No doubt a few Galicians will think it in very bad taste to inaugurate this issue with a likeness to their higher profile southern neighbors, but because there may be a great many glad for the comparison, I can hardly imagine a better point of entry to the little-known trove that is Galician literature. Indeed, ever since the independence of Portugal in 1143 from the Spanish Kingdom of León, and the subsequent split of their common vulgar tongue, debate has raged over just where (and when) to draw the border between Galician and Portuguese, if one need be drawn at all. They are, for the most part, mutually intelligible, despite differences in vocabulary, accent, and syntax. Orthography is a particular sticking point, notably with place-names, whose spelling can carry real political import. It is hardly a surprise, then, that in either culture respect is reserved for all the irrevocably parted, or that a word has emerged, in either language, to express their anguish. In Portuguese, the word is saudade; I expect it rings a bell. It often turns up in BuzzFeed-type listicles of apparently untranslatable words. As a translator, I am more than a little ashamed to admit that I routinely fall for the clickbait, and so it is with some authority that I say saudade’s Galician sibling—morriña, or morrinha—seldom makes the cut.
Whether to Portugal or greater Spain, Galicia is often relegated to the role of second fiddle, but its native language and nearly three million speakers around the globe are not to be dismissed. According to recent research conducted by the Spanish National Institute of Statistics, the number of Galician-language books published within Galicia on any given year is now the same or higher as the number of those published in Spanish. Although this number is about half of what it had been only a decade earlier, it nevertheless offers something of a silver lining in an age defined by the attrition of regional languages across the Iberian Peninsula. And internationally, the outlook may be even rosier. As reported in Spain’s oldest operating newspaper, the bilingual Spanish-Galician Faro de Vigo, foreign translation of Galician literature has doubled since 2008. In the past five years especially Galician presses have nearly doubled their presence at the larger literary book fairs as well, in Bologna, Guadalajara, Buenos Aires, and Frankfurt, thanks in large part to language promotion initiatives financed by the regional government.
It would be more than a little incorrect, then, to shove the Galician language and its literary output under either the Spanish or Portuguese umbrellas. Galician is neither a dialect nor a transcription of those cultures and their languages any more than morriña is a mere varietal or translation of saudade.
But if morriña does claim less interest than its Lusitanian cousin, except in academic circles, this is probably because it presents less mystery. While her Portuguese counterpart, in the grips of his saudade, may struggle to define just what it is he longs for, ask a Galician about her morriña and she is bound to find you a little soft in the head: Galiza, claro—Galicia, of course.
Personally, I find the term more nuanced, more sophisticated than many Galicians care to admit. (Modesty is, after all, a point of pride in this rainy corner of northwestern Spain. It bears mention that Amancio Ortega, founder of the Zara fashion empire, grew up in A Coruña, where, if local accounts are faithful, he is often spotted strolling the city’s public beach, discreetly attired.) For although it may be easy enough to grasp why a Vigo fisherman hauling for cod on the high seas of the North Atlantic, or an Ourense exile hiding out on the Pampas from the wrath of a dictator—who, incidentally, hailed from Ferrol—might think often and fondly of their faraway home, it is a bit less clear, perhaps, why the sentiment may glow as brightly in a modern-day Lugo dairy farmer, dispossessed of the family trade by a shifting economy and the plummeting price of milk across the European Single Market.
As tempting as it is to think of morriña as only another kind of homesickness, a better synonym might be estrangement. From what Galicians feel estranged is a question with no single answer, but the pursuit of something like one has become a deep well of Galician literature, past and present. It certainly binds together the eight pieces in this month’s issue, which we can read as a survey of botched, aborted, or deferred attempts to connect or reconnect, with distant parents, with forgotten friends, or even with a sense of existential certainty—or even, when all else fails, one’s own livestock.
“i come from a family built on longing,” proclaims the narrator of Susana Sanches Arins’ And They Say, still nursing the multigenerational hurt of a home destroyed much less than disappeared through the Spanish Civil War. It is a sentiment all too familiar to the narrator of Emma Pedreira’s Voracious also, as she prepares for the loss of a mother she never really understood, for whom, as an author, understanding was the task of a lifetime, except when it came to her daughter.
We see a similar, if darker, struggle to connect in the poetry of Luisa Castro, wherein another daughter struggles to read into the circumstances of her birth a love her mother refuses to feign, even for appearance’s sake. Reality and expectation clash again, this time between lovers, and with an absurdly scatological streak, in Xurxo Borrazás’ “Of Children and Sphincters.”
Lest we imagine the hunger for resolution is proper only to the well-acquainted, Antón Lopo, in “Stress,” reminds us the feeling is equally at home between former friends, reunited by chance and divided by worldview. Nor, would it seem, is connection a strictly human problem, as Álvaro Cunqueiro proves with great absurdity in “Alberte Merlo’s Horse.”
Just why our heroes fall short of the resolution they desire is up for interpretation, although we could certainly credit the deep emotional constipation they share. Or we might wonder if failure, as some of these writers seem to suggest, is not simply a rule of life itself, the essential chaos of which will ever defy any dream of reconciliation. There is something of this idea in Samuel Solleiro’s “This, I Don’t Know,” in its very title. Or, choosing to see not chaos but overwhelming order, we can follow the lead of Alba Cid’s “Essays,” and lose ourselves in the architecture of an okra flower.
Altogether, the selections in this month’s issue imagine a universe of too many hopeless questions, of an endless host of desires wandering around in search of a one true heading. The scope of these questions, and the breadth of this wandering are truly stunning in their immensity. But abide this immensity, these pieces do, as living, breathing Galicians do, day in and day out, from the Costa da Morte to the heights of the Ancares. Theirs is a hardy, hard-headed refusal to give in, and there is nothing more Galician than that.
© 2021 Scott Shanahan. All rights reserved.
The work of German photographer Karl Blossfeldt and his relationship to plants is reimagined in this poem by 2019 Poems in Translation Contest winner Alba Cid from her collection Atlas.
Light is choral and comes from another world:
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone.
Edgar Allen Poe
1. A catalog for Karl Blossfeldt.
2. A creation that can only be seen head-on, one which celebrates the detail: fingers plucking petals and sepals to discover
3. the corolla (chrysanthemum)
4. the structures (sage)
5. a nearly nonexistent world: interior, spores, silences (nothing better than a panicle to catch a glimpse of silence).
6. With some enlargements, organic matter can become metal, sculpture, a richly split nutcracker, a Tsarine delirium after so many Tsars.
7. After each selection, earthen arrows, brushes, velvet, manipulation, and the play of light and shadow; the wary fascination of botanists.
8. Karl mounts his bicycle and leaves behind the sinewy nucleus of Berlin. We watch him pedal from above, drawing innumerable ellipses on his way to the outskirts, and we think back to a line by Jorie Graham, the line that explains sea creatures’ fascination with the moon’s traces in the water.
9. “Anything that flees so constantly must be desirable.” From “Ambergris,” in Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, 1980.
10. Revelation can come in Potsdam or Teufelsee, at the foot of an ox-path.
11. Karl kneels before every wild specimen:
12. a blue button, lichens, the motion of a fern as its arms unfurl.
13. It’s hard to deny the evocations, elevation, and curve of the stalk, withdrawing, practically en quatrième position, like a ballerina in the German Staatsballett.
14. In 1929, Walter Benjamin describes the work of Karl Blossfeldt as “an entire, unsuspected horde of analogies and forms in the existence of plants.” From “News About Flowers,” in the year cited.
15. “Horde,” he writes (which is to write stampede, the tumult of battle), without knowing that the body of photographs taken between 1890 and his death in 1932 will climb to 6,000.
16. Is there a botanical inspiration behind Doric columns? Roman crowns? Gothic choirs?
17. When you say inspiration, what do you really mean?
18. There is a heartbeat in Karl’s words, a certain eagerness for restitution, the ceaseless revelation of the elective affinities between artistic and natural forms, something almost etymological,
19. soft as the word “balm,” which crosses the River Jordan, through the valleys of Syria, anointing lips and bodies.
20. These, Karl, are close-ups of a Canna indica in black and white.
21. In a certain slant of morning, some of the canna lily’s leaves, oblong and tropical, will begin to let the sunlight through.
22. Light filters through its tissues and marks the ribbing of the plant.
23. It respects stems and transition zones. It illuminates the edges.
24. As day falls, another burst bounces off its waxed surface and makes manifest each ripple, the traces of soil, and rain.
25. And smoothness, can’t you see?
26. As for the Canna, perennial, it can easily grow two meters high, flower and fruit, folding in on itself; it wouldn’t respond well to isolation or extraction.
27. How might we decide between choreography or architecture?
28. Urals or sky?
29. Smoothness tells a story of more delicate ambitions.
30. What do you know about leaves? (You, not Karl.) About touch?
31. Are you aware of having touched them once in silence?
32. Any one of them could envelop your whole hand, even when unclasped.
33. In the instant your fingertips meet the surface, your mind makes a rapid sketch, a mental image of the thing you’ve touched.
34. The Canna is chutes and rhythms, passageways.
35. Karl parks his bike carelessly. Under his arm, a bunch of marigolds, triumphant and tender:
36. “If I give someone a horsetail, he will have no difficulty making a photographic enlargement of it—anyone can do that. But to observe it, to notice it and discover its forms, is something that only a few are capable of.”
Atlas © 2019 Alba Cid. By arrangement with the author. English Translation © 2021 Megan Berkobien and Jacob Rogers. All rights reserved.
Memories of family unfold in fragments in this excerpt from Susana Sanches Arins' novel And They Say.
stories are always being constructed. the words work like hands, setting brick after brick in its place.
a wall that protects us.
my father was born in 1949, the year after the war had come to an end. my mother came into the world in 1952 and the Maquis still roamed the hills. the war seemed far away, but it was there.
and it is still there.
i don’t know the whole story. i only recall, although this i do recall clearly, some scraps. not even scraps of the story, but rather the ones of the stories that grandma gloria told about the story, or of the stories casilda struggles to remember that she heard from aunt ubaldina. how can you identify the links between one remnant and another? what stitch should you use? where should you cut the fabric? in fact, what cloth should be used? what is the right pattern?
is there a correct way to do it?
i come from a family built on longing, on nostalgia for bygone days.
grandma gloria was always talking about the times in the big house of portaris, about how she was happy before what happened happened. mom always talking about the family, about how important we were, about how in vigo we even had a coat of arms on a gothic style stone house. aunt pilar always remembering her childhood in the house of one of her uncles, who was quite sophisticated and very rich.
i come from a family built on anger, because the ruin we suffered wasn’t fair. if it weren’t for uncle manuel, portaris would be ours, if it weren’t for that fight, we would still have sunday lunches with relatives, if it weren’t for the war, i would be living in redondela.
oh, if only it weren’t for . . .
uncle manuel is in the only family photograph that my grandmother kept. uncle manuel was one of her older brothers, she was the youngest. there were thirteen of them, not counting the ones who had died. that’s why, in the photo, my grandmother is at my great-grandfather’s feet and is just two years old. uncle manuel looks straight-backed and stiff, in one of the outer corners of the photo. even though my great grandparents are sitting in the center of the picture, as if they are on a royal throne, the one who is presiding over the scene is uncle manuel. because he has that air about him. and he plays up that majestic appearance with the white suit and white hat and white shoes. as if he were an indiano, the emigrant returned from the americas.
the rest of the brothers and sisters, thirteen in all, besides the ones who had died, and even my great-grandparents, sitting on their royal throne, look like uncle manuel’s poor servants, the tenant farmers who work his fields, the washerwomen who rinsed out his pristine laundry, the wet nurses who nursed my grandmother.
always serving the lord.
portaris was a place of immense wealth, with the meadows, swiddens, oak groves, community fields, wheatfields, and hills where cart after cart of manure was carried down. they said that portaris had five hundred square meters or so for every day of year and had at least thirty tenant farmers. there wasn’t a lunchtime during the week when there weren’t at least two priests sitting at the table.
where the priest says mass, he gets fed.
once this was all ours
one day my brother went with uncle josé to alter the course of the water. going up to the the heights where the monastery was, where the well was and the irrigation streams started out, he looked where his uncle was pointing and listened to what he said: everything you see there on the horizon—and he pointed toward the north—were lands that belonged to portaris. when the words came to an end, he rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder, like they do in the films with the cavalry set in the far west, and they watched the sun set.
areias was a place of immense wealth, with the meadows, swiddens, oak groves, community fields, wheatfields, and hills where cart after cart of manure was carried down. they said that areias had five hundred or so square meters for every day of year and had at least thirty tenant farmers. there wasn’t a lunchtime during the week when there weren’t at least two poor persons and beggars sitting at the table and workers who were unemployed and ill.
the doors to the house of manuel gonzález fresco were always open and nobody went away empty-handed.
fishing without a hook
one day my brother went with uncle josé to change the way the water ran.
—everything you see there on the horizon—and he pointed toward the north—were lands that belonged to portaris.
inhaki was sad when he came back. he didn’t give a hoot about contemplating the horizon lit up by the sunset.
—i just wanted to see eels.
dad had told him the well where the irrigation streams emerged was full of them, as big as serpents. and he hadn’t caught sight of even one.
slippery fish, like the memories we retain of bygone days.
for years, during sunday visits to the house in ceia, my grandmother gloria would tell my father: uncle manuel is very ill, he might not make it past christmas. and christmas went by and a new sunday came. uncle manuel is really ill, he might not make it past easter; and easter came and went.
one of those mournful warnings by grandma had given rise to the rumor. dying he’s dying, but he hasn’t died yet. it might be he keeps going because of those shots of cane liquor, the old woman with the voice of a sassy young lass would affirm. even a frost won’t get rid of weeds, a member of the family would inevitably let slip out every sunday.
and that’s when grandmother gloria would get all riled up:
—shhhh! show some respect! he was never a good person, but i don’t wish him dead.
and then what died was the conversation. until the next sunday arrived bringing the same comment as always.
uncle manuel is very ill, he might not make it past midsummer eve.
version 1 (more outlandish and unpredictable): one day my great-grandfather went to the county fair in cambados and when he came home he ordered everything to be packed up because he had just bought land over yonder, along the sea, that they told him better for planting gardens and growing fruit trees.
version 2 (more sensible and boring): the old man had become very ill with a chest ailment. he sold everything in cervanha and bought new land, near the coast, so he could go more often to bathe in the waters at a toja, which they had said could cure you and he would cough less and wouldn’t suffocate from the spasms in his diaphragm.
the point is
the important thing about the imaginative and random version as opposed to the sensible and boring one is seeing how each thing that happens has many versions that people tell, one, two, twelve, not as many as there are people.
as many as the times this story is told.
shoes ask for stockings
stockings ask for shoes
the shoemakers in the mountains
want land in cambados, they do
the oldest children were all fairly grown. only the little girls had been born in the new house. the move took a couple of days and required four or five oxcarts, with the chestnut bed frames, the dressers and trunks for the bed linens. on the trip they had to go back a ways, because along the way they’d lost aunt carmen, who was very little then.
they say uncle manuel, one of the older ones, had a girlfriend acquired during the festival in bandeira, but the relationship never made it past bandeira. who knows if that’s how the meanness entered his body.
we don’t know what market our great grandfather went to, but we think it was the one by the mosteiro, in meis. it was held on the ninth and twenty-fifth of each month and it was the biggest one in the area. who knows if that’s where the muleteers decided to accept dried octopus as payment for oil and paprika, and was thus the origin of polvo à feira, octopus market style, a national dish, gastronomic seal of quality. what was definitely true is that was where they sold cows who had just given birth, pregnant ones, the ones meant for slaughter, young cows, calves, oxen, pigs and horses. the wagon drivers from carvalhinho traded ribeiro wine, chestnuts from the courel mountains, walnuts from brolhao. the shepherds from ourense visited houses to buy livestock for wool. people came from meanho and valga, and caldas, and moranha, and cambados selling and buying, or just stopping by the vendors’ stands to listen to stories and have a glass of wine.
and in the middle of this hoopla great-grandfather heard them talking about a farm that belonged to some friars that nobody wanted: portaris.
grandmother gloria had the family portrait, with all of them, male and female, in front of the family home, perhaps in order to soften the suffering from having lost it. But every time the photograph emerged from the drawer and the parchment paper that it was wrapped in, the trauma, like the phoenix, was reborn from its silver nitrate.
. . . back then, back then, we were really happy, before uncle Manuel.
the one who saves, never goes without
version 3 (who knows if it’s the last): the old man was a clog maker. He went around to the big markets, and in his stand he repaired soles, replaced laces, tried to renew worn-down clogs. at one of those fairs he heard them talking about portrays.
The job as clog maker wasn’t a small business, considering the profit.
old wives’ tales
years ago i heard about the strength of the agrarian movement in the area around taveirós. the peasants, women and men, organized in unions, listened to the emancipating sermons of basilio álvarez and, in partnership with the ones who had emigrated, set up the first secular schools in the region, because they wanted daughters and sons who were deserters of illiteracy.
one of the things that amazed me the most was when i found out what happened in 1915. as always, the big houses with 365 ferrados were not required to pay taxes, the huts with a few cuncas, scraps of land, a granary with a single section, had to pay for the rest. And there was a general strike: for weeks the villages in the area refused to sell their produce in town, which meant the people there had no milk, no flour, no eggs, no vegetables or apples.
i had the idea that my people were downtrodden and had no backbone, and i was quite surprised at its astonishing history of resistance. astonishing and forgotten.
in the morning, uncle Manuel only had two shots of cane liquor, one the white kind, the other with herbs. so they say.
oral literature traditions
one of the sayings i recall from grandma gloria is her i'm going to tell you a story. a saying that always surprised me because what my grandmother would tell was what we children called gossip. my grandmother never lost her fondness for telling stories and she never lost the ironic way in which she told them even when her memory failed.
i never saw them, because i hadn't been born yet, but i can see them in the tiny kitchen in ceia, crowded in there, sitting on those white and green stools, around the table, my aunt yoya pretending she didn’t know anything and grandma gloria telling about the big house in portaris and about when the whole family had come from cervanha with the beds and dressers in ox carts and they lost aunt carmen, the one some missionaries passing through later took to become a nun, because grandpa, abuelito, was a man who went to mass every day and had the priest to eat at the house and that peddler who stopped in the big house on market days and the odd rubber that he kept in his traveling case and how aunt ubaldina egged grandma gloria on to steal the rubber and...
© Susana Sanches Arins. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2021 Kathleen March. All rights reserved.
Faced with the imminent death of her mother, Emma Pedreira's narrator reflects on how little they know one another.
Mamá will die tomorrow. Or maybe the day after tomorrow, I’m not sure, but I don’t want to stop to think about it. What I do know is that I’ll get a call and there’ll be a quiet voice, used to these types of things, and in such a schematic way that it’ll sound like a note jotted down on a Post-it: Your mother is dead. In accordance with her wishes, the burial will be tomorrow. We are very sorry.
But it doesn’t matter whether it’s tomorrow or the day after or whenever. Everything is happening as expected. The point is that she’s about to die and I don’t know how I feel about it.
I hardly know her, but I’ve been preparing myself mentally for this moment my whole life. Trying to decide whether I should hold back my tears or let them fall freely. I don’t know what’s going to happen, if they’ll come naturally or if I’ll have to fake them or if, on the contrary, I’ll finally be able to enjoy an infinite moment of peace, of compensation, of natural conciliation, of being able to relax the muscles that were born all tensed up and only when they’ve loosened up can I tell how rigid and painful they’ve been. I’ve been stiff ever since I can remember.
I don’t know Mamá. Or rather, I do know her, I know her first name, her surnames, her telephone number, her real hair color and the biography that’s on the inside flap of her books. I know her curriculum vitae, the differences between the nails on some fingers and on others, the brand of cigarettes she smokes, the yellow color of her fingertips which gives her away and makes her feel like she’s been judged but is not guilty. The world has changed, she’d say, always tending to make an excuse for it, when I started smoking the world demanded you do it, but now they demand you stop, they get you one way or another. I know she’d talk like that. I just know it. Ms. Notme, Ms. Excusemebut.
What I don’t know is how good she is as a mother. What the scent of her neck would be like when I was upset or how she would mark the occasion when I started to menstruate. I don’t know what look she’d have on her face if she’d seen me stoned or drunk the first time. I don’t know what tone of voice she’d use when she caught me stoned or drunk coming home in the wee hours of the morning. I know the tone of her voice better through the telephone or perhaps the videos of her I can watch on the internet. I know what she’s like inside, just as well as her best literary critic could, her best reader. I am her best reader.
In her books I can see the heights of her traumas and, if I dig deeper, I can recognize my name a thousand times.
I don’t even know if she’s the one who chose such a simple name, one you can find everywhere, or if it was Papá. I suppose she did, she just said it and Papá, who craved flesh, blood, the future, didn’t care if it was that name or something else.
Papá isn’t going to die. Papá is going to stay with me forever, holding hands, our faces close, lots of kisses and incomprehension, like Siamese twins with our respective traumas and with a two-for-one coupon—the post-traumatic family pack—at the psychologist’s.
I know how my father’s going to react when he receives the news. He’ll sigh, he’ll shake his head to erase what he’s just heard me say or what somebody else has said, if I’m not the one who’s told him, and he’ll keep on doing whatever it is he’s doing, listening to one of his old albums, or playing the guitar, or arguing with someone by internet. In his own world. Like he always is. In that world where he made a small nook for me but where I’m still a little satellite, close to him, but in the end still a satellite.
The voice will also tell me that I can come collect her personal belongings. A box of medicine that, in case they don’t want it, I can donate or drop off at a recycling place. Her underwear, which I imagine has been folded up to as small as possible and organized by color groups. Her books, the few she could keep in such a small space, and, supposedly, some keys that will allow me to enter the biggest kingdom in the world where everything that belongs to her will be waiting for her to return to die a little more.
I imagine myself opening the door to that place that I still haven’t seen, a small apartment, one I also imagine is crammed with books, notes, newspaper clippings, and awards for her accomplishments. I suppose I will find an envelope with my name on it, or perhaps a box. And inside the envelope or the box, a journal, a carefully kept notebook where the individual chapters of her life are gathered, the ones I don’t know about.
Or maybe there won’t be anything.
Papá punished me once. I think that was the only time he did it. I didn’t understand what wrong was and he typically didn’t know how to teach me using reprimands or physical punishment, but this time it happened he did. I had insulted, hit, and spit in the face of one of those uniform-wearing classmates from school who make fun of things you don’t have. Your daddy is a man-mommy. The insult flew through the air like a dart and stuck me in the face, my angry claws closed in around her neck, three days later the marks were still there. The telephone call . . . your daughter . . . Papá’s shadow, not too tall, not too long, not too strong, everything about him was in moderation.
I never knew if they had paraphrased the insult, but I always thought that his momentary rage came from the pain that the words had caused rather than by my desire for revenge. He took it out on me. He forbid me to watch television for a whole week. He knew the real damage would be to wound my pride deeply and it came at a point in the middle of the series, so I would lose track of the plots in my favorite program at that time. It was a really addicting program full of those types of romance that never happen in real life, the kind we’d never want for ourselves but bring pleasure to other bodies.
The whole week went by and around Wednesday I had gotten over the withdrawal symptoms, I felt clean and calm. Anyways, on Sunday arrived and my father came to me and asked if I was going to behave aggressively anymore. You know I won’t. Unless it’s absolutely necessary. (This I didn’t say out loud, I said it silently, deep inside, with my fingers crossed behind my back, like when you swear you aren’t telling a lie.) Then Papá took a videotape from his jacket. In the sloppy writing of the schoolboy who fails four courses and misses the whole summer making it up were the days of the week and next to each, a number.
He had recorded each day's episode, identifying it like an armed guard with his strips of tape that close off an area—obsessively. Something he wouldn’t even do for himself.
For me, love consists of these things that get jumbled together. While I was being punished, my father was saving me, sitting in the living room with the remote in hand, taking care to record around the advertisements.
Even though I hate her, my mother probably wrote me letters that she never sent, because I know there’s pain in the places where she had a pulse. The place where many women put a dab of perfume.
Mamá’s entire life fits inside the books she wrote and published. In her collections of poetry, in her two novels, in the compilations of stories and her writings in journals and other publications that I was able to gather during all this time, collecting them with patience and dedication, as if instead of her daughter I were a garbage collector or a stalker.
None of her books talks about me, her hand lifted to dash off a dedication full of trembling emotion. Nor do any of them do so in the sidebars with bold print, and there are no initials or anything. I’m not there. I still haven’t been published, as they say.
Before, whenever she published a new book, I would go into bookstores like a person who’s making an awkward purchase in a pharmacy or who goes into some store planning to rob it, but I still bought her books, like an anonymous person would buy a pornographic magazine: quickly, in a cowardly fashion, hiding it among the other things that had been purchased. Secretly, and more recently, I would do it through the internet, and would wait anxiously for the mail carrier to arrive, and I’d run the tips of my fingers sore from caressing the covers like a porn lover would do, because I thought the images were so powerful and at the same time they were so harmless, like the siblings I’m pretty sure I've never had.
I also would always google references to her work, reviews, something new to learn about what moment of her life it was, since our brief meeting every semester, that lasted the time it takes to drink three coffees and smoke half a pack of cigarettes, wasn’t long enough for me to come out of my stupor and take a good look at my emotions, an adult conversation, without all the prying questions and evasive answers. We acted like we were strangers, like a landlord who goes to collect the envelope that contains the money from the renter and stops to chat a bit with the tenant about the things that have been remodeled and how comfortable the apartment is. At the end the only thing left was for each one to return to her real world and start the new solstice, if that were needed.
See you later, Mamá, we’ll have to do this again some time.
© Emma Pedreira. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 Kathleen March. All rights reserved.
A mother-daughter conversation and a child's search for her origins lead from the grandiose to the dreary in this poem by Luisa Castro.
My mother works in a cannery.
One day my mother said to me:
love is a canned sardine. Do you know how
One day my mother said to me: love is a work of art
in a can.
Do you know where you come from? You come
from a mussel nursery—
canned. Behind the cannery, where the shells
along with the fish boxes. An impossible stench, a dead-end blue.
That’s where you come from.
Ah! I said, so I’m the daughter of the sea.
You’re the daughter of a day off.
Ah! I said,
I’m the daughter of snack time.
Yes, in the back, among the dead-end things.
Baleas e baleas © Luisa Castro. English Translation © 2021 Laura Cesarco Eglin.
In this fantastical story of a man and his horse by Álvaro Cunqueiro, it becomes increasingly unclear who holds the reins.
One lovely summer afternoon Alberte Merlo gave his horse a little fresh grass, then sat himself down on his chopping block to read the newspaper. The horse, chewing, leaned over his master’s shoulder, and in the voice of a man, inquired:
“What’s new in the world today?”
So began many long months of conversation between Alberte and his horse. By Alberte’s account they spoke of politics, of taxes, of the latest festival in Noia, of weddings and funerals. One day the horse confessed he hated being named Moro, and suggested that Alberte find him something more proper, even if something French. So Alberte consulted a good friend of his in Muros, a teacher, who told him he ought to call this Moro of his Cheval, as they call horses in France. The horse liked the sound of this, but not without muttering that a surname might be nice, too. At the horse’s suggestion, Alberte went around to his neighbors and told them his Percheron and Moorish cross was now to be called Cheval, asking they kindly note the change. For practical purposes, said Cheval.
But as months went by the horse seemed ever more restless, growing jealous whenever Alberte went off to speak privately with anyone else, or whistled to Tirol, the dog, or read the newspaper to his wife, who had never learned to read.
“As if sleeping with her weren’t enough!” Cheval spat.
Almost a year had passed since the horse and Alberte began their chats, and as they were heading back one morning from the mill, Cheval, heavy with flour and bran, froze on the bridge and solemnly declared:
“We’ve been chatting for nearly a year now, but if you would like for us to go on talking about the world, you must promise to speak to me, and me alone, from this moment on. I am, after all, the only horse in all the province to talk to his master! Yet I’ve heard you lie once too often to take you at your word. You must draft a contract. If you refuse, you’ll never hear from me again!”
Alberte anticipated a difficult conversation with the lawyer. They would almost certainly take him for a madman if he were to walk in claiming he spoke to his horse, who now wanted a contract that bound the man to speak to no Galician but him, except in gestures. So Alberte traveled to Muros to visit his friend. The teacher advised he scribble out something on a scrap of paper, as he was sure Cheval didn’t know how to read.
“And how do we know he hasn’t learned to read?” Alberte pressed.
So the teacher produced a sheet of stamped, three-peseta paper and wrote up a sworn declaration in which Alberte pledged to speak to no one except by permission of Cheval the horse, previously known as Moro . . . Signed, Alberte Merlo . . .
Back home, Alberte showed the document to Cheval, who made him read it twice.
“Very good! Now bring it to the Recorder of Deeds!”
Alberte’s mouth fell open while he stared at Cheval.
“Off to the Records Office! I know how these things work. Remember, I once belonged to Abeledo, the famous lawyer.”
(A famous lawyer indeed, said to know Mischief Law inside and out.)
Declaration in hand, Alberte paced over hill and down dale, reclining on a boulder here, leaning against an oak tree there, chewing the whole thing over, wondering what to do, and whether to go into Noia, to the Recorder of Deeds . . . while the horse said nothing, and watched.
© Heirs of Álvaro Cunqueiro and Editorial Galaxia. By arrangement with the heirs and Galaxia. Translation © 2021 by Scott Shanahan.
An unexpected encounter on a train turns into a deeper discussion about love and desire in this poem by Antón Lopo.
We bumped into each other on the train.
Antonio, returning from A Coruña:
me, heading to Vigo.
We greet with air kisses —smooch, smooch—
and he soon asks after Oscar.
I lie to him,
“haven’t seen him in a year”
and he wrings his hands.
He’s put on weight.
“It’s the anti-depressants,”
he says indifferently
and flips his hair back.
It’s dirty. He laughs,
“didn’t find anyone with a shower
and his sweater smells strongly of tobacco and there’s a staleness
to his skin, a mustardy color,
but he’s still an incredibly good-looking man,
with that gaze you can dive into and lose yourself,
and half-open lips,
An inexplicable beauty,
as beauty always is.
He’s uncomfortable because I’m observing him
and from his knapsack he pulls out a book with a rumpled cover
and pages yellowed by sun and damp.
He waves it at me to
it’s Mishima’s The Decay of the Angel.
He found it in a used bookstore and
admits he’s already read it a few times.
He’s obsessed by the character of Kinue
and from how he says it,
I suspect something in Kinue
reminds him of his own life.
I say to him,
“I read a Mishima novel a long time ago
and it didn’t really grab me.”
He’s taken aback:
“How could anyone not love
“You really want to know?”
“Here goes! Kinue’s horrid, the quintessence of ugliness but she’s sure she’s the most beautiful
woman in the world and that she suffers as only beautiful women do when they walk down
the street and all eyes are on them, when she takes a bus and men rudely try to sit down
beside her, when she constantly feels men at dances drooling over her, men who would, if
they could, engage her in the most indecent acts.”
I ask if that’s how he feels
and he pulls out a wrinkled cigarette from the pocket
of his shirt.
“I can’t offer you one,”
“it’s my last.”
“No problem: I don’t smoke anymore.”
“To your health, then,”
and he lights the cigarette.
He exhales smoke the way a flautist, in fine-tuning the air,
extracts from it a strange music.
The smoke slips away,
“to be honest, I admit that I’m
and he looks out the window.
“Bored by what?”
“By all this: by the city, by Monday morning trains, by hookups, by all those who fall for me, those
who go wild for me, those who are starstruck, entranced when they see me, and who shower
me with promises,
marvelous promises: a beach getaway, a trip to Barcelona to get wasted, brand-name clothes, a
nice cologne, dinner in an expensive restaurant.
Some swear they’re serious, and at times
I’d say they’re serious, but in the end,
they are all scared to death.”
“I don’t get your drift.”
“Having something like me at your side means responsibilities and obligations. It seems
waiting for something and, in reality, they’re
too self-satisfied to wait for anything
that’s not a paperweight
right on top of the table.
A stunning companion who provokes
admiration from friends
and envy from enemies
exclamation from passersby
and joy at a fulfilling reflection in the mirror.”
I interrupt his soliloquy:
“It seems like you’ve been thinking about this for awhile.”
He taps a finger to his head:
“I’m on my own, by myself and with lots of time to think.
I’ve been learning this for 25 years.
Do you know
how it feels to know exactly how everything will play out?”
He finishes the cigarette and stubs it out in the armrest ashtray.
“They approach me and get an idea of me and expect me to surprise them without budging an
inch from their idea of me, and I’m not playing that game.
They love me not for myself but for what I represent, and when I give them proof, when I extract
from beauty what I actually am, it paralyzes them.”
“You mean you play them?”
“In a way, yes:
Some I just piss on in the library storeroom,
to others I just say no, that I don’t care to be with them,
that I’d rather smoke and watch them, that I’d rather drink coffee then spill it down my shirt, that I have no cash, that I need cash,
that I’ve a fine to pay, that I have insomnia, that my Dad’s a Fed, that I still haven’t finished
high school, that I’ve been arrested three times, that I’m a sleaze, I have panic attacks, I’m
impatient, that some nights my wrists tremble and glasses fall out of my hands and I don’t
know what to do with my hands and I wring my fingers.”
“Sounds hard to take.”
“And what about them? Don’t they have it worse? It’s not me who tragically realizes that love is
rotten to the core.
My tragedy is
confronting the truth that no one can love me: they don’t love me, or even need me:
they just possess me.”
He tenses and twists
his lip in a histrionic
at the corner of his mouth.
It’s clear he’s ready for another cigarette.
He stands and bums one from a girl at the far end of the car.
Her face goes suddenly bright and a shudder of nervous laughter rises from the girls with her.
They poke each other. A gum-bubble bursts on one’s face and makes her blush.
He returns sucking anxiously on the cigarette.
“You see? Everything seems easy at first . . . but that initial reaction is not to me but to the beauty
that imbues me.”
“You’re just obsessed. You’re handsome
but it’s no big deal.”
“Don’t be so superficial!”
“I’m not being superficial:
I can see you’re not a happy guy.”
“How can I be happy if I can’t find anyone who loves me?”
“And you? Do you love anyone?”
“No one gives me time to!”
“Maybe you don’t give them the chance?”
“I give them plenty of chances, but they always end up turning back to their money, their
bookshelves, their shirts . . . even you,
do you think I don’t see how you’ve looked at me
all these years? It’s an opaque, cowardly desire, the most cowardly of all because you fear I’ll notice. Or worse: not that I’ll notice but that other people will.”
“I think you’ve got me wrong, you’re mistaken.”
“Do you think I don’t see the pack of tobacco tucked in your jacket,
though you say you’ve stopped smoking?"
“I think that beauty is too narrow a path for those whom it keeps from sleeping.”
He bursts into a splendid peal of laughter, all teeth
and I pull a Walkman out of my jacket—
“It’s not tobacco, it’s music”—
and set it down on the seat beside me.
He picks it up and leans back,
“I knew it was music: I was only trying to bug you”
and unbends his legs. They’re long.
He slides one forward aside my seat
to give it a stretch.
“we still have half an hour before Vigo,
want to head to the toilets?”
Fálame © Esquío 2003 Antón Lopo. English Translation © 2021 Erín Moure. All rights reserved
Causality and chance collide in this poem by Samuel Solleiro.
So, there are a lot of things you can’t see, like evil or vitamins. Other things you can: love, which is like bearing a giant heart emoji on your back. It’s just so embarrassing. What does it matter if we believe in it or not, it rules our lives one way or the other, and we’re more or less ok with it. Later, when it gets dark, I’ll get back to thinking that the days seem to drag on, or that they might not be leading to one final day; it’s hard to say with days. But we’re all still here. These are the years directly preceding the onset of vulnerability: the epic ass-kicking, the cracking of the whip. We pretend that everything leaves us feeling vaguely indifferent. The computer where I work, bloody hunk of my body that it is. That’s how the universe works, without signifieds: somewhere a bird is walking, I don’t know. A planet explodes. A thing happens and we don’t know exactly what will happen next, nor exactly when, nor even if anything is actually going to happen. The end result is always something sad and outsized. But you know, all the times I didn’t love you enough, it was because I was writing this. A book. This, I don’t know. There are lot of things you can’t see, others you can, and then there’s the largely uncharted world of things that can only be heard, which are, in order of intensity: a jackhammer, the neighbors’ conversation, an asthmatic wheeze, a fly on the window, and the noise of thought.
Originally published as "Isto, non sei" © Samuel Solleiro. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Neil Anderson. All rights reserved.
Two maladroit lovers search for the meaning in childhood games, their parlay capturing the awkward transition from youth to intellectual and emotional adulthood, in this comical excerpt from Xurxo Borrazás’s novel I Is.
That night, in one second, the alarms ring out like crickets in heat, simultaneously. The sheets take on the shape of the bodies beneath them, and on wrists, in towers, on tables and walls, time is told in a single direction. Their bodies lie slack, submerged and conscious in the absence of light chased by the night.
“I don’t know where to start,” he says.
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to impress me or anything.”
“Did you know that holding in our shit is one of the first stages of socialization? That’s what Freud says.”
“You mean learning to ask permission to go to the bathroom? Everyone knows that.”
“And Freud did, too. Now shush and let me tell you my story.”
“Fine. Go ahead.”
“Well, one day, when I was eight, I was in the park playing bólas with another boy.”
“What do you mean bólas? Sorry for interrupting.”
“Bólas, marbles. These days everyone calls them canicas, like in Spain, but we used to call them bólas. The game was called gua, and the goal was to knock out your opponent’s marble while getting yours into a bowl-shaped hole in the ground. But you probably know all that already, and anyways it’s not important to the story. The thing is, I’d already won about a dozen of his marbles when, out of nowhere, I got this massive urge to shit.”
“You know what it’s like, right? When you have such an urgent need to shit that it feels like you’re going to burst, or it’s going to start seeping out your pores. Your brain speeds up or slows down like you’re underwater; you forget how to talk, your syntax gets jumbled, you become hysterical and you can’t find a comfortable posture. And that’s not the worst part.”
“Nope. The worst part is that whoever’s winning can’t just up and quit. The loser has to be the one to fold, like in poker. And—poor little me—I was suddenly faced with a set of dilemmas greater than anything I’d ever confronted.”
The girl strokes his thigh and beams up at him, mesmerized.
“On the one hand, I needed to shit, and satisfying that urge would have been the most sensible thing to do; my body was begging me for it. On the other hand . . . were a huge array of options, all of which could have had catastrophic effects on the self-esteem we struggle for so desperately as kids. So, I could admit that I was about to shit my pants and ask him to postpone the match, risking that he would say no and I would be doubly humiliated, but as I’m sure you understand, I couldn’t allow it—it was too steep a price. I haven’t mentioned that my opponent was a kid I didn’t know well, we weren’t friends, which is an important factor.”
“Or?” she says.
“Or,” he continues, “I could admit nothing and simply give him back his marbles—a blatant act of dismissal that would make me look really cool and, as an added bonus, give me the chance to humiliate him with my magnanimous superiority; but of course, it would also entail giving him back his marbles.”
“So which was it?”
“I haven’t finished explaining all the options yet: I could start letting him win as quickly as possible until we were tied and he’d earned all his marbles back, and then take off running, though the unfortunate side effect of that option was it would make me look like an idiot, not to mention that my suffering sphincter was sure to buckle from the effort of obstructing such a heavy load for so long.”
“‘Come on, let’s go again!’ my distraught rival demanded from among the pansies and geraniums. ‘You must have shoved a lucky charm up your butt this morning!’”
“And that was the flapjack that melted the butter. The tension made me play better, and I decided, unfazed, to win even more of his marbles off him. If I took them all, he’d be forced to surrender, and if I was lucky, I’d still have the whole afternoon ahead of me. And I’m not saying lucky because I didn’t trust my skills. It was the other factor at play—the sphincter factor.”
“Alright, Humble Harry.”
“Look, there’s no point in beating around the bush: right then, thanks to all the marbles clacking around in my bag, the squatting and standing back up again, and the excitement of winning so many times over, I found myself involuntarily taking the most ego-shattering option of them all, which, of course, was the final option.”
“Disgusting!” she says, smiling and slapping his bare ass.
“It took no more than a second: the relief, the bulge in my shorts, and his clean surrender.”
“‘Don’t take the blue one, c’mon,’ he begged. ‘It’s my favorite, I’ve had it for two years. I’ll play you for it again tomorrow.’”
“‘Enough, enough,’ I said. I didn’t really care either way at that point.”
“‘I’ll swap you for three of the other ones, okay?’ he insisted. ‘Four of them!’”
“I said my goodbyes with all the calm I could manage and made my way very daintily home, treading on the sidewalk as lightly as Santa Claus through a house on Christmas. I stored the marbles in a cigar box in my nightstand, dumped the shit in the toilet, and gave myself a rough-shod washing. Then I threw my underwear into the tub and filled it with water, changed clothes, and had my afterschool snack; a new man. When my mother asked me what happened, I told her there hadn’t been any toilet paper at school, and that was that. Whenever I see the kid nowadays, it occurs to me that my victory was likely more resounding in his mind than it was in mine, but at the end of the day . . . he was none the wiser. Anyway, it’s like Saint Augustine said: ‘Inter faeces et urinan nascimur.’”
“Why do you say that?”
“Nothing that exciting ever happened to me as a kid.”
“I mean, I guess the whole horror show did have its glamour, I’ll grant you that—my rival was two or three years older than me and we called him Jimmy Copacabana; but otherwise, I don’t know if I’d exactly call it exciting.”
“Then why’d you tell me the story? I asked you to tell me how you got here.”
“And that’s what I did. That anecdote is . . . defining. I almost want to say decisive, but what I mean is, it’s a perfect metaphor for my life, or at least I haven’t noticed myself behave in any way that might contradict it since. It must sound stupid, I know, but that’s my life story: obsession, obstruction, competition, and Pyrrhic victories, which I guess is like saying I’m my own Achilles’ heel.”
“Wait, so where does Freud come in?”
“Oh, because he was full of shit when he said that holding it in was a part of socialization.”
“And are you happy? I mean, do consider yourself a happy person?”
“Now that really is a question of socialization . . . I think people put up with me just fine. I’m the one that’s a problem.”
“You can’t put up with other people?”
“Of course I can. People are fine; it’s me I can’t put up with.”
“Like Groucho Marx?”
“Because of that thing about the club . . . ? Yeah, more or less.”
“I had a similar experience when I was a kid. I’ve really gotten it together since, but I was a total wreck when I was young; I couldn’t do anything right, and I eventually ended up convincing myself I was cursed, or had some fundamental flaw that doomed me to bad luck, and that all I could do was accept it.”
“I always tripped over the jump rope when I played with the other kids, I could never get my hair tie on straight, I was always the first one out in dodgeball . . . the only game I was any good at was hide-and-seek. I always managed to sneak away before everyone else and I never got caught, but that was mostly because no one ever paid attention to me, you know? Eventually, I stopped trying to hide and it didn’t even matter. Like . . . that’s what it took for me to be good at something—it was super depressing. When we started playing doctor, I was always assigned the role of unconscious patient. The other girls saved the best roles for themselves, like nurse and mother, and I, the unconscious patient, would lie there with my eyes closed while they put on this objective adult act and debated my ailments. But there was this one time, a boy was playing the doctor (I was six so he must have been around nine), and he and the nurse made me lie down in the grass while they discussed what was or wasn’t wrong with me with my mother, and then decided it was best to immediately anesthetize me. This anesthesia was fast-acting, so I put myself straight to sleep, and was left with nothing to do but listen to them mess around with my body.
“‘Mask,’ the doctor ordered.
“‘Mask,’ the nurse repeated, tying a rag around his neck.
“‘Gloves,’ she echoed, rubbing her hands on his left hand, then his right.
“By the way, the girl who usually played the doctor—the one who had been demoted to nurse, Marichús—was head over heels for the doctor at the time, and since she was almost eight years old, was always going around saying she was going to marry him and all that crap as soon as she got to secondary school.
“‘Lift her shirt,’ the examination continued, so two of the girls did. I lifted my butt a little to help them and they lifted my shirt up around my neck. These stripteases only happened when one of the boys played with us, and I didn’t much care either way, but since this time there were way more girls than boys, I wasn’t very nervous; or at least not any more than usual.
“‘Periscope,’ the doctor said.
“The nurse handed him a wad of air with both hands (we didn’t have much to work with), and he pretended to put it to his ears and listen to my heart. He pressed two of his fingers against my skin, and moved them in circles around my navel and nipples.”
As she recounts the story, he mimics the physician’s movements on her now grown-up body.
“Careful, that tickles.”
“Oh, are you ticklish?” he says.
“Yeah, but don’t get any ideas. I haven’t finished telling my story yet.”
“You were at the part about the periscope.”
“Then he removed the device and placed his ear to my chest."
“‘This looks like it might be serious,’ he said, feigning concern. And then he said something that really did make it serious. ‘Nurse, remove her underwear.’ The nurse shot a glance at one of the other girls and they both giggled excitedly. They lowered my underwear, this time without my help, and there I was, naked and possibly chronically ill in the grassy park behind our houses.
“Dr. Fabián (that was his name) spread my legs and observed, inching closer and closer, and looking very circumspect.
“‘How does her pee look?’ my mother finally asked.
“‘Yellow,’ Rita said.
“‘Hmmm,’ the doctor muttered, sporting a very serious expression.
“At that moment I would’ve loved to have been able to show him all the colors of the rainbow, but tension had the reverse effect on me that it had on you. The truth is I was starting to get nervous about the perverted direction things seemed to be going, because boys . . . I mean, you know how they are, always trying to push your boundaries as far as they can, or until you come to and dole out a few smacks. But not that time; that time I didn’t have to, because Fabián stood up and said:
“‘I’m going to wake her up. Get her clothes on.’
“The girls dressed me unhappily, exchanging glances, and he opened my mouth and pretended to give me a pill. I made like I was swallowing it by moving my throat, then he helped me sit up and said:
“‘You’re going to have to come to my clinic, I keep my bag and all my medications there.’
“‘Where is that?’ I asked.
“‘At my house. And while we’re there we can have a snack and watch cartoons.’
“It was very chivalrous. Do you remember the looks of shock on Cinderella’s stepsisters’ faces? Well, you should have seen the looks on Rita and that little know-it-all Marichús’ faces when he said that. I am forever in his debt.”
She rolls over and mounts him. He hugs her to his chest and bites her shoulder.
“Did I bore you?” she asked.
“Not at all, baby. My sweet, tiny girl. My little thing. I love story time.”
“I do too, and you still haven’t told me how you got here.”
“I mean, wow!”
“What a powerful prophylactic that must have been . . . playing doctor, I mean. The playground of curious youth!”
“I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say powerful. It didn’t exactly leave me traumatized.”
“Well, let’s just say I had quite a different experience as a kid. I didn’t have sisters, so as far as I was concerned, what went on under a girl’s skirt might well have been the philosopher’s stone. Even more so when the images in my head were adulterated by reports from a friend better versed in such sorcery.”
“And what reports were those?”
“I’ll spare you the details—the boys in my town were really depraved. Let’s just say it boiled down to appendages and orifices, you know what I mean? Playing doctor was as familiar to me as life on Mars, and the ‘sin-is-bad’ diatribes they heaped on us in catechism only stoked the flames of our subversive desires.”
“Do you always talk like this?”
“. . . how?”
“Like this, all analogies and conjecture.”
He looks in her eyes and bites her nose, smiling, before he answers.
“I suppose so. Yeah. I do sometimes notice that I talk like I’m writing. Or mimicking some novelistic realism. Which is to say, like I’m writing.”
“I’m not criticizing you, by the way. It’s just funny. Is there any Coke left?”
He picks up the can and gives it a shake.
“A little. Here.”
She grabs it, takes a sip, and tosses the empty can onto the carpet. Then she kisses him and passes a gulp of soda into his mouth.
“Hey, Teacher,” she whispers sensually in his ear. “You’re my teacher, aren’t you? Come on, teach me something.”
He unfolds the pillow and lies back down with her on top, naked with her arms around him, and rubs her pelvis against his. They bite and lick each other all over, clutching each other’s heads with their hands. She frees herself and kisses him on the ribs, on the toes, on the balls, working his skin with her teeth. He lifts himself up and lays her down on the bed, sucking on her arms and nipples, and dragging his tongue along her breasts.
“I didn’t even know you a few hours ago,” he says. “The world is insane.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“Damn, you’re so sexy. I wanna crawl up inside you. Holy shit, you’re so hot.”
“Yeah?” she says, pushing her tits together with her arms. “You think I’m hot, baby? Then lick me. Lick me everywhere!”
He changes positions to kiss her thighs and knees, then spreads her legs and lips and slowly tongues her clitoris as she rocks her hips up and down.
“Ahh! Ohhh!!” she says, taking his head in her hands and digging her nails in. “Oof! Ooof! Come here, here, c’mere. Hurry!”
The chemicals burst animal-like from their bodies, coursing in their veins—a spark of solidarity from viscera to neuron, passing through them and running wild over their touching skin.
“A bear! Oh, you’re a bear!” she says, straddling him.
“Why?” he asks, extremely aroused.
“Because you’re a bear. Let me fuck you. Le-Let me. My turn, yeah, like that. Am I hurting you?”
“How could you if I’m a bear?” he exclaims, hands clamped on her ass.
She leans forward until he can just reach one of her breasts with his mouth, then quickly tears it away, oscillating back and forth, making it dance on his lips and teasing him as she rides him up and down. Then she groans, quivering, and says:
“Come on now, come for me. Come for Mama!”
He sees her face burning and repeats the same absurd and unrepeatable facial expression that millions of men have made right when they’ve come. The two burst into laughter, kiss each other’s salty skin, and fall into a deep embrace. Neither one mentions the tiny flecks of shit lounging pleasurably at the edge of their anuses, tucked just out of sight.
I Is © 1996 Xurxo Borrazás. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2021 Adrian Minckley and Jacob Rogers. All rights reserved.
Davit Gabunia's cinematic debut novel, Falling Apart, from which this excerpt comes, recalls Rear Window in its dark exploration of voyeurism, and broke ground it its treatment of a male sexual liaison. Gabunia found fame aged twenty-two as the Georgian translator of Harry Potter, and later Shakespeare and Ibsen.
The people in the photo look like blue and black blotches. I can’t pick out Tina. Just last night she was lying in bed, the door to the bedroom wardrobe open, the wardrobe out of which she’d taken her clothes and packed them up. If last night she’d woken up and said, Zura, where are you going? Zura, stop, if the floor had creaked and woken her up and she’d looked at me with astonishment in her eyes and said, Why aren’t you asleep, Zura, what are you doing with that camera, I wouldn’t have said anything, I’d have stayed where I was, but no, Tina was sleeping so deeply, as she always did, just like it used to be when the children were little and would cry all night and she wouldn’t wake up once. So? Am I complaining? Blaming her for not waking up in the middle of the night? For forcing me to get up and put the children back to sleep? No, no. But if she’d woken up last night, I’d have told her, I’d have said to her, Something’s happened, Tina, you won’t believe it, and she’d have said to me, What on earth? Let’s call the police right now! But no, she didn’t wake up, and if she had maybe she wouldn’t even have said anything, just shaken her head and then laid it back on the pillow and gone back to sleep, and I would’ve carried on, picking my way carefully down the stairs so that none of the neighbors would hear as I walked out the front of our block. Everyone was asleep, everyone— there wasn’t a single light on in any of the windows. What would have happened if someone had looked out of their window and called out to me, Hey, Zura, what are you doing? Huh? What am I doing? Damn it! These fucking motion sensor lights—when you don’t need any light, when you want it to be dark, they work perfectly, when you want to make sure that no one sees you before you reach that other block, before you go up to that floor, to where you know exactly what awaits you but still don’t expect to find the door left open. He’s run off like a madman, he might already be driving away in his car, all he’ll want to do is get as far away from here as possible, but where can he turn? He can run from this business but he can’t hide.
So this is what the house is like, with a smell of something lingering. A sterile smell. The entrance. Four pairs of shoes and a light jacket. Bills strewn across the floor. If payment is not received by the 30th of this month we will . . . On the right, a bathroom, a little sink in front of the washing machine. Inside, dirty laundry, arranged and folded, one razor, shaving foam, lotion, toothpaste, one toothbrush, one of everything—one towel too, a big, blue one—and tiles on the wall, totally white except for a band of blue at waist height. I’ve never seen any of this before, you can’t see it from my building. I don’t know what I’d want to take photos of it for, but never mind. There isn’t much stuff here, as if he hadn’t lived here long and didn’t have the time to accumulate many things, the kind of things that you’re either reluctant or simply too lazy to throw away, which then pile up, gathering dust. What if he were to call out now from that room, Who’s there? What’re you doing? What if he thinks I’m him, that he’s come back to apologize? What if he gets up? But no, it’s so quiet, he must be dead. How does he air out this bathroom—just one little ventilator, not even a window, it must really steam up when he has a shower. There are towel marks on the mirror where he wiped the condensation away. A few strands of hair in the razor. Has he shaved today? Did he even have a beard? Maybe he used to shave, I’ll have to look at the photos and see if he’s got a beard in any of them—now he’s lying dead and clean-shaven in the other room. They say that people’s beards, hair, and nails keep on growing after death. But that takes time—he’s only just died. His body lying on the white rug. His corpse. His body. So much blood, but it’s all stayed on the carpet, which is thick and absorbs the blood, it’s soaked with it. I’ve got to make sure that he’s really dead. Oh, come on—he’s not breathing, and if he’s not breathing, that means he’s dead, that’s it, but still. Apparently, the name for the carotid artery comes from the Greek word for sleep. What’s sleep got to do with it? And here’s where you feel for a pulse, there’ll be one if he’s alive. I can’t feel one. Maybe he is breathing and I can’t see it; but his belly isn’t moving, neither’s his chest. No, no pulse, he’s dead. So why hasn’t the blood stopped? How much is there left to come? How many liters of blood does a person have? What if it gets on the floor, too? What if it seeps through the floor and stains the downstairs neighbors’ ceiling? He’s warm. He’s definitely not breathing, but he still looks alive. I wonder if there’s a mirror somewhere, a pocket mirror, I can put it over his mouth and if it steams up it means he’s alive . . . . Oh, forget the mirror, he’s got no pulse, no pulse equals dead. Bits of broken vase. Bookshelves. Practically empty. Just a few books, old ones. His won’t be one of them. No television, I knew that already. Bed a mess—not bed, armchair. A fold-out armchair, messy but not dirty. The blood didn’t go that far. Why isn’t it stopping, isn’t he dead? I press my fingers to his neck a bit harder, I press down and suddenly there it is—a pulse. I’m not imagining it, am I? No, it’s definitely beating, I can feel it. What if he asks me to help him, what do I do? Call an ambulance? Yeah, because if I call now it’ll definitely get here in time, right, hah, God bless our bloody ambulances. Yeah, they’ll come, they’ll do some tests, they’ll start filling in forms and asking me who I am and what I’m doing here and then they’ll call the police. They’ll say the body bears the marks of violence and they need to report it. I mean, some marks; all those head wounds and the fragments of vase strewn over the floor, you don’t need to be a genius to work out that someone smashed it over his head, I’ll get confused and make a run for it and they’ll run after me, Hey, stop, where are you going, and the whole neighborhood will wake up, including Tina, there will be such a commotion and so many people gather round that even Tina will wake up and come out onto the balcony and see me, see the police shouting after me, and rush down into the courtyard. No, if I don’t call, if I just wait a bit, he’ll lose all his blood and I won’t get caught up in this. If I’d been somewhere else tonight, if I’d been asleep in bed next to Tina and not seen anything, he’d still have died and it would have nothing to do with me, why should I call, why should I do anything at all? How many more liters of blood can there be left, how much more does he have to lose before he dies? Does he have to bleed it all out to the last drop? Or let’s say he’s only got a little bit left, would that be enough to kill him? What if he starts convulsing? What if he dies and I don’t realize? How long before he goes cold? I haven’t been in the kitchen yet, I haven’t seen what it’s like inside. Too many dirty cups to even fit in the sink, I wonder how long they’ve been piling up. Strange light, yellow, warm. Warm . . . Maybe there’s still time to call an ambulance. No, I know what I’m doing, I know what I’m doing, though I hope no one asks me now because I won’t be able to answer, but I do know what I’m doing, it’s a different sort of knowing, no need to say it out loud. Right, dish detergent and sponge in the corner of the sink. It’s so hot. How do you cool it down? Aha, that’s it, that’s it, and the liquid’s frothing up, and now I’ll wash up all the cups in case there are any traces on them, fingerprints or whatever. The water’s splashing onto my T-shirt, soapy water, but time’s ticking and meanwhile he’s losing blood and it’s nothing to do with me whatsoever. I put the cups upside down to dry and hang on, have I got my fingerprints on them? I should’ve thought about that before. Gloves. Why didn’t I think of that. I’ve still got time to kill, I’ll do them again. Such small gloves, my hands are too big for them. I wash each of the cups again, rinse them, that’ll do, and put them back on the drying rack. Tiled floor, easy to clean. No, not the floor yet, table first; maybe they sat there drinking coffee together and he touched the table and left behind his fingerprints? Table first, then floor. I don’t know what kind of traces there might be on the floor, but anyway, I’ve got time, I’m not in a hurry, I’ll get it all done by dawn.
I can only hear my own voice in this silence, I say, Am I speaking out loud? No, I’m hearing my voice in my head. The floor above is silent. The apartments on either side are silent. Everyone’s sleeping, everyone’s asleep and no one can hear a thing. Good thing I found these gloves, chlorine can burn your hands. The bathroom. Who knows, maybe they took a bath together in the tub. He will have gone to the bathroom, at least, he must have left his fingerprints behind, so everything needs to be scrubbed, with the brush, with chlorine. Do fingerprints stay on curtains? Will they search that hard? If Tina could see me now. I’ve never cleaned my own house like this. But Tina can’t see me, I hope, she’s still asleep while I’m here scouring the white tiles and this blue line. What’s left? That room, the main bedroom? Good thing this place isn’t any bigger. I’ve been here two hours. What if he comes back? Bursts in out of nowhere like a madman? He might’ve called an ambulance, maybe even the police, but if he hasn’t come back by now he won’t come back later. I’ll have to throw away the sheets, he’ll definitely have left traces on them. Ah, I’ll shove them into this bin liner and throw them in the trash, the garbage truck will come in the morning and take it away and they’re not going to look in the dump, are they?
There’s not long till dawn, and the garbage truck comes at seven o’clock, no one will ever be able to find them. Look how he’s lying there, he nearly takes up the whole room. There’s no more blood. It’s stopped. I put down the bag holding the sheets and look at him. I’ll take a picture and go, I can’t let anyone see it, I can’t let anyone find out about it, but still, those photos can stay, I’ll put them on my computer and that’ll be fine. What a beautiful shot. He’s never been so beautiful. I wonder if he’s still as warm. When do corpses start to go cold? If I had called an ambulance they probably wouldn’t have come in time anyway, I’ll just pretend I wasn’t here, I didn’t see any of what happened, I was asleep next to Tina. Besides, it’s so beautiful. I’ll get some great photos out of this, really good. A couple of close-ups and that’s it, I’m out of here. What’s that smell? Doesn’t smell like chlorine. Rust, or iron, or something like that. I’ll get the best shots if I kneel down and zoom into his face, that’s the best way. Oh, damn it, I’ve knelt in the blood. I’m not bothered, he’s dead after all, why should I care, I mean why should I be disgusted, he’s lying there not moving and he’ll never move again, and it’s just blood, just a normal fluid, I’ll wipe it off with some water and it’ll come out fine. So beautiful. I’ve never been scared of the dead, and I’m not scared now. Why should I be scared? It wasn’t me who killed him. He’d still be dead even if I hadn’t been here. Good lighting here, should make for some great pictures.
© Davit Gabunia. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 Adham Smart. All rights reserved.
Davit Gabunia will be in conversation with writer and journalist Mark Gevisser as part of the online festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, will be livestreamed on Sunday, February 28, 2021, and available to watch afterward.
Tamta Melashvili's 2015 novel, Eastwards, from which this excerpt comes, is the story of a young woman, Irina, in present-day Georgia, who is simultaneously suffering from depression, a vanished lover, and a taboo medical condition, vaginismus. She is researching Elene Dariani, a mystical poet believed to have had a secret affair with the famous Georgian poet Paolo Iashvili. Cofounder in 1915 of the Blue Horn Symbolists, Iashvili committed suicide in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Purge, when many Georgian writers were executed. In this extract––which references other famous Georgian poets such as Titsian Tabidze and Galaktion Tabidze––Irina is beginning to imagine that Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (who, like Stalin, was Georgian) was implicated in the poets’ mythic love affair.
She picked up the phone. First she glanced at her watch and then she made the call, thinking, It’s early, but he’ll be awake. Old men wake up early.
Revaz, sir, Mr. Rezo, good morning, it’s Irina.
Irina? Which Irina? Rezo must have been in a bad mood.
Irina. About Elene Dariani.
Oh, Irina! Irina Gasviani, is it? Irina Gasviani. Something’s bothering you, my dear Irina?
I’d like to see you again, Mr. Rezo.
Well, I’ll be. I don’t suppose you rang to ask how I am?
Irina couldn’t think of an answer.
What’s happened, girl, why don’t you tell me, Rezo softened. You really are a shy girl. Do you want to come round?
Yes, I want you to talk to me about Beria. I’ll only come today, I won’t bother you again.
You can bother me all you like. Go ahead. What am I for? Hang on, about Beria? You were interested in Dariani, in Paolo, in poetry, in “Beads of Coral,” isn’t that what you asked me to talk about? Why do you want to know about Beria now?
Irina was silent.
All right, come on over. What would you know about Beria? How could you know about Beria? Your generation only knows gypsy actresses on TV. And on the computer. Come on over.
Rezo put down the phone.
Irina went back to her laptop, which she’d left open. She opened Google and entered in Georgian: Lavrenti Beria.
She went through the list.
Lavrenti Beria’s Sex Crematorium
Lavrenti Beria’s Ghost and Tbilisi Buildings full of Secrets
Lavrenti Beria’s Secret
Lavrenti Beria’s Secret Diaries
Lavrenti Beria––the Bloodthirsty Tyrant
Lavrenti Beria and Women
Lavrenti Beria and His Women
Lavrenti Beria’s Love and Revenge
Lavrenti Beria––what Secrets did his Lovers take to their Graves?
Lavrenti Beria and the Case of the Treacherous Wives
Lavrenti Beria and the Actress Who Was Shot
Lavrenti Beria’s Revenge
Lavrenti Beria’s Fateful Speech
Irina felt a burning sensation between her legs. She switched off her laptop and rose heavily to her feet.
My blood pressure's high, there must be something wrong with me, said Rezo. What did you want us to talk about? Hang on, did you see them? The girls?
What girls? Irina couldn’t understand.
Iza and Liana.
Yes, I did.
Liana’s husband died.
Oh my God, what are you telling me, girl? Her husband was a young man. How come I never heard that her husband had died? I’ll telephone her later. I’ll offer my condolences. Poor woman. What did he die of? He was a young man.
Oh my God, said Rezo. Poor man. And Iza? Have you seen Iza?
Yes, I have.
You two haven’t quarreled, have you?
You can’t be in the mood for a talk today. Anyway, what brings you here? What did you say? What are we going to talk about?
Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria?
Was it Pavlovich? Yes, it was, Pavlovich. You want me to talk to you about Pavel’s lad? That snake with the glasses? That bastard? You don’t know, I suppose. If you can’t say something good about the dead, say nothing at all! Rezo was in a teasing mood. Can you say anything good about Beria?
Why can’t you?
Because Beria was a bastard.
What do you mean?
You can take it as you like: literally or metaphorically.
Shall I start recording?
Hang on, girl. Hang on for a bit. Get up: you can see a book on the top shelf. History of the Georgian Communist Party. On the right, girl, on the right, the top shelf. History of the Georgian Communist Party.
Irina sensed that she was being observed. Rezo was eyeing her up.
You had a very beautiful mother, didn’t you? What was her name?
Lia, said Irina.
And you had a handsome father, too; but your father was crazy, crazy and out of his mind, one of those Civic Warriors.
I’ve found it, said Irina with relief.
Open it to the first page, said Rezo. What do you see?
I see Stalin. Irina turned back to face Rezo.
Now the next page, what do you see?
A photo that’s been blacked out, said Irina. It’s covered in ink, who is it?
That was Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, a real child-eating monster! Can you see it?
Where does this man get these words from?
Now see what year the book was published in.
1949. Who did this?
Who blotted it out?
The whole of Georgia did, Rezo got up from his chair, the whole of Georgia did that. One day you’re in the heavens, the next you’re six feet under. Well. You are dirt and you get it thrown over you. This is not the ink on the photo, but the dirt. He died and he had dirt thrown over him. He died and they blotted him out, they burned him, they annihilated him. They poured ink over him. His name became taboo, taboo, taboo, do you get it? A taboo. After his death the pictures of him that were hanging everywhere were taken down and torn up, and they erased every place where his names, first name and last, were written. He’d killed enemies of the people and then became an enemy of the people himself. That’s life, isn’t it?! Eh? He exterminated half of Georgia. His troika tribunals. You know what a troika is, don’t you?
Yes, I read about it somewhere.
The troika was the Holy Trinity of its time, Rezo chuckled. You’re not a churchgoer are you, girl? Don’t be angry with me.
Well, just look at you! Good girl! You and I are the only non-churchgoers in all of Georgia. Long live Irina and me! Don’t tell anyone, or they’ll cut our heads off.
Irina gave him a conspiratorial smile.
Yes. Anyway, he died, how many years ago did they kill that man? Fifty? More—sixty! It was sixty years ago and not a single decent monograph has been written about him in this Georgia of yours, the Virgin Mary’s own country. Everyone avoids the subject. Everyone. They either won’t or they can’t write about it!
Rezo examined Irina once more.
What are you looking at me for, I’m a literary critic.
In short, nothing’s been written here. Here, unlike there. Rezo shook his head. Over there, in Great Russia, a lot’s been written. A lot, but it’s rubbish. Ideological rubbish. Even after the Soviet era, even now. All these ideologues have built up an Everest of lies, of their own lies!
Yes indeed, they have. What did you come here for? What interested you?
Was it possible, Irina couldn’t find the right words, was it possible that there was some connection between Beria and Elene Bakradze, also known as Elene Dariani . . .
I wouldn’t know now. At the time you could say that every woman was on Beria’s antenna, Rezo let his hand drop between his legs, people said he could hear the whispering coming from anybody’s love nest, you know?! He had both of your Elene’s husbands shot. What can you make of it? She was a beautiful woman, but was she? I wouldn’t know, to judge by those pictures she was an ordinary woman. There were a million like her walking about in Tbilisi, even more in Kutaisi. But look here, in that picture where she’s smoking a cigarette, and she’s wearing trousers, the one feminists tote about, you know that picture? She looks all right in that picture, you know it, don’t you? You can see that she had her own kind of charm. A photograph can’t capture it. That charm doesn’t show up in a photo. You can see she had something. Something that made the men go mad for her. Paolo. Her husbands. Who knows who else. Paolo was quite a womanizer, did you know that?
They both fell silent.
I’ve remembered a funny story about Beria, should I tell it to you? Rezo looked with one eye at Irina.
Well then, once Beria took his lover to Sokhumi. The one he had at the time. She was a nice woman, good-looking, a real beauty, an actress. Apparently, one day, this woman goes into the sea to bathe. She swims, splashes about, and suddenly her dentures fall out and she loses them in the wretched water. Hee-hee-hee, Rezo tested his own dentures with his tongue, this actress apparently had dentures, false teeth. She searches and searches, the poor girl dives but can’t find the dentures and goes back to the hotel, devastated. She sits there more dead than alive, waiting for Beria; the woman seems to be afraid that Pavel’s lad will shoot her when he finds out she has no teeth. She sits there more dead than alive and Beria, apparently, comes in and she falls at his feet: “Forgive me, forgive me,” and Pavlovich breaks out laughing. He laughs and laughs, so much that he almost chokes with laughter.
Did he shoot her?
No, no. He didn’t. But he dropped her. What's the use of a toothless woman? The story didn’t make you laugh, girl?
Well . . . no.
You must be in a sour mood today, I did say, smile, girl, laugh, girl! You’re a good-looking girl and there’s no light in you. Laugh! Shed a ray of light on your looks. Put on a short skirt, put a flower in your hand, cross the street, and stop the traffic! Spring is coming! Make eyes happy, hearts happy!
Irina tensed up.
Fine, fine, Rezo waved his hand. Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yes, Pavel’s lad, yes. What do you know so far? All the women remember him very well. What goes through a woman’s mind? “While she’s running about without a husband, a woman’s a woman. A woman’s a woman and she’ll find balm for herself,” I wonder who wrote that poem . . .
Clever you, clever girl! Rezo was pleased. You don’t write poetry by any chance?
Why not? Every good girl used to write poetry in my day.
I wouldn’t know, I don’t.
But you do like poetry, don’t you?
Yes, I do.
Very good! Fantastic, my dear lady. Well, what was I saying? A wife has a good memory, so does a mistress. Beria had not just mistresses, but a whole harem. He had harems, did you know that?
A harem, what else?
A-a-ah, said Irina.
Your generation doesn’t know Russian anymore, does it?
Do you know what a haramkhana is?
Well, he had a harem. A haramkhana. Every conceivable kind of woman was in it: blondes, brunettes, redheads . . . And these women remembered him favorably, by the way. Casual adventuresses, his mistresses, don’t remember him well. Those women scribbled various things later, books. They wanted to get rich at Beria’s expense, but they couldn’t benefit, who would believe them, nobody! His wife, though, did love him, by the way, did you know that? And she was a good woman, beautiful. Nina. Gegechkori. Yes, she loved him. Can you be in love with a monster? You can, you see. Women love monsters. He had another mistress, a girl, younger than you, almost a second wife. She too loved him. And that Nina kept on loving him. They couldn’t get her to say a single bad thing, so she died, saying only good things about her husband. Those were different times, do you understand? Do you have a boyfriend?
Why not, girl? Is reading poetry all you want, then? And that Elene Dariani?
Well, what can I tell you, said Rezo. If you’re a man with that amount of power, every woman is yours. Anyone you lay a hand on, they’re all yours.
Rezo fell silent for a short while.
True, Pavel’s lad wiped out half of Georgia, but people tend to forget that he also built the entire country. Beria was a builder. He really was! “Our orchards and meadows are blossoming, the sky is the color of emeralds, o builder of Georgia, may you live long, Beria!” He made Tbilisi look like a city. Now, you and I both use the drainage that he installed. He constructed the circus, he built the football stadium. Not just the circus and drainage, but the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for him, did you know that? And that’s not to mention intelligence and counterintelligence. Beria was a genius. They didn’t give him a moment, they had him shot. All of state power fell into the clutches of that dimwit Khrushchev! Khrushchev killed Beria, and how? Treacherously. One more Georgian had got stuck in the Russians' throat and they couldn’t shut him up! Rezo leaned forwards, the Chinese stole Beria’s plan for developing socialism, otherwise can you imagine what a country we would be living in? Not in a wretched hole like we are now! My God, Rezo suddenly put his hand on his heart, I get tired very quickly these days. My medicine’s right there next to you, pass it to me.
Yes, that one; water? Don’t I need water, girl?
Irina went out to the kitchen. Something was stinking in there.
He’s on his own, poor wretch. He’s an old man.
She held her breath.
Bless you, said Rezo. He sipped at the water. I get tired very quickly, you see.
I’ll go, said Irina. Thank you very much for everything.
It’s nothing, dear girl. Rezo had put his hand to his heart again. Come and see me now and again. Let’s talk, let’s recite poems, Irina. After all, I live alone. “That day white snow and loneliness fell. I opened the door, white snow burst in. I closed the door, loneliness moved in.” Who said that, then?!
Good for you! Congratulations, girl! You’re a star!
Thanks a lot, for everything, Irina got to her feet, take care.
Fine, fine, Irinola, said Rezo, as he moved heavily from his chair to his bed. Shut the door, then I’ll lock up.
I’ll shut it, take care, said Irina.
Frankly, this country could really use someone like Beria right now, wouldn’t go amiss! Rezo shouted from the room.
She quickly closed the door behind her and hurried down the hallway.
© Tamta Melashvili . By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 Patrick Donald Rayfield. All rights reserved.
Tamta Melashvili will speak about her novel Eastwards in the online event Medea's Daughters: Georgia's pioneering women in the arts, as part of the festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi, Writers’ House of Georgia and the British Library, will be livestreamed on Saturday, February 27, 2021 at 15:15—16:35 GMT. Bookers will be sent a link giving access and can watch at any time for 48 hours after the start time.
Lasha Bugadze's A Small Country, which won the Saba, IliaUni, and Writers’ House Litera prizes in Georgia––all for novel of the year in 2018––is based on the real scandal surrounding the publication of the author's 2001 short story “The First Russian.” The story outraged some MPs and clergy with its satirical allusions to the wedding night of Georgia’s revered medieval Queen Tamar, whose first husband was a Russian prince. The author found himself censured in parliament and threatened with excommunication.
I remember the man sitting at an oak table took two pieces of paper from a drawer and addressed me with a smile:
“Here,” he put his finger on the paper on his left, “is an intention to excommunicate you from the Georgian Orthodox Church. If you don’t apologize to the Georgian people and the Church, the Synod will be obliged to make it public, which would set in motion the excommunication. It says that you deny the living God, as well as the rules of Mother Church, that you mock the feelings of true believers, that you insult the belief of Orthodox people, the Host of Saints, and the memory of our ancestors who were canonized. While in this one,” he pointed at the paper on his right, “the Synod refers to you as a prodigal son who was exonerated by the people and Mother Church.”
“But only if we have a public apology,” the Archimandrite sitting in the dark corner of the room reminded us. “Otherwise, it’s going to be an anathema.”
“Are you serious?” someone sitting behind me asked. “People are worried . . . ”
A prodigal son.
The man looking at the papers smiled at me occasionally. I was wondering if he had a nervous tic or was just embarrassed by what he had to say.
I was too tired and confused to joke in return or reply politely.
“You have to apologize publicly,” the man, quite unperturbed, repeated with an ironic smile.
Ever since I was born my parents tried their best to encourage me, praising me because for twenty-three years I truly deserved to be praised. And now, suddenly, these strangers told them that I really didn’t deserve their praise and, if I refused to behave, I would become their prodigal son or something even worse.
People get killed for less nowadays . . .
That’s what they told Dad. And where? Next to the Patriarch’s resting room where, ideally, they had to talk about virtue, at least out of sheer decorum.
“It’s your fault," the Patriarch later told Dad, “you failed to raise your son properly.”
And all the while, to my parents, even to Dad deeply insulted by the Patriarch’s words, I truly was a clever, good-natured, genuinely decent and gifted twenty-three-year-old––an exceptional son already known to many as a wonder kid, a writer from a small country, only ten years older than Independent Georgia, who, by all standards, had done nothing to be reprimanded.
My parents’ son wasn’t branded by the 1990s: he didn’t roam the streets with other teenagers thirsty for blood. He either wrote or drew or talked, and according to Grandma, he could do the latter at the age of eight months. He was a skilled caricature artist and could imitate any person regardless of their age or gender, sang arias from classical operas, and was a bit chubby in his early years, which added to his charm. His dad, if he had a chance, or rather had he allowed himself, would have enumerated his son’s admirable traits, saying, for instance, that at the age of eleven, Your Holiness, he staged Goethe’s Faust with the girls of the neighborhood. Girls because nobody else was willing. Faust, no less, at the age of eleven! It was in our yard where he played Mephistopheles, the devil, Your Holiness––I’m so sorry I mentioned the devil so close to you––and he played a chubby and lovable Mephistopheles because he himself was lovable even when playing the devil, particularly when singing serenades to Faust’s sweetheart. Incidentally, there is a video recorded in June 1989 showing the eleven-year-old child reciting Goethe in his mother’s yard. Indeed, Your Holiness, this son of divorced parents was brought up with constant care, the center of attention of both grandmothers! They raised him and would never teach him to be disrespectful or indecent, contrary to your comment, which was rather hasty I believe. So, please excuse me, but we’re dealing with a very special child. I had brought along a cameraman because I guessed something out of the ordinary was about to take place. Yes, it is really extraordinary when an eleven-year-old stages a play about the agreement between God and the devil with the help only of little girls from his neighborhood, when he recites the entire thing for everybody to hear, wearing tails his aunt made for him and warning us of the importance of saving our souls. Is that poor parenting?
He’s been going to anti-Soviet rallies, the grandmothers could have said, especially the more sensitive and emotional one who could easily have retorted to the high-ranking clerics, my grandson has always been an exceptionally well-organized and highly moral boy. Others could break their toys in a day or two, some would immediately gut a giraffe or a teddy bear, while my grandson staged tetralogies with those giraffes and bears. You couldn’t get them in the empty shops of the time, so our acquaintances brought them from other Socialist countries. If other kids misbehaved, putting their poor parents in a difficult position, leaving them wondering how to occupy them, our boy entertained himself: he would place a board on his knees and draw amazing caricatures! You’d have been amazed had you observed him in the process. Mostly, he drew politicians, used to start at the heels and complete the picture in a matter of seconds. They were so skillful that they baffled even experienced artists. Once he stunned his German teacher who terrified the entire school. Apparently, she was trying to explain something quite awkwardly to the kids when our boy mentioned Siegfried, his favorite character, among others who the teacher had hardly heard about. When he was little, before he got a bit chubby, his dad used to have him on his shoulders while drawing, and they listened to Wagner. The vinyl was a bit scratched from use but still quite loud, a little too much for me in fact. The boy was literally raised on his dad’s shoulders! They hardly ever spent time apart! Before he started reading, we used to read books to him, but later we couldn’t tear him away from them. Unlike other kids, who counted the pages they’d read to earn some playtime, it was his choice. If at the age of nine he asked for a puppy, at eleven he bought Mozart’s flute concerto with my pension. He was intellectual but not reticent or closed or melancholic. Quite the opposite, he was open, with a good sense of humor, and rather entertaining. I remember when we had visitors for family celebrations, the boy would amuse them with impressions––speaking like drug-numbed Brezhnev or Shevardnadze, the latter considered a traitor at the time. His paternal side understood him better because we immediately sensed he was artistic. However, his mum failed to see it and decided he had to join a skiing club, then rugby, and then water polo to help him grow manlier. The boy absolutely refused to accept a rather rough informality from his coaches, because impolite and offensive behavior was unacceptable to my boy. And if anyone thinks he wanted to insult someone, they’d be gravely mistaken because in his twenty-three years the boy hasn’t offended anybody. It’s just not fair!
Who knows what other things they would want to say to those who kept us locked in a room with yellowing wallpaper, in the building belonging to the Tbilisi Patriarchate, where they were trying to threaten me with excommunication or labelling me a prodigal son.
Sadly, that day no one heard the evidence of my virtue, Grandma’s voice muffled by the soft cushions of the Patriarchate.
Everyone’s favorite word was sin.
By the end of the 1980s, I was still genuinely innocent.
Mum made several attempts to make me active but all was in vain. Skiing and rugby held no interest for me, while I preferred attending the meeting of the National Freedom Party of our class, or watching TV enlivened by Gorbachev’s Perestroika till midnight. That’s why she reverted to a strange, sporty-religious experiment quite typical of the period: she sent me on a three-day event called Saint Nino’s Way, where my aunt, fourteen years older than me, was supposed to look after me.
According to the new tradition initiated by the Patriarch under the proclaimed changes, people––or rather potential new churchgoers––had to take the same road that Saint Nino took in the fourth century when she walked from Paravani Lake to Mtskheta, the capital at the time.
I decided to sing an aria in an empty classroom of the local school that had been turned into a temporary camp by the marchers. On the one hand, I wanted to feel more at home by singing and I also wanted to overcome my fear of strangers. However, a ruddy, unshaven, and round-cheeked novice monk immediately pointed out that the place was not suitable for entertainment. He opened the door, looked at me with his bloodshot eyes, and told me in a voice both quivering and croaky that meant he either hadn’t slept or hadn’t spoken for a long time:
“You can’t sing here. People are praying.”
The young man had dark circles under his eyes and looked like someone who could easily turn nasty if you contradicted him. He was the kind of stranger I didn’t want to be around: calm at a glance but aggressive, someone who could make me lose my peace of mind.
Needless to say, I stopped at once.
And I was absolutely alone and quite vulnerable. I didn’t stay in the classroom and stepped into the long hall with backpacks strewn everywhere. With their shoes off, people exhausted or seeking inner peace were spread out along the walls.
There were huts around the school. Women were sitting along the fences, looking at the priest squatting near the rusty football pole. They had smiles of embarrassment on their faces, and the priest’s haughty tone seemed to insist that they were simple, provincial women.
“How many abortions have you had? Have you lost count? Twenty, forty?”
I already knew the meaning of the word, so I stopped nearby.
“What’s so funny? I’m serious!”
It was still the Soviet Union and the women didn’t know a priest could ask such questions.
They weren’t yet scared of their god, so were rather ironic about it all, covering their toothless or gold-toothed mouths with their callused hands, chuckling at the ridiculous priest.
The priest was a madman in their opinion.
But he only smiled. He was aware that he was talking to uneducated village women, to the Soviet mob in a remote province, in a Meskhi village. And all the while the priest was one of the elite––that’s how he viewed himself, especially in comparison to them.
“You think that an abortion isn’t a crime? Marx and Engels won’t help you. Which of you have had a church wedding? If you only went through a civil marriage, you can’t be considered your husband’s lawful wife. Did you know? Do you think I’m inventing it? Do you have a husband?” he asks one of them.
The woman laughed, waving him away:
“Leave me alone, for God’s sake.”
"Do you have one or not?”
"She does!” others replied. “And two sons too.”
"What about a church wedding? If you haven’t, then it means you’ve sinned and that’s for sure. I can perform the ceremony if you wish.” The women didn’t answer.
It was the second time I listened to a discussion about sexual issues since I had arrived: first it was my classmate who told me he hadn’t done anything of that nature for a whole month and now the priest was telling the village women they were sinners because they had babies without a church blessing. I was a little confused not being clear who was making fun of whom––the women of the priest or the other way round.
“See that?" he looked in my direction hoping to find a bigger audience, but discovering only me, he smiled. “How can one enlighten these people?” Then he turned to them again, “Do you at least believe in God?"
His question remained suspended in the air.
Along the way the priests baptized people in the river Mtkvari. Nearing Borjomi, our group argued with a convinced pagan and one of the stronger deacons even tried to push him into the water. The pagan turned out to be a physicist resting near Borjomi with his wife and baby. Stubbornly, and a little stupidly, he claimed that if he ever admitted the existence of God, it would be an ancient Georgian deity. He was dead serious, saying that accepting Dali and reintroducing her cult would be a bigger step toward recovering ourselves and reestablishing the Georgian nation than any Orthodox belief:
“Nationalism is waking up, so our religion must also be national. That’s what our country needs!"
The pagan had thick-rimmed glasses, the type every middle-income Soviet physicist wore at the end of the 1980s, and a rather shabby white shirt with a vest pathetically protruding from underneath. His young wife, holding a two- or three-year-old toddler, stood by his side, fearfully listening to her husband’s scandalous and highly charged patriotic declarations. Very soon she realized he could be badly beaten up there and then.
“How can Georgia stand out from other nations in today’s world? With our language only? The script? Its traditions?" the pagan asked the deacon. “It’s not enough. We Georgians must have our own pantheon, just like we used to. We might have Orthodoxy, but why shouldn’t we also have Dali’s Temple? What’s wrong with the Armazi or Zadeni cults?"
The pagan was surely playing a dangerous game: he mentioned the Armazi cult to those who, for a whole month, had followed the road of the person responsible for destroying that cult.
“He’s possessed,” someone said.
“Those were idols! Do you want Georgians to pray to Satan and discard their true belief?" the deacon yelled at him.
“They can pray to whatever or whoever they wish. Religion should be a matter of choice. Some will go to church, others to Armazi temple. It can be extremely interesting for the world. They’ll say that an old nation has an ancient belief, strange, but fascinating."
“Isn’t Christianity old enough?” the deacon persisted.
“Leave him, he’s possessed,” others told him.
"We’ve been Christians since the fourth century, or rather you’ve been," the pagan seemed intent on annoying the deacon. Then he turned to his wife, “Let me talk to these people. Please go home, put the baby to bed, will you?" And then went back to the argument: “How many years did foreigners think we were Russians? Nearly two centuries. Even today some don’t know we’re a completely different nation, so unlike each other! A different language, script, and culture, so why can’t our religions be different too? Why do we need to be either Orthodox or Catholic when we’ve got our Amirani?"
“I’m going to hit him,” a man standing next to the deacon whispered. The physicist’s wife grabbed his arm and dragged him away, just in time, to their shabby cottage. And because the toddler began to cry, the deacon decided not to pursue him, though his intention was to baptize the pagan to crown their heated dispute.
The pagan physicist proved to be the only exception because everyone else was baptized: those we met along the road, those at home, some brought by their family members, mainly children and grandchildren of those who hadn’t been baptized in Soviet times. Our robust deacon often said that in the past parents insisted on baptizing their children, but now it was the other way around.
© Lasha Bugadze. By arrangement with Sulakauri Publishing. Translation © 2020 Maya Kiasashvili. All rights reserved.
Lasha Bugadze and Georgian novelist Beka Adamashvili will be in conversation with Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s Associate Editor, Culture, in a talk entitled "Levity and the Limits of Satire in the New Georgia," as part of the online festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, will be livestreamed on Friday, February 26, 2021, and available to watch afterward.
In her quarterly column, Maya Jaggi, our Critic at Large, provides a brief history of Georgian letters, whose influences look east and west. Jaggi has curated Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, an online festival of Georgian writers inspired by the café culture of Georgia’s first democratic republic of 1918–21, taking place online from February 25 to 28.
In a little park with soaring fir trees behind the old parliament in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia in the southern Caucasus mountains, two translators are monumentalized in bronze. The mustachioed Oliver Wardrop, British high commissioner there a century ago, translated A Book of Wisdom and Lies by Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, an ambassador, fabulist, translator, and lexicographer, who met Louis XIV and Pope Clement on his European travels.
The bronze companion hugging a book to her breast is Wardrop’s sister Marjory, whose work included Georgian Folk Tales and Ilia Chavchavadze’s nineteenth-century Romantic poem, The Hermit. But she is most famous for her prose version of Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, the national epic from Georgia’s medieval golden age, about an Arabian monarch who abdicates in favor of his daughter, and a melancholy knight in love with an Indian princess. Rustaveli’s chivalric masterpiece, penned during the courtly reign of a powerful queen they called King Tamar, refashioned Persian sources into a Georgian epic that looked both east and west, marrying Platonism with Sufism.
Marjory Scott Wardrop was still perfecting The Man in the Leopard’s Skin (her first draft of 1898) when she died in 1909. Posthumously published by her brother, her English prose stood its ground for more than a century until the American poet Lyn Coffin made the first verse translation in 2015—the year her forerunner’s statue was erected. The Knight in the Panther Skin astonishingly matches the twelfth-century original, with some 1,660 rhyming quatrains of sixteen-syllable lines, written in the Persian shairi form.
Geography has been destiny for Georgia and its literature, according to Zurab Karumidze, a prominent novelist and historian of jazz in Tbilisi. The country, he told me from a city under COVID curfews, has “always looked both ways.” A mountainous crossroads on the Silk Road, at the edge of empires, it was fought over and carved up for centuries, numbering Arabs, Mongols, and Ottoman Turks among its invaders. When Orbeliani wrote his eighteenth-century fables, eastern Georgia was an autonomous region of Persia. The Wardrops arrived after the country had been annexed by the Russian empire in 1801.
Yet Georgia, a small nation with fewer than five million people today, retained its own non-Indo-European language and ancient thirty-three-letter alphabet. Its oldest surviving literature dates from the fifth century, along with early Christian churches, while the wine-making culture reflected in its literature is as old as eight thousand years. Colchis, on its Black Sea coast, is the mythological home of Medea and the Golden Fleece. “Our influences are Middle Eastern, European, and Caucasian,” Karumidze said, “Georgians had to be very good translators, historically, to translate themselves to others, and others to one another—and to translate between East and West. This condition of translation was very important to the country. Starting from ancient Greece, Iran, and Biblical landscape, everything was mixed here.”
Centuries of invasion translate into cultural richness. Georgian, with loan words from Sanskrit, Greek, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Russian, is laden with synonyms—a protean tool for writers. Nino Haratischvili, who lives in Berlin and writes in both Georgian and German, said at the Frankfurt Book Fair where Georgia was Guest Country of Honor in 2018: “Georgia has been fighting for the identity it has claimed since antiquity and defended against all occupiers throughout the centuries. Many forget that identity is not something ossified . . . and that the richness of Georgian culture grew out of being permeable and perhaps brave, taking in foreign ideas and mixing them with its own in its search for novelties.”
Karumidze, Haratischvili, and poet-translator Coffin are among the speakers in Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, an online festival of Georgian writers with a touch of food and song, streaming for a global English-language audience from February 25–28, 2021. As the festival’s artistic director, I curated the four-day program for Writers’ House of Georgia in Tbilisi, a city I first visited in 2014. Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern is in partnership with the British Library in London and Words Without Borders—which, starting today, is publishing four newly translated extracts from novels by festival authors who have made waves or won awards in Georgia. There are four days of online events, two of them ticketed and streamed by the British Library and Writers’ House in Tbilisi. All eleven talks will also available to watch afterwards. The digital tavern is a pandemic-era sequel to Where Europe Meets Asia: Georgia25, a weeklong London festival that I curated in 2016 for the Georgian National Book Center.
Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern takes its inspiration from the doomed cafe culture of another golden age of Georgian literature, whose end was tragic. A century ago, Tbilisi—known as Tiflis before 1936—was a “Paris of the East.” After the Russian revolutions of 1917, Georgia declared independence from the collapsing Tsarist empire. During its short-lived first democratic republic of 1918-21, Tbilisi became a haven for intellectuals fleeing the Russian civil wars—including Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak. These exiles were welcomed by Georgian artists and writers such as the Blue Horn Symbolists, whose poet founders included Paolo Iashvili, Titsian Tabidze, and his cousin Galaktion Tabidze.
This cosmopolitan, polyglot avant-garde gathered in artists’ cafés such as the Fantastic Tavern, Argonauts’ Boat, Kimerioni, and Peacock’s Tail. The cafe walls became the blank canvas for Russian and Georgian artists returned from Paris and St. Petersburg, such as Lado Gudiashvili, whose painting for Kimerioni, Stepko’s Tavern, became the banner for this year’s festival. I had sought out this rare vestige of European modernist cafe culture on a visit to Tbilisi four years ago. The Rustaveli National Theater opened its closed basement for me, revealing the century-old wall painting on the stairs—recently restored—as well as work by another famous Georgian modernist, Davit Kakabadze, planting the seed that would later become this festival.
When the Bolsheviks invaded Georgia in February 1921, the Red Army not only crushed the democratic republic after only 1,028 days, but swept away its modernist avant-garde and the cafe culture that nurtured it. Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern begins on the centenary of Tbilisi’s occupation, February 25. Writers’ House contains portraits of the many writers who were executed in successive waves of Stalinist purges over the next two decades. Others committed suicide in an atmosphere of intolerable pressure to denounce colleagues, as socialist realism became the only acceptable form of art.
The seventy years of Soviet rule left a sense of rupture with this republic—a broken thread that many in today’s Georgia seek to repair. Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life: For Brilke (tr. Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin), a multi-generational saga of the “Red century” written in German that won the 2018 Bertolt Brecht prize, alludes to the Blue Horn poets and uses lines of theirs as epigraphs. The novelist and playwright Dato Turashvili set his latest play on a train from Tbilisi to the Black sea in February 1921. Republic of Georgia (tr. Madonna Tkhelidze), which had a staged reading by the Voyage Theater Company at New York Public Library in 2019, takes place as the Red Army enters Tbilisi and members of the republican government flee into exile in France.
Aka Morchiladze revolutionized post-Soviet literature with his 1992 novel.
If Georgia’s modernist moment of the 1910s and '20s was interrupted by Soviet invasion, postmodernism was forged during Soviet collapse in the 1990s. Aka Morchiladze, the pen name of Gio Akhvlediani, revolutionized post-Soviet fiction with his fragmented debut novel Journey to Karabakh (1992, tr. Elizabeth Heighway), in which a privileged youth from Tbilisi looking for drugs strays into the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The 1990s, Akhvlediani recalled from Tbilisi, were a “terrible time of civil war, paramilitaries—many guns from that time we still have—and the beginning of a new literature.” An earlier generation of novelists, such as Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, seemed stilted. “No one speaks like that. It wasn’t natural. I had this feeling, I have to use the language of the street guys and the youth. People loved it.” Yet, even thirty years into independence, he feels Georgia remains post-Soviet in outlook: “Everything’s about punishment and betrayal. It’s a Stalinist thing. We’re all traitors who must be punished. It’s still in our vocabulary. People don’t understand they’re speaking the language of Stalin’s time, which their parents reused.” While he drew on the Russian classics he grew up reading alongside Hemingway and Jack London, “after the 2008 war, young people abandoned Russian culture. The war finished it totally.”
Tamta Melashvili’s debut novel, Counting Out (excerpted in WWB in 2014), about teenage girls’ experience in an unnamed war, was written in the wake of that five-day August war with Russia. Speaking from Tbilisi, she recalled that time of “total fear and despair, with planes flying over, and explosions from the nearby town being bombed.” Although her second novel, Eastwards, is also set in present-day Georgia, it looks back to the poets of the First Republic. “We had only three years of independence,” she said, “but I’m totally in love with that precious period. We had social democracy, a parliament with women’s representation [and five women MPs]. I like to imagine what might have happened if we weren’t invaded by the Soviet Union. How could the country have developed?”
The protagonist of Eastwards, Irina, is researching Elene Dariani-Bakradze, a mystical poet believed to have had a secret affair with the Blue Horn poet Paolo Iashvili. There is speculation that she may have authored fourteen erotic poems attributed to him. “Feminists prefer this version against the literary establishment,” Melashvili said. “I started to play with these two versions. Irina tries to reach the true story of Paolo and Elena but rebuilds a new myth. I wanted to show how Georgians can’t get out of the constant cycle of reimagining myths and legends and not writing true history.” Georgians, she added, “still live in very turbulent times. There are no resources. We cling to the mythic past. Otherwise we’re not strong enough to navigate the present.”
Soviet history remains intractably painful. “The purges of the 1930s, no one likes to talk about them,” she said. “All fathers are related to the purges as survivors or perpetrators. Most of us prefer to keep a distance from this past.” But Stalinism shattered Georgia’s literature. “Most good writers were shot. Or the men were shot, and the women were marginalized, redirected towards children’s literature. Some even quit. From the '40s to the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were almost no women writing, except one or two in the '80s. They became lost souls in Georgian literary history.”
“Georgians still live in very turbulent times,” says writer Tamta Melashvili. “There are no resources. We cling to the mythic past. Otherwise we’re not strong enough to navigate the present.”
Playwright and novelist Davit Gabunia, who found fame aged twenty-two as the Georgian translator of Harry Potter (and later Shakespeare and Ibsen), explores a different kind of violence. His cinematic debut novel, Falling Apart, recalls Rear Window in its dark exploration of voyeurism, and broke ground it its treatment of a male sexual liaison. “Everyone neglects men,” he said from Tbilisi. “The problem is men. I write mostly about troubled masculinities. My novel is ‘pulp,’ written as a quasi-thriller crime story, but I try to put these ideas in accessible form. Everything is wrong with the main character because he has false ideas of masculinity.”
Tracing change in independent Georgia, Gabunia said: “In 2005 when I wrote my first short stories, I wouldn’t have dared to come out. I wrote naive gay stories under a pen name, and no one wanted to publish them in case of a backlash. Then for three years I never wrote a word. It’s not less dangerous now for LGBT people but, certainly in literary circles, things have changed. There’s a huge difference between then and 2017, when my novel came out.” He attributes the slowness of change, which drove him to abandon activism to write for theater, to Georgia’s instability. “We’re still very poor, underpaid in wild capitalism. A big change in mentality comes after years of stable and normalized life. Since we regained independence in 1991, there have not been five consecutive years without something happening—unrest, conflict with a breakaway region, civil war, economic collapse, extreme poverty. It continues now. We’re a society in constant unrest, where religion is very powerful. When there’s no rational prospect, people choose the medieval darkness of the Church.”
If, for Karumidze, a strong post-Soviet thread is that Georgian writers “had to reread and deconstruct their history,” they also “make fun of it. Before, Georgian history was sacred, mythologized. Most kings are saints of the Georgian Church, and so are the ninth-century fathers of nationalism. You’re not supposed to be sarcastic about them.”
Some writers have tested the limits of this humor. Cartoonist and writer Lasha Bugadze’s plays include Putin’s Mum and The President will Come to See You. His novel The Literature Express (tr. Maya Kiasashvili) pokes fun at Georgia’s EU aspirations, and opens with the 2008 war as tanks advance towards Tbilisi. His latest novel, A Small Country, fictionalizes the real scandal over his satirical short story “The First Russian” which explored the relationship between Georgia and Russia though the medieval Queen Tamar’s wedding night. “We don’t speak about our history,” Bugadze told me from Tbilisi. “Georgia needs to reflect on its history, and the relationship with Russia. People are afraid to speak of it. That’s why I had problems. I wrote about Queen Tamar’s first husband—people didn’t know he was a Russian. She’s a holy saint, a legend, so how can you talk about her private life?” He paused. “I understand why they’re afraid: it’s like trauma. Everything of pride in Georgia is in the past. Our historical heroes are part of our identity, so don’t speak about our kings, or Stalin. We had a funny story about Medea by Euripedes, a Greek, but a Georgian woman would never kill her child!”
Bugadze was threatened with excommunication, and personally reprimanded by the head of Georgia’s Orthodox Church (“He wags his finger, and says, ‘Why did you write this?’ Like the Inquisition”). “The Patriarch became Archbishop in 1977, the year I was born. He is the greatest Georgian politician,” Bugadze said. “The Church and the government have a very strange relationship. They’re very close together. Who is the main boss in Georgia? The prime minister or the Patriarch or the oligarch?”
While the novel reflects Georgia’s relationship with Russia from the late 1980s, “now the relationship is very different because Putin has a dream to recreate the Soviet Union. We have Russian soldiers and army bases in the middle of Georgia, in South Ossetia, only forty kilometers from Tbilisi. The border moves, like ‘moving Berlin Walls,’ we call them. It’s psychologically and emotionally very difficult. We’re very afraid but we’re living with this.” In Soviet times, he added, “there was great humor, with metaphorical language, and everybody understood that it was because of censorship. Now we’ve become very serious and literal, and more angry about everything—I write blogs at Radio Liberty. Historically, it’s really dangerous to live near Putin’s Russia.” On the recent flare-up over Nagorno-Karabakh to which Russian peacekeepers were sent, he said, “It’s an old empire. These are contradictions Russia can manipulate. It’s existential. Every day we think, what will they do?”
Bugadze, like Melashvili, points up stark generational conflicts within Georgia. “Young people are very liberal and free. It’s a battle between grandfathers and grandsons, not fathers and sons, and what is our way in the future: the West or nostalgia for the Soviet Union? They don’t see it as nostalgia but as the ‘real Georgia,’ because we’ve ‘lost our identity.’ But I can’t speak about the Soviet Union without the tragedy.”
WWB’s first excerpt from the festival is from The Southern Mammoth, a novel by Archil Kikodze, an actor, writer, filmmaker, photographer, birdwatcher, and eco-guide. Its main character is Tbilisi, the city where he was born and which became a war zone in his youth in the 1990s, with refugees filling its hotels. “My father was a professional rescuer who carried refugees on his back through the mountains,” he said from the city. “My generation came back from wars they lost, with weapons and complexes. There were semi-official gangs, everybody carrying weapons and shooting in the street. Big, heavy violence.” Tbilisi is the “only city I know very well and know too well to love. When I walk, I know tragic stories about each district and quarter, each yard. We’re very social people. We know things you don’t need to know about each other—stories, gossip. It’s support but it’s also heavy baggage.”
Actor, writer, filmmaker, and photographer Archil Kikodze, who was still a youth in the post-Soviet Tblisi of the 1990s.
The narrator’s father “was a shadow businessman in the Soviet period of stagnation in the '70s and '80s, when corruption was blossoming and Georgia was like a Riviera for Russia. His mother is a Georgian nationalist, so that can’t work.” Kikodze’s interest is not in “good guys conquered by bad guys. The collaborator is more interesting for me as a character because he’s coming from the same society with the same values. We had too, too many collaborators. We still have them.”
This novel also has a flashback to the First Republic. “Till now there’s no historical evaluation of the things that have happened to us,” Kikodze said. “All new governments come to power playing with our past and our ethnic conflicts. But literature tries harder to evaluate what happened. Official history is blind, so it’s an alternative. Personal stories are always a treasure for me, I collect not news stories but what’s behind them—people crushed in all those changes and bad times.”
For Gabunia, Georgian is an “incredible blessing and a curse: it’s a wonderfully rich language with a long literary tradition—we still have those texts—but we’re doomed to have a small audience.” The humble aim of Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern is to widen this pool, while introducing more English-speaking readers to a literature, and a culture, they will not want to miss.
© 2021 Maya Jaggi. All rights reserved.
Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, an online festival of Georgian writers inspired by the cafe culture of Georgia’s first democratic republic of 1918-21, is presented by artistic director Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, in partnership with The British Library and Words Without Borders. It is streaming for a global English-language audience on 25-28 February 2021 and available to watch afterwards.
Archil Kikodze's The Southern Mammoth, originally published in Georgian in 2017, takes place in a single day in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, as a filmmaker leaves his apartment to make way for a friend with a date, to wander freely through his city and his memories.
Armed with long poles, the policemen are busy at the Ortachala 1 hydro station. It seems they are the only ones on this sunny wintry morning who have something to do. They push as hard as they can, nearly succeed in moving the corpse. They aren’t trying to get the body out of the water. They just want to push it hard enough to budge it. We stare at the scene with gaping mouths. We don’t understand what’s going on. Only later, Tazo, loyal to his ways, finds out the story behind the scene we witnessed. But that morning, on our way from visiting prostitutes, we were dumbly watching the policemen’s futile efforts. We had spent the night in a house that was lost in the old quarter of Kharpukhi and now, looking at the curdled waters at the hydro station, we would have given anything to erase our memories, to forget all we’d seen . . . Asking around in the winding, narrow streets of Kharpukhi, we eventually find the brothel in the most inappropriate house and knock on the glass gallery, referring to an acquaintance of Tazo’s. Stepping in from the dark street, we momentarily freeze in the hall, long enough for our eyes to adjust to the light. The surrounding is a sight indeed . . . Dents on the ceiling and walls left by different caliber bullets, blunt stares from the corners, cast by eyes that don’t like anyone . . . As if we are characters in a Western who have just blundered into the worst town in the world. “They don’t like strangers, do they.” God bless the scriptwriters of the old movie dialogues. “They like no one.” It’s obvious that we won’t find love here. On the balcony, a generator roars offbeat . . . We aren’t looking for trouble, we are unarmed . . . Tazo is fiddling with his hat, the one he never goes without. Under his warm coat he has his only sweater he has been wearing for the last ten years. It’s a shapeless blue one, knitted from thick wool, with a diagonal red strip in front . . . He squints at the light bulb, then smiles at the surroundings for no apparent reason. He just can’t help it—his smile is always kind of inappropriate. Now it’s clear to everyone that we aren’t going to shoot or threaten anyone with a gun, and suddenly it becomes interesting. Are you brothers? A speck of interest appears in their lethargic eyes . . . No, we’re not . . . We aren’t going to hit them, either, during sex or later, when we get sober and are overcome by the urge to puke—not so much on account of them, but on account of ourselves. What’s more, Tazo might have enough strength to smile at them in the morning . . . Then we’ll leave . . . Go down the cobbled slope without talking to each other, in silence, cross the deserted square without a single car, won’t even notice the valiant Petre Bagrationi brandishing his sword, in the same way we never pay attention to other mounted historical heroes across the city. We’ll get on the Ortachala dike and share the only cigarette. We don’t have enough to buy the ones with filters, but will get some without filters later on, as soon as little kiosks in our respective blocks open. But it’s a long walk to the familiar grounds . . . In the meantime, we want to cast the first and final glance at the city from this vantage point . . . But why final? It was final for me, but surely Tazo came back. Otherwise he wouldn’t have found out about the corpse . . .
The stagnant Mtkvari with grassy banks and gulls . . . The Isani policemen, ever so hungry for petty bribes, are trying to push the corpse. With the long poles, they are shoving it to the right, swearing and getting into each other’s way. The dead man is floating on his back. He is wearing a pale jacket, the hue of the river, and a pair of jeans, just like us. Hard to say if he was killed or has committed suicide, but it doesn’t matter for the policemen anyway. Very soon Tazo will discover that it’s a common thing, that the Ortachala hydro station is a haven for Tbilisi corpses: those who jump of their own accord or are thrown into the river sooner or later gather at the dike. Down the Mtkvari, in Samgori, the policemen have lots of long rods and poles prepared for the same purpose. “You’ve got to act fast in this city”—depends on who is smarter and adroit in shoving the dead bodies to the other side. In Samgori and in Isani the policemen work with gusto to prove who is smarter. But that winter morning, Isani was definitely faster, which means Samgori got a fresh homicide case, or possibly a suicide . . .
Next to me, Tazo shivers. He might be thinking the same. The water’s too cold . . . Suddenly, he starts talking about his dream. "Don’t tell me you were able to sleep last night." He did and dreamt he was swimming in a vast stretch of water. He swims with strong, well-calculated strokes, heading for the horizon. He’s got quite a distance to cover, so he saves his energy. The horizon seems too distant, practically unreachable for even such an expert swimmer as Tazo, but he persists, quite stubbornly. He doesn’t really know why he is swimming or where to, but he feels there is something extremely important waiting for him ahead, or something vital is going to happen to him. Indeed, something appears against the dull horizon, pushing Tazo to keep going. He is exhausted but hasn’t lost faith in his own strength, not for a second. He is sure he will reach the end. His aim nears, consequently gets larger. It’s an inscription. Tazo can’t read it yet but he can clearly see that it is mounted on a huge metal construction, something similar to the old Soviet structures erected in the most improbable places, carrying the message “Forward to the bright future!” Or the enormous Hollywood sign on Mount Lee. Tazo waves his hand in a vague gesture to describe the inscription that he nears after swimming tirelessly in the vast sea and now he can discern it. Apparently, that was his target . . . The word “cunt” covers the entire horizon like a verdict and Tazo writes in the air with his hand, this time the letters are easily recognizable. There is no sea around us but I readily visualized the word written by Tazo's hand hanging over our city, somewhere above the dammed-up river and the old quarters across it. Insane, isn’t it? We stare at each other. He drags at what’s left of my cigarette, shrugs his shoulders as if saying it’s not his fault he dreamed such a weird dream. He fights back laughter. He flicks the butt into the river and we even hear a brief hiss as it hits the water and then we burst into laughter. We just can’t stop. The Isani policemen, who have nearly managed to shove the body into the Samgori jurisdiction, stop and look at us, trying to guess if we have found their efforts comical. Oh, no, not at all! Whatever you’re doing this morning, no doubt it’s for the good of our city and the whole country. We laugh our heads off. They give up on us, having their own problems. Still laughing, we leave the dike. We’ve got to walk all the way to our homes and the kiosks where we can get cigarettes without filters on credit . . .
I open my eyes. The ice cubes haven’t melted in the glass yet. I must have nodded off. The computer screen shows the same picture: somewhere in the Near East, Nelly is patting a cat. I look at my watch. Nearly nine. My visitor will be here any minute now. He hasn’t been for years. Mum’s funeral doesn’t count. It was more out of duty, personal and social. But he called yesterday and somehow, awkwardly, with lots of pauses, finally said what he wanted to say. Even across the distance I felt he was afraid of being laughed at. Something that never occurred to me. I listened and agreed, as if it were an honor.
But nine in the morning is too early. Is it a date he’s got or a hangover breakfast?
My doorbell rings. Couldn’t wait till nine. I go to open it, but halfway down the hall I suddenly think he mustn’t see Nelly. I go back to the computer and close the picture, then the whole album. The doorbell rings again—this time more persistently and a bit impatiently. My daughter hasn’t appeared in the chat for some time. It must be late there and most probably she’s asleep. I leave the chat room, order the computer to go to sleep, and head for the front door.
I hardly have time to look at him. Tazo doesn’t so much step over the threshold—he jumps over it as if he’s looking for shelter from the rain. He moves inside, into the depths of the flat as if it were a sanctuary. His insistent calling hasn’t been insolent at all—he was seeking asylum. He drops heavily into an armchair by my sofa and scrutinizes the bookshelves as if it’s his first time at my place.
“Were you asleep?”
“I nodded off. Was looking at the computer and dozed off. Actually, I woke up quite early . . . ”
He takes a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lights one. His manner hasn’t changed: he smokes with the greed of a teenager, a novice, with long drags—one, two, three and the fag’s burned to the butt.
I also take my cigarette from the table and light it. He watches me impatiently. I can’t enjoy mine, crush it out and get to my feet.
“Tazo, come with me, will you?”
We go into the bedroom. Zoia, my cleaner, hasn’t been in. Usually, it’s Zoia who changes my bedclothes. Come on, help me!
I had stripped away my own bedclothes earlier, before I dozed off at the computer. We are funny to watch. I shouldn’t be thinking about it, but what we do has the makings of a movie . . . Two men over forty are awkwardly changing bedclothes with dead serious faces, stuffing pillows into pillowcases. Do you want a thinner blanket? I don’t think we’ll be cold, it’s quite warm already . . . I don’t believe even for a moment that Tazo doesn’t appreciate the cinematographic value of the absurd scene. I can’t help thinking that now, just like in the old times, we are going to look at each other and guess we’re thinking the same. Then we’ll have a good laugh . . . But no—Tazo hasn’t glanced at me even once. We’ve been working in silence. We’re tired, but here you are, the bed’s ready . . .
I remember something. I go into the sitting room, open a sideboard, take out a half-empty bottle of brandy and two glasses.
“A glass or two has a great effect on me . . . In this case . . . you know what I mean, don’t you?” I’m angry with myself because I realize I’m carefully choosing my words when talking to Tazo.
He eyes the bottle, as if he doesn’t see it, as if he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. “Are you going out in that tracksuit?”
Tazo isn’t rude or impudent, and can never be such. He is just impatient to get me out. He is nervous and, I sense, he finds the whole situation highly embarrassing. I smile. “I’ll change in a second and I’ll be gone.”
In the bedroom I change quickly, like a soldier. I usually don’t need long. I shove my tracksuit into the wardrobe. I’ll change into the jogging shoes in the hall. I might need to walk quite a lot. Cigarettes, keys, phone in the pocket. What else?
In the sitting-room Tazo is looking at a photo behind the bookcase glass. Bent low, he seems to be trying to remember something.
The photo is black and white, I believe taken by his dad and developed in their bathroom under the magic red light. It has been behind that glass since the times when we didn’t need to stoop to see it. The National Museum yard, the two of us standing in front of the skeleton of a prehistoric elephant. I’m wearing a jumper knitted by Mum. Both groomed and in our Sunday best. Probably ten at the time. In the background the elephant in a huge glass box hardly fits into the frame. But its front legs, tusks, and part of its forehead are clearly visible. I even remember what the inscription was on the box. Here it is, if you don’t believe me:
Archidoskodon Meridionalis—the southern mammoth, found in Taribana Valley.
Tazo slips his hand behind the glass and takes out the photo, bringing it closer to his eyes. He squints and I think his eyesight is getting poorer. Might already need reading glasses.
“I always imagined Taribana Valley to be a mysterious place, with mammoths roaming freely. But the other day I was at an exhibition and there was this photo—a bare field with a single tree. It was a strangely beautiful place. It said Taribana Valley. I wanted to buy the photo but it had already sold.”
“I’ve been to the valley,” Tazo replaces the photo. “My office sent me to insure the harvest. Someone’s wheat. Nothing special about the place . . . ”
Tazo has been to Taribana Valley. He insured someone’s wheat crop. Time for me to go. Here, take the keys. Just in case . . . When you’re ready, call me and I’ll come back. If you don’t wait for me, leave them on the sideboard in the hall and shut the door . . .
He nods and sees me to the front door. I put my jogging shoes on. And go down the stairs with the thud of a man who’s got nothing to hide. Let the adulterers sneak around furtively! I look up to wave him goodbye but he’s already closed the door. Fine with me . . .
Before stepping out into the street, I look at myself in Mediko’s mirror. I haven’t shaved but that’s all right. Money, phone, keys . . . Nothing left behind, no need to go back. Mediko’s mirror tells me that besides a shave I’m in sore need of a haircut. I might get one if I plan my day properly. I smile—what planning am I talking about if I’ve got nothing to do? But even if I have to, I know all too well I won’t do it. I don’t even recall a time when I woke up or left home so early in the morning. Getting cigarettes and mineral water doesn’t count. I mean leaving home properly, purposefully. I look at myself in Mediko’s mirror once again, then one, two . . . two and a half, three and I’m in the street.
The entrance is strewn with cigarette butts.
At nighttime our entrance becomes a refuge for young couples. The door doesn’t lock. I know other similar entrances along the street with similarly broken locks, but ours is particularly popular. I believe it’s the mirror that is largely responsible for it . . . They can sit on the steps and see their reflections at the same time. The mirror is witness to their caresses and the proof that they have each other. They might even be sizing each other up. Mediko’s mirror has the shape of a vertically upturned enormous eye. The human eye isn’t a perfect instrument. At close quarters, it can easily lose focus, so you start seeing the dear eyes in patches, or a blur of the necklace around the dear neck. At that point you can furtively glance at the mirror to steal a different angle and who knows, the mirror can show you something that will make you smile . . .
The problem is they throw cigarette butts into the vestibule.
I step into the sunshine. I cross the street and look at my house from the opposite sidewalk. No one is watching me from the windows. The curtains aren’t moving. But is my flat really suitable for a first date? Tazo was so nervous I’m absolutely sure it’s the first. He’s got a job and salary, insures someone’s harvest in Taribana Valley. He could easily afford a hotel room but still opted for my place. Preferred my humble digs to an alienating, impersonal king-size hotel bed, to relaxing on it, watching a French movie. After all these years he preferred a homelike atmosphere . . . Apart from the photo behind the glass panel, what else is he going to find that will seem familiar to him? Books? I have several books on the floor by the bed. I wonder if he’s going to have a look at them. Will he get interested in what I’m reading? What else . . . A couple of paintings by Tengiz Mirzashvili on the walls, hanging there as a sign that mine, just like Tazo’s house, is part of a city within another city that the artist has left in abundance as selfless gifts . . . Maybe the woman Tazo’s waiting for is from the artist’s city too. Loneliness is unbearable in both cities, isn’t it? She is soon going to walk into my flat and look around timidly . . . What else will meet her eyes? Another huge photo of a city, or rather of a settlement . . . It’s Mom, leaning on a walking stick in the ditch that took years to dig in that archaeological site. She’s looking determinedly into the lens, refusing to accept that she had spent decades digging the monument that hadn’t yielded anything valuable . . . Also, a poster of my film, which I had no courage to ask Tazo to see, nor have I asked if he’s seen it. What else? Innumerable snapshots of my daughter stuck to the fridge with magnets. I forgot to tell Tazo to look inside, but if he does, he’ll find plenty of snacks suitable for a single man . . . On the other hand, he came with a plastic bag, which he stuffed between the armchair and the sofa. Apparently, he’s brought something himself . . .
Mediko comes out of our entrance and waves to me. I wave back from across the street. A casual meeting of neighbors in the morning. But she’s going to work while I’ve got no idea where I’m heading. "Is everything all right?"
“Yes. I’m out for a walk.”
“Your face says something’s up.”
“Not really. I just woke up very early and thought I’d have a walk.”
“Fancy walking in this direction?” She points toward Republic Square.
I shake my head and suddenly I feel the urge to shout that Tazo’s in my flat.
“Can we have a lock installed on the front door? Look at the mess.”
Smiling, Mediko turns back.
“By we you mean me, right?”
I chuckle and raise my hand in a goodbye gesture. I walk in the opposite direction, toward the Blue Monastery. From there I can walk straight into Vere Park and smoke a cigarette in peace and quiet.
© Archil Kikodze. By arrangement with Sulakauri Publishing. Translation © 2021 Maya Kiasashvili. All rights reserved.
Archil Kikodze will be in conversation with author and journalist Wendell Steavenson as part of the online festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, will be livestreamed on Sunday, February 28, 2021, and available to watch afterwards.
Young, formally inventive, and digital by nature—these are only some of the characteristics of Russophone literature today. Here, we present Russophone writers born in 1985 or later who work in shorter genres, from minimalistic flash fiction and protest poetry to visual performance. This issue is not a collection of “Russian literature” because many of its contributors are not ethnically Russian, and many are not Russian nationals. What they have in common is their use of the Russian language (among others). Literary scholar Naomi Caffee first proposed the term “Russophonia” to describe the fact that authors writing in Russian come from a range of non-Russian backgrounds, including Indigenous communities in post-Soviet countries and émigré communities around the world. The predominance of women writers in this issue is indicative of a trend within these communities: much exciting Russophone literature today is not produced by men. The resulting cohort of writers contradicts a traditional image that associates Russian literature, especially in English translation, with long novels written by men who are racialized as white and ethnically Russian.
While the novel remains an important genre for Russophone literature, shorter works exemplify the most innovative aspects of this scene today. Poems and short stories allow artists to react, in real time, to current developments: in Russian, it’s not uncommon to see new work by major poets emerge online within hours after a news item breaks. These writings spark immediate conversations that change broader public discourse through rapid-fire literary texts rather than typical online commentary. Literary activism based on various forms of identity is central to the past and present of the post-Soviet sphere, and today’s multifaceted media environment has allowed a range of writers to gain a platform faster than ever before. Our own selection of writing pinpoints three of the many issues that preoccupy Russian society and Russophone communities around the world.
The first is the war in Eastern Ukraine, a story that has all but disappeared from Anglophone front-page news but remains a reality and a factor dividing not just countries, but also families and friends (see the acclaimed 2017 collection Words for War). The second concerns gender and the polemics surrounding feminism, which are fundamentally different from the debates going on in the United States and parts of Western Europe. The relation between art and activism has been particularly topical since the notorious case against Pussy Riot, members of which were imprisoned for a performance in Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral in 2012. So many young Russophone writers are involved in political activism that one recent movement––a push to free three sisters in Moscow’s Armenian diaspora when they were first charged with murder for killing their severely abusive father––was led by a number of feminist poets and supported by Armenian Russophone writers.
Both the current war and questions of gender relate to a third, distinct issue that also weaves through these pieces: a particular kind of post-Soviet non-belonging. Born in a country that no longer exists, into systems of racial, ethnic, or sexual identity that were marginalized even when it did, many young writers narrate not a search for home but a confrontation with the fact that they will never have one. Those confrontations unite would-be homes as different from one another as Kazakhstan, Tatarstan, and Dagestan. They also stretch to adopted homes, from Boston to Berlin: successive waves of emigration from Russia and the Soviet Union have resulted in large Russian-speaking diasporas in the United States, Western Europe, and Israel. Movements like these have made multilingual communities a norm in post-Soviet literature, from the Cheburashka Collective (US) and the now-defunct queer Central Asian collective STAB (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) to journals like Cardinal Points/Storony Sveta (New York, US) or Dvoyetochiye/Nekudatayim (Jerusalem, Israel). Dinara Rasuleva, whose poetry appears in this issue, is a leading figure in the Russophone literary scene in Berlin; Olga Breininger has lived in five different countries, both by choice and otherwise.
To find new Russian literature in these highly disparate circumstances, it’s not enough just to scour books and print journals. Whereas most prominent journals in the US do not accept submissions that have previously been posted on social media, initial self-publication on Telegram, Facebook, VKontakte, and other platforms is often considered an advantage for Russophone writers. These forums allow readers, including other cutting-edge writers, to offer public feedback or translations that subsequently become part of the formal publication process. Self-publication online isn’t considered an impediment to being published in print, and copyright as a concept is much less venerated. This circumstance does more than allow previously unpublished poetry to appear directly on social media feeds: it enables high-profile competitions to upload all their finalists’ entries to the Cloud. It has long prompted literary organizations to give their events a mass audience via YouTube and other video channels on a scale that Anglophone organizations only reached during the COVID-19 pandemic. The speed of new developments is dizzying, often leaving the Russian literary establishment in the dust. Aesthetically mainstream corporate publishers have given way among leading young writers to a vibrant coalition of experimental, opposition-oriented online journals and to self-publishing forums that allow authors outside the opposition scene to work in formats they control. While book publishers in the US continue to enjoy their status as power brokers, even where prominent younger writers are concerned, similar Russophone publishers often find themselves establishing imprints dedicated to young or experimental writers in an effort to catch up to the dominant online circuit of emerging work.
To readers and editors––and to those who translate or commission translations – this new Russophone literary world offers both opportunities and challenges. The logistics of the book trade, budget constraints, and clogged publishing schedules no longer prevent direct contact between writers and readers. A greater number of texts reach a greater number of readers almost as soon as they are written. Writers use digital media to curate their own audiences: rather than facing institutionalized editorial oversight backed by large organizations, they grapple with a more diffuse network of power hierarchies, including generational divides on questions of identity and representation. In doing so, they are able to actively promote their work and engage with readers directly, including those who might react negatively. Control over the general trajectory of a given text is lost on the internet even as writers choose the social circles to which they speak first.
The reader, in turn, needs commitment to keep abreast of new developments and to follow the trajectory of individual writers. As translators, we have known our respective authors and followed their day-by-day trajectories for some time. Translating digitally active Russophone writers is fundamentally a collaboration, and that collaborative process is different from working with traditional texts precisely because both writers and translators are accustomed to immediate communication and online publication. Some authors offer a constant flow of new ideas to their translators via online chats; others change their text while the translator is still mulling over an original version published on Facebook. Public online communication, both professional and personal, is such a strong norm in Russophone literature today that the conflicts behind literary texts can circulate even faster than the texts themselves, presenting further challenges for writers and translators alike. For example, during 2020, even some of this community’s most activist participants responded to questions of racism in Russia and the U.S. with such callousness or lack of awareness that their colleagues interceded, facing backlash from expletives to threats. Translating texts that have recently been written, performed, or shared on social media requires a relationship of trust that can survive the rocky political and interpersonal waters of a literary scene that is even more “extremely online” than its U.S.-based counterpart.
For this reason, our selection is a collaborative project from inception to editing. More than a dozen translators came together to support this effort, working from seven time zones, between California and Ulyanovsk, to collate contemporary texts that honor some of the diversity within Russophone literature today.
Thanks to translator Carol Apollonio, readers may already be familiar with Alisa Ganieva’s novels. Here, the prominent writer and activist takes on a different genre: short-form regional noir, though it is set in a region that genre does not typically include. As a man named Kebedov drives through rural Dagestan (a predominantly Muslim republic in Russia’s Northern Caucasus Mountains), he finds himself inside a kind of real-life trolley problem whose resolution rests on a single theological conversation with a stranger. It’s inside their dialogue, and not in a complex plot, that Ganieva hangs the suspense of the narrative: in her hands, every word changes what the future can be, or whether it can even exist. Through those modulations, the story plays with the meaning of suspense itself, making it nothing less than a device for exploring the assumptions people hold about one another. “Munkar and Nakir” was initially published in a general interest Dagestani magazine, reflecting the importance that publications outside Moscow and St. Petersburg hold for the leading voices in Russophone literature.
Ksenia Zheludova––a media producer from St. Petersburg––publishes her new poetry as part of her feed on the popular Russian social media platform VKontakte. This translation of "An Age-Old Female Pastime,” “You Bring Him Some Tenderness in Your Narrow Palms,” and “Sometimes I Simply Know” aims to reproduce the effect of scrolling through short poems on the website. Zheludova’s poems seek new ways of expressing complex emotions. Her bold, often surprising, and sometimes painfully tender assertions assume an irrefutable logic: poetry establishes connections in places the tools of everyday reason cannot reach. Zheludova’s seemingly conversational tone masks the fact that her poems are tightly wrought artworks. Poems inspired by the war in Eastern Ukraine, and the 2019 wave of repressions against demonstrators in Moscow, place her in a long tradition of lyric poets who shifted away from purely personal themes in reaction to current events.
“Letter to Ukraine,” the title of Arkadii-Dragomoshchenko-Prize laureate Danyil Zadorozhnyi’s poem, could be just another text about the same war. As a bilingual Ukrainian who has spent time in Moscow, Zadorozhnyi illustrates the tragedy of the continuing hostilities between Russia and Ukraine with their tightly enmeshed history and peoples. But the poem is more than that. Zadorozhnyi has created a tapestry of different planes that flow from each other, driven by chains of linguistic associations that work effectively in translation and are prone to sudden changes of direction. In this context, the war is inextricably entwined with everything else, part of everything else––childhood memories, trauma, history, and politics. The subject of this poem is language itself as much as any of the topics it narrates––and this feature highlights its relation to the work of Dragomoshchenko, one of the most significant Russian poets of the late twentieth century, who is known to American readers through his long collaboration with Lyn Hejinian.
Moscow-based Xenia Emelyanova’s poetry is run through with the theme of motherhood. Her experience as a mother grants the lyric persona insight into the sanctity of every moment in life, including seemingly insignificant ones. And “sanctity” is the correct term here, as Emelyanova’s world includes the spiritual dimension as a matter of fact. The lyric heroine’s wisdom, born out of this first-hand knowledge of life’s fragility and the inalienable value of every human being, lends her voice a quiet authority in “Destined from Birth.” Visceral and rap-like in English as well as in the original, the crescendo that leads to the final “stop the war” is underscored in Russian by a play on the shared etymology between the words for “birth,” “humankind,” “kin,” and “nation.”
Alla Gorbunova’s Stories from Ings and Oughts are ultra-short works of flash fiction. The author, who is rooted in a long tradition of St. Petersburg tales, seems to describe a recognizable stereotype of twenty-first century Russia: befuddled cops and pedantic functionaries, the selfish rich and idle poor, everybody spouting off or creeping on the internet. Yet part of the joy of these stories is how in the space of a sentence “Russia” becomes a stranger, almost plausible yet ingeniously invented place. Each piece hinges on one idea, often linguistic in nature, and develops it like a story line: we find a logical puzzle, an absurd tale in the manner of fantastic realism, and a sublime prose poem about the sky on fire. Some stories appear to build up to a surprising final resolution, but their endings reliably refer us back to the precise words of the text itself as the thing that deserves our attention. This is a feature more common to poetry than prose, and indeed Gorbunova is mostly a poet. The pieces translated here, ranging in style from dry mock-journalism to lyric poetry-in-prose, are testimony to this training.
On multiple fronts, Olga Breininger’s There Was No Adderall in the Soviet Union is a middle finger to the conventions of literary genre. The novella itself is semi-autobiographical but borders on science fiction, a chimera of past and future. The excerpt translated here is part of that narrative, but it has no narration: it’s a fictional manifesto spoken aloud in the first and second person. The speaker––like Breininger, an Oxford-educated Harvard Ph.D. student from Kazakhstan with Volga German roots—has broken into a G20 summit to tell world leaders not why they are destroying the world but why she is doing so (though this speech does read like a distant relative of one written by Greta Thunberg five years later). Her words stagger dangerously from hyper-academic declarations of asymmetric warfare to notes of personal pain, demanding with tongue in cheek that readers reexamine what globalization really means.
When the Berlin-based Russian TV channel OstWest filmed Dinara Rasuleva performing “About Time to Smile at Homeless People,” they ran the subtitles along the bottom in one continuous line, forcing viewers to catch their breath alongside the leading slam poet of today’s Russophone emigration. This translation attempts to refashion the rapid beat of Rasuleva’s ode to national non-identity (she herself is from Kazan, a city that plays a potentially unmatched symbolic role in the Russian colonization of predominantly Muslim areas). As she tries on various stereotypes from Russia to the US, her tone is casual, even flippant, as though she’s just a bitterly apt observer of her generation’s everyday condition. Before long, though, Rasuleva’s words crack to reveal chronic pain of all kinds. She reaches for the masks of nationality like she’s reaching for a home or a cure with the knowledge that the very idea is a farce.
While these translations convey the thematic range of Russophone literature today as well as some of its multimedia forms, it is much harder to translate the enormous network of granular connections and conversations by which all of these texts have come to be. The interview between writer-editors Galina Rymbu and Ilya Danishevsky offers a glimpse into those aesthetic, political, and logistical nuts and bolts. Their discussion manages to describe at least six of Danishevsky’s high-profile literary projects. It also asks what independent presses mean to a culture built on samizdat, what the aestheticization of violence really accomplishes, and what happens when poetry, journalism, and social interactions all take the form of a “feed.”
This is an editorially curated selection, and yet it reflects a breadth of individual decisions: each translator proposed an author they were already working with. The result is a vibrant cross-section of texts that represents the way contemporary Russophone writing bridges numerous kinds of borders. However, this issue also reflects the constraints of translating a scene that is rapidly growing. It takes longer for Anglophone journals to reach publication than for new writers to become widely established in Russian, and so this issue does not include the very youngest cohort of Russophone writers (for example, a prominent group of decolonial feminist poets in their teens and early twenties). We hope the dynamic selection presented here will inspire you to keep an eye out for new writing in translation from Russian during the years to come.
We express our deepest thanks to Fiona Bell and Marian Schwartz for their assistance in preparing this issue.
© 2021 by Hilah Kohen and Josephine von Zitzewitz. All rights reserved.
Driving to a prayer reading to commemorate the death of a relative, a man’s path takes an unexpected turn in this gripping short story by Alisa Ganieva.
The road climbed gradually up the mountain. After the excruciating evening traffic around Levashinsky, driving was fast and easy. The sorrel-scented night air rushed through the cracked window. Kebedov had already turned off the highway onto a crunching gravel road and kept glancing at the glowing face of his watch. About forty minutes up the hill, beyond the spur, the lights of the village would come into view.
Should have left earlier, he thought.
But there’d been no getting away earlier. The entire day had been eaten up by a confrontation with the thugs from the mosque. These thugs ganged up on the local people, demanding they hand over their houses and land to the insatiable mufti. The mufti’s excavator rumbled through town destroying fences and verdant front yards, and these meatheads acted as his henchmen. They descended on peoples’ homes roaring “Allahu akbar” and tearing down the walls around them with their bare hands. For months, Kebedov had been making complaints but could get no justice against the mosque gang. Then, that morning, two of the mufti’s guys had burst onto his porch, knocking over a plant stand, breaking his wife’s potted ficus tree, and threatening over and over to “pound his ass.” His agitated wife, on a heavy dose of Propranolol, had emerged from their bedroom, yelling and cursing at them.
Kebedov frowned at the memory as, wheels skidding slightly, he turned onto a windy mountain pass that swam in his headlights. He couldn’t forget the scowling faces of his uninvited guests. He sensed that he wouldn’t be able to endure any more such attacks. That, in the end, he’d surrender both his land and the shop he was building to the implacable mufti. The mufti himself hid from the people in the depths of a brick mansion and in specially dug underground passageways, leaving his zealous young army to tame the remaining intractable few. These pious brutes smashed the limbs and ribs of anyone who stood up to them, as well as any cell phones or security cameras that captured their raids.
Kebedov suddenly felt guilty about his wife and her ficus. That tree was meant for their daughter. Ficus trees were supposed to help with conception, and his wife had been hoping for a grandson. They and their daughter had tried everything: leaving the area under the bed unswept, drinking rose quartz-infused water, observing the cycles of the moon, running to a faith healer for bear’s placenta. She’d been married four years and still no child. Though they’d gotten lucky with their son-in-law. He had a steady job, ran a workshop—a mechanic and clocksmith. The other day, Kebedov had asked him, “How come the hands of a clock always move one way, to the right, and not to the left?”
“I could make you one that goes in reverse,” his son-in-law had suggested, full of enthusiasm.
“No, just tell me: Why do they always go to the right?”
“It’s because of sundials. Because the sun casts a shadow that moves like this, and like this—clockwise.” He demonstrated the shadow’s movement with his fingers. And there you had it.
Kebedov had heard that, once upon a time, if a slave stepped on his master’s shadow he’d be executed on the spot. And also that if you wanted to beat someone in an argument, you should step on the neck of his shadow. Kebedov had thought of this with the mosque thugs and had even looked around for their shadows—but to no avail. They’d had none, like they’d withered up and died.
The car shook as it went around the bend. The switchbacks should be ending soon. Another half hour and the village would come into view. Kebedov was on his way to a prayer reading for the death of an elderly aunt, the sister of his deceased father. This aunt was born feeble-minded and lived her whole life a virgin, laying away knick-knacks for her dowry. Relatives had given the cheerful, naive old woman colorful plastic watches for children, which she’d worn all at once on both wrists, expecting suitors to arrive at any minute. Before her death, she’d suddenly become manic and unsettled. She’d run out into the courtyard saying that matchmakers were coming for her; a few days later, she’d gone out early in her best headscarf, sat down to wait on a wooden bench by the gate, and quietly died. Now her relatives insisted that, had she not worn all those watches, she would have lived longer. Clocks, it’s said, reduce one’s lifespan. Kebedov had meant to take part in the ceremony yesterday, the day of his aunt’s death, but hadn’t made it—things had gotten too hectic.
The switchbacks ended. A stone cliff hulked to the right of the road. As a precaution after recent landslides, it had been secured with steel cable so that loose rocks wouldn’t fall into the road. Kebedov stepped on the brake and advanced at a crawling pace. He should call the village to tell them he’d be there soon.
“Hello? Hello?” he shouted into the phone. His voice sounded strange, like somebody else’s, in the nocturnal wilderness.
“Hello!” came his sister’s familiar voice, then immediately broke off. He tried to call back but couldn’t get through—no signal.
“Oh well, I’ll get to an open area soon,” Kebedov thought, and pressed on the gas. Some indistinguishable nighttime creatures darted across the road ahead of him, then vanished in the darkness. A fox? Kebedov was startled and managed to brake in time. He had a random thought: Islam doesn’t prohibit eating fox meat. But, why was that? he wondered. Maybe because foxes don’t hunt with their fangs. With that type of animal—
But the thought was interrupted by a deafening boom, like thunder rolling in from afar. In a single deadly second, a portion of the cliff, which had slowly been loosening itself from the steel cables, fell and crushed the hood of Kebedov’s ill-fated car. A piece of metal rebar pierced his stomach. He cried out, and a little blood bubbled from his lips. Then he descended into yawning darkness.
It was noisy. A terrible noise that seemed to shred his eardrums. The rock had flown at Kebedov for an absurdly long time—what seemed like forever. Then, he had dropped down somewhere but resurfaced immediately into this unbearable scraping. One of his eyes was stuck shut by dust and dried blood, and he couldn’t unstick it. With the other, he just barely made out the sheen of his still-burning headlights on the pile of rocks that had fallen from above. A savage pain awoke stealthily deep inside him and began to toss about. He squinted at his wrist, which was jammed against the steering wheel. The glowing face of his watch, which appeared to have swollen to three times its normal size and drunkenly changed shape, said three in the morning. It hadn’t yet been midnight when he’d called his sister.
A scorching heat burned in Kebedov’s stomach and the drilling in his ears persisted. He tried to look down, but the soiled airbag was wedged against his chin. He moved his hands. The left one didn’t respond at all and the right one crawled jerkily, stiffly along the passenger seat, across the rocks that covered it. His half-numb fingers groped for his phone. A hospital? The closest one was an hour away. Maybe they could send a helicopter. Straining terribly, he unlocked his phone and, though at first his bloody fingers couldn’t find it, pressed the speed dial button for his sister.
There was no signal. Emergency calling should work, he thought, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to move his fingers. It was as though an enormous hammer had hit the crown of his head. The headlights grew stronger, swelling outward, and his stomach burned more than ever. Kebedov saw a glowing orb swimming in the darkness and flashes of light in the wobbly space around him. Images crowded his head. His deceased aunt, shining a mirror, sending splinters of sunlight darting about. His wife with a candle in her hands, young again, in a chintz robe, long-since discarded. Childhood and the country vegetable garden at night, dotted with huge fireflies. He’d heard on TV that the females flash their lights, imitating the pattern of another type of firefly, in order to attract unsuspecting males and then gobble them up—fluorescence. Humans had it, too. But a thousand times weaker than the eye could see.
The glowing spot drew closer, blinding Kebedov’s one good eye. “Who’s there?” he tried to ask, but only managed a squawk.
“Some mess you’re in, brother,” the spot of light said, clucking its tongue.
“He-elp,” Kebedov wheezed, summoning all his strength.
The spot shapeshifted and became a stranger. This man looked on in disbelief at the car’s shredded interior, casting a flashlight around and whispering an unintelligible prayer.
“My pho-one!” Kebedov wheezed, a little louder, fortified by hope. “Call! Over there! Reception! On the mountain—”
“It’s here, your ahir zaman—judgement day—yes. Va nauzubilliah . . .” the stranger continued his lamentation. Kebedov didn’t recognize him. Green skull-cap. Boyish face, stubble. A glass bottle in his left hand, water splashing in it. Water. He was thirsty. But just then the stranger drained the bottle, looked behind him, and, with a swing of his arm, threw it onto the road. The bottle shattered loudly against some unseen rock.
“For God’s sake,” Kebedov exhaled, the pain erupting slowly within him, “call someone. The hospital.”
The stranger seemed finally to understand. He got his phone out and began poking around on it.
“Up there! Recep-tion,” Kebedov said, staring dumbly into the darkness with his one watery eye. He remembered that if you went up past the fallen rocks—five or ten minutes on foot, tops—you’d reach an open field. There’d be a signal. Ten minutes, plus an hour for the ambulance to arrive. And there should be a paramedic in the village who’d help get him through. Just go up the hill and call. It was so close.
“I see, brother. You wanna be saved, right?” he heard the stranger say, through the noise gripping his head. “Want me to call the doctors?”
Whoever this stranger was, he was in no hurry and seemed to want to torment him. I think he actually took a picture of me, Kebedov thought, angrily.
“I feel sorry for you, brother, I do. You’re twisted up here, like a worm, and you think someone’s gonna save you,” the stranger said, smirking. “In the words of the prophet, sallalahu vallahi assalam, ‘The death which you flee will surely meet you. And afterward you will be returned to Allah Almighty, the knower of the Invisible and the Visible.’ It’s like they say: 'Think often of Death, who devours all pleasures—’”
“Ca-all,” Kebedov said, nearly choking on his own bitter-tasting blood and beginning to despair.
“Driving here, did you know you’d die today? That a rock would fall on you? A rock! Can’t you see it’s a sign? The prophet’s Ansaris—”
“I’m a-live,” Kebedov wheezed. “Call! Please, ca-all!”
He thought that he’d wake up at that point. That his arms and legs had fallen asleep. Maybe he had the flu. And now he was trapped in this nightmare. But he needed to do his best to wake up. His struggles with the mufti—no, if he could just wake up. But how? He’d cover his nose and mouth and try not to breathe. If he didn’t suffocate, then it must be a dream. Or he could look in the mirror. See how his reflection behaved. If it changed shape from second to second, then he was definitely asleep.
His watch! It should look peculiar. Show one hundred and two o’clock and eighty-two minutes. A star shape instead of a circle. People dancing. But, alas. His watch read three o’clock on the dot and looked the same as ever. Except that its outline quivered, as though it were lying at the bottom of a well and Kebedov was looking at it from above.
“You’re gonna see two angels now, all right? Munkar and Nakir. And they’ll ask you: ‘What do you know about the Prophet, salallahu vallahi assalam.’ And you say, ‘I know nothing.’”
“I’ll say, ‘bismil-lahirahma-nirahim…laila-ha-illa…lah Muhammad…rasulullah.’ Ca-all, for God’s sake! You’re Dage-stani, aren’t you?”
“You believe this guy?” the stranger said, flashing his teeth. “Says anything—just so I’ll return him to his sinful life. Thinks only of doctors. Not the Prophet, salallahu vallahi assalam—only himself.”
“The pro-ph . . .” Kebedov began, holding out his cellphone to the stranger imploringly. The stranger accepted it primly with two fingers, got a handkerchief from his pocket and began to meticulously wipe it clean of blood and dirt.
“My sis-ter . . .” Kebedov wheezed. “Ca-all! Are you . . . from here?”
“No, I’m no local,” the stranger said, shaking his head. “Well fine, fine. You’re a wacko, you know. I’ll call. But don’t think the angels won’t see through all this. They’re watching right now. You’re a faker, that’s what. Reciting the Shahada and thinking about the hospital. About carnal pleasures. Your wife and possessions, right? You think the angels don’t know? Think they’ll keep widening your grave until judgment day? That it’ll be nice and bright there? No! They’ll know you’re a rat. And they’ll command the earth: ‘Come together!’ and it’ll draw up, crushing your ribs. And you’ll writhe there until Allah, creator of all things, resurrects you.”
“Yes—” Kebedov began submissively, hoping the stranger would finally go call, but was too weak to finish. Through his clouded eye, he watched as the stranger dissolved into the darkness, and the wandering beam of his flashlight carried on, past the landslide, where reception and salvation lay. This man was clearly out of his mind. He wasn’t right. Perhaps a shepherd from a neighboring area. I am the gate for the sheep. And now, to wait.
Kebedov’s mouth was burning from dryness and thirst. His right arm was no longer responsive and he was overcome by weakness. He became agitated and his hopes were stifled by black, asphyxiating panic. Would the stranger return? Would he call? Would they arrive in time? And what lay within Kebedov, in that frightful mess of flesh? His land: His wife would never be able to hold the mufti off on her own. They’d take the shop. Would she ever have any grandchildren? At home, hidden in his nightstand, were photos from a co-worker’s birthday party. Bad photos—with some women they’d met at the seaside. His wife would find the photos and get the wrong idea. And just yesterday he’d paid a bribe at the office so that his nephew could get a job there. They might back-pedal now, deny it, claim they’d never received it to exact more.
The beaming flashlight danced back along the side of the road. Was time so condensed? Had the stranger already called and come back? He wished he’d kept track. Kebedov should have been delighted, but just then he became acutely aware of his shoulder blades. They cramped sharply and the pain, which until now had wavered timidly deep within him, grew and thrust itself violently and unceremoniously into his body, drilling him to bits. Kebedov gasped inaudibly, moaned, and, for a second, felt an almost joyful buoyancy before falling back into darkness. This time, forever.
The stranger approached and shined his flashlight into the car. Seeing that Kebedov’s soul had left his body, he shuddered, spat on the ground, and began to recite the Yasin. When he’d finished, he stood for a moment, then walked away. He’d already gotten rid of the dead man’s SIM card. The smartphone was nice—expensive. He planned to keep it as a talisman. To remember the night when Allah had shown him divine retribution. A sign. A true, irredeemable sinner. For who else would God crush with a fallen rock?
The stranger disappeared, and the beam of his flashlight drifted off with him. On the road in his car, beneath a pile of fallen rocks, Kebedov rested. Alarmed when he didn’t show up, a party of his relatives had already left the village in search of him. His wristwatch kept ticking. And in the bushes, a little fox rustled playfully.
© Alisa Ganieva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Sabrina Jaszi. All rights reserved.
Questions of national and cultural belonging are at the heart of this poem by Danyil Zadorozhnyi.
Video: Danyil Zadorozhnyi reads "Letter to Ukraine" in the original Russian.
well, what are you anyway—waves?
or maybe particles—
this ain’t atoms, baby, piercing the air like pins,
freeing space from former
it’s poplar fuzz somewhere near granny’s place outside
of moscow, mosquito-bitten legs, genderless constellations like distant relations
who live past the city limits, skin ripped off an unpracticed hand
by the handle of a rusted ax, like the border between the word leave
and the concept of returning, like gps coordinates as far from home
as a cough is deep in the chest [where’s it from? where’s it going? what for?] and
runs, swings, stashes, orthodox singing by the cemetery
with the headstone shaped like a rocket, a stray dog sticking by your side and
beautiful black jeeps are parked in front of the church, bumper stickers proclaiming for rus!
on their rear windows; children
playing on the outskirts, children pitting life against death
like different kinds of insects, hiding in the bushes, made dangerous
by their desires
or their innocence, the eye of a kitten filling with pus,
the eye of the runt of the litter, the surface
of a crystalline lake
ripples like some special kind of matter, shifting into energy
in the milk-drenched pupils of the old man holding a fishing pole on the bank
—there’s no fish, but you’re allowed to drown
anything in there except yourself;
honey, chicory, a little wholesome food in the fresh air, solitude—gin, cognac—with granny,
family stories told again and again
to one another with other tears; may nights—
still cold—spent with fragmented news about the malaysian
boeing shot down four years ago in the sky above ukraine
[thoughtful people that we are, we’ll give due consideration
to the bellingcat reports, but won’t change our minds]—day
of sentsov’s hunger strike, news stories
about the brotherland; the informational field
is burnt, lifeless: the novoe velichie affair, tortured prisoners, journalists
killed in the central african republic and the world cup
as an illusion of world community—international domestic violence
and there’s nowhere to run to
if you’re the weaker state: what am i doing here is a question not of place
but form of existence
the same old pain
the process of alienation in this country
unfurls just the same, you’re just on the other side
of what alienates you back home. that’s just because you’re an emigrant
the people who live here reply, but what does migration have to do with it
if i’m telling them about something i’ve felt all my life
not just since i got here? the feelings of immigrant workers
from the nearby republics
can be encountered
pretty much anywhere
especially at home but
at times even inside yourself
from my other grandmother—the post-gender society
inside me—[whose death that winter
that almost never was was what was called a revolution, but the more i learn
and talk to people about what we mean by nation, patriotism, revolution,
the more i can understand them but the less i understand
what they’re talking about, the same word from another person’s lips is another word entirely,
to be understood and studied
again from the start; all this before or after, removing her body from the crimean peninsula
to bury it in ukraine’s tenth-largest cemetery, carrying her away from annexation—if she saw
all of this, she couldn’t have endured it, and inheriting her cat,
losing her apartment], and washing away the difference between her deceased and living
girlfriends, meeting for the nth time with those
who cannot remember me; the shirt i wear
of granny, and they call me by her name
[like her mother—in the last few months before she died, she talked
to all her former husbands, girlfriends, relatives,
children and grandchildren without getting out of bed and i answered her while i did my
homework beside her hoarsely breathing body, yes, good, sure, dear, trying to guess
who to answer her
who she’s thinking about
who she sees
so long as so many dead people and strangers
that i almost forget who i should remain
after the funeral is over; i hope i didn’t mix anything up
and there’s no other me besides me left over inside me]
and one of her girlfriends had a son that works at the fsb right there on petrovka
and his daughter
desperately wants to meet me, promising to visit after finals
who’s been hearing nonsense since she was a teenager about
i’m a journalist
and a poet
and i’ve still never been to the part of europe
the european union—
and that i arrived as suddenly
as birds returning unexpectedly in spring, forgetting
no more, you remember them, you herald
the thaw [ah, what a shame,
not this time] [i can’t wait for her father to finally think it might be time to meet me
and read my work but nothing will come of it, nobody here
in the final analysis
really cares, there’s no ideology here:
you see the antics those young ladies got up to at the final match? he asks, looking at his plate
they were trying to make a point . . . it was rather dull, of course . . . but on the whole i’m for it,
and we don’t see each other again]
about [ahem ahem]
how i’m a grown man now
and smoking is bad for you
and it’s about time i got married
and how’s that tattoo going to look when i’m old
[what if my grandchildren see it?
or my doctor asks about it?]
and [in]dependence is freedom
and that last one makes me shiver,
nothing to say about abstractions: individual rights and public security
and the relationship between those things
and the desire-production of power in russia
leaving one country
crossing the border
going out, going into another
mixing up directions, sides, light and twilight
trans[lat/it]ing from kiev to kyiv
[ i ] remain the same breach in my own understanding
of what i should do as a person who asks questions
and a person who writes, i hope, like a
and despite the fact that you’re my favorite
chordate [though sometimes i want to classify you as
beast independent from me,
an amusing critter in the hands of gods from the primate family hominidae
i tenderly nip the scruff of your neck
but still don’t understand:
well, what are you anyway—waves?
or maybe particles—
it’s not important; all that matters is you’re light.
A version of this poem appeared on the website of the Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Prize, a major award for young poets that Zadorozhnyi won in 2019. © Danyil Zadorozhnyi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and Reilly Costigan-Humes. All rights reserved.
Translator’s note: This is the final chapter of a semi-autobiographical but speculative novella. The protagonist is the only subject of an extremely high-profile research project: a celebrity professor of the “experimental humanities” has apparently attempted to transform her into an Ubermensch by harnessing her traumatic experiences as an immigrant and émigré.
The ninth and final chapter, which seems poised to take place a year later and in which I break into the G20 summit to deliver an untranslatable speech—though it is uncertain whether the individual in question is me or somebody else.
I won’t take up much of your time, I promise; it’s just that in this break between your discussions of the Ukrainian question, the Syrian question, the Caucasian question, and other major global issues, I’d like to command your attention for a moment and explain something—or, if you like, warn you about something. We all know that the era of deadlocked superpowers is over, so as you search for a new collective enemy to center your geopolitics, allow me to explain that your new enemy is me, and your new weapon of mass destruction is also me.
Don’t misunderstand me. When I say “me,” I mean “us”; that is, those whom others dismiss as “fitting raw material for a globalized context,” whose eyes burn with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and for whom Adderall or Ritalin is no object. Those who will speak to you in your language because they know five or seven or maybe even ten. Those who are so accustomed to wandering the globe that they would be perfectly comfortable setting up camp in a nondescript hotel to continue destroying the world you’ve built with your usual enemies—all while you still haven’t figured out how to fight us, and we can fight you by all possible means. Since we’ve been forged in the fire of globalization, we know all means are fair and we’re in this only for ourselves. Most importantly, we do not care. Right wing or left, West or East—all feel equally close and equally alien, and when you call us traitors to the Motherland, it doesn’t upset or offend us in the least. It’s the simple truth: you took what you call your Motherland from us and gave us nothing in return. So while nation-states fight over things of no interest to us, our interest is in empires of another kind, empires where nobody will ever accuse us of being rootless cosmopolitans.
Of course, I’m speaking from my own perspective and in my own language—the language I heard around me as a child. I am an export from my now-nonexistent global superpower—the only thing I feel indebted to, and I vow to repay my debt. I am the same sort of export as a Kalashnikov rifle or our great suicidal writers. Honestly, my product description is basically a combination of the two. However, I present myself on the global market as an intellect and sell myself as a brain, an object of desire on both sides of the Atlantic, and this hides my greatest potential and driving impetus: an insatiable desire for destruction, for myself and people like me to burn down everything not dear to us—that is, everything.
We’ve been prescribed the ecstasy of a brilliant position in life. But in reality, we’re the joker in the world’s deck, the outcasts of the globe. We have sublimated our energy into developing our intellect and willpower, our ability to go without sleep for days as we complete insurmountable tasks, our ability to smile at someone when we really want to punch them in the face, our capacity to keep going no matter what, teeth clenched, because winning is the only outcome that counts. Of course, I could go on and on, but you get the point, don’t you? These are the people who pose a threat to you. We are not like the generations that came before us, who complained about everything and did nothing. We are the sharp-fanged children of globalization. What do you say to that?
Oh no, don’t go thinking we’re planning a great conspiracy or a nuclear war. We don’t need any of that. There won't be a war; you’ll let us in yourselves. Just look at me: I’m smart, I’m wicked, and I’m charming, but in such a strictly controlled way, you could never think I’m not serious enough. And if you can somehow resist all that, then you’ll have no defense against the imprint of orphanhood and neglect on my face (and on my soul, of course, but you won’t see that because you don’t think I have one, or the ability to feel pain, happiness, despair, or love — as if!). That’s because no matter how much you may try to deny it, this imprint causes me infinite, unbearable pain that’s impossible to overcome, that drives me out of my mind and only dissolves when I destroy. And you know it’s your fault. Yours, Mr. President; yours, Madam Chancellor. And yours, my dear Prime Minister. And yours, too, of course, thank you for reminding me. I’m your orphan. We’re your mistake. And if you don’t know how many times a little girl has to cry uncontrollably on an airplane to keep a feeling of loss and separation from fading, to keep it from becoming a normalized, whimpering pain haunting the young woman who’s writing all this now—well, that’s not my problem; that’s your strategic error.
I was born and raised in a country where, once, there was no light and no hot water for two winters in a row, where people set their teapots to boil over bonfires and slept in their winter coats. And once, I watched a fourteen-year-old Russian muzhik (I wanted to say “boy,” but oh, no) beat another half to death with a crowbar over a pack of cigarettes. And then it fell to my lot to emigrate, and on the third day, while examining the ceiling of barrack number six from the top bunk of a steel bed and listening to Dante and Shakespeare decompose beyond the barbed wire of this camp for ethnically German refugees from Kazakhstan and all kinds of other New European rabble, I decided that all of you can go to hell. Because I won’t be a fifth-class citizen in a second-class era just because you said I would, and I’m not about to wait and see how many years it takes you to convince me. I’ll refute each emigration with another, and then another, and then I’ll turn that endless loss into a metaphor because tropes make a deeper impression on the soul than words do, that much I know—words and tropes are my profession. I’ll keep moving forever, never pausing for long in the snobby, cushioned atmosphere of Oxford, or the doll’s house that is Bamberg, or the fresh, cruel air of Grozny because now every parting strengthens my resolve and makes me an even more dangerous soldier for my division. And now I must thank America for the fact that, in this country, nobody sees me as alien because here, native and alien are the same thing. But I must warn you sincerely that even that is temporary, and dangerous, because I won’t be staying here or anywhere else. None of us will.
I apologize for distracting you from your efforts to solve these very important global problems. I just thought it would be worthwhile to point out the one problem you haven’t even thought of yet. Maybe I want you to destroy us before we raise our head; maybe five or ten years from now, it’ll be too late. Maybe I want us to lose because then we’ll all have a home, we’ll all have peace. Maybe I’m tired of accepting that pain is normal, that there is no pain. And yes, of course, I apologize for my tone. In the twentieth century, people had to scream about drugs and sex to be heard. We have our own words and our own threats, but we still have to borrow our intonation from Oxford professors and Bret Easton Ellis and perhaps even Pavlik Morozov (sorry, too soon) to force anyone to tear themselves away from the illusion of democracy, freedom of speech, and all that nonsense.
Do you have anything to say for yourselves?
From В Советском Союзе не было аддерола. Originally published in Druzhba Narodov in 2016. Subsequently published in 2017 by AST, edited by Elena Shubina. © Olga Breininger. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Hilah Kohen. All rights reserved.
Dinara Rasuleva questions received notions of home and national identity in this poem about her relationship to Russia.
Video: This video was created by the Russian-language, Berlin-based TV channel OstWest for a series called "Living Poets Society," which featured contemporary Russophone poets living in Germany. Used with permission from OstWest.
Listen to Dinara Rasuleva read "About Time to Smile at Homeless People" in the original Russian.
bike gears snatching a pant leg into their grip,
i don’t fall because i’m audacious like america,
because i’m as agile as youtube aerobics,
it’s just a shame about the pants, just a shame the pants ripped.
they offered me twice the work with no raise, and i took it
because i’m like russia—despairing, submissive,
because i’m as devil-may-care as great britain
and my tatar veins flow with suffering and pain,
every morning, i leak out and freeze, everything hurts,
even a miserable medieval serf would be shocked,
but i have to wake and walk and live life, ghostly as slovenia,
even food couldn’t ease this anemia.
yesterday, i went out to eat, and the people on the street asked me something inaudible,
i don’t smile at them because i’m rapacious like russia,
and you’d think after so long we’d all understand,
but i know some people who still love the motherland.
and i love her too, i had the volga there,
my cat’s scattered ashes, and they say there’s no better tvorog anywhere.
home is where the tvorog is, they say
but i don’t eat tvorog, so i’m down to stay away.
A Russian pop star’s strange encounter with an airport cleaning lady, cars falling from the sky, and a world-ending fire––three very short stories from Alla Gorbunova find the fantastical in the everyday.
Video: Alla Gorbunova reads "Oy Oy Oy" in the original Russian.
Oy Oy Oy
There’s a man lying down in a grave somewhere
With the same tattoos as me.
In the bathroom of the Krasnoyarsk airport, pop starlet Amanda, passing through on her tour, glanced accidentally at the cleaning schedule and froze: the cleaning woman’s signature corresponded precisely to her own, Amanda’s, signature. Every crook, every curl—it was all identical, as though Amanda herself had signed there. Amanda couldn’t understand how such a thing was possible, and that very same day she hired a private investigator to find out every detail about this cleaning woman. The following morning, the investigator told Amanda that the cleaner’s name was Lyudmila Pashkevich; she was forty-four years old, uneducated, lived in workers’ housing in the Sovetsky neighborhood of Krasnoyarsk, and there was nothing special about her. Plus, on top of all that, she had a harelip. Amanda the starlet just about calmed down, but then the investigator produced copies of all of the cleaning woman’s official documents, including a job application she had written out by hand, and to her horror Amanda saw that Lyudmilla Pashkevich’s handwriting was precisely the same as her own. All of which made Amanda somewhat uneasy. Like a thorn in her heel, this cleaning woman tormented her. After all, she had been doing just fine, recording songs, visiting her cosmetologist and tanning salon, dating her boyfriend, and knowing no woe—and now there was Pashkevich.
Amanda tried to put the woman out of her mind—No, no, I have nothing in common with her, what’s a signature, what’s someone’s handwriting. Just a coincidence. It happens—she told herself. Her concert went well, though she did not perform her newest song. No one in the world had heard it yet; Amanda had written it only recently and intended to return to Moscow and record it in the studio. It went like this: “I love you and you love me / we’re together finally / you’re my joy / oy oy oy.” Amanda was going to dedicate the song to her boyfriend.
Waiting for her return flight after the concert, Amanda decided to go into the airport bathroom. You don’t scare me, Pashkevich, she thought, though at the idea of the bathroom her heart began to beat strangely. I know everything about you, you’re a poor lonely woman with no education and a harelip. The bathroom was sunk into a glimmering twilight, and when Amanda entered, all the noise of the airport faded. In the bathroom, a woman with a harelip was washing the floor, stooped over as she dragged a rag across the tiles, and she was singing “oy oy oy!” to the tune of Amanda’s song. “What’s that you’re singing?” Amanda mumbled. “Oy oy oy!” sang the woman, almost viciously, then looked up at Amanda with cloudy gray eyes: “It’s a song, see” —and went on scrubbing the floor.
Amanda flew to Moscow. Life lost its colors for her: recording, performing, trips, clubs, boyfriend, cosmetologist, tanning salon, shopping, whatever else she had loved—all of it turned out to be a trick, a lie, because somewhere in eastern Siberia there lived a woman with a harelip and Amanda’s handwriting, her signature, her song. Amanda’s entire life was ruined, poisoned, revealed to be a hoax, someone’s cruel joke. One day, Amanda threw herself out of a window, nobody knew why. At her funeral there was a woman with a harelip no one recognized. She stood there for a while, then went away.
* * *
Act of Nature
N was walking down the street one day when, at the intersection of Leninsky Boulevard and Zina Portnova Street, he saw something strange in the sky. At first he thought it was a plane preparing to land; Pulkovo Airport was nearby. But then he looked more carefully, and it wasn’t a plane at all, but a car flying through the sky, pretty high up there, really small, but you could see that it was a car. N spat on the street and decided it was a plane anyway.
Next evening, N was walking down the street again, got to the intersection of Leninsky and Zina Portnova, and again saw something strange in the sky. He saw––you guessed it––a car. As was his custom, N spat and decided it was a plane anyway. He walked a little farther on Leninsky, toward the Semya supermarket. But then he heard a peculiar sound, turned around, and saw a car falling from the sky to the ground. And crashing. All the other cars on the street began honking; the drivers jumped out, pointing up at the sky. Shitshow, thought N, and kept going.
He stopped by the Semya supermarket, came out with a little sack, and slowly headed back. But now the intersection was full of cops, ambulances, rescue vehicles. Traffic had completely stopped, people were running down the sidewalks in a panic, watching the sky. Meanwhile in the sky, cars were appearing one after the other, emerging from the sky’s dark void to the southwest, tracing an arc, and plummeting. Some of them crashed, turning into piles of metal, others for some reason landed very neatly, as though on airbags, and drove off. But they couldn’t drive very far, because the cops and rescue services stopped them.
N went up to a cop on the sidewalk and asked him what was going on. “What we have here,” the cop said, “are cars falling from the sky, creating a public disturbance.” “But why,” said N, “aren’t they all crashing?” “Cause not yet established,” said the cop. Meanwhile, two other cops bring over a young man who had been in a car that just made a smooth landing from sky to pavement. “This,” they report, “is so-and-so, twenty-nine years old, his Volkswagen just landed, this is the license plate.” “What were you doing in the sky, for what purpose did you land here?” asks the senior cop. “I was just coming back from Tallinn,” said the young man, “I spent the weekend there, so I’m driving down the highway, it’s dark all around, then I look and see that all the other cars have disappeared somewhere and I’m driving in the sky, so I drove like that for a little while, and then I started going lower and lower, and then I landed here. And this is a real dumpster fire, and you should let me get home to my mom.” All the other survivors said about the same thing. That evening, more than fifty cars fell out of the sky, and eleven of them made it.
N went home, feeling a little off on account of all this, but that was okay: he boiled up some dumplings, drank a little vodka, 200 grams, calmed down, and went online to see what people were saying about it all. On various internet forums, people were arguing: some were writing things about UFOs, some about devils, others about a special new technology for making flying cars. Other people were saying it was a false flag operation planned by special forces. At which point, N registered for a forum and wrote: it was an act of nature.
* * *
Strings and strands of hair catch fire, eyes and eyelashes catch fire, it happened this morning, this afternoon, tonight. The fabric of the sky has turned from crimson to crocus—not fabric but Flemish lace, linen yarn stitched up into the air by golden-haired Godelieve in the old city of Bruges. There’s a movie about two killers in that town, eternally medieval, with its stone towers and spires, wooden bridges, chiming clock, town hall, museums, and breweries. And all of this is burning.
It’s different here. Petersburg autumn, sunset kindled over the Admiralty Shipyard, or the early dawn of two celestial bodies at once—the moon and the sun. They’re both in the sky at this hour: the moon pours out its pale green, pre-dusk. Over the fields around Pulkovo Airport planes descend slowly, blinking their lights, and a young man and woman have driven into those fields, turned off-road, parked, taken a blow-up bed and bottle of wine out of the trunk. Meanwhile the sun is already rising, spilling forth the dawn, and the world stands bemused by these two luminaries, as though they aren’t supposed to be there together, as though they’re a divorced couple.
The dissolving dawn dissolves distance, scatters its rays like a spawning fish, and the world steams in them, weightless. The city in the distance steams, the planes in the sky are steaming, the buildings of the observatory in the tall grass, and maybe some butterflies that haven’t yet frozen. More than anything else, I love that smell—smoke carried on the wind, coal smoke, in which you recognize a mixture of every other smell: the scraped knees of childhood, pain and desire, patchouli and oak moss, wormwood and citrus, sand and asphalt, automobile resin, benzine, cut grass and coffee, wine and vanilla. An aching, unrelenting, irretrievable smell, the smell of everything—the smell of the world ending in the fire.
… As in disaster films, they’ll step out of their cars, they’ll leave them behind in the traffic jams on major and minor avenues; maybe, following film logic, they’ll begin to dance. They’ll dance embraced by tongues of flame, they’ll spin like dervishes and lash the air with whips of fire. I’ve been told about a woman from Kyiv who was never interested in doing anything, not since she was a child—not reading, not playing with toys, not thinking, not speaking, not spending time with other people—only spinning like a top around her own axis, like a Sufi. So she spun and spun, and then she learned to spin with torches, and she left Kyiv and went to Goa and now she spins there. Kyiv burns, and Goa also burns. Millions of fiery dervishes with burning torches spin around their own axes.
Children run out of the schoolhouse onto the terrace, this is cooler than summer vacation, little whirls of electricity dance by their sides. Each gesture leaves a fiery trace in the air. How slow to ignite are time, space, motion, and matter. Teenagers climb up to the roofs to watch the glow of the world. Old man Indyukov, sick with tuberculosis, lisping and mean, goes out on his balcony too, to spit at the world one last time. The gob comes out precise, crimson with a black center-wormhole––tobacco and blood––like a poppy flower.
The planes above Pulkovo are on fire, the moon burns, and so does the nearby Gulf of Finland, as though oil had been spilled into it, virgin soil burns, the president burns in the Kremlin. Food—that’s fire, baby, water—that’s fire, baby—a Black man with dreads on the Nevsky Prospect sings and drums. Earth is fire. Air is fire. On Liteyny Prospect costumed Indian princesses with bare bellies sing and dance, and Sufis in the desert of Palace Square recite poems about the exultation of the atoms. Cell membranes turn to blistering plasma, cytoplasm turns to flame. LCD displays melt in the running heat.
On fire are conjunction, disjunction, implication, the sacrifice of meaning in poetry, the incitements of language, the body, and music. All mirrors break, all images are holy. The waterfalls of worlds are born and burn in the chaotic fluctuations of the foam of the universe. From now on there will be no more strong and weak, master and slave, beauty and beast, division of being in reason, word and thing, form and content, thought and sign, holy hierarchy, enlightened monarchy, liberal democracy, or whatever else. Only the waterfalls of the burning worlds, the cleansing flame, ekpyrosis.
From Ings & Oughts. © Alla Gorbunova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Elina Alter. All rights reserved.
Personal and interior worlds bleed into everyday experiences in these three short poems by Ksenia Zheludova.
Listen to Ksenia Zheludova read "an age-old female pastime" in the original Russian.
an age-old female pastime: bringing home in one’s hem
gossip, scents, fiction, tenderness, children.
walk in a long skirt in the darkness and the void
and you’ll begin to recount the hard lot of women:
nothing to bring except the shadow, scorched into the wall,
except the letter curled to ash in its cover.
and so you walk in the dark up to your knees in death,
up to your ankles in war.
Listen to Ksenia Zheludova read "you bring him some tenderness" in the original Russian.
you bring him some tenderness in your narrow palms,
cupped to form a fragile, trusting hollow;
he lightly slaps your proffered hands away and snickers;
no, of course it doesn’t hurt, oh please, this couldn’t possibly hurt;
tenderness shatters to smithereens.
one single habit, just one, you need more than air:
learn to stand, or walk slowly, do not run headlong,
so that later nothing stings in the way scraped knees or elbows sting,
so that later you don’t suffer from a sticky, loose-lipped memory,
or burn with shame, shooting glances as you run.
the most horrible things, remember this, are incremental,
in the everyday, are discussed over a late lunch,
worm their way into the course of events unnoticed;
so—no, you won’t be able to scream or sob
upon seeing that name in a chronicle of our times.
this is how a much-loved book—or a book half-read—
is left behind on a rain-sodden bench in a park;
this is how earrings are lost while you kiss;
this is how a bracelet considered a talisman, a good-luck charm
one day finds another wrist:
ever so slightly big on you, but for that other hand, a perfect fit.
Listen to Ksenia Zheludova read "sometimes I simply know" in the original Russian.
sometimes I simply know:
all of us have a hive inside
full of monotonous, measured humming
and the scent of wildflower honey.
I ended up with a wasp nest,
overgrown with rusty ribs,
all the wasps cold and dead.
the last one fled down my throat
and is still alive only
because there it stayed:
© Ksenia Zheludova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Josephine von Zitzewitz. Photos © Ksenia Zheludova. All rights reserved.
Translator’s note: As the Russian-Ukrainian war was launched in 2014, Xenia Emelyanova posted this recording of herself reciting this poem to the Facebook page of an antiwar activist. It was an act of great personal bravery.
Destined from birth.
What’s destined from birth?
That when they took you from your mother mucus-covered, dove-colored,
somewhere up there, in the heavenly spheres, it’s already known
where you’ll lay your head forever.
And while the blood still pulses in your soft fontanele,
you’ve already become that person
destined from birth.
What the hell’s destined?
What does birth mean?
It’s your ancestors, all their sins, their genes, their souls,
blood and sweat,
it’s your people.
It’s our faces in the church crowd, Lord,
It’s us, Your flesh and blood, from a single root,
in a single language praying to You: woe,
woe so terrible there’s nothing worse,
even we can’t bear it, submissive though we are.
Evil, black-hearted, blind,
death’s begun to whistle again.
Our own “Hailstorms” and “Hurricanes” fired on our people,
hair standing on end from the news.
How many children, Lord, have we buried this winter,
how many will we bury still?
Help us find our strength, lift up our heads,
throw off the devil’s yoke.
Enough of their butchery, enough baring our backs for their brand!
Give us the will to act, we’re up to our knees,
up to the seventh generation in blood—we’ve already redeemed our guilt.
It’s time to shake off death and impotence,
stop the slaughter, stop the war.
© Xenia Emelyanova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Katherine E. Young. All rights reserved.
Poet and translator Galina Rymbu speaks with the editor Ilya Danishevsky about the place of poetry, mass media, and literary texts in today’s Russia.
Ilya Danishevsky, a writer whose work blurs the boundary between poetry and prose, is also one of the best-known (and youngest) literary editors in Russia. He had his own alternative publishing project, Anhedonia, at the leading publishing house AST from 2015 to 2019. In addition, he is the literary editor of the general-interest magazine Snob and curates the literary program at Moscow’s Voznesensky Center.
Danishevsky’s first novel, Nezhnost’ k mertvym (Tenderness for the Dead), was published in 2014 by the radical publishing house Opustoshitel (The Ravager). The book is a fable about how violent life would be if it were a video game, exploring how the violence and the endless, pointless restarts would affect our humanity; the implication being, of course, that our actual lives are indeed affected by violence and endless, pointless returns-to-zero.
His second book, Mannelig v tsepyakh (Mannelig in Chains), was published by Poryadok slov (Word Order) in 2018. A hybrid of prose and free verse, it is part memoir, part psychoanalysis session, part confession, and part journey narrative (the poetic chapters call back to the Odyssey: “The Lotus-Eaters,” “The Laestrygonians,” “Circe,” etc.). A recurring question in the book is how we live with violence, both that which we commit and that which we suffer. Ukrainian and German translations are forthcoming in 2021.
In a 2019 interview for Russia’s Year of Literature program, Galina Rymbu spoke with Danishevsky about the place of mass media and literary texts today, the “impromptu reader,” poetic modes of diagnosing reality, and poetic languages that create a “parallel social media feed.”
Rymbu’s questions were translated by Helena Kernan, who has translated Rymbu’s poetry for Ugly Duckling Presse, Modern Poetry in Translation, and the F-Letter anthology of contemporary Russian feminist verse; Danishevsky’s responses were translated by Anne O. Fisher. Fisher and co-translator Alex Karsavin are bringing Danishevsky’s book Mannelig in Chains into English with support from the University of Exeter’s RusTrans project (read more here).
* * *
Rymbu: In one of your previous interviews, you said that “in Russia, two different cultures continue to co-exist: the official and the unofficial. The former hides the latter from the reader, which means that the majority of the most interesting work out there is not widely read. (This is also because it doesn’t fit easily into publishing formats.)” Does this mean that you are trying to reinvent those formats specifically for unofficial culture?
Danishevsky: Is this a question about popularizing unofficial culture? If it is, then I don’t want to do exactly that, or rather I don’t see that as my mission. At some point, unofficial culture is bound to become our only culture (although it already is, essentially), but at the same time, there’s a certain charm in being constantly reminded of unofficial culture, isn’t there? A certain charm in the way that, every time, you can rehearse that same problem of whether I—or you, or the next person—want to restore that culture’s prescribed status; and I’m not convinced it’s a good idea to solve this problem so definitively, to zero out that charm.
Rymbu: Anhedonia [saw] itself as a project dedicated to researching institutions of violence and oppression in contemporary Russia. How do you personally carry out research on violence without aestheticizing it?
Danishevsky: The boundaries are porous, probably. To be honest, I like the nightmares and painful memories of psychotherapy: retelling something, communicating it to the world, is always partially aestheticizing it, as you choose your metaphors or describe the colors and stage set of your painful experience. But at some point, the process of elaborating the details also destroys fear. Yes, I like scary stories for their capacity to develop your resistance. There’s hardly a text out there that’s (subjectively) scarier than anything in our past, anything we can see out on the street.
Rymbu: Part of your publishing work [in Anhedonia revolved] around contemporary Russian political journalism. Why is it important to collect this journalism in book-length format and tell stories about the work of different media sources? After all, we see these texts every day . . .
Danishevsky: We don’t see them, we see the way they replace each other, the way they dissolve into the depths of our social media feed. Many media outlets repost their important stories again after a certain amount of time has passed. Publishing journalism collections is a way of prolonging the resonance of certain words. Publishing books of poetry is similar: I see poems every day in my feed, but the only way to read them properly is in a slowed-down state.
Rymbu: You coordinate the literary section of Snob. What goals are you pursuing there? How effective can a literary text be when it is embedded in online media?
Danishevsky: The same ones I am pursuing when I work with books. We don’t know how the literature of the past will be read in the future, whether we’ll be studying physical books or traces in the internet; by then, possibly (probably), there won’t be any difference.
Snob provides an impromptu reader for texts like these. I don’t think anything’s going to happen to the actual text itself, it’s just that when you publish something in, let’s say, [the online poetry journal] Polutona, you pretty much don’t think you might encounter the kind of reader who is repulsed by the basic foundations of your poetics, although surely Polutona does have this kind of reader.
Rymbu: Which projects and authors are important to you as a writer in terms of your own literary dialogue?
Danishevsky: It’s obvious that what Dmitry Volchek––[the creator of Mitin zhurnal (Mitin’s Magazine), which started as a samizdat magazine in 1985 and has continued to publish new, alternative voices to this day, and the Kolonna (Column) publishing house, which merged with Mitin zhurnal in 2002 to publish books of cultural critique from all over the world)]––is doing is important to me. At some point, it was a very long time ago now, I read Gabrielle Wittkop’s Chaque jour est un arbe qui tombe, and then I reread Chaque jour est un arbe qui tombe, and although that text was hardly intended to be a diagnostic tool, it answered a couple of very big questions I’d had since I was little: there is only fucking and god, the rest is redundant.
Vozdukh [Air, an alternative poetry journal founded by Dmitry Kuzmin in 2006 that was one of the first venues for LGBTQ poets] is important to me, but in a strange way: I don’t think I’ve ever actually read it cover to cover, and I’m more interested in reading the reviews than the poems. But one time, when I did go ahead and try to read it straight through, beginning to end, I kept finding myself coming up against either boredom or a failure to understand. And that barrier, between boredom and a failure to understand, is one I always felt to be a dialogue. We are usually closed off in our own tight little clusters where we read things and argue about the most trivial differences of opinion; I don’t know any other journal that so manifestly confronts the reader’s little world with reality. Reality (unfortunately?) is varied.
Rymbu: Anhedonia has published poetry collections by Maria Stepanova and Oksana Vasyakina. Collections by Konstantin Bogomolov and Lev Oborin are being prepared for publication. Elena Fanailova is also gathering material for her book. Why did you decide to publish poetry?*
Danishevsky: It seems to me—perhaps naively—that poetry has the ability to examine things in a maximally authentic way. This could be because it must continually reinvent itself and its language. Also because it seeks less to operate than to diagnose. These texts do not set themselves the task of immediately transforming reality; even the most politicized speech simply observes and discusses what it saw. What’s very important to me, in addition to the spiritual projects of poetry (which include resisting the world at every turn), is that its testimony be nonviolent.
And take, for instance, a discussion of love, a discussion in which it’s impossible to use dishonest words. After all, in nonfiction, we definitely don’t talk about love as living matter, or if we do, then we do it the way we do in prose: we talk about the external barriers that either serve as antimatter or simply intrude into it. In poetry, language about love is capable of expressing the very matter it describes.
Rymbu: In general, what makes a poetry collection viable for publication with a big commercial publishing house?
Danishevsky: And what makes a poetry collection viable for publication at a little niche publishing house?
Rymbu: How do you see the institution of contemporary literature? It’s clear that over the past few years, everything has changed. And you are involved in curatorial projects as well as publishing; you run the literary program at the Voznesensky Center and recently helped organize a reading in support of the Khachaturyan sisters [three young women charged with murder for killing their serially abusive father]. What do you identify as the aims of contemporary literature when it comes to a nonliterary audience? Is your project about popularizing contemporary literature?
Danishevsky: The reading in support of the Khachaturyan sisters was not held to promote the poetry that was read there. It was an attempt to give words materiality and weight. It was about being responsible for your words, it wasn’t about constructing poetic hierarchies; anyone who wanted to could perform. There was no literary curation there; there couldn’t have been any literary curation there.
The purpose of the Voznesensky Center is to tell a (hi)story in the language of multiple media, and when we’re talking about literature, it’s more likely to be the (hi)stories of authors than the (hi)stories of texts. We talk frequently about how authors are inseparable from their texts. And although I as a reader am capable of keeping them separate, I as a curator see the authors’ responsibility to their texts. To a large extent, this isn’t the story of good and bad texts, it’s the story of what conditions texts might be created under today; with what urgency, in reaction to what; and how texts differ from other everyday practices.
For me, whether a poetic discourse is contemporary is determined not only by the conversation going on inside that discourse about current political and social problems, but also by the extent to which it overcomes linguistic and formal inertia.
Rymbu: To what extent do you think contemporary Russian poetry has been successful in overcoming this inertia? And can you name some poetic practices that are important for you in this sense?
Danishevsky: They’re poetic practices that, despite the ambient informational and political noise, have found a language that is able to interrupt the notifications, able to break up the homogeneity of your newsfeed-as-worldview and create a parallel, alternative one. Anna Glazova, Lida Yusupova, and Lolita Agamalova are all doing this in completely different, individual ways.
Rymbu: This year, you were tasked with nominating poets for the Arkady Dragomoshchenko Prize [an annual award organized by the publishing house and cultural platform Poryadok slov]. Last season, you were shortlisted for the same prize. How do you feel about literary prizes in general? Are they necessary today?
Danishevsky: In many ways, I feel they’re a compulsory part of the profession. Refusing to participate, however, also comes across as an excessively radical gesture, one that doesn’t reflect my actual attitude. I understand what it means to be in the position of a nominator, but at the same time, I don’t really understand what it means to be in the position of a finalist. It doesn’t add anything to my words. But this is most likely my own failure to understand the significance of the distribution of power in the literary field (also, there’s never been a time when an award decision changed my mind about other people’s texts). Apparently, the open call that was introduced by the award management this year is solving this problem and transforming the award into a way of finding something new, not a way of reinforcing verticalization (I say this because I want to believe it, but I don’t believe it’s quite there yet).
Rymbu: You have written volumes of both poetry (Mannelig in Chains) and prose (the novel Fondness for the Dead) that have earned you a place on the shortlist of several literary prizes. To what extent do you personally feel integrated into the contemporary literary community?
Danishevsky: I don’t know whether that context actually exists. We probably exist in the same Facebook cluster where we like identical kittens and dogs, sign identical petitions, and, on the whole, experience the same strong emotions. I never felt that this was a community, or that I was part of this community, but at the same time, nobody else I spoke with about this ever felt that they were part of this community either. It seems that today this sense of “community” is to some degree an optical bug created by social media feeds.
It’s the same as how you called Mannelig a poetic work. For me, it’s not.
*The implication of Rymbu’s question is why did Danishevsky decide to include poetry among the works of journalism and cultural criticism he selected for Anhedonia? In what way was poetry able to contribute to Anhedonia’s project? Since, after all, this is an unusual combination for a single small imprint, to publish Zizek along with prominent Russian journalists along with poetry. But the uniting factor is the examination of institutions that promote or allow violence and oppression.
In mentioning the names, Rymbu is highlighting the contrast between the schools of poetry Danishevsky chose for Anhedonia. Award-winning poet and fiction writer Maria Stepanova (b. 1973) is an established literary voice, while Oksana Vasyakina (b. 1989) is a new feminist activist poetess. Konstantin Bogomolov (b. 1975) is a major mainstream (some would say conservative) theater director from whom one might not expect a book of poems, while Lev Oborin (b. 1987) is an actively oppositional poet and critic. Elena Fanailova (b. 1962) is a major Russian poet. For accuracy’s sake, it should be noted that the last book in Danishevsky’s Anhedonia series was published in February 2019, and this inverview was published in June 2019; Bogomolov’s and Oborin’s books both ended up coming out with a different imprint in AST, while AST did not publish Fanailova’s book.
First published in GodLiterature.RF. © 2019 by Galina Rymbu. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2021 by Anne O. Fisher and Helena Kernan. All rights reserved.
The ongoing collaboration between Sibhatu and Naffis-Sahely confirms my belief that the connection between poet and translator is a lifetime commitment, to grow and write and think together.
Last year, I was asked by an American editor to submit a selection of my poems for an anthology of contemporary Arabic poetry. “Self-translations are not allowed,” came her disclaimer, predicated on the assumption that a poet is effectively monolingual, and reinforcing a modern understanding of translation, and by extension other cultural practices, to be neutral and objective. “We think self-translation poses a threat to the art of translation,” she added. As I come close to completing a decade in American exile, I have accumulated many examples of how monolingualism enacts the violent politics of the publishing industry and its literary apparatus––“self-translations are not permitted,” publishers and magazines declare on their submission pages with no effort to embrace the multilingual possibilities of a contemporary American literature. It pushed me to embark on a search for “poet-translators,” whose practice does not separate writing from translation and who often don’t even deploy the term “self-translation,” as they have come to realize that the author and the translator are inseparable.
Now at this distance, having understood the racist nature of monolingualism in the literary context, I find myself in the company of a nation of multilingual poets and translators––from Western pre-modernists like Goethe and Pessoa and Rilke to the émigré writers of modern and contemporary literatures. One would think that our literary conceptions and visions would adapt in light of mass displacement being the new norm–that publishing practices, whether editorial or translation-based, would work on expanding what is a national literature, or do without it altogether. However, the gatekeepers continue to guard the rusting gates, while the poet-translators make their attempts to jump in through the windows.
Ribka Sibhatu and André Naffis-Sahely are two such versatile literary artists. Sibhatu is an Eritrean poet and activist who writes in Italian, Tigrinya, Amharic, and French. She has been fighting Isaias Afwerki’s dictatorship at home, writing poems that imagine diaspora as the hands of a nation, and reclaiming refugee literature from its ghettoization to create a promise for a new literature. For Sibhatu, the refugee is the so-called “renaissance man” who has crossed landscapes, lived multiple lives, shed tongues, and acquired new ones. With such ethos, Sibhatu writes each of her poems, against linearity, against frontiers, and against amnesia.
The way Naffis-Sahely kick-started his translation work with Sibhatu helped orient him to use translation as a way of trespassing the arbitrary boundaries of national literatures.Tweet
It is no coincidence that Naffis-Sahely found Sibhatu’s poems, becoming the first to introduce her work to English readers. He grew up in Abu Dhabi with an Iranian father and Italian mother before his family was exiled from the emirate, but his maternal country was not any welcoming either, facing him with xenophobia. When encountering Sibhatu’s work, Naffis-Sahely discovered himself as a literary translator––seeing the possibility of another Italy, narrated and inhabited by the strangers within. In 2011, Andre was asked to translate Sibhatu’s poems for an Italian documentary film. Twenty titles later, Naffis-Sahely has now finally been able to publish his English translation of Sibhatu’s work.
Reading Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! (ኣውሎ! ኣውሎ! ኣውሎ!) released this year by the Poetry Translation Center in London, I felt jealous of this perfect poet-translator pairing. They both talk about how their friendship over the past decade has been built around the multilingual poems contained in this collection, which Sibhatu sometimes translated into Italian, before Naffis-Sahely presents them in his English productions. Their ongoing collaboration confirms my belief that the connection between poet and translator is a lifetime commitment, to grow and write and think together. The translator worked on these poems over years of their friendship, embracing the multilingual capacity of Sibhatu’s work, rather than viewing it as an obstacle. This is reflected in the chronology of the book, its multiple themes, as well as in the variety of styles and themes. In this sense, translation plays an active role in servicing the vision of the refugee poet who is not afraid to live and move between two worlds. When looking at the titles Naffis-Sahely translated from Italian and French over the past decade, we see pre-modern and modern European names, as well as contemporary writers from Morocco, Algeria, Eritrea, and Cameroon. The way Naffis-Sahely kick-started his translation work with Sibhatu helped orient him to use translation as a way of trespassing the arbitrary boundaries of national literatures.
Sibhatu is not only a multilingual poet, she also insists on an “archaic” usage of the Tigrinya alphabet, which is uncommon among Eritrean writers. She explains in an interview with another exiled Eritrean writer, Abraham T. Zere, that she did not study Ge’ez script and taught herself Tigrinya as she was learning Amharic in school. Sibhatu never seems concerned about the linguistic accessibility of her work or having to mediate and negotiate with the reader. She explains to Zere that without the archaic alphabet, their connection to their ancestors (their canon, stories, songs, powers) will be lost.
The ancestral question is at the center of Sibhatu’s work, in her choice of language, genre, and form. She examines it at different points and in varied directions, sometimes as the exiled writer dreaming of a lost egalitarian society (“the sycamores”, as she calls it), as the diasporic daughter out of touch with her language and history, or as the comrade in grief for those imprisoned and killed. In her gorgeous poem “How African Spirits were Born,” she writes a fable that subverts the classic story of two feuding brothers dividing their kingdom to instead become a story of origins, or rather epistemological origins, when the kings split the world into two halves: the material and the metaphysical. As such, Sibhatu hints from afar––from her distant modern place––at this rupture caused by greed and oppression, which have cost humans their wholeness, their connection to the past, and their ancestral companions.
Similarly, in “The Exact Number of Stars,” Sibhatu writes another fable about a king who orders his village men to murder their fathers. A call that frighteningly resembles the postcolonial proposal to break away from the past for the promise of progress. However, one man in the village decides to hide his father, which then saves the entire village. With every impossible test given to them by the king, the hidden father saves the village from the king’s punishment with his wisdom. The fable-poem here too becomes another testament to the power of memory, without which survival is impossible.
In “African Grandmothers,” Sibhatu writes about a girl called Sara who is burdened by her alienation as a girl born in disapora, her lack of tools and means: “She spends all her time/ at home and school reading/ or asking how the earth was made.” She is the wanderer born into a strange world, she cuddles with the cats and dogs, admires the distant moon, “seeing that god/ won’t answer/ her questions, Sara/ wants me to give her/ the names and/ the surnames/ of our African grandmothers/whom Darwin declined/ to mention in his book.” This powerful poem, about the daughter and her exiled mother, contemplates the possibility of diaspora as lineage, and the loneliness and the difficulty of such a prospect, especially at the heart of Darwin’s land.
The poem’s vulnerability is striking. I haven’t encountered such text that captures, on such an intimate level, the question of exile and diaspora. It is moving how Sibhatu is able to leave her place to look at the world, in its full foreignness, with a girl’s eyes, before reconnecting a daughter and mother with their grandmothers in the face of a world that has long diminished their existence. Sibhatu allows us to see the diasporic daughter making something out of her incompleteness, her lacking, her unanswered questions.
But she is never entirely romantic or sentimental in her treatment of these microrelations. In “Virginity,” she writes in a journalistic yet humorous style about an important man who wanted to marry her after finding out that his bride was not a virgin and abandoning her. Sibhatu opens the poem with the line “For a bride, her virginity is just as important as her eyes, if not more so” and goes on to play on this connection between sight and virginity. This poem celebrates a heroic act, inherently feminist, in which the poet foresees that she must compromise either her honor, and by extension her family’s, or her own freedom and well-being. Knowing that her father might set her up for an arranged marriage, she lies to the man and says she is not a virgin either. Sibhatu writes: “Children greatly fear the might of their parents’ curses.” Thus, the poem takes away the romance of family, repositioning the individual woman at the center of her survival, while still capturing the fragility of the loved ones who might betray her.
With poems such as “Virginity” or “My Abebà,” about Sibhatu’s friend who died in the prison under dictatorship in Eritera, “Prison Cells,” or even her most famous poem “Lampedusa,” which captures the moment when more than five hundred migrants, many of whom were Eritrean, drowned off the shore of the island of Lampedusa, I am reminded of the poem “The Idea of Ancestry” by Etheridge Knight. In Knight’s vision, which unfolds as the speaker lays in his prison bed, the ancestors are already impossible to memorialize, and in light of this rupture in lineage, they are realized as a fiction rooted in intimacy, in the cousins who share the same name, some far away, some close and alive, and others who have gone missing and unmentioned. It is an idea, and therefore, the pursuit of a lifetime, something that Sibhatu is well aware of and goes to explore, at home and in diaspora, and sometimes in the bleak places in between.
“Lampedusa” shows us the kind of multiplicity that Sibhatu possesses as a refugee writer. Across her poems, she builds on ancient fables, evokes biblical cries, and sometimes plays the old role of the poet as a public mourner. In one interview, Sibhatu admits how she used to believe in the separation between these “political” stories or issues and art, but while in exile, she has learned otherwise––that the label of “refugee writing” is meant to introduce her as an “exotic survivor” (to borrow from James Baldwin), and to reduce her story to a matter of one crossing journey, with no past or future.
The truth is that the refugee today is the new traveler, the new clandestine, the new flâneuse, and her story goes beyond death and survival; it is one of human triumph, to recreate the self, to hold a multitude, to speak in one’s mother tongue, or in “stepdaughters”, as Sibhatu describes her five languages. In “Lampedusa,” the poet uses the true story of a woman who drowned while giving birth to masterfully merge the events of death and birth, the ululations of the boat companions fly in celebration and commemoration––it is that human wholeness which was long lost when the two brothers split our world into halves.
This month, WWB took a look back at some of the important writing on race and racism to be found in the magazine's archives. In the wake of 2020's racist violence, and subsequent organizing by the Black Lives Matter movement and others to combat white supremacy, literary magazines and publishers everywhere have, to differing degrees, made efforts to publish more Black writers. But as some Black writers and editors have pointed out, it is equally as important that we evaluate the assumptions and practices behind these initiatives.
US-based translator Aaron Robertson, Mozambique-based publisher Sandra Tamele, and Haiti-based writer Évelyne Trouillot write on the meaningful changes we need to better publish Black writers from around the world in the twenty-first century.
|Publishers Need More Black Translator Friends
by Aaron Robertson
|Developing a Publishing Infrastructure in Mozambique
by Sandra Tamele
|Respecting the Diversity of Creativity
by Évelyne Trouillot, translated by Paul Curtis Daw
Institutional transformation often begins at the grassroots, argues translator and editor Aaron Robertson as he considers a roadmap for bringing Black writers and translators into an industry in which they are statistically underrepresented.
Over the last year and a half, since the publication of my first translated book, I’ve felt it necessary to preface my conversations with aspiring translators by telling them that I know less than they think. This isn’t necessarily a disadvantage and may be helpful in the end. I’ve lately been thinking of C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian Pan-Africanist whose belief in the creativity of “plain” people working democratically outside of capitalist enterprises has soothed me. There are obstacles translators must face before the international sections of bookstores reflect the world more equitably. Institutional transformation often begins at the grassroots, though, so I’d like to consider what some of this ground level work may look like in the near future.
I’m glad that my formal introduction to the publishing industry wasn’t mediated through an agent. My first translation project, Igiaba Scego’s novel Beyond Babylon, wasn’t commissioned by a publisher. I started it independently in college, with no prospect of publication. I had no profile as a translator and, at the time, few translator friends. By the time I finished a draft of the book in early 2017, my most meaningful internships had been at a newspaper and an arts nonprofit, not with a press or an agency.
Though most of the work of translator outreach and relationship-building should fall on publishers, this is almost never the case.Tweet
This meant I had to solve a riddle: how do I turn my adoration for Scego’s novel into something English readers can find in bookstores? It helped that I had institutional support and knowledge of resources: supportive Italian and creative writing departments at school, a well-known translation teacher, and awareness of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants, which enabled an independent publisher to learn about my project after I received one of the grants in 2018.
These were the ingredients for a good, if unlikely, human-interest story, not a roadmap for bringing translators of color into an industry in which they are statistically negligible. Most young translators of color who I’ve spoken with want to bring the work of authors from underrepresented groups into English. There is an untapped reservoir of translators who want to call Black, Asian, Indigenous, and other voices to wider attention but who lack the insider knowledge or contacts to know that this is possible or understand how to navigate an often-unfriendly industry.
The onus to publish Black voices from around the world is ultimately on the publishers themselves. During last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, however, it became clear that this will only ever be half of the struggle for recognition, if that. Though most of the work of translator outreach and relationship-building should fall on publishers, this is almost never the case. The hustle comes from those who are tired of needing to do most of the work. But we do it.
What I would like to see for Black translators is akin to what Kundiman has done for Asian American writers; what CantoMundo has done for Latinx poets; what Cave Canem has done for African American poets; what the publicity company Jack Jones Literary Arts has done for women of color; and what the Writers of Color network has done for freelancers of color. These initiatives have provided mentorship and networking opportunities, as well as clear paths into publishing and media careers. They also provide spaces for affirmation. Media attention on blockbuster titles by authors of color can lead you to believe that the front end of the industry is less white than it actually is.
Publishers, many of which are predisposed to view book translation projects as financially risky, prefer to go with translators they know. I would like to suggest that more publishers consider expanding their circles. Publishers need more Black translator friends, maybe even a sizable group of them. That starts with knowing where to look, then going there often. I opened this essay asserting that my naivete may be virtuous, and I present the fruits of my innocence here. These are various goals for a Black translators collective that some of my peers and I have been discussing:
- A collective of experienced and emerging translators who are committed to supporting the professional development of Black translators at every stage of their careers and promoting literature from various Black diasporas should be organized. The mentorship element would be the most important component of the collective. I was once a high schooler interested in languages and literature, but I had no conception of literary translation as a hobby or career, nor a sense of how my interests might have been applied. I envision, for example, a collective that actively reaches out to high schools with language programs in majority Black cities, language departments and creative writing programs at HBCUs, and other places where generating interest in literary translation would be viable.
- The collective should manage a digital hub or website that allows Black translators to workshop and promote one another’s work; provides a directory of Black translators; and suggests paths to publication (literary magazines, anthologies, etc.) that will allow translators to gain credits, drawing on the resources of the collective’s more experienced translators. This is not a “Black translators” subsection of LinkedIn Groups, but something worthy of a tailored online presence.
- The collective should identify presses, publications, and organizations that have strong records of featuring diverse voices and hiring translators of color, and those that don’t, similar to what the VIDA Count has done for women writers. What could mutually beneficial relationships with these places look like? Which publishers released statements supporting Black Lives Matter during the 2020 protests, and did their institutional practices change in the aftermath? The kind of collective I’m proposing must distinguish between allies who compensate well and volunteer their time, and those that only pay lip service to equity.
If publishers read this, I hope they will reach out before I do. The latter half of 2020 saw a number of publishers increase employee salaries, make headline-worthy senior-level hires, and commit to publishing more work by writers of color. These were positive developments, but I did not notice major stories about how these shifts can benefit the work that translators do. There is a place for artists in the Movement for Black Lives, which has never been exclusively about conditions in the United States. It has global ambitions. Just as we call for the end of state violence against Nigerians, we might also ask what has been written in Hausa, Kanuri, and Fula but not yet seen?
© Aaron Robertson. All rights reserved.
Drawing on examples from the US and Haiti, author Évelyne Trouillot considers how Anglophone publishers can better represent the complex and diverse contexts from which Black authors around the world are published in translation.
In 1979, Octavia Butler’s widely read novel Kindred, was published in the United States. The novel tells of a young African-American woman living in California in 1976 who travels back and forth through time. Toggling between 1976 and the years preceding the Civil War, she gives us a fresh look at the brutal racism of the American South. It’s a landmark novel that defies categorization and provides a complex and deeply moving historical account, drawing connections between past and present and stimulating reflection on, among other things, our notions of race, family, and identity. Nevertheless, it was not until 2000—twenty-one years later—that Kindred was translated and released in France by Éditions Dapper as Liens de sang (Bloodlines).
This is just one example of the way books of exceptional merit can be lost between one continent and another, one country and another, one language and another. Fortunately, since the appearance of her first work in 1971, the novels of this outstanding African-American novelist have been translated into more than ten languages. As a Haitian author who writes in French and Creole, my own experience with translation has been much more episodic.
It would be naive to speak of editorial decisions without taking into account power relationships and established patterns of prejudice that undergird the publishing industry, like any other. For in fact the question of which texts are to be translated refers us back to the more general question of the initial selection criteria. Even among books published originally in English, authors of color are in the minority. According to an article published by the New York Times in December 2020, although American publishers have shown more diversity in their editorial decisions during the most recent years, white authors still dominate to a striking extent.1 While non-Hispanic whites constituted 60 percent of the US population in 2018, writers from that segment accounted for 89 percent of published books within the sample considered by the article’s authors. The publishers’ choices reflect ideological and aesthetic leanings, which are informed by racist attitudes that predominate in the society. Texts requiring translation undergo a similar selection process, but other aspects must be considered, in particular the intervening power relationships between the countries involved and their respective languages.
Sadly, it’s easy for publishers to fall into the trap of publishing texts that spread hastily formed impressions of a country and its people and unquestioningly recirculate damaging stereotypes.Tweet
Some Anglophone publishers have no interest in offering their readers texts that present a view of the diversity and complexity of the world. For those sincerely interested, on what basis do they choose the books to be translated? Do those publishers have access to books produced outside of a handful of great Western metropolises? Or do they consider only books originally published in places like Paris, Milan, or Madrid?
The hierarchy of nations affects the selection of books to a degree that should not be overlooked. Currently, at least in the case of Haiti, publishers generally choose from the corpus of books by Haitian authors published outside the country, specifically in France or Canada. In no way do I minimize the value of books published beyond Haiti, but I would simply like to underscore the limits of such an approach. Indeed, we can ask ourselves a number of questions. Do the choices of Anglophone editors reflect my country’s literary trends, given that those choices fall almost entirely within the range of Haitian works published elsewhere? To what extent are the literary dynamics present in a book’s country of origin taken into account by Anglophone editors? Typically, such an editor characterizes the translated work as a representative specimen of the country of origin’s literature, when in fact the editor sometimes has no inkling of the literary landscape in question. By way of example, I cite the case of the writer, poet, and playwright Frankétienne, who was long ignored by Anglophone publishers. He was translated into English for the first time in 2003, more than thirty years after his first publication.
After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, a number of Haitian books were translated. The catastrophe drew the eyes of the literary world toward Haiti and its writers. Translations, publications, and conference invitations multiplied. The tragedy automatically became an “added value” for Haitian literary production. Very often, publishers’ choices follow in that manner the wave orchestrated by the media after a disaster or a memorable event involving a given country. After the quake, the leading French publishing houses seemed determined to rush works by Haitian authors into publication. Sadly, it’s easy for publishers to fall into the trap of publishing texts that spread hastily formed impressions of a country and its people and unquestioningly recirculate damaging stereotypes. In that regard, books that abound in superficial references to vodou and pile up images of violence and deprivation seem to attract some editors, conveniently reinforcing their narrow perception of the Haitian reality.
It takes a conscious commitment to diversify the array of translated books and to include non-Anglophone Black authors without trying to confine them to pigeonholes. Publishers that prioritize the literary quality of non-Anglophone Black authors more readily avoid the pitfall of creating “special” collections of their works. There’s a great risk that collections so labeled will lead readers to perceive a pecking order, to the detriment of Black authors, as with Gallimard’s famous “Collection Noire,” whose series title pertains not to a type of book but to the countries of origin or the color of the authors’ skin. Despite the fact that this collection has introduced a number of Francophone authors from certain regions of the world to a larger readership, we should still reflect upon the perception that such a segregation engenders.
The translator represents another important element. Their approach to otherness, their command of the target language, their capacity to continually deepen their knowledge of the language and culture of the country of origin: all these are, in fact, fundamental to the translator’s ability to render the nuances of the text. In leaving an imprint on the work, the translator is to some degree involved in the reception of the translated text. The translator’s collaboration with the author affects this process, as well. Obviously, such teamwork is not always attainable, but it facilitates a sensitive and vigilant translation, even though the target language edition remains a rewriting of the initial text.
As a Black, non-Anglophone Haitian woman writer, I write about my personal world in my own languages (Creole and French) in order to move toward other people. With no concern for what a prospective Anglophone editor might think of my texts. Furthermore, the published book no longer belongs to me, and translated, my hold on it loosens even further. And my writings, stemming from my lived experience and my aesthetic and social vision for a more beautiful and just world, are presented to readers who are not always acquainted with my reality. It’s the same for other writers who, like me, are translated into English or other languages. Our words become conduits, bridges, walkways that transport meaning. It is to be hoped that these writings reach new readers in their full integrity and without distortion in a form conducive to candid and fruitful encounters. Respecting the diverse roots of creativity.
© Évelyne Trouillot. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Paul Curtis Daw. All rights reserved.
1. Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek, “Just How White Is the Book Industry?” New York Times, December 11, 2020.↩
Sandra Tamele, publisher of Mozambique-based Editora Trinta Nove Zero, argues that better publishing Black writers from around the world begins with increased support, locally and globally, for Africa-based literary projects.
It’s amazing how simple events can trigger a turning point in one’s journey. Mine was a few years ago when, while listening to the radio at work, I came across a podcast about Ann Morgan, a British author who went on a quest to find and read books from around the world when she came to the realization that she was a “literary xenophobe.” I was moved when I heard her name my country, Mozambique, and that when she asked for tips on who and what she should be reading from here, she was recommended Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s novel Ualalapi. It had been translated by an underground press based in the UK and she had managed to read and review it even if it was still unpublished in the UK at the time.
This made me rethink my reading choices and look critically at my growing book collection. Conversely, my bookshelf clearly showed that I was a “literary xenophile,” with only a couple of books by Mozambican authors and, to be honest, Ualalapi was not one of them.
I felt ashamed and sad. And made a commitment to follow and attend as many book launches as I could manage, and to get familiar with the young generation of writers based in Maputo and their work.
What a delightful experience this was. It was a journey of discovering my heritage and the history and traditions of Mozambique through fiction. Starting with Adelino Timóteo’s novel The Eight Husbands of Madam Luiza Michaela Da Cruz, a startling contrast from the predominantly matrilineal central region of the country to Paulina Chiziane’s Niketche, a tale of polygamy from the patriarchal south, and the history of Achivanjila, the slave that became a queen and abolished slavery in Tete province, to Khosa’s Ualalapi, set in the empire of Ngungunhane, who conquered and enslaved his own. The national literary scene is booming with the establishment of new indie publishers, managed by young, Black writers who enrich and add diversity to it with their resolve to depart from magic realism and “traditional” African stories, and to write and publish contemporary fiction and poetry. Every time I returned home from readings with a handful of new books, I read voraciously.
Being a nationalist at heart and fortunate enough to be reasonably fluent in English and Italian, it was only a matter of time before I started attempting to translate these books.
During this time, I read an article in The Linguist, the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, on the need for and acceptability of bilingual translation, which gave me a boost to attempt translating prose and to three collections of poetry: Helder Faife’s DEsIGNS, quickly followed by Mbate Pedro’s Voids and Rogério Manjate’s Scar Incarnate.
Bilingual translation is still a controversial issue––particularly when translating poetry and trying to remain true to its structure, rhythm, and form––but one that cannot be easily dismissed, especially coming from a country that is a Portuguese-speaking island surrounded by an English-speaking community with which it seeks to integrate, at least in theory. In reality there is no circulation or cross-distribution of books and literature within the region in particular, nor overseas to the UK and US.
I had high hopes when a selection of poems from the aforementioned three projects were featured in WWB's April 2019 issue and later pitched to a few publishers from South Africa, the US, and the UK. But I was told by the publishers I pitched that poetry was a hard sell, that they had a different editorial line, and at the time were not looking for debut voices from Mozambique.
One year later I founded Editora Trinta Zero Nove (Editora 30.09), the first publishing house dedicated to literature in translation in Mozambique. Its mission is to give stories a voice, and I mean literally, because in addition to publishing in print, Editora 30.09 is committed to publishing audiobooks as a way of democratizing reading and inviting the participation of the forty-nine percent of Mozambique's population that is illiterate, mostly women and girls. Editora 30.09 tries to publish authors and narratives that are representative, relevant, inclusive, and inspiring for its readers. Thus, in our first two catalogues we published six debut Black female novelists from the Southern African Development Community, one deaf, mixed-race poet from the UK, and eight female novelists from China, France, Italy, and Ivory Coast. The catalog’s relevance cannot be overstated in a country where a handful of bookshops offer mostly outdated, overpriced international bestsellers or big-name authors.
Literary translation is still underrated in Mozambique and most writers, who paradoxically draw inspiration from authors they read in translation, do not share my view that translation can be a tool to find and perfect one’s voice and writing, and that it has a huge potential to impact and diversify the literary tradition, as well as to bring gender equality to publishing. In Mozambique, women are underrepresented in print and male publishers tend to be biased toward publishing men, claiming that female voices lack quality, substance, and creativity. I try to counteract this by publishing feminist voices that might inspire a new generation of female writers and translators through creative writing and through translation workshops as part of the annual literary translation competition I’ve organized since 2015. In early February 2020, Editora 30.09 issued a call for submissions aimed at young Mozambican female writers we intend to publish in Portuguese and translate into the most representative Bantu languages: Macua, Sena, and Changana. During a meeting with a South African agent at the Sharjah Book Fair last November, I came to the realization that the vision I bring to publishing may be narrow in its own way, but it’s aimed at correcting longstanding inequities. I believe that I only stopped staring blankly at her catalog when she shifted from pitching works by blue-eyed blondes who comprised ninety percent of her choices to narratives of Black women that I’m looking forward to publishing in 2021–22.
Running a start-up publisher in Mozambique is challenging, particularly because sales are low due to a nonexistent distribution network and too few bookshops, all located in the capital city; these often demand that local books are provided on consignment and then fail to pay the publishers when they do sell. Most of the fifty-three public libraries in the country are underfunded and in a state of disrepair. Books and reading for pleasure are not a high priority for the government, and during the pandemic financial support was granted only to musicians and other performing artists, not writers.
The work of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and the urgency of publishing more Black authors reverberated in Mozambique. Local social activists concerned about the plight of entire Black communities displaced by acts of terrorism perpetrated in Cabo Delgado, in the northern region of the country, are getting more vocal and their protests are gaining momentum and demanding the government to shift their stance from denial into an urgent, strong response. Despite not being a minority, Black literary voices are not mainstream and struggle to gain notoriety for a number of reasons. Some are related to colonial history, but also to a sense of division rooted in tribalism, or the notion that there are several degrees of Blackness. Mozambicans use a multitude of words to differentiate people’s skin tones, hair texture, and facial features. I remember an incident when a mixed-race friend of mine was very upset because I called her mulata instead of mista because, she explained, she was born to a white mom, not a white dad. And it’s not rare to hear Black Mozambicans using the word “Black" to mean a darker-skinned individual. Many argue that, other than racism, we should be addressing colorism––a belief that one’s status and prospects in life are better the fairer one’s complexion is.
In early 2020, after signing an agreement between Editora 30.09 and the African Books Collective, a platform that has been promoting African literature to readers in the UK and the US for over thirty years through their network of over eighty online and brick-and-mortar bookstores worldwide, I was hoping that Mozambican authors would see more clearly that they no longer needed to rely on US-based publishers to make their works universally available.
This universality also begins with making literature mainstream within our borders. For decades, established Mozambican publishers opted for print runs of as little as 50 to 200 copies due to high printing costs, of books in Portuguese, which, I recently found to my dismay, is spoken by under twelve percent of the country’s population of 29 million. This realization also resulted in Editora 30.09 shifting its focus to publishing minimum print runs of one thousand copies in three predominant regional languages—Macua in the North, Sena in central Mozambique, and Changana in the South—to make books more affordable and available to more, but still far from the optimal, number of readers. Editora 30.09 aims to publish twelve new titles per year and its catalog of poetry, novels, short fiction, and nonfiction is known for featuring mostly debuts in translation, including one Mozambican female poet. So far, due to budgetary constraints, nine titles have been published. But Editora 30.09 is exploring new ways to reach readers and in September launched a weekly short-story series published in both audio and print and available digitally on its website on a subscription for as little as 20 MZN (equivalent to US$ 0.25) payable via popular micro e-wallet facilities.
But building a readership and earning the trust and buy-in of both debut and established writers is proving difficult. So difficult that even with Editora 30.09 being shortlisted for the London Book Fair’s 2020 International Excellence Awards, its role as a Frankfurter Buchmesse Invitation Program publisher, and our two-year presence at the Sharjah Book Fair, the local literary community is still to grasp the extent of this opportunity to showcase Mozambican literature abroad. Instead of being flooded with publishable manuscripts from authors who have found their voice, Editora 30.09 is still receiving odd messages from aspiring writers seeking an outlet for their still-immature work. A weak education system and policies, with millions of youths graduating from high school with poor text comprehension skills, may be at the root of this issue. In an effort to respond to this, in early 2020 Editora 30.09 partnered with the Portuguese Cultural Center to organize a series of creative writing and literary translation workshops aimed at young writers, but the initiative was postponed due to the pandemic. There is a handful of creative writing initiatives and literary prizes to promote the emergence of new voices but often the submissions and manuscripts fall short of the target set by the organizers or else seasoned writers come away with the awards.
Unfortunately there are no governmental policies in place to support the book industry in Mozambique. In late 2019 a group of young independent publishers met in an attempt to establish Rede de Editoras Independentes (REI, as in the Portuguese word for king) de Mozambique to voice their concerns and start to build the support infrastructure required for our initiatives to thrive.
I recently moved from the city center to a small fishermen community on the banks of the Komati River and feel that venturing into publishing is like swimming upstream, every day a quest for support and buy-in from governmental cultural bodies, fellow translators, readers and even the Mozambican writers I’ve translated myself to date. I worry we’re missing our opportunity to showcase Mozambican literature abroad.
© Sandra Tamele. All rights reserved.