seaside city with its famous bay, and its celebrated sunset sinking into the sea each day. Yet to most Manileños, Manila feels landlocked. We forget the sea is there, its presence and absence both extraordinary.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Jose Rizal: ilustrado, polymath, fictionist, revolutionary, martyr, who wrote novels that believed readers could save our country and change our world.
Nick Joaquin: newshound, novelist, stylist, gadabout, hard-drinking San Miguel lover who revolutionized Philippine letters through the energy of his prose and the poetry of his vision.
Jose Garcia Villa: poet, emigré, dove-eagle-lion, son of Manila’s Singalong district, proto-Pope of Greenwich Village, whose company the less-significant likes of W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, and others had the honor of keeping.
“Manila is palimpsest whose layers become one, and efforts to tear off any risk rending the whole.”
F. Sionil Jose: bookseller, novel-writer, student of history, saga-maker, whose deep dedication to social justice was so profound that his crepuscular years saw him even rationalize the sins of a murderous populist whose promises of change proved, to the principled author, too convincing.
And of the living, who are still defining themselves through their work: Gemino Abad, Alma Anonas-Carpio, Mia Alvar, Gina Apostol, F. H. Batacan, Lualhati Bautista, Merlinda Bobis, Igan D’Bayan, Jose Dalisay, Carlomar Daoana, Adam David, Patricia Evangelista, Marjorie Evasco, Luis Francia, Eric Gamalinda, Jessica Hagedorn, John Labella, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Chuckberry Pascual, Paolo Manalo, Resil B. Mojares, Charlson Ong, Han Ong, Bino Realuyo, Danton Remoto, Maria Ressa, Randy Ribay, Ninotchka Rosca, Joel Pablo Salud, Lakambini Sitoy, Grace Talusan, Meredith Talusan, Lourd de Veyra, Alfred Yuson, Jessica Zafra. To name but those on my shelf here in my scriptorium.
Is there a place here you return to often?
The Manila Polo Club—with its embarrassment of riches, everyone clamoring to get in (all the strivers, fakers, old-rich failures, cruelly fortunate matronas, deft mistresses, fattened legislators, new-money Chinese, and the silent, resolute staff over whom I always marvel how they do it without hawking into the food or tearing away their uniforms or taking up arms). Variations of its stories are the stories I live to tell.
Polo, as those who can have nicknamed this place: with its privilege of green amidst the concrete and traffic and skyscrapers and smog that over the decades towered around what was once a cheap, provincial spit of land far beyond where any Manileño wished to travel.
It’s here—in the world’s most valuable per-square-meter plot for riding ponies (or pretending you’re rich enough to)—that to me lives, writ large, the tragedy of the potential glory of this city, this nation, this culture, this race, this idea of who we are and should’ve been.
It’s the entire crackling, fought-over skin of a roast suckling pig injected into an ailing heart—and that’s why I come, again and again, to see it.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
The La Solidaridad bookshop, founded 1964, in Ermita, Manila, and named after the newspaper run by Rizal and his fellow ilustrados to represent Filipinos in the minds and parliament of our Spanish colonizers. Birthed and led by the National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, this bookshop is renowned as one of the last standalone booksellers in the country, standing alone in its stalwart dedication. Downstairs, you’ll find what’s convincingly claimed to be the widest selection of Filipiniana works in the Philippines. Upstairs, if you’re lucky, you may still find some of those great authors gathered around noodles, neon-colored soft drinks, fractious gossip, and shared purpose.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
Manila is palimpsest whose layers become one, and efforts to tear off any risk rending the whole. Once the grandest dame of Asia, that continent of so many tragic grande dames, Manila bears its dereliction and decrepitude with the defiance and insousciance of a child at heart. Sacked, conquered, colonized, many times over, the artifacts of its storied history must be unearthed, most hiding in plain sight.
A river runs through it like lifeblood, but polluted and clogged like a heart abused. Architectural gems crumble on street corners, shrouded in grit till they’re decreed too ugly to save and are demolished after years of litigation we all knew would fail. And monuments weather in the sun and rain till their history fades and their purpose becomes only what they offer in shade.
“Manila, Philippines, has burst its borders and is now everywhere as we Pinoys conquer the globe.”
Manila’s hidden cities are districts of the past, most standing now only in memory: Malate, once seaside, once suburban, once quiet, once bohemian, once raucous with the hippest music, now caters to Koreans craving bright lights, cheap booze, friendly women, and familiar food. New Manila, the erstwhile haven of the well-heeled after old Manila’s wartime decimation, has now its graceful mansions divied up into condominium developments for white-collar commuters. Quezon City, the modern would-be utopia and new seat of government, is now choked with gridlock, malls, pleasure palaces, entropy, and resignation.
Every corner, every community, shares those similar arcs, that same injury. But in Manila’s neighborhoods life prevails, kids play in the streets, neighbors backbite but have each other’s backs, and the call of vendors loping past with their snacks and wares can still be heard like a reassuring promise that you’ll never be alone, not ever, not in this city that we all love.
Where does passion live here?
In song—ubiquitous, heartfelt, seeking solace or love or joy or worth—over cheap wheeled karaoke contraptions in circuitous lanes in slums, or over gilded cordless mics in glitzy private videoke rooms; Manila lives in the songs we sing, each different, all the same in what they hope for.
What is the title of one of your works about Manila and what inspired it exactly?
Ilustrado—my novel about the tides of departures and returns—belongs to Manila. As my protagonist explains and asks: “You can’t bring an unwritten place to life without losing something substantial. Manila is the cradle, the graveyard, the memory. The Mecca, the Cathedral, the bordello. The shopping mall, the urinal, the discotheque. I’m hardly speaking in metaphor. It’s the most impermeable of cities. How does one convey all that?” Indeed. Yet Manila inspired me to try. I’m trying still.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Manila does an outside exist?”
Manila, Philippines, has burst its borders and is now everywhere as we Pinoys conquer the globe, colonizing the colonizers, building their cities, teaching their children, comforting their sick, running their ships, caring for their old, all of us rising, relentlessly rising—proving to humanity, many millions times over, our grace and humor and pluck; signed, sealed, and delivered, with love from the Philippines, via our undisputed, contentious capital: Manila.
The kind of city that inspires songs. (For not every city does.) Perhaps its most iconic the yearning, groovy, cheesy, rollicking “Manila,” by those seventies icons of Manila Sound, the band Hotdog. Singing in our polyglot vernacular, Taglish:
“I’ve walked the streets of San Francisco
I’ve tried the rides in Disneyland
Dated a million girls in Sydney
Somehow I feel like I don’t belong
I’m always looking for you, Manila
Your noise is delicious to my ears
Your jeepneys at the roadside stopping by
Your women showing off with their beauty
Take me back in your arms, Manila
And promise me you’ll never let go
Promise me you’ll never let go.”
That’s my city: lost, unforgettable, everywhere now, dying in the past, living in eternity. I fucking love Manila. Its songs I’ll forever sing.
Miguel Syjuco (www.syjuco.com) is a Filipino author, journalist, civil society advocate, and professor at New York University Abu Dhabi. His debut novel, Ilustrado, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Grand Prize at the Palanca Awards, his country’s top literary honor. His follow-up novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!!, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in April 2022.
Syjuco has worked as a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times, written for many of the world’s most respected publications, and spoken on Philippine politics and culture at the World Forum for Democracy and the World Economic Forum. He currently serves on the advisory councils of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, an international arts residency program, and the Resilience Fund, a project by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime to empower communities most threatened by criminality.
© 2022 Miguel Syjuco. All rights reserved.
Kyung-sook Shin. Photo copyright © Jun yeon Kim.
Violets, a new novel by New York Times–bestselling author Kyung-sook Shin, is out this week from the Feminist Press in Anton Hur's translation. In the excerpt below, the protagonist, San, looks back on a formative event from her childhood.
A day in May.
Her mother’s hand grips a pair of scissors. Like some wind-up toy, her grandmother repeats herself over and over again: Her son left and won’t come back because his wife was frigid. The scissors are a chilling sight. Unable to bear the suspense, San thrusts her feet into her shoes and runs out the garden gate. The paved road sprawls pitifully under the sun. A dog with a low-hanging tail saunters by. Slate roofs, some red, some blue, lie flat in the background. Trees peek out through the open gates of the other houses. Unruly patches of weeds overgrow onto the main road. The branches of the persimmon tree next door stretch over the wall, brilliantly laden with white flowers. The girl called San is overcome with a compulsion to smash and shatter against something. She leans against the wall the persimmon tree reaches over. She rubs her face against it. Her forehead becomes scratched and beads with blood. Afraid, San breaks into a run. The blood from her forehead flows down her cheeks. She wants to get as far away as possible. Even better, she thinks, if she never has to come back.
The minari field is green. Summer is coming. San is drenched with sweat as she runs, her sweat mingled with blood. She goes down to the irrigation ditch and washes her face, splashing palmfuls of water. Her forehead throbs. She climbs to the top of the dyke, from where she can see the whole field, and plops down. She almost writhes with the sudden, agonizing loneliness. There is no one picking minari today. Is it because of the prickly sunlight? A sad blue sky floats over the road and the minari. She puts a hand to her forehead and checks to see if blood smears off on her palm. It doesn’t, but the scratched spot still throbs, and she blinks away the sweat in her eyes. She lies down and puts her ear against the dyke and looks down on the whole field where the minari grows. What could she hear if she listened hard enough? Could she hear the thoughts of her father, who left as soon as she was born; the feelings of her grandmother, who ripped into her mother time and again; the rage of her mother, who gripped the flashing shears in her hand? As she blinks, the green seeps into her mind like a bitter taste. She shuts her eyes. Her wound throbs and throbs in the sun.
“Both naked, they stretch out side by side like a pair of chopsticks.”
She opens her eyes because her face tickles. Namae squats before her, wearing a white shirt and blue shorts, holding a blade of foxtail. The bushy part pokes San’s face. Namae’s braided ponytail is neatly settled on her shirt front. Their eyes meet, Namae’s eyes brimming with mirth, San’s drowning in sadness. Namae looks into San’s eyes for a moment before gently cupping San’s face.
San is silent.
“Did you trip?”
Little San is too afraid to reply. How could she describe the heat she felt when she put her forehead to the wall? The desire to crash into something. A desire she still feels in her heart. Instead of responding, she grabs the foxtail from Namae’s hand and pushes it up Namae’s nose. Jerking her head back in surprise, Namae loses her balance and rolls down the dyke. There’s a splash, and the stirred-up silt turns the stream muddy and opaque. Namae gets up, her eyes and nose red from swallowing water. San is caught off-guard when Namae reaches up and pulls her in. Upon contact, the cold water fires up the wound on her forehead. One of her shoes comes off, and Namae races to save it. Placing their shoes on top of the dyke, the two girls start splashing each other. The waterweeds are dancing. The two keep slipping as they play, and soon their lips are as blue as ink. San’s wound, which she had briefly forgotten about, aches with a pain that stretches to her nose. The two scramble up the dyke, take a look at each other, and giggle, water dripping down their clothes and hair. They shake their heads to get the water off. The flying droplets hit each other’s faces. Namae hesitates as she looks down at her soaked clothes. She takes off her blue shorts, squeezes them dry, and spreads them on the dyke. San follows suit, taking off her raindrop-print skirt, squeezing it, and also laying it out in the sun. Namae’s white shirt and San’s yellow blouse are next. Then, with some reluctance, Namae takes off her underwear, shakes out the water, and lays it out as well. San takes off her own underwear, squeezes it, shakes it, and lays it out. Both naked, they stretch out side by side like a pair of chopsticks. Now that their wet clothes are off, sunlight returns warmth to their bodies. Little San thinks the dyke must be a green mirror; Namae’s bare body looks identical to her own. If she reaches out to the pink forehead in her reflection, it will ache just like hers. The black pupils of her eyes, the braid falling down her little shoulder, the small cheeks where the water has already dried, the narrow bridge of her nose. San feels reassured that Namae’s body is as skinny and pathetic as her own.
“Look there,” says Namae, pointing to the sky. “It’s watching us.”
Namae giggles as she props herself up. The move reveals her back, and San stares, dazzled. There is a green grass stain blotting Namae’s small, sloped back; the blot is softly, tenderly spread across the white. Without thinking about it, San reaches out with her fingers to touch the spot when Namae whips around.
Their eyes meet.
“You saw it!”
San is speechless.
“You saw the birthmark on my back, right?” Namae’s voice trembles. “I didn’t want anyone to see it.”
San says nothing.
“I’d forgotten about it.” Namae’s eyes fill with tears of rage. “What is it anyway, a Mongolian spot?”
But San smiles brightly. So this must be why San has never seen Namae playing in the stream with the others.
“I . . . thought it was a grass stain.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“It’s really pretty. Turn around. I want to see it.”
Namae sticks out her tongue in pointed refusal and promptly lies down on her back. Their bodies feel downy as they dry. Namae had acted as if she would never again show San her spot, lying down with her back flat against the grass, but she soon shifts her position and rolls onto her side. San follows suit. The green-blue spot that is not a grass stain flashes in San’s vision. How beautiful it is.
“You have something I don’t have.”
Little San begins to feel sad. This blot, only found on Namae’s back, threatens their being two of a kind. The two girls prop their heads up on their palms and stare out over the field, eyes filled with the vast stretch of minari. The green undulates. How could the world be so quiet? The road is empty, the irrigation ditch is empty, and the field is empty. Where has everyone gone?
The girls are lying on their stomachs, waving their feet in the air, when their anklebones painfully collide. Namae, still prone, pulls in her anklebone and rubs it. San sits up in pain and rubs her own anklebone. She looks down at Namae’s curled body. The green blot on her white back is arched and clear. San’s hand slowly reaches out and touches the soft outline of the green blot, following it with her fingers. Namae flinches but lies still, not breathing. In this unexpected silence, little San cannot fight off the melancholy that crashes into her. It travels over the minari field in waves.
“You have something no one else has.”
Namae releases her foot, and caresses San’s forehead instead.
“Does it hurt a lot?”
San doesn’t respond.
“Why did you do this?”
Namae blows soothingly on San’s wound. The urge inside to collide into something, that uncontrollable impulse San thought she’d managed to tamp down, is welling up again. The hand that traced the blot on Namae’s pale back begins to rub Namae’s neck. A passing breeze ruffles the grass on the dyke. The minari bends in the wind. San is about to cry when Namae pulls her into an embrace. When their warm bodies meet, San feels a surge of loneliness she’s sure will last for the rest of her life. Their soft lips touch, and their little fingers tangle together for a moment. Namae sits bolt upright and swats San’s back, but San pulls her down again. They awkwardly fall into an embrace, look into each other’s eyes, and settle down on the grass once more.
“Dizzy, she almost drops the knife.”
The next time San opens her eyes, it’s to the quacking of some passing ducks. She’s alone on the dyke. White ducks with yellow beaks play in the ditch where Namae had fallen earlier. San stares at the blank spaces between her raindrop-print skirt, her yellow blouse, and her white underwear. The spaces where Namae’s white shirt, blue shorts, and underwear had been.
Little San puts on her clothes and sits, staring out at the minari. Why did Namae leave without her? Suddenly, San is afraid. There’s not a single cloud in the sky. Waves of green swell. The silence is eerie. A red cloud of dust rises from the road and melts into the field. San sits there until the sound of the ducks fade and twilight descends. A villager who has come to pick minari sees her sitting stock-still and calls out her name, but San doesn’t reply. She may not have heard. Eventually, San gets up, despite her wounded forehead and aching ankle, and gets off the dyke. She heads for Namae’s house. The house has its lights on, but is quiet. Only Namae’s shoes greet her from beneath the porch. By the wall, next to the well, is the large earthen jar that Namae’s father crawls into, its mouth gaping in the dusk. San can’t bring herself to call Namae’s name. She simply stands there. Namae refuses to come out. Little San drags her feet to the jar and crawls inside. The floor and walls are ice to the touch. She crouches and listens carefully. But there’s only the cold. There’s only darkness. Overcome with dread, she lets out an Ah—. Her voice is small, but it rings within the jar. Ahhh—. Surprised by her own voice, she clamps her mouth and stops breathing. There’s the sound of an opening door, and the sound of Namae putting on her shoes. San squeezes her eyes shut in the already black interior. Come, my love. Come and raise me from this darkness. Little San listens carefully to each of Namae’s approaching footsteps.
Namae’s shadow covers the mouth of the jar.
“Get out!” Namae shouts. San is crouched, her eyes squeezed shut.
San doesn’t move.
“I said, get out!”
Finally, little San crawls out of the jar.
Namae pushes her and yells, “Go away!” Namae rushes to her house, takes off her shoes, and darts back inside where a faint glow seeps out. But where is San supposed to go? To whom? A thought sweeps across her heart: If she leaves now, she’ll never see Namae again. That must never happen.
Have you forgotten me? Already?
How warm we were by the minari. The beautiful green blot staining your white back. The gentleness of your cheek. Your small hand that caressed the wound on my forehead.
The jar stands and stares with listless shoulders. A few moments later, Namae opens the door and looks out into the yard. She sees San standing there and screams at her to leave. When San doesn’t move, she runs out of the house and thumps her on the chest with a fist.
“All right,” says Namae abruptly, and walks away.
San tries to say something as she follows Namae to the kitchen. Namae, surprised by San trailing her, leaves through a door to the backyard. The more San thinks she should say something, the more her lips freeze.
Namae comes back into the kitchen, biting her lower lip, and grabs the knife sitting on the chopping board as she orders San outside. Namae runs to the chicken coop on the other side of the yard. She throws open the coop door and grabs one of the birds by the wings, a red cock, and pulls it out. She is holding the screaming rooster with one hand and with the other she thrusts the knife at San. Not knowing what to do, San takes it from her.
“Now, follow me.”
Namae leads San to the large stone mortar next to the well and glares at her.
“Cut off its head.”
San doesn’t move.
“I said, cut off the head of this cock!”
She still doesn’t move.
“. . .”
“Then get out!”
“. . .”
“I said, get out!”
San feels like the backyard walls are closing in. Dizzy, she almost drops the knife. The white back hidden inside your white shirt, the luscious green blot spread across that back. Your soft lips, your warm body. Little San had not anticipated this situation back when she was tracing Namae’s spot with her fingers. She doesn’t know how to take in what’s happening. She feels numb. Your warm body, the ribs that protruded over the pit of your stomach, your delicately rising and falling uvula—where has this betrayal been hiding? But if it means I can be with you, San thinks. If it means you won’t leave me. She closes her eyes. She raises the knife. I can’t go back like this! She thrusts the knife into the rooster’s neck and pulls.
Their vision clouds over. The head of the rooster is rolling on the ground. There are droplets of blood splattered on the well. Namae, in shock, rolls on the ground and clutches the rooster still squirming with life. San drops the knife, and Namae tosses aside the headless cock. Red blood covers the earthen jar, the wall, the well, and the two girls. Namae stumbles away from San, then screams at her as she scrambles onto the porch with her shoes still on and falls inside the house. She locks the door shut behind her.
From Violets by Kyung-sook Shin, translated by Anton Hur. Published April 2022 by the Feminist Press. By arrangement with the publisher.
At the time of Sergio Chejfec’s death last Saturday, I had recently completed a translation of his 2015 book on writing and technology, "Forgotten Manuscript." The original version of the work, titled Últimas noticias de la escritura, already enjoys a cult status in the Spanish-speaking world, and Sergio and I had high hopes that its appearance in English would meet with a similar reception among Anglophone writers and readers. "Forgotten Manuscript" is a difficult text to categorize, existing somewhere between the genres of autobiography and literary theory, scholarly monograph and ruminative essay, diagnosis of the digital and homage to the vanishing art of handwritten composition. In the following excerpt, drawn from the opening section of the book, Sergio’s relationship to a beloved green notebook inspires a broad reflection on the culture of writing in our contemporary moment. The day after I learned of Sergio’s passing, I returned to these pages and once again felt the power and elegance of his inimitable prose style, though this time the experience was tinged with the sadness of knowing that his habitual writing practices will now forever take place in the past tense. Nevertheless, I am confident that Sergio’s words have something to teach us. Few contemporary authors were as committed to interrogating the act of writing so deeply and unflinchingly. And few—if any—understood how to capture it so well. —Jeffrey Lawrence
“Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
One. This book can be read as the story of a notebook. One could call it a journal or a composition book—it doesn’t really matter—the important thing is that I’ve had it with me for a great deal of time.1 I adopted it immediately when I laid eyes on it, half-forgotten in the display window of an inconspicuous shop in a far-flung neighborhood of a city that I barely knew and where I had wandered for lack of anything better to do.
The scene was the following: a series of long, neutral streets that sparked neither curiosity nor enthusiasm. In the middle of the empty morning, a brisk morning, someone stopped before the store window of a small shop. I was that someone, looking intently at the green notebook next to a slim, similarly-hued vase that could barely fit two flowers. Perhaps it was the curious visual composition wrought by the two objects that initially caught my attention: the thick notebook like the squat and sturdy foundations of a factory; the vase a towering chimney from whose heights the ovens hidden within the building (the notebook) released their slender columns of heat and ash. It was as if in the midst of that redoubled solitude—the solitude of the store window and the solitude of the street—these two beings (if I may call them that) had been ushered into a silent and distant exile akin to the space of a museum.
I immediately became attached to that notebook. In the first place, I was drawn to the fact that it was a rustic object, lacking in any sort of sophistication or elegance. Second, it was incredibly cheap. Later I learned it was made in China. At that time, Chinese products had not yet colonized the world as completely as they later would—and I like to think that the successful assault of those flawless notebooks paved the way for the later conquest; the relatively successful assault, I should say, because I have never come across a notebook like that again.
The notebook has been with me since that day, a day when I was just wandering around and of which I nevertheless have the most vivid, enduring memories. Memories, for instance, of the urban landscape: blocks and blocks of nondescript buildings and empty lots that one could cross diagonally to reach the adjacent streets. Or rather, broad, inviting shortcuts that allowed anyone with a modicum of spatial awareness to save time, as if the street grid itself were optional.
That afternoon I failed to notice one practical aspect about the notebook: its sheer number of pages, approximately 300. All white in color, though time would turn them yellow, each with twenty-two lines, a hypnotic regularity. It evoked a calm sea about to be traversed, or an endless horizontal plane, page after page.2 Its thickness made it even more singular: it wasn’t one of those notebooks that one uses and then quickly throws away. Here’s an image of it, both in its closed and open state:
Cover and blank pages of the green notebook
Out on the street once more, I felt utterly pleased with myself considering the enormous step I had taken toward the organization, or better yet the unification, of my notes. Up to that point I had jotted things down on loose pages, sheets folded in half or ripped from notepads, once I had fully articulated a note or thought. The Chinese notebook moved me to gather these observations into a single place, though I should make clear that I wasn’t drawn to its utilitarian qualities—which certainly might appeal to someone else—but rather its fragile appearance, which, as I say, induced in me an immediate pact of cohabitation.
The notebook was also a sign of the imminent (or perhaps already existent; in any case I was unaware of it) proliferation of small notebooks and journals of various brands and designs (first and foremost the Moleskine); during this same period, I began to receive a series of stylish writing journals—as if the green notebook in my possession had opened the floodgates. They were the perfect gift for anyone who identified as a writer. I remained faithful to the Chinese notebook even as the other notebooks piled up, though given my own writing habits this led to serious difficulties and certain associated fears—difficulties and fears that have stayed with me through the years, as I will now explain.
For me the notebook represents a kind of problem. It is a cherished object from which I will never part (the few times I thought I lost it I felt something akin to a physical threat; as if an essential part of my being were at stake), and yet it is also something that, when I write in it from time to time, seems highly unstable, so much so that it occasionally slips from my memory as if it were made of an evanescent material, or as if it simply didn’t belong to me in the same form in which it exists in the world. Does this mean that the things we cherish most are the things that are most indeterminate?
Two. At a certain moment in my shifting relationship to the notebook, and perhaps because of it, I discovered the anomaly encrypted in the eloquent yet unstable presence of the written word. Something that allowed me insight into a dimension of writing by hand that had escaped me up until that point. I’m not referring to my own reasons for writing—those have always been clear—but rather the physical act of composition itself. I had developed an erratic relationship to my manually written notes. One of my greatest and most recurrent fears was (and still is) that I would never fill those 300 pages.
I write this in the past tense, but the truth is that I’m also referring to the present. The idea that I would never fill the notebook seemed more likely than the idea that I would. It was a Sisyphean scenario. It meant forever renouncing the desire to adopt a new notebook (and consequently renouncing the desire to relive the anarchic joy of starting afresh with clean pages). But it also meant something else that it took more time for me to comprehend, paradoxically because it was such a simple fact: filling the notebook’s pages could be interpreted as having completed a piece of writing. It was similar, in other words, to finishing—or better yet having—a book. One of those acts that acquires its true meaning precisely because it is borrowed from something else: in this case, from the idea of publication. Due to this numerical similarity between the notebook’s pages and the pages of a published book, my writing thus revealed itself to me as an inadvertent simulation—I was unprepared for this altered format, however, because of my somewhat accidental relationship to the process of writing by hand.
All signs indicated that the notebook would remain unpublished. This reminded me in turn of another kind of illusion. When I was first becoming a writer, I built up an enormous reserve of patience (or impatience?) regarding the publishing process in general, and publishing houses more particularly. Elsewhere I have referred to the problem of having a notebook filled with endless observations: as time passes, one feels that the notebook becomes the evidence of what one has failed to write rather than what one has already written. In this instance, I thought that in terms of posterity—whatever that means—what would remain was an incomplete notebook, the sign of a sort of textual indolence on the part of the so-called author, who was incapable of filling up a small number of pages given the many opportunities he was given to progress over several long decades.
And so the green notebook accompanies me almost like a mistaken talisman. An object that shames and inhibits me. It reminds me of what I’m not, and thereby affirms what I am. It makes me believe, though nothing else in reality corroborates this, that everything I do is in an embryonic stage. That I’m always stopping and starting my writing in the very same motion.3
My ambivalent relationship to writing by hand, an act to which I feel infinitely devoted and which nevertheless lacks practical application, is at the root of the question that this kind of writing, almost a ritual or ethnographic exercise, continues to inspire in me, and even more so of the intriguing yet evasive material that I continue to find in every detail that appears at each step of composition.
Three. The act of writing longhand extends through time in a unique way. It’s as if such writing could go on forever. It’s likely that the appeal of handwritten manuscripts derives from this assurance of continuity, which relies on a further (though mistaken) promise: that of immutability. Nevertheless, it also owes something to other modes of writing; all modes of writing draw their appeal from their mutual influences and complementary shortcomings. One is drawn toward handwritten manuscripts because, unlike more mediated forms of writing (whether produced by typewriters, word processors, or automatic transcription tools), they alone retain the signs of hesitation.4
1Or it can be read as the effects of the notebook’s presence over a number of years. Anything present for long enough begins to haunt one. Generally speaking, I don’t like it when objects speak or make arguments for me. The notebook will therefore be present in these pages even though I mention it infrequently; it is the remote inspiration or hazy backdrop for many of these reflections on writing. Apropos of Nietzsche’s quote: the notebook is not an instrument I use to write and then think, and then write again when I’m so inclined (that is, an artifact that adapts itself to each situation), but rather an accessory I carry with me to remind myself of the strangeness of writing, the eternal flame that, paradoxically, is not always visible. The notebook is an amulet, but also an article of faith. Moreover, it’s the sign of my personal belief, which is also shared by many others: the belief in the written word. Could anyone possibly believe that writing doesn’t exist? It would be like denying the existence of rain. The notebook has thus come to represent the various links to writing that find support in my changing attitudes toward that belief.↩
2A memory: the wonder that lined pages produced in me when I first began to write. I vividly recall my shame at the impatience of my first-grade teacher after I raised my hand, while all of the other students were calmly bent over their desks, and asked whether I could keep writing after the lines had ended.↩
3 I believe this ambivalence derives from my unnatural relationship to literature, and more specifically to writing. Not long ago, I participated in a public interview with a well-known writer. With such writers, I believe that one should never ask direct questions. One should surround them with thoughts related to their texts, texts that are largely known to the world by the ideas contained within them. One of the things that I thought to say, but in the end couldn’t find the opportunity to point out—it’s not difficult to see why—is the following: writers can be divided into two camps, those who have a natural relationship to literature and those who don’t. I don’t mean that a natural relationship implies a peaceful relationship, or viceversa, that a non-natural relationship implies a conflicted one. Rather, I believe that some writers adopt from the outset a proximity to literature, while others approach it through all sorts of stratagems and hesitations. In Argentina, the archetype, as always, is Borges. The very self-construction of his figure shows him surrounded by books, reading from an early age more naturally than if he were speaking. I’m reminded here of Arturo Carrera’s metaphor, when he refers, in his work with Alfredo Prior, to “children born with a hairstyle,” but also of something else I once heard him say: writers born with a hairstyle. Graced with something more than simply knowledge: a kind of belonging or familiarity that goes hand in hand with their literary development. As if they had been born knowing they would be writers. At the other extreme, it’s easy to identify writers who come to their literary connection as something unnatural, and construct that relationship through other means.↩
4 By hesitation I don’t mean textual indecision (what word to use, how to continue a thought, etc.), or not only that, but also the vacillation inherent in every person’s handwriting. Even in the most beautiful and measured scripts one can find these marks; it’s a feature common to nearly all writers. One case that particularly interests me is that of Juan José Saer, to whom I will return later on. Years ago, when I had the chance to read his manuscripts, I found in some of them—though not all—a breakdown in every “s” that appeared in the middle of a word. As if each time he penned one he needed to rest, or had trouble connecting it to the next letter. I found that words that contain an “s” had a slightly larger space than normal, especially when that “s” was followed by a consonant. Those hesitations obsess me to the point that, lacking a ready answer, I tend to look for an aesthetic or structural explanation, and I begin to make associations: for instance, between reflexivity (well established in the case of Saer, whose narrative form revolves around repetition) and the form of his script. These hypotheses don’t go anywhere, but they help me to ascribe a purpose to handwritten manuscripts that is independent from the material traces they have left.↩
From "Forgotten Manuscript" © 2021 by Sergio Chejfec. Translation © 2022 by Jeffrey Lawrence. By arrangement with the author’s estate. All rights reserved.
Halldór Laxness's 1931 novel is a sometimes harrowing coming-of-age story of a young woman in a remote Icelandic fishing village.
When sailing on such a cold and bleak winter’s night along these shores, you get the impression that nothing in the world could be more insignificant and meaningless than such a small village under such high mountains. How do people live in such a place? And how do they die?
A smartly-dressed passenger on a ship heading to Reykjavik wonders this aloud as eleven-year-old Salka and her mother Sigurlína disembark at the small fishing village of Óseyri. Salka is the first to step off the boat and into their new life, comforting her seasick mother along the way in her trademark voice, which is unnaturally deep and low for a young girl. Salka Valka is the first of Halldór Laxness’s social realist novels. It was published in 1931 following a series of critical essays on everything from the terrible state of Icelandic sanitation to the problem with American films (with the sole exception of Charlie Chaplin). Despite his unflattering view of Hollywood, the coming-of-age story of a precocious young girl was originally written as a screenplay for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with the working title ‘A Woman in Pants,' Laxness even imagined Greta Garbo playing the central role. When this foundered, Salka Valka became a novel in two parts: Thou, Pure Grapevine and The Bird on the Shore, sometimes with the subtitle “A Political Love Story.”
From the time Salka and Sigurlína step off the boat, they are immersed in the village’s closed, judgmental atmosphere, which is juxtaposed with an Icelandic landscape that is endlessly vast and open. The sea at the village edges is “bitter cold and churning,” and “sheer crags loomed up from the snow-covered mountainsides in perfect indifference to all that lives and dies.” While everyone acknowledges their utter destitution—the Salvation Army, the doctor, the priest, and the local shopkeeper—no one seems particularly inclined to do anything about it. “Strangers bring corruption more so than edification,” warns the priest. Mother and daughter wind up at the mercy of the egotistical alcoholic Steinþor Steinsson (“I own the sea, I own the seashore and the village and the sky over the village with all its storms that come and go,” he declares), who brings them home with him. When Salka tells her mother that Steinþor “groped me here and here and here,” Sigurlína is dismissive and barely registers her daughter’s tears and outrage. Steinþor pushes himself on Sigurlína one night while she is sharing a bed with Salka; after a brief confrontation, she leads him away from the child and does what he wants. Salka lies alone and awake, acutely aware of the chasm forming between childhood and the rest of her life: “From then on, she had no mother. Maybe no one had a mother. Maybe no one actually had anyone but themselves.” The book’s first part culminates in an assault scene so vile and described with such cruel cynicism—Salka’s “first personal experience of love”—that it took considerable effort for me to pick the book up again at all.
Despite significant hardships, the young Salka is precocious and hardworking, securing a job and a credit account for herself before starting school. Though she cannot read when she arrives in Óseyri, she is quick to learn and soon teaches herself political and philosophical ideas—flipping through the “major foreign works of socialism” and Marxist social science. Salka is already a tomboy, with her tall frame and deep voice, and her disgust at her mother’s relationship contributes to her view of womanhood overall. “I’m sick of being a girl!” she declares to the soft-spoken Arnaldur, a teenage boy who agrees to teach her to read and write. “I will never, ever become a woman—like my Mama!” Arnaldur thinks for a while and, in one of the novel’s scant tender moments, replies with a simple offer: “I can get you a good pair of trousers.”
The book sometimes goes to great lengths to show us the traits that make Salka (to borrow a contemporary phrase) “not like other girls”—her diligence and determination are precisely what make her a “match for any man alive” but also contribute to her “eccentricity” as a woman. When she gets older, she wears sturdy mountaineering boots and a thick woolen sweater (which doesn’t conceal her “curvy bosom,” the narrator would like us to know). Her eyes are “clear and bold” and her hands are “large and accustomed to work.” One gets the sense that Laxness’s view of a feminist socialist heroine may simply, at this point in his career, have been ‘a woman in pants’—or, in other words, a woman taking on the role of a man.
A contemporary reading of Salka’s discomfort with girlhood makes Laxness seem ahead of his time around issues of sex and gender. Yet, when contextualized with Salka’s work ethic and socialist ideas, the trousers appear to be more of a uniform for an equal society, rather than a nod to queer life in the early twentieth century. While the book is touted as a “feminist coming-of-age tale,” some turns of phrase make for uneasy reading: “These two females looked more like rubbish picked up off the beach;” “It must be quite uncomfortable for two unknown, wretched females who are completely on their own to come to a village where they have never been before….”. Using “females” as a noun could be a mark of the time or the particular translation, a part of the author’s detached and experimental modernist style, or even a way of exposing the villagers’ endemic misogyny. Yet, while it is impossible to hold a historical work accountable to contemporary standards of language, we can certainly question its feminist credentials.
In other ways, Laxness is a true poet with language. As the harsh winter fades, he describes how “terns hovered over the night-shaded fjord and the dewy grass grew in its midsummer dream.” The sights, sounds, and smells are more pungent and authentic in Philip Roughton’s translation than those we sometimes find in life:
“There never seemed to be good weather in this village, because the Creator was always experimenting with His sky. . . . it might be said that the Creator’s favorite weather for the village was rain, which stirred up all sorts of stenches: sea and seaweed, fish, fish heads and fish guts, train oil, tar, manure, and refuse.”
But while the sky is full of life, the villagers—particularly the working class—are gray or colorless, rivaling even John Steinbeck’s depictions of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. The inhabitants of Óseyri are “a sort of abortion which Our Lord had made out of cooked fish and perhaps a handful of rotten potatoes and a drop of oatmeal gruel.” Only the wealthy have color in their cheeks and their clothes. They cheerfully recount vibrant excursions to the continent while the voices of the workers are tinged with a “salty, gray frigidity.” The poor are alternately described as drunk, tedious, foolish, or cruel, eliciting a mixture of pity and disdain from the better off. It is worth pointing out that Laxness wrote Salka Valka after visiting the United States, where he “did not become a socialist in America from studying manuals of socialism, but from watching the starving unemployed in the parks.”
Part II deals in great detail with the work required to bring a nation like Iceland towards socialism and better living conditions. The country’s fragile economy was reeling from the Great Depression and, being so remote, it struggled to match the pace of modernization in Europe. Salka and Arnaldur have grown older and fallen in love, but his idealism and hopeless impracticality is worlds away from Salka’s pragmatism. He travels abroad while she is busy organizing the Óseyri fishermen into labor unions and getting her trousers muddy. Yet it is Arnaldur who acts as a mouthpiece for Laxness’s own ideas about more worldly themes: “But what was it that happened in 1874, when our finances were separated from those of Denmark?” he asks. “All that really happened was this: the exploitation of the people was brought into our own country. The robbers simply changed their nationality.” Laxness left Iceland at 17 and traveled widely—not just to the US, but across Europe and into the Soviet Union (producing an awkwardly uncritical essay about the Soviet state). The heroine of his most famous book, Independent People, is banished to the US, but returns upon concluding that the rural deprivation in Iceland is preferable. Laxness is consistently clear that poverty itself is the enemy, and that individualism (à la Steinþor) is not the solution. In fact, the Red Scare may go a long way to explain why the Nobel winner’s books were so difficult to obtain in English for so long. As a child, Salka listens as she is told:
“If you work non-stop all your life, day in and day out, you may be able to pay for your own funeral when you die. But believe me, good child: no one becomes rich by working. The few rich people that I saw in my life never worked a day, while the greatest poverty always plagued those who toiled hardest.”
Laxness died in 1998; his life spanned nearly the whole twentieth century. In a letter from San Francisco from that first U.S. trip, Laxness said the only two options in the face of such deprivation were to be “a reformer or a humbug;” Salka is a clear reformer and the model of leadership that Laxness envisions for the future. From the start, he was adamant that a novel should ask people to examine their lives and see how they might help turn the wheel of emancipatory politics. The happy ending to Salka and Arnaldur’s romance is forsaken for the needs of the people—they both must continue their work to advance Icelandic socialism. In the writing, there is a clear struggle to maintain the balance between storytelling and political discourse—while this makes for an uneven read, Laxness still achieves a certain richness with his sublime and painterly landscapes and earnest portraits of “insignificant” people living through a significant historical moment. Though Salka Valka is rife with idealism, the author’s homage to resilience and resistance is sometimes overshadowed by his depiction of a relentlessly bleak, impoverished world. For something once subtitled “A Political Love Story,” there is little love to be seen.
© 2022 by Hannah Weber. All rights reserved.
From left to right: Salwa Shakhshir, Miranda Beshara, and Mohamed Nabulsi.
Sharjah was the guest of honor at both this year’s London and Bologna book fairs. In the last decade, Sharjah has particularly invested in children’s literature. The Emirate is home to Kalimat, one of the biggest publishers of Arabic children’s literature, and the annual Sharjah Book Fair is home to one of the most prominent prizes for Arabic literature for young readers, the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature.
Salwa Shakhshir is managing director of the award-winning Jordanian children’s publishing house Dar al-Salwa. Egyptian children’s book writer Miranda Beshara is also co-founder of the key promotional hub for Arabic children’s literature, Hadi Badi Books, and her Teta and Babcia made the 2022 IBBY Honor List. Jordanian author and disability-rights trainer Mohamed Nabulsi, who lives in Sharjah, most recently published Dates and Masala, which was shortlisted for the 2021 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature in the YA category.
These three publishing professionals spoke with me about the most exciting current initiatives in Arabic children’s literature, books they recommend, and what they’d like to see in the future.
M. Lynx Qualey (MLQ): What have been the most exciting initiatives, to your mind, that support not just the writing and publication of great Arabic literature for young readers, but also knowledge about and access to this literature? And what still needs to be done?
Salwa Shakhshir (SS): There are several initiatives that support creative literature and promote the culture of reading in the region, including the Art and Literature Grant from the Abdel Hameed Shoman Foundation, which supports creative writing in Arabic as well as the development of libraries. Other initiatives that promote reading are the We Love Reading campaign and the Arab Reading Challenge.
Social media has played an important role in promoting the culture of reading and spreading awareness of books, authors, and publishers. There are a number of interested parents, reading groups, and influencers who highlight the importance of reading. A few examples include the Instagram accounts for Hadi Badi and “Oh.the.books that.you’ll.read.”
We need more governmental support to ensure that libraries are established in every city to make books accessible for all and not just for the segment of people who can afford it. We also need more focus from the media on the importance of children’s literature and instilling the love and habit of reading in young children.
“There are many great Arabic children’s books that haven’t reached their young readers yet.”
Miranda Beshara (MB): Well, I don’t know of any current initiatives focusing on the writing and publication of good Arabic literature for young readers apart from sporadic workshops and grants. However, there are several exciting initiatives that raise awareness.
There is Al-Nqsh platform, which provides an online repository of recent publications, with reviews from different people—sort of a Goodreads for Arabic children’s books. Then there is of course the Hadi Badi Initiative, which reviews books that were read and liked by its reading committee, in addition to curating special content and developing interactive and creative learning activities around children’s and young adult books in Arabic. I believe that there are many great Arabic children’s books that haven’t reached their young readers yet. What is needed is more creativity from publishers to improve the promotion and distribution of their books, as well as more collaboration with schools and public libraries to make such books accessible to all.
Mohamed Nabulsi (MN): I can summarize what we still need to do in three main points:
First: Publishers of books for children and youths must rally around these new Arab initiatives, wherever they may be found, support them with their positive criticism, and cooperate to improve and enhance them.
Second: We must support initiatives that encourage reading in Arabic for children and young people, as these types of programs are still timid, and are weakened in the face of the intensive production of English-language literature.
Third: Encourage the publication of books in new forms, such as ebooks and audiobooks, as well as other available formats that will reach a wider segment than the paper book alone.
MLQ: What has been the effect of prizes on Arabic literature for young readers? Which prizes would you suggest librarians, readers, teachers, parents, translators, and others keep an eye on? Or, if not prizes, how else do we find out about great new Arabic books for young people?
SS: Prizes such as the Etisalat Children’s Literature Award and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award have presented young readers with a guide for recommended books. This has encouraged young readers to discover new authors and publishers who have won awards. A lot of schools have also adopted certain books as supplementary reading in the curriculum, introducing literature to young readers who will later seek out other books from the same writer/publisher if they enjoyed what they read.
Digital platforms have risen in importance and popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, and they have become a significant tool for discovery, as they allow the reader to view lists of many publishers in one location.
“The problem with awards is that they become a target even before the writing begins.”
MB: Over the past decade, awards have created competition in the Arabic children’s literature industry. On one hand, this is great because it raised the bar in terms of quality and quantity, but on the other hand, those awards didn’t change much in terms of content, as the majority of book authors and publishers have opted to play it safe in order to increase their chances of winning. Nevertheless, awards are a good starting point to learn about the latest publications. Prizes to watch include the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, the biennial IBBY Honour List, and regional awards focusing only on illustration, such as the Mahmoud Kahil Award, which mostly focuses on comics but has a special category for children’s illustration. There is the recently launched Ouka Award for Children’s Book Illustrations, too.
MN: The three awards I see as the best for Arabic children’s literature are the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children's Books, the Abdul Hameed Shoman Prize for Children's Literature, and the Arab Forum Award for Publishers of Children's Books.
The problem with awards is that they become a target even before the writing begins. There is also a lot of controversy and debate over the integrity of these awards.
I see literary prizes as an important incentive for the children's book industry, but we also need other initiatives that encourage the publication of books and their delivery to readers.
MLQ: If you could name one or two books (that aren't yours, although of course all yours!) that you'd like to see read more widely, and perhaps translated into world languages, what would they be, and why?
SS: Waleed Duqqa’s The Oil’s Secret Tale (حكاية سر الزيت), which was published by the Tamer Institute, tells the exciting story of Jude, a twelve-year-old boy who lives with his mother and dreams of meeting his imprisoned father but is prevented from doing so time and again by the Israeli authorities, who consider his father a threat to the occupation. Jude doesn’t give up on his dream and goes through a dangerous adventure to finally meet his father. The story is full of imagination. The book won the 2018 Etisalat YA award, and Waleed Duqqa, the author, wrote the book while a political prisoner who is sentenced to life in jail.
The second book is Waleed Taher’s picture book The Black Dot (النقطة السوداء). The simplicity of the story and matching illustrations is what makes this book resonate so well with kids and adults alike. A story about creative thinking, positivity, and perseverance. A universal picture book that deserves to be translated widely.
“Another exciting development is the proliferation of publishers of children’s books in spoken Arabic.”
MB: For their beautiful range of illustrations in different styles and the kind of questions they trigger about identity and difference, I would recommend Walid Taher’s Seven Lives (سبعة أرواح), already available in a bilingual Arabic-French version by Le port a jauni, and an Arabic version by Dar Al Shorouk, Egypt; and The Cup (الكاس), written by Maya Abu Al-Hayat and illustrated by Hassan Manasrah, published by the Palestine Writing Workshop. For cultural heritage, I would recommend two award-winning books from Dar Al Balsam: Damascus . . . the Tale of a City (دمشق.. قصة مدينة) by Alaa Mortada and The Nights of Shahr Zizi (ليالي شهر زيزي ) by Hadil Ghoneim, illustrated by Sahar Abdallah.
In the YA category, I loved One Day the Sun Will Shine (ستشرق الشمس ولو بعد حين) by Taghreed Najjar, published by Dar Al Salwa, for its timely firsthand account of a Syrian teen escaping the war and trying to find refuge and start a new life. I would also add one of the titles that has already been translated into other languages, my all-time favorite, Watermelon Madness, for the funny story by Taghreed Najjar and the beautiful illustrations by Maya Fidawi.
MN: Against the Tide (ست الكل) by Taghreed Najjar, as a book for young people, focuses on the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the solid system of social solidarity there. I also recommend She, They, They (هي هما هن) by Nahla Ghandour—it’s a picture book that breaks down stereotypes of disability, written in beautiful, robust, and carefully illustrated language.
MLQ: What have been the most striking developments in Arabic literature for young readers in the last five years? What do you think happens next?
SS: I think maybe the most striking recent development is how the coronavirus pandemic made the publishing industry aware of the importance of digital publishing and having content accessible online. I might also add that in the past few years, there has been an increase in the publication of Arabic children’s books. This will no doubt bring more variety and encourage healthy competition, all working to raise the standard of publishing.
MN: The production of children books has improved a lot in recent years. However, we still suffer from a low level of freedom of expression and choice of topics, as we are still not writing about emotional and sexual relationships among teens, and the accompanying new concepts of freedoms and sexual identities. Unfortunately!
We need all authors to free their minds and stop confiscating the freedom of child readers to form their own beliefs. We should be encouraging their critical thinking and giving them space to go in their own new directions.
Besides that, publishers need to hire editors.
MB: I would point to the new players who are making the sector of Arabic literature for young readers more dynamic than before! One example is Alia Publishing and Distribution, which had an unprecedented five books shortlisted for the 2021 Etisalat Award. Their lovely, whimsical book 70 Kilos won in the newly introduced comics category. It’s about two seals who are friends trying to meet, but they live on opposite poles. Another exciting development is the proliferation of publishers of children’s books in spoken Arabic such as Tuta Tuta, Asfoura, and Makouk for the Egyptian dialect, and Liblib Publishing for regional Arabic dialects. Established publisher Dar Al Shorouk also published two YA novels by renowned author Rania Hussein Amin in the Egyptian dialect side by side with their classical Arabic versions. Another recent development is the launch of two new awards: a children’s literature category within the prestigious annual Sawiris Cultural Award in Egypt and the first edition of the Ouka Award for Children’s Book Illustrations. It is a really exciting time, with new entrants pushing the boundaries with language as well as visual genres. I am hopeful that more authors (me included) will be tackling a wider range of topics in a more creative way.
Miranda Beshara is a children’s author/translator and co-founder of Hadi Badi. She also teaches Arabic online to children at Kalamna. Miranda translates and edits from/to English, French, and Arabic. In 2020, she participated in the Antwerp University’s Children’s Literature Summer School and also received a diploma in the mediation of children’s and young adult literature from the Ecole du Livre in Montreuil, France. Teta and Babcia published by Dar Al Balsam, Egypt, is her first book. Miranda’s second book is forthcoming later this year.
Mohamed Nabulsi is a Jordanian author and disability-rights trainer who lives in Sharjah, UAE. He has been working in the field of disability rights for the last two decades and is passionate about making sure disabled children and teens have access to good literature and theater, and that they see themselves positively reflected in their books and can participate in live theater. As an author, his novel Dates and Masala was shortlisted for the 2021 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature in the YA category, and his children’s book The Library Ghoul won a 2020 Shoman Children’s Literature Award. He has two books forthcoming from the award-winning Tamer Institute in 2022, a children’s book and a YA novel, The Tale of Ayman and His Butterflies.
Salwa Shakhshir is the managing director of Al Salwa Publishers, an award-winning boutique publishing house that specializes in creating original Arabic content for children and young adults. Salwa took over a small home-run family business and turned it into an award-winning publishing house that implements state of the art book publishing procedures and processes. She has trained and empowered a young team of motivated individuals with attention to detail and a united goal. Many of Al Salwa’s titles have won awards and were translated into over ten foreign languages.
© 2022 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.
Father May Be an Elephant and Mother a Small Basket, But..., a new collection of short stories by Dalit feminist writer Gogu Shyamala, is out now from Tilted Axis Press. In the story below, translated from Telugu by P. Pavana, an aging woman finds her traditional way of life under threat.
"This year the grain harvest has been good. There are five bags more than in previous years. This was possible only with the blessings of Eedamma,” Ellamma said as she gazed at the bags—nine rows of them—stacked so high they almost touched the rafters. Her husband, Tirupataiah, agreed. It made her happy just to look at the bags stored there in the eastern corner of the verandah. She asked him to put aside five bags of the new grain to give away as kothalu. The scent of new rice had seeped into every nook of the house. It had found its way through the gaps in the old, curved tiles of the roof and those between the hinges of the front door.
Ellamma set out to cook. She had shifted the hearth to the front yard, and placed it under the neem tree because bags of grain now blocked the passage between the front room and the kitchen. Just then, a young boy—of not more than ten years— ran up, calling out to her. He addressed her as "Elli." “Why sir, why are you panting? What’s the hurry? Stop for a while and take it easy,” Ellamma said. “No, no, I am not panting. My mother asked me to come and collect kothalu from you. Give it to me quickly, I have to go,” said the boy.
Ellamma went into the house, brought out some new grain in a winnowing tray and poured it into the young master’s bag.
Now he had to put five fistfuls back into the tray. She held his hand, helped him pick up a fistful, circle the tray with it five times and then drop it in. At first the boy did as he was shown, carefully and in silence. But then he stopped suddenly and pulled his hand away as if someone had slapped him. Or maybe he had just remembered a warning. “What happened, sir?” Ellamma asked, hesitating as if she made a mistake. The boy said, “My mother didn’t say anything about doing this. She told me to stand at some distance from you while taking the grain.”
“‘I didn’t tell her that you hit me.’”
“That’s okay. You can maintain some distance. Now take this bag of grain and carry it carefully home,” she said, without giving much creed to what he had said. Ellamma’s youngest son was there, playing with a calf. He was fourteen and was called Malli. The young reddy boy was tempted to play with them. He stood by, watching. But he soon remembered that he had to go, picked up his bag and said “I’m going, Elli. My mother will be waiting for me.” On hearing this, Malli got furious. "What’s this?" he thought, coming out of the cattle shed, ‘He is younger than me and very much younger than my mother, yet this little fellow addresses my mother by her name, and that too as Elli!’ He gave the boy a knock on the head, saying, “How dare you call my mother Elli? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
The young reddy was shocked. He couldn’t understand why Malli had hit him. He ran back tearfully, nursing his head. But before he left, he warned, “I’ll tell my mother that you hit me.” He ran back, and arrived completely out of breath. His mother asked, “Why have you run so fast? You could have come slowly.” She took the bag from his hands. He wanted to tell her that Malli had slapped him, but didn’t. His mother asked whether Elli had given him the new grain from a distance or not. “I hope you took the rice without touching the old bitch,” she said. She took the bag from him, placed it carefully outside the threshold and asked the son to wait outside. She then sprinkled some water on the bag of grain and also on her son. Only then did she allow him into the house. She poured the grain into a winnowing tray and asked what "Elli" had been doing. The boy wanted to put his hand over her mouth when she said "Elli," worried that Malli might hit her too. But then he thought to himself: ‘Whatever it be, Malli is my friend in school. He sits on the front bench because he is short, but he always comes first in maths.’ What’s more, he used to borrow Malli’s maths notebook to copy answers. If he fought with Malli now, he wouldn’t get the notebook again. So he kept quiet.
“It’s time for school. You’ll be late if you don’t leave now,” his mother warned. He picked up his bag and set off. When he got there, he found Malli walking up and down as if waiting for someone. He was relieved to see Malli and ran up to him. “I’ve been waiting for you,” Malli said. “Did you tell your mother what happened?” Malli asked anxiously. “No, I didn’t tell her that you hit me,” the young reddy replied as they hurried into class, hands on each other’s shoulders.
One by one, Ellamma had managed to get all her seven daughters married. They gave the children whatever they could afford: a goat to each of the older daughters; a cow and a calf to the younger ones. Twenty acres of land was left for the six sons. Through all this, her only desire was that her sons should not be burdened with debts and that her daughters should be happy.
She had never held back when it came to expenditure for marriages, rituals, deliveries or any other event. Beginning with the eldest daughter’s children and going down to her youngest daughter’s children, she had given everything she had to take care of them. She had never spared a thought for herself; nor had she kept anything she had earned for herself.
Giving birth to thirteen children, bringing them up and seeing to the cultivation of the land had eaten up all her energy, so much so that she had named her last daughter Saalamma (meaning, Enough). But then she became pregnant again. She tried all means to rid herself of the pregnancy. Someone told her eating coconut and jaggery would do the trick, so she ate a lot of that. She jumped off large stacks of grain. But however much she tried, it was of no use. That son, the one they had not wanted, is Mallanna. Ellamma and Tirupataiah affectionately call him Malli. Everyone says, “Ellamma’s last son is really strong. Despite all their efforts, he survived. He’s sure to live a long and healthy life.” Ellamma brought up Malli as she attended to her different tasks. She used to feed him while she tended the goats; bathe him while they drank at the tank. One day Malli suddenly fell ill. He fainted. Ellamma was desperate. She picked him up, held him close and carried him into the kitchen. She sprinkled water on his face. “Go and call grandfather Ellayya,” she instructed Saalamma. She herself sat by him, pleading, “Malli, Malli, my Mallanna, open your eyes, my son.” With one arm, she held Malli close to her breast and with the other, she picked up some fresh turmeric shoots from the pots inside the house. Sitting before the hearth, she heated a turmeric shoot on the coals. She placed Malli on her lap and pressed the hot turmeric on his forehead. Malli jerked back to his senses and began to wail. She rested his head on her shoulder and tried to calm him. Then she vowed, “Eedamma, my mother, save my child . . . I’ll sacrifice a sheep and give a feast of thanks.” Malli sat up. Soon he was out playing—bouncing around like a ball. Ellamma relaxed. Since then, she has never failed to give thanks to Eedamma, every single year.
Even though the night had ended, dawn had not broken. It was the morning of the day a solar eclipse was expected. It would last for two hours. A large, auspicious, bronze plate with a pestle placed erect in it was filled with water and placed in the open. People were told to look at the eclipse that way— reflected in the water. The elders said: “Whatever happens, don’t start work until it’s morning gruel time.” Men hesitated to take the cattle out to graze. People stood around everywhere in groups, chatting. Suddenly some people showed up, their dhotis folded up to the knees, Andhra-style. They stopped their motorbikes but did not turn off the engines, which continued to make a ‘tuck-tuck’ noise. Everyone looked up. The same question passed through all their minds: “Who are they?” The elders knew—“Who could they be, but Andhra guys…”
“The Andhra fellows have come! They’ve come to buy our lands…”
“Look, they’re wearing white clothes like teachers, maybe they are teachers.” The children gathered around them.
Meanwhile Ellamma had arrived, looking for Malli, “Hey kids, is our Malli with you?” she asked. “Mother, let me just finish this game of marbles first. Then I’ll run and bring the goat that was left behind at uncle’s house,” Malli pleaded. “That is the he-goat we set aside for god. You have to go quickly,” Ellamma said. But Malli continued playing as though he had not heard his mother. Losing hope, Ellamma went to fetch the goat. It was late and the goat was hungry. It strained at the rope, ready to run on to the village road. “Cool down, stay calm, and wait,” she said, scratching the goat affectionately on its head and back.
Ellamma untethered the goat, picked up the end of its rope-leash and began walking back. The goat suddenly started straining at the leash. Ellamma tried her best to hold it back, but it dragged her into the group around the Andhra guys. In the mayhem that ensued, it butted one of the Andhra fellows. No one there could control the goat. They searched for Cendraiah. He was an expert at controlling cattle that were aroused or disturbed. They had to search the whole village before they found him, and brought him over to calm the goat down.
A week later, the Andhra guys returned. They rented a huge dilapidated house that belonged to the landlords and settled down there. It seemed they had come from far-off places like Guntur and Vijayawada to buy land. The money they offered was attractive, and one by one people who owned land began selling it. The reddy, the velama, even the sabbanda got in on the action. People even went to the Andhra fellows in groups, asking them to buy their lands. These transactions continued for four or five months. Soon most of the land in the village had been sold. The Andhra guys who had bought the land began cultivating it.
Madiga Ellamma held on to what little land she owned. She did not even consider selling. One day, the Andhra fellows came to meet Ellamma while she was grazing cattle in the field. They said, “Ellamma-garu, we hear you have land to sell, why don’t you come to us?”
Ellamma was surprised. The reddy and velama of her village had never addressed her as Ellamma, that too with a respectful suffix. And yet these people are calling me Ellamma, she thought. A long time ago, a reddy who normally said "Elli, Elli," had called her "Ellamma." Just once. That’s all. It had made Ellamma so happy that nothing could diminish her joy. She thought he was going to offer her some important work. When she shared this with other mala and madiga women as they worked in the fields, they would laugh. Those memories came back to Ellamma’s mind. And here were these Andhra guys calling her ‘Ellamma-garu’ and actually coming to her house to ask for her land. Thoughts crossed her mind: ‘These people have been offering seven or eight lakh rupees per acre…’
“How many acres are you planning to sell, Madam?” one of them asked, breaking into her thoughts. She remained silent. He asked the same question again, a few minutes later. Ellamma did not respond. Assuming that she was deaf, he raised his voice and repeated the question, this time a little louder. This irritated Ellamma, who had been looking north at the grazing cattle. She turned her head slowly towards him and asked: “Who told you that I would sell my land?” Then, looking him straight in the face, she asked again, “Who told you … yes, yes … that I’d sell the land to you?” The Andhra guy stuttered, at a loss for an answer. Without pausing, she asked again angrily: “You ran here, as if I had told you that I would sell my land. Who is the rascal who told you that I would sell the land?”
“Today they buy our lands, and tomorrow they will throw us out.”
“We just asked. That is no reason for you to get so angry. It is up to you to decide whether you want to sell or not, but…” one of them began, playing for time. He continued: “Listen, Madam, in this village Erra Bitchi Reddygaru, Elamakanti Jalpapathi Raogaru, Communist Narasimha Reddy and others like them have sold us half their land. They never spoke as you are doing now. We did not expect you to react like this.”
“So what am I supposed to do? If they sold off their land, they did as they wished. Don’t I know your plans? If I sell my lands, my children will become wage laborers in our own fields. Is that a good thing? Tell me, what do you think? You are like Yama and his messengers, chasing after me and asking me to sell the land, sell the land… Get out of my house, get going!” Ellamma shouted. Putting an end to the matter, she walked away and moved the cattle to graze on the other side of the field.
Perhaps the cattle had also understood why these outsiders had come. They stopped chewing the cud and looked up, puzzled. Black Ox looked at the man wearing his dhoti folded up. It moved forward as if getting ready to butt him. “Stop, stop. Can’t you see that I’m talking to them? There’s no need to worry,” Ellamma reassured it. When it heard her, it stepped back, nodding assent. This ox was like an elder son to Ellamma.
Women working in the nearby field heard the sounds and thought, "Just think. These white-shirted folded-up-dhoti people came as a group, that too directly to the fields. Tomorrow they will be in our houses. They must have said something … that is why Ellamma shouted like that. She never says a single word to anyone without reason, and here she is, calling them rascals. The matter must surely be serious."
Cendramma and Suramma came up to her to find out what the matter was and to offer her support. They brought their calf along, and asked “Ellakka, do you have some betel leaves to spare?”
Seeing Cendramma and Suramma, Ellamma relaxed. “See what happened. I don’t know these people. I’ve never even seen them. But here they are, in the fields, pressuring me to sell my lands. They give lakhs and lakhs for the land, we hear. But today they buy our lands, and tomorrow they will throw us out from our own land. They may even throw us out of this village, and snatch from us the very lives we have known. And who’s to say that they’ll stop at that?”
Suramma said, “Don’t worry. Just tell them what you think.” Ellamma relaxed a little. The Andhra fellows, who had waited all this while, understood that Ellamma had nothing more to say to them, started up their motorbikes and left. The gouda, golla, kapu and mutrasi with fields adjacent to Ellamma’s had sold their land and got lakhs of rupees. But Ellamma was not going to budge.
Ellamma is now seventy years old. Landlords, their wives, and even their children still call her "Elli." She has cultivated twenty acres of land, given birth to thirteen children, raised them and settled each of them into their adult lives. Whenever a new crop is harvested, Ellamma distributes a part of the grain to the others in the village, just as the chindu give food and grain to the dakkali even before they ask for it. She gave a portion of the new rice, new green gram, and all the other crops to the mandahechu and gangireddhu people. Bangle-sellers, cloth-sellers on bicycles, those selling pots and pans, hawkers with large baskets on their heads—everyone used to wish Ellamma first, believing that she would bring them good fortune and their goods would sell better if they did so.
Whenever there is a big event at Ellamma’s house—like a marriage or a birth—she makes sure that all those who work regularly with her in her fields are served toddy. She is open and affectionate in her speech. People say of her: “Ellamma’s warmth is like that of the earth itself. That is why she could cultivate twenty acres of land and give birth to many children. Her house is a fertile place, bursting with children; both the house and the granary are overflowing.”
Everyone in the village believes that Ellamma’s hands, her feet and her words, all possess the gift of good fortune. Even people from the next village say the same thing. No upper caste woman has this gift. When a girl comes of age or gets married, her relatives call Ellamma and fill her lap with grain and fruit.
But things have changed now. Time has lost its way somewhere. Her heart is broken. She who never thought twice about taking care of thirteen children; she who had bought twenty acres of land while working as a wage laborer on reddy fields; she who never worried about what the upper castes would say when she bought the land; she who, unafraid, cultivated the land and brought up children while her husband was away working as a rickshaw-puller in Chennai; she who kept her land when everyone else was selling it off to the guys from Andhra; this same Ellamma is now tired, defeated, at the end of her tether. She had hoped that the children she had given birth to would protect the land and tend to it. But her sons and daughters are all scattered far and wide. There is no one to care for Ellamma, or for the deity of the fields and the village, Eedamma; their shrines lie untended and in disrepair. Ellamma is worried, up against a wall. She feels troubled and helpless.
Excerpted from Father May Be an Elephant and Mother a Small Basket, But... by Gogu Shyamala. Copyright © Gogu Shyamala. Translation © 2022 by P. Pavana. Published by arrangement with Tilted Axis Press. All rights reserved.
Danyil Zadorozhnyi considers the threat and reality of wartime displacement in this poem whose title speaks to W. H. Auden's "September 1, 1939."
“trees—that’s what I lack most of all,” she says
“you have so few of them here in Lviv
Donetsk, though, was a green city
greenery all around”
but I didn’t know that
I was young, never spent much time there,
never valued people or the county until after it happened
“second time I’ve lost my home,” she utters with hatred
“officially, this time”
and I get her
and I don’t
my mom’s concerned there’ll be tons of internally displaced persons
where will we put them all up, she asks
I don’t mind, but I don’t have any space
except in your room, if you want
containing my emotions, I elect empathy, saying
I get you
but it’s too early to talk about that
though I actually think it’s too late
if we’re only talking about this now
so, being kind constantly is very hard, tricky
but easy and at times the only thing someone can want
and if the war, not just any war, came to our home
and we had to flee to another city in another part of the country
I’d like to be helped there
not for the people there to make xenophobic comments on the internet
trying to catch my kids speaking the wrong language
twisting my wife’s tongue—she’s from Belarus, for heaven’s sake, seeking shelter here
if only I had the money to rent three of the four rooms in the apartment
with old landlords and Soviet furniture
© Danyil Zadorozhnyi. Translation © 2022 by Yuliya Charnyshova and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. All rights reserved.
Each month, Tobias Carroll shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation that he’s especially excited about. This month's selection includes books translated from Arabic, Chinese, Danish, French, and Japanese.
From Other Press | Policing the City by Didier Fassin and Frédéric Debomy, translated from the French by Rachel Gomme | Nonfiction/Graphic Novel | 112 pages | ISBN 9781635422504 | US$25.99
What the publisher says: “Around the time of the 2005 French riots, anthropologist and sociologist Didier Fassin spent fifteen months observing up close the daily life of an anticrime squad in one of the largest precincts in the Paris region. . . . This new, powerfully illustrated adaptation clearly presents the insights of Fassin’s investigation, and draws connections to the challenges we face today in the United States as in France.”
What Publishers Weekly says: “Creating comics from the academic source material is no easy task, but the animation in Raynal’s artwork and creative layouts allows Fassin to expound on his theories and dramatically expose the emotional currents raging through notions of fair and equal justice.”
What I say: Could one of the most important graphic novels of 2022 be an illustrated adaptation of an academic study? I’d have scoffed if you’d told me that before this month, but right now I’m on board. Policing the City is a unique, searing look at institutional flaws and the unsettling consequences that they can have around the world.
From Deep Vellum | Palestine +100, edited by Basma Ghalayini, translated from the Arabic by Thoraya El-Rayyes, Andrew Leber, Yasmine Seale, Raph Cormack, Mohamed Ghalaieny | Fiction | 246 pages | ISBN 9781646051403 | US$14.95
What the publisher says: “Palestine + 100 poses a question to twelve Palestinian writers: what might your country look like in the year 2048—a century after the tragedies and trauma of what has come to be called the Nakba? How might this event—which, in 1948, saw the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes—reach across a century of occupation, oppression, and political isolation, to shape the country and its people?”
What NPR says: “Beyond their shared premise, the stories are inventive and dexterous, as brilliant as they are painful—and sometimes even playful. As often as I wept, reading this book, putting it down and walking away from it for days at a time, I laughed, too, at witty turns of phrase, at surprising goofiness, at a shrugging resilience.”
What I say: Seeing how a host of different writers interpret the same overarching themes can be both analytically fascinating and narratively engaging. That the writers in this anthology are exploring the past, present, and future of Palestine adds an extra layer of relevance to the work on display here. Stylistically and thematically, there’s plenty of ground covered in this collection—an array of possible futures and interpersonal complexities.
What the publisher says: “With its intrepid band of companions, Scattered All Over the Earth (the first novel of a trilogy) may bring to mind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or a surreal Wind in the Willows, but really is just another sui generis Yoko Tawada masterwork.”
What the New York Times says: “In the future imagined by Yoko Tawada, rising sea levels have swallowed Japan. The ‘land of sushi,’ as it is now known, survives only in the kitschified traces its culture has left on the exoticizing imagination of Westerners, and in the memories of Hiruko, who was studying abroad in Sweden when disaster struck, and may be the last Japanese person on the planet.”
What I say: That this is the first book in a trilogy seems apropos; this is a novel that feels very much like part of a larger whole. That’s not just a result of its story and characters, though; it also applies to the way in which geography, history, and language all suffuse the goings-on here. This novel is a high-wire act of language featuring plenty of high-wire acts of language; that alone is cause to recommend it.
From Tor.com Publishing | The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, edited by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang, translated from the Chinese by Judy Yi Zhou, Mel “etvolare” Lee, Xia Jia, Cara Healey, Carmen Yilang Yan, Elizabeth Hanlon, Ru-Ping Chen, Rebecca F. Kuang, Yilin Wang, Emily Xueni Jin, Gigi Chang, and Judith Huang | Fiction/Essays | 400 pages | ISBN 9781250768919 | US$26.99
What the publisher says: “From an award-winning team of authors, editors, and translators comes a groundbreaking short story collection that explores the expanse of Chinese science fiction and fantasy. In The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, you can dine at a restaurant at the end of the universe, cultivate to immortality in the high mountains, watch roses perform Shakespeare, or arrive at the island of the gods on the backs of giant fish to ensure that the world can bloom.”
What Asymptote Journal says: “Despite the imaginative heights these stories reach, each creates enough space in its strangeness for us to reexamine our assumptions about the world and our place in it. Often, folklore and fantasy crosses into sci-fi and allegory, and readers are left feeling unsettled in even the most familiar landscapes.”
What I say: The Way Spring Arrives abounds with distinctive and stylish work, along with a few essays exploring language, gender, and media. The stories here cover a lot of ground, from fantasy works that hum along with a mythic resonance to stories that fall more on the science fictional side of the equation. And some elude any easy classification, as is the case with Shen Yingying’s powerful, harrowing “Dragonslaying” (translated by Emily Xueni Jin), which is both a layered story unto itself and a work about the limitations of language.
From World Editions | The Land of Short Sentences by Stine Pilgaard, translated from the Danish by Hunter Simpson | Fiction | 272 pages | ISBN 9781642861082 | US$18.99
What the publisher says: “A young woman relocates to an outlying community in West Jutland, Denmark, and is forced to find her way, not only in the bewildering environment of the residential Folk High School where her partner has been hired to teach, but also in the inscrutable conversational forms of the local population. And on top of it all, there’s the small matter of juggling her roles as mother to a newborn baby and advice columnist in the local newspaper.”
What Man of la Book says: “More than the story itself, I enjoyed reading about the daily life of a different culture. Hunter Simpson, the translator, did a fantastic job at getting the spirit and atmosphere across—no easy task.”
What I say: Stine Pilgaard’s novel is a charming chamber work, focusing on a handful of characters in a relatively isolated location, from the perspective of a protagonist struggling to find her own place in society. Her advice columns make for a fascinating contrast with the stories of her life, and a few unlikely narrative payoffs make these seemingly distanced aspects more connected than you’d expect.
Copyright © 2022 Tobias Carroll. All rights reserved.
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A drop of water takes flight into the kitchen sink in this work of microfiction by Sergi Pàmies.
At birth, the droplet has yet to learn that within two seconds she’ll smash into the kitchen sink. Hopeful, she sluices through the pipe’s final bend and peeks her head out the mouth of the tap. The glare of fluorescent lights dazzles her. She feels like that passenger on a train who, after staring at length into a long tunnel, finally emerges into the open sky. Curious, she stops at the tip of the tap. Inertia causes her to wobble and, after swaying briefly, fall into the void. For the first millimeters of this trajectory—initiated with more hope than conviction—she is overcome by vertigo. Flying stimulates her as much as going unnoticed. Indeed, her presence does nothing to alter the order of a kitchen which, despite the decorator’s attempts to have it express the style of the family using it, still overly resembles the catalog photo that served as its inspiration. Aside from the cupboards and finishes, a few details not included in the initial project prevail: the aroma of freshly-made soup and, on the fridge door, magnets of the Simpson family holding up the school menu for a child who, right at this moment, as the drop discovers the pleasure of launching herself into the void, is in the school cafeteria choking on a chicken bone. The distance between tap and sink is but a bit and a half, as is the time it will take for the wee drop to navigate it. She wastes no time: the drop filters the fluorescent lights and reflects the sphere of the clock, witnessing a new, historic crossing of its hands. Compared to back when she was part of a current, just going with the flow, the present strikes her as fascinating. At first glance it might not be noticeable, but were we to enlarge the image of the drop, were we to stop and reproduce the drop in 3-D, and give her movement (virtual movement, you understand, computer-generated, based on a large-scale sequential hypothesis), we’d detect within her the near-imperceptible beat of an emotion based, on the one hand, on the ignorance of danger implied by the fall and, on the other, on the lack of information about the environment. Tempo, for instance: one drop every so often, always the exact same so often, like a time trial in a bicycle race. Or the knowledge that a faulty tap—one that doesn’t shut off all the way or that, after slowly eroding the joint, leaks—can be life-changing and, after turning her into a drop, turn that apparently banal trajectory into a privilege. Like a frontier, the top of the sink marks the final stretch. The horizon is within reach. As she falls, the drop increases in weight, in volume and internal tension. She struggles to remain spherical. Inertia pulls taut her skin. So much so that she’d like to be made of mercury. The landscape grows dark. From a human perspective, this all happens very quickly. For the drop, on the other hand, this period of time encompasses part of old age and all of maturity. The time required to forget what she has most recently experienced and recall only her early life; to see herself in the drop that, more daring than she herself is, begins peeking out of the same tap. They are two peas in a pod, as alike as two drops of water, she realizes. And she has the impression that having seen this daughter—or sister—justifies having undertaken a journey that will end as planned: plink. The drop explodes and scatters into a thousand pieces that, indifferent to the touch of sink’s stainless steel, come together once more, not in the form of a drop but a splatter, a nothing, a measly trickle that, after skirting the hurdle of leftover sunflower oil, disappears—plop—sucked down the hole.
“Com dues gotes d'aigua" © Sergi Pàmies. By arrangement with the author and Quaderns Crema S.A. Translation © 2022 by Lisa M. Dillman. All rights reserved.
Olga Tokarczuk's long-awaited opus tells the stories of the followers of Jacob Frank, an eighteenth-century messianic figure.
Olga Tokarczuk’s Books of Jacob, in a virtuosic translation by Jennifer Croft, begins in 1752 in Rohatyn, a rural town located in what is now Western Ukraine. Rohatyn, like much of East Central Europe, has belonged to different countries over the last thousand years. The Rohatyn of Books of Jacob is a modest Polish town of two churches, a monastery, two synagogues, and five Orthodox churches, and is home to Father Benedykt Chmielowski, a priest with an insatiable desire for knowledge who has authored the first Polish encyclopedia. (We will meet Chmielowski’s foil, the charismatic Jewish messianic figure Jacob Frank, later.)
The reader first encounters Chmielowski, an emblem of Enlightenment rationality and progress, on his way to the market in search of books. He enters a general store owned by a Jewish family whose patriarch is a learned rabbi and there is confronted by the acrid smell of the increasingly popular beverage “cophee.” Passing through the store into the family’s quarters, he notices “thea,” a drink that helps Chmielowski sustain his scholarly efforts. He asks Elisha Shoor, the rabbi in the family, to lend him books. He offers a copy of his encyclopedia in return. Shorr is unimpressed. What use does a rabbi have for this priest’s encyclopedia? He sends Chmielowski home with a book of fairytales instead of the religious text the priest came looking for. Chmielowski will become less and less prominent in the narrative after this opening scene, but the journey has only begun for the reader: we have met the Shorrs, a few of Jacob Frank’s many future followers. Soon after Chmielowski’s visit to the general store, Jacob will declare himself the messiah and amass a following.
As with Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Books of Jacob demonstrates Tokarczuk’s delicate artistry. The novel ushers readers through eighteenth-century history, ferrying us from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the lands of the Ottoman Empire and across more borders into the Habsburg Empire. The journey begins with the novel’s title page, whose long, campy subtitle imitates early print publishers’ attempt at marketing: “A fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages, and three major religions.” Images of antique print materials continue to set the mood. The novel’s page numbers tick down toward zero, the apocalypse longed for by the novel’s characters. This millenarian religious atmosphere offers a high-stakes context for reading and interpretation: characters must be vigilant for signs of the impending Final Judgment. Bodily ailments like infected, peeling skin might mean you’re cursed. Or that you’re the messiah.
Tokarczuk’s story of Frank relies on the perspectives of his witnesses—followers, casual observers, and critics. Readers join Jacob’s company as they admire him, closely watch his actions, search for signs of divinity, and negotiate flickers of doubt about his charming, narcissistic, deranged personality. They eventually cling to him desperately, because he provides certainty in a time of upheaval and modernization. These witnesses provide a useful tool for Tokarczuk’s narrative: an intimate view of an enigmatic figure, whose own inner life was probably less interesting than the effects his actions had on the inner lives of others.
Nahman, a Jewish merchant skilled in theological debate, is perhaps the most interesting of Jacob’s followers. Through Nahman’s eyes — his memoiristic entries, called “scraps," appear frequently — we see why Jacob's followers abandoned their lives to follow this pockmarked Podolian would-be messiah. In Nahman's case, joining Jacob's inner circle means financial ruin and the demise of his marriage. But as his memoiristic entries show, Jacob’s appeal defies logic; without Jacob, life is cold, hollow. Of a reunion with Jacob and other followers, Nahman writes that "it was as if we four and [Jacob], at our center, had joined together to create a single man, and we breathed a single breath.” This “complete” union fills Nahman with the certainty “he, Jacob, would lead us onward.” If a group hug with Jacob is able to fill Nahman with such feelings of harmony, we begin to understand why Jacob’s Jewish followers converted to Christianity when he told them to do so, even though this was the very conversion that Jews living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had resisted for so many years.
Like any good cult leader, Jacob seems to know how to get the most out of theology. Jacob’s followers practice a form of hospitality that includes offering a wife, daughter, or sister to Jacob for the night, any of whom would be excited to sleep with him. (One woman feels disappointed when Jacob, exhausted, falls asleep immediately.) Jacob’s religious rituals, which he seems to improvise based on fancy, are sexual, too. In one scene, men, including relatives, suck from a woman’s breast in a sort of strengthening ritual. It’s an affecting moment: repulsive, alarming, but also compelling in spite of the shock it triggers. Tokarczuk holds strong convictions — her public statements have gotten her into trouble with Poland’s current far-right government — but as a writer she excels in the realm of the morally ambiguous where, as in the breastfeeding scene, the terrible and the inspiring can coexist, undisturbed by the other’s presence.
Creating literature from history is another of Tokarczuk’s strengths. Books of Jacob is built from years of research, but perhaps most importantly, Tokarczuk has a light touch with research, treating each turn in Jacob’s story as if it were fresh and unexpected rather than recorded. Reading Books of Jacob often sent me back to War and Peace and Tolstoy’s historiographical rants about history happening the way it happens for no good reason other than that it happened that way. For Tokarczuk, history unfolds organically rather than randomly. Human events have a shape and direction. Difficulties create obstacles but pleasant coincidences abound: Jacob, referred to by followers as “The Lord,” learns to read Polish from Chmielowski’s encyclopedia, hundreds of pages after the priest first offered his book to the Rabbi Shorr.
A countercultural figure herself, Tokarczuk first became interested in Jacob Frank in 1997 after finding two volumes of Frank's lectures in a bookshop. Frank, it seemed to her, was underappreciated in Polish history. The story of Frank and his followers, mostly Eastern European Jews living tentatively under Christian rule a century and a half before the Holocaust, has clear echoes in modern times. But it’s also worth noting that Tokarczuk’s novel is set during the last decades of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which is perceived as a halcyon period of autonomous, proto-democratic rule in Polish history. Following the Commonwealth's demise, Poland was overseen by foreign powers from 1795 to 1989, with the exception of a twenty-year interlude between World War I and World War II. It’s hard to imagine a more subversive way to write a novel about the last fifty years of the Commonwealth than the one Tokarczuk has offered, in its focus on multiculturalism, border crossing, and religious heterodoxy. It stands opposed to the mushroom-picking and soup-eating nostalgia of Adam Mickiewicz’s popular nineteenth-century epic poem Pan Tadeusz and the resounding monoculture promoted by the governing far-right Law and Justice party. (Anglophone readers can enjoy Pan Tadeusz in Bill Johnston’s excellent translation that was published by Archipelago in 2018.)
Despite Jacob’s appeal as a historical figure, approaching the alleged messiah’s story from his own perspective seemed impossible to Tokarczuk. In an essay explaining her process of writing Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk admits that the narrative positioning of telling Jacob’s story through his followers’ eyes was born of necessity. “I didn’t know how to cope with this figure empathetically, I couldn’t understand him,” she wrote in 2014 (translated in 2022 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Tokarczuk’s other English-language translator). “So I decided to present Jacob Frank through the eyes of others, without daring to go too close, though the longer I was involved with him, the more he aroused my sympathy.” In this particular essay, Tokarczuk’s reflections on sympathy and empathy stop there, but it feels as if she picks up this line of thinking five years later in her Nobel prize lecture on the “czuły narrator” (in English, “tender narrator”). Tokarczuk’s czuły narrator — czuły is pronounced choo-way — is not strictly empathic. This narrator goes beyond the kind of instantaneous fellow feeling and position-swapping understanding prescribed by empathy. They are sensitive to the situations of others and position this sensitivity in philosophical understanding of common human fate: the “lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time.” (Tokarczuk’s Nobel lecture was translated by Croft and Lloyd-Jones.) Furthermore, rather than adopting the perspective of another, a tender narrator causes boundaries between themself and the outside world to collapse, embracing connectedness. In Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk’s tenderness wraps her novel’s world in a cozy atmosphere; it also precludes judgment, which would have likely stifled a novel on an eighteenth-century cult. “Tenderness personalizes everything to which it relates, making it possible to give it a voice, to give it the space and the time to come into existence, and to be expressed,” Tokarczuk says. “It is thanks to tenderness that the teapot starts to talk.”
Tokarczuk’s generous interest in the teapot, food, geography, religion, omens, death, relationships, writing and books, among other things, is the life-giving force that propels this novel forward. Croft’s swift, energetic English maintains momentum and enthusiasm through nearly one thousand pages. A buoyant, anarchic, consuming reading experience, Books of Jacob is a novel so all-encompassing and alive that it’s as if Tokarczuk has managed to break off a piece of the world and convert it into paper and ink.
© 2022 by Tara Wanda Merrigan. All rights reserved.
Nisha Susan is the award-winning author of The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook, a short story collection about female friendship, social media, and marriage. She is also a translator and the co-founder of one of India's most renowned feminist zines, The Ladies Finger. Most recently, she translated KR Meera’s Qabar from Malayalam into English. One of Malayalam literature’s best-selling novelists, Meera started her career as the first woman hired by the newspaper Malayala Manorama, and her writing is informed by her personal journey: that of breaking barriers, resisting patriarchal control, and confronting loss. In her most widely praised novel, The Hangwoman, a woman is designated the first female executioner of the country. In Qabar, Meera explores the increased communalism in India, magnifying the tensions that lead to lynching, mob-making, and dehumanization. Influenced by García Márquez, her magical realist writing is also informed by old religions, djinns, and myths.
Both Susan’s short story collection and Qabar were published under imprints of Westland Books, a publishing house acquired by Amazon in 2017. Not only did Westland publish some of the finest fiction in India, it also consistently pushed out narratives that challenged the status quo. In early February 2022, Amazon suddenly announced the shutdown of Westland, sending out shockwaves in the industry. In this interview, conducted over Zoom, Nisha speaks about growing up with Malayalam literature, her identity as a creative writer, the relationship she shares with Meera, and the Westland closure.
Suhasini Patni (SP): You grew up between several countries, including Oman, Nigeria, and India, and today you call Bangalore your home. But your mother taught you Malayalam, and you grew up reading Malayalam books. I want to understand your relationship with this literature, as I find that many Indians who grow up speaking English tend to shed their mother tongue, especially for literary purposes, speaking it only in daily conversation. How have you retained this connection with Malayalam literature?
Nisha Susan (NS): I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this until the last couple of years. For instance, it recently occurred to me that my folks put me in an English-language school at the age of six in Bangalore. We didn’t speak English at home, so how was this supposed to work? I was curious and I asked my mum and she said, Oh, we didn’t think about it, we just put you in this school. She just assumed that I would be okay. I guess I must’ve been, because I don’t remember having too many difficulties. Then I lived with my grandparents from the age of six to thirteen in Bangalore. That was a pretty multilingual household. We watched movies in Malayalam, Tamil, and Kannada, and spoke multiple languages at home. This was considered normal. It was my grandparents who subscribed to Malayalam children’s magazines on my behalf. So, if I didn’t have anything to read in English, I would read in Malayalam.
In all these years that I’ve spent writing in English, I’ve always felt that my leaning toward literariness was informed by Malayalam. As a joke, I used to say that I considered myself a Malayali writer writing in English. And now that I’m working with Malayalam in my embryonic career as a translator, I’m thinking much more about things that for the longest time I took for granted.
SP: Can you talk about your relationship with KR Meera? In a recent interview, you talked about meeting her when you were working with the news site Tehelka and published a serialized English translation of her magnum opus The Hangwoman for its special fiction feature. So, you’ve known her for many years. How do you navigate the many facets of your relationship, especially now that you’ve worked with her in the professional capacity of translator?
NS: So actually, Meera and I have never met—our relationship is entirely online and by phone. She is just preternaturally cool. Her work and her literary persona are both things to watch, understand, and emulate. There is a lot of stamina involved in the work she does. She produces new writing every year, the range is huge, and her interest in the world in general is enormous. She has a very strong understanding of how gender, class, and caste positions affect both your position as a writer and what you produce. I am a big admirer of hers and she is very warm and kind to me, and we have an excellent professional relationship that has come out of many years of mutual respect.
SP: I read your short-story collection The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories right before I read Qabar, and I was struck by the similarities between your and Meera’s work. In Qabar, Bhavana’s mother, for example, is just in the background, reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and suddenly she’ll say something poignant about the experience of womanhood and motherhood. In one passage, she talks about how as a wife she never even took a Sunday off from work. I thought that she could exist easily in your writerly universe too. Do you see these similarities as well? If so, does that influence your translation?
NS: I mean, I hope it doesn’t influence my translation, but who knows? I think what Meera and I have in common is our interest in women’s lives. For example, she said in a recent conversation to me, “Bhavana’s mother is a familiar figure.” Meera and I both know women like her, but as a character in Indian writing, Bhavana’s mother is unusual—an elderly retired woman who is politically committed and reading a Korean bestseller in translation. She is not a common figure, and this sticks out. So Meera was asking, why is it that we know these women but they don’t appear in our books? And really, this is something that Meera has created: a whole class of fictional women with regular jobs and regular lives but highly irregular minds, just taking off in unanticipated directions. That is something I enjoy hugely. Of course, there is a similarity in the sense that I also write a lot about women. But where it takes a turn is Meera’s stamina to stay with pain and suffering. She has a heightened ability to do that. In real terms, we shouldn’t even be comparing my first collection of fiction with her work at all. It’s not in the same league.
SP: I see what you mean! But I was wondering whether you feel like you seek out this thread of similarity. That you particularly want to translate a woman’s story.
NS: I looked at my collection retrospectively and said, Oh, it’s all about women. Once I thought about it, it made sense: I am mostly only interested in women and mostly only read women writers. And similarly, I was madly attracted to Meera’s characters because they just don’t exist elsewhere and the thoughts they have are ones that nobody else is having. In the first paragraph of Meera’s Sooryane Aninja Oru Sthree (English translation forthcoming), for instance, there is a woman called Jezebel who’s standing in family court trying to get a divorce, and she tells herself that the way to get through the torture of it is to imagine that she is Jesus. It’s irresistible, really, to be involved in that kind of literary world. I will say that the one way in which my translation might be impacted by my own interest is that while I enjoy the surprise of Bhavana’s mother reading The Vegetarian, I get over that surprise swiftly because I know these women. I am not tempted to exoticize this detail.
SP: You’ve said that finding the book you want to translate is like finding a song you can sing. I’ve read interviews with Meera about how much García Márquez has influenced her, and I could see that in Qabar. But the book is also grounded in a sociopolitical history that’s not made apparent but always lurks in the background. It nods to the Babri Masjid1 dispute, for example, but that wouldn’t be your first guess as a reader because there is so much else to dive into. So, when you mention that this book is the song you could sing, I wonder what kind of journey you took to arrive at that feeling.
NS: To use the same example, it’s like a range of octaves. The syntax and the sentences in general, the turn of phrase, the particularly black humor of her books: that’s a set of work I intuitively understand. I understand how to turn that humor into English without difficulty. I understand the modernity that oozes in the sentences, even when they’re talking about traditions or events from five hundred years ago—I understand the modernity of the characters, settings, and literary influences that create Meera’s world. I did think I might make some mistake, like not recognizing a literary or cultural reference, but I felt confident that I could translate this book without making an ass of myself.
“I’m a big believer that translation works.”
I have looked at other contemporary books with this eye because I’m trying to educate myself in how this is done. Some books maybe in a while, a few years, I’ll be able to translate. But some books I just wouldn’t have a feel for. This comes from inside the translator as much as inside the writer. Perhaps in time my range will improve, but there are some writers that I would probably struggle with.
SP: I was also thinking about Malayalam as a language and how different it is from English. If I understand it correctly, it is an agglutinative (in which words are made by joining morphemes) language.
NS: Oh my god, yes, you basically die when you’re transliterating, When I am on the phone and want to transliterate something my mother has said, I’m exhausted by the end of it.
SP: Yes, I think that’s why a lot of books from language systems that are very different from English end up getting that reputation of being “lost in translation.” Was this something you were thinking about? Were there moments when you thought, this word itself could become three lines in English?
NS: That’s a good question, but that kind of thing is not a hallmark of Meera’s syntax. Hers is a very modern syntax. There is a kind of precision to her word choices that makes it quite easy. Even the sheer size of the words is small.
SP: I was also thinking about the choices you have to make as a translator. One of them, perhaps even the biggest one, is what you decide to keep in the original. I noticed that some words, like Mappila, korandi, and pathinaru kettu, weren’t translated, and then there’s title of the book—I was wondering why it didn’t become “tombstone” or something. But then there’s also your use of the English word “hottie,” which I thought was a really interesting translation choice.
NS: The retention of the title is something that Meera decided. And when I ran through the English options, I felt none of them quite worked as well as the original. But I think it’s very cheapo when people say that translation doesn’t work. I’m a big believer that translation works. I don’t like that insistence that a lot of people who don’t read much have that “it’s not as good as the original.” How do you know?
I think this title in particular is a very smart and considered choice on Meera’s part. Having said that, she leans toward a process of translation where you do not retain Malayalam words. She thinks keeping them is cheating, which I think is very interesting. It’s one of the first things she said to me before I began: that I should find suitable words in English. I went with that, but sometimes I liked the sound of certain Malayalam words. A word like korandi, for instance, sounds nice when you say it aloud. Pathinaru kettu is a very specific architectural form. It was hard to translate without it becoming super clumsy. With these words, I just thought people would get a sense and learn a new word. It wasn’t very systematic decision-making.
“It’s a bit of a tightrope walk to retain your intuitive response to a language but also to make sure your response is not super idiosyncratic.”
The word “hottie” has come up in every conversation about the book. I always find it funny. Because the word in the Malayalam text was “chullan.” How that word sounds and feels in your mouth to me is just the same as hottie. It’s a throwaway word. Like, if you were in a bar and saw a guy you’d say “chullan” under your breath. That’s the feel I went for.
Another phrase that came up is when I describe the two girls as “serious beauties.” The original Malayalam phrase was “bhayangara sundari.” Sundari is easy enough to translate for Indian readers. Bhayangara, to me, in casual Malayalam, would translate to “major” or “serious” beauties. There was a little bit of resistance to that phrase, not from Meera but from other people. But those are things you figure out as you go along. You do a little bit of second-guessing, you think a little more, and that second-guessing is necessary also. I did my first draft and then put it away and waited for Meera and others to look at it. When I eventually came back to it, there were some big bloopers. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk to retain your intuitive response to a language but also to make sure your response is not super idiosyncratic and incomprehensible to someone else.
SP: Going back to your relationship with Meera, I know a lot of translators do not like to have the author in conversation at all because they think it influences their work too much. You’ve said that Meera is usually hands-off, but she also suggested keeping the title in the original. Is this the kind of relationship you like, or would you prefer to translate in isolation in the future?
NS: When I was doing the translation, she wasn’t involved. That was a considered decision. When I was finished, she took a look. And because she’s always doing a million things, she took a while to come back to me. But she came back with very specific and useful feedback. There were a few things we disagreed upon, but in the end, she was comfortable letting me run with whatever translation I preferred. I don’t know if this is a relationship that can be replicated. I would assume that for every author and translator, that relationship would be specific.
SP: Since you’ve spent your whole life reading Malayalam books, I wonder if you now look back at something you read and think, “This needs to be in English and I want to be the one to do it.” Are you thinking about what you’re going to do next?
NS: I was talking to my agent about what I should be doing this year, because I have a tendency to want to do seven things at the same time. And now I’m more aware that there isn’t that much time to do many things. There are books I want to translate, but I am mostly in the process of educating myself and reading more Malayalam and more translations attentively. But hopefully this will also be a year where I do some of my own writing and translation (I’m working on a book that’s in a good place right now).
SP: Would you want to translate more of Meera’s work?
NS: Yes, of course. Before the launch for Qabar, I got all my Meera books out and had a good time looking at all of them. That gives you a sense. Usually by the time you’re done, you think, okay, I want nothing to do with this work. But it’s always a pleasure to read her, and there are always surprises in her work.
SP: I feel like we have to talk about the Westland closure. I can’t imagine that it’s been easy. They published both your debut collection and your debut translation. Is there any message you want to give to readers? I know the Malayalam original of Qabar sold 30,000 copies, and when it sold out, readers messaged Meera asking for copies. She has a huge following, and I’m sure it was devastating for readers to see that the English translation would no longer be available with Westland.
NS: I believe that the English edition has done well and continues to do well. It’s hard to say, because once the shock hit, I actually calmed down a bit. I thought, if there was a landslide and you lost your house, it would obviously be a tragedy, but it’s also out of my control. In some sense, I made a conscious decision to shelve any sadness and rage about it for later. Maybe after things settle, I’ll feel all the things one is supposed to feel. I don’t know. I’m surprised because I’m not someone who has huge amounts of self-restraint. But I am somewhat calm about this and just waiting to see what happens. Overall, I think it was such a stupid decision to close Westland. Corporate stupidity is a literary theme in itself.
But it’s very hard for writers who have many books to find a new home for each of them again. And to find editors again. Everybody I worked with at Westland was great. The marketing people were obsessive about selling your book. I went to a small bookstore in Bombay called Happy, which has been around since 1947. When you talk to them or other small bookstores in Bangalore, you have a sense of how closely Westland worked with bookstores. All of this is very hard to replicate. It’s not a corporate decision that can really be justified, but the world is full of stupid people with a lot of power. What to do? I am oddly calm right now. We’ll see how it goes.
1. The Babri Masjid dispute is centered around a plot of land in Ayodhaya, Uttar Pradesh. The location of the Babri Masjid mosque is regarded by the Hindus as the birthplace of Ram, their deity. On December 6, 1992, during a political rally, the mosque was illegally destroyed, triggering riots all over the country. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the land belonged to the government and should be handed over to a trust to build a Hindu temple. A different site was allocated to replace the destroyed masjid. ↩
Nisha Susan is the author of the short story collection The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories (2020, Westland). Her nonfiction is deeply engaged with ideas of gender, culture, and the internet. In 2021, she wrote a tiny book called Seventeen Years and a Pandemic: What Watching Grey's Anatomy Taught Me. She has also recently translated KR Meera's Qabar from Malayalam.
© 2022 by Suhasini Patni. All rights reserved.
A woman's grief resurfaces during a drunken train ride home at dawn in this short story by Marta Orriols.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you, Paula?”
“A little fresh air will do me good.” She refuses the offer, for the umpteenth time, with a lackluster wave as she staggers off feigning an impossible sobriety. The high heels are no help. It’s almost six in the morning and the June sky is breaking pink; she wants to run but the drinks she’s had over the course of the night are churning inside her and making their presence known with some queasiness.
“OK, you’re the boss. I’ll call you about Wednesday. If you change your mind, let me know. Get some rest, princess!” she shouts as she starts the engine. Her friend’s voice sounds derisive as she drives past her, honking three times in a row. The echo of her voice is soon lost amid the sound of other cars also ending the night, or just preparing to start the day. A bitter note hung in the air like the prelude to the melody that accompanies her each time she descends into the depths of hell: Princess. Princess. Princess.
She pushes her wavy hair from her face, furiously battling to keep it out of her eyes. She slips into the metro entrance and suddenly the stairs go on infinitely. The slope invites her into the scabrous darkness, like each one of the times she’s entered it since she lost a smidgen of herself.
She takes a deep breath and shakes her head. No. She tries to keep her balance and her propriety, but the demons whisper in her ear with hot, foul breath, that the dress she’s wearing is too short and that the night has rumpled it so much it was now offensive, so she hurries to yank it down and cover up a bit of flesh, unable to avoid feeling dirty and exposed. Aren’t you a little old for that, Paula? Who do you think you’re fooling? And that sparkly crown? A headband, you say? You’re ridiculous. They’re malicious, wraithlike, and they never leave her alone.
Two minutes until the next train. Only a couple of lost souls wait, like her, below ground. The heat and the alcohol induce her to close her eyes for a moment and swallow hard. Her ears fill with a garbled buzzing. Keep it together, Paula. And don’t think about her when you’re like this, struggling to keep from vomiting or falling flat on the floor, don’t think about what it would have been like to wrap her in a spongy towel as you pull her from the little tub, not now, don’t imagine the tender scent of her immaculate skin as you rock her in your arms and repress your desire to stroke her little nose that looks just like yours. She grows pale. Sit down, Paula. The doctors don’t look you in the eye when they have bad news. A malformation. Basically, there’s no hope. Yes, I want to know. A girl. Princess. Princess. Princess.
The sound of the approaching train rouses her. Her eyes open just as the doors do, she enters mechanically and drops into a seat like a marionette being put away in a box.
She digs her elbows into her thighs to hold up the weight of her head. Three seats further down there is a very young couple. She is on top of him. They are molded together and intertwined in an endless metallic, salivary, tattooed kiss. They move their heads so quickly to braid their tongues together that Paula has to fight to keep down the disgust that crawls up her throat but, despite everything, she can’t stop looking at them. Obstinate and uneasy in equal parts, she drills her gaze onto the pink of their two soft tongues and can make out strawberry chewing gum moving from one mouth to the other. Paula sees her for just a few seconds in a metallic receptacle. A pink morsel, like a newborn mouse, but already with two hands and ten tiny fingers. She scrutinizes the couple until she hears the name of her station among the whistles of steel scraping the rails. She flees the car and takes the stairs two by two. Once she’s outside, she takes in a gulp of air before being received by the squawks of the early swifts alerting her that yes, that the sky at that hour is also pink that morning, a fleshy pink, a girly pink.
© 2016 by Marta Orriols & Edicions del Periscopi. By arrangement with the author and publisher. Translation © 2022 by Mara Faye Lethem. All rights reserved.
Aleksey Porvin's poem considers war and propaganda amid the invasion of Ukraine.
In our hospital childhood, we’d have pillow fights, and sometimes twist
a patchwork blanket into the shape of a giant club
to whack an opponent upside the head or parry blows from another blanket
rolled up into a telescopic baton with no lens we could press our eyes to
as we strained to distinguish the body heat of our hospital’s
sleepy star, fixing all our attention
on the nubile lines of that heavenly body
(She ate too many raw sunflower seeds, she’s about to puke all over that state-owned sheet
or whatever it is she’s covered in, though she doesn’t know it yet)
But boys care more about beating other boys
and in many the seed of desire is burnt out by families,
schools, the state
One of them closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, he sees
a country sewn together from scraps beating another just like it,
twisted by terror into a roll, like blueprints
punch-drunk from the impact of the sudden impossibility
of erecting the structure of a new reality
Where have those thirty years of life gone? Nowhere,
it seems, since nothing has changed
Those years went nowhere
and there was no time for astronomy
Make my decisions for me, build my plans,
embed in me your vision, your hearing, your sense of justice,
moth-eaten as it is
Hold an assault rifle with my hand, use my mouth
to justify the invasion, proclaim the hegemony
of some scraps over others until the threads burn to ash
It’s time to talk about that old Ukrainian woman
who offered the Russian soldiers raw sunflower seeds
Why raw ones? So sunflowers will grow from your bodies
when you die, at least there’ll be something to show for it…
The patchworks grapple, keep their textile grip
But the blankets rip with every blow
and there will be no telling which scrap went where
How are we supposed to stitch joy together with sorrow? Doesn’t matter
the foreman will still curse just as loud on state TV
From "Our Hospital Childhood." © Aleksey Porvin. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. All rights reserved.
In Kyiv, Ukrainian poet Olga Bragina speaks of loss and the impossibility of escape.
there’s no getting out of here since it’s too close to shoot war after peace to grope for your body
among those like us expelled from all universities of historical truth tempered in the ashes of meanings here take this heart as proof that life doesn’t pass just like that
there’s no getting out of here because children draw autumn fruit on the whitewashed walls
awesome sheets of thought superstructure and base here’s where the light missile will hit warm rays as though it were still spring like it was
there’s no getting out since the light sketched in the flesh and blood of shadows the war will end sometime and then where will you go
peace doesn’t exist what is that anyway it’s mallow flowers that little pill was brought up by a wolf a toxic setting there will be another city here
happy people will walk out of their houses keep count on the canvas how many of us are left
it’s almost love for all that could be lost for all that lasts only a day like a butterfly psyche the soul
there’s no getting out of here trapped by the world peering through a microscope where’s the most interesting place to stab this needle to squirm in the solution the body floats after the water the soul collects these drawings because it’s too small to protect the world it’s war with yourself because we’ve been sliced in half
we won’t recognize this city anymore and don’t look into your eyes it’s a trick mirror you haven’t existed yet there on the other side of the curtain there’s a world a warm spring october
something pulsates beneath the skin what is it but a touch like blood from the heart that should still be alive otherwise where will you go now after peace
and i’ll learn to draw so it can all come true
© Olga Bragina. By arrangement with the author. Translated from Ukrainian into Russian by Vladimir Korkunov. Translation copyright 2022 by Elina Alter. All rights reserved.
Beatles cover band the Shampoo reveal a side of the Naples neighborhood of Fuorigrotta that you won't find in the books of Elena Ferrante.
Cover for The Shampoo's album In Naples.
In a parallel universe straight out of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the Beatles come, not from Liverpool, but from Napoli, and specifically the tough, working-class neighborhood of Fuorigrotta. Here, Day Tripper (Got a good reason / For taking the easy way out) is no longer Day Tripper, it’s instead a lewd and leering piece of melodic Neapolitan street theater, entitled E’ zizze (Her Tits). Here are the lyrics, from the original, imaginary liner notes: Donna Luisa / se mette in cammisa a cantà / Ormai ha deciso / ca nun me vo’ fa cchiù campà no. (Lady Luisa / puts on her camisole to sing / She’s made up her mind, yeah / she’s bound to be the death of me yet, ha.) Chorus: me fa vedè ’e zizze si me fa vedè / e a me che songhe n’omme me fa male, me fa male (She’s flashing her tits right at me, yeah, she’s flashing them all right / and for a man like me, it sure hurts, it sure hurts me). Sure, it’s got all the earmarks and trappings of a hallucination, but for four mop-topped young Neapolitans, it’s a hallucination that’s shown no sign of abating for forty years now. Lucky them: the last thing they want to do is come down from this trip.
The saga of Naples’ own Fab Four, the Shampoo, boasts a spiritual progenitor. Giorgio Verdelli, these days a respected author and TV director who’s spent a lifetime in the music industry, was a cutting-edge disc jockey in the seventies (“The first DJ in Naples, I think, to play the music of Bob Marley,” in Verdelli's own words). Just to set the stage, in those years the big local names were Alunni Del Sole, a state-of-the-art Italian hippie band cooked up by PR men, and the Showmen. The popular club was Pentothal in Vomero—to hear Verdelli describe it, “A broad mix of clientele: respectable and middle class, but also a strong helping of criminals and repeat offenders. Though they had plenty of valuable life lessons to offer."
These were the years of the AM station Radio Antenna Capri – the personal domain of the unforgettable Corrado Ferlaino, owner of S. S. C. Napoli, the soccer team. Sure enough, it was Ferlaino who in November 1976 gave Naples a gift that broke hearts and brought tears to eyes across the city. The occasion was a Napoli vs. Liverpool match and the news was such a blockbuster that there was no need for a press release (“The best press release you could have in Naples was: pssst, don’t breathe a word of this to anyone. And in the blink of an eye everyone in town knew all about it,” Verdelli told me). Electrified by breathless word of mouth, a crowd of fans had already collected outside the entrance of the radio station. Many doubted they’d see anything. But then a white limousine pulls up and out they step. The actual Beatles. The actual Beatles in Naples, specialissimi guests of Radio Antenna Capri. And once they strike up the melody of Twist & Shout, all doubts are quashed: those are the guitars, those are the voices. Even the Liverpool accent is spot on, when the young knights of rock and roll answer phone calls from the listeners at home with exquisitely British etiquette.
The microphones of Radio Antenna Capri are rapt witnesses to a minor page of modern history—even if the chapter of history in question is the saga of the Neapolitan gasconade, not the annals of the pop beat. That’s right, because the radio audience couldn’t possibly be expected to know that in real life John is a lawyer (Q: “Criminal law or civil suits?” / A: “Either one’s fine. As long as you can pay his fees”), Ringo is a tax accountant, and Paul and George are, from left to right, a computer programmer and a men’s apparel sales representative. Respectively, to read from their driver’s licenses, Lino d’Alessio, Pino De Simone, Costantino Iaccarino, and Massimo d’Alessio—longtime friends and “philological” scholars of Beatledom, verging on the fetishistic. Just to be clear, the British MBE answering the fans’ phone calls is just a guy who works for British Airways and who therefore speaks perfect English: “a friend of the radio station”—in other words, just someone who happened to be passing by.
The mastermind behind this gasconade is the Orson Welles of Fuorigrotta, Verdelli himself: “The prank of the War of the Worlds, you know what I mean? It was a learned reference. I mean, a reference I learned from a book. I just wanted to prove that if you said something on the radio, everybody would fall for it.” But Verdelli’s volcanic genius didn’t stop there: he sensed the band’s potential and transformed them into the Cadillacs—a Beatles cover band, years before there even was such a thing as a cover band. There followed concerts in the Neapolitan hinterland, a speck of provincial success. But it was only a taste of things to come.
The Shampoo performs Pepp!, a cover of The Beatles' Help!
What is genius? as Philippe Noiret's character Perozzi muses in Mario Monicelli's 1975 subversive landmark film, Amici Miei: “It's imagination and intuition, followed by prompt, decisive action.” The film is a tour de force of inventive, daring pranks—gasconades—and channels the spirit of those years. The answer according to the band, the Cadillacs: genius is singing in our mother tongue (“And we don’t call it a dialect, it’s a language.”). The gasconade is transformed into an epic. This is the birth of the Shampoo, the first Beatles cover band working in Neapolitan. Next come such deathless standards of the Neapolitan songbook as Pepp’ (Help), ’Nomme e nient’ (Nowhere Man), and Tengo ’e guaie (Tell Me Why). The recording company EMI-Italia, in the person of the then-creative director Bruno Tibaldi—the producer of the early work of singer-songwriter Pino Daniele and a long-time Beatles fan (we’re talking about 1980)—decides to believe in them, and goes on to produce the first Shampoo album. It was a major production, at Trafalgar studios in Rome (“The recording was done by megastar Antonello Venditti, who was a fan of ours, the Goblins, and even Keith Emerson was there”). Most important of all, though, the young people believed in them. And, in the wake of what had originated as a juvenile prank, the band found themselves hurtling north to Rome. Rome in the eighties, a city glittering with the sequin-studded smiles of Renzo Arbore (a witty and subversive radio and TV personality, an international big band leader, and one of the funniest men in post-war Italy), the halogen spotlights of the studios where Domenica In was shot, and the Ray-Bans of Gianni Boncompagni, with a gleaming reflection of the spirit of the times. Once again, the cat’s paw of History tipped the scales (“EMI released two Shampoo discs, the Green Album and the Blue Album. But then John Lennon was murdered, on December 8, 1980. And that’s when Shampoo put out their first album”). But none of that matters. What matters is that this is exactly where the hallucination climbs up onto the saddle of biography and takes off.
Glossy magazines, hit parades, parties. The four young Neapolitans from Fuorigrotta understandably weigh their options, think of bagging their day jobs. They think about it, but they’re torn by indecision—they spend their mornings and afternoons in the office in Naples, at six in the evening they hop a train for Rome, where they change into the Beatles jackets (“No: we never wore a wig. That was our real hair”), and sing Totonno hai illuse a chell’ (You’re Going to Lose That Girl), and then back home and to bed. It lasts for a year, a magical year. Verdelli is their Brian Epstein, Vince Tempera is their George Martin. Just a little higher, and they’ll be able to take definitively to their wings, and live on music alone.
One last time, however, and the cat’s paw of History gives things a shove, but this time, with ruinous results. A new boss takes over at EMI—Piero Scussel. And he’s obsessed with more classic acts like Orietta Berti and Claudio Villa. He hates the Beatles. From one day to the next, the Shampoo are basically shown the door—they fight to hold on, they come up with new ideas, but the fix is in. There isn’t going to be a second album.
For anyone else, this would have been the end of a dream. But not for them—and this, too, is a form of genius. The Shampoo made a choice: to go on living in that dream. For that matter: “When the Beatles went to Decca Records, they laughed at them and said, ‘Guitar groups are on the way out.’ A few years later, that CEO killed himself. Scussel did to them what Decca did to the Beatles in 1962. He destroyed an idea.” An idea that, if you want to really be technical about it: “In terms of syntax, our lyrics are much more precise than anything the Beatles ever wrote.”
It’s been almost forty years now. In keeping with the finest Beatles tradition, there have been artistic disagreements, divorces, changes in the lineup, and reconciliations. And then hair turned gray, then white, trim abs gave way to bellies, and children moved away, out of the country. But the Shampoo are still there, in a recording studio in sleepy Agnano, practicing scales and harmonies for their upcoming reunion (“Our idea is deathless because every Beatles song is immortal”). What remains is the memories: like when you ask them about the groupies in that one magical year they enjoyed.
“They’d come on to us. We were young and good looking, and it was basically raining groupies. I don’t know if it was something that EMI organized. I had to wonder sometimes, because it was unlike anything we’d ever seen,” John recalls. “Statt’ zitt—shut up—or they’ll hear us,” Paul interrupts. They means their wives, four lovely ladies who wait patiently outside the studio for the interview to be over.
“Our wives were saints. Because they put up with us. And they still do.”
© Peppe Fiore. Originally published in the Corriere del Mezzogiorno. Translation © 2022 by Antony Shugaar. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from Eva Baltasar's novel, the narrator unwillingly goes along with her partner's plans for assisted reproduction.
And it happens. The thing that has no bearing on my life or on the kilometers-long perimeter of life that was meant to protect me from those permanent, timeless laws, the kind that defy all probability. It comes to the house like a Jonah. Unexpected and unfortunate. A sickness that had only ever affected other people. I want a baby, Samsa says, our baby. Your baby. She says this and I feel nothing, like I’d drunk arsenic. All I know is I’ve gone cold. It’s six in the morning. The alarm clock went off half an hour ago so we’d have time to make love. Her idea, her words. She says she never sees me during the day and that we’re too tired at night. When she makes sweeping statements like this one, she tends to be talking about herself: when I come home at night, she’s asleep and I’m turned on. The goal of having the alarm go off once or twice a week at an ungodly hour is to awaken love. I get up, brush my teeth, and grab the strap-on because it’s faster that way. I fuck her and she lets herself be fucked, it looks like she’s not even moving. She welcomes in a desire that I’m not giving her and that roams the corridors of her body like a ghost. She holds my chin and makes me look at her while I thrust over and over. I don’t enjoy it, I apply myself. She kisses me, as if a kiss could fill the silence that separates two faraway bodies the moment they surrender to each other. She kisses me and calls me Boulder. When she comes, she cries like she’s breaking to pieces, she cries just like a rock.
Refusing would mean leaving her, so I ask for more time. I’ll be forty soon, I don’t have time, she says. Fucking milestones.
All I want is one goddamn week. The fact that I hadn’t said yes the minute she asked seems to have exposed the tragic nature of our attachment, of that crushing thing people refer to as the couple. I come up with arguments and lay them on the table. A royal flush. We don’t have time to look after a kid. The pregnancy would be high risk. We’d be geriatric mothers, and by the time the kid went to high school, people would think we were the grandparents. The apartment’s too small. Having a kid is the same as enrolling in a lifetime plan of suffering. Ridiculous arguments that never stood a chance against the urge they’re trying to shoot down. We talk about it every day. She can’t find it in herself to give me a week. She waits up for me and we drink coffee on the sofa. She looks at me with those blue eyes that fade to gray in the warm apartment light, and I have the feeling she has everything, that she is one and whole, like a god. That, somehow, her desire for a child spoils her. I listen with all five senses, I listen to her with my entire body, with everything but my heart, which feels like it wants to thrash the hell out of me. This wasn’t a part of our plan. The truth is we’d never made any plans, we’d just taken huge bites out of life. I light a cigarette; I’m so despicable all I can think is that if she gets pregnant, I’ll have to smoke outside the fucking building. She rests her head on my shoulders and closes her eyes. She takes shallow breaths, as if wanting to sigh but finding it too painful to draw in the oxygen contaminated by our conversation. She’s nervous, receptive, she needs to hold in her belly the child she’s found in her mind. Mostly, she’s exhausted. I realize I’m part of her exhaustion, which is still better than not being part of her at all. I put my arm around her shoulders and my hand on her chest. She quietens down and curls into me. I kiss her hair out of inertia. Kisses that are tender and ready to sign a treaty. I am hooked on the smell of her, on the mix of shampoo and moisturizer that clings to her pajamas and skin, on the scent of every night in a decade spent folded around her sleeping body, of her success and her calm, even of our sad, awful morning sex. I tamp down the truth and say all right, let’s do it. I don’t tell her that what I want is to not be a mother.
The first person who had the idea of building a pyramid must have been insane. What about the guy who thought it made sense to stick someone in a rocket and shoot them at the stars? Samsa is crazier than the two of them put together. Having a kid is an enormous undertaking. It kicks into gear right away, without any warning. It comes out of nowhere with such extraordinary force that it razes everything to the ground, like an earthquake. You’d have to be an animal with a tiny brain and impeccable survival instincts to see it coming. I bet if we’d had a dog, it would’ve known long before any of us and cleared right out of the house. It seems unbelievable that a single decision, a fucking intangible thought, could so violently upset the flesh-and-bone scaffolding of daily life, the steady rhythm of the hours, the predictable, material color of the landscapes that give us nourishment and company. The decision precedes a living being that already exists and takes over everything. Its presence has dimension; it occupies the house with concrete tentacles, sinks into the skulls of the people who live there, and clings to the fine membrane that sheathes their gray matter. I can’t get away, it follows me wherever I go like a sinner harassing another sinner, stoning him and hissing all of his fears into his ear. The decision hinges so much on me that it only sleeps when I do. Samsa, on the other hand, is radiant. She seems to generate a light whose source is the same active, powerful nucleus that glows inside a squid. When I look at her, she becomes younger and I have the feeling she’s using my eyes as changing rooms in which to cast off the excess years and accomplish a purpose that will soon be expiring. Her lips have fleshed out the way they do on a person who’s just done a lot of fucking, and she has the velvety gaze of a full-grown lioness that knows she is the backbone of the pride, the key to transcendence. I find it hard to believe a single idea could change her so much. When I bring her coffee in the morning, her hair shimmers over the pillow as if she were already pregnant.
Ragnar insists we have to celebrate. Here I was thinking we were friends. I tell him all I have to celebrate is the fact that I’ve reached new heights of stupidity, that I can’t bring myself to hurt or leave Samsa, to understand the magnitude of her desire and say no. He tells me he felt the same when he had his first kid but that everything changes after the second or the third; they come out of their moms and grow up all on their own, all you have to do is feed them. He makes some dig that I can’t remember about the food truck and slaps my back so hard I choke. I plan to pass the time smoking in a corner. Thankfully, he’s a man of few words. Thankfully, too, he’s the master of the bottles and shares them liberally. As we sit there surrounded by all those people getting drunk and having a great time, I feel as if we’d just won a battle and even though I’d lost an eye and one of my legs would have to be amputated, at least my heart was at peace and my courage intact.
I go with her to the clinic. It’s a hideous building surrounded by other hideous buildings. They loom over the bay like gleaming icebergs that hold hostage ideas, ambitions, bodies. We can only see the tip: the law firms, the tech and IT companies, the corporations. The rest, most of which remains hidden, navigates the underseas of the third world. The fertility clinic is on the second floor of one of these glass-walled monsters. Samsa walks in resolute. She didn’t have to ask, we both just assumed that wherever she went, I would go with her. A depressing prospect, but it is what it is. They show us into a waiting room. When she sits down, in her ironed blazer, with her perfect hair and made-up eyes, it’s like she’s taken possession of this new land and proclaimed herself Queen. It’s always like this with her, I realize. The power she exudes is subtle, almost tender, beautiful and supple yet resilient, like the silk of a spider’s web. She entices as much as she ensnares, lets you step back but never abandon her. She holds my hand and I light three cigarettes with my mind. I don’t smoke, I fire them up and take a single long drag, burning through them without breathing. The chairs are comfortable. The magazines new. The floor pale and slick. The plants are so well tended they look fake. It’s the perfect setting for her, and she fits in like it’s her natural-born right. Another couple pushing forty sits across from us. Their clothes are clean, newly unfolded, and their hands held in accordance with some customary protocol. They’re leafing through a magazine that claims to teach people how to be good mothers and fathers. The picture on the cover, a man and a woman with the vacant expressions of cult followers and a newborn baby in their arms, makes me feel sicker than the thought of Samsa being knocked up with a syringe and a sperm donation. We’re going to have a massive problem if she ever brings home one of those how-to manuals. The kind you can pulp to death but still won’t strain through the mesh of our love.
We get home with a list of chores and a hole in our checking account. I have the sense I am buying her a kid and that the approach I’ve taken is deceitful. I am frustrated, and it drains every last bit of my strength and talent. It’s my biological impotence that coerces me, encourages me to do it. I feel like an elderly mafioso, like Samsa belongs to me not out of the love we have for one another but out of a new, shared responsibility, because I am in a position to accommodate an improbable, difficult whim. We run through the list that evening, curled up on the sofa. It’s strange, we’ve never spent this much time on the sofa before. We’d bought it so her guests would have somewhere to sit, though we’d always made do with the bed. Lately, we end up here all the time. The sofa is a place for sitting and talking, a sensible piece of furniture designed to promote verticality and position the head as the sovereign supreme of all the subordinate organs, including the heart. I’ve developed an aversion toward it, I can’t stand this heap of junk—not the sofa or the person I become whenever Samsa invites me to sit my ass down. I can’t handle the square, navy-blue cushions crowded with other smaller cushions that are soft and garish and which she uses to buttress herself until she has the comfort she needs to control everything: her life, her feelings, the words she’s already composing, even me. If every now and then she’d hug me the way she hugs those cushions, it might just melt the cold, rigid thing I carry inside and that bucks against me—because it couldn’t care less about what I say or the promises I make. A barometer of circumstances, it makes me who I am: it can be shaped, but it won’t be won over or driven away.
The chemical warfare begins. Samsa is the site of the conflict. Not only does she have her blood drawn several times, she also has to pop pills every morning: calcium, iron, folic acid, vitamins, iodine, estrogen. She reminds me of an abandoned warehouse suddenly beset by trucks come to unload their freight. Bricks, mortar, cement, beams, insulation, slabs. The impression I get is that she’s eating the baby in chunks, little by little, and that once she’s swallowed the last piece, the only thing left to do at the clinic will be to get their rubber stamp and press a button. We also have to fill a prescription at the pharmacy for a bunch of little bottles that are as precious as radium and just as hard to get hold of. A month later they arrive in a package that looks like a box of chocolates, the kind you don’t want to throw away once it’s empty. The glass vials are as tiny, slim, and adorable as perfume samples. Though they look like they hold water, they’re actually full of hormones, the ferments that will activate life and deploy it when the time is right. After dinner, she’s supposed to drain one with a very fine syringe, then inject it into the fat around her stomach. Every day for two weeks. She asks me if I'll do it; she can’t, even though she’s tried. She says that jabbing a ten-centimeter-long needle in her belly is as good as committing hara-kiri. The flesh she’s pinching becomes taut and the hand holding the weapon refuses to obey; she is shielded by a biological mandate that makes her freeze up and stops the act of aggression. I’ve never done it before, but how hard can it be? I have her sit on the toilet. I sanitize her skin with a piece of gauze soaked in ethanol and tell her to focus on this baby she’s been dreaming about so she can take the injection with dignity. She tells me to go to hell and I stick her with the needle, plunging the contents of the syringe into her body. It takes a second, all told. She says nothing and stares at me as if I’d just stabbed her. I’m dying to leave her there on her own. Instead I stay, kiss her forehead, kneel beside her, rest my head on her thighs, and apologize. A sense of calm falls over us like a shadowy canopy, making us feel lighter and closer together. It’s cold, she complains as she touches the skin around the perforation. I want to remind her that the sperm she wants and needs so badly is preserved in liquid nitrogen, in the freezer. But I keep this thought to myself.
She eats all day. She has me bring home some empanadas, heads down to the grocery store and comes back loaded with cookies, cheese, and jars and jars of peanuts. The fact that the kitchen is too small for our needs seems to excite her. At night she pours herself a bowl of milk, crumbles a cinnamon stick into it. She devours it at the table, as absorbed by each spoonful as a tiger by a fresh carcass. The hormones are doing their job, they season and marinate her body, manipulating it to cater to the baby’s taste and satisfaction. We visit the clinic every three days. They do an ultrasound and check the maturity of her eggs. I’ve learned that the sole purpose of these injections is to speed things up. The gynecologists’ strategy is to reap Samsa’s ovaries for all they’re worth. If all goes according to plan, a week from now there will be eight to ten mature eggs where there’d usually be one. In other words, the ovary as overcrowded tenement. Then, just as soon as a batch of extraordinary possibilities has settled inside her, comes insemination. As they communicate this to us, she smiles. She’s not even blinking, it’s like she’s been hypnotized. I can’t believe she isn’t changing her mind. Is she really going to let them pop her with an athletic twenty-year-old’s forty to sixty thousand sperm? When there are eight mature eggs inside her? I voice my concerns with as much civility and composure as I can muster. I don’t want to end up splashed across the front page of a newspaper with half a dozen babies crammed into a custom-made stroller looking pink and wrinkly as rats, while a woman with dark circles under her eyes stands beside me, wrecked on the inside and out. The gynecologist looks at Samsa and gestures in a way that conveys total understanding. Some forms of communication are both subtle and despotic, and have the power to isolate you from the conversation. Our great campaign has just become a precious, unfathomable thing hovering between the two of them. There’s no room for me anymore. I’m the unwanted partner, a thing to be tolerated. Samsa makes her own feeble gesture. She’s weak with embarrassment and can’t come up with an excuse for my behavior. It’s like my rationale is so crude it is an insult not only to her but to science, to the experimental approach, to the high priests of the holy church of insemination, who are ever so wise and down-to-earth, who are ever so pure.
Originally published as Boulder by Club Editor in 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Eva Baltasar and Club Editor. First edition in English published 2022 by And Other Stories. Translation copyright © 2022 by Julia Sanches. By arrangement with And Other Stories. All rights reserved.
Poet Alla Gorbunova
The anthology This Is Us Losing Count is published this month by Two Lines Press. The eight Russian poets in the collection interrogate memory and reinvention. Here Alla Gorbunova finds metaphors in nature.
The water freezes,
becoming a heavenly body.
Myriads of January flowers bloom—
white at first glance, but then
a thousandfold colors:
oyster-pink, the color of brick dust,
of a fire at the market, of a frightened nymph’s thigh,
the color of a merry widow and a lovesick toad,
hyacinths, heliotropes, carnations,
The Judas tree blooms,
the cardinal burns in the straw, the eyes
of the partridge are staring forward.
Crushed-lingonberry sky, sky of the Moscow Fire.
Your cheeks are pinked with Parnassus rose.
My thoughts are dark, like a spider’s plotting crime.
They’re repulsive, like the vomit of an empress.
you’re beautiful as brazilwood,
and rose ash
lies on your shoulders.
"The Water Freezes" by Alla Gorbunova, translated by Elina Alter, excerpted from This Is Us Losing Count, published by Two Lines Press 2022. Reprinted with permission from Alla Gorbunova and Elina Alter.
Olga Ravn's slim, surprising novel compiles corporate witness accounts from a shocking interstellar mission.
Underneath the COVID-19 fervor and the ennui of quarantine lies a lopsided civilization with questions that have been thrown into sharp relief: Who can weather days without working, who cannot? Whose social position renders them immune to lapses in judgment and prophylactic behavior, whose does not? Who is deemed “essential” (that is, whose facilitating function within a service economy prevents them from making a living from home), who is (blissfully, guiltily) not? Never before has the value of one’s labor felt so clearly defined, or so susceptible to charges of exploitation. Several novels have attempted to address the pandemic’s unique ecosystem of interaction and avoidance, but so far it seems that this low-hanging fruit—the maintenance of dignity amid the grueling or pointless reality of one’s work—is the most fertile yet the least remarked upon.
Olga Ravn’s The Employees is not a pandemic novel. However, thanks to a crackling translation from the Danish by Martin Aitken, readers in English are now able to delve into its futuristic and dystopian worldview, which contains enormous insight into labor’s many actors: deciders, stewards, pawns, and—when things go awry—its scapegoats and apologists. The novel’s structure, a series of collected statements that begin as declarations, then methodically transition into confessions and judgments, allows chronological story to buttress the reader’s engagement with accumulating details.
But what of that reader? Ravn’s modular structure suggests that the responsibility of configuring her narrative and sussing out its moral leanings belongs to her audience. The book doesn’t lack plot so much as tacitly acknowledge that plot is a construct, and therefore susceptible to the politics of control, which implicates the author and, inevitably, whoever’s hands the book lands in. Or rather, the paradigm of who has created the book’s terms (Ravn) and who has not (us) forms a mirror image of who has power in the book (humans) and who does not (humanoids, mechanized human-like beings whose consciousness can be reprogrammed), which in turn establishes a clear-but-diversionary hierarchy of what readers of the novel may try to accumulate (chronological plot) and, as a result, what they may not (meaning).
This is why it’s probably best to split up The Employees’ plot and meaning. One wants to alert for spoilers, but items on a conveyor belt are only a surprise to the employees still in training. So: in the not-too-distant future, a vessel known as the Six Thousand Ship, containing a crew of humans and humanoids, is sent on an exploratory mission into space. On a planet aptly named New Discovery, the crew encounters a series of alien items, which it takes on board the ship for examination. The humans on board, starved for familiarity, give the items nicknames, such as the Reverse Strap-on and the Half-Naked Bean, and develop fetishized attachments to them. Lacking a frame of reference, the humanoids find this behavior bizarre, even as they form attachments to the humans. Yet they are frequently “regenerated”—that is, their internal lives can be erased—and an anxiety about the practice ensues among the crew at large. A botched mutiny in which a human dies causes an elusive governing body known only as “the committee” to panic. The humanoid sections of the ship are reduced to skeleton crews, then the mission is abandoned altogether. The ship is returned to New Discovery, where the “orders were given for all biomaterials to be disintegrated while preserving the ship itself” so that the items and other precious resources can be harvested after the humans die and the humanoids exhaust their energy. The remaining humanoids abandon the ship for a valley “where flowers and trees have begun to grow forth out of the soil and the thrusting plants have pushed various objects to the surface, where they now lie scattered about in the moist earth.” It’s left ambiguous whether they will be reconstituted or left as technological waste once the ship is recovered, but one humanoid’s last recorded statement proves prophetic all the same: “These words are the last you’ll hear from us.”
The certainty with which the remaining crew’s fate is sealed lacks any revelation, though this is not for lack of surprise. The business-like nature of “the committee” neutralizes any emotional register that would arise from events. On the other hand, one cannot expect those who are cutting their losses to empathize with those whom they are jettisoning, and much of Ravn’s dramaturgy quarrels with whether catharsis can intersect with the clerical.
Now, on to meaning: throughout The Employees, the crew’s commentaries appear numerically, but not in order. One could in theory read the entries chronologically and get a clearer arc, but this is complicated by the fact that some of the entries are missing entirely. Rather than a puzzle or a method to create an unorthodox narrative tension, this form points back to the bureaucratic filtering of the information that the reader receives. Someone (the committee, the author) is deciding what readers see and don’t see, based on what’s ideal for their interests. Thus, Ravn metes out what moments best encapsulate the commentary she has constructed.
And what a commentary. A tension emerges regarding whom the novel’s “recordings” are speaking to. They alternate between a self-conscious acknowledgment of being interrogated, where speakers comment about what “you” might be thinking, or what “you” know versus what they do. At other times, the comments are so sober and distant that the point of view is voyeuristic. “We’ve developed our own little ritual here, in view of cremation being the only option and the bereaved having nowhere to go,” Statement 037, the declaration of a de facto undertaker, reads, “Or perhaps bereaved isn’t the right word. I don’t know if you grieve over a coworker, but we perform the ritual anyway, out of respect, and you can’t exactly rule out relations occurring between members of the crew.” You shouldn’t be hearing things so intimate, yet you are. Although the humanoids are, like smartphones or computers, subject to version upgrades, they never really die, whereas human beings have not evolved at all since being on the Six Thousand Ship. The humans have control over their destiny, until someone finds them expendable—just like the humanoids. Meanwhile, for all the mentions of physical labor—cleaning, digging, cooking—the eponymous employees are primarily concerned with watching over objects that are pillaged on the journey. It’s difficult to reconcile the humans’ attachment for these unidentifiable, alien things with the lack of attachment to the humanoids who look just like them, which of course is the point. The contradiction reads as a crystal-clear criticism of human beings valuing progress in the abstract rather than being responsible stewards of what is already tangible.
The headiness is further compounded by its compression into a brisk 144 pages. Not enough to account for a whole galaxy, but certainly enough to compile a report. The depth and richness of Ravn’s premise could theoretically stretch out into multiple volumes, and one would imagine part of the novel’s appeal lies in the author’s insistence on restraint even as her forms leave behind a multitude of unresolved philosophical inquiries.
It's also worth noting that, for a novel about working without questioning one’s purpose, the mutiny that takes place is not about the work that humanoids are subjected to. Instead, the revolt stems from a resentment at not being afforded the same latitude, consciousness-wise, as the humans:
You want to know what I think about this arrangement? I think you look down on me. The way I see it, you’re a family that’s built a house and from the warm rooms of that house you now look out at the pouring rain. Safe from menace, you delight in the rain. You’re dry and smug, you’re reaping the rewards of a long process of refinement. When the storm gets up, it only heightens your enjoyment. I’m standing in the rain you think can never fall on you. I become one with the rain. I’m the storm you shelter from. The entire house is something you built just to avoid me. So don’t come to me and say I play no part in human lives.
Naturally, this puts the reader in a precarious position. How much of yourself do you see in the pillaged objects? The sub-human categorization of the humanoids? The humans themselves? When the plot eventually does come to a head, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as one would think, because none of the people you are witnessing have any control over what transpires.
© 2022 by J. Howard Rosier. All rights reserved.
It’s awards season at the movies, and accolades are being heaped on the film The Lost Daughter, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, about a middle-aged academic taking a vacation on a Greek island. The film is based on the eponymous novel by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, author of the wildly successful Neapolitan Quartet, which follows the lives of two friends over the course of nearly fifty years. So far, the film has racked up a number of prestigious awards and nominations, most recently Academy Award nominations for the two lead actresses, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, as well as a nod to Gyllenhaal for Best Adapted Screenplay, a category that she won at the Venice International Film Festival. To which I would add “adapted from an (uncredited) translation.”
The original Italian novel, La figlia oscura (literally, the obscure or mysterious daughter), published in 2006, rehearses the themes that Ferrante explores more fully in the Quartet. Primary among them is the struggle against female bondage: the bonds of society, which consign women to narrow roles; the bonds of mother and daughter, each punishing the other with expectations and disappointments; and the bonds of friendship, which draw women together and drive them apart. A doll is a central motif in both, indicating the power and the fragility of these relationships.
Translated into English by Ann Goldstein in 2008, The Lost Daughter is a first-person narrative that moves between the present and the past. The narrator, Leda, originally from Naples, is a professor of English at a Florentine university. As the novel begins, she sits on a beach in southern Italy and observes the extended family that has suddenly erupted onto the scene. She is fascinated by a young mother and her daughter, Nina and Elena, and the way they cling to each other. In the same group she notices a heavily pregnant woman, Rosaria, who we later learn is the forty-two-year-old sister-in-law of Nina. Leda tells herself that Nina is beautiful while Rosaria is ugly, at the same time as she questions the class assumptions underlying these judgments. The scene prompts Leda to reflect on her own relationships with the women in her life. Her two daughters are creatures who were once wrapped around her, “despite the cutting of the umbilical cord.” One resembles her, the other doesn’t. Gianni, her ex-husband, “didn’t even have time to look at what had been copied from his body, at how the reproduction had turned out.” She remembers her mother, and how they fought. “The secret rage I harbored against myself I turned on her.” To carve out a life for herself as a successful academic, Leda has had to contend with the competing demands of being a daughter, a mother, and a wife.
In adapting the novel for the screen, Gyllenhaal made the wise choice to change the nationalities of the characters and have them speak English (in contrast to the ludicrous pidgin English used by the Italians in House of Gucci). The scene is shifted from southern Italy to a Greek island. Leda is now British, originally from Leeds, and a professor of Italian and comparative literature in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The raucous family on the beach is from the borough of Queens, in New York City, rather than Naples, a change that makes them a bit less menacing. In the novel, when the cabana boy warns Leda that they are “bad people,” the inference is clear: they’re mafiosi. Being a bad person from Queens doesn’t carry quite the same criminal connotations (full disclosure: I have resided in Queens for twenty years).
The movie does sanitize aspects of Ferrante’s story. In the novel, Leda is repelled by the bodies she sees on the beach. With the exception of Nina, and, I should add, of Leda herself, the people are overweight and sunburned. Rosaria is “ugly with pretension.” Nina’s husband is a stocky older man, “with a large belly, divided into two bulging halves of flesh by a deep scar that ran from the top of his bathing suit to the arc of his ribs.” The members of the extended family are “heavy men with worn faces, ostentatiously wealthy women, obese children.” These features are unrecognizable in the actors playing these characters. The gorgeous Dagmara Dominczk plays the sister-in-law, now called Callie. Nina’s husband is a young man with the tanned, muscular build of a surfer. Leda, who in the novel takes pride in her slim, youthful appearance, is, by contrast, one of the few less trim characters, in natural harmony with her age.
The movie simplifies the theme at the heart of the story: Leda’s abandonment of her children for three years when they were young. In the novel Nina insists that Leda explain why. She initially answers, “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.” She adds that she felt good without them, as if the pieces of herself were coming together after being shattered. But after three years she returned, not for love of her daughters but for love of herself. “And after your return?” Nina asks. “I was resigned to living very little for myself and a great deal for the two children: gradually I succeeded.” The same scene is rendered, in the movie, through two lines of dialogue: "I went back ’cause I missed them. I’m a very selfish person."
The shift of the language and nationality of the characters, and of the location, is not entirely smooth. The Greek language is neither heard nor seen—not even a menu or a bottle of ouzo—except for snatches of dialogue from the local ruffians. When Callie first meets Leda, she asks if she’s from Queens, an assumption no Queens native would make, considering Olivia Colman’s unmistakably British accent. In a later scene, when Leda meets a couple of hikers (one of whom is played, in a clever twist, by Alba Rohrwacher, the narrator in the HBO adaption of My Brilliant Friend), we learn that she has studied translation, and has translated poems by Yeats and Auden into Italian.
This last detail is one of the various references the film makes to translation, pointing self-consciously to its own status as a “translation” of a novel. Leda had been struggling in the trenches of academia, lagging behind her more successful husband, until she attended a conference in England. The theme of the conference, in the novel, is E. M. Forster; in the film, Auden, thus shifting from prose to poetry. There she is shocked to hear herself praised, from the podium, by the most prestigious scholar at the conference, Professor Hardy. The film goes into more depth about his paper than the novel does. He claims that Leda’s work—she had only published one article until then—had anticipated the pioneering theories of Paul Ricoeur, who used the term “linguistic hospitality” to epitomize the ideal mediation between host and guest languages in translation. After delivering his paper, Hardy flirts with Leda, and they make sweet talk with each other by trading lines from her Italian translation of Auden’s poem “The Crisis” (written, incidentally, when Germany invaded Poland, at the outbreak of the Second World War).
The director, Maggie Gyllenhaal, has also been styled as a translator for her work in bringing the novel to the screen. In a promotional interview with the New York Times, she was asked:
The theme of translation is obviously important to the characters. Leda translates Italian literature, but also, you’re translating Ferrante. What does the role of translator mean to you?
There’s this little section in Rachel Cusk’s book Kudos, which I’ve pulled up a few times because I’ve been thinking about adaptation in general. Here is the quote: “I translated it carefully and with great caution as if it were something fragile that I might mistakenly break or kill.” I loved that. (December 29, 2021)
It is all the more disturbing, then, that neither Gyllenhaal in her interviews nor the film’s end credits or press kit makes any mention of the translator whose work was the basis for the script: Ann Goldstein. Goldstein has translated all of Ferrante’s work that is available in English, starting with The Days of Abandonment. The combined circumstances of Ferrante’s anonymity and the success of the Neapolitan Quartet have made Goldstein one of the best-known translators in America today. Her name appears on the title page, though not the cover, of all the Ferrante books, and she has been the subject of numerous feature articles in leading newspapers. Some even attribute Ferrante’s success in the English-speaking world to Goldstein’s assured, elegant translations. She is hardly an “obscure” or invisible translator. Yet in the seven minutes of end credits for The Lost Daughter, including the names of caterers, drivers, and the on-set medic, the filmmakers found no room to credit the individual whose translation made the enterprise possible. There is, however, prominent mention of the publisher of the novel, Europa Editions, the holder of the copyright to the translation.
Europa has, in fact, made it a policy to deny copyright to translators, a practice that effectively denies the creative nature of a translator’s work. With very few exceptions, Europa also keeps the translator’s name off the cover. While there has long been a campaign to put the translator’s name on the cover of a translated book, recently revived by the Society of Authors through an open letter and the hashtag #TranslatorsOnTheCover, a cover credit does not necessarily guarantee a translator’s copyright and ownership of his or her work. Nor does copyright automatically grant the translator the right to license, and receive an income from, the use of his or her translation for derivative works, such as film adaptations.
To better understand the issues underlying this case, I spoke with Alex Zucker, who together with Jessica Cohen, Julia Sanches, and Umair Kazi, drafted the Literary Translation Model Contract published by the Authors Guild. He pointed out that “a work of literary translation is as original as any other creative work under copyright law.” As the commentary to the model contract states: “Translations are not simply renderings of a work in a new language; they are, legally speaking, new works that incorporate some elements or the entirety of pre-existing works while adding new copyrightable authorship to that work, entitled to copyright protection to the extent of their original characteristics.”
The licensing of film rights is another matter. While copyright would require acknowledgment of the translator in an eventual film adaptation, it does not ensure that a royalty or licensing fee is provided to the translator. Such a matter would have to be negotiated separately as a subsidiary right, which is likewise discussed in the commentary to the model contract: “We recommend that, whenever possible, translators retain the right to license the translation, in whole or in part, for use in media other than physical or electronic books—for example, radio, TV, film, stage, quotation, or subtitling—because if the translation sells well, these could turn out to be more valuable than you anticipate at the time you negotiate your translation contract.”
In response to the New York Times article cited above, former New Yorker staffer Mary Norris wrote a letter to the editor objecting to the movie’s failure to acknowledge Goldstein’s translation, adding, “Some of the most memorable lines in the film were taken verbatim from the English translation” (February 23, 2020). Maggie Gyllenhaal reposted the letter on Instagram, saying, “This is exactly right. Let this be the first of many thank you’s to the brilliant #AnnGoldstein (English translator of #thelostdaughter), without whom none of this would be happening.” It was gratifying to see Maggie Gyllenhaal acknowledge Ann Goldstein in her acceptance speech for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay to compensate in part for this lapse.
As streaming services such as Netflix extend their business worldwide, they are looking increasingly to translated literature to diversify their content. While this should mean good business for translators, it can also be demoralizing. In the case of The Lost Daughter, the translator has been denied both a credit and an income stream from the fruits of her labor.
© 2022 by Michael F. Moore. All rights reserved.
Read a review of Elena Ferrante's The Lost Daughter here
In this excerpt from a novel by European Union Prize for Literature winner Irene Solà, a woman buckles under the weight of raising her children alone eight years after her husband dies.
My children are like flies, leaving a trail of shiny black shit wherever they go. Tic, tic, tic. You can follow the path. An open chest of drawers. The good chest of drawers. The one that was a wedding gift from Father and Auntie. Where I keep my beautiful things. The few beautiful things I have. Well tucked away. Nicely folded and separated by tissue paper. And with little bags of rosemary. One of the drawers is open. And the fabric and the papers are crinkled and placed any which way. I know before I have a chance to check, from the thickness of the stack, that the white tablecloth is missing. The white tablecloth is so beautiful that you can’t eat on it. I flame up like a match, thinking that if I had them here I would yank on their ears so hard I couldn’t be held accountable if I tore them clean off.
I neatly fold the cloth napkins, the tissue paper, and the runner, and then close the drawer.
“Where are the children?”
Grandpa Ton sits on the bench, very still. He never was a big talker, but now he hardly talks or moves at all.
“Out,” he answers.
“Out,” I repeat. Out can mean any place from here to France. “Would you like some water?” I ask, and he shakes his head.
Sometimes his hands, when he holds a cup and drinks, when he uses a knife, when he places them on his knees, will set my heart spinning because they’re so like Domènec’s. Other times I look at the old man, so silent, so withered, so sad and thin, and I simply can’t believe he is Domènec’s father. Grandpa Ton’s mouth is all dried up. Like a raisin. Some men’s tongues get stuck and just shrivel in their mouths, and they don’t know how to open up and say nice things to their children, or nice things to their grandchildren, and that’s how family stories get lost, and you no longer know anything more than the dry bread you eat today and the rain that falls today and the ache in your bones today. Sad mountains. Those mountains took Domènec from me. My Domènec. A lightning bolt went straight through him like a rabbit. Two months after Hilari was born. And that was lucky, I think. Because I didn’t pass on the grief and I didn’t infect him with tears through my blood, the way I would have if Domènec had died while I was still expecting. Then my son would have come out tarnished, blue. No. I cried alone. I cried all the tears God gave me in one sitting. And I was left dry, a wasteland. And Hilari was the happiest fatherless child in the world. The happiest fatherless children, the least orphaned children, those are mine. It’s as if they didn’t need a father. Lucky. But sometimes a woman feels like giving up on life. When lightning goes straight through a man like a rabbit. When a branch pokes a hole in her heart but doesn’t kill her. And then she’s forced to live. The children cry and force a woman to live. The old man is hungry and calls out for her. The folks in town bring her green beans and zucchini to oblige her to keep on living. And she stops being a wife and she becomes a widow, a mother. She stops being the center of her own life, she’s no longer the sap and the blood, because they’ve forced her to renounce everything she ever wanted. Here, throw them all away, all the things you’ve ever desired, toss them into the road, into some ditch, the things you used to think. The things you loved. And look how paltry, how measly they were. That man and that mountain. They make a woman want a small life. A runty life like a pretty little pebble. A life that can fit in your pocket. Like a ring, or a hazelnut. They don’t tell a woman that she can choose things that aren’t small. They don’t tell her that small stones get lost. They slip through the holes in your pocket. Or that if they get lost, you can’t choose new ones. That lost stones are lost forever. Throw out your heart, too, into the road, amid the mud and the brambles. Throw out your joy. Throw out your soul and hugs and kisses and your marriage bed. You must, you must. And now get up and look at yourself on this morning, so thin and so blue. Go down to the kitchen, and put food inside your mouth, and put it inside the children’s mouths, and inside the old man’s mouth, then inside the mouths of the cows and the calves and the sow and the hens and the dog. You must, you must. Until you forget everything else, with all those musts.
I didn’t nurse Hilari. Because my milk was salty. And my son grew, like a flower, with thinned cow’s milk and store-bought formula. And I scarcely even watered and pruned it, that flower. Your favorite has to be a child that comes out of you like a root. I love them, my children, despite my soul’s limping. Despite the yoke and the despondency and the heaviness. Despite the fact that there was nothing in the promises I made, the promises they made me make, about having to raise them on my own. I wanted a husband, my husband, and then if they came, the babies, well, that was fine with me. But just the babies? Why would a woman want just the children? I barely got to taste him. Before I could lick the honey from his lips, they’d gone straight through him like a rabbit.
It was his hair I liked first. Then his poems. And then the more I looked at all the other things about him, the more I liked them too. His hands. His legs. His ears. And the wrinkles beside his eyes, like little tails. His shoulders. His voice when he whispered, like a lizard crawling up your back, “You drive me wild, Sió, so, so wild,” he would say to me. That gaze like a spear, like an arrow. A head filled entirely with mysteries, filled with words. “What blue eyes you have, Sió, so blue that fish swim in them.”
I was lovely, so, so lovely. The bluest eyes in Camprodon. And I knew it too. I was lovely like my mother, who was born in a house they called the Ravishing House because all the women in it were so lovely and ravishing. And she married my father and they lived in town because my father worked there as a supervisor in the sweets factory. But I wanted a man who loved the earth and who loved ideas too. A man who knew all about trees and plants and animals. My mother died when I was born from being cut so much, she was petite. But Auntie Carme, who was my father’s sister, and my father, too, they would always tell me, you’re like a doll, like a doll, the prettiest of them all, and they bought me anise candies and bows and books and jump ropes, and I was never sad about not having a mom. My auntie would braid my hair and say, you’ll find a husband and he’ll love you very much and you’ll love him very much, and I would ask my auntie what will my husband be like? And she poured more and more poison into my innocent veins. And my father, who said he couldn’t remarry, because no woman would ever be as lovely as my mother. Only you, only me, Sió, the princess. And more and more poison into my veins. A dollhouse. We’ll teach you to sew, we’ll secretly teach you to read Catalan, we’ll teach you to cook and to dust. What a rage Domènec flew into, the first day he took me up to the farm and I had never fed a cow. My father worked in a sweets factory! I had never touched a pitchfork. You don’t know how to do anything! he shouted. What was I thinking when I married a girl from town instead of a mountain girl? Angry as a pair of pliers. But you already knew that, that I’d have to learn all these farm chores. What was I thinking! he bellowed. And I cried and cried. We’d been married for seven days and we’d spent six of them in France.
Auntie Carme told me not to worry, that I’d learn quickly. She was the one who made the white tablecloth. She had made it for my parents’ wedding. And I did learn quickly. To lead the animals and dirty my shoes with manure. Because love makes you learn things fast. And then my father and my auntie Carme died the night I went into labor with Mia. They died of sweet sleep. The brazier smoked and from it came a fine fog that filled everything and gobbled up the air, and since they were sleeping, it snuck inside them like a poison and they never woke up again. And when Dolors Prim, the neighbor, sent her granddaughter Neus to look for them, no one came to the door. Since there was no response, they busted down the door and there they found them, each tucked into a little bed, sleeping like dormice. They didn’t know whether to tell me or whether to wait until after I’d given birth. And was it ever long, Mia’s birth, so long I thought they wouldn’t be able to get her out of me. She was a tiny mouse, a teensy-weensy little mouse, when she was born. Then they left me be for a day, like a ghost who nursed with little closed eyes and a sleepy smile, and I held my girl on my deflated belly, with her tiny arms like the soft inside of a crusty loaf of bread, and Domènec was dumbstruck with it all. And then I said, Domènec, how is it that you haven’t called for my father and my auntie? And Dolors explained that they had died a very sweet death, and that she had bid them farewell on my behalf. Since I was still befuddled from the lack of sleep, and from having a baby that was mine, that was ours, in my arms, it seemed very sad and not so sad at the same time. Like an exchange. Like a fact of life. That some folks leave to make room for others coming in. We named her Maria Carme, after my auntie. I was still on bed rest, so I couldn’t go to the burial, and it was months before I could go into town, and then, when I did, it was as if my father and my auntie Carme had been dead for years and years, like my mother. I was so full with the things that were happening to me, with Domènec when he would say that our love had grown even bigger, even stronger, because of our baby. That our love had taken shape, he would say. That our love was an angel. A nightingale. I was filled up with the magic of milk. Like a cow. And with Mia’s little open mouth, like a toothless fruit that suckles and suckles, and with the springtime that was nearing summer, and it had only been a year since I’d become a woman, a real woman, a married woman with every right to call herself a woman. A woman with a man in her arms, and now I had a baby daughter from that love, like a little angel from heaven. And sometimes I would think that I felt so little grief over my father and my auntie’s departure because it was their time, it was the natural course of things. Because it was my turn to be the blood and sap of all things. Because only joy lay ahead, down a wide and sunny path with thick-trunked trees on either side.
When Domènec met me, he told me I was pretty like a doe, like a kitty, like a lioness. He led me out onto the dance floor and said, don’t bite. And when it was time to leave he recited poems in my ear. Poems that spoke of a girl who was me. That spoke of all the flowers and of jealousy. Poems that built an altar I climbed, playful, and happy and open like a flower. Boy, could he dance. Domènec danced as good as he did everything. He had a way with animals and a way with people. I would have given him anything, if he had asked. Sometimes I couldn’t take it anymore, so much keeping my hands on my knees. So much keeping my tongue in my mouth. My heart beat so hard, from all the fear and the desire for his hands. We courted for almost three years of Sundays. One after the other. Except for the months when he shaved his head. He shaved his hair off once a year. And you could see his entire skull, the whole noggin, even though, when we were courting, I never saw him like that. He would shear himself short, like someone pruning a tree, he would say, to grow back stronger. Revitalized. Ready to make new branches and fruit. Because he had such lovely hair, Domènec did. Gilded like wheat and cane. And a lot of fear around losing it. And then, when he shaved his head, he would lock himself up in Matavaques, which is the name of his house, of our house, close to two months, so no one would see him, until it had grown back in a little bit. Two months of the year, I would cry and cry every Sunday. And my auntie Carme would ask me why did you have to pick a vain farmer? Because Auntie Carme wanted a husband for me from Ripoll, or from Vic, a salesman, a pharmacist, or a factory supervisor like my father. But he always came back. New and gussied up and bearing flowers and smiles and poems about the sadness of solitude, and I would forgive him. I would forget all my grief and all my rage, I would force myself to swallow the bile and the bitterness like medicine. I, who for the last two months had done nothing more than imagine he was never coming back, imagine him with his arm around some other girl’s waist, fallen off a cliff while chasing some cow. I looked at him with glassy little eyes, so shiny they shattered. I looked him up and down like a cat who wanted to eat him, full and resplendent, and I parted my lips in a moan so he would press his hand lower on my back, so he would yank me to his chest, and his strong arms would propel the joy out from inside me. And then one afternoon as we were strolling he said it, I was twenty-five years old and my heart lurched like it was being towed: “I was wondering if you wanted to marry me.”
I am well aware already of the tricks that memory plays, of the traps that snare my mind so I recall only the good things, of how it chooses the nice apples from the tray and tosses out the bad things—like peels, like horse chestnuts—as if they’d never happened. I don’t know what hurts more: thinking only of the good memories and giving in to the piercing longing that never lets up, that intoxicates the soul, or bathing in the streams of thought that lead me to sad memories, the dark and cloudy ones that choke my heart and leave me feeling even more orphaned at the thought that my husband was not at all the angel I held him up to be. And that he didn’t love me enough, as, in fact, no man ever loves enough. My body was so ready. So filled with fear and at the same time so filled with longing, so filled with love that pushed aside the fears, as if the fears were a bunch of bats. He made me walk ahead of him. Don’t put your arm around me, he said. In the little hotel in Ceret where we had our honeymoon. Don’t let the receptionists in the lobby know that we’re newly married, they’ll get ideas. They’ll snicker. I couldn’t care less, let them get ideas! I’ll slap that smile off your face, he said. I entered the room first, and I waited a whole half hour, and then he came up, he had gone to the café, and he told me we would wait until the evening to make love. We sat and waited. I wanted to talk about things, I wanted us to hold hands, I wanted us to ride out the fear and the nervousness and the emotion together, but he smoked and was silent, stretched out on the bed, fully dressed, with an arm over his face, and if I stretched out beside him, he would get up. Then night fell—never had anyone ever wished harder for night to fall. And he told me, Take off your clothes, and I did what he said, and Get into bed, and as I took off my clothes and got into bed, he went into the bathroom and I waited another half hour. Then he came out, fully dressed. He turned off the light, and I heard him undress and feel his way over to the bed, and he touched me in places no one had ever touched me before. He touched me as if he were entering somebody else’s house, as if his hands had lost all their skill, and it hurt but wasn’t scary, and I would have liked to see him, see his face so it wasn’t a shadow that groped my breasts, that pushed my legs apart and stabbed at my insides. And I was all buttery, when I could be, when I wasn’t frightened by his hands like claws in the darkness, his beastly panting. I was butter because Domènec loved butter.
We never talked about the nights, because he was ashamed of the nights. As if he wanted to escape them and couldn’t escape them. That’s why he liked Mia so much, because she was a little angel who’d emerged from our mud. But I learned. Shortly before I got pregnant with Mia, I learned to seek out the tickles. I learned to position myself in such a way that his coming and going rubbed me where it set me aflame. My body is a good body. A body that learns quickly. A body that soon gets used to things and that knows how to find the right path. And it knew how to take advantage of the thrusting, closing my eyes and focusing and trapping pleasure that way, as it came, small and gentle, like a bit of water slipping down into a hole, and bearing down on it and bearing down on it and making it grow, and channeling it into the ditch. And I could scarcely manage to abide the pleasure in silence. To grind my teeth together hard when the wolf-fart puffball exploded inside me. To hurry to make it grow and make it explode before Domènec was finished. And I already loved him before that, but after the pleasure, there in the sheets, when he was already sleeping, all alone there with that warmth between my legs, with that cloudiness in my head, with that gentle breathing, so hot beside me, I loved him even more. I clung to him like a tree, like a baby clings to his mother’s breast.
Eight years and I’m still not over it. This damn void won’t fill with resin. Because I married the most handsome man in these mountains. The most beautiful hair in the valley of Camprodon married the bluest eyes. Domènec had the finest hair, finer than the hair of any of the women. When he took me out to dance at the Camprodon festival, everyone stared. When we were courting and he walked down on Sundays, splendid and sure of himself, with those legs of his, every soul in Camprodon envied me. I only wanted all of this because he was part of it. This house and this cold and these cows and the noises these mountains make at night. Love is a deceitful venom. When Domènec died I was left alone with two children and the house and Grandpa Ton. With all these weights on my back that won’t let me die. That make me stay here. This stinking house that’s impossible to get clean. This old man, cold as a corpse. Domènec’s ghost. Memory heavy as a gravestone. A day doesn’t pass that I don’t think of him, that I don’t see him, that I don’t remember him, that I don’t dream about him. And the children, who don’t understand a thing, who can’t keep still, or bring peace. Children should bring peace, should be a balm, consolation, compensation.
They come home as it’s already getting dark. How many times have I told them I want them home before dark? What on earth could they want the white tablecloth for? For the love of god. I grab them in the entryway, each of them by an ear, as if I’d caught two mice, and I drag them shrieking to the chest of drawers. Like puppies. No point wasting my breath explaining. You drag them over to the mess they’ve made and you smack their snouts. So they understand. Mess; smack. Mess; smack. When I release them they both grab their ears with one hand. Hilari’s always afraid I’ll rip his ears off. Sometimes, from the yanking, a slit opens up under his lobe. I tell him not to worry, they’re attached good and firm. They look at the chest of drawers and don’t say anything. My patience sparks up like lit hay.
“I’ll give your ass such a hiding you won’t sit down for a week,” I threaten.
“Mama, we didn’t do anything,” says Hilari.
“Where is the white tablecloth?” I ask.
“I’ll ask you one last time.” My armpits and my nape and my throat and my temples are burning. They look at the chest of drawers and say nothing. Like they’re guilty, thieves and murderers.
“The water sprites took it away,” begins Hilari, in a whisper, the cracked and sad murmur of a wet dog, of a pussycat that’s lost a fight. Mia looks at him, her eyes wide. In surprise, but also warning. Those wide eyes are telling him something. She’s telling him to keep quiet. To not say another word.
“The sprites came into the house, opened the chest of drawers, and took the tablecloth?” I ask.
“We gave them the tablecloth,” he confesses. He closes his eyes, desperate. He looks at his shoes, beaten.
“Shut up.” Mia spits out the words.
My hand moves to slap her, but I restrain myself and instead I ask, through gritted teeth, “And where is the tablecloth now?”
“They kept it.”
“Why the hell did you take the tablecloth?” I demand.
“Because we wanted to see the water sprites.” Hilari’s head sinks down between his shoulders. Mia looks at me like a stone. The old man is lying on the bench. And I’m losing my patience.
“You’re liars, worse than liars!” I shout.
And I spank them. I grab them by the wrists and I stretch them out on my lap and I spank and I spank and Hilari cries and Mia grinds her teeth. I spank them harder, blind with rage and with grief over the tablecloth, over the lies, the disrespect, rage and grief over where everything ended up.
Then I tell them they won’t be allowed to go down to the river anymore, and they won’t be allowed to spend all day following around the Giants’ son. It’s all over until the tablecloth turns up.
“Do you hear me?” I ask. They don’t answer. “Do you hear me?!” I repeat.
I send them to bed without supper, and I cry.
The crying starts like a small animal. Like a single cloud, like a thin fog in my chest. It starts like a tiny pain, like a slow swelling. Like a discomfort, like a small bone lodged in my throat, like a series of stones in my sternum. And it grows, little by little. My eyes get hot and damp, and the spring gushes and the pots boil over, and there is no stopping it. The water escapes from beneath so much rock, and so much fog. And the tablecloth fans the crying, like a bellows, huffing and puffing. The tablecloth. And the lie. And Mia saying, Hilari, shut up. And my hand spanking and spanking. And the loneliness. And the old man. And the withered love that is nowhere to be found. And I cry with rage over the old man who is not my father, for I have no father and no mother, and I cry over the lying children who are mine, over those children who should have been a balm, a sweet spring, good children who take care of their mother and adore her.
Originally published in 2019 as Canto jo i la muntanya balla by Editorial Anagrama. © 2019 by Irene Solà. English translation © 2022 by Mara Faye Lethem. From When I Sing, Mountains Dance, published 2022 by Graywolf Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
Born in 1990 in Malla, a town north of Barcelona, Irene Solà is one of the brightest talents in the emerging generation of Catalan writers. Her second novel, Canto jo i la muntanya balla, won the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature, the 2018 Anagrama Prize for the Novel, the Núvol Prize, and the Cálamo Prize. This March, Mara Faye Lethem’s English translation, When I Sing, Mountains Dance, is being published by Graywolf in the US and Granta in the UK.
A polyphonic, playful, and inventive novel set in a Pyrenean community, drawing on history and folklore, it has been described by Max Porter as “rich and ranging, shimmering with human and nonhuman life, the living and the dead, in our time and deep time.”
Solà has a degree in fine arts from the University of Barcelona and a master’s in literature, film, and visual culture from the University of Sussex. Her first book of poems, Bèstia (Galerada, 2012), won the Amadeu Oller Poetry Prize and was translated into English as Beast (Shearsman Books, 2017). Her debut novel, Els dics (The Dams, L’Altra Editorial, 2018), was awarded the Documenta Prize. Her visual artwork has been exhibited in the Whitechapel Gallery and Jerwood Arts in London and the CCCB in Barcelona.
We spoke over video call—me in London, her on the Costa Brava, a coastal region of Catalonia, where she is writing her next book.
Madeleine Feeny (MF): When I Sing, Mountains Dance gives voice to the inhabitants—human and nonhuman—of a mountainous area between Camprodon and Prats de Molló, two Pyrenean villages. What is your connection to that environment?
Irene Solà (IS): That landscape gave me a canvas to explore many things I was interested in, such as witchcraft, folklore, certain kinds of violence, and cruel twists of fate. I could play on it with all these perspectives and voices. But although it’s only about an hour from where I grew up, it’s not my hometown. When I was writing it, I was actually living in London, so I traveled to the Pyrenees as often as I could to research, walk around, and talk to people.
MF: There’s a strong sense of the ancient majesty of the mountains, the inexorable changing of the seasons, and the interconnectedness of land, weather, animals, and humans. Where does that derive from?
IS: I had two key ideas when I was working on the book: firstly, I wanted to transcend the human viewpoint by focusing on a specific stretch of land and seeing it through the eyes of all who inhabit it—the humans who live there nowadays, those who lived and died there in the past, the animals, the fungi, the approaching storm, the mythological creatures that are supposed to live there, and even the geological strata that make up the land itself. Secondly, I was very interested in unearthing all the personal stories, folktales, and historical incidents linked to that area. These two ideas—the different perspectives and the layers of events—were my main inspiration.
MF: In the novel, we see the same events from multiple perspectives (chanterelles, a storm, ghosts of the Spanish Civil War). How did you find those distinct voices?
IS: I wanted to explore the fact that we all experience the world differently, so the same moment in the same place will be lived and remembered differently by everyone present. If you take nonhumans into account, that expands even further. I was interested in, on the one hand, shaking anthropocentrism, and on the other, playing with language to give each voice a distinctive way of narrating the world. For example, it was fascinating to write the part of Lluna, a dog who has lived with humans all her life, and the roe deer, who has never seen them before, because I wanted to think about how differently they would perceive humans. The book keeps playing these kinds of games, presenting the same story and landscape very differently. For example, the women who are accused of witchcraft speak in archaic language, and other characters speak in a modern vernacular.
MF: What sources did you use?
IS: I really enjoy research; the writing process is as important to me as the end result. Because I studied fine art, my writing technique borrows a lot from contemporary art methodologies. I begin a book by asking questions and trying to understand what I want to learn about. Then I start reading, traveling, talking to experts. From the beginning, I was very interested in witch trials—I wanted to read historical documents about them—and folklore, which contains all our human virtues and vices. I have this idea that oral storytelling carries DNA of who we are, who we have been, and how we have explained and imagined the world. So I read a lot of stories about those mountains, and the more you research, the more you start realizing the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. I’m not one of those writers who does all the research and then starts writing. No, because everything I find is so exciting, I start writing simultaneously and keep researching as I write because new questions arise.
MF: How did you conceive and execute the novel’s structure?
IS: I wrote the book very organically, not in order. The first chapter I wrote was Chapter One, the storm, and I really enjoyed myself and realized it worked—I could jump into the viewpoint of a cloud and describe the world from there. So, I allowed myself to be very playful and unafraid, and to try everything. And because there are connections between chapters, I somehow wrote them almost at the same time, linking from one to the next. During the writing process, I imagined all the voices as if I were building a mountain, and the central story—about a family that suffers two violent deaths—as a river. In every chapter at some point we can see the river. In some it’s huge, but in others we only hear the water, or it’s mostly subterranean and then appears in the distance. So, this river allowed me to sew together all the chapters, and that helped me construct the whole.
MF: These characters’ lives are shaped by the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, from orphaned children missing limbs to the old grenades that still pepper the hillsides. Growing up in the region, how did this history affect you?
IS: You do feel it, it’s in the conversation—one of my grandmothers used to tell stories about her childhood during the war and there have always been lots of films and books about it. I wanted to explore it in the context of this novel because I was very interested in these layers of story that exist in the world around us, and many thousands had to flee Spain through the Pyrenees—not just soldiers, but families with little children. They crossed those borders, they walked through those mountains. Nowadays you can find things they had to leave behind: parts of guns, bullets, but also empty food tins—marks left by this specific moment in history.
MF: What is it like to be part of the Catalan writing community?
IS: There is a very strong tradition of Catalan literature (poetry and prose), and I absolutely feel part of it. I don’t feel it’s a small community because there are so many writers and readers, a similar number to those in many other European languages. It’s beautiful to be part of this tradition, but I also write in Catalan with the intention of appealing not only to Catalan readers but also, in translation, to readers all over the world.
MF: How does it feel to be translated? How collaborative is that process?
IS: This novel has been sold into twenty-four languages, which is very exciting. Some of the translations are already out and others are in process. Mara Faye Lethem, the English translator, has done an amazing job. Apart from Catalan, I can only read and write Spanish and English, so with both of those translations I tried to be very engaged and help the translator as much as possible. We worked together a lot, reading and rereading and discussing the nuances, but with the others I’ll be less directly involved.
MF: Who are your greatest creative influences?
IS: In Catalan literature: Mercè Rodoreda, Victor Català, Enric Casasses, Maria Callís Cabrera, Joan-Lluís Lluís, Jaume Coll, Mireia Calafell, Blanca Llum Vidal, Carles Dachs, Lucia Pietrelli, Carme Riera . . . I could go on! In world literature, it’s Ali Smith, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Halldór Laxness, Mariana Enríquez, Fernanda Melchor, Cristina Morales, William Faulkner, Juan Rulfo, and Verónica Gerber Bicecci.
MF: How is it working across different artistic disciplines—do they inform one another?
IS: I see my novels as art projects that take the form of a novel. I studied fine art in Barcelona, then finished my degree in Reykjavík. When I was studying fine art, I used to do a lot of video art, drawing, and installation, but also writing, so early on I discovered I was as interested in using words as my prime material as I was paint and the camera. I wrote my first and only poetry collection while I was studying fine art, and then I realized I had been studying art for five years and I felt this urge to study literature. So, I moved to the UK to do my MA in literature, film, and visual culture, and I enjoyed it a lot, but what I liked best was that at night, once I had finished my master’s work, I would write my first novel. Early on in my two degrees it occurred to me that I was interested in using everything I was learning to develop my own creative projects, and ultimately, this was the most important thing I learned: how to work on my own ideas.
MF: Are you currently focused on writing? What are you working on at the moment?
IS: Right now, I’m working on my next novel. Again, it’s an art project that will take the shape of a book, and I’ve been traveling and researching and learning a lot through it. That’s my main focus, but I’m always involved in art projects too, or should I say projects that are labeled art. I’ve just been part of a show in Mataró (near Barcelona), which is still open, and I’m preparing another exhibition for next year. When it comes to form, it depends on the show, but it often involves text, images, a lot of research. My artistic process is always the same. What changes is the shape it takes: it might be hanging on a gallery wall, or it might be a book you can buy in a bookstore. But the process is very similar, and often the one influences the other.
MF: As the Catalan independence movement continues to divide the region, how do you feel about your identity as a Catalan writer? Does the debate influence your work?
IS: I was living in the UK around the time of the referendum, so I experienced it from a distance. As to whether it affects or appears in my work, I wouldn’t say so, especially not el procés, the Catalan independence process that began in 2010. I don’t know if it will appear in the future (this is a question we writers get a lot in relation to the pandemic, and I always say not now, but I’m not sure about the future). As to language, I did not sit down and decide to write in Catalan for any specific reason. I write in it because it is my language, it never crossed my mind to write in any other, and I believe I can write Catalan stories set in the Pyrenees that resonate with universal audiences.
Irene Solà is a Catalan writer and artist, winner of the Documenta Prize for first novels, the Llibres Anagrama Prize, the European Union Prize for Literature, and the Amadeu Oller Poetry Prize. Her artwork has been exhibited in the Whitechapel Gallery.
© 2022 Madeleine Feeney. All rights reserved.
Photo by kirklai on Unsplash
It’s ironic that the more connected this world is, the less we seem to know about one another. Take, for example, foreign language education in the United States. Secondary school children are usually offered classes in French or Spanish (and sometimes Mandarin Chinese), but that’s about it. Russian became quite popular for a few years around the mid-twentieth century, but that was due to Cold War rivalries between the US and the Soviet Union. Arabic similarly saw a jump in popularity around the launch of the War on Terror, but that was mostly confined to those entering the intelligence services. Thus Americans find ourselves in 2022 knowing perhaps fewer languages than our predecessors, as our politics and culture become ever more insular and our immigrant parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents pass on and take their rich linguistic heritages with them.
I, for one, didn’t realize until I hit middle school that Yiddish, which my grandparents sometimes spoke, was actually another language. Indeed, I just thought that it was a thing Jewish grandparents did when they couldn’t find the right English word to describe people or behaviors they didn’t like. Then I learned that my grandmother, with her eighth-grade education, was bilingual and switched between Yiddish and English depending on if she was speaking to her mother or to her daughter (my mother). I think it was then that I first understood the power of language and the beauty of translation.
This desire to know what other people are writing and thinking about in other parts of the world is, I believe, more widespread than we realize. Readers are often interested in new kinds of stories and perspectives, but major Anglophone publishers tend to stick with popular English-language authors and themes. Nonetheless, many smaller publishers in the US and UK have been branching out in the last few decades, bringing readers stories from across the globe in record numbers. Many of these publishers, like Open Letter, New Directions, Restless Books, and Two Lines Press, don’t specialize in speculative fiction (SF) but still publish a few such works each year. Those presses that do focus on SF, including Angry Robot, Tor, and Luna Press Publishing, have started actively bringing translated SF (SFT) to their readers. At its peak in 2018, SFT accounted for 54 novels, 21 collections, 10 anthologies, and 80 standalone short stories. In the grand scheme of publishing, these numbers are small, but compared to SFT numbers before 2000, they are significant and heartening.
After all, speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, etc.) is and has been written around the world since those genres emerged. The rise of Anglo-French science fiction at the turn of the twentieth century changed what Anglophone critics saw as “science fiction” and in turn influenced the genre throughout the world, due in part to colonialism and market domination. Around 2000, though, SFT shifted into high gear. Not only was more SFT being published every year, it was also being studied by Anglophone scholars who, in turn, were no longer so discouraged from writing about SF within the academy. Just since the start of the twenty-first century, for example, we’ve had collections of essays like Dale Knickerbocker’s Lingua Cosmica: Science Fiction from Around the World; Ian Campbell’s Science Fiction in Translation: Perspectives on the Global Theory and Practice of Translation; Lars Schmeink and Ingo Cornils’s New Perspectives on Contemporary German Science Fiction; and Zachary Kendal, Aisling Smith, Giulia Champion, and Andrew Milner’s Ethical Futures and Global Science Fiction. Kevin Reese’s Celestial Hellscapes: Cosmology as the Key to the Strugatskiis’ Science Fictions has introduced many young Anglophone readers to two of the greatest Russian SF authors who ever put pen to paper, while my own Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium (which includes chapter introductions from a variety of talented translators, editors, and authors) documents the SFT that has been available to English-language readers since the 1960s (spoiler: there’s a lot of it).
Just as important as these scholarly studies of SFT are the magazines and long-form fiction that readers can now enjoy. SF-focused publications like Clarkesworld Magazine, Apex Magazine, Future Science Fiction Digest, Strange Horizons, and Samovar regularly bring readers translated stories from award-winning authors who hail from Italy, Japan, Norway, and everywhere in between. Those magazines that don’t focus on SFT are also publishing more of it than ever: Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, and Latin American Literature Today are just a few examples. Lavie Tidhar’s Apex Book of World SF (five volumes) and Best of World SF (two volumes so far) series have done much to open the US and UK to diverse stories and literary approaches, while Ken Liu’s translations of Chinese SF (in the form of dozens of stories, several novels, and two anthologies) have made stories from that source language as popular as those of the Anglosphere’s best known SF voices.
Despite this recent wave of SFT, there are still a number of barriers preventing more of it from going mainstream in the Anglophone world. I experienced some of these obstacles firsthand when I published Out of This World last year. The anthology is the first of its kind in that it brings together and summarizes works of SFT from the fourteen most represented source languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, French, and Polish. The chapters are introduced by some of the most prominent people in the SF field, including editor and translator from the French Edward Gauvin, Czech author and translator Julie Novakova, editor and scholar of Hispanic literature Dale Knickerbocker, and Swedish Canadian author and reviewer Maria Haskins. Given the anthology’s relevance and inclusion of leading SF voices, I found it somewhat surprising that the major US-based speculative fiction outlets didn’t reach out to me about it. Then again, it was published on a date guaranteed to render it invisible to anyone who wasn’t specifically looking forward to it (December 28). I have seen a few online reviews, and maybe others will come out in the future, but this silence just seems so familiar.
Indeed, all you have to do is look at the major speculative fiction awards to see that SFT is treated as if it doesn’t exist. As I wrote in an essay for my site two years ago, the Hugo and World Fantasy awards, among others, rarely ever feature a work of long-form or short-form fiction originally written in another language or translated into English. Thus, I argued that all of this comes down to a naming problem. If the Hugos are for texts “published anywhere in the world (or out of it), and [ . . . ] published in any language,” logically they should include works from around the world, in any language. Since that doesn’t seem likely any time soon, and Anglophone readers generally don’t learn multiple languages unless they have to, then the award should (again, logically) stop calling itself a “World Award” and start acknowledging that, from the very beginning, it has been and still is an award given to English-language SF by English-language readers.
In the same essay, I addressed the many points others in the industry make about why SFT shouldn’t get a separate category in these awards, including the argument that it would “ghettoize” SFT. Yet I never hear anyone apply the same logic to YA fiction, which does have its own category. Could it be that SFT poses a threat to the continued domination of Anglophone speculative fiction around the world? Why, I asked myself, would an American publisher, author, or others in that ecosystem want to direct attention away from Anglophone fiction? If that’s the case, and it likely is, then this should be acknowledged outright. Continuing to call an award the “World Fantasy Award,” for instance, is just misleading at this point. Either start including works from around the world or rename the award.
A separate “translated” category in science fiction, fantasy, and horror awards would, rather than marginalizing these texts that already receive very little attention, bolster their visibility and encourage genre readers who follow these awards to branch out beyond their comfort zone. Japanese horror about words that can kill? Ooh. Russian psychological fantasy about a magical boarding school? Interesting! Hebrew alternative fiction in which Israel was established in New York? Wow.
Speculative fiction is, by definition, a genre that always asks, “What if?” What if visitors from another planet made contact with Earth? What if we could travel through time? What if we could visit other planets, talk to insects, learn more about our own consciousness, reorganize world governments, construct androids, or cure all diseases? Reading one kind of SF (from one source language) would give us food for thought, but to a limited extent; reading SF from around the world, though, would ignite our imaginations and help us creatively tackle problems that seem practically unsolvable.
Fiction, more than many other modes of cultural production, can help us overcome our insular tendencies and look beyond our borders to other traditions. In doing so, we can perhaps move closer to realizing that familiar yet elusive SF trope of a harmonious planet that never stops looking toward the stars.
© 2022 by Rachel Cordasco. All rights reserved.
Ruth Weiner, publisher of Triangle Square Books for Young Readers. Photo © Eva Sotomayor.
In recent years, a proliferation of books in translation for children and young adults has brought imaginative stories from around the world to new readers. We’re speaking with some of the extraordinary publishers who make these books possible about their experience working in this vital field.
For this month's installment in the series, we spoke with Ruth Weiner, publisher of Triangle Square Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Seven Stories Press.
WWB: Could you tell us about the history of Triangle Square? How did you get started?
Ruth Weiner (RW): In 2007, Seven Stories Press published our first kids’ book, a young people’s edition of Howard Zinn’s classic, radical A People’s History of the United States. We’d been publishing Zinn for years, and we knew there was a lot of interest from teachers in having an adapted edition. So without really knowing what we were doing in the children’s market, we published what became the start of our very successful For Young People series of (mostly) adapted books of award-winning history and science. A year later, we published a picture book by Marcus Ewert, illustrated by Rex Ray, about Bailey, who likes to wear dresses, despite her family insisting that she is a boy. That was pretty radical in 2008, and we got a lot of pushback from conservative circles (and still do). Then in the fall of 2012 we had a list that was full of books for young readers—including a wonderful and fantastical illustrated chapter book from Iceland’s Andri Snær Magnason—so we decided to create a dedicated imprint. Seven Stories' publisher Dan Simon led the way editorially and came up with the name Triangle Square after the green space just around the corner from our offices in Tribeca. This year is our tenth anniversary!
A selection of Triangle Square books.
WWB: Is there a particular theme, focus, or aesthetic that the children's books published by Triangle Square share?
RW: Absolutely. We’re an imprint of Seven Stories Press, and like the larger company, we are committed to works of the imagination and high-quality art and illustration. Our books often feature social justice issues, care for the environment, human rights, and a diversity of characters and experiences and abilities. As author Cory Silverberg stresses in his inclusive sex books for kids, they also center truth, respect, power, and justice, and reflect young people’s own experiences. We like to say that we look up to kids—they’re so much smarter and more sensitive than we often give them credit for, and uncomplicated in their sense of what’s fair and right. We hope our books reflect the respect we have for young readers, and, most importantly, that kids find joy in reading them.
WWB: What are you looking for in a children’s story as a publisher and as a reader? Do you think that a good children’s book will always have some appeal for adults as well?
RW: I always take in books as a reader first—I want to know how the book makes me feel, what’s the human reaction, before I consider it as a publishing opportunity. My favorite kids’ books have characters that any reader at any age can relate to because the perspective and the emotion reflected there are true—whether the character is joyous or sad or afraid or curious or feeling silly, or maybe they’re feeling a feeling they can’t yet identify. I always hope to find that moment of emotional recognition and/or to see the character have agency, whether that’s achieved through imaginative writing or expressive illustrations or both, and whether the intended reader is young or old. Answers aren’t always easy to come by in the real world when you’re a kid—sometimes it’s enough to ask a question and feel supported while you work out an answer for yourself. I love books that embrace that ambiguous, uncertain space.
I do think the best kids’ books appeal to adults too. Some kids’ books offer a wink-wink to the adult in whose lap the child may be sitting, which is clever and amusing, but in the end, if the writing is good and the story pulls you in and the illustrations are compelling, what’s not to like?
WWB: What have been some of the most exciting aspects of the undertaking so far? What, if any, have you found to be the most challenging aspects of publishing children’s literature (as opposed to literature for adults)?
RW: It’s been really gratifying as a longtime publishing person to pivot and spend time with and learn from so many amazing professionals dedicated to children’s literature—the librarians, booksellers, teachers, and parents, the authors and illustrators, and, of course, the kids. We’ve been listening and learning a lot. The last decade of Triangle Square’s growth has paralleled that of my own kids. They’ve been a very patient and quite excellent focus group of three, and I’m grateful to them and all the kids we know who’ve offered their feedback (they’re always honest, if nothing else!).
One of the biggest challenges for us at the outset was getting certain gatekeepers to acknowledge that kids can and want to read about our complicated world. Let the child ask questions if they don’t understand—more often than not, they’ll really engage. One of Triangle Square’s earliest titles, A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara, began as a grassroots bestseller. Some of the great indie bookstores couldn’t keep it in stock, but other retailers didn’t understand putting words and concepts like “activist” and “abolitionist” in a board book, and they didn’t stock it. It was edgy for sure, but it’s a bestseller now, and most retailers carry it along with the many new activist books for very young readers.
WWB: Are there any underrepresented languages or countries that you’re particularly drawn to, and are there literary traditions in children’s literature from other countries that you’re keen for Triangle Square to share with Anglophone readers?
RW: We’re really interested in books from all over, so there is a lot of potential. We’re always open to new voices and to traditions and experiences from around the world that are less familiar here, but also those universal experiences that every kid will recognize no matter where they are, what their cultural practices are, or what they look like.
We’ve been intrigued to see what is considered appropriate for children in the US versus in other countries. A few years ago, we published under Triangle Square’s banner The Lizard, which is an excerpt from an adult story by José Saramago, illustrated by J. Borges and translated from Portuguese by Nick and Lucia Caistor. It’s metaphorical and imaginative and very mysterious—will a kid get the references? Will an adult? We took a different approach with The Lost Soul by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, illustrated by the hugely talented Joanna Concejo and translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. This was my favorite book of 2021, and while it has been published very successfully around the world for kids, we decided to publish it here for both adults and younger readers. I’m certain the many adults who adore this book are sharing it with their children too. It’s really special. Similarly, in the fall we’ll publish an illustrated poem by Wyslawa Szymborska, Love at First Sight, for adults and children. We love these books that push the boundaries of what a kids’ or an adult book “should” be.
This year, we’re also really excited to launch a series in English that was originated by an editor at Actes Sud Jeunesse. Her vision was to feature people who said no to what they considered unjust and unfair. “They Said No” is a historical fiction series for younger readers about protestors, activists, poets, revolutionaries, and other brave changemakers from around the world, and it emphasizes the importance of standing up for what you know is right. These are books based entirely on fact, and yet by fictionalizing a particular turning point in the person’s life, they humanize and make more accessible the events described. It’s not an approach you often see here in the US, and we hope it’ll find an avid readership. The series launches with two volumes, one on the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz, and the other on the slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, each with a stunning portrait on the cover by illustrator Francois Roca. Subsequent volumes feature Aimé Césaire, Harvey Milk, George Sand, Victor Jara, Janusz Korczak, Rosa Luxemburg, and many others.
An interior page of The Best Tailor in Pinbauê, written and illustrated by Eymard Toledo.
WWB: Do you think there has been a general upsurge in children’s publishing in recent years? If so, what do you think has brought it about?
RW: Yeah, the numbers bear that out—there are more kids’ books being published now than ever before. Some of it is market-related—corporate America discovering that young adult versus middle grade, etc., are separate markets to publish into. If we just followed market trends, then we’d all be publishing manga right now! But much of the increase, I think, is due to a generational change in how we view kids as young people with agency and deep emotional lives, and the belief that the books they read shouldn’t tell them how to be, but rather should reflect their lived experience. Needless to say, we’re in the latter camp.
Our own little upsurge is due to the success we’re seeing from the imprint, especially from books by Innosanto Nagara, Tim Lockette, NBA for Young People's Literature–nominee Hal Schrieve, and Cory Silverberg, and our For Young People series, but also from a number of our books by authors known primarily as writers for adults who ventured into storytelling for younger readers. There are wonderfully imaginative and thoughtful books by Swedish novelist Sara Stridsberg, graphic artist Seymour Chwast, Ukrainian Israeli novelist and memoirist Aharon Appelfeld, Dominican writer Julia Alvarez, Chilean essayist and playwright and novelist Ariel Dorfman, Israeli novelist Etgar Keret, and the only kids’ book ever published by Kurt Vonnegut. And we have much more to come. It’s been really fun for us and, I think, the authors, too.
WWB: What is a new or forthcoming title that you are looking forward to sharing with readers?
RW: I can’t pick just one! First, every kid’s bookshelf should have sex ed books by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth. They’re the most inclusive sex ed books available—they're bright and accessible and put social justice at the center of discussions about bodies and relationships and feelings. The last in the trilogy, You Know, Sex, comes out in April.
I mentioned Sara Stridsberg’s first children’s book, The Summer of Diving, which comes out in June. It’s gorgeously illustrated by Sara Lundberg and translated with great care from the Swedish by B. J. Woodstein. The book shows a child experiencing the absence of a parent who is hospitalized for depression. I love how it centers the child’s experience, which is sometimes sad and sometimes full of mischievousness and play. The book makes no effort to explain why or offer false platitudes that all will be fine. It’s not easy to capture a child’s perspective with such honesty (and, yes, hopefulness!) as Sara and Sara have done.
And we have an amazing, very accessible biography of Socrates by Devra Lehmann that shows the startling relevance of the ancient philosopher today. As you’ll recall, Socrates wanted only to distinguish truth from falsehood, then was killed for corrupting the youth of Athens with his ideas. This is the first in a new series we’re launching, Philosophy for Young People, that continues with Spinoza, St. Augustine, and Hannah Arendt.
An interior page of The Summer of Diving by Sara Stridsberg, translated by B. J. Woodstein and illustrated by Sara Lundberg.
WWB: What's next for Triangle Square?
RW: We’re growing the list with these two new series, nurturing our current authors, and also finding new voices here and from all over the world. In addition to US-based voices and stories, we’ve published books translated from Portuguese, French, Hebrew, Icelandic, Italian, Persian, Danish, Swedish, and Spanish, and told stories from Brazil, Gaza, Syria, Ukraine, Chile, Indonesia, South Africa, Syria, ancient Greece, and China. We hope to continue offering new perspectives and new experiences for young readers to discover through our books.
Triangle Square Books for Young Readers breathes progressive new life into the world of children's and YA books through its inclusive imprint, which features such titles as the award-winning 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert and Rex Ray; Innosanto Nagara's A is for Activist, the runaway hit board book for the children of the ninety-nine percent (in both Spanish and English); Cory Silverberg's What Makes a Baby? and Sex Is A Funny Word; and our For Young People series, which adapts celebrated nonfiction books for middle-grade readers and to date includes seminal works by Howard Zinn on a people's history of the US, Charles C. Mann on globalism, Jared Diamond on evolutionary biology, and Ronald Takaki on the history of multiculturalism. Triangle Square books are published in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats, in English and Spanish, throughout North America and around the world. Triangle Square supports social justice, multicultural literacy, restoration of the environment, kids’ rights, and freedom of the imagination.
© 2022 Ruth Weiner. All rights reserved.
Each month, Tobias Carroll shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation that he’s especially excited about. This month's selection includes translated books from Morocco, Argentina, Poland, Chile, Sweden, and Tunisia.
What the publisher says: “Delighting in vibrant sensory detail and rich slang, Moustadraf takes an unflinching look at the gendered body, social class, illness, double standards, and desire, as lived by a diverse cast of characters. Blood Feast is a sharp provocation to patriarchal power and a celebration of the life and genius of one of Morocco’s preeminent writers.”
What translator Alice Guthrie says: “This slim volume is but a snapshot of a gifted maverick writer in her ascendancy, creatively going from strength to strength even as her health deteriorated during the final weeks before her death. Had her life not been tragically cut short, Moustadraf would undoubtedly have gone on to reach great artistic heights.”
What I say: Sometimes visceral in its language, sometimes archetypal in its allusions, this collection covers a vast range of experiences over the course of its all-too-brief pages. The characters found within treat themselves badly, treat each other worse, and grapple with a hostile or indifferent society; via Moustadraf’s empathic rendering, though, their lives and circumstances come into focus and are often moving—but never losing that harrowing edge.
What the publisher says: “Under the spell of a mother’s madness, the French countryside transforms into a dreamscape of interconnected imagery: animals, desire, the functions of the body. Most troublingly: the comfort of a teenage son. Scorning the bourgeois mores and conventionality of their small town, she withdraws him from school and the two embark on ever more antisocial and dangerous behavior.”
What Publishers Weekly says: “Less a straightforward narrative than a stream-of-consciousness tour of the mother’s jumbled experiences, Harwicz paints a portrait of a troubled trio headed toward destruction.”
What I say: From its opening lines to its shocking conclusion, Tender makes for immersive but exhausting reading. In this translation by McDermott and Orloff, Harwicz’s prose is blistering and tactile: “A salty kiss with tongues and chewing gum just before the jolt. A liquid kiss in the gap of the lips.” To read this short novel is to be subsumed by the mind of its narrator and the delirious imagery found there.
What the publisher says: “Exploring how we choose our families and how we betray them, and what it means to be a man in relationships—a partner, father, stepfather, teacher, lover, writer, and friend—it is a bold and brilliant new work by one of the most important writers of our time.”
What the New York Times says: “Chilean Poet is most compelling when it situates the minor dramas of the Latin American literati within the broader politics of how that identity has been constructed in the first place.”
What I say: After a number of formally innovative works, Zambra’s latest novel in English translation is (at least nominally) more traditional—but like the relationship between a man and his stepson at the center of the book, it’s also harder to pin down. The first half of the novel is more concerned with questions of family, while its second half takes a more meta-literary approach. All of which makes the experience of reading the English translation of a novel written in Spanish with a subplot about American perceptions of Chilean literature even more head-spinning…
From New Press | I’d Like to Say Sorry, But There’s No One to Say Sorry To by Mikolaj Grynberg, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye | Fiction | 160 pages | ISBN 9781620976838 | US$19.99
What the publisher says: “An exquisitely original collection of darkly funny stories that explore the panorama of Jewish experience in contemporary Poland, from a world-class contemporary writer.”
What Jewish Book Council says: “To achieve as much as he does in this slim and elegant volume, Grynberg forgoes traditional narrative conventions, such as scene setting and character description, and hones in on his characters’ vivid voices to evoke their sad, strange worlds.”
What I say: Grynberg’s collection and Blood Feast make for an interesting literary double bill. The protagonists and narrators of these stories have a tendency to involve themselves in bold declarations and circular arguments, as seen here: “You made up a few of those stories there, right? About half of them have got to be made up, which means the rest are true, right? Fine, it’s no business of mine anyhow; even without you I’ve got enough trouble on my own.” The result makes for a wide-ranging take on a haunting historical legacy.
What the publisher says: “On the day of his sixtieth birthday, Yunus plunges into a delayed midlife crisis as he reflects on the major moments in his life, from taking up writing as a young man to his career as a university professor to his failed marriage. Yunus’s identity crisis mirrors that of his Tunisian homeland with its tumultuous history of political and cultural upheaval.”
What Asymptote Journal says: “Mosbahi’s book, in many ways, is a puzzle with no straightforward answers. It is encyclopedic and uneven and oblique. Stories proliferate, nestled within other stories, structurally echoing the classic Thousand and One Nights.”
What I say: Can one person’s life evoke the political turmoil and everyday experiences of an entire generation? Solitaire makes the case that it can. Mosbahi’s prose, in Hutchins’s translation, is endlessly allusive, shifting from its protagonist’s innermost thoughts to broader meditations on his region’s geopolitics and back again.
What the publisher says: “In the 1540s, a young French noblewoman, Marguerite de la Rocque, was abandoned by her guardian on an island in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence with her maidservant and her lover. In present-day Stockholm, an author and mother of three becomes captivated by the image of Marguerite sheltered in a dark cave all alone after her companions have died.”
What Foreword Reviews says: “Women’s stories often must be rescued from the margins of history, as a writer on a difficult research expedition is reminded in Karolina Ramqvist’s introspective novel The Bear Woman.”
What I say: We’re in the midst of an array of books in which writers and narrators grapple with the legacies of historical or artistic figures, and Ramqvist’s The Bear Woman is no exception. “Presumably this had to do with the incredible nature of the whole story, or at least how I interpreted it the first time I heard it,” the narrator recalls. “A friend had recounted it for me, a brief summary.” In those two sentences, the full scope of this book—its focus on storytelling, and its wrestling with alternate version of the same story—comes into focus.
Copyright © 2022 Tobias Carroll. All rights reserved.
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Kristian Sendon Cordero. Copyright © Boyet Abrenica
Poet, filmmaker, and translator Kristian Sendon Cordero is spearheading what looks to be a sea change in cultural production and appreciation in the Bikol region of the Philippines. In 2018, he established Savage Mind, an independent bookstore that boasts the apt tagline, “Naga City’s Creative Heart.” The bookstore has been host to film screenings and poetry readings—a COVID-19 pivot to virtual readings recently featured Filipino celebrity Piolo Pascual reading poetry by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles—and encourages customer perusal, unlike the country’s big bookstores, which generally offer shrink-wrapped books. Most recently, Savage Mind’s second floor became home to Tugawe Cove Cafe, for more coffee- and pastry-fueled immersion in arts and literature.
I spoke to Kristian Sendon Cordero about the role of bookstores in bringing people together and preserving cultural identity, filmmaking in regional languages, and why he hesitates to call it a Bikol renaissance just yet.
Soleil Davíd (SD): When did you first start getting fascinated with Bikol literature and film? How does it feel to be in the vanguard of the Bikol renaissance?
Kristian Sendon Cordero (KSC): My fascination with the local language that is Bikol finds its roots in the old novenas that I used to collect as a child. These chapbooks were sold in the churchyard alongside amulets and candles and other paraphernalia for rituals and healings. I would say that these religious reading materials gave me an insatiable curiosity toward the written word. The experience was magical, especially in the way these little booklets of devotion could summon communities for a religious feast. For nine days, there was singing and community meals at the village chapel, and I was deeply fascinated by the presence of this little book carried by our elders like a blue book. As a child, I learned to memorize these prayers and articulate the words before I came to know what they meant. When I started writing my own poetry and fiction in this language, the old novenas served as my wellsprings. In this language, I learned to do my own alchemy and cast my own vision of the world from the point of view of the Bikolnon, or the people of Bikol.
Nowadays, I continue to navigate and revolve around this idea of Bikol, and I think of our geographies and climates, our colonial histories, and the dominant religion as primary agents that shape our mannerisms and temperaments, including our political ideologies and economic dispositions. And since I wanted to test the limits of this language, I eventually ventured into filmmaking. I have collaborated with a team of Bikolnon creatives on two full-length films, which I consider as works-in-progress, because I regard this work as something that will become better in the coming years as new filmmakers take on the challenge of filming our own stories, our own languages. Today, we have films that are proud of using their local languages. We have films in Pangasinense, Kapampangan, Kinaray-a, Waray, and Bikolnon. This was not the case several decades ago—the Tagalog/Filipino language continues to dominate film production, but there is a growing movement that favors regional cinema, and I would like to maintain my affinity to this kind of filmmaking.
“Translation will always be the future of literature.”
I am skeptical about using the word renaissance to describe what is happening in Bikol—it is too early to call this a renaissance, considering that our educational systems remain under colonial patronage, as exemplified by the privileging of the English language. There is a growing interest in anything Bikol now, but we must make this sustainable by providing systematic programs for our writers, artists, musicians, animators, and filmmakers. The academe and the local government should have a tangible plan of action that will encourage and deepen our people’s appreciation toward our arts and cultures.
While there is a commonly agreed-upon lingua franca, we must also continue supporting other languages and variants of Bikol. I do not underestimate what many writers and scholars have done to advance Bikol writing, but I think we must still do more in terms of reeducating our young people because, for example, despite Bikol being spoken by nearly 5 million people, the print run for a Bikolano book remains at 500 to 1,000 copies, and it takes three to five years for these books to sell. We still need to bring these books to our communities, and hopefully more public libraries and book nooks will be built in the coming years.
SD: I’m curious about your sense of community, your willingness to bring people into the fold. The bookstore Savage Mind is an act of collaboration between you and a lot of supporters, and is also a place to display books from Ateneo de Naga University Press, where you are the deputy director. On top of that, it’s a place for independent filmmakers to screen their films, and most recently, a café opened in its space . . . Can you talk to us about your ethos of bringing people together, what’s behind it, how you feel that you practice it, and why?
KSC: I think of my exposure at the Iowa International Writing Program in 2017 as my eye-opener and the reason I finally decided to build a bookshop similar to Prairie Lights, where we would gather every week and listen to fellow writers and artists speak about their countries of origin, their cultures, and their creative practices. I wanted something close to that to happen in Bikol, hence we decided to put up this small independent bookshop that also serves as an art space and a studio. I am all for community events in physical spaces like Savage Mind, considering that everyone has created their own bubble or echo chamber on social media. It can be noisy and loud in all these virtual platforms, so what we offer here is something that can bring people closer to their other personal realities. Adjacent to my office now is the newly opened Luis Cabalquinto Reading Room, named after our most important collaborator, the poet Luis Cabalquinto, who is based in New York. The Cabalquinto Room is designed to accommodate one to three persons who want to take a break and listen to poetry read by Bikol and Filipino authors. We are also opening Kamarin, an art gallery and cinema bar located at the back of the bookshop, so we can accommodate more people and give them the opportunity to see artworks and watch films and performances by artists who we believe can continue to deepen artistic contemplations and contribute to the conversation.
Gathering people of different persuasions and politics can be time-consuming, but I take it as a challenge, to believe in the innate goodness of everyone—and this is also my way of expressing my generosity and my solidarity to my fellow Bikolnons. I have been blessed many times over by the friendship of people who personally support these initiatives and activities, and I would like to share these blessings by putting up this hub that hopefully will make people see that it is not always about money and profit—no matter how evasive it is, something soulful and spiritual must be given our keen attention. Simone Weil said that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. It gives me and my colleagues enormous joy to see young people come and discover something new inside the bookshop, be it an old vinyl, an art print, a sticker, a postcard, or a book by their favorite author they haven’t discovered yet, or just simply seeing them immerse into the aura of the place. Savage Mind has been called “the creative heart of Naga City,” and as a heart, we need to keep beating and tapping all these creative energies so that people will remember and make this small bookshop a part of their life stories.
Filipino actor Piolo Pascual reads poet Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles's "Ang Iyong Buhay ay Laging Mabibigo" (Your Life Will Always Fail) for Savage Mind's Himati.
SD: What one or two books in Savage Mind would you most like people to read?
KSC: I’d like people to get hold of our translations in Bikol and Filipino, particularly the translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince into Bikol by Fr. Wilmer Tria, and Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., translated into Filipino by Rogelio Sicat. The Little Prince is a good introductory read for anyone interested in learning Bikol. We released Sicat’s Čapek translation last year, and I think the work will resonate with many of us, especially in this time of the pandemic, when our lives are heavily conditioned by technology. A hundred years ago, when Čapek was writing what would become his masterpiece, he probably had a vision of the world on the brink of a total disaster—the rise of a new breed of semi-humans and their revolt against us. Today, we face the same angel of history, as our lives are classified as information, data, memory, presences—information that is seemingly eternally replicable and moves faster than COVID-19.
As a bookshop, we highlight these translation projects we have done in partnership with the Czech embassy in Manila by dedicating a shelf to all these projects. Eight books translated into ten different languages in the Philippines have been published under this cultural collaboration. Translation will always be the future of literature. No regional nor national literature will grow if it only concerns itself with its own agenda, but if we continue to “cross-country” by way of our literary resources, we will ensure that people will be more accommodating, tolerant, and respectful.
SD: How have the Bikol and Filipino literary scenes changed since you started at Ateneo de Naga University Press (if at all)? Are there any recent developments that you find particularly noteworthy or interesting?
KSC: The Ateneo de Naga University Press identifies itself as a rebel press, and our rebellion is classified under three acts—namely, we are not a commercial press, meaning that we value advocacy over profit; secondly, we translate and decode the secrets of the foreign—our literature will certainly grow if it is in dialogue with other cultures and linguistic groups; and thirdly, we think and write in our local languages. Our advocacy is to make sure that all languages, particularly Bikol, be promoted and be given their rightful due as languages of instruction, as languages of discourse. When people disregard their language, they will automatically disregard their identities. Language constructs and instructs us. It is our blueprint. Without it, one cannot articulate one’s visions nor build upon them. We make sure, therefore, that we prioritize publishing Bikol materials. We have initiated a project called Bikoliana Klasika—under this project, we started retrieving nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writings in Bikol to republish and to reintroduce to our contemporary readers and scholars.
“Religion continues to attract and evade me.”
Another of our initiatives is the Bikolnon Biography Series (BBS), profiles of exceptional Bikolnons in the fields of arts and culture, government service, media, history, and social entrepreneurship, which we intend as reading material for junior and senior high schoolers. The university press has also provided an alternative space for writers from other regions, particularly in the Visayas. As an act of solidarity to the people of Waray, who were greatly affected by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), we published the first anthology of Waray writers writing about their memories and trauma related to this disaster.
SD: In your previous interviews, you’ve talked a lot about how Catholic Naga City is. I’m also thinking of your 2013 film Angustia (Out of the Depth), where there was this confluence of Catholicism, myth, and sensuality. Can you tell us about the role of religion and spirituality in your work?
KSC: Having been in the seminary for some good years, I find that religion continues to attract and evade me. I am fascinated by its rituals and its accounts and how these stories are maneuvered by people who attach their own meaning to them within the intricacies and intimacies of the Catholic worldview. I recognize the violent history of this religion and the trauma it has brought upon our collective consciousness, and I would like to continue to investigate and unravel this experience by way of putting my personal narratives within it—my personal dolor, always visceral and vicarial. This kind of sufferance and its affectations have given me the impetus to constellate a language of care, pagmamakulog, pagmamalasakit. This theme I have explored in my poetry collections, Labi and Canticos. I think the same can be said of the films I’ve made, and certainly this strong imagery drawn from the Catholic Bikol will still manifest in upcoming projects. It is probably because I still have faith toward the tangible, the baroque, the hopeful, which characterize the Catholic imagination—something that has been affirmed to me by the stories of Carlos Ojeda Aureus, whose book changed my way of looking at fiction, and my vocation.
SD: Turning to your own work as a poet, you’ve won awards for your work in three Philippine languages (Tagalog, Bikol, and Rinconada). What motivates you to write in one language or another? Do you feel that you express yourself in different ways in each of your languages?
KSC: I think each language affords me a different temperament. I tend to be more experimental in Rinconada and Bikol, while in Filipino, I am interested in charting my own patterns, my own voice as a poet and storyteller (although at this point in my life, I try not to burden myself with this anymore). My motivation for writing in two Bikol languages (Bikol and Rinconada) is that not so many people think of the local languages as literary languages. Our colonial education has tremendously ruined our sense of identity, and I would like to believe that by writing in these languages, by experimenting with them and by pushing the limits of what they can articulate, I can help encourage young Bikolnons to roll up their sleeves and start writing and imagining in the language of their birth. In my translation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, when Samsa finally realizes that his body has become unhuman, I made him speak Rinconada, my other language. I think there is no point in our history where you will find these two languages (Bikol and Rinconada) on the same page. Bikol is a language engineered by the colonial church, while Rinconada remains unstudied and underdeveloped despite many of our contemporary writers speaking and writing in it. The same motivation to highlight this language is one of the reasons I made sure to work with the great actor Nora Aunor, who, like me, speaks Rinconada. In our second film, Nora, for the first time onscreen, speaks in her mother tongue. By way of Nora, and by way of Kafka, I wanted for the translation to not just be about the descent of Gregor Samsa to the abyss, but rather to cause a new metamorphosis in our languages. If we fail to value and pay attention to these languages, we will just find ourselves in a similar position as Samsa, that is, made unhuman.
SD: You’re an accomplished translator into both Bikol and Filipino. How have you decided which authors and works to translate? Are you working on any projects you’re especially excited about at the moment?
KSC: The authors I have translated were my literary companions at a particular period of my life when I was undergoing some difficult changes. When I left the seminary, I read Rilke’s sacred poems and they served like my own personal vespers. Translating these poems into Bikol showed me how, as a child, I became attracted to the language’s sounds and its assumed meanings—that someone is listening to your utterances or as you speak or sing, that the universe hymns with you. After Rilke, I moved to Kafka and Borges. Borges’s poetry is such a pleasure to read, considering that my encounter with him is through his fiction. Many of his poems inform his fiction, and I can relate to this, since many of the stories I wrote were initially conceived as poems. The experience of translating his poetry to Bikol and Filipino can be described as Borgesian in itself. Which one is which? I guess Borges is the kind of author who allows you to construct your own Borgeses.
“We must continue to push the limits of our languages.”
I am now working on the third translation of José Rizal’s two novels into Bikol. The first translations were published in 1923, then we had another edition in 1961, during the birth centenary of the hero.
I hope young people, when they read in Bikol, will find some kind of nostalgia in it that they probably heard from their elders and that I think is a good entry point into the language—it is also memory, a familiar sound, a voice or face, no matter how briefly it comes to them. The challenge is for them to hold on to it, to grow in that language until it becomes part of their body again, a second skin.
SD: Why did you feel that a new Bikol translation of Rizal was needed?
KSC: The Bikol language, like Tagalog-Filipino, has evolved through the years. As a translator comparing my work to the 1961 edition, I get to track the evolution of meanings in our language, the sensibility and temperament of the times, and how it has moved from being a language engineered by the colonial church to a language accessed by our local intellectuals, and somehow this is like the history of our language. No serious study has been devoted to this work that is almost like archaeology. When I took on this challenge, I knew the Bible was constantly being retranslated into Bikol, so why not try it with the novels of Rizal? I am also advancing the idea that those who study the novels in school should read the Bikol edition: that way, our students will learn to regard Bikol as a language of literature. We need to do these initiatives that will give the local language a new lease on life, otherwise the domination of Tagalog-Filipino is inevitable, as it has become comfortable for many Bikolnons to resort to the national language.
SD: Do your translation and poetry practices influence each other, and if so, in what ways?
KSC: Yes, in Canticos, I wrote the poems in Bikol and then would “self-translate” into Filipino. But as I was about to finish the project, there was a shift, and I found myself writing in Filipino first and then in Bikol. For someone who writes in three languages and reads most world literature in English, translation is something that comes as naturally as the air that I breathe. When reading poetry by other poets, I try to assume their voice and listen to it as if I were the one talking. It’s like driving—I try to choose the gear that will bring me in a particular direction. Sometimes I hear the poem in Bikol, sometimes in Rinconada, and I think there were instances when I was able to write a poem because I was listening to it in all three languages.
Many poets from other regions, particularly those of my generation, like John Iremil Teodoro and Genevieve Asenjo of Panay, who also write in three languages (Kinaray-a, Hiligaynon, Filipino), consider this kind of writing as our way of building the national imaginary, which should not be limited to a particular ethnolinguistic group. Debates on issues regarding the national language and the regional languages continue to haunt us, and this also happens on a smaller scale within the regions themselves. While I am all for this kind of conversation, it should not stop us from working, from taking the risks of experimentation. We must continue to push the limits of our languages, and most importantly, regions should start translating work from other regions. To quote from the old breviary I used to read as a night prayer: Let our Babel be our Pentecost.
Kristian Sendon Cordero is a poet, fictionist, translator, and filmmaker based in Bikol. His books of poetry in three Philippine languages have won the Madrigal-Gonzales Best First Book Award, the Philippine National Book Awards, and the Gintong Aklat Awards (Golden Book Awards). In 2017, he represented the Philippines in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He was also appointed artist-in-residence by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has translated the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, and Oscar Wilde into Bikol and Filipino. His current projects include the Bikol translations of José Rizal's two novels. He serves as deputy director of the Ateneo de Naga University Press and runs an independent bookshop and art space, The Savage Mind, in his home city. In 2019, he received the Southeast Asian Writers Prize (SEAWRITE) in Bangkok, Thailand, from the Thai monarchy. He has been named the Artist-In-Residence in the 2022 StellenboschInstitute of Advanced Study in South Africa.
© 2022 Soleil Davíd. All rights reserved.
Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash
February 21 is UNESCO's International Mother Language Day, a celebration of linguistic diversity and the preservation of heritage languages. In honor of this day, we've compiled a list of short stories and poems by nine writers working in their own mother languages, from Galician and Cebuano to Guaraní and Kaaps. When possible, we've also included audio and video recordings of the authors reading their original-language texts.
Miguelángel Meza captures a traveler's surreal journey in “Dawn," translated from Guaraní by Tracy K. Lewis. You can also read Meza's poem “Void,” from his 2021 collection Dream Pattering Soles, on WWB here.
“It happened so quickly. The End.”
In this excerpt from her novel The Blue Book of Nebo, which she translated from Welsh to English, Manon Steffan Ros follows a boy and his mother as they struggle to survive in a postapocalyptic world. For more about Welsh and the self-translation process, read this conversation between Ros and the Welsh writer Casi Dylan.
This haunting folktale from the Melaka Portuguese oral tradition is transcribed and translated by Sara Frederica Santa Maria, who also works to preserve the language by teaching classes in her hometown of Melaka, Malaysia.
“He feels like opening the door and stuffing the VP into one of the old closets.”
In this humorous short story by Hilda Twongyeirwe, translated from Runyankole-Rukiga by Juliet Kushaba, a beaten-down government bureaucrat dreams of power and prestige.
Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut considers Sama, a form of dance traditionally performed at Uyghur festivals, in this short poem translated by Darren Byler and Dilmurat Mutellip. Two other poems by Hamut, "Phone Call" and "The Past," are also available on WWB in Joshua L. Freeman's translation.
“i come from a family built on longing”
In this excerpt from her novel of the same name, Susana Sanches Arins looks back on family memories and the legacy of the Spanish Civil War in lyrical prose, translated from Galician by Kathleen March. For more about Sanches Arins's use of Galician, read her conversation with editor Valentim Fagim.
Khadija Tracey Heeger considers the rich heritage of her community in this poem, translated from Kaaps by Olivia M. Coetzee.
“I proceeded with caution / Like a marble inching toward the line”
In these two short poems translated from Kurdish (Kurmanji) by Shook and Zêdan Xelef, Ciwan Qado details the worries of adult life.
“I want to cry and look for Papa, but I can’t go out.”
A girl yearns to travel beyond her small village in this short story by Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano, translated from Cebuano by John Bengan.
Looking for more reading lists? Try these:
Fiona Sampson. Photo © Ekaterina Voskresenskaya.
If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of London as you feel/see it?
London, which seems all sprawl and braggadocio, is at the same time self-contained and fiercely defended. This is more than mood: it’s a way of being, and it reflects an underlying doublethink. Superficially all courtesy and practical energy, the characteristic British mode is actually withholding and even, after centuries of lightly modified feudalism, a touch paranoid. Actually: that’s specifically a white, English mode of Britishness. London’s great paradox is that it’s traditionally both the seat of that hegemony—and home to the country’s greatest concentration of dynamic alternatives. There’s every kind of counterculture here, and around forty percent of the capital’s nine million are foreign-born, a percentage second only to New York’s. In other words, London itself most challenges the status quo with which it grips itself.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
Without a doubt, being abducted at knifepoint from the front doorstep of a south London house. Tourist London is belted in by “real London,” streets of Victorian brown-brick terraces that constitute the neighborhoods Londoners know their city by, from Highbury in the north to the Oval “across the river.” Beyond these, another belt of turn-of-the-twentieth-century brick villas runs from Ealing in the west to Herne Hill in the southeast and on. Beyond again lies Metroland, the low-rise thirties suburbia of faux-timbered paired houses that stretches from Harrow to Bromley and calls itself Outer London. This sounds like displacement description: it’s not, quite. Whenever I think about that night, when I nearly died, what I see is the gold glow of streetlights, a sheen of damp March pavement, the silhouette of twigs against the light. And what I remember feeling is the enormity of the city extending on and on beyond me, and how its size made escape impossible.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
London’s pigeons are famous, if not notorious, but the sky’s also full of gulls. The River Thames is tidal through the city; its mudflats feel like a shoreline—which they are. The seagulls soar and cry and spread this maritime feeling across the city.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
In our so-metropolitan culture, such a large proportion of the best contemporary writing comes out of London that all I can do is gesture toward the entire scene. But two novels, written roughly a decade apart at the end of the twentieth century, capture the actual feeling of being a Londoner: Martin Amis’s London Fields (1989) and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000).
Is there a place here you return to often?
Queensway, with its cheerful cosmopolitan bling, is like a seaside promenade.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
“Literary London”—Bloomsbury and the British Museum Reading Room, or Highgate and Hampstead—is a tourist cliché. But Soho remains its huddled, eighteenth-century self although it’s lost its sex shops, its importers’ emporia, and most of its bohemians. Some still haunt “The French,” the French House pub that was at the heart of fifties culture when Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon propped up the bar; The Pillars of Hercules, where Cal Lowell held court with The New Review gang in the seventies; or, just across Shaftesbury Avenue, the old Punjab Restaurant in Neal Street, which poets led by Peter Porter made their own in the nineties.
“Never mind what you were, it’s only what you are here that counts.”
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
The Tube is echt London. The slur and whine of the Circle Line pulling into a station; the rattling roar of squat Northern Line rolling stock. And every carriage is a city within the city. Rich and poor rub and crowd in together, speaking any of dozens of languages and dressed by their cultures and beliefs in ways that seem worlds apart—yet cohabit here. There’s an accepting pragmatism in the moving of bags underfoot, the offering of a handhold; there are also microaggressions, small assaults, gestures of passive aggression. Rolled by the train you can sway toward someone you like, you can put on makeup, read a discarded newspaper, chat: the only thing you must never do is catch someone’s eye.
Where does passion live here?
The South Bank Centre has been barnacled by commerce. Cafés and shops dominate the site, occluding the radical architecture of that fifties utopia, the Royal Festival Hall, and the brutalism of the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, the Hayward Gallery. Yet something about the public origins of these centers of excellence, on their windy riverside, keeps passionate practices alive inside them, and their distinctive bulk marks this.
What is the title of one of your works about London and what inspired it exactly?
Though I love the city I was born in, and to which I escaped as soon as I could, I rarely write about it. Perhaps I want to live it rather than think it. But it appears in most of my poetry collections, often in poems about relationships, or violence.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside London does an outside exist?”
London doesn’t believe in outside; this is ruinous for the rest of the country in all sorts of cultural and political ways. On the other hand, it offers everyone who actually comes to London a completely fresh start. Never mind what you were, it’s only what you are here that counts. You become a Londoner on day one, and this being a Londoner is more important than anything else you do.
Fiona Sampson, a leading British writer, is published in thirty-eight languages and has received a number of international awards in Europe and North America. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Wordsworth Trust, she’s published twenty-nine books and received an MBE for Services to Literature. She was recently awarded the 2019 Naim Frashëri Laureateship, the 2020 European Lyric Atlas Prize, and, for Come Down, Wales Poetry Book of the Year 2021. In the UK she’s served on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature and is Trustee of the Royal Literary Fund; other honors include the Newdigate Prize, Cholmondeley Prize, Hawthornden Fellowship, numerous awards from the Arts Councils of England and of Wales, Society of Authors, Poetry Book Society and AHRC, and Book of the Year selections. She’s held a number of fellowships in the UK, the US and across Europe. Sampson’s studies of writing process include Beyond the Lyric and Lyric Cousins: Poetry and Musical Form. Books she’s edited include Percy Bysshe Shelley (Faber). A critic, broadcaster, librettist, and literary translator, she was editor of Poetry Review from 2005 to 2012 and has served internationally on the boards of publishing houses and literary NGOs, and on literary juries in the UK, Canada, Ireland, and the Balkans. Sampson’s writing about place includes Limestone Country, a Guardian Book of the Year 2017. Her internationally acclaimed In Search of Mary Shelley (2018) was finalist for the Biographers’ Club first biography prize, and Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2021), a New York Times Editors’ Choice and Washington Post and Prospect Book of the Year 2021, is longlisted for the 2022 PEN Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.
© 2022 Fiona Sampson. All rights reserved.
An image from Igort's "The Story of Serafima Andreyevna," translated by Jamie Richards.
In recent days, Russia's mobilization of troops to its border with Ukraine has dominated headlines here in the US. What the news doesn't always provide, however, is access to the voices of Ukrainians themselves. We kept this in mind as we compiled the list below, which is composed of seven pieces of prose and poetry from our archive that center Ukraine and its people. While some of this writing engages directly with the country's history of armed conflict with Russia, the majority addresses more quotidian themes, from love and identity to loneliness and sports fandom. For even more writing from Ukraine, check out the links at the bottom of the page.
Danyil Zadorozhnyi considers questions of migration and belonging in "Letter to Ukraine," translated from Russian by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and Reilly Costigan-Humes.
“A hole can’t stand emptiness. You have to respect that.”
An out-of-work gravedigger and his boss come face to face with their own obsolescence in the futuristic world of Taras Antypovych's "April 2045: The Hole," translated from Ukrainian by Uilleam Blacker.
Lyuba Yakimchuk responds to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict of the mid-2010s with "Crow, Wheels," translated from Ukrainian by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky.
“we haven't touched,
yet our breath dances in a common rhythm”
Dance serves as the central metaphor of this love poem by Marjana Savka, translated from Ukrainian by Askold Melnyczuk.
“We even ate snakes, anything—but usually my father and brothers didn't find much, just a few roots.”
In this graphic nonfiction piece by Igort, translated from Italian by Jamie Richards, a Ukrainian woman named Serafima Andreyevna looks back on her experience of the 1932–33 Ukrainian famine.
An intoxicated soccer fan begins to lose his grip on reality in Andrei Krasniashikh's "Haunted Swing," translated from Russian by Tanya Paperny.
“The whole soldier shrugs off hurt”
Lyudmyla Khersonska considers the plight of soldiers in this short poem, translated from Russian by Katherine E. Young.
Looking for more writing about Ukraine? Try these:
Writer Xavier Navarro Aquino. Photo © Jayleen Santiago Díaz.
Writer Xavier Navarro Aquino arrived at the MacDowell residency in 2019 intending to finish a book he’d been working on for years. Instead, the novel that would become Velorio poured out of him in just five weeks. In early January, I interviewed Navarro Aquino over Zoom about his debut, a polyvocal altar to the charged resilience of Puerto Rico post-Maria.
The title of the novel comes from El Velorio, Francisco Oller’s iconic painting, which depicts the wake of a child. Grief saturates Navarro Aquino’s dystopian tale, but it’s grief’s twin—communion—that presides over his reflection on the ongoing disasters of nature, capitalism, and empire in Puerto Rico. Harper Via published Navarro Aquino’s English version of the novel and Aurora Lauzardo Ugarte’s Spanish translation this month.
Jacqui Cornetta (JC): At what point after Hurricane Maria did you realize you needed to write Velorio?
Xavier Navarro Aquino (XNA): 2019. I didn't want to write about Maria at first. I was able to go home about five days after to try to find out if everyone was okay, my in-laws and my mother. I realized that when we landed there was just a whole crowd of people trying to leave, albeit almost all tourists, white people, which was a very interesting juxtaposition. The airplane was full of Puerto Ricans coming back, trying to find people and help, and the ones trying to leave were the usual suspects.
The plane takes you over the island as you’re landing, and a lot of people started crying. Everything was just gone, everything. That was a very strong image to see and carry with you, especially if you were from there and raised there. You know everything is so green and so wild and so vibrant, and it was gone. But I didn't want to write about it then. I stayed with it and it wasn't until the residency in MacDowell in 2019 that I realized that the story of Camila, the first narrator in the novel, was still with me. She essentially said, you're actually doing this at MacDowell.
JC: This book is so full of voices. It feels almost spiritual, the way you inhabit the novel’s many characters. How were you thinking about voice when you were writing?
XNA: That's the best way of saying it, actually. It really felt like a spiritual experience, mostly with Camila as the opener of the book. The story of Camila and her sister, Marisol, was inspired by a real-life event that occurred after the hurricane. There were two elderly sisters, one of whom was in a nursing home, and her sister wanted to take her out before the hurricane and bring her to her house to ride out the storm with her. The sister in the nursing home didn’t want to leave, and a mudslide came in and killed her. That image and the emotion of reading about that was in many ways the catalyst for the novel. It felt like an embodiment of a spirituality that these characters wanted to use me to write out each of their experiences. Their histories just lined up as the voices appeared and I knew that a multivoiced narrative was essential for the telling of the storm. It wasn't going to be one individual experience. It was going to be a community of people that experienced this same grief as a collective.
JC: That collectivity is so felt in the novel. It sounds like Camila is the voice that came to you the strongest and first. Do you feel like the other five narrators were harder to find, or were they all just there?
XNA: Truly they all came together so quickly for me, and that was a very strange experience.
I wanted to have pairs throughout the book, Camila and her sister, Banto and Bayfish, and Moriviví and her friend Damaris. Cheo and Urayoán serve as a pair, too, but in drastically different ways. It's hard for me to pinpoint one specific protagonist, but Camila is the heart. Not only because she opens the novel but because her story is essential, it's essential for imagining how you can process grief and trauma, immediate grief and trauma, but also historical grief and trauma. She embodies a lot of that pain and anger and frustration, and it felt very rewarding to see her take agency by the end.
“I hope the novel can create a path for other possible narratives from people on the island.”
JC: She enacts her agency in an embodied way, through her actions, whereas many of the other characters express their grief more explicitly through language. It’s a beautiful counterpoint to have that embodied illustration of the kinds of traumas that you're talking about, both historical and in the present. Having those layers gives depth and richness to the interlaced voices.
Speaking of voice, there's so much lyricism in the novel, and not just in Cheo's sections, where there actually is poetry on the page. So I'm curious what your relationship to poetry is.
XNA: Oh, it's deep. In fact, it was the reason I started writing. I wrote poetry, I wrote really, really bad poetry growing up. Reading Miguel Piñero, Julia de Burgos, and others was the beginning for me. In the Caribbean, and in Puerto Rico specifically, poetry is kind of the ruler of many things. You can't throw a rock in the air and not hit a poet. Most Puerto Ricans back home live their life in a very poetic way—they just perform poetry. It's not only in writing or even in an oral tradition, but it's how we engage with each other, how we tell stories off the cuff. Poetry is essential to me.
JC: Who are some of your influences who experiment at that crossroads of poetry, narrative, and lived experience?
XNA: I just finished Mara Pastor's Deuda Natal, which came out in a bilingual edition through the University of Arizona Press (translated by María José Giménez and Anna Rosenwong). Surprisingly, Djuna Barnes is coming to mind, Nightwood. I would argue Toni Morrison is probably the greatest poetic novelist ever.
Edwidge Danticat is another important writer for me, as is M. NourbeSe Philip, whose She Tries Her Tongue–Her Silence Softly Breaks opened up so much for me. She reinforces my desire to attempt experimentation with fiction, because sometimes I get bored of conventional fiction. There's nothing wrong with it. I wish I could do it, and maybe I would have a bigger advance, but I just love the play that comes with poetry.
JC: I want to ask you about the translation process.
XNA: People asked me, didn't you translate it? No way. Translation is so hard. There are so many variables that go into it, and that's why I didn't attempt doing it myself. The translation is so beautifully done because we had a team, an entire team of Puerto Ricans who came together. The editor of the translated version, Ariana Rosado Fernández, oversaw and collaborated with me in reading Aurora Lauzardo Ugarte’s translation. It was a very collective effort and I feel very fortunate for that. I could have done it. I could translate. It'd be a terrible translation, though.
JC: When asked to self-translate, a lot of people say they would just want to write another book. Because you are writing the book again, so you would be tempted to start over or resee it. I've heard that a lot. It's great to hear that you had a team. I've read some of the Spanish version and it’s wonderful. I can see how the bilinguality of your version presented challenges for bringing it into Spanish.
XNA: At the end of the day, as long as the translator is invested and has as much collaboration with all parties as possible, you can create these bridges. But I'm very wary about being so Anglophone, about the fact that the culture and that writing itself, specifically in the United States, is so invested in English. It has to be written in English, but it's not even just English—it's very American. It has to be the United States. It has to fall into some specific narrative, and I think that's limiting. The world is vast and there are so many people creating in different languages! And if we have access to it and we can translate that work, we should read it, we should assign it.
“We need a more purposeful effort to translate our literature into English.”
JC: I think about that myopic American perspective a lot as a translator and discuss it often with other translators. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it "the danger of a single story." A lot of times American or Anglophone publishers expect a very specific kind of narrative. They say, ok so we'll translate your book from Spanish if it's about xyz or we'll translate your Chinese novel if it's about the perils of communism. I'm just curious if that's something you've thought about with this story.
XNA: I've thought about it extensively with regard to Puerto Rican literature, especially literature written in Spanish, from the island. If the books don't mention the United States or Uncle Sam explicitly, the US is like, well how do we get this to the larger masses of the US, even though Puerto Rico is the US technically, right?
I worry that we need a more purposeful effort to translate our literature into English. We have publishing houses that do their best to create access at home, whether it's in Spanish or English, but I hope there is more acquisition of works from the island that can be translated into English. That can also be treated as important works, not just we-translate-and-we-forget-it, but that receive the same production efforts they put into whatever book gets published with the "big five" mainstream publishing houses. And these stories don't have to be centered always on diaspora. I'm not disregarding diaspora, but there's a long history of conflict between Puerto Ricans in the diaspora and on the island, and it's always good to have these continued conversations. I want our literature to be spread out in the US because we have had this relationship with the US for the last hundred years or so. We could be here for a while if we really unpack all that.
JC: Definitely. Are there any particular Puerto Rican writers that come to mind, either past or present, that you think most need to be read right now, or translated?
XNA: Manuel Ramos Otero. A lot of Puerto Rican readers and writers have often and always read Manuel Ramos Otero, but I would like to see him more broadly read in the United States, in similar ways as Luis Negrón. Mayra Santos-Febres has had one or two of her books translated, but her entire body of work should be more accessible and should be pushed more broadly. Those are the two that come to mind, not to mention all the poets.
JC: Speaking of diasporic writers and writers on the island, the recent bilingual poetry collection Puerto Rico en mi corazón, edited by Carina del Valle Schorske, Ricardo Maldonado, Erica Mena, and Raquel Salas Rivera, addresses that long-standing conflict you referred to and calls for more exchange between poets on the island and in the diaspora. In the introduction, they write that many of the poems "are already bilingual before the task of translation officially begins.” Do you feel that way about your work?
XNA: I think in English more than in Spanish, so I think it differs between people, but I would suspect that the majority of Puerto Ricans have to consider these adoptions of bilingualism and that things are inherently complicated and inherently bilingual. Yes, the quote is very well put. One of the things that happens without me knowing or noticing is that I want to carry rhythms of Spanish, and the way I write often falls into those structures. That's mostly because I'm terrible at grammar because I don't understand grammar. I was never bound by it. For me grammar is like math. When someone starts talking grammar to me, I zone out the same way as when someone starts talking math to me. My writing will break traditional grammar rules. It breaks those traditions because I don't feel bound by them. On the page these things are a bit more fluid. That's not to say grammatical structures are not very rigid in Spanish, but when I think about language, I try to break it open.
JC: I love that. You know, we're doing this interview for WWB, and it's important to contextualize that when we talk about translation, when we talk about a multiplicity of voices and languages, we're also talking about English. We're also talking about the multiplicity of Englishes.
XNA: Absolutely, yes.
JC: Acknowledging, especially to our students, that grammar is imposed as a colonial structure.
XNA: Yeah, I kind of gave up on trying to feel burdened by grammar and just allowed myself to write.
JC: Back to the novel, the devastation after Maria is incredibly present. What was it like inhabiting that dystopic version of Puerto Rico while you wrote? You wrote it quickly, right?
XNA: I'm struck by the initial impressions that some people are getting from the book, whether it's people from the island or people who don’t know anything about Puerto Rico. Some people have said oh, this feels so real and that’s because it was real. The inspirations all came from a real sentiment and a real experience, from seeing what was a very dangerous situation.
The novel is very grim in many ways. If there's a failing in the book, it falls in there being less humor in it than maybe some people would expect. That's the spirit of what it means to be Puerto Rican, that humor is embodied in a lot of things, including in how we process pain or trauma or histories in community, by laughing and by sharing and by trying to help each other. But I wanted to lean into the dangers and the violence of colonialism and the violence of natural disaster and what the larger implications of that are for the island as a whole. I hope the novel can create a path for other possible narratives from people on the island. They can say ok well I had this other experience that immediately counters this rendition or version. And that's a success, I think, that you can create a path for other possibilities and other stories to come out. That's the hope.
Xavier Navarro Aquino was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Named a "Writer to Watch" by Publishers Weekly for Fall 2021, his fiction has appeared in Guernica, Tin House magazine, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. His poetry has appeared in The Caribbean Writer and is anthologized in Thicker Than Water: New Writing from the Caribbean by Peekash Press. He has been awarded scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a MacDowell Fellowship, and an American Council of Learned Societies Emerging Voices Fellowship at Dartmouth College.
He holds an MA in English Caribbean Studies from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, and a PhD in English from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Currently, Navarro Aquino is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, where he teaches in the MFA program and in Notre Dame’s Initiative on Race and Resilience.
© 2022 Jacqui Cornetta. All rights reserved.
In the coming months, readers may notice some changes afoot at Words Without Borders. We will publish new work that would have appeared on the WWB Daily in what has traditionally been the space for monthly issues. This temporary modification to our publishing model precedes a broader transformation coming to Words Without Borders later this year, news of which we'll be sharing soon. In the meantime, we look forward to continuing to bring you excellent writing from around the world in this new format.
Nastassja Martin's poetic memoir dissects an unforgettable, harrowing encounter with an animal.
The first time I camped overnight in Wyoming, I was handed a bright red canister of bear spray right before going to bed. Back in my tent, I stared at the words COUNTER ASSAULT written across the packaging in paramilitary font, trying to imagine what a grizzly would look like, smell like, if it got close enough to require the mace. I was just out of college, working as a field assistant for geologists, and unprepared for the potential confrontation this canister represented. It was absurd in my hands, a trinket compared with the wildness of the bear, and I spent the night sleepless, listening for paws. A single question had changed the valance of the landscape around me—what would happen if I met a bear, face to face?
Nastassja Martin’s In the Eye of the Wild mainly takes place in the aftermath of this question. While conducting fieldwork on animism in the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia, Martin climbs a volcano and emerges from a patch of fog. A bear stands just steps away. What follows is a kind of dialogue—the bear stares at her, and she stares back; he bares his teeth, and she bares her own. The animal reacts by nearly killing her, but stops short of crushing her skull in his mouth. She, in turn, wounds the bear with her ice axe and survives to write this account of interspecies porousness—a vivid refusal of one-dimensional experience, rendered in Sophie R. Lewis’s eloquent and perfectly paced translation. The lines of inquiry that emerge from Martin’s encounter are far deeper than my initial question: “What does it mean,” she asks, “to emerge from the abyss where uncertainty reigns and choose to build new boundaries using brand new materials salvaged from the depths of your dreams’ unvarying darkness? From the very depths of the yawning gob of a being other than yourself?”
It’s fair to say that Martin was prepared for her human boundaries to blur. As an anthropologist in the field, she begins by keeping two sets of notebooks—one for daytime, to be turned into future scholarship, and the other dedicated to the wildness of her nighttime thoughts, a black book of words and fissures that come to her in the dark. Increasingly, she dreams of bears. They emerge from her childhood garden; they encircle her tent on the taiga; she gets glimpses of their teeth, their claws, their “disquiet.” In Kamchatka, the Even people she is living with notice the way she wakes soaked in sweat and inform her that she is not dreaming of the bear, but dreaming with him.
This thought shakes her, but it also propels her—after all, she has come to this remote part of the world to research how the inhabitants have been dealing with loss and uncertainty in their environment for thousands of years. When she starts her research on animism among the Gwich’in and Even people who live on opposite sides of the Bering Strait, she thinks the dreams of animals she records in her night notebook will “make nice material to write about, to get into animism as applied to dreams, the interpermeability of two souls, the tanglement of ontologies, the dialogue between worlds.” Then she winces: “What presumption! To think that my inner disturbance would not genuinely propel me beyond myself . . . .But where, towards what or whom, to direct my listening?”
It’s an apt question because Martin is a consummate listener, sensitive to the connotations of words and the cultural heft behind them. Though In the Eye of the Wild is billed as “an anthropologist’s tale of reconstitution after a bear attack,” Martin herself never uses that word for what happens between her and the bear, preferring to call it a meeting, an encounter, a confrontation, an implosion of a boundary, a hybridization, a kiss, a resonance, or even a “semantic void, an off-script leap that challenges and unnerves all categories.”
As you may have guessed by now, this is a book that feels genuinely driven by its questioning. It’s one thing to talk about the post-human as a reframing of principles, and quite another to be embodied by a creature, the bear’s face in hers and hers in his, exchanging eye for eye and tooth for tooth. The intensity of this experience places Martin in a different realm. I refuse to use the phrase “uncharted territory,” but there’s a sense that what happens takes place somewhere unmappable, where you have to feel your way in the dark. Martin has the strong impression that there’s something odd about her survival, that she has been allowed to return alive from a mythical, primordial realm. “Death,” she writes, “was the most effective way to escape the unlivable limes, or frontier, that the encounter between two beings from different worlds implies—to escape the cycle of metamorphosis which is then triggered and from which there can be no return.” But she doesn’t die. Instead, she has to learn how to coexist with what she’s seen.
She survives, in part, through instances when she chooses not to listen. Not to a therapist in a maxillofacial surgery unit who tells her, in a stunningly tone-deaf moment, that a person’s face is their identity. Not to all the surgeons who insist on continuing to reopen her jaw in a kind of “cold war” between Russian and French hospitals. Not to her hiking companion who goes into ecstasies about the beauty of Mother Nature. Not to another therapist who says that the bear is a boundary in her life, that she went out into the world to find her own inner darkness in the animal. In these instances of remarkable lucidity, Martin refuses to heal in a way that would be considered “normal,” refuses to shut herself back inside the expected borders of human thought. “There was that incomprehensible us,” she writes of the encounter with the bear. And then there is the human social world, the world of doctors and hospitals that wants to close what is open in her, to make her back into an I, alone.
Fortunately for us, her resistance is a welcome change from the typical fallacies that predominate in books about the wild. These problems can best be summed up by what the critic Kathryn Schulz calls “the great imaginative failure of both spiritual and misanthropic strains of nature writing,” that “they valorize the challenges that arise when we confront ourselves and the wilderness, but not the challenges that arise when we confront one another.” What’s brilliant about Martin’s book is that she’s able to call bullshit on the idea of the pristine, the virginal, the wilderness, while still carrying on a deep conversation with non-human and non-Western ways of being. And she documents how deeply that engagement disturbs other humans, both Even and French. One particularly ironic example occurs when she returns from Siberia to the Salpêtrière, a famous Parisian hospital. “As it’s a bear that has alighted at the Salpêtrière,” she writes, “traveling by way of my body, and a Russian bear, to boot, the hospital staff have activated all their safety and security procedures.” They place her in quarantine as if she were an infectious disease patient, suiting themselves up in coveralls, overshoes, and masks, which they discard when they leave her room. Of course, it’s not the bear that makes her sick—it’s the antibiotic-resistant superbug she catches from their scalpels. The problem, for other people, is that Martin contains more than “can be made to fit the human project”: the bear, the Russian surgeon’s metal plate, her dreams, her interactions with her family, a bacterial colony from the French operating table, her night notebooks, the words of the Even.
Given this book’s doubleness and its dialogue with other voices, I find it particularly moving to read Martin in translation—through the craft of an art form that also strives to keep the borders open between languages and selves. Lewis’s translation is full of lovely choices, from the decision to keep the French word limes in the text and gloss it, to the title itself. On a recent Wednesday, I had a chance to see Lewis talk about titling the book in English, and I was struck by the way the title represented the difficulty of the book itself. In French, the book is called Croire aux fauves—literally “to believe in beasts.” But fauves is a much more multivalent word. It can mean a wild animal, a big cat, a beast, but it can also mean a kind of tawny, primal color, which I’ve always imagined as roughly the hue of a saber-toothed tiger. Lewis said she considered other options like “to believe in the animal” and “listening to the animal,” but ultimately settled on the meeting of eyes that unleashes the encounter between woman and bear. To be In the Eye of the Wild is to be in its sights, but also to peer into the animal world, to stop wearing the mask of human binaries, to look through a wider view.
In the end, that’s just what Martin does. In refusing to pin down her encounter, she stays liminal without going silent. “The wild creature bit my jaw,” she writes, “it was my turn to speak.”
© 2022 by Laura Marris. All rights reserved.
Mahsa Mohebali's novel is a snappy, inventive picaresque with an unforgettable lead.
A series of apocalyptic earthquakes and aftershocks rock Tehran. Some residents attempt to flee, yet traffic snarls the roadways. Fights erupt. Cell service blinks out. In the midst of the growing bedlam strides Shadi, twenty something, questioning life, low on opium and looking to score. So begins Mahsa Mohebali’s exhilarating In Case of Emergency, a novel originally published in Iran in 2008 (as نگران نباش, Don’t Worry) and now available in English thanks to translator Mariam Rahmani and the Feminist Press. Covering a single day and told exclusively through Shadi’s first-person point-of-view, Mohebali’s tale is like a pinball machine on overdrive, a rapid-fire affair that succeeds thanks to the author’s playful repetitions and her choice to grant her narrator’s quirks and asides free rein on the page. Though I found that the novel doesn’t offer much in the way of character development, Shadi’s wanderings—and her eye on contemporary life in Iran—fill the short volume with memorable thrills and verbal flourishes.
Mohebali opens the story in medias res with a topsy-turvy scene. Shadi wakes to her bed trembling. Her mother is screaming and her older brother is trying to get the family ready to leave the city. Shadi admits that she spent the night stoned. She rolls a ball of opium under her tongue, complaining about her nearly depleted stash. As the drug takes effect (“A little creature sets out from the lowest vertebra of my spine, calmly crawls up, then hurls itself from my neck into my skull”)—the action turns surreal. Mohebali rarely employs dialogue tags, so while Shadi wanders through her home, the opium hitting harder with each step, it’s sometimes difficult to know who is speaking. This adds to the chaos, and it also shows confidence from the author, who expects the audience to quickly pick up the novel’s stripped-down style in these first fractured moments. Shadi’s mother tries to reach Shadi’s father on the phone; Shadi’s younger brother, Arash, spouts off about revolution; the panicked maid, Miss Gelin, wonders how Shadi’s grandmother, Nana Molouk, has vanished during an emergency; Shadi sees a text message from her friend, Ashkan, who is threatening to kill himself.
It isn’t long before Shadi gives her family the slip and heads out into the city, first trying to find Ashkan, and later hoping to contact one of her dealers. With these foundations of In Case of Emergency’s threadbare plot, a hero’s journey ensues. Shadi encounters picaresque vignettes along the way to her destinations—navigating through packed streets, tussling with rollerblading teens—and though none of the interactions lead to great fortune or revelation, they provide opportunity for Mohebali’s narrative techniques to come alive. In her helpful translator’s note, Mariam Rahmani mentions Mohebali’s use of repetition, wondering if English audiences will see the device as “lazy and lowly,” while defending the technique as “well respected in the Farsi canon, perhaps because of the way couplets historically lean on conjugated verbs for easy rhymes.” Indeed, the repetition in Mohebali’s prose is anything but lazy, building a rhythm for Shadi’s day, adding beats to the frenetic nature of each scene, and at times signaling similarities between characters. For example, nearly everyone—prosperous, tragic, sober, drugged, human, canine—climbs stairs “two by two.” Shadi also describes various men in the novel, including Arash, as possessing “jackal-jawed smile[s],” a recurrence that comes to signify a certain breed of young men, desperate for attention and keen on playing the role of tough guys.
Moreover, Shadi’s repetitions feel at times like old jokes, balms in a world gone out of control. She numbers her cargo pant pockets (“I take a pack of cigarettes out of pocket #206,” “I reach into pocket #304,” “I extract my phone from pocket #206”) as if she doubled as a secret agent. She refers to nonsense versions of Newton’s laws, from “think not when coming down for thou thinkst out of thine ass” to “thou shalt keep thy lighter within a half-meter radius at all times” that she confuses as the hours tick by, asking herself “Which one of Newton’s laws was it that says keep your cigarette and lighter within thirty centimeters at all times?” Considering her external disposition is one of disinterest—in her family, in whether Ashkan lives or dies, in the hostility she witnesses in public—it’s these patterned internal asides that shed light on Shadi’s true nature.
Perhaps the most effective of these digressions drops humor almost entirely for sentimentality couched in criticism. Though she rarely utters a kindness aloud, Shadi engages in jags of thoughts directly addressing other characters, using “you” in place of the target’s name. About her older brother, Bobak, Shadi thinks, “Bitch, how did you get so pretty? Too bad you’re a mama’s boy who won’t cut the cord.” While listening to Arash ramble about revolution, she thinks, “I wish you’d never grown up. I wish you didn’t have all that fuzz on your chest and cheeks and I wish I could swim with your arms clasped around my neck like old times.” And when she sees her friend, Sara, late in the novel, Shadi unloads the following:
Ever since first grade you’ve been there beside me. At my desk or me at yours. On the seesaw or on the swings. In the big black car that used to pick you up. Or in this very garden, playing hide-and-seek, laughing, laughing, laughing. So when did you disappear? You went to Paris then all of a sudden the sorrow of exile seized you and like a ghost you popped up in the crates of herbs and tomatoes for sale at Tajrish Square. So that I said to myself, see how all that hash is finally catching up to you? See how you’ve become melancholic and hallucinate in broad daylight?
These tangents contradict Shadi’s terse verbal exchanges, and they add elements of monologue to the traditional blow-by-blow narration one might expect from the first person. They round off Shadi’s character, providing sympathy for someone who otherwise may be tough to root for, yet they also prevent her companions from knowing her deeper thoughts. The result is a double-edged sword. By novel’s end, Shadi is fully realized, but I would be lying if I said I felt the same about her co-stars. These secondary characters remain two-dimensional, left to react solely to Shadi’s sarcastic quips and verbal dodges.
Despite this flaw, In Case of Emergency is a potent critique of contemporary life in Iran, both in its depiction of narcotic use (translator Rahmani notes that “Iran had the highest per capita opiate use in the world” at the time of the novel’s conception) and in its observations of wealth. Shadi and her well-to-do family possess the luxury of potentially abandoning Tehran for safer pastures. When Shadi sees walls of traffic attempting to leave the city, she notes the automobiles of middle- to upper-class citizens, dubbing one driver “Prince Peugeot,” and she watches a flood of women cramming into an ATM to withdraw funds, turning the machine into “a beehive.” Those left behind are a mixture of loudmouth youth like Arash, elderly people with little access to freedom, and families huddled on blankets, waiting for soldiers to hand out rations. When first published, In Case of Emergency took home a Hooshang Golshiri Literary Award—a major Iranian literary award celebrating contemporary writing—and it’s easy to see why. With its snappy tour of Tehran and engaging, complicated protagonist, the novel is hard to forget.
© 2022 by Benjamin Woodard. All rights reserved.
Animals appear throughout literature of all languages and reading levels. Often used allegorically or to represent human foibles, they star in fables and myths, drive origin stories, scamper through children’s literature, and play major roles in narratives of all genres.
This month we’ve visited the archive to round up stories featuring animals both wild and tame, in tales that range from folklore to contemporary war stories and in settings from cozy domesticity to stark wilderness. While some lean toward the fantastic—animals speak with both humans and each other—and others offer more realistic milieus, they all provide illuminating portraits of human-animal relationships.
Many legends are grounded in centuries of harmonious interspecies coexistence. The Himalayan folktale “When the Deer Moved Away” describes how the arrival of an outsider upends a village’s seasonal tradition, with tragic and permanent results. As such it serves as both origin story and cautionary tale of the costs of disrupting natural rhythms.
Some of the animals here possess the power of speech, deploying it to often subversive ends. Álvaro Cunqueiro’s “Alberte Merlo’s Horse” finds a Galician Mr. Ed renegotiating his relationship with his owner. When he gets the upper hand, it’s clear who’s holding the reins.
Cats Rafi and Spaghetti provide running commentary on graphic artist Ilana Zeffren’s home life with her partner in “This Is How It Is When You’re Involved with Sensitive Girls.” Like Alberte Merlo’s horse, they speak to their owners, dividing their time between sleeping, eating, lolling about, and delivering their arch feline play-by-play on the household events that they both observe and affect.
Another perspective comes from Mboudjak, the canine narrator of Patrice Nganang’s “Barking,” who recounts the gradual, inevitable process of his domestication. His initial resistance to the restrictions imposed by human expectations dwindles, replaced by first grudging accommodation and then canny acceptance: “I might be a dog, but I'm not stupid.”
A far less civilized hound slouches through Eeva Park’s “A Dog’s Life.” Here a random act of kindness proves to be more than simple charity. A woman feeds a stray dog and meets his ragged owner, with whom she turns out to have a startling connection. She takes in both dog and man, but subsequent events suggest that both are more at home on the streets.
The arrival of a kitten shifts the dynamic of the multigenerational household of Xi Xi’s “Davin Chan Moves Out.” When the title character’s cat-hating wife causes the death of the new pet, Davin’s brother mourns his loss with a vengeance. Spooked by his ghoulish memorials and the discovery of a serial killer in the neighborhood, the frazzled woman makes a dramatic choice.
A man desperate for an heir resorts to superstition to jack up his potency in Wong Koi Tet’s “Black Panther.” The childless Ong Par has exhausted the available folk remedies when a panther escapes from the nearby zoo. His fruitless pursuit of the animal and its aphrodisiacal organ leads to a surprising reveal and a welcome reversal of fortune.
Another standoff between man and beast ends less happily. Juan José Millás’s "Agony in the Kitchen" depicts a fretful traveler who installs his family in a beautiful seaside house but can't take a holiday from his anxiety. Will the children be swept away by the tide? Is the car door locked? Did his wife turn off the television? ("You turned off the circuit breaker," she reminds him.) The agony of the title refers directly to the last minutes of the lobster stashed in the sink overnight; wakened by its death throes, the man tries to put it out of its misery but only prolongs his own.
The conflicts are strictly between humans in Hassan Blasim’s “The Green Zone Rabbit.” Two would-be assassins hole up in Baghdad with the incongruous pet of the title. Awaiting their orders, they instead receive an anonymous message both cryptic and ominous. In this atmosphere of treachery and shifting alliances, the violent conclusion is both shocking and inevitable.
But if you’d prefer to end on a cheerier note, get on board with the retiring engineer of Sergi Pamiès’s "End of the Line” on his last day at the throttle. His spontaneous farewell to a crucial colleague is a fitting adieu to his job and a reminder of the reliable comfort provided by our four-legged cohorts.
As the stories this month demonstrate, animals are often at the center of our world—sometimes uncomfortably so. Whether your taste runs to tabbies or tigers, though, we hope you’ll enjoy visiting the many species inhabiting this menagerie.
© 2022 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
Shukri Mabkhout's award winning novel shows characters attempting to navigate a society in tumult.
One gets the uneasy feeling that 59-year-old Shukri Mabkhout has been holding himself back. It might be an automatic reflex, after decades of living under tyranny in Tunisia. He is currently the director of Manouba University — where he teaches Arabic, literature, and discourse analysis — and has produced many fine works of literary criticism. Mabkhout comes off as restrained in interviews. This benign demeanor is at odds with the raging passion and rebelliousness that infiltrate the pages of his phenomenal novel, The Italian, which was released in 2015. It won the Arab Booker Prize and was temporarily banned by the UAE for unspecified official reasons. Readers will immediately grasp why his book threatened the status quo. Mabkhout has produced a stunning literary work about how it feels to live in a society that is not free.
Mabkhout makes no such assertions about his work and downplays any autobiographical links to his story. He paints himself as an observer of sorts, claiming that he has never joined forces with any political faction. Regarding the success of his work, he has said: “The novel, for me, is a way of looking into the chaos of society even if at first glance it appears stable and coherent. The chaos described in the book is not my chaos. It is a chaos of a society in transition from one regime to another.” Yet, it is impossible not to think that many of his finely drawn, haunting characters owe something to his experiences as an intellectual in a country whose government censors any material deemed not beneficial to the running of the state.
Modern Tunisia was established in 1956, after growing pressure for independence led to the end of French colonial rule. Habib Bourguiba led the anti-colonial movement, then kept himself at the head of an authoritarian regime for the next three decades, until he was unseated in a coup in 1987 by Ben Ali, who in turn remained in power until the Arab Spring erupted, in 2011. Both regimes were oppressive police states, in which surveillance, humiliation, and paranoia were everyday affairs for those who dared to step out of place. During the past ten years, Tunisia has slowly and unevenly been moving towards democratic reforms.
Mabkhout has his narrator introduce us to the protagonist of the novel, the firebrand and leftist college activist Abdel Nasser. The narrator describes himself as timid and obedient and confesses that his friendship with Nasser was peculiar, since they were nothing alike. He says that he was always Nasser’s best friend, but there is an edginess in the prose that suggests that their relationship was not always as harmonious as it seems. He eventually concedes that he was jealous of Nasser, who he describes as wild, impetuous, handsome, and filled with boundless energy. The narrator is impressed by Nasser’s brazenness but is unable to mimic him. He cares too much about fitting in and not disappointing his parents. The action is set in the 1980s, when the two of them spent hours reading Arab and French poetry, discussing Russian writers, and listening to music.
The narrator is present when Nasser meets Zeina and falls hopelessly in love with her. She is a mysterious woman from the countryside who seems to know everything. The two debate Mao, Lenin, Bordieuan sociology, and whether they have a chance at having a life together. Nasser is certain, but Zeina hesitates, traumatized by familial episodes of rape and uncertain whether she is capable of love. Mabkhout writes luscious romantic passages that are highlighted by the aching longings of a young man who thinks he has found his soul mate. There is something about Zeina that inspires uncertainty. Even his friends at college have trouble placing her in any sort of defined context. Nasser is overwhelmed by her “green eyes, a shade of dark green made even brighter and more beautiful by their prominence. Her eyes were full of mystery, anyone who tried to focus on them would notice nuances of green that varied by the weather‑one shade for sun, another for clouds, and by the openness of the space she was in.”
Desperate to stay together despite mounting financial strain and Zeina's desire to keep studying, Nasser takes a job at a state-run newspaper so her education can continue. The work is eye-opening for Nasser, who is suddenly forced to make concessions that he had never previously considered. He resents the setup at the newspaper, particularly how everything is gone over by several censors. Over an alcohol-fueled lunch, his boss, Si Abdel Hamid, tells him that there is no legitimate journalism in Tunisia and that all of his colleagues at the newspaper are merely tightrope walkers. Hamid says, “There’s only one source of truth in Tunisia: the state. And these days, the interior ministry is the state, and the state is the interior ministry.” He continues: “The state is the biggest lie that humanity has ever created and then believed in. The state is me. And you. And the secretary who gives me her body at the office without me asking for it, because I represent the state in her eyes.”
His boss instructs Nasser to write an article that welcomes Ben Ali and embraces the changes he promises. He warns Nasser to keep his language neutral and not ruffle any feathers. Nasser is at first confused, but his boss clafirifes that Ben Ali’s words are just a smoke screen. Nothing will really change. The back and forth between Nasser and Hamid takes on astonishing power. We can’t imagine the Nasser we've seen throughout the novel buckling under such constricting conditions, but what choice does he really have? Mabkhout shows us the overwhelming helplessness that ransacks the ambitious souls of those who live without liberty.
Nasser is shaken and begins to drink excessively. His relationship hangs by a thread. Disillusionment sets in, as Nasser ages. As I came towards the end of this tremendously provocative work, I kept thinking of Shukri Mabkhout’s decision to write this book. It took courage for him to have published The Italian. For surely he knew what he was trying to show us. And how dangerous it was to do so.
© 2021 by Elaine Margolin. All rights reserved.
Samar Yazbek's novel uses a memorable narrator to explore the indelibility of storytelling.
If Rima, the narrator of Samar Yazbek’s Planet of Clay, could have her way, she would not be writing her story—she would be drawing it. “Before,” she writes, referring to her life in Syria prior to its ongoing civil war, “I used to believe that drawing was more capable of expression than words.” But Rima has been relegated to an underground cellar that is her de facto trap and perhaps her salvation, a cellar that is by chance supplied with writing paper and just one blue ink pen. She has neither the luxury of choosing her medium, nor the privilege of knowing if she will ever enjoy the attentions of a reader. Still, “there are many stories you will hear,” Rima assures her improbable, imagined reader. “If I live.” Yazbek is a storyteller of many genres, so it seems only natural that this novel should—as it closely hews to horrors as seen and understood by one set of eyes, one mind—be concerned with the earthiest of literary questions: how, really, should one go about passing on that fickle thing, a story?
Yazbek worked as a journalist and script writer for Syrian television until 2011, when she joined the protests against the Assad dictatorship in the wake of the Arab Spring. After conflicts intensified, leading Syria into a catastrophic civil war, she was forced into exile. In the last decade, she has concerned herself with telling the stories of the conflict that led her to flee her home country. Her first two books about the war were works of memoir and reportage—A Woman in The Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution; and The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria—for which she won the PEN/Pinter International Writer of Courage Award and the French Best Foreign Book Award. Another nonfiction work, 19 Women: Tales of Resilience from Syria, came out in 2018, but has not yet been translated into English.
“What is happening in Syria,” Yazbek said in a 2015 interview, “is like being trapped down a deep, dark tunnel where you can see no way out.” In Planet of Clay, Yazbek makes the tunnel Rima’s cellar. Before her imprisonment, she is young but on the way to womanhood, silent except when reciting the Quran, and given to ambulatory excess—to keep her from wandering off, because she is believed to be mentally ill, her mother ties one of Rima’s wrists to her own with a cord. Rima offers a double-edged perspective: she is in the midst of events but also, at first, unaware of the world shifting, shaking, shattering just out of sight.
Rima chooses to begin her compelling if unevenly told tale just when her life of a bookish, oblivious teenager turns hellish: “Life seemed to be snapping at our heels,” she writes. One innocuous day, on the way to visit a librarian who long nourished her imagination with books—particularly Alice in Wonderland and The Little Prince, from which this book gets its title—Syria’s war finds her. At one of the checkpoints that dot Damascus, a scuffle ensues, Rima’s mother is killed (“my mother disappeared”), and Rima, shot in the shoulder and imprisoned in a so-called hospital, is witness to scenes and figures hued with Kafkaesque tones. Yazbek has expressed admiration for the Czech writer, but while Kafka renders his horrors as surrealistic, individualized tortures, Yazbek’s are experienced en masse, and grounded in the real recent past. Part of the point is that for all her idiosyncrasies, Rima’s fate, though it might be called random, is not idiosyncratic.
And the novel’s hallucinogenic horrors stem from a real source. The most affecting pages strikingly describe the aftermath of a sarin gas attack that nearly costs Rima her life. It is a scene that might be nominally familiar to anyone reading newspapers around 2013, rendered with unusual creative intensity:
There was a room soaked in water and we were swimming in it like paintings, and there were souls rising to heaven, children and women and men, more children and women than men. I was able to tell the souls apart from each other.
One of the book’s central questions is how to write out something you’ve experienced—imagine it out so that others may understand it, feel it, even live it. “I hear the roar of the plane,” Rima comments, “but that can’t be seen on the page.” Meanwhile, description is inadequate, too: “Is there a phrase that can describe the color that the chemical bombs left behind them?” At one point in Rima’s narration, which moves between telling the tale of her eventual entrapment in her cellar and her more associative ruminations, she speaks of an ambition she once had “to write and illustrate a long novel,” stating that “the right moment for turning these words into drawings is coming.”
Since Rima speaks to the difficulty of understanding “bare words without turning them into pictures,” one wonders what these illustrations might look like. When Rima does try to draw through her words, it leads to some of the book’s more strained writing, here about Rima’s infatuation for the man who saved her life during the sarin attack:
I am writing about Hassan for you, and I am observing the flies around me, coming out of the fish in my head. . . . Imagine me watching the flies all around me, and thinking there is a fish jumping between my ribs, and suddenly a fish shape wearing a rabbit skin leaps out from my chest and comes to rest! Drawing is better than words. If I had my paints, I could make you understand me much more clearly.
That this passage ends on a note of defeat evinces one of the risks of trying to turn thought and feeling into expression, but certainly our narrator knows that the greatest danger to storytelling, beyond not being understood, is that of not being believed: “Don’t think that what you are reading is a novel. What I’m writing is the truth.” This is curious, though not necessarily contradictory, in a sometimes discursive novel obsessed with the imaginary. But if Rima were real, if what we were holding in our hands is the compilation of all her scattered pages found and preserved, then we, the readers, might be nothing short of the final act of her attempted sorcery, the kind of figures that Rima’s highly active imagination would have committed to the page if only she had lived in a different world, on a different planet. Samar Yazbek has written a novel that, while sometimes frustrating or overwrought, nonetheless manages to speak to the urgency of telling and listening to the most vulnerable of stories—stories by people who in other circumstances might have had more than one story to tell.
© 2021 by Ben Goldman. All rights reserved.
Just shy of two years since the city of New York was laid low by the COVID-19 pandemic, the December issue of Words Without Borders brings together work from five writers—all of them working in Spanish—that explores this multifaceted city.
That such writing exists should come as a surprise to no one. A long tradition exists of writers from Spain and Latin America who have come and stayed in this city, and documented their experience in the only language they knew—or the one they elected. García Lorca wrote Poeta en Nueva York, a series of poems that still talk to us today about the views of a gay European man, fascinated by the energy coming from these streets. José Martí wrote a series of nonfiction pieces that, after being published for the most important newspapers across the Americas, helped readers–from Buenos Aires and Caracas to Havana and Mexico City–to understand the magnitude of the American experiment.
What has changed for Spanish-language writing in New York in the time since Martí, and later Lorca, wrote here? Today there is a more or less established route for these writers to present and to publish their work. Until the pandemic hit, in a basement in SoHo, in a small bookstore in Queens, in a few small gardens in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, in the Bronx, on a community radio station on Staten Island, poets, writers, essayists–many of them students–met weekly, or daily, to share their work. They organized events, they met and listened to writers who had come to New York from cities big and small across Latin America and Spain. There were several reasons, including the creation of the MFA Program in Creative Writing in Spanish at New York University and a new wave of immigrants and students, enticed by scholarships and more active recruitment efforts from institutions like the Cervantes Institute and the City University of New York. Javier Molea, a librarian and activist, has also played a big role, especially during his time working for McNally Jackson, when he successfully transformed the basement of the bookstore into a hub, a place where many writers, from across the Hispanophone world or else coming from other cities in this country, knew they could come to give readings from their books.
Most of these writers were or are students, and still live on the margins. They may get a salary as part-time adjuncts, or may work for tips (in restaurants, clubs, coffee shops, like anyone else). They share rooms with other students, and from there they write: sometimes about their dreams, sometimes about the choice to stay here. Most of them are still straddling two worlds, a foot in each one.
Today, a young writer working in Spanish arrives in New York City to find no shortage of role models. Since around the beginning of this decade, they can find a series of novels, poems, a more or less constant flows of stories centered on this city, such as those written by such figures as Lina Meruane, María Negroni, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Fernanda Trías, Eduardo Lago, Marta Ana Diz, or Valeria Luiselli. And there are magazines publishing that work like ViceVersa, Los Bárbaros or Temporales. In addition, there are local independent publishing houses of various sizes doing the same. Since 2019 there is even an International Book Fair in Spanish, FILNYC, organized by the Mexican Studies Institute and Instituto Cervantes.
Now, there is a feeling of a collective pursuit; a burgeoning group of writers, publishers, and festival curators are working to create something permanent.
There are reasons for this. Glotopolitical reasons, as José del Valle would say, from his podium as a scholar at The Graduate Center, CUNY. There are writing programs, magnets attracting the best writers from the Spanish-speaking world, like NYU and City College CUNY. And technology plays no small role; now there are faster, cheaper, and easier ways to publish—online or by print on demand.
Ultimately, this phenomenon is about people who came to the city and found it to their liking. Immigrants who decided to call this place home, and who happen to be accomplished writers.
Michel Nieva, who recently appeared in Granta’s latest issue of Best of Spanish-Language Novelists, hails from Argentina. In the short story “War of the Species,” he follows a Harlem resident who, thrown into unemployment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, discovers a gruesome competition between two of the city’s most persistent scavengers.
Mario Michelena, who lives in Brooklyn and published his first novel in 2015 in Peru, looks at warfare of a different variety. The story featured here—“No One Really Knows Why People Shout”—comes to us from his second book, to be released in English translation by Chatos Inhumanos, a small New York-based publishing house, in early 2022. Michelena has been an interpreter for boxing fights on HBO, and currently works full time as an interpreter in the Brooklyn courts. Some of his courtroom experiences were the basis for his novel Las esquinas redondeadas, and they are behind the story published in this issue.
Sara Cordón, an NYU graduate, CUNY PhD candidate, and winner of the very prestigious Cosecha Eñe Prize in 2017, belongs to a group of writers who answered the call of a New York-based MFA program. She was working for a writing program in Madrid when she got the opportunity to apply to NYU. It was in this city that she wrote her debut novel, Para español Pulse Dos (For Spanish, Press Two), a critical success published by Penguin Random House and now being translated into English by Robin Myers. The novel is about becoming a student in New York, about the dreams of writers who arrive here for the first time, about American academia, the illusion of fame, and the farces common to both. The story in this issue, “The Common Good,” is also about being a student, more specifically a young girl from Madrid who always viewed New York through the lens of her favorite film, Walter Hill’s 1979 action thriller The Warriors. Now, thanks to a sensitive translation by Robin Myers, this story is available to readers in English.
Álvaro Baquero-Pecino is another example of the connection between the world of academia and the world of writers. He is a professor at College of Staten Island, while working on the side on short stories and publishing some of his work in Los bárbaros, including “Statistics,” a tale of New York City in numbers that resulted from a workshop with Lina Meruane, which appears here.
Our issue closes with a piece by Naief Yehya, a writer who was born in the 1960s but has been living in New York for a very long time. He has always been a huge presence in the writing scene in Mexico, mixing creative writing with essays on technoculture and twenty-first-century pornography. In his story “Plans and Commitments,” translated by Samantha Ortega, a middle-aged Brooklyn man faces an awkward situation after a cam girl calls his bluff.
As biographer, translator, and editor Esther Allen notes in an interview for this month’s issue, the distorted historical record that erases the longstanding presence and contribution of those for whom Spanish is a first language has dangerous repercussions locally and nationally. The contributions to this month’s issue re-stake a longstanding claim to the city of New York and are an effective antidote to monolingual and monolithic portraits of this pulsing metropolis.
© 2021 Ulises Gonzales. All rights reserved.
In this story by Michel Nieva, pandemic-era Harlem brings our protagonist back to 2001 protests in Buenos Aires's Plaza de Mayo, a movement whose size has perhaps only ever been rivaled in recent US history by the Black Lives Matter movement.
It was shortly after I’d moved to Harlem, during that first pandemic summer, that I first learned about the war of the species. I’d lost my job, and with all the borders closed I’d ended up stranded in New York. In jest I was telling Nelson that, while the restrictions may have meant I couldn’t go back to Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires had come back to me. But the Buenos Aires that circumstances had placed before me was a city in its most nightmarish form, a spectral Buenos Aires circa 2001 that was so formative to my early adolescence, and which exemplified the period of our greatest economic, social and political crisis, when we went through five presidents in a single month, as the country declared bankruptcy and levels of extreme poverty exceeded fifty percent. I went to school in the afternoon session and was always getting mugged at knifepoint on the walk back home from the metro station. In light of this, I’d made a habit of always wearing my shabbiest clothes, or rather the only ones that were left in my wardrobe, beat-up Topper sneakers full of holes and an enormous, old army jacket I had inherited from an uncle. Because my school was just a few blocks from the Plaza de Mayo, where the anti-government protests were taking place, the police would take one look at my sneakers and stop me every time, asking me for my documents despite the sheer improbability that a twelve-year-old might be leading protests. I remember classes being suspended at least twice a week because of gunshots on the Plaza de Mayo, and the narrow streets of Montserrat, today plagued with banks and luxury hotels, were then a ghetto of squats, unabashed drug dealing, and homeless people. I remember my mother giving me my pocket money in LECOP and patacones, emergency bonds the government had distributed to make up for the shortage of cash; not only was it rare to find a place that accepted them, but those that did refused to give change, so that you had to use each patacón in one go, and not allow a hasty purchase (buying a five-patacón sandwich with a patacón worth ten, for example) to eat away at the few valuable notes you had. In short, it was a period of terrible scarcity, there were shortages of everything everywhere, but I was twelve and I was happy. And suddenly, a part of that distorted memory came back to me in 2020 New York. When I first arrived in Manhattan, I held the unshakeable belief that its skyscrapers and marquees were indestructible and that nothing could stop the flow of people and capital through them. The place was brimming over with wealth and it was inconceivable that the majestic scenery of its high-end neighborhoods and iconic avenues might be disrupted for any reason. And then suddenly the pandemic descended upon us, the rich fled upstate, and the ghostly streets were traversed only by roaring ambulances, joined subsequently by the boiling pot of the Black Lives Matter protests. Supermarkets were stripped of the most basic supplies as if in wartime and the luxury shops on Fifth Avenue were boarded up to deter looters. I was living in Harlem and had lost my job due to the closure of the perfumery where I worked. My home was a room in a boarding house which almost everyone else had abandoned, and the massive protests on 125th Street and Saint Nicholas Ave. were the only time I felt any sense of community or refuge from loneliness during that terrible time, which was precisely when the Buenos Aires I had left behind, and could not go back to because the borders were closed, was suddenly reincarnated in this unforeseen historical moment of a New York that, though unrecognizable to itself, was ominously recognizable in the Buenos Aires of 2001. In the early evenings I would visit the only liquor store still open in the neighborhood, where Nelson, a Mendoza native who had lived undocumented in the city for thirty years, could be found behind the counter. He was the only person with whom I spoke face-to-face during those lonely and unsettling days. I calculated that the money I was saving on monthly metro passes was equivalent to six bottles of bourbon (the cheapest and most effective alcohol, since each bottle was equivalent to four bottles of wine—my drink of choice, but one that in this context was beyond my means), though I quickly lost my grasp of mathematics and began drinking a bottle a day, which meant that I began visiting Nelson daily, and after purchasing my daily dose we’d always stop and chat for a while. As I was saying, I was telling him about the way Buenos Aires was being reincarnated in New York when he simply changed the subject, like he hadn’t been listening to a word I was saying:
“Shall we go bet a few pesos on the rats vs. raccoon bout?”
It appeared, Nelson added, that the rats had all gone crazy because of the quarantine and the sudden disappearance of trash on the streets. They couldn’t understand why their food source had suddenly disappeared and they had begun eating their own young. Nelson explained that they had soon split into two groups: the cannibals, who ate the children of their rivals, and the ones who’d joined up with the raccoons that had swarmed the city to kill the other rats. However, it seemed that the raccoons, unlike the rats, had benefited from the disappearance of humans, since it had allowed them to return from the forests of the north and take definitive control of the deserted streets. At the same time, the rats, knee-deep in their own civil war, were exposed, opening up a via regia that allowed the raccoons to take over sewers and hiding places. The result was that the raccoons ended up betraying their rat allies and engaging them in a bloody war of the species that could be appreciated in all its ugliness in any one of the city’s green spaces.
And, Nelson continued, a Puerto Rican friend of his had not passed up the opportunity to monetize a spectacle that could be witnessed in broad daylight in any New York park, and so had set up a betting ring in which people could put money on either the rats or the raccoons. They gathered every day at around six p.m. in Inwood Hill Park, and the minimum bet was ten dollars.
I didn’t really understand what it was all about, but I was so lonely and desperate that the very idea of being around people excited me, and I agreed to come along.
We brought a bottle of bourbon with us—on Nelson’s tab this time—and entered the park on the hill side, facing the river on 207th Street, which is like entering a small forest and makes you forget you’re in a city. The ground is earth covered by a bed of leaves, and a thick tangle of pine branches forms a kind of mysterious, enchanted tunnel. We walked for a few minutes up a steep path until suddenly, guided by the sound of whispers (no one was shouting because of the illicit nature of the activity), we found them. Some twenty or thirty people were huddled together in a circle, and some bloodcurdling shrieks were emanating from within. We slipped in among the crowd where we saw a swarm of frenzied rats balancing on a larger figure, about three feet in height, which I recognized once it started moving its arms and waist around: sure enough, it was a raccoon, but it was pulsating so violently that it resembled something else, some sort of cybernetic beast that had been created to kill.
I hadn’t quite taken in the situation when a man looked at me and asked, in perfect Spanish:
“Rat or raccoon?”
And so, completely unaware that this was the kind of sacred moment when you pledge your undying allegiance to a team, through thick and thin, I stated my choice:
I gave him ten dollars and let myself get carried away by the spectacle.
With their yellowy incisors, the rats gnawed away at the head and chest of the raccoon which, curiously, was standing upright on two legs like a biped. It slashed them across the middle with its long, sharp claws, leaving their guts hanging in the air, before tossing their disembowelled corpses into the gloomy woods. But the rats were so great in number that they fought back. One managed to bite off the raccoon’s ear, hungrily swallowing it like some prized delicacy. Meanwhile, an uncontrollable flow of blood, black as magma, erupted from the wound and covered the poor animal’s face. But the raccoon used its paw to wipe it off and squeezed the head of the rat, which was still gnawing on the toughest bits of auricular cartilage, with such force and violence that it exploded with a moist crunch of bones and brain. At this point, the crowd watching the spectacle could no longer contain their elation and, brandishing their betting slips in their hands, let out rallying cries which differed depending on the animal they’d put their money on, in a cacophony of languages from which I could only make out Spanish:
Quickly, though, I learned that rat is bera in Hausa and chuot in Vietnamese and krisa in Russian and yordan in Arabic and panya in Swahili and exu in Yoruba. We were a random assortment of immigrants in Harlem, most of us people who’d lost their jobs and had nowhere to return to even if we could or wanted to and with nothing else to do but bet the few notes we had left on the interspecies war that had so violently broken out in the city’s parks.
Which is what we were doing when, abruptly, some deafening sirens boomed out and people started to flee in terror. The curfew that had been decreed to repress the BLM protests had begun, and the gamblers ran off in every direction. Nelson shouted at me:
“Run, boludo, the cops are coming!”
But the fight still wasn’t over and I just had to know who would win, and the raccoon, with a furious, desperate energy, swiped the three or four rats who were still gnawing away at the top of its head with the aim of perforating its cranium and tore them to pieces, one by one. Its head was caked in half-dried, sticky blood and mud, and it let out a chilling roar, a kind of war cry that scared away the only rat that was still standing, surrounded by a pool of exploded rodents that resembled flesh magnolias recently come into bloom.
The raccoon had triumphed.
I took out my now worthless ten-dollar slip and turned around, but Nelson had gone. The sirens were getting louder and I fled down a pronounced slope towards the river, groping about among the rocks in the darkness. I kept going until the noise of the sirens slowly began to fade and the nearby lampposts guided me towards a part of Inwood Hill Park where there had once been a café (now boarded up) and where at every hour of the day there always used to be people playing sports or sitting and chatting on the grass or the benches or taking photos in the direction of the Hudson. But now its new conquerors, the raccoons, had eliminated any trace of that former obstacle. There were hundreds or maybe thousands of them, and they stalked the place like ghosts, suspicious and silent. I walked calmly, relieved at having escaped the patrol cars when suddenly three raccoons, who had already noticed my presence, came menacingly toward me. One of them growled, baring its long, sharp teeth in my direction. It looked at me and its glowing eyes made the pit of my stomach flutter, because all of a sudden I understood something that I couldn’t explain but which I fully understood deep in my guts, and it was that from now on we would all be hooked on the war of the species. We would bet and sometimes we would win, but the compulsion to play, whether we lost or won, would consume every last drop of energy—in our bodies and our minds—that we had left. It was the unmistakeable scent of a war waged according to the law of the mighty, and we had no alternative but to submit to its undisputed rule.
And from now on, everything would be either rat or raccoon.
“La guerra inter-especie” © Michel Nieva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Rahul Bery. All rights reserved.
In this work of microfiction, Álvaro Baquero-Pecino constructs a humorous portrait of New York in very real numbers: security cameras, steps to climb the Empire State Building, and so much more.
Three hundred eighty-one meters, 102 floors, and 6,500 windows. We know that more than 2.5 million people visit the Empire State Building each year. An average of eighty-seven couples get engaged atop its observatory every month. It’s estimated that the dimensions of an engagement ring are directly proportional to the unhappiness of the couple. Three out of ten women between the ages of twenty-four and thirty who are visiting New York for a weekend affirm that size does matter. It’s known that the building has 1,576 steps, and that the elevators are almost never out of order. It takes seven minutes and thirty-four seconds to walk from the lobby to the subway station. The newly betrothed can walk past 214 people between Fifth and Seventh avenues. The city’s subway is considered the dirtiest in this world, and those of other parallel universes. Recently, the number of complaints about its rat infestation rose to 24,186. On a bad night, a train car on the red line takes more than half an hour to appear, and no fewer than twenty-one minutes to traverse the eleven stations to the southern tip of Manhattan. On occasion, the noise from the rails reaches 106 decibels. More than 18,000 NYPD security cameras take pictures of passersby everyday. The new station at Whitehall is equipped with five escalators and twenty-eight granite benches. The Staten Island ferry transports more than 66,000 people a day. In the winter, the wind frequently exceeds 43.5 miles per hour, the wind chill dips to thirteen degrees below zero, and the fog during nocturnal crossings can occult all ninety-three meters of Lady Liberty. Nine people have fallen into the water under mysterious circumstances since the beginning of the year. Three out of ten women between the ages of twenty-four and thirty who are visiting New York for a weekend never learned to swim. It’s estimated that in the Hudson River, the weight of an engagement ring is inversely proportional to the likelihood of being saved.
"Statistics" © Álvaro Baquero-Pecino. Translation © 2021 by Sarah Pollack. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
Words Without Borders talks to translators and scholars Esther Allen and Ulises Gonzales about the December 2021 issue of the magazine, the state of Spanish-language writing in and about New York, and the challenges and opportunities New York offers writers working in Spanish.
WWB: This month's issue of Words Without Borders brings together writers working in Spanish but living in New York to give us a different perspective on the city, from the vantage point of those who speak, live, and write in New York's second-most spoken language. While New York is known for the diversity of its residents, when it comes to literary matters, English is perhaps still the language most associated with the city in the popular imagination. There have been notable breakthrough exceptions, works written in other languages about the city that come to exercise an important role in US literary culture—there's Lorca's Poet in New York, of course, and German writer Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries (first published in German between 1970 and 1983, but not translated into English until 2018).
Esther, we would be remiss not to include in that group a writer whose work you have brought into English, the Cuban journalist and poet José Martí, who wrote dispatches from New York between 1880 and 1895—tackling now-iconic landmarks such as St. Patrick's Cathedral and Coney Island. It's interesting to consider the extent to which writing in Spanish has long been part of the New York literary tradition, and, consequently, to think of this month's issue of WWB as merely the latest iteration in this trend. Is it fair to think of Martí as one of the originators of this tradition? If not with him, where does this tradition begin?
ESTHER ALLEN (EA): There’s a tiny cemetery on W. 11th Street in Greenwich Village, not far from where I live, where people were buried between 1805 and 1829. It belongs to congregation Shearith Israel, still very active today, and founded by a group of twenty-three Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin who were fleeing the Inquisition in Brazil after the Portuguese expanded the institution to its colonies t. They were reluctantly allowed by Peter Stuyvesant to settle in New Amsterdam in 1655. Well before that, the first non-Native American person to live on the island of Manhattan was Juan Rodriguez, a black man from Santo Domingo, who lived among the Lenape in 1613-1614; since 2013, a stretch of Broadway in Upper Manhattan has borne his name.
In other words, Spanish has been a language of what’s now New York City since the very first arrival of non-Native Americans on these shores. When José Martí first visited New York in 1875, he found a city with a thriving Spanish-speaking community, Spanish-language bookstores, and a Spanish-language press that had at least a fifty-year history behind it: exiled Cuban priest Felix Varela founded a Spanish language newspaper called El Habanero, believed to be New York’s first, when he arrived in 1824.
For quite a while now, New York has been in the top two or three US cities in terms of its Latinx population, with a community of about 4.8 million in the greater, multistate NYC area. Yet even a recent work like the Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, published in 2010, barely alludes to the long history of Spanish and Latinx writing in the city—Francisco de Miranda, Martí, Cirilo Villaverde, García Lorca, Felipe Alfau, Julia de Burgos, and on and on. The same invisibility distorts school curricula, non-Hispanic film and TV shows, and the way things are framed by the non-Hispanic news media. The consequences for everyone are terrible. When non-Hispanics are never taught the long history of Spanish-speaking communities in the United States it’s all too easy for a grotesque demagogue to depict such communities as a threat—and we’ve all just witnessed that.
WWB: Ulises, since 2014, you have run Los Bárbaros, a Spanish-language literary magazine based here in New York. You have an impressive list of collaborators, among them, Juan Villoro and Fernanda Trías, the most recent winner of the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize. How did the publication come to be, and what are its aims?
ULISES GONZALES (UG): To tell you the truth I was a little surprised that no one had beat us to the idea. When I started taking classes at the CUNY Graduate Center, I met a few writers from Latin America and Spain who were there as students. In a literary theory course, we were talking about contributions to the field by Jorge Luis Borges, Henriquez Ureña, and Alfonso Reyes. Apparently, these three guys were somehow upset to be considered—because they were born in Latin American countries—“peripheral” to literary studies. (They were so much at the forefront of such studies!) A professor of mine, Oswaldo Zavala, mentioned then that in languages and literature studies in US univrsities, for the last few decades at least, Spanish has commanded center stage. He summarized the situation by referring to the Cavafy poem, with its line “The barbarians are coming today.”
The whole idea came to me after that class. I hatched a plan: to publish writers with stories or poems about New York. Our covers were going to be illustrated by artists I knew from my years as a graphic artist in Peru, and the publication was going to have a shape and size inspired by Poetry magazine: those little booklets that I collect and love. The same month I started asking writers around the city for collaborations, and I was lucky: we got texts from Lina Meruane; Fernanda Trias (whom I met at a reading at McNally Jackson and always considered brilliant); Juan Villoro, who was a professor of mine at Princeton; Antonio Muñoz Molina, who was a professor at NYU at the time; and from some of my classmates at the Graduate Center: the poets Almudena Vidorreta, Lena Retamoso, Soledad Marambio, Fátima Vélez, and the prose writers Alexis Iparrraguirre, Mayte López, Sara Cordón, and Mariana Graciano. At that time, McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo had a small print-on-demand machine, and that’s where we printed the first issues. The covers were illustrated by an exceptional artist, Manuel Gómez Burns, who hails from Arequipa, Peru (my mother’s “homeland”—Arequipeños believe they are a cut above other Peruvians).
We organized readings at McNally, and I loved the small gatherings so much that we published three issues that first year. I slowed down because writer Álvaro Baquero-Pecino, who had experience publishing a literary magazine in southern Spain, convinced me that two issues per year was enough. At a certain point in time, I thought about the possibility of accepting any kind of good creative writing, not just that about New York. However, Adrián Izquierdo, now a scholar and translator at CUNY, convinced me that writing “about New York” was a perfect niche, one that differentiated this publication from many other literary journals.
My goal has always been simple: to keep going. And to keep growing. We don’t have any sponsorships; however we were fortunate to find good partners along the way. In 2017, Punto de Vista Editores, a publishing house in Madrid, got interested, and now they print and distribute Los Bárbaros throughout Spain and the rest of Europe; Aleph, a publishing house based in Peru, allows us to print and distribute Los Bárbaros throughout Latin America. We were able to organize readings in Guadalajara, Mexico City, Lima, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Barcelona, and Berlin. For the coming double issue “Poeta en Nueva York” (encompassing issue nos. 18 and 19), our friend the Spanish scholar Felipe Diez put together a fascinating tribute to García Lorca’s work for the theater. Our Spring 2022 issue will be “Substances” (with writing on alcohol and other drugs), and for next fall, we’ll publish an issue entitled “Ruidos,” focusing on stories about music.
WWB: Another question for the both of you is about the shifting "centers" of Spanish-language—and particularly Latin American—letters in the Northern Hemisphere, more specifically, the (dueling or complementary, depending on your view) roles played by the cities of Paris and New York. More or less contemporary to Martí is Ruben Darío, the Nicaraguan poet and father of Modernismo who both lived in Paris as ambassador for his country and later visited New York for a few months in 1914 and 1915. In the middle of the twentieth century, there are figures like Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas-Llosa, and Pablo Neruda who stayed for various lengths of time in Paris. More recently, we can think of some of the Latin American writers working today who call New York home: Valeria Luiselli, Álvaro Enrigue, Pola Oloixarac, and now the Los Bárbaros writers who we can read this month in WWB. I wonder if the two of you can talk about the relationship of these two cities to Spanish-language writing from Latin America—do they represent two influences, two refuges, or something else entirely for these writers?
EA: It’s an interesting time to contrast Paris and New York, in this sense. Anne Hidalgo, who was born in Spain and grew up bilingual in France, speaking Spanish at home and French in school, has been mayor of Paris for the better part of a decade and is now running for president of France. How long will it be until New York City has a Latina mayor, daughter of immigrants from a Spanish-speaking country? When you see the kind of wild hatred directed by certain sectors at the brilliant young member of Congress from Queens, Alexandria Ocasio-Córtez, it’s hard to imagine us having a Latina mayor for quite some time to come.
It’s one thing to spend a while in New York as a writer from Latin America or Spain, and another thing entirely to grow up here as part of the city’s Latinx community. I’m no expert in the demographics of Paris but I’m fairly confident its population isn’t almost 30 percent Hispanic, as New York’s is. Admittedly, most writing in Spanish in New York, and in Los Bárbaros, is done by people raised and educated elsewhere, who then came to New York—like the writers you mention. But perhaps it’s the existence of the strong—and oppressed—Latinx community that, in part, drew them here. For Spanish writers Eduardo Lago and Antonio Muñoz Molina, bolstering the Latinx literary community in New York has been a major part of their time in New York: Lago translated Junot Díaz’s Drown into Spanish, and both offered lots of support to Latinx writers during their stints as directors of the Instituto Cervantes here. And for Valeria Luiselli, whose most recent book was written in English, the problems facing Spanish-speaking immigrants and residents of the US have been a very compelling subject matter. While many Latinx writers work in English, there is a longstanding tradition of writers born or raised in this country who work in Spanish. I can mention, for example, Eduardo Halfon, who came to the US at age ten and is perfectly fluent in English but chooses to write in Spanish. He’s not really an NYC writer, but did live here for a semester as Harman Writer-in-Residence, the program I now direct at Baruch College. I also run Baruch's Minor in Spanish-English translation. This spring, Ulises, whom I met in a class I taught years ago at the Graduate Center, came to my literary translation seminar to talk about Los Bárbaros, and several of the pieces included in this issue were translated by students in that course. I also have to give a shoutout to Ashley Candelario, who helped bring this issue together; she's a star former student who went on to internships at the New York Review of Books and WWB itself, and now works at Harper Collins.
UG: Bob Dylan finishes his song Talkin’ to New York with the line “So long, New York.” Dylan’s line, in a particular tone of voice, after an exciting/disappointing journey, kind of summarizes the feeling most people have about this city. It is a wild experience. Some people get tired of the hustle, and they leave. From the millions who arrive, just a few decide to call it home, to continue struggling, dealing with the unique problems NYC has. However, any “wild experience” is a good source for art. Some may attribute to this kind of experience an “energy”: a mix of ambition, patience, and grit. Maybe that’s similar to how Paris felt, during most of the twentieth Century, when artists got there, from all corners of the world, to complain about Parisians (who were also brusque and mean). Living in New York City is always a formative experience.
And the scholarships offered by NYU, CUNY, Columbia, and other colleges are certainly opportunities, not for everyone but for many writers who are accepted every year by the PhD and MFA Programs of colleges around the city. For example, I happened to meet a brilliant classmate from Venezuela –one who could put in the same sentence Foucault, Derrida, and “ La Tigresa del Oriente” –who told me that before getting the scholarship for CUNY he was making a living by plucking the feathers from slaughtered chickens at his aunt’s spot inside Caracas’s Mayorista market. The scholarship was salvation. Exactly what he needed in order to escape and flourish.
WWB: Turning our focus even further toward New York. Are there conclusions or generalizations we can draw about the role the city has played in Spanish-language writing from Latin America over time? In what ways does the city appear in the work of those writers who have lived here: Is it mostly as subject matter? Is the city more of a base, nothing else? And how have political events—US relations to countries of Latin America or globalization, for example—altered this relationship?
EA: One of my all-time top New York City novels is Francisco Goldman’s The Ordinary Seaman, which is based on an actual event. It tells the story of a group of Central American seamen marooned on a broken-down freighter that is moored in the middle of New York harbor within sight of the Statue of Liberty. Part Robinson Crusoe, part Moby-Dick, it’s written in English but orchestrates multiple national and regional varieties of Spanish with astonishing virtuosity. Goldman is somehow able to depict, in English, mutual linguistic incomprehension between, for example, a Central American sailor and a Mexican manicurist who meet in Brooklyn and are speaking to each other in Spanish.
This is one of the things New York’s Latinx community offers writers: it can be a place of encounter between Spanish-speaking people of many backgrounds and nationalities. In the case of Martí, for example, life in New York consolidates his ideas about Latin American solidarity and the need for unity among Latin American countries as a counterbalance to the burgeoning imperial power of the United States. In New York, he’s a first-hand witness to that growing power, and he also has first-hand experience of how much Latin Americans of many countries that formed the New York City community of his day have in common with each other, when thrown together in the non-Latin American city that New York was then, when the community was still quite small. (I would never describe New York as a non-Latin American city today—now, like Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio, and a number of other US cities, New York emphatically is, among other things, a Latin American city.)
And also, let’s keep in mind that one of the masterpieces of Latin American literature—Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés, the greatest Cuban novel of the nineteenth century—was written largely in New York, while Villaverde lived here in exile, but takes place entirely in Cuba. A book need not depict New York in order to have been shaped by it.
UG: I remember myself, as a teenager, swearing to friends I would never live in the U.S. (I grew up listening to socialist uncles who taught me about the injustices of imperialism). However, I always told my friends I would make an exception for New York. Because it was a unique place. A city for immigrants, adventurers, and Americans who understood the importance of sustaining a literary culture. Of course, at the time, I knew little about New York’s role at the center of international capitalism, until I read the Alexander Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow, or about all the racism within the city until I read The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro’s magnificent work on Robert Moses.
There is a huge difference, I believe, between the writing about New York of the eighteenth Century writers and today’s writers. Martí always described the city assuming he was a foreigner. A visitor. Most of the stories and poems I published in Los Bárbaros have New York as their settings naturally as Lima appears in the novels of Vargas Llosa, or the Caribbean towns in García Márquez’s stories. There are some poems where—I´m thinking about Marta Ana Diz, for example, a poet from Buenos Aires who studied with Borges and lived most of her life between the Upper East Side and the Bronx)—if someone is playing the piano and talking about the winter or the summer, things that might seem unique to the visitor, it feels natural and unremarkable to the New Yorker. That is where the poet lives. Her apartment. Her city. She just happens to write in Spanish. In all the initial works by Spanish-language New York writers there is some fascination for the first discoveries, and an understandable impulse to make comparisons to other cities. However, as many of these writers decide to stay, and they start using inches instead of centimeters and Fahrenheit instead of Celsius, the city somehow becomes an organic element of their experiences: their lives, the people they meet, the dreams they carry.
WWB: Ulises, thinking specifically about the writers who appear in this month's issue of WWB, the vast majority of them do so with work that first appeared in Los Bárbaros. Where do these writers fit in this larger panorama of Latin American writing in New York—or rather, New York writing by authors who are simultaneously New Yorkers and Latin American?
UG: I guess every case is different. It depends so much on the author’s decisions. Mario Michelena has lived more than twenty years in the U.S. His first novel is about characters who live in New York. Most of them are Hispanic characters who know the city very well. On the other hand, Daniel Alarcón, who moved to the US as a toddler, decided to write most of his stories about Peruvians. I have seen Alarcón in anthologies, next to Michelena, as a Peruvian writer. There you have two immigrant writers living in New York, both very talented, choosing different subjects for their stories. Sara Cordón came onscholarship to study at NYU, and she was still adjusting to the idea of staying when she wrote “El bien común.” You have a very different narrator in that story (two foreign students riding the “dangerous” subway system, thinking of New York as gang territory à la The Warriors) than in her first novel, Para español pulse dos (For Spanish, Press Two), where the main narrator moves around the city with confidence, capable of distancing herself from the events involving the main characters, all of them MFA students. Naief Yehya is from a slightly older generation. HIs writing career is still very much tied to his country of birth. However, in this story we are publishing in WWB, you feel the characters move around New York with ease. Yehya feels no need to emphasize the main character as a foreigner. He is a New Yorker. And that, I believe, is a decision. Many of the writers publishing in Los Bárbaros write from a position of the city their characters’ natural environment. New York is part of the routine of their lives, a place they know as any other resident does.
© 2021 Words Without Borders. All rights reserved.
In a New York courtroom, a legal interpreter with a failed family life of his own struggles to maintain neutrality in his boorish new client's inheritance dispute.
Civil and criminal courts are all about brawls, beheadings, hatred, theft, and beatings. Family courts, too, but there you might bear witness, at least in theory, to a hearing with a happy outcome, like a marriage or an adoption. It happens once in a blue moon. People bring balloons, have their pictures taken with the judge, and shed tears of joy instead of sadness. If Julio had time and wanted to lift his spirits, he would wander over to the family court section to see if he is lucky enough to catch one such event.
When he arrives, a hearing is already underway, so he sits in the first row behind the bar. Both parties are seated at dining room-sized rectangular tables facing the bench where the judge presides. At the table on the right, Julio identifies two people by their backs alone; the utterly miserable figure, without a doubt, is the negligent mother du jour; the other, flanked by two stacks of files, is a social worker wearing an austere bun on her head. On top of the table, in front of the mother, sits her shabby, garish pink purse. A woman in a suit, probably a representative of Child Protective Services, stands at the podium addressing the audience. In the few seconds that she’s been up there, she has weaponized the mic to badmouth both parents-in-charge almost in a single breath. The stepfather, with a bad shave and a slumped profile, looking high, sits by himself at the table on Julio’s left. All he seems to have brought with him is a Dunkin’ Donuts cup, in blatant contempt of the interdiction on eating or drinking in court. The dark-haired heads of their four kids, seated by age on a bench next to the bar, appear to be arranged in descending order on a scale of I-suffer-more-than-thou.
As the song goes, if it weren’t for bad luck I would have no luck at all.
Julio figures the hearing will stretch on, and that he has no choice but to approach the judge’s bench.
He stands up. As usual, he feels a pang of hesitance about drawing the judge’s attention: his cellphone might ring or the swing door might squeak when he pushes it. He holds the door steady with his hand to prevent any noise, crosses the bar, and greets the bailiff with a nod. Truth be told, any one of the half dozen couples whispering among themselves with their lawyers seated behind them, anyone in the public, the brats scurrying from bench to bench out of sheer boredom, or the babies in the carriages stationed in the main hallway, anyone could do something reckless and attract attention.
Julio approaches the bench from the side. One of the clerks turns to face him. The judge does not acknowledge him, still listening to the child welfare expert. Julio mouths at the clerk: Did you call me? and she, in turn, nods indicatively while mouthing back: interview room. He turns around, grateful on the inside.
A gesture from the clerk toward the other side of the courtroom would have meant going to the holding cells. In family court these are mostly empty or else hold homeless people, some random addicts, or penniless bad hombres skipping out on child support. The smell is not as foul as in the criminal court cells, but it still makes you wish you had one of those pine tree air fresheners for rearview mirrors to press against your face.
The interview room is a totally different story. It’s your average office, a vestibule where a fat clerk types. When Julio enters, he finds the defendant sitting idly at a conference table. His head is pitched forward at a rather odd angle, and when Julio looks into his eyes he realizes that the man is blind. The man’s lawyer is standing across the room, looking out the window and snapping his fingers. Though the lawyer is bald, there are what look like flecks of dandruff on his suit collar. Julio pulls up a chair to sit down, and the blind man reacts immediately:
“You the translator?”
His voice is tinged with a resonance Julio attributes to the blind.
“Yes,” Julio replies.
The lawyer turns around and starts to speak without greeting him. Julio realizes that he is clutching the back of a chair with both hands.
“How many times do I have to tell you, Señor Portillo? How many? Really.”
“. . .”
“Today’s your last chance, but I see you didn’t bring anything, yet again. You show up here empty-handed, looking for pity. But let me tell you this: you won’t find pity here, because pity was sent to jail for contempt of court. No more deadlines for you. I’ve told you a million times and a million different ways. If you don’t place any of your assets as collateral today . . . finito! Game over!”
“ . . .”
“One of your real estate properties, for example. Or a percentage of any property, anything will do . . . if not . . . finito! This judge has the patience of a fakir lying on a bed of sewing needles; no more delays for you. It’s over and done with. He’s been dealing with your case for three years now.”
Silence. The lawyer shakes his head and closes his eyes. Julio uses the pause to translate.
“Don’t you see that Diana is out there . . . ?” The lawyer hesitates. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“Sorry for what?” the blind man replies in Spanish without waiting for the translation. He sighs.
“Don’t you realize that Diana is out there, in the courtroom, and that she’s here to see what comes of all this because she’s worried about your future?”
“Diana!” the blind man blurts. “Bah! I should’ve done the DNA test on her, not the other one. My daughter, they say! A sorry excuse for a daughter! A bloodsucker, that’s what she is! Sucking the blood right out of my veins! Serpientes, all of them, Judas’s spawn!”
Julio twitches at this point.
“Serpientes straight from the belly of the Evil One! All they want is to take what little life is left of me! That’s all they all want. They all have a serpiente’s tongue, and you . . . !”
He points to the lawyer.
“You’re no different. And that goes for Diana, and Carmela—every last one of you ! They’re plotting against me! They worship at the altar of this gown-wearing Satanás to rob me of every penny I have. But I don’t care. Verdad y justicia have opened my eyes. Truth and justice, I see it all clearly!”
The fat court clerk pokes her head over the door when she hears him shouting.
“Doesn’t matter,” he continues. “Up in heaven there’ll be a reckoning. Right at the Heavenly Gates. Everyone, with the same faces that God, our Padre Eterno, gave each of us in this life.”
Julio uses the pause to translate the sermon into English the best he can, serpents, eternal fire, and all the other gems. He renders the Spanish sanguijuelas as bloodsuckers, but then immediately realizes that leeches would have been a better choice. The lawyer cracks a smile.
“Are you done, Mr. Portillo?”
The blind man shrugs.
“I won’t repeat myself for the millionth time. I’ve advised you to pledge some type of collateral to show goodwill to the judge. If you don’t, you will pay the price, Señor Portillo. Your disability is no excuse. Well, good luck to you,” he says.
Before Julio has time to react, the lawyer has already stormed past the clerk and shut the door.
All of a sudden, the room feels quiet, and the silence amplifies the murmur seeping through the courtroom wall, the distant ruckus of traffic coming from outside, the clerk’s typing, and even the blind man’s breathing. Julio stares at him for a moment, knowing that no one is watching him now. A stubborn jaw, deep crow’s feet, vacant blue irises contrasting with his dark skin. One of his earlobes is pierced, evidence of some earring he likely wore in the past. On the top of his head is a bald spot the size of a quarter, surrounded by curly white hair. His lips are moist, as though he were stewing on more insults.
* * *
Here you can always find somebody worse off than you: ashen diabetics en route to jail who turn even waxier when they realize no one knows when their next dialysis session will be; autistic people being restrained by two guards and minutes away from a straitjacket because their teddy bear or comfort blanket was seized during their arrest.
They once wheeled in a sickly guy with a freshly open tracheotomy hole. His first court hearing in street clothes, right after his arrest, wasn’t the worst of it all. Every two to three months he would show up to complain about his prison conditions. His orange jumpsuit hung looser with each appearance, and his face grew more emaciated. He carried a Kleenex to dab at the gap in his throat when he’d start coughing, as though he could possibly soak up all the mucus. He was probably suffering from cancer or some other terminal disease. His voice, which had been a faint whisper the day of his arrest, dwindled to a half whisper, and then to a quarter of that. To translate for him, Julio had to bring his ear very close to the sick man’s mouth just to hear him. During his final appearances he couldn’t put together three whole phrases without being gripped by a coughing fit. The prison phone—how could Julio forget—was his biggest complaint: he kept asking for a voice synthesizer to be installed so he could talk to his family back home. He didn't have a single soul to visit him, not even the good old nuns.
In the end, he never got a chance to say goodbye.
Or, at least he didn't say goodbye to Julio.
That meant that a blind Black dude, no matter how dire his situation, was not going to be dubbed the king of suffering in a place where madness and misery ran rampant. These were the thoughts swirling around Julio’s head. He was also thinking about “bloodsuckers” versus “leeches,” and about the fact that he would’ve liked to use “pearly gates” instead of “heaven’s gate” when the blind man started babbling about heaven. Not that it mattered; his lawyer had no interest in the translation of a speech he had already heard a thousand times. Julio would’ve liked to remember that other expression because it certainly sounded more sophisticated. The Pearly Gates. Oh thy lofty heaven cometh! Or something like that.
Just to show off.
As he routinely did every time he felt bored, he searched the first page of his notepad for a clear spot to draw. It was not a small pad like most interpreters carry, but regular-sized with a clipboard, like the one you get at the doctor’s office to fill out forms. That gave him plenty of space to doodle, and to jot down anything he needed to.
He stared blankly into the air for a couple of seconds before sketching the first thing that came to his mind. It was the head of a gorilla that vaguely resembled Donkey Kong. He started drawing in black ink, then used a red and a blue pen to bring out certain details. The gorilla wore a military gala suit that up to that point only consisted of the jacket collar, richly adorned, and a shoulder with an epaulet. Out of the epaulet emerged a muscular arm holding a marching band drumstick. Julio was drawing a circle for the head of the drum when the blind man tugged at his shirtsleeve.
“Disculpe, joven,” he said, “pensé que se me había ido.”
“No, I haven’t left, I’m still here.”
The man continued in Spanish, “Sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to run something by you because you get the meaning of words and all that stuff.”
Well, well, Julio thought to himself, it was legal counseling hour.
“Do you know what a woman and a hurricane have in common?”
“No, I don’t.”
“They both come at you strong and wild, and when they leave they take your house and your car with them.”
The blind man burst into shameless laughter. His voice was an affront to decency and good manners.
The fat clerk poked her head out again, but Julio did not say anything. He went back to drawing the drum, which he decided to decorate with tassels and ribbons, as he had seen in military parades. Thirty seconds later the blind man fired away.
“Disculpe, joven, I’m serious now, I promise. This is a language question,” he said. “You know how the word pollo is chicken in English, right?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then why doesn’t repollo—you know, cabbage—translate to re-chicken?”
This time he laughed so hard he sprayed Julio with saliva. Coincidentally, and not because of his guffawing, two bailiffs happened to open the door that led to the courtroom.
They poked their heads into the vestibule.
“Here,” Julio replied.
One of the two guards approached. “The judge wants him out,” he said. “They’re going to call his case soon.”
Then he turned to the blind man. “C’mon buddy.”
The guard tried to grab him by the elbow, but the blind man shook free. Instead of accepting his help to stand up, he planted both hands in his lap.
Others have been tasered for less than that, Julio thought.
The blind man placed something that looked like a pile of metal tent poles tied together on the table. He untied the knot and put together, piece by piece, a foldable walking stick. Once he was finished, he pushed his chair back, hoisted himself up with the help of the chair arm, and headed toward the door, sniffing around with the tip of his walking stick.
The same bailiff tried to help him again, grabbing for his elbow, but his gesture was met with outright harshness. Against better judgment, the bailiff responded:
“I’m not your buddy,” the blind man replied.
No one else tried to grab his arm again. They herded him over to the first row and had him sit down. Julio sat next to him, while his lawyer, who had seen them arrive in the courtroom, made his position quite clear by standing at a distance. There were far fewer family members and busybodies in the room now, but the four spectators seated behind the lawyer seemed to be new faces: they still had their coats on, and the two women in the group were clutching their purses with both hands, as though ready to leave. One of them—dark-skinned, young, and very pretty—looked like the blind man’s daughter. The four new faces stared intensely in the blind man’s direction.
Someone had left a window cracked, and the breeze rustled the corner of the American flag. Its companion, the New York flag, hung unperturbed on the other side of the bench. Julio was focused on finishing the gorilla he had started in the interview room. The drum was finished, and in the exact spot where the drumstick struck the head of the drum he drew an exploding text balloon around the onomatopoeia BAM! He was now concentrating on the ribbon running along the seam of the gorilla’s pants, and on the wrinkles fanning from one of the knees. The boot attached to the same leg and the ground where it stood were just two rough sketches.
The blind man addressed Julio from time to time. Complying with the basic codes of ethics of his profession, Julio limited himself to listening without voicing any opinions. He would utter a claro or ajá every few phrases so as not to disappoint his client, but he didn’t react to any of his arguments, unmoved by the man’s convoluted lines of reasoning.
“Do you think that this lawyer is working in my best interests?”
“I cannot provide any legal counsel.”
“No, of course, it’s not consejos. If that was the case, I’d hire you and not him, right? Finito. Se acabó. Right?”
“I don’t mean counsel. I mean a general impression from someone like you, who can really see and is unbiased. What do you think? Is he helping me out? Sí o no?”
“Well, he looks like a lawyer.”
“My daughter, my other daughter, the one who doesn’t cause me any trouble, she found him for me. Zimmerman, I think that’s his name—from Queens. Because I had another lawyer before him that she didn't like at all. And I told her, ‘OK.’ Jewish people love their coins, right? So chances are this guy does a better job. But I’m not so sure now. What do you think?”
“My previous lawyer was an Italian guy with a boxer’s name. I got the recommendation from some people I know because, you see, I’m not the type of man to be mixed up in lawsuits. So I said to myself: an Italian, he'll definitely fight for me. But it was the same thing. He didn’t call back, didn’t visit, and he always said it was because he couldn’t get one of those . . . uh . . .”
“Your job. What do you do?”
“An interpreter, you mean?”
“Right. He’d say that he couldn’t hire one, so we couldn't talk. That it was better for me to wait until we go to court. And I thought, maybe un abogado hispano would do better. At least I could speak in straight Spanish with a Hispanic lawyer, right? But Hispanics are all liars. And they drain your pockets, don’t you think? Do you have a business card?”
He went on and on like that.
Julio gleaned from the conversation that the guy had not been born blind and that what he lacked in eyesight he most certainly did not make up for in tact. In fact, he’d brag about all the ass he’d laid his hands on, and how he was never averse to enhancing his intimate encounters using his auditory and olfactory senses, in light of his condition. His case revolved around some joint property he’d had with a now deceased wife whose children—and at this point he’d cross himself repeatedly, kissing his thumb—had nothing to do with him. They weren’t his, unlike the other four or five he’d fathered with other women.
“A long life is always full of stories, don’t you think? Even if you leave them behind, in the past.”
Because this had all taken place way before he found our Señor Jesucristo and was born again. Praise his name!
“I think this thing with my eyesight was a sign. Cataracts clouded my eyes, sure, but they turned out to be the holy clouds of heaven!” he told Julio. “When I could see I was in darkness, you know? But now that I have no eyes, the divine light is right in front of my face. Amen.”
During the fifteen minutes or so that it took Julio to gather all that information about the blind man’s life, or rather to be bombarded with it, the courtroom had remained relatively quiet. Some people had stepped out to stretch their legs, while their lawyers checked their phones or glanced at the calendar pinned up by the entrance. Little brats were running up and down the hallway, and every now and then there was the sound of a child crying. A few mothers holding babies had also stepped out, perhaps to breastfeed or to change diapers.
The judge was leaving the bench, most likely to conduct some in-camera business, when he asked for the blind man to be brought in. The door leading to his chamber remained closed, and the only people in the courtroom, apart from the bailiffs, were the blind man’s lawyer, and his four relatives, all still wearing their coats, all clutching their belongings.
By now Julio was tired of sprucing up his gorilla. Since he’d run out of space, he killed time doodling around his previous notes on the page. That was a challenge he enjoyed. He had sketched, for instance, a dog peeing over the name of a former case—State vs. Armendáriz—and a marquee teeming with light bulbs around the name of a former defendant, as though he’d committed a Hollywood crime. He was now tinkering with a steaming witch’s cauldron around which he drew random words and numbers on the page.
All along Julio had been listening absentmindedly to the blind man, raising his eyes to the door from time to time so as not to be surprised by the judge’s entrance—court etiquette required everyone to rise when a judge entered the courtroom. How do people with ten kids keep their sanity when I, with a daughter I barely see, can’t get my life together? he thought.
Julio’s own family project had been tumbling downhill at a steady pace. Katie had been gradually moving his daughter farther and farther away from him—every year and a half, to be exact. New Jersey right after their separation, then Pennsylvania, and now Indiana. West Indiana, to make matters worse. Over the phone his daughter increasingly resorted to English, and he felt constantly disheartened at the tombstone-heavy pauses in their conversation when they had nothing to say. So, Julio resorted to stealing a syllable from his rival’s name every time he had to pronounce it.
At first, he insisted on calling him Douglas to avoid giving the impression that, because of his accent, he was insulting him by calling him Doug. But whenever he heard Katie talk about “Doug this” and “Doug that” nonstop, he tried to mimic her. But her muffled giggles meant that he was failing, that he was pronouncing it “dog” indeed. One day, about two months earlier, he made the mistake of giving Katie a call after a few too many drinks.
He slurred in Spanish, “And what's the dog up to?”
“You know, mounting me doggie style, and making me take it like a bitch.”
She must have had her repartee ready for months, waiting for the right moment. Even if her Spanish was almost flawless, she had a hard time pronouncing the double rr of perra—bitch—producing a fruity confusion with pera, meaning pear. Her gaffe might have even been endearing to anyone else but him.
“Is he there?”
“Why? You wanna come?”
“His manly musk is here. And his gun is on the nightstand.”
It was obvious that she had been practicing.
“Sue her. That’s sexual harassment,” his friend Hector would advise him whenever they talked about it. “If you go see her in person she’ll probably open the door wearing a wig and a garter belt.”
“And a pocket knife hidden in the garters,” Julio added.
It’s true that Katie would send him emails—and every so often snail mail—containing explicit and crude clippings about erectile dysfunction, penis enlargement, syphilis, and other humiliating articles she found. She acted like a teenage boy obsessed with his dick, a telltale sign of her inability to get over their breakup any better than he had.
Hector was right, of course, but for Julio, her boisterous cues meant nothing. Your ex can’t forget you—big deal. He was convinced he would die exactly where he was: old, fat, and deaf, while his ex-wife shared her life with someone else in Indiana.
Things had fallen apart because of his two-week betrayal four years earlier. A meaningless fling, after succumbing to the animal scent of some passing bitch. And now all this anguish and suffering as a result. Sitting by his side, the blind man continued to detail his colorful biography in a monotone mumble. Women, drugs, perdition, and then la salvación in the end. Julio’s mind bounced back and forth like a space satellite seeking a signal that was scrambled. He hated the man, seeing him so full of himself. He thought about drawing him stark naked, tied to a bedpost, and subdued by a dominatrix in leather cracking a whip over his head.
But he didn’t because at that precise moment the door to the small office behind the bench opened, and the court clerk patted the doorframe twice to draw their attention.
Julio sprang out of his chair. The blind man seemed to relish remaining seated when the judge and his assistants entered the room. For a split second Julio’s first impulse was to offer his arm to help him get up, but then he realized the man had not even considered shutting his mouth, only lowering his voice as he blathered about his life.
I’m not your buddy either, Julio thought.
The hearing was over quickly. The judge headed for his chambers and the blind man to a cell for thirty days. For a family court case that could have been solved with a bit of collateral to end like this was a rarity, but it was obvious that the blind man had pushed the judge’s patience to the limit. Contempt of court, time to teach him a lesson, he needs to show some respect . . . these were the reasons cited repeatedly by the judge. His lawyer displayed great professional integrity trying to keep him afloat despite everything. But his client had kept hacking at the hull of his own boat with a hatchet, and no vessel on earth could endure such hard blows. He constantly asked for the floor—in spite of his lawyer’s exasperation—and launched into the furious rants they were all too familiar with, questioning everything from the authenticity of the property deeds to the validity of the DNA test results.
Julio had to translate his venomous speech, sadly aware all the while that because he was interpreting in real time he would only remember a handful of the blind man’s pearls. There were more than enough to fill a month’s worth of bar talk, had he had friends to share them with. When the blind man relinquished the mic and the judge refuted his claims one by one, he started fuming and shaking his head convulsively. He was clenching his fists so aggressively that one of the bailiffs—legs spread, hands gloved, wielding a thick belt so loaded with gadgets that it sounded like a baby rattle—advanced a few steps just in case.
Once the judge vanished with his retinue of assistants carrying all his paperwork, the tallest of the bailiffs took the blind man by the elbow and escorted him back to the front row of the gallery. Then another bailiff approached the bench, before coming back with a stack of forms. When he handed the stack to his partner—a burly, albino-looking man with bland facial features resembling a snowman—he unhooked a walkie-talkie from his shoulder.
“I need a one-thirty-eight to Judge Gleeson’s courtroom for a body going down.”
“Copy,” a voice buzzing with static replied.
“Body has a disability. No wheelchair. No English, also.”
“Saravia’s out to lunch.”
“No worries. How long?”
After a few more exchanges, the bailiff ended the conversation. He pointed at Julio.
“You’re coming down with us.”
New regulations required it, but Julio still felt a bit intimidated. The lawyer had stayed nearby out of sheer pity, and the next question from the bailiff was for him:
“You’re taking possession of his belongings, right?”
The lawyer shook his head, and then the bailiff asked the blind man, “Buddy, do you have any relatives in the courtroom?”
“Yes,” said the lawyer.
“No,” said the blind man.
The Snowman did not move. He continued filling out the form, replying that they’d carry out the inventory in the basement and hold the belongings for safekeeping until discharge, whatever that meant.
The blind man didn’t say a thing, but he stirred a bit, the most articulate gesture he could muster, when his lawyer put a hand on his shoulder. Julio, standing next to him, looked at the blind man the same way Donald Duck eyeballed his nephews when they were too quiet.
He’s cooking something up, he thought. No doubt about it.
As soon as the bailiff was done with the customary questions and was about to leave, the blind man, as though he could see, sprang back to life. He had a rather unusual request.
“Necesito una biblia,” he demanded.
Julio translated what he’d said, and the bailiff replied that he could not take anything down to the basement with him.
“Diana or Carmela can bring you a Bible when they visit,” his lawyer added.
“I don’t want those two to visit me,” he cried out in one breath, then added, “I don’t want to take a Bible with me to the basement; I want it right now because I need to do something with my lawyer, Mr. Zimmerman, right now.”
Julio translated, and the lawyer stood there dumbfounded.
The second bailiff—a small-framed, dark-haired man, the perfect comic match for his gigantic albino-looking partner turned to the first, “Should I?”
The Snowman nodded, and the little man came back with the Bible used to swear in witnesses. Julio passed it to the blind man, who measured the weight of the sacred book with his hands and felt reassured, if reassurance was something that he ever needed.
“Señor Zimmerman,” he said with his loud voice, “since you are my lawyer, please stand in front of me, and look into my face one last time. And you, Señor Translator, stand here, too.”
It’d been a while since Julio had caught a glimpse of the blind man’s daughter, but he could see her clearly from where he was standing now. She was following the scene attentively, her lips trembling and her cheeks wet. Big, beautiful eyes. She must have been fifteen years Julio’s junior; he felt a sudden and strong temptation to cross over to the opposite side of the courtroom.
“Señor Zimmerman,” said the blind man, “give me your hand. Yes, like that. Place it on the sacred book.”
The lawyer, who was almost certainly Jewish, wore a smile of disbelief.
“Repeat after me: I swear on the sacred word of God that I will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
“Mr. Portillo, your family doesn’t pay me enough for this charade. What do you want?”
“You see everything in dollar signs, don’t you?”
“What do you want?”
“I know how Diana pays you. I know too well that she’s been using the slit between her legs as a cash register. If that makes you happy, that’s fine. Women are all the same.”
Julio blushed when he had to translate this. The woman kept staring at them with the same intensity. The lawyer withdrew his hand from the Bible, and stepped back.
“You still owe me two payments, Mr. Portillo, and I guarantee you that I’ll be getting all my money. Every last penny. Because I’ve done my job well. I have put all my energy into your case. But you wanted to go down with your ship, and you just got that. That’s your problem.”
He started to turn away.
“You see everything in dollar signs, don’t you?” the blind man shouted as the lawyer walked away. “But I wanted to talk about the only important thing here. I wanted to talk about justice! But no, usted no quiere hablar de eso, ¿no?! ¡No quiere hablar de justicia!”
The lawyer was now leaving the courtroom, and he wrapped his right arm around the daughter’s shoulders. The three other likely relatives followed close behind. Julio could not help but wonder if the woman really was sleeping with the lawyer, and he felt disgust when he realized that he’d just sided with the blind man.
As he waited for the platoon to escort the blind man away, Julio thought about the myth that artists are always sleeping with loads of women. But he was never showered with amorous propositions back when he worked as an illustrator in his native country – not boring work by any means since he had even illustrated the sleeve cover for an LP, when LP covers were still a thing. His luck turned somewhat when he moved to the United States but still, Katie was the first woman he ever bedded on a regular basis. All this probably explained why he now found himself doing something he rarely did, and which could hardly have been a good idea: drawing erotic figures on his notepad.
He couldn’t even remember how it started.
There were three women comfortably perched in the middle of the page before him, positioned diagonally above the gorilla playing the drum. The gorilla was now complete, save for a leg, and the women were only half-drawn. Their efforts to squeeze into the empty space on the page were an indication that Julio had only started drawing them over the last few minutes, along with some of the other creatures. His previous notes on the pad traversed their bodies like tattoos.
One woman had a mop of hair that was entangled with a Corinthian-style vine decorating the names of two lawyers. Another one lay down on her back on one of the lines of the pad. One of her arms dangled languidly; her silhouette exposed the towering profile of a monumental breast. Her hair was a blurry and undefined mass. The third woman lay on her back, with her two ample buttocks rising toward the eyes of her beholder. Her open legs, ending in a pair of implausibly skinny stilettos, formed the sides of an isosceles triangle; the base of the triangle consisted of the word “abuse” trapped between her ankles, drawn with a penmanship that simulated melted wax bathed in dreary shadows. The composition was an imitation of the stickers that bikers glued on their gas tanks.
When Julio looked back at his sketch he wondered, for the millionth time, what the heck he was doing. He chose to believe that his drawings and the blind man’s logorrhea did not spring forth from the same fount. He sat up immediately.
“¿Ya nos vamos?” the blind man asked.
“No, we’re not leaving yet.”
“Will you let me know when we do?”
“The system is very quick to convict but very slow to punish,” the blind man concluded philosophically.
Julio pulled his thin notepad out from under the clip, turned the page over, and squeezed it back in to keep it out of sight. He then turned the clipboard over, pressed it against his lap to make sure the page was safely concealed, and looked around to see if the coast was clear. In their respective positions, the tiny and the tall bailiffs guarding the bench looked like permanent fixtures. There was a third bailiff standing next to the courtroom entrance. The blind man was silent now. He limited himself to gesturing with his chin from time to time, like a figurehead at the bow of a ship, and to letting out raspy guttural coughs that, had he been out walking in the streets, would probably have indicated he was about to spit.
Julio was wondering how else to kill time, but in that precise instant his cell phone vibrated. He looked at the screen and saw that it was Hector.
He moved toward the door.
“Hello?” he answered in a hushed voice.
Hector sounded very distraught. There was some kind of accident involving his car.
“Hold on, hold on,” said Julio, moving the cell phone away from his ear.
“I'm outside if they need me,” he whispered to the bailiff as he pushed the swing door and walked out into the hallway.
When he came back into the courtroom, his phone still hot from everything Hector had said, the blind man was no longer where he had left him. He was now by the door leading to the cells, handcuffed and surrounded by six uniformed guards. A couple of kids were looking at the scene as if it were a movie set, and the few civilians accompanying them were also watching the group.
Julio tried to apologize when he reached them, but no one seemed to pay him any mind. The Snowman just said: “We’ve got the interpreter! Let’s get going!” and then pushed the door open. Julio tried to get closer to the blind man, but the guard at the rear of the convoy told him to follow behind.
Except for the brazen stench of confinement, the half dozen holding cells flanking the polished concrete floor of the corridor were empty. A heavy barred door blocked their march at the end of the hall, and the Snowman proceeded to type a code on a small wall panel. After a beep, he spoke on the intercom, needing confirmation before the door would unlock.
“Transporting a body downstairs. We need opening for . . .” he said, and then he read the printed numbers next to the door “. . . 532 . . . 9 . . . 7.”
“Opening. Stand back,” a voice replied, then a buzz, and a violent clack of the lock.
They repeated the same procedure at the next two doors, and Julio surmised that the entire routine was the access protocol to the most restricted area in the court building. The bailiffs did not have any keys on them, and entry was managed from a central operation room. He had never been comfortable being in situations where he’d be the only one wearing a suit; now even more so, as he was carrying a selection of his finest erotic art, all bearing his name.
After a third coded-access door they halted in front of an elevator with the same armored feel as the doors. One of the bailiffs typed a code into the corresponding panel, and asked for the elevator to be sent up. A few seconds later the call button lit up automatically without anyone touching it. They had to wait at a similarly secure elevator. One of the bailiffs, the one who had ordered to walk behind him, stepped close to Julio and tried to engage in small talk.
“You speak Spanish, don’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“Look, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask a Spanish-speaker for a long time.”
“You see, there’s this neighbor of mine,” he said, looking over his shoulder at Julio, “He lives next door . . . I think he’s from Mexico or something. Hor-hay, I’ve heard his wife call him—or actually yell at him—all day long, Hor-hay this and Hor-hay that. All in Spanish.”
“Well, every Saturday morning this Hor-hay blasts some kind of music at full volume with a beat that sounds something like ratatatan, tatata, tacatataran . . .”
When the bailiff whistled the rhythm, it certainly sounded familiar to Julio, but the name of it stopped short at the tip of his tongue. He felt more embarrassed than curious, as if the guard were challenging him with that question to make him look ridiculous. He was about to say something, but the clank of the opening doors interrupted him.
The bailiff remained silent for a few seconds. As soon as the elevator started moving, he insisted:
“Ok, listen carefully now. It’s something like this: ratatatan, tatata, ratatatan tatatara . . .”
The other five members of the platoon could hardly contain their laughter, including the tiny bailiff who had been in the courtroom with them. Julio felt like he was being watched and wished the blind man would say something, anything, to bail him out. He wondered if the bailiff subjected all the guests in his underground domain to the same display of musical know-how. Every time the man puffed up his cheeks, collective laughter ensued.
The doors opened directly into an office where a guard wearing a different uniform waited for them at a desk. Julio had never seen anyone in that uniform before, but given his rotten mood he guessed that it was a corrections officer. The guy stood up but did not shake hands with anyone. With a nod of the head, he asked for the handcuffs to be removed. Then suddenly, without giving the blind man any time to massage his wrists, he started to address him:
“Remove your belt,” he said.
After translating the instruction, Julio stepped forward to help the blind man out. He passed the belt to the corrections officer, who put it in a bag that he had numbered with a thick marker after checking the forms sent from the courtroom.
“Sit on that chair, and remove your shoes and socks.”
Julio had barely started to translate the order, stretching out a hand to guide him to the chair, when the tiny bailiff grabbed the blind man by the arm, and seated him by force. The whole situation felt like when you get transferred from your credit card’s customer service to a collection agency. Julio said nothing. He only managed to squat a little and translate for his client.
“They can keep it all,” the blind man replied.
When Julio raised his eyes he noticed that the tiny bailiff, who had remained rather calm in the courtroom, was carrying the poles of the foldable walking stick in the back pocket of his pants.
The blind man started to untie his shoes. His fingers betrayed no reaction but Julio nonetheless was moved by how the man felt around so thoroughly before doing anything. His dense and coarse white hair, and his shirt collar, were only ten inches away from Julio’s nose.
The singing bailiff was still gleefully singing his ratatatan, tatata, ratatatan tatatara . . . His baritone whistling permeated the office air. At that precise moment, as he imitated a high-pitched crescendo building toward the end of the melody, Julio realized it was a Mexican corrido.
He told him.
“A corrido?” he said, stumbling on the Spanish double r. “Well, well, I see.”
He did not seem too enthused about the topic of musical genres.
“Well,” he repeated, “the thing is, there’s always a section in the song where the singing stops, and only the instruments carry on, with something that sounds like an accordion. You know, like something Italian. And then, as soon as that happens, the so-called Hor-hay always shouts: Ayayayayayay!!!”
The distinctive grito of a Mexican charro singer yelling in absolute ecstasy resonated in the room. The blind man jumped, and the uniformed corrections officer turned his head.
“Give me the shoelaces,” the officer asked.
Julio handed them over, and the officer placed them in the numbered bag.
“Ok. You can get dressed again,” he said.
Julio translated the phrase and the blind man started to put his socks on. Julio moved closer, and when he noticed the man was moving his lips, he thought he must be praying. But as he looked more closely he wasn’t so sure. It sounded like he was muttering numbers. The blind man was counting.
“Ayayayayayay!!!” the bailiff shouted again.
Mexican corridos, Julio seemed to remember, were narrative musical ballads. The emotional catharsis would peak, for instance, the moment the hero agonized on the sweltering desert sand surrounded by a landscape crisscrossed by so many bullets that even the cacti bled. The cowards from the DEA or from Border Patrol would stare at the man with hyena smiles. Bad company and the corruption from the northern neighbor were to blame for everything. The hero’s aged mother, a pair of white braids hanging over her shoulders, would burst out crying when she read the news, her endless tears creating furrows in the letter she clutched in her hands. At that precise moment the vocalist would use the interlude to let his or her feelings run wild –Ayayayayayay!!! – before the background singers repeated the same moralizing chorus ad nauseam.
Julio pictured the singing bailiff—red-haired, freckle-faced, and skinny as a toothpick—in the Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City, with a sombrero and a big guitarra. The other guards would finally contain their laughter. The corrections officer, disregarding the singing bailiff, knelt down and raised the hems of the blind man’s pants to make sure he was not hiding anything. He stood up next to the singing bailiff but did not deign to look at him.
Julio translated, but the blind man shrugged his shoulders.
He kept moving his lips.
“Ok. Size ten,” said the corrections officer randomly.
“That’s exactly how my neighbor shouts every damn Saturday,” the bailiff continued with his riffing. “And I’ve wondered for a long time: Is he shouting out of pain or joy?”
“Alright, any tattoos or birthmarks? Any distinctive physical traits? Any surgical scars?” the corrections officer asked, returning to his desk with a pen in his hand.
Julio translated the questions.
The blind man answered yes, that he had one tattoo on his chest, two on the left arm, and an appendicitis scar.
“Let me see them.”
Three pairs of hands busied at his command. The blind man tried to grab the top button of his shirt. Julio, out of some reflex he had developed over the last hour, also reached out his own hands. But the bailiff who was closer to the blind man—also dark-haired but taller than his colleague—let out a hiss as if he wanted to scare a cat away.
“Pssss! Stand back!. Let me do that.”
He unbuttoned the blind man’s shirt from top to bottom. Then he grabbed the prisoner by his shoulders, and made him turn around to face the desk, where the corrections officer stood up a little to lift the hem of his shirt and jot down what he saw. The first tattoo was over his heart, a cobra with boobs and red lips. The corrections officer announced his description of the tattoos as he jotted down every word, either because it was legally required or because of a tic, and Julio felt vaguely ridiculous translating simultaneously to the blind man.
“Así es. Sí.”
For Julio, an old man with erotic tattoos was embarrassing. Once the officers were done with the first tattoo, they lifted the shirt from one side—leaving it to dangle from the opposite shoulder—and moved on to the ones on his left arm. Fortunately, these were religious. Julio noticed the flimsy, cotton-like wisps of hair on the man’s chest, the stretchmarks of old age, and his purplish nipples.
At least the blind man was keeping his mouth shut now. What in the world had he been counting before? The number of people he would take revenge on? The number of minutes left in his thirty-day sentence? In the adventure novel The Count of Montecristo, or maybe it was The Man in the Iron Mask, there is a masked prisoner who counted his steps the first time he was taken to his cell, already planning his future escape. And it was an island-prison, if Julio remembered correctly.
When they were done, the bailiff who had half-undressed the blind man told him: “You can put your shirt back on.”
The singing bailiff raised his charge again:
“What do you say then, since you speak Spanish? Tell me, is it a shout of pain or a shout of joy?”
“Frank, please,” the corrections officer stepped in. His expression indicated a fatal lack of a sense of humor.
Julio hesitated. He turned his gaze away from the singing bailiff, and turned around to continue translating for the blind man.
“Phone and address?”
Anticipating that the answer would require him to jot down numbers he didn’t want to forget, Julio stretched his arm to reach for his clipboard, which he’d left on a chair. He translated the question while he grabbed the pad. As soon as he turned it around and lowered his eyes, he noticed that something was different. The pad was where he’d left it, but instead of finding the first page folded back and pressed under the clip how he left it, there was a tear. The second page of the pad was now entirely visible.
When had he torn the page out? Had he? He put his hand in his pockets while the blind man started to talk.
“Two hundred seventeen Admiral Street, Perth Amboy,” he said in one breath.
Julio removed his hands from his pockets to write that down. He had not found anything in the pockets of his jacket, but he still had his pants left to search. He couldn’t tell if he didn’t want to face the fact that the page had flown away, or if he was still struggling to overcome his surprise, but while he tried to write the address down, his mind veered away, and he heard himself reply to the corrido music question:
“I don’t truly know. It can be either or, I suppose. Pain or joy. As a matter of fact . . .” he paused to ask again: “217 Admiral Street, Perth Amboy, right?”
“Sí, sí. Halmira estreet,” the blind man repeated. He passed the information down, and the corrections officer insisted, “Telephone?”
“The blind man understood the question in English and started to recite a sequence of numbers that Julio wrote down and translated.
“Very well, now take everything out of your pockets. Everything, don’t leave a thing.”
After he emptied his pockets, he asked him to turn them all inside out. While the blind man did as required, Julio also did the same, but he didn’t find anything. No crumpled ball of paper. His drumming gorilla, his pissing little dog, and his three naked women had vanished.
The blind man’s pockets, on the contrary, were a pit of all kinds of objects that Julio placed one by one on the corrections officer’s desk: a pen cap, a lighter, a crushed pack of Marlboro Lights, a key ring with only three keys. He also handed him a wallet with only a few bills and some useless business cards: income tax joints, and a botánica for all his folk medicine, candles, amulets, and mystical object needs. The chain of human hands ended at the desk of the corrections officer, who immediately recited what was handed to him, and proceeded to jot it down in the corresponding column before placing it in the numbered bag. At the last minute, as though he almost forgot, the tiny bailiff handed them the metal walking stick.
It began to unravel on the desk, and the corrections officer fumbled with it between his hands.
“How do I store this,” he asked into the air.
One of the other guards searched in his pockets until he found a rubber band, and the corrections officer squeezed the poles together and put the band around them before pushing it into the bag. Now especially, the walking stick looked like a bunch of white asparagus.
Telephone numbers. That’s what the blind man was probably reciting under his breath. The phone numbers that he didn’t want to forget in order to dial them from jail. Mi hermano, no sabes lo que me ha pasado, me metieron pa’ dentro—that’s how he’d start the conversation, telling his buddies that he was doing time now. Or maybe it was really numbers, doing the math to see if spending thirty days in prison was a better choice than sacrificing his savings. As if that kind of choice could ever be put into numbers, and by someone like him.
Julio knew that the missing notepad page—folded in four, probably drifting around like the many sheets from legal documents that would show up at home as bookmarks—was not going to materialize in the blind man’s inventory. His three naked women, his military-clad gorilla, what use were they to him? And at what point would he have put them in his pockets? He imagined him caressing the back of the page with his fingers, touching the tiny crests embossed into the paper by the pen’s point. And feeling the contours of the drawings, discovering the women with his fingers, fondling a plump buttock. But Julio didn’t press hard enough with the pen to form mountain ranges on the backside of the paper. Perhaps he would have, had he been blind, and grabbed the pen clumsily, his hand like a paw, and doodled his name on a page he couldn’t see.
It weighed on him now that the stolen sheet of paper was nowhere to be found. And that he was not going to find it. The corrections officer closed the bag, sealed it and said:
“Face against the wall.”
“Beg your pardon,” Julio blurted.
“Tell him to face the wall over there,” the guy explained.
Julio translated for the blind man, not for him to do anything but to let others do it for him. The big blond snowman bailiff was already guiding him by the shoulders. He started to face him toward the wall with his arms stretched out. He had him unfurl his fingers so he could lean on the wall with open palms, and he spread his legs open. Then, since he could not see the wall, the bailiff put a hand on his forehead to keep him from hitting his nose.
Julio stood next to him, translating the minimal instructions for the final search. It was the type of situation that anyone could understand, and in which anyone knew it was better not to resist.
A second bailiff approached the blind man and searched him meticulously from top to bottom.
“All clear,” he proclaimed.
Julio watched the corrections officer approach the adjacent cell, and open it with a key.
“Welcome to The Marriot,” he announced, taking a bow.
So the bastard did have a sense of humor after all! The snowman started to guide the blind man by his arm.
“I’m not sure,” Julio hesitated. “I suppose it can be either or, a shout of pain or a shout of joy. Depends on the song. Depends on the emotion you want to convey.”
He was not sure if the whistling bailiff was listening. He was also not sure why he was picking up the conversation, if it was even a conversation at all. He watched him squat, open a locker with a key, and place some folders inside.
“Buena suerte, caballero,” Julio said in the blind man’s direction.
“A usted,” he replied.
It was a custom of his, wishing his clients good luck when he finished with them, regardless of the outcome of their legal plights. Julio’s legs were trembling, and he suspected that he’d be facing another sleepless night. Alongside the blind man, his drawings were now new inhabitants of the dark, humid, and violent universe of prison. As a last-ditch effort, he rummaged once more in his pockets, including his jacket’s breast pocket, the one where classy gentlemen usually arrange a folded handkerchief, but he didn’t find anything there, either.
It was probably a natural habit for the blind man—stealing. He could hide things better than any sighted person. Once in his cell, he’d take the drawings out of their hiding place, and stick them on the wall with Scotch Tape, next to his bunk bed, like everyone else. The ubiquitous images of naked women. Maybe he was not blind after all, and it was all a farce. Maybe the theft of the missing page was the telltale evidence that he was faking it. Julio didn’t think he was condensing any particularly profound piece of wisdom when he simply said:
“In the end, no one really knows why people shout.”
“That’s for sure,” replied the tiny bailiff with a smile.
The heavy cell door closed, resounding all around them. The same bailiff who had been whistling his heart out clapped noisily and blurted: “Ok, guys, pizza time.”
He turned around to face Julio as though he was just now noticing his presence.
“Would you like me to take you back upstairs first?”
Julio managed to nod somehow, although his head felt as heavy as an anvil.
He’s the one. That’s the thief, he thought, as he let the man step out in front of him.
“No One Really Knows Why People Shout” © Mario Michelena. Translation © 2021 by Lindsay Griffiths and Adrián Izquierdo. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Sara Cordón, a new graduate from an elite institution and a new migrant starting his first job in the United States have a lot more in common than they think.
Let’s keep three things in mind:
First, The Warriors, a 1979 action film about New York street gangs that a young Mercedes used to check out from the video rental store every couple of weeks, minimum. Training her non-lazy eye on the screen as precisely as she could muster, she would channel all her pubescent psychic energy into the TV set until she could mumble the dialogues a beat before they started. “Now, Cyrus don't want anybody packed and he don't want anybody flexing any muscle. So, I gave him my word that the Warriors would uphold the truce,” a thug would say, and Mercedes would congratulate herself for having anticipated the phrase as she prepared her delivery of the next one, which she also liked: “Can you count, suckers? I say the future is ours . . . if you can count!”
Okay, good. That’s one thing. For another, there’s the New York City subway that Mercedes—now a thirty-something immigrant from small-town Spain—associates with the Gusano Loco, the “crazy worm” ride from her local childhood fair: discomfort, strange people, harsh noises, getting harangued by the latest drunk, clatter and clacking, slinky hip-swishing, the occasional puker, and, with few exceptions, the unease of visual isolation from the outside world.
Finally, and because we wouldn’t want her to feel left out, let’s keep Mercedes in mind as well.
Mercedes, who has finally secured a seat on the subway, looks at herself from the belly down, scrutinizing what’s visible, and regrets her outfit. Then she inspects herself chest-up in the window across from her, ignoring the kid who’s just amped up his music and is employing a handrail to do acrobatics and breakdance in the middle of the car. She’s engrossed in her own thoughts, her own troubles. She tugs at her hangnails, crosses her legs one way and then the other, nudges her glasses slightly higher on her nose. She could have stuffed her cap and gown into a bag and kept them hidden until she arrived. That way, she could have walked far more discreetly from her apartment in Brooklyn to the nearest subway stop, thus preventing not only strangers from shouting “Congrats” to her on the street but also an asshole tourist on the platform from trying to dislodge her cap with furtive jabs of his selfie stick. No, Mercedes has no idea why she so glibly donned this purple gown, much less this prismatic hat that her university has rented her for the daily sum of seventy dollars.
She looks—she really does look now, just for a moment—at the breakdancer, suspended upside down from the handrail as he contorts his body, working wonders with his hat as the world refracts topsy-turvy all around him. She looks at him, yes, but Mercedes has seen this show many times before and no longer finds it particularly impressive. Or maybe she’s so distracted that she looks without seeing. All she can think about is why it ever occurred to her to dress like this in public. Actually, she does know why. The chronotope “graduation” is to blame. Mercedes has used this word quite a lot—“chronotope,” that is—since she entered the American academy, though she sometimes misses the mark, register-wise. She also occasionally says “teleological,” “phallocentric,” and “incommensurable.” Mercedes blames her presence here—seated in a subway car as it conveys her in the direction of Uptown/The Bronx, both nervous and suffocated, both pride-swollen and ridiculous—on her film-heavy emotional education and the diploma-awarding ceremony organized by her university. Of course, The Warriors is very much present in the rushes of triumphant culmination she’s experiencing, with its visibly ominous gangs making their way across New York, taking it by storm, growing stronger as groups, as bands, as community. But so are Flash Dance, Rocky, The Neverending Story, and all the other eighties-style American films aimed at impressionable minors the world over. Movies that extolled the toils and the struggle of stereotypically downtrodden young people, “subaltern” being another addition to her academic vocabulary. Young people who, following an excess of cathartic perspiration, invariably attained poetic and much-deserved personal glory.
Speaking of glory, the breakdancer extends his hat to collect the bills with which the audience has applauded his pirouettes. Mercedes doesn’t clap because she’s focused on herself: at the end of her forty-minute ride, she’s going to join her classmates at Yankee Stadium, melt into the purple masses, and take her seat in the bleacher section reserved for PhD candidates in hispanic studies. She’ll listen to the speech delivered by some prominent intellectual, wave the pennant bearing the name of her university, unclasp the pins fixing her cap in place, and toss it into the air, despite the fact that it’s now prohibited to do so, because last year a guy in Cleveland lost an eye to the edge of a flying mortarboard. Glory. Pure and simple. Deserved—or so she feels—because she, too, has olive skin and frizzy hair, like Alex, the steelworker who dreamed of becoming a dancer in Flashdance. She, too, is an immigrant, like Rocky Balboa, Italian stallion. Like Bastian, moreover, she was bullied for being a little hick with a habit of seeking sanctuary in some classroom to read at her school in Alcázar de San Juan, province of Ciudad Real. Mercedes can’t help but feel that she comes from the dark side, from a certain state of social disadvantage, from all the pain implicit in the years she had to wear a patch over her non-lazy eye. Not to mention that she, too, comes from a country in crisis. In the narrative of triumph over adversity that she has concocted for herself, her gratification is justified because the honors she’s about to receive are universal honors. She knows—because movies have taught her so—that when the downtrodden prevail, so does the common good.
* * *
But let’s keep looking. We can't look away:
Next—next to her, actually, in the seat right beside Mercedes—there’s him, Leobardo. Slumped and sprawled, his stocky, hairy-knuckled fingers enthusiastically roam the screen of his cell phone: he’s playing Crazy Taxi and has zero qualms about cutting off other cars, screeching onto the sidewalk, or mowing down the occasional pedestrian. He lifts his head periodically to make sure he’s still where he needs to be, on his real-life form of transport, the Uptown/Bronx-bound subway. Today is his first day of work and he feels pretty crazy himself, as a matter of fact, pretty loco indeed.
Then there’s the subway ad placed right in front of both Leobardo and Mercedes, a few handspans above their heads. An ad that must be for ice cream, since Häagen Dazs paid a fortune to display it before the many thousands of daily commuters on the 4 train. The poster proclaims the tagline “äah,” an exhalation of rapture at the creaminess of Häagen Dazs ice cream, followed by the slogan, “satisfaction that can’t be undone.” But what the passengers see is something very different: a spoon smeared with a glistening brown substance and the phrase “äah Keano Prof.undo.” The ice cream company’s attempt at word play has been papered over with a shoddy flyer proclaiming the services of Keano, professor and fortune teller, in a slyly crude bilingual double entendre that any Spanish speaker would instantly detect (Keano Prof.undo becomes qué ano profundo, which means, yes, “what a deep anus”). The brown-slathered spoon leers at both Leobardo and Mercedes, glaring out from the publicity mash-up that means nothing to non-Hispanic readers.
Finally, let’s take a good look at Mercedes’s asinine snort of laughter. We must remember that Mercedes is all about anti-hegemonic resistance, and also, sometimes, due to the authority long invested in her as a victim of social derision, cruelty. The unfortunate pun makes her—at last!—completely forget the chronotope “graduation,” her purple gown, and the influence still exerted by 1980s Hollywood films on her personal expectations. Her hilarity manages to distract Leobardo, who lifts his eyes to the “äah Keano Prof.undo,” abandons his phone, and loses control of his taxi, which promptly crashes into a wall. Game over.
“¿Les quedó chistoso, no?” he ventures. Pretty funny, right?
“Sí.” Mercedes, who isn’t particularly adept at small talk, puts on her glasses and conceals her mangled hangnails under the vast sleeves of her gown.
“Even a little crude, actually,” he adds, still in Spanish.
Leobardo resumes fiddling with his phone in an attempt to recover the taxi. In his zeal, he stops thinking about how today is the day he’ll finally get to do what brought him to New York in the first place: take over his uncle’s job, and, following his example, start earning money in dollars. Mercedes, who assumes the conversation is over, relaxes and unsheathes her thumbs.
Leobardo, too, has certain dialogues from The Warriors committed to memory—“Can you count, suckers? I say the future is ours… if you can count!”—although he knew the movie as Los Guerreros and the dubbing was in Mexican Spanish, not Spanish-Spanish: “suckers” was “torpes,” for instance, not “estúpidos,” as it had been for Mercedes. Leobardo and his neighbor El Machuca, in whose basement they often gathered as teenagers to drink cans of Tecate and watch videos, were fascinated by the part of the film when the New York gangsters—the “gringo cholos”—discover that they’ve become enormously powerful on plainly numerical grounds: they’re the toughest, and the gang is growing, so it’s only a matter of time before they take over not only the subway but also New York itself. “One gang could run this city. One gang!”
In hopes of looking a little like los guerreros themselves, Leobardo and El Machuca bought two identical vests they never dared to wear without a shirt underneath, let alone together. It gave them an exorbitant thrill to imagine ruling over a whole metropolis, or just over a handful of train cars. Growing up in the sleepy Baja Californian city of Ensenada, however, they didn’t even have a subway.
Leobardo thinks there might be something for him in New York after all. He associates the subway here with the little sports quad at the school he attended: body odor, freshly showered girls accessorizing and applying their makeup, guys shoving each other, universally disregarded signs that prohibit eating and drinking. Most of all, he associates it with the chance to share space alongside people with whom he would otherwise share nothing. Which is to say, a gathering place made interesting by randomness. But if Leobardo barely socialized on the sports quad at school, he’s doing even less of it on the New York subway. He looks up to make sure he’s on the right line. All’s well; the Upper East Side. Now the train will cut across Spanish Harlem and head into the Bronx until it reaches the place where he’ll meet with his uncle’s gringo business partner. “Él le sabe bien al show.” The other guy knows the ins and outs. His uncle has also assured him that he won’t need much English for the job; after all, practically the whole neighborhood is Latino. “Let the gringo speak English. Besides, speaking Spanish on the job can help you honor tu gente, mijo. There’s almost two and a half million Latinos in New York. Working class in the Bronx, like you and me. They’ll be on your side.” This is what Leobardo’s uncle had told him. A city he can make his own, he thinks, and his taxi flips over again. Game over. Putamadre.
* * *
At this especially tedious point of the route, we must focus our attention on three events:
The first is that, as the doors slide open at the 86th Street stop, a hot mouthful of air seeps into the car; unfortunately for the users of the New York subway system, the platforms aren’t air-conditioned. The torrid gust is accompanied by a pair of elegant parents who are in turn accompanying, with all the poise they can summon, their twenty-something daughter. She, too, is bound for Yankee Stadium, and like Mercedes, she has been imprudent enough to leave home already dressed in her purple gown, her cap, and most probably her insecurities, as well.
The second event is that the subway screeches to a halt in the dark tunnel before the next station and the conductor makes an announcement over the speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen: we are experiencing delays due to train traffic ahead of us.” A general lament ripples forth, a motley chorus of exclamations: “Fuuuuuck.” “Mielda.” “Really?” “Jehovah, have mercy.” “Jeez!” “Oh shit.” Leobardo sighs and slips his phone into his pocket. Mercedes, who had been tugging her hangnails with jubilant anxiety at the appearance of her garment twin—the communal reassurance that her ludicrous singularity so desperately needed!—abandons the activity and is consumed by the same sense of dread she always felt as a child when she was buckled into the Gusano Loco against her will.
A man in a wheelchair with very white skin and red hair emerges from the adjacent car: his appearance is the third event. In the absence of free hands, he grips a plastic cup between his teeth for donations. “Help the homeless,” he says, though the cup makes it hard to hear him. The passengers step aside to make room for him and he decides to stop, remove the cup from his mouth, and berate Mercedes’s gown twin into a handout. “Can you spare a dollar? Huh? A dollar? Help the homeless, sis. Give me a few bucks.” And he raises the plastic cup to her nose. Intimidated, the girl takes a step back. Her father reaches for her hand. “C’mon, sis, I can’t be a criminal, I don’t even have a leg. Give me a fucking dollar, you fucking whore.” The man grumbles and lurches forward in his chair, rolling right over the feet of those, like Mercedes and Leobardo, who don’t move them out of the way in time.
“Help the homeless. I live in a fucking shelter. Give me a few dollars.”
Several passengers bridle at his hostility, wondering whether a person with reduced mobility has the right to demand money this way. A rattled Leobardo looks like he’s going to hold back, but he doesn’t.
“Me pisaste, ¿no ves? Y a la señorita le arruinaste la bata.”
“Digo que debería aprender modales y disculparse. Say I’m sorry. Easy. Say I’m sorry. To her, and also to her,” he says, looking first to Mercedes and then to her gown twin, both of whom, despite their attire, couldn’t presently care less about the chronotope “graduation.”
“What the fuck are you saying, you fucking beaner?” The man wrenches the wheelchair backward, once again rolling over Leobardo’s foot and Mercedes’s gown. “I have no fucking leg, I have no fucking home, so fuck you and fuck her.”
Mercedes, startled by his tone and by the cut across his forehead that continues to redden his hair, tries to express to Leobardo that everything’s fine. Several passengers gesture indignantly at the attitude of this man who has not only disrespected them, but also dared to discriminate against the young Latino in their midst.
Leobardo is emboldened, maybe because it’s his first day of work in New York City. He doesn’t recognize himself. Today, he’s the toughest guy in town. He gets up. “Va a pedirles perdón a las señoritas,” he says. “You say I’m sorry or I keep the cup.” Gathering more courage than he’s ever had in his life, he reaches out and takes it.
“What the fuuuuck?”
“I just want you be gentle, guëy.” Leobardo instantly drips with sweat. “And that word you call me, beaner, qué es eso, like wetback? Eso es bien feo. I just want you be gentle, guëy. Better for you, better for everybody, va a ver.”
He approaches the elegant father of the future graduate. “You give him one dollar, ¿verdad, señor? Si él say I’m sorry, you give him one dollar.”
The father takes a dollar bill from his wallet and puts it into the plastic cup that Leobardo holds out to him.
“Now smile and say it. ‘I’m sorry,’” Leobardo instructs the man in the wheelchair.
“I don’t give a shit! Give me back my fucking cup.”
“I just trying to help, okay, and for you to be more polite. This lady can also give you one dollar, ¿verdad que sí, señorita?” And since he directs the question to Mercedes, she rummages hastily in the bag she’s clutching across her gown and hands Leobardo not one but five dollars. “Look, amigo. Just say ‘I’m sorry.’”
“Bueno, that is a start. Come with me. Sea amable y yo le ayudo. I help you. Some help for el señor, please,” he asks, and the train revs back into motion as the passengers dig into their pockets to support the causes of decorum, tolerance, and respect.
Reaching the 138th St.–Grand Concourse Station, the man wheels out of the car, his cup full of change. Leobardo returns to his seat, surprised at himself. Mercedes readjusts her glasses, pushing them further up her nose, and although she doesn’t look at him, because she can feel herself blushing a bit, she’s proud of her fellow subway passenger, of how civilly he has resisted the tyranny so often exerted in New York—sometimes even by members of subaltern groups. After graduation, she thinks, she and her classmates will found a sort of intellectual squad. A kind of warrior crew that, like her fellow subway passenger, will become the scourge of everyone who perceives Spanish-speakers as “beaners,” job-stealers, naturally sultry dancers (“hot Latin chick,” Mercedes has herself been called, though heat is not among her primary characteristics), and, most of all, rude. Never again. She and her classmates are about to earn a diploma that will forever commit them to the symbolic value of Hispanism and Latinidad as a global cause. Glory. A glory that can only grow. “Can you count, suckers?”
* * *
Her stop, finally: Yankee Stadium. Mercedes walks with joy—and elegance, too—alongside the family of her cap and gown twin, united not only by their imminent graduation but also and even more powerfully by the experience they’ve shared en route. Leobardo, for his part, says goodbye to Mercedes by lowering his eyes and taking out his phone. He doesn’t feel like playing Crazy Taxi anymore. He thinks about how the 1980s movies of his childhood still influence his life and remembers Los Guerreros—and, by association, his friend El Machuca. “Remember the truce: nobody packed and nobody will flex any muscle,” one of the gangsters said. He smiles with an amusement much like what he felt at the sight of the “äah Keano Prof.undo” poster. As the subway shoots across the Bronx, and as he registers the satisfaction of a job well done, he composes a text to his uncle: “Ey, tío, done deal. The gringo’s a boss. Red hair, a bloody cut on his forehead. Impressive. Todo un profesional. Where should I meet him next?” Although Leobardo is part of a minority, as his uncle has explained to him, his new life doesn’t seem to displease him. Quite the contrary, in fact. Reaching the last stations on the line, he learns to enjoy the excess of cathartic perspiration, his well-earned personal glory. Pure and simple. With this job, he’ll finally get to make a city his own. For, of course, the common good.
© Sara Cordón. Translation © 2021 by Robin Myers. All rights reserved.
An enterprising cam girl calls a middle-aged Brooklyn man's bluff when he asks to meet in person in this short story by Naief Yehya.
“I love you,” he told her.
“I love you,” he said again.
She kept on smiling, but her look changed as she pretended to look offscreen.
“I love you,” he typed again.
She stared at the message, and got close to the camera as if she were to say something confidentially. “I love you too darling, but your tips don’t show me enough love.”
Mel continued reading other participants’ messages. She contorted her facial muscles, feigning surprise, opening her eyes wide as if encountering the unexpected. But there was nothing unexpected. The comments were always the same, the same expressions of arousal, the same demands to show more, to touch herself, to play, to lick herself, or to assume this or that erotic position. A little bell rang to announce a tip, and she would smile and thank her generous admirers. She would threaten to take off her corset. She would remove a stocking, slowly caressing her dainty legs. She would tell silly stories, play the coquette while batting her eyes, then would jump, sensually move her hips, finally thanking everyone and ending the show with a promise to return the next day.
He sent plenty of private messages to her but did not receive a response. There was nothing urgent he needed to tell her, but at the same time he felt compelled to communicate with her regardless of the results. That’s why he kept insisting, stupidly, compulsively, despite knowing there would be no response. He kept calm because he knew that if he continued, he’d be blocked and there’d be no going back. If he was flagged for harassment, he would be permanently blocked, and that would mean being sent to a limbo he couldn't imagine living in. He was used to seeing her cam every day from start to finish. Before she had become famous she would answer his private messages. They even spoke over the phone on certain occasions and had a couple of private video calls that were brief but satisfying. She hadn’t agreed to meet in person, but he knew that was too much to ask. It would imply unusual connection. He himself was not ready for such a commitment.
However, they had spoken intimately about his finances. He had told her that he worked with the stock market. She appeared to take him at his word, and even asked for advice on how to manage her money. What to invest in, saving strategies, and what to do in case her income didn’t grow as she expected it to after expenses for lights, paraphernalia, and decorations for her set. He invented convincing responses that hinted at professional expertise. He also lied to her about the possibility of inviting her to invest in an index fund known for its high returns. She told him she would think about it. Any self-respecting cam girl knows it’s not a good idea to do business with fans. He knew this, too. These were things that could be said without consequences or commitment. Plans for a charmed life sustained by tips, stripteases, and solitary orgasms. Plans made without any intention of ever carrying them out. He needed to hear her voice. He felt his blood pressure rising and felt a familiar sharp pain in his forehead. He called once more, repeating to himself, this is the last time, this is the last time.
Ring, ring. Suddenly: “What do you want?” Mel said curtly, in a harsh voice, but one he recognized by its sensuality.
He was too surprised to speak. He hadn’t considered the possibility she would pick up.
“Why do you keep pushing? What more do you want from me? I give you everything that I can, but nothing satisfies you. What’s left? What’s missing? Tell me.” He kept his silence. His forehead and hands were soaked. He sat on the toilet.
“I need you,” he said finally.
“Why do you need me? What do you need me for?”
“I want to be with you,” he said, repeating one of those plans without consequences.
“I love you.”
“You’ve already said that.”
He had nothing else to offer.
“Do you have a family? A wife, children? A dog?”
“Do you want to be with me? Come and pick me up.”
“I’m in Riverhead. Do you have a car? Are you able to come?”
“Yes, yes, I can.” The phone trembled in hands.
“I’ll text you the address. Come right away.” She hung up.
He came out of the bathroom, where he had locked himself for the previous hour or so. His wife looked at him and asked: “Is everything okay? It looks like you saw a ghost, or a hemorrhoid the size of your hand.”
“Everything is fine, but I need to head out.”
“You promised to help the children with their homework."
“Tony, from the office, he’s . . . dead.”
“How? What happened to him?”
“I don’t know, I have to see. They called me to go and see him.”
“I’ll go with you. I must call Miranda. This is terrible,” she said as she covered her eyes.
“No, don’t call anyone, not even his wife. Don’t say anything to anybody.”
“But what happened?”
“I’m not sure, I have to go.”
He hurried to the bedroom and threw on his old black suit. The children shouted—they were waiting—but he didn’t respond.
He put on the only black tie he had and walked towards the door. Rolf, their terrier, looked at him with disappointment and fell back asleep.
“Are you going to tell me what’s really going on?” his wife asked, clearly agitated, her eyes swollen with tears.
“Don’t worry, I’ll explain everything when I return. Do not call anyone. I will call you.”
“What’s with all this mystery?”
He left in a sweat, without saying another word. He looked up the address that Mel gave him on Google Maps. It would take an hour and fifteen minutes from his house in Brooklyn. It was enough time for him to organize his thoughts and prepare in case it was a trap. Maybe he’d arrive and no one would be there. Perhaps she’s a minor and a team of cops would be waiting for him. He didn’t think that Mel was underage, but how could he really know? It could be a trap to kidnap him and take him for everything he had. After all, he had claimed to be an executive for an important finance firm.
He could confess that he worked in the human resources department of a pharmacy chain. He had nothing to be ashamed of. It was an important and respectable job. He’d also have to tell her about his wife and kids. He thought to call Tony. Just a quick phone call. To bring him up to speed about his death. He didn’t do it. Traffic was heavier than expected. This wasn’t a case of infidelity, at least not yet. Watching a lovely girl swaying her hips with little in the way of clothes over a monitor, asking her to do things and rewarding her with Bitcoin tips, was not the same as cheating on his wife. Having private phone and video calls with her couldn’t count as a betrayal, either.
The female voice of the Google Maps guide announced his arrival. A decrepit, half-empty restaurant. He took a moment to summon the courage to open his car door and step out. He didn’t know what he was going to say, or what he was doing there. As he stepped into the restaurant, the smell of fried food and lukewarm coffee gave him chills. His wife was disgusted by dirty diners like this one. He picked the first table and sat there watching the door.
He ordered a coffee, which predictably needed more sugar than it could hold to counter its bitter taste. He looked at his watch every two or three minutes. He tried reading some article on his phone but was too distracted. He checked Mel’s Instagram and Twitter accounts again, waiting anxiously for her to post something, anything. He was confused and he felt lightheaded. His wife dialed him once. He didn’t answer and put his ringer on silent. He laid his head on the table and dozed off for a moment. He woke up frightened. He went to the bathroom to wash his face. When he returned, he thought, Mel would be there. It didn’t happen that way. Time kept passing and he tried calling Mel one more time. She didn’t answer.
Two hours and a gallon of coffee later, he decided to give up. He dialed her once more and heard a phone ringing. He lifted his gaze to see a disheveled girl standing at the door, no makeup on, wearing a wrinkled summer dress and a leather jacket, phone ringing in her hand. They stared at each other. She declined his call without a word and sat down in front of him. He was surprised by her appearance but particularly by her unkempt black hair. Where had her silver wig gone? They sat silently for a moment as if to absorb the impact of meeting face-to-face, in the flesh. The waitress came back around. Mel ordered tea and a slice of cherry pie.
“It’s the best thing they have here,” she said, adjusting her backpack and stuffing her bags into the booth.
“I should’ve ordered that.”
“It’s nothing special.”
“You came,” he said.
“You too.” More silence. She stared at her phone with regret.
“What’s all that?” he asked, pointing at her things.
Another long silence. He also pretended to be on his phone as if he were searching for something, making it seem like he was sending a text. She placed her phone on the table. She took a sip of her tea and took a bite of her pie.
“You told me that you love me. Now you can prove it.”
“I came here as soon as possible.”
“Take me to your house in Manhattan.”
“What do you mean, when? Right now.”
“You and I have known each other for awhile now. How long has it been, a month? I’m not here to bullshit or lie to you.”
“Yeah, it’s been about four weeks since I started watching your cam show.”
“You see? That’s why I trust you and want to propose that we become business partners. Do you think I’d put myself in danger by meeting just anyone? I’m not crazy.”
“Right. My cam show is growing, but with more capital and careful planning, I can make it to the top ten rankings in a matter of weeks.”
“And what will I do?”
“First, I want you to be my financial partner. If all goes well between us, maybe we take the next step and make shows as a couple. I have everything I need to make it. I just need a bit of help.”
“Me, in one of your shows?” was all he managed to say.
“Why not?” she asked with a mouthful of pie. “But for now, I need a place to stay. I got kicked out of my apartment over a stupid misunderstanding.”
“Apparently, my lease explicitly prohibits me from recording live sex shows.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Neither can I. So, you’ll take me to your place in Manhattan? I can put up a temporary studio in any room. I need to get ready for my next show.” She looked at the time on her phone as she spoke.
“The thing is . . . I don’t live in Manhattan.”
“You told me you did.”
“Not everything I told you was true. I live in Brooklyn.”
“Brooklyn. That’s fine. I can adapt.” She finished her pie and took one last sip of her tea. She got the check and asked, “Are we going?”
“But I just got here,” he said, since no excuses came to mind.
“And what do you want to do here?”
“I don’t know, be with you.”
“Don’t be gross. What are you referring to?”
“Nothing bad, I just want to be with you.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be together, more than you can imagine. Where’s your car?”
He pointed to the street.
“Get the bill and let’s go,” she said, standing up.
He left a twenty-dollar bill on the table, in the amateur conviction that he wasn't leaving a trail. They walked to the car. He had broken into a sweat and his hands were fidgeting. He opened the doors. She threw her bags and backpack in the rear seat. She saw that it was filled with strollers, bats, balls, and other plastic multicolored things.
“Why are there toys in your car?”
She sat in the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment. “There’s a lip liner and some makeup here. Do you use this?”
“I think I need to tell you something.”
“Don’t worry about it. I can guess what you’re about to say. You can tell me on the way to Brooklyn.”
He started the car. He was about to say something, but Mel was looking at her phone and put her hand up to stop him. He pulled onto the road and thought back to the other plans he’d made without commitment.
“If at any moment someone asks about Tony, you can tell them that you’re sorry about his passing.”
“Planes y Compromisos” © Naief Yehya. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Samantha Ortega. All rights reserved.