Presented here for the first time in English, the cult writer Charles Chahwan—"Lebanon's answer to Charles Bukowski"—tells a tale of rival militiamen euphoric with violence.
Under the gentle afternoon sunlight, Serge’s body appeared limp and more slouched than usual as he rested against the back seat of the shared taxi, a Morris Princess. He was the sole passenger in the service as it made its way down the coastal highway, as if other potential passengers had unconsciously decided to leave him be, perhaps so he could burrow deeper into his solitude. The light streaming in generously through the window descended on top of his broad winter jacket and baggy trousers. That very light shaded a portion of his face and his crooked hand behind the smoke of a half-lit cigarette. His face was covered in deep creases that surrounded his two small, gloomy eyes. He was a young man, not yet thirty, but with the features of an old man. Everything about him—his face, his eyes, his hands, his clothes—seemed worn out, as if whatever was inside him was remote and forgotten long ago. It never occurred to him that the pain he suffered from at night or when he woke up feeling weak was caused by some chronic illness. My body has nothing to do with all that is happening, he would tell himself, the two things are unrelated. The body has no capacity to remember pain. Everything ailing me is rooted within myself. This thought always settled it for him.
Serge bit down on the end of his cigarette and tried to recall what the place he was headed to looked like. What he could summon were scant and hazy details. He fidgeted in his seat, and pulled a large black wallet from his jacket pocket, fishing out a flimsy, cropped photograph. He peered at the photograph for a moment, then took a pair of prescription eyeglasses from his other jacket pocket. He put on the glasses and peered again at the picture like someone gazing and trying to make out a figure far away. In the picture, he could see himself and his friend Francis, scrawny and laughing. They looked like a pair of mummies in the flesh—his friend Francis with his black hair and he with his long wavy hair. They were standing facing the camera with their hands on the balcony railing of Francis's apartment with its view to the harbor. The deep red and blue colors and their smiles re-ignited the spark of a lost simplicity within him, and he could picture once again the same image replicated in other disfigured photographs. He put the picture back in his wallet and peered into the area visible through the front windshield. In the opposite direction, the sun descending below the water created a radiant glimmer that mainly reminded him of the smell of fruit. The taxi turned off the highway and entered the harbor area, continuing its journey toward the shore. He murmured something to the driver to alert him where to let him off. Having lived there for a long time, he knew the area by heart. The taxi stopped at an intersection right next to an old textile factory and he got off. When he stood alone in front of the different roads branching out, he felt a tremendous, incomprehensible sense of warmth. He felt a desire to revisit and reconnect with many places he recognized. This feeling was all he needed before arriving at the house of his friend Francis. He knew full well that all he had to do was to free his emotions and open the door to anything that could put him on a different plane of consciousness. At that moment, what he felt was not that he was reliving old memories but rather as though he were a zombie. He was certain this was the explanation. When he looked out at the small square near Francis’s building, everything he saw appeared to be just as he’d known it. This feeling gave him great reassurance, so he continued moving forward with his head down; there was no need to look, this place was more real inside his head than it was in front of his eyes.
Francis lived on the third floor above the shop of al-Beiruti, the ice cream vendor. Serge had also lived in the same apartment, no. 14, for a long time. He slowly climbed the dirty stairs, stopping now and then in front of the open-air window in the wall facing the staircase to look at the buildings in the near vicinity. Opposite the building there was a small amusement park with its colorful steel rides and a giant elevated Ferris wheel adjacent to a large brick building. He reached the apartment and twice knocked weakly on the door, then looked again to confirm. Yes, this was it—no. 14. He knocked again, this time with more force. When the door suddenly opened, Serge was leaning on the adjoining wall. He gazed straight into Francis’s eyes for more than a minute, without either of them uttering a word.
They were like a pair of pouncing wolves as they embraced. They kept holding each other while shouting each other’s names. When they finally let go of each other, their gazes glowed with tenderness. Francis was the same age as Serge, but his facial features were quite different. He was tall and dark-skinned with pitch-black eyes, and although the rest of his body seemed scrawny, he had prominent, bulging biceps—a young man full of vitality.
At sunset, the two sat down on a couple of straw chairs on the balcony that looked onto the dilapidated swimming pool. They began slowly sipping cups of tea held between their hands, then placing them on the small coffee table between them. They carried on like this for a while. When they had finished their tea, Francis got up and slipped inside. Serge remained on the balcony for quite some time, watching the evening unfold in front of him. When Francis finally came back, he grabbed Serge by the shoulders. Serge wasn’t startled at all, not even bothering to turn around. When it was completely dark, Francis ushered Serge inside, shut the door to the balcony, and they sat inside facing each other. They exchanged words every now and then, but most of the time they grinned broadly each time their eyes met. Later, it began to rain. The rain became unbelievably heavy, to the point that the raindrops obscured most of the balcony’s glass door facing them. It soon became cold and Serge asked Francis to turn on the electric heater. When he did so, Serge took off his shoes and sat on the couch with his legs folded underneath him. Everything was peaceful. The rain did not stop for quite some time and it made strange sounds on the balcony and on the water between the boats docked nearby. When Serge told his friend that he liked these sounds, Francis's response emanated from the kitchen: “They mean nothing to me.” The apartment had no books, just an empty birdcage. Francis appeared at the kitchen door, and then suddenly flung himself onto the cot in the other corner of the living room. Serge looked over at him and saw his face was as calm as could possibly be, just as he noticed a black revolver below Francis’s pillow, and nothing else.
Neither of them felt like sleeping, and the room had become warm, almost hot. Francis started talking about his old car. At some point, Serge got up to turn on the television but then decided against it. Each one was staring uneasily at the room in a different direction when there was a violent knocking at the door. They glanced at each other; then someone called out Francis’s name. Evidently, Francis recognized the voice. He got up slowly, muttering, “What could this guy want at this hour?” He arrived at the door, and when he opened it, he could not see anyone there (nor could Serge from where he was). Then he heard someone’s voice again call out from the end of the hallway. Annoyed, Francis stepped outside. Before he could see anything or react, bullets riddled his body and sent it flying all over the place as if it were dancing. His body did not land in front of the door; the bullets were like tremendous punches driving it farther and farther away.
Serge watched it all unfold but could not seem to hear anything. Then he suddenly started hearing everything and got as close to the door as he possibly could. The bullets coming out of the barrel of the machine gun flashed like lightning, emitting a thunderous, painful din. The gunshots ceased. He heard men jostling as they all bounded down the stairs. He could also hear them cursing filthily. He took a deep breath and picked up the revolver—the first time he’d ever held one in his hand. He felt certain he was breathing not air but hatred.
The rain outside had stopped. Serge threw on his loose-fitting overcoat and grabbed the revolver from the bed. The overcoat flapped from side to side as he charged into the hallway. With the revolver in his hand, he looked as if he’d come straight off the cover of an old crime novel. He stopped and knelt beside Francis, who was no longer alive. Serge began stroking his forehead, begging him to say something, to at least wake up. Francis’s eyes were wide open but he did not wake up, nor did he speak. Serge picked him up and held him close to his chest. He held him close to his beating heart, then pressed his face to his own and wept profusely. Then he heard the voices of the same men in the street down below. They were yelling like wild animals. He got up and ran down the staircase to a window on the landing. He took a look at the revolver in his hand, then looked at them below. They hovered around their dark-colored military jeep and appeared exactly like cold-blooded killers. The square around them was damp and glistening from the rain. It did not feel right to him, but he knew hesitating was impossible. He fired a round of shots in the killers’ direction and watched as some of them dropped to the pavement. He could hear their bodies hit the damp ground with a thud. The others returned fire, the bullets whizzing past him. When his revolver had run out of bullets, he retreated. The shots fired near the window continued unabated. In his dazed view, the brick houses across the street seemed crooked. That’s how they should be, he thought. He tossed away the revolver and knelt over Francis’s body to kiss him one last time. He could hear them coming up the stairs, screaming with a terrifying savagery. It seemed there was nowhere to escape but the roof. He started to run toward the stairs, then scurried up them until he reached the roof. The rain had begun again. He felt so frail that his body felt like a flimsy sheet of paper.
When the wind passed through his hair, he could feel it had grown slightly longer, as it was brushing against his shoulders. He stopped for a moment to look at the houses, then turned to look at the sea. He could feel both looking back at him, as if they were meant to do so. Then he suddenly found himself before the sloped brick roof of the neighboring building. Down below, he heard them again firing their guns and screaming like wild animals. Serge realized he was barefoot. It was not going to be possible for him to go back for his shoes. He hurried to the building ledge and in a single move jumped to the sloped roof, sprawling across the brick surface as he landed. When he sensed that he was all right and not in danger of falling, he started to carefully crawl along the edge of the sloped brick roof until he reached the iron ladder that led to the courtyard of the house below. He descended the ladder toward the courtyard and jumped over the fence to the neighboring courtyard. He climbed the ladder up to the neighboring house’s roof and then began jumping from one roof to the next. He looked like a white butterfly in the night flitting above a river of blood. When he reached the roof of the last building on the block, he went down its ladder into the building’s courtyard. While standing there, he could make out the sound of the heavy gunfire, which penetrated deep inside his ears with every shot. At that moment, the rainfall became heavier. His overcoat became wet and the moisture seeped through, soaking his body and chilling him to the bone.
Serge spotted a door on the balcony of one of the higher floors. He had no choice but to climb up to it on the building’s ladder. He climbed over the edge, then stepped closer and grabbed the doorknob. It was unlocked. He pushed the door open and went inside. Dripping wet, he continued until he found himself inside a bedroom. In front of him stood a young woman staring at him in the darkness.
“I beg you,” he said, then said in a hushed voice. “They’re going to kill me.”
There wasn’t another sound in that cold room high above the ground. There was complete silence as they stood facing each other in that cold room high above the street. The woman drew closer and gently caressed his face. “Don’t be afraid,” she reassured him.
He stood there as she locked the door. He said he could not see her well. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he was able to discern her a little better. He repeated that he was still scared. Only when she switched on the dim lamp near her bed could he properly see her face and body. She was remarkably attractive. She drew near again and ran her fingers through his hair as she gazed into his eyes. “You have a beautiful face,” she murmured.
“You need to take your clothes off,” she continued. “Come here and sit on this chair. I’ll help you.” Serge went and sat down. Her bed seemed comfortable. She helped him remove his clothing, and when he was undressed, she brought a large towel from her wooden closet and wrapped it around his torso. “You’re so skinny,” she remarked as she tightened the towel around him, “but you have a pretty face.” Then she dried his long hair. The weak lightbulb gave off a strange purple light in the dimly lit room, which reflected eerily off her bedsheets.
When she was finished, she took Serge by the arm and led him, still wrapped up in the towel, to her bed. There, she removed the towel and covered him with a warm blanket. The sweet scent of the bedsheets penetrated deeply into his nostrils. His eyes followed her as she walked to the other side of the bed and slipped beneath the sheets until their bodies were touching. She began to run her hands all over his body, which was still cold. When he could feel her warm breath right on his chest, Serge closed his eyes.
© Charles Chahwan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Suneela Mubayi. All rights reserved.
"Pillow" is a poem by 2019 Poems in Translation Contest winner Lee Young-ju, translated into English by Jae Kim.
Listen to Lee Young-ju read her poem "Pillow" in the original Korean.
Listen to Jae Kim read the English translation of Lee Young-ju's "Pillow."
Down in this sewer, have I become my friend? By the manmade waters where my school principal killed himself, geese cried. On the other side of the barbed-wire fence is a large cloudchimney. I put on a straw hat I picked up in the gutters.
When the clouds bent over, the geese cackled their beaks wide-open. The cry of the machine as it pushed the clouds through the conveyor into the chimney. Where are the better suicides?
My father built his house on the waters’ edge, and every day he packed the clouds in, spun the machine. Those who wanted to sleep bought Father’s pillow. All night, eyes peeled, I bent my body and straightened my body, over and over. Each time my bones popped, snapped, I escaped through the chimney. I thought about what kind of crying to do.
Near sundown, I urged him, let’s go where there’s a crowd, but in the machine the geese were bleeding. For a good night’s sleep we need wet feathers, said Father. I sucked on my lips while counting the tags on the pillows. I believe the essence of those who died better deaths must go to the sewer, where innumerable sleeps flow.
When spinning the cotton machinery, I wore my hat. White feathers rose from the waters where those who killed themselves lay facedown. I took my hand, stepped on the feathers and went to school in the mornings. Waddling, I forged ahead.
"Pillow" © Lee Young-ju. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Jae Kim. All rights reserved.
"Roommate, Woman" is one of four winning poems selected by Mónica de la Torre for the Words Without Borders—Academy of Americans Poets Poem-in-Translation Contest.
Listen to Lee Young-ju read her poem "Roommate, Woman." in the original Korean.
Listen to Jae Kim read the English translation of Lee Young-ju's "Roommate, Woman."
On waking, I see my body has been rearranged. I’m reminded of the tongue you, having cried so much, dropped under the cypress tree. From then on, you began to speak with your left hand. One of my eyes, stuck to my thigh, closed and opened toward the obsolete picture. When your ovary, full of blood, keeps moving down, you open the window. A whistle sounds. The police touches the face of the rat the cat never finished. There behind your back is my pain, isolated from my knees. You knew the house would be rearranged when we woke up—I hold your hand. While we watch the pale clouds, sitting on leaking fuel tanks, our joined hands slip out the door. You pick up one of my eyes worming under your foot. It may snow. Snow (not an eye) like the bandage around my hand, smeared in crimson light.
"Roommate, Woman" © Lee Young-ju. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Jae Kim. All rights reserved.
"An Apocryphal History of the Discovery of Migration, or The Sacrifice of the Pfeilstörchenn" is one of four winning poems selected by the editors and guest judge Mónica de la Torre for the Words Without Borders—Academy of Americans Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Listen to Jacob Rogers read his translation of Galician poet Alba Cid's "An Apocryphal History of the Discovery of Migration, or The Sacrifice of the Pfeilstörchen."
Listen to Alba Cid read "An Apocryphal History of the Discovery of Migration, or The Sacrifice of the Pfeilstörchen” in the original Galician.
I, wearing heron symmetrically opposed over my chest,
swore to the five emperors that there was no such thing as balance, that if herons upheld
the rivers on all Chinese porcelain it was
simply due to
a locking mechanism in their joints.
they awarded me for risking everything in my defense.
I wrote to you a few years later. I said:
Rostock, sixth of July,
it’s awful of me to interrupt, but I just
need you to understand how certain kinds of wounds can be useful.
I’m finishing up an essay
on pre-modern explanations for bird migration,
and all the species seen since Aristotle’s time as either moon travelers
or sailors that very rarely return.
I even studied a pamphlet from 1703
that argues for the communion of swallows,
that they gather in wetlands
and follow a specific choreography to perch on top of the rushes
until they sink.
they spend winters underwater, in the hypnotic calm of the muck,
and that’s why they emerge so klein damp in spring.
but in 1822 (I carefully attached the photograph),
an arrow pierced the neck of a stork in central Africa
and the bird began its flight bearing both weapon and wound.
when it reached Germany, someone identified the origin of the projectile,
and went on to form a scientific hypothesis.
I don’t remember much more of the letter, except:
pain and brightness are distributed in equal parts,
and lightness only exists because of past excess.
Since it’s the migratory season (I concluded)
I hope you don’t mind if I bypass the formula for farewells—
Atlantic in between us,
every anemone is fluttering along with the currents.
"Historia apócrifa do descubrimento das migracións ou O sacrificio das Pfeilstörchen" © Alba Cid. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Jacob Rogers. All rights reserved.
In Fu Ping, one of Wang Anyi’s great feats is her ability to eschew narrative conventions and usher the background players to the fore.
Wang Anyi’s novel Fu Ping is a coming-of-age tale set in the midst of the turbulent years of China’s Cultural Revolution. Its narrative arc—that of a young girl who learns to challenge convention and follow her heart—may not be wholly original, but its presentation, full of detours and side stories, makes for a memorable, smart study of the lives of ordinary people in Shanghai in the 1960s, during the second decade of Communist rule in China. Wang’s frequent digressions create an engaging novel overflowing with narrative threads that succeeds both as a character-driven story and as a commentary on the shifting belief systems between generations over the first two decades of the People’s Republic of China. Shanghai appears in the novel as a city filled with people from other places who share folkloric stories of their villages with each other as they toil as maids, handymen, scow captains, and other blue-collar professions.
The daughter of revered writer Ru Zhijuan, Wang Anyi was born in 1954 and grew up in Shanghai. She began her literary career in the late 1970s, and like most of her work, Fu Ping continues Wang’s interest in studying women living and laboring in her home city. The novel can be seen as a companion piece to Wang’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, itself a tale of growing up in Shanghai after World War II. Yet while Sorrow spans decades, shifting from alleyways to aspirations of stardom, Fu Ping is far more compact, focused on the daily lives of those who serve others.
Orphaned as a child, Fu Ping is raised by her aunt and uncle in the country. When she reaches her late teens, in the early 1960s, her family begins the process of marrying her off. Suitors looking for a traditional housewife come calling, but Fu Ping quickly rebuffs them, refusing to meet or engage in conversation. This changes when a matchmaker presents Li Tianhua as a potential mate. Though she never sees his face, stubbornly refusing to make eye contact, Fu Ping can tell by a glimpse of his shoes that he is “not someone who made a living by the sweat of his brow,” so, bowing to family expectations, she accepts his offer of marriage and is shipped off to Shanghai.
Before the wedding, Fu Ping is sent to live with Li Tianhua’s adopted grandmother, a housemaid referred to only as Nainai, the informal term for “grandma” or “paternal grandmother.” The pair share a bed in Nainai’s employer’s home, where Fu Ping helps the older woman with domestic chores, learning the skills she will be expected to master in her new role as a housewife. Before long, however, Fu Ping takes on her own jobs and weaves herself into the lives of neighbors and colleagues. The longer she lives in the city, the more she sees herself as an individual responsible for her own fate, leading her to reconsider her impending nuptials. All the while, Li Tianhua patiently waits for her to be ready for marriage, unaware of Fu Ping’s budding curiosity.
One of Wang Anyi’s greatest feats in the novel is her ability to eschew narrative conventions and usher the background players surrounding her protagonist to the fore. After the first chapter, for instance, Fu Ping does not make a memorable appearance again until chapter three, nearly thirty pages later. In this space, Wang tells the backstories of Nainai and her employers, which in turn establish the backstory of Shanghai in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Other digressions inform the reader of secret relationships, landscapes, and histories around Fu Ping’s own journey, painting a tangible setting for each character to occupy. This lax sense of direction quietly builds a sympathetic and complex world that pays off once the author again narrows her focus to Fu Ping’s story arc for the novel’s second half. It also allows Wang to detail the everyday actions of blue-collar workers, vignettes that come to life via Howard Goldblatt’s skillful translation. Take the following passage, in which Fu Ping watches the proprietress of a tobacco shop go about her routine:
The proprietress rested against the counter as she ate out of a fine blue-edged porcelain bowl; when a customer entered, she tucked her chopsticks under the bowl, held both in one hand, and handled the purchase with the other. She greeted familiar passersby, who paused to chat.
Or this brief description of a woman whom Fu Ping sees regularly on the street:
[The face] belonged to a slender, reasonably attractive woman with wavy hair whose looks were spoiled by an unhealthy appearance, an unhappy look. Most of the time she wore a white woolen cardigan over a Western-style skirt and carried a handbag, like a schoolteacher or office worker. But she was outside rushing around when most people were at work.
While both characters have no bearing on the novel’s main storyline, such descriptions allow Wang to construct a tangible and arresting fictional portrait of Shanghai. As the city becomes more concrete, the hardships and adventures faced by its residents also seem more palpable. These detours, which rarely employ dialogue, provide the narration with qualities similar to those of a storyteller like Nainai and other characters in the book, who tell tall tales to pass the time and therefore often ramble in their narration before reaching the end of a story. Wang’s narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly, as well, adding to this effect. In returning to a shantytown after Fu Ping’s initial visit, the narrator comments, “We have seen how night fell earlier here…” Likewise, when shifting focus to a previously mentioned location, the narrator says, “We have already seen that this was a theater with rudimentary facilities.” By including these small nods, Wang makes the reader part of her story, if only in spirit, but does so enough to intertwine her audience with the copious names and faces that pass through the novel.
Fu Ping is a story of breaking with tradition, of facing consequences for such a rebellion, yet ultimately of finding contentment in life. Near the novel’s end, a great rainstorm floods part of Shanghai, and Fu Ping, settled and happy, is forced to leave her home and take shelter at a watertight sanctuary. As Wang writes in her foreword, to her the storm shows that “in the chaotic changing of times, normal life remains unchanged, and in normalcy lies a simple harmony.” This reflection on the status quo beautifully encapsulates Fu Ping’s journey, for despite China’s Cultural Revolution and budding Communist regime, the everyday existence of Wang’s characters depends upon their own wits and desires. Fu Ping’s fragmented structure may not be for every reader, but it nevertheless is a fruitful, clever ode to China’s blue-collar population.
"Cloth Birds" is one of four winning poems selected by Mónica de la Torre for the Words Without Borders—Academy of Americans Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Listen to Natascha Bruce read her translation of Hong Kong poet Dorothy Tse's "Cloth Birds."
Listen to Dorothy Tse read "Cloth Birds” in the original Cantonese.
There's no cloth hawker in the bazaar
willing to make dirty deals
with the health inspector
neither will they confess the link
between those bolts of flyaway fabric
and ancient birds
(lo a sage appeared
drilled fire from sticks
transformed the stinking food
and the people were happy)
after the ban on cooking smoke
glug glug swallow
the secret of seawater and its fish
tile cities built up and pulled down
at four in the afternoon
a routine inspection
into the cleanliness of laughter
a hand spread wide in the dark is
splattered with light
a carambola tree sprouts branches from stumps
its remaining fruits sour and shrivelled to stardust
swaying in the void
the sky so dull
and the city official
at the newly-sterilized entrance
a spy hole onto the blankness
"布鳥" © Dorothy Tse. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Natascha Bruce. All rights reserved.
This year, we partnered with the Academy of American Poets for our first ever poetry in translation contest. We received 717 poems from 282 poets from 87 countries translated from 55 languages. The four winning poems will be published in Words Without Borders and the Academy of American Poets’s “Poem-a-Day” throughout the month of September. Published alongside the poems will be the original language texts and recordings of both the original poems and their English language translations.
The winning poems and their date of publication are:
“Cloth Birds” by Dorothy Tse, translated from Chinese by Natascha Bruce—September 7, 2019
Judge's citation: “‘Cloth Birds’ sustains a compelling tension between highly bureaucratized life and life forms resisting control: a hawker, happy people, branches shooting from tree stumps. Thanks to Natascha Bruce’s light-handed rendition, the poem is strange and ominous, and the narrative it tenuously sketches out stands in sharp contrast with the hard language of city officials and health inspectors.”
“An Apocryphal History of the Discovery of Migration” by Alba Cid, translated from Galician by Jacob Rogers—September 14, 2019
Judge's citation: “Alba Cid’s poem is two or three poems, given its nesting structure, reminiscent of Borges. Fragments of a misremembered letter speak of storks so resilient that they bore ‘both weapon and wound’ as proof of their long-distance migration—they almost seem fictional. Like the Pfeilstorch, the letter in the poem travels a vast physical distance, as does Jacob Rogers’s luminous translation from the Galician. I read it as a poignant meditation on exile and translation, where ‘pain and lightness are distributed in equal parts.’”
“Roommate, Woman” by Lee Young-ju, translated from Korean by Jae Kim—September 21, 2019
Judge's citation: “‘Roommate, Woman’ presents a darkly symbiotic relationship between the speaker and a roommate allegorized through detached and dislocated body parts. Lee Young-ju’s poem’s concision defies the larger narrative it suggests where bodies and houses are rearranged and disfigured, perhaps violently, and Jae Kim’s translation captures the poem’s grotesque yet tender overtones with remarkable precision.”
“Tomboy” by Claudia Masin, translated from Spanish by Robin Myers—September 28, 2019
Judge's citation: “I’m drawn to the way in which Claudia Masin questions our acceptance of our bodies’ limitations. The body is ‘what can never be touched’ and a ‘lattice / of little filaments.’ The speaker imagines bodies defying the forms they were given, and that seems perfectly apt for what translation manages to do. While in transmission, the poem’s gone past language and changed form. Robin Myers’s version of ‘Tomboy’ points to a beautiful conundrum.”
This Norwegian edition of Words Without Borders has been put together to coincide with Norway being Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2019. And that honor could not have come at a better time for Norway, when there are so many good books being published and more translation rights being sold than ever before. Norwegian literature just seems to go from strength to strength.
And what an honor to be asked to make this selection. And what good fortune to be offered a place in the translator hotel program of Norwegian Literature Abroad (NORLA) last autumn, giving me two weeks in Oslo to read and read my way to this selection. The hotel lay within spitting distance of some of the main publishers, so I could dash out and get more books when my pile was running low, and it was easy to meet and talk with the agents without losing too much precious reading time. Work doesn’t get much better than that.
NORLA’s slogan for Frankfurt 2019, “The Dream We Carry,” comes from “It Is That Dream” by poet and translator Olav Hauge. In 2016, it was voted the greatest Norwegian poem of all time by readers and viewers of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK). And while it may not be immediately apparent, the idea of the dream we carry is a red thread running through the selected texts. However, most of the dreams in the chosen texts are either unfulfilled or broken.
Norway is in many ways living the dream; one of the poorest countries in Europe at the start of the last century, it is now one of the richest in the world. It frequently tops surveys and indexes for quality of life, equality, and happiness. And the Nordic model is an oft-heralded counterweight to hard free-market capitalism. Norway is a dream that many people carry. When something shines so bright, it is often easy to forget the tarnished edges, the less desirable places and dusty, forgotten corners.
Many of the pieces I have chosen are from such places, both physical and psychological. I have tried to make the selection as representative as possible of contemporary Norwegian literature in terms of content, gender, and style. To my disappointment, limitations on the number of pieces and the availability of rights prevented a fuller representation of Norway’s many voices, including those of second-generation immigrants.
Strikingly, five of the six fiction pieces have a first-person narrator. There is a long tradition of first-person narration in Norway; Knut Hamsun in his day said it was the future of literature, and his first novel, Hunger, was written in the first person, with shifting tenses, also preempting a preference for a present tense narrative. Shortly before then, in 1886, Hans Jæger published From the Christiania Bohemians, an autobiographical story. So, the literary phenomenon Karl Ove Knausgaard did not come out of nowhere, but autofiction has become a dominant trend in the past decade since the first volume of My Struggle was published. It has even spilled over to popular science, where some of the greatest nonfiction successes to come out of Norway in recent years mix fact and science with personal anecdote.
In January this year, the literary critic Marta Norheim published an article looking at the main trends in Norwegian literature in 2018. While the overarching characteristic was crisis, she identified historical fiction, the future, birth, and old age and death as the four main trends. I was delighted that I had picked up on these, and managed to represent at least two: birth/motherhood (Rage by Monica Isakstuen) and aging/death (All the Way Home by Levi Henriksen). Another voice that I would like to mention is that from less desirable suburbs, where there are multiple social issues, some of which come to the fore in Linn Strømsborg’s Suburbia.
Of the authors, Anders Tjernshaugen, Roskva Koritzinsky, Monica Isakstuen, Linn Strømsborg, and Jan Kristoffer Dale have all been included in the New Voices program, which started in 2017. This development program is run by NORLA, Talent Norway, and the Norwegian Publishers Association and was designed to highlight new literary voices from Norway and focus on the international dimension of being a writer in the run-up to Frankfurt 2019. Twenty-five authors have participated in the program. The two remaining authors, Levi Henriksen and Mona Høvring, are both well-established authors who have been translated into a number of languages, though Høvring has not, to my knowledge, appeared in English.
From the moment I started to read A Whale Tale by Anders Tjernshaugen, I wanted to include it. Whaling is a controversial issue and some of the descriptions are brutal, but the fact remains that whaling played such an important role in Norwegian history that the possibility of some upset should not be allowed to disqualify the book. This is a beautifully written account of the development of the whaling industry, which gave the possibility of a better life to many families. And while it is clear to us now that the hunting of the blue whale drove it to near extinction, we also see the dreams and aspirations. I would also like to add that Tjernshaugen bucks the current trend in Norwegian popular nonfiction, where fact is interwoven with personal reflection.
Working Hands is Jan Kristoffer Dale’s first short story collection and first full publication, for which he won the Tarjei Vesaas Author’s Debut Prize in 2016. And as the title suggests, the stories are about workers, unskilled workers, who have often not finished school and have no training. They come from a small rural community where opportunities are already limited. “In a Ditch” observes a much-anticipated weekend at a cabin which is ruined when one of three old friends brings along a new colleague from Oslo who has very different values and aspirations. The main character, Kenneth, does have his own dreams, but lacks the courage and conviction to follow them through. The story is as deeply Norwegian as it is universal.
Which is also true of “All the Way Home,” from Levi Henriksen’s eighth collection of short stories, Iron & Metal, published last year. His stories share a similar social demographic as those of Dale. Here a man whose life is no longer what it used to be goes the extra mile to make sure that others can enjoy theirs. Why did I choose it? Quite simply because it made me cry.
Roskva Koritzinsky’s third publication, the 2017 short story collection, I Have Not Yet Seen the World, was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Award. There are some excellent stories in the collection, and I could happily have used two or three of them, but in “From the Other Side,” about a young ballerina, I found a personal connection. The events of the story run parallel with the fate of Sture Bergwall, who was also known for a period as Thomas Quick. While in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane in the 1990s, he confessed to more than thirty murders in the Nordic countries and was eventually convicted for eight of them. One of these was that of nine-year-old Terese Johannessen, who had disappeared in 1988 from the street outside her home in Drammen, a couple of streets away from where my grandparents lived. The Sture leitmotif adds a sense of lurking menace to the events of this story.
Monica Isakstuen has published three novels, all three of which have received critical acclaim. Her previous novel, Be Kind to the Animals, won the Norwegian Book Award for Fiction in 2016. In Rage, a woman with a daughter from a previous marriage gives birth to twins, and is horrified and frightened by the anger this unleashes. Desperate to be a good mother and to be loved, she cannot control her rage. The book is structured in a series of episodes or sections that range from one line to several pages, from present to past to present; both effective and disturbing, it makes for uncomfortable reading at times.
Mona Høvring has previously published both poetry and a number of novels. Her third novel, Camilla’s Long Nights, was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and Because Venus Passed a Cyclamen on the Day I Was Born, which was published last year, won the Norwegian Critics’ Prize and was shortlisted for the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize. The title—evidence of her lyrical style—could be the answer to the question: why did this happen, why did things turn out the way they did? Well, because Venus . . . . Ella has accompanied her sister Martha to a hotel in the mountains, to help her recover from a breakdown. Ella also nurtures the hope that they might recover the trust and devotion they shared when they were children. “It is a story about the many distractions of the heart,” as Høvring’s literary agency put it, and there is a dreamlike quality to the book. I am so delighted that the book was published last year and I can include her beautiful, poetic writing.
Finally, Suburbia by Linn Strømsborg is a gem of a book. Published in 2013, it follows the life of Eva in the months after she has completed her master’s degree. This is when the life she has anticipated would start—her dream certainly did not include moving back in with her parents in the oft-vilified suburb where she grew up. This quiet, uneventful novel about a suburb and a group of friends is at the same time joyous and life-affirming. A second novel about Eva, You’re Not Gonna Die, appeared in 2016.
For a comparatively small nation, Norway offers an incredible wealth of literature. The reality of daily life there is more complex today than ever before and this is reflected in contemporary Norwegian writing. Given the quality of this writing and the energy and drive of the publishers and literary agencies, I think there will continue to be a buzz around Norwegian literature for a long time to come, well beyond the Frankfurt effect. My personal dream, the dream that I carry, is that in these turbulent times with so much division and hate, translated literature can help us to understand each other better and to see what we share, so that we remain positive and resilient, and never give up on our dreams.
© 2019 by Kari Dickson. All rights reserved.
In this extract from Monica Isakstuen's novel, a wife and mother of three struggles to contain her fury.
The story of us, how did it go again. You say: Why do you think I left work so early that day, why do you think I felt such a sudden urge to read up on ginkgo trees and primeval forests, why do you think I got into my car and drove to the neighboring town when I could just as easily have borrowed what I needed from a library closer to home, why do you think I visited your library, of all libraries, at that time, of any? I say: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, tell me! You say: Maybe it’s because I had a feeling there was someone extraordinary there.
Please, you say. Sit down, relax. As if there’s any time for that, I say. My God, look at all this, look at us! you say, it won’t be long before we disappear completely what with all the painting and plastering and budgeting and planning applications and pest control and bidding. What are you talking about, I ask him, placing my paintbrush down on the kitchen worktop. We can’t let that happen, you say, we can’t let our things own us, or our desire for more things, or our worries, or this house, I don’t want to lose us, I don’t want to lose you, what we have. That’s all very well, I say, it sounds good when you put it like that, but I can’t relax until I’ve made this house our own, that’s just the way it is, you know that, I’ve told you how I feel about it. But when will it be ours, how many coats of paint and repair jobs will it take! you say, don’t shout, I say, you’ll wake the children. We can’t let our things own us, you repeat. What are you talking about, I say, we don’t own anything, not really.
How many arguments will it take for you to walk out on me?
One night, all three of them threw up, one after the next in the space of two hours. First on the stairs, then in bed, then all over the hallway carpet. Only the first comes as any surprise, but after that it’s business as usual, buckets and cloths and fruit squash and antibacterial hand gel at the ready. Imposing order amid the squalor. Do you remember how well we worked together that day. Do you remember that? How unflustered we were. Completing tasks, offering comfort, mopping up. Exchanging glances, each of us instinctively aware of what the other was doing, of what we had to do next. There was vomit all over your legs, and you brought one mattress after the next down to the living room, one child after the next, and there they lay, three washed-out petals clustered around the bright yellow bucket. What do you reckon, think we could manage with another five, I said. The two youngest threw up once again, neither of them hitting their target. Oh, at least, you said, and ran off to fetch extra towels, more paper towels. My heart pounded so warmly in my chest. Everything that meant anything was here in this room.
We play Good Cop, Bad Cop, it’s as if the roles have already been assigned. Not that it matters all that much who plays which part, the trick is to stay in character until the end goal is achieved. The end goal is the complete and utter surrender of the target. By which I mean the child. But all of a sudden you’re not around, you’re working late or on a course or out buying something to replace something else that’s been broken. I have a go at being Good Cop, of course, I’m patient, I speak slowly, quietly, tenderly, and I try to stop and listen at least as often as I speak. What do you think about what just happened, why did you hit your brother. Nod. Take note of my little ones’ words and hide them away in my heart. Take a civilized tone, present my arguments calmly, but then all of a sudden they refuse to answer or turn around and wander off or stick out their tongues or start giggling at completely the wrong moment in time, tiny shifts that cause things to veer off in the wrong direction, and then I remember that they’re children, damn it, I think to myself, putting all this energy into taking the right tone and they can’t even be bothered to listen to a single word I say, and then we’re off, and I cast off my kind expression and reach for a different one altogether, then I'm BAD BAD BAD, and we hurtle into the rougher half of the interrogation, the scolding, the punishment, and then nothing can stop me, not the wobble of chins or the tremble of lips, not the eyes that fill with tears, because now they have no one but themselves to blame, without you I can’t remember where the line is or if it even exists at all, without you I lose my grip.
What is it that actually occurs? When my rage gets the better of me and every ounce of patience kindness warmth is driven out, does it happen gradually, or is it more like the flipping of a switch? Am I more the former than the latter? What if I’m more the latter. What if my rage has filled my core and transformed it, what if it’s become the very essence of my approach to all things, something that is only very occasionally stifled. Recurrent attacks, each worse than the one that came before it, a syndrome without cure. What is it that actually occurs? I think something, do something, say something, ask for something, promise something, expect something. Whatever I expect fails to materialize. They stand or sit or lie there and refuse to cooperate, insist on contradicting me. After everything I’ve done for them, after everything I’ve put up with, after all the patience I've exercised. A caring tone, predictable actions, gentle hands. I’ve followed the rules, I have. So what? What now? Will I once again be denied my evening, that time I’ve longed for, the opportunity to think in peace, to cook alone, to be a lone body. Yes? The hammering of my heart is fierce and menacing, they come too close, ask too much, gorge themselves on my ever-shrinking existence with an insatiable greed. What’s a person to do? How do other mothers do it? I think of the little group I found myself seated opposite on a train heading south, a mother with two young children, somewhere between four and six years old, I assumed. They wanted this and wanted that and needed this and needed that, their demands were never-ending. And, if it’s true what they say, that young children make around three demands per minute, then this woman, over the course of the two hours I observed her, was bombarded with around twelve hundred such demands. Over the course of those hours she replied to their questions and whinges and wails with quiet composure, occasionally ignoring them, occasionally smiling, and every so often she honored their requests, around ten times all in all, I think. All the time I watched her, I thought NOW. This is it, this will be the thing that tips her over the edge. Little brats, can’t you just leave her alone. Can't you see she’s on course to explode? But she didn’t explode. And I couldn't understand it. I thought to myself: what is she doing? Is this a trick? Perhaps I should take my children on train journeys with me, because witnesses keep you in check, the movement through the landscape seems to have a soothing effect and helps you maintain your composure, your dignity as a mother, it helps you be someone else for just a few short hours, the person you hoped you might become.
I scalp them one-by-one, no mean feat, the largest of them is surprisingly heavy. Are they ready? Are they ready are they ready are they ready? they shout, just five more minutes, I hiss, just five minutes, YOU SAID IT WOULDN’T TAKE LONG! one bellows, and I reply by telling them that if they’re going to be like this about it, screaming and hollering and impatient, then we’re just as well not bothering, it makes no difference to me if we have to ditch our preparations because they can’t keep their mouths shut for a single second, can they manage that, do they think? Alas. No. It’s for your sake I’m doing any of this in the first place, I say, your sake and no one else’s, unless you think this is my idea of a bloody good time, you said a bad word, Mummy, she says, Yes I bloody well did! I say, I’m spending my evening scooping the insides out of a vegetable, do you think this is the kind of thing I’d choose to be doing, do you really think that’s how it works? No. She doesn’t think that. Two hours later, we carry the hollowed-out, decorated vegetables out onto the front steps and light candles inside them. We’ve dressed up as ghosts, Dracula and an evil, old witch. We wait. Someone’s coming! one of them whispers. I nod. The sound of voices outside, laughter and hollering. Put on your masks, I whisper, and place a hand on the doorknob, let the door slide open, slow and creaky, BOO! we scream, as agreed, and the two monsters on the steps jump back, one drops a decapitated head straight onto the granite, it bounces down the steps and stops on the gravel. Oh, he says. Trick or treat, the other one mumbles. VERY GOOD! I say. Dracula holds up the bowl of treats. Three pieces each, she says firmly. We haven’t ever come to this house before, the headless one says. No? I reply. He shakes his head. It’s scary here. Nonsense, I say, then roar long and hard with laughter before slamming the door shut. Everything falls silent. The skeletons hanging from the ceiling shake, the spider webs quiver, the candles on the chest of drawers are blown out, Dracula is furious. Mummy! She stares at me. Why do you have to say those things? We’ll never make friends if you keep being like this! That’s enough, I say, tearing off my witch’s hat. The ghosts are in tears. I was only joking! She shakes her head, blood trickles from the corners of her mouth and down her chin, her throat, her chest. God, you’re so bloody ungrateful, I say. Why do you always have to be so cross! Dracula shouts, spitting out her fangs, and they fly out of her mouth and hit my foot, and that’s when it all becomes too much, I open the door and crouch down beside the pumpkins, pick them up and toss them down the front steps one-by-one until they’re all gone. Bed—NOW! I bellow. Skin and flesh and candlewax and sweets and snot and tears everywhere.
There was a time when they were calmer as I put them to bed, they smiled as I hummed, their eyes shining darkly from their beds as I turned out the lights, holding my gaze, and I could sit there and witness their surrender, the drowsy shuffling of limbs, as if underwater, eyelids that succumbed to sleep, their breathing eventually slow, steady. When you love someone, they can feel it. I have it in me. There was a time that different versions of you and I and the children existed. Don't say that we’ll never find them again.
I march from room to room, slamming doors behind me. Be careful, you say, those doors are old, they’ll break if you carry on like that, you know that as well as I do. Now you mention things breaking, I say, have you seen the chunks of plaster that come away from the outside walls when anyone touches them? Have you been in the loft lately and noticed that rotten smell, as if something’s died up there? Have you seen where something has been eating away at the rafters, tiny holes everywhere, the evidence all over the floor, piles of wood dust an inch high? Have you noticed the musty smell in the hallway between the bedrooms? Can you feel the way the floorboards are beginning to sag beneath our feet? Have you noticed the roof tiles coming loose and the ratholes all over the lawn and the stench of urine in the bathroom?
You stare at me, perplexed. What do you mean, what piles, what smell, what stench, what about the floorboards? Stop pretending that I’m imagining all of these things! I shout. You need to calm down, you say, the children are sleeping. No! I shout. I’m not imagining things! I’m not imagining the stench of urine or the mice in the walls or the pigeons in the loft or the damp, crumbling walls or the woodboring beetles in the timber or the salty deposits on the walls in the basement or the ivy creeping into the loft or the screeching magpies in every tree or the sparrows darting around the corners of the house, they're nesting in the eaves! I’m not imagining these things! Please, you say. Can’t we take things one at a time.
No, no, no, no, there’s no such thing as one at a time, one thing drags the next thing along with it, worries refuse to slot into place in orderly rows and columns, worries become tangled up in one another, single thoughts accumulate, they stack up, sway to-and-fro. What if we've been tricked, what if the previous owner knew that this place was falling apart, what if that was why she sold it to us, what if that's why nobody else wanted it. That’s nonsense, you say. But nobody else put an offer in, I say. Not high enough at least, you say. What if you get sick of all this, I say, what if you find someone else, someone younger and softer and prettier at one of your stupid seminars, someone with a green thumb and an interest in aesthetics, what if you take her up to your room and leave me behind, what if all this, the house and the kids and the garden and everything we thought would bind us together, what if it’s actually our undoing, what if we’re their undoing, what if we spend too much time scolding them and too little time listening, what if I can't stop myself, what if I become dangerous, what if I turn them into something they’re not supposed to be, what if, what if, WHAT IF! I say, I can't stop myself.
But! We’re not supposed to feel troubled by our decline. We’re not supposed to be concerned at the thought of aging. We’re not supposed to feel ashamed of wobbly thighs, flabby upper arms, stomachs that will never be toned again, yellowing toenails, we’re not supposed to compare our skin to the oversized cover of an increasingly rickety piece of garden furniture. We aren't to become hung up on such details. We aren't to curse the river of time, we aren't to grieve. Only shallow people grieve over youthful pictures of themselves, opportunities never taken. Only shallow people find it difficult when confronted by the sight of their own mature reflection in the mirror. Come on, now. You’re supposed to view everything that comes to light over time with curiosity. You’re supposed to embrace your age. Even so, for the odd nanosecond now and then, I catch myself reflecting on things: there should be someone much older here with me, Grandma, for example, someone to educate me in these things, to teach me to take heed, to accept. Wrinkle cream? she would have commented. Superfood? she would have chuckled. Dentures? What are those? she would have asked. First come the wrinkles, then the teeth fall away, and eventually the mouth collapses and leaves a gaping hole behind it. What's done is done, life goes on.
Stop all that, you’re beautiful, you say, turning your gaze toward the bowl. I can't work out if it's the bread dough or me you’re addressing, but it's the bread dough that you’re touching.
How do you love someone so that they feel it?
From Rase. © Monika Isakstuen By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Rosie Hedger. All rights reserved.
Andreas Tjernshaugen details the new industrialized whaling of the nineteenth century and early warnings that the industry might lead to extinction of its quarry.
Early one Sunday morning in October 1865, a fisherman called Olof Larsson was hunting small game among the smooth rocks on the coast at Askimsviken outside Gothenburg, Sweden. There he spied something unusual sticking up out of the sea some forty meters from the shoreline. At first he thought it was wreckage. But as soon as he reached the water’s edge his doubts vanished: it was a living creature lying out there, struggling to free itself.
Olof had never seen anything like it before. But he realized it could only be a whale. He rushed off to fetch his brother-in-law, Carl.
Carl Hansson had been to sea. He had seen whales out on the North Sea and he knew they were terrible monsters that might, in the worst of cases, try to swallow up your vessel. So for safety’s sake, he opted for a large boat. The two men hoisted sail and tacked towards the beast until they were about twenty-five meters away.
The whale lay on its belly, listing slightly to one side. It was motionless for the most part. About every fifth minute, it would draw in breath, give a jerk and try to hurl itself up into the air. Its tail would rise a man’s height above the water, then slap back down again. Its flippers flapped like wings. Its spout was like dense fog and sounded like a clap of thunder or “a deep bass voice, but with the force of a ship’s steam whistle,” as August Wilhelm Malm would describe it. The echo rang against the mountainsides.
Olof dared not proceed. He returned to land and could not be persuaded to attack the brute. Carl attempted it alone. But when the boat was three or four meters away, he too became afraid and turned back. Close to shore, he summoned up his courage and set out again. He attacked the whale with a knife fastened onto a long boathook, just in front of the two blowholes. To no avail. The whale barely noticed it had been stabbed. It continued struggling to get free but instead its efforts carried it ever further into the shallows.
When Olof saw he could safely approach the whale, he went out in the boat too. He was the one who discovered that the whale’s eye had emerged from the water. The whale blinked like a human being.
The two fellows decided to poke the whale’s eye out so it couldn’t see them. The knife and the boathook sank more than half a meter into the eye socket. A thin stream of blood spurted out. It ran out the way beer does when you poke a hole in the barrel, Carl thought, and it carried on that way for half an hour. The sea around them was dyed red. The whale struck out violently with its tail and fins, but it could no longer lift its head. It merely sank deeper into the sand.
Now Carl took to hacking at the whale’s head with an ax. As long as he stood in the boat, he achieved no visible results, but eventually he clambered up onto the head and from there, he managed to hack a deep notch just behind the blowholes. Blood welled up from the wound, running down into the blowholes and coloring the spout red. Soon, Carl was totally drenched in blood as he stood there, hacking away with his ax. The ax blows caused the whale to jerk so forcefully that Carl was obliged to return to the boat on several occasions until it had calmed down. The whale responded especially violently if touched close to its mouth.
From ten o’clock until half past three in the afternoon, Carl worked away with the ax up there on the whale’s head. Then the men secured the whale to land with a hawser and went home. They told nobody what they were up to out in Askimsviken.
The whale was still breathing when they turned up the next morning. Its attempts to break free had carried it even closer to land and the tide was low, so the men could reach it more easily now. Carl slashed the animal in the eye and the belly with a scythe. The stream of blood that gushed from the eye was as thick as an arm and lasted at least an hour this time. At around eleven o’clock, Carl made a deep wound behind one of the flippers. Air began to come out of the wound as the breathing through the two holes on top of the head stilled.
As the afternoon wore on, the whale lay almost motionless, although it continued to bleed. At around three o’clock, the whale’s body abruptly rose in a great arc. The whale lifted clear of the surface of the water, supported only by its head and tail. Then it thundered back down again, “so that the waters parted with a terrible crash.” After that, it lay quite still. It had been thirty hours since Olof Larsson discovered the beached whale.
If you buy a ticket, you can still see it. Even after 150 years, the blue whale of Askimsviken is the biggest attraction at Gothenburg Natural History Museum, and it’s still the world’s only stuffed blue whale.
Since it was just over sixteen meters long when it died, this was a whale calf that had recently stopped suckling its mother. It had been born the previous winter, probably somewhere south of the Azores. At that time it would have been about seven meters long, and weighed two or three tons. Over the spring, it followed its mother north. Mother’s milk, with the consistency of yogurt and containing up to fifty percent fat, gave it the necessary strength. Its mother showed the calf the best grazing spots. Some of them were probably far out to sea, but perhaps they also visited Iceland, the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, or the coast of Finnmark, Northern Norway. It is possible they were unlucky enough to be shot at. In those days, a few pioneers were trying out something quite new: catching blue whales with the aid of steam power and explosives.
On the autumn migration back south, the young male calf took an unusual detour to the east. Perhaps, being inexperienced, he lost his way. He must have rounded the southern coast of Norway, then Skagen at the northern tip of Denmark, and set a course into the Kattegat between Denmark and Sweden. And then he ended his life in the shallows of Gothenburg’s skerries. If he had survived it would have taken him several years to become capable of reproduction. A sexually mature male is at least twenty meters long and at least twice as heavy as the whale that ended up in the museum at Gothenburg.
August Wilhelm Malm of the Natural History Museum thought the whale he had bought from the two fishermen was a hitherto unknown species. In a grand gesture, he christened it after his wife, Caroline: Balaenoptera carolinae. The name was not adopted by other zoologists.
The truth was, in fact, that there had already been numerous scientific descriptions of the same species. Each time one of these gigantic whales was found in civilized parts, it caused a sensation. Zoologists who got a chance to examine a beached specimen had seldom seen anything like it before. Like August Wilhelm Malm, they often imagined that they had discovered a creature hitherto unknown to science. The result was that as many as twelve different scientific names had previously been proposed for animals that were probably all blue whales. Today the blue whale is called Balaenoptera musculus, as originally proposed by Linnaeus based on a description of an animal he himself had not seen.
The shortcomings of the anatomical descriptions and sketches that accompanied the suggested names did little to lessen the confusion. They reflected the unmanageable size of the creatures, the difficult working conditions on the beaches where the carcasses lay, not to mention the decomposition that was often far advanced before the arrival of a scientist with more or less expertise in whale-related matters.
But regardless of its species, August Wilhelm Malm had laid his hands on a rare zoological treasure. He got straight down to organizing the salvage work. It took three steamships and two coal barges to transport the carcass into town, where thirty workers were employed to flay and dismember the animal, in a stinking race against decomposition—and the gawkers who kept stealing scraps of the whale as souvenirs. The sheets of skin were fixed to a specially designed wooden frame using 30,000 zinc and copper pins. The structure was built in four separable sections, which made it easier to transport the whale.
The museum whale was equipped with hinges in its neck, so that the upper jaw could be flipped open. This allowed visitors to study the remarkable baleen up there. It was even possible to climb into the belly of the whale, just like Jonah in the Bible. The interior was cozily furnished with benches and wallpaper and all. The decision to fit it with a moveable upper jaw may have been made on practical grounds, but it is hardly consistent with baleen whale anatomy. When a living whale opens its mouth, the lower jaw is the one that moves.
The whale was exhibited in Gothenburg and Stockholm with great success. However, a planned tour of Europe got stranded in Berlin, and the wealthy burghers of Gothenburg had to open their wallets to buy back the whale from the creditors.
August Wilhelm Malm wrote up the tale of the museum whale’s discovery and preparation and had it printed, together with photographs and an exhaustive scientific description, in a fine, deluxe edition in French. The Malm Whale, as it was known, enjoyed a brief moment of scientific stardom. But experts’ interest rapidly waned when the launch of industrial whaling offered access to plentiful supplies of blue whale carcasses. Nonetheless, the blue whale in Gothenburg remained a popular museum artifact. On one occasion in the early 1900s, a couple were discovered making love inside the belly of the whale, which prompted the museum to place restrictions on entry into this unusual space. Nowadays, visitors to the museum are only allowed to clamber in through the jaws of the grotesque, blackened treasure on special occasions.
The sixteen-meter long stuffed whale is enormous. And yet it would pale into insignificance beside the world’s largest preserved whale skeleton—a twenty-seven-meter blue whale shot off the coast of Iceland. This record-holding skeleton is exhibited in the small town of Tønsberg in southeast Norway. Tønsberg’s Slottsfjell Museum stands by the hill where Norway’s medieval kings had their great halls and fortified walls built, and where they besieged one another when civil war broke out. Before getting to the whalebones, you pass through exhibitions displaying the remains of Viking ships, along with bronze jewelry and swords.
Right at the end of the building, beyond a section containing artifacts from Tønsberg’s days as a whaling and sealing town in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, lies the whale hall. The giant mounted skeletons are packed tightly together. The blue whale, which dominates the room, was shot with a harpoon cannon from a steamship, then hauled into the Norwegian-run whaling station in Hellisfjord, Iceland, in the summer of 1901. At the busy factory the blue whale bones were not, for once, sawn up and boiled down to produce oil. Instead they were cleaned and taken home to Tønsberg.
At the far end of the exhibition room, beside the tip of the giant skeleton’s snout, a small brass plaque explains that this particular blue whale skeleton is the largest preserved specimen of a living species anywhere in the world. The reason for the reservation about it being a “living” species is that some long-necked dinosaurs were longer from their snout to the tip of their tail than even the largest blue whales. As for body mass—the dinosaurs didn’t even come close. And the bones either side of the blue whale’s lower jaw are the very largest bones ever seen in the animal kingdom. These dimensions would be normal for a tree.
No employees are to be seen in this corner of the museum. The exhibits are not roped off and directly beneath the blue whale’s ribcage is a bench where visitors can sit.
If things had gone the way many people feared, the world’s largest whale skeleton might have been better guarded. At the time when it arrived in Tønsberg, there was some doubt about how much longer there would still be blue whales in the oceans of the world. Perhaps the whale would soon belong among the “museum animals,” warned one member of parliament during a debate on whaling in 1903: “Practically speaking, the blue whale has vanished from our coasts,” stated another. He thought the species should now be conserved and protected, for its own sake, as a kind of remnant of the giants of the past.
But would people really miss the whales, any more than they missed extinct giant sloths and mastodons? Did they really matter to the well-being of humanity? These questions were posed by one of the speakers in a previous parliamentary debate as early as 1885. He admitted that it would be a disadvantage to lose the opportunity for whaling, but otherwise, he said, he did not know “whether the Whale plays such a role in the world that it would be any great calamity if it were to wholly depart the ranks of Living Creatures.”
This is where modern whaling began. It was people from Tønsberg who established whaling operations using the fast, steam-powered boats, grenades, and harpoon cannons that made the possible extinction of the blue whale a topic of debate. Over the course of seventy years at least, Vestfold County—including the towns of Tønsberg, Sandefjord and Larvik—was the world’s whaling hub. Whaling expeditions headed first to the Finnmark coast. Later, they went all over the world.
In the Antarctic in particular, the blue whale nearly died out. This was where the majority of the world’s blue whales originally lived, and the Antarctic subspecies, which is today considered critically threatened with extinction, was the biggest. The largest individuals were around five meters longer than the one that ended up in the museum in Tønsberg. They were several dozens of tons heavier.
Dozens of tons. We still share the planet with animals so huge that we struggle to imagine whether ten or thirty tons would make any discernible difference. We nearly finished off the very largest of them, and the yellowing wooden bench beneath the whale’s ribcage in Tønsberg is a good place to mull the question posed by that member of parliament in 1885.
Would it have been any great calamity?
From Hvaleventyret. Hvordan vi nesten utryddet det største dyret som har levd. © Andreas Tjernshaugen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Lucy Moffatt. All rights reserved.
My Norwegian ex-boyfriend always accused me of selective comprehension. If he said something I didn’t want to hear, he claimed, I would forget the vocabulary necessary to translate it. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps that is the chief luxury of socializing in a foreign language: it’s easier to pretend ignorance. We were living together in Oslo, on his turf and in his mother tongue. I’d argue that I was being extra cautious in order to avoid a potentially hurtful mistranslation. I know you know what I said, he’d insist. Usually, I did. And then I’d begin the steps that follow knowing: understanding, translating, thinking, translating, and speaking my split mind.
For the better part of two years I operated entirely in Norwegian, in a self-taught and unstable form of the language that the locals humored. One of those years I spent dating this man from the heart of the country, a man whose regional dialect compelled him to call inanimate objects by “he” or “she” even though formal Norwegian, unlike French, didn’t require it. Selecting a jar of mustard at the supermarket, he’d say, “We’ll take him!” I dislike mustard, but I loved the phrasing.
I often wondered whether my relationships and friendships abroad were boosted by this kind of linguistic pleasure. He liked it when I messed up prepositions. He’d put our hunk of Jarlsberg near the sink, then in the sink, then behind. Then there’d be a quiz. Nær, i, and bak all resembled their English equivalents, but only if I looked closely: the “e” and “a” in “near” switched order; the “c” in “back” and the “n” in “in” disappeared. The words “over” and “under” were the same in both our languages, which felt like having so much in common.
I’d begun studying Norwegian during my first solitary summer in the far north, years before I’d relocated to the more bustling Oslo. I’d become enchanted by the introverted-but-swashbuckling novels of Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize-winning national bard whose malignant politics as a ninety-year-old have complicated his legacy. It was a thrill to read his novels while living in the same towns and territories where Hamsun had lived a century earlier—reading first in English, then terribly slowly in the original. I couldn’t get enough of his sweeping but detailed accounts of isolated emotional lives.
I loved best the passage toward the end of his early novel Hunger, in which the protagonist begs his beloved for permission to kneel before her on the carpet:
Nu går jeg! Nu går jeg! Kan De ikke se, at jeg allerede har Hånden på Låsen? Farvel! Farvel, siger jeg! … jeg viser Dem det Sted, hvor jeg vilde knælet for Dem, der borte på den røde Rose i Tæppet. Jeg peger ikke med Fingeren engang, jeg peger slet ikke, jeg lader det være, for ikke at forskrække Dem, jeg nikker bare og ser derhen, således! Og De forstår meget godt, hvilken Rose, jeg mener, men De vil ikke tillade mig at knæle der…
I’m going! I’m going! Can’t you see I already have my hand on the lock? Farewell! Farewell I say! … I showed you the place where I would have knelt before you, over there on the red rose in the carpet. I’m not pointing with my finger, I’m absolutely not pointing, I’m leaving it be, so as not to frighten you, I only nod and look toward it, like so! And you understand me entirely, which rose, I mean, but you will not allow me to kneel there…
Hamsun relied upon frustration, neglect, and the deep inner recesses of his protagonist’s private personality to express a universal romantic longing. The heroes and heroines of Hamsun’s novels missed each other, more often than not, but their fleeting exchanges built rope bridges between one loneliness and another.
My Norwegian girlfriends told me that my boyfriend belonged to a breed of Norwegian man called kjekk og greie, literally “hot and OK.” It meant that he was upstanding, energetic, idealistic, well-raised, and essentially ordinary—something akin to a Norwegian “bro.” But kjekk og greie didn’t translate to “bro” in my mind. It had more to do with finely knitted sweaters and the Holmenkollen ski jump than baseball caps and frat houses, and in my boyfriend’s case, more to do with a reticent playfulness than a party personality.
I had always been excessively effusive, excessively affectionate—in other words, a touchy-feely breed of New Yorker. In Oslo, I would compliment strangers on their platform sneakers and their ponchos. I soon learned that Norwegians deliver praise in the past tense. It seemed an extension of the country’s social modesty and its cold weather. Så fin du var (“How fine you were”) was the only way to say, “Right now you look beautiful.” The Crown Prince Håkon had gotten married a few years earlier and included in his speech the phrase, Jeg elsker deg (“I love you”). The Norwegian media was shocked by this explosive declaration of passion.
When my boyfriend and I later wanted to make declarations, they came in phases. First there was Jeg liker deg—“I like you.” Then, a big step: Jeg er glad i deg. Literally, “I am happy in you.” It’s romantic, but noncommittal; sincere, but not serious. It’s as far as most dating couples get. Norwegians can be glad i lots of things: it is common to be happy in waffles, happy in cross-country skiing, happy in tomato mackerel paste. The closest English translation is “fond”— it’s doting, but flexible.
The day my boyfriend used the verb elske, as the Crown Prince had, he immediately added: and that’s something I never say. New couples have similar queasiness about confessing love in the States. But this elske moment made an impression commensurate to the rareness of the word—I can’t think of a word in English used as sparingly. We’ve been broken up now for eight years, but I still remember that he said it on May 4. It felt to me like an international Norwegian-American holiday.
I continued to pore through the major Norsk poets, looking for a guide to northern relationships. Inger Hagerup lived from the start to the end of the twentieth century and filled her time and her country with sensitive, wistful, resistant, romantic, conscientious lyrics that glorified her internal and external landscapes.
klø sine ferske myggstikk
med doven ettertenksomhet
og være ung og meget rik
på uopplevet kjærlighet.
scratch fresh mosquito bites
with lazy contemplation
and be young and very full
of unexperienced love.
Hagerup sketched in negative space: unexperienced love, unwritten letters, unlit hearths, and unwalked paths frequently called forth and described what she most desired. In pairing what she lacked with what she needed, she’d found a poignant and understated way to celebrate the whole.
I walked in that same lazy contemplation through the Vigeland sculptures in Oslo, taking in their mammoth grace. Vigeland’s human figures had succeeded in expressing the most raging and saturated emotions, day in and year out, against every color of sky and weather, without uttering any kind of word. I felt so devoted to them, so attached to their company, visiting the sculpture park became a compulsion.
There were moments of silence in Norwegian daily life that English would have chatted straight through. Then again, there were moments of physical communication that made up for it. I suppose the differences between these love cultures—these alternating sources of pride and shame and lust and withholding—are all made moot by the fact that love is not, at bottom, verbal. What happens to a physical relationship in the absence of a shared spoken language? Does physical contact become supercharged, as hearing does for the blind, or is it burdened with misplaced significance? Do we hold sex responsible for communicating more than it ever could? I felt an exaggerated physical eagerness in my foreign relationships that matched the converse terror: if we didn’t have good sex, we had nothing. Depending on the quality of our sensual experience, postcoital silence either transcended language or desperately lacked it.
In June following that memorable May, my brother got married. I left my boyfriend’s apartment for what I’d imagined would be a quick trip to Los Angeles, and got arrested at the Oslo Gardermoen airport. Schengen Area laws forbade U.S. citizens from spending more than three of any consecutive six months in Norway; I’d been there for three months and five days this time, and in total, for more than two years. The border control officers scanned my passport and prohibited me from entering Norway again for fifteen months. My boyfriend and I tried to stay together long-distance, but here our communication was put to a four-thousand-mile test and failed.
It didn’t surprise either of us that the mutually entertaining little discrepancies of our culture clash weren’t enough to support a real connection. In retrospect, it was wrong of me to conflate person and place, to funnel the discovery of an entire new geography into our single household. Over the near decade since our split, I’ve relied on the wide canon of Nordic literature for more permanent and instructive expressions of romance in the Norwegian language—a language I truly love.
All couples assemble a unique vocabulary, no matter which languages they start with. But the search for fluency has stuck with me: a relationship, anywhere, still feels like a gathering and sharpening of all possible tools, and the coming together of two minds still feels like an act of translation.
© 2019 by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight. All rights reserved.
Roskva Koritzinsky's short story portrays a young dancer's alienation in a Stockholm gripped by a lurid trial.
At the age of nineteen, I went to Stockholm to attend the Ballet Academy. It was around that time when people had started doubting whether or not Sture Bergwall had really committed the murders he had been accused of. The TV reporters followed him from crime scene to crime scene. He went around in a daze, bug-eyed behind thick lenses and looking like a dying giant insect that had lost all sense of orientation and its ability to fly. Bergwall was discussed during school breaks, in the dance studios with legs propped up on the bar or on the floor during stretches. When the pianist sat down to play, we grew quiet. I remember standing for a long time in front of the mirror in the mornings without doing much. It was a long, cold winter. I was restless and bored. In the streets of Stockholm, the air was crisp and clear, the air in the dance studios smelled intimate and dispassionate, of sweat and rubber. I thought of brothels and hospitals; that was the winter I came to understand I would not be a dancer after all.
In the afternoons, I read French literature. The books were very thin. I didn't care much about what was written; I liked the melody of the sentences, it calmed me. In the evenings, I went to the top of Skinnarviksberget, I was wearing mittens and a knit hat pulled down over my ears. It was freezing cold and the streets were empty. I stood at the top of the hill and gazed down across the city without feeling homesick.
She appeared one afternoon. We had started practicing for the annual Christmas performance and did not stop until the darkness pressed in hard against the windows of the dance studio. The darkness made me think about unchartered deep waters; I usually walked home quickly while trying to hold my breath.
She stood in the doorway to the dance studio with her arms crossed, looking at us. Her face was empty of expression. Her unbound hair hung down over her shoulders onto a suede sheepskin jacket. When the music stopped, she took a step into the room. Our teacher turned to face her and extended her arms.
E-riiiika. It sounded like a revelation. She walked over to the girl, placed a hand on each of her shoulders, and turned to present her to us like a luxury clothing item.
Erika did not smile. There was something dismissive about her appearance, an innate disregard, I could immediately sense she was the kind of person to fall silent in an argument, who would watch her opponent build themselves up and flatten out again without uttering a single word. She had nothing to defend. She took off her jacket and hung it over a chair. She laced up her winter dance shoes. She didn't seem to care that we all stood there, watching her quietly. She straightened up again, took a hairband from her wrist, and pulled her reddish hair back into a bun. Then she walked with long steps over to the corner of the room and began to warm up, keeping her eyes fixed on her reflection in the mirror.
I won’t describe the way she danced. Let’s just say it was obvious why our instructor had asked her to come show us how it was done. But I have to say something about her face. I have never seen anyone dance with a face like that. It was something that could not be learned, it belonged to her being, it was nothing simpler or more complicated than that. It made me feel sad, but also hopeful. Perhaps it meant there might be something about me that was indescribable and therefore irreplaceable. Something I myself didn’t even recognize and which could never be taken away from me.
I saw her a few days later. It was morning and I was on my way to school. A heavy wind blew through the streets and I looked down as I walked across the cobblestones. Something made me look up, and then there she was, behind the window of a passing bus. Once again, I was filled with the sense that she wasn’t quite human. She was staring straight ahead, not seeming to register the other bus passengers or the city rolling by outside the window. She merely was. Like a doll, or an old photograph pasted into a collage.
What happened next, I will never quite understand: I turned around and went home. I locked myself into my apartment and climbed into bed. Images flamed up and burned to bits before my eyes, and from the ashes, new images bloomed. There was her face, her hands on the table, her hair falling across her forehead. I must have stayed in bed like that for several hours watching these images, without knowing what to do with them or what they meant, but listen: on the street where I grew up, there was an abandoned house, and once Bea and I climbed in through an open window and tiptoed carefully through the rooms, and there is a likeness here, between Erika and that house, both places apparently abandoned, the atmosphere of having been left, as when the soul has just left a room, left a garden, left a body, it’s only then that you notice it. You can ask yourself what are you supposed to do now. The overgrown beds, the faceless mirror above the bureau, the eyes void of thought, void of emotion. Maybe it’s something macabre within us, a need to fill these dead things with our own spirit. No. The garden and the body and the rooms. It wasn’t myself I was looking for there, and it was also not myself I found. It was something else. I didn’t believe in God, and yet I could sense there was a wall in the world and when I shut my eyes and put my cheek up against it, I could hear muffled sounds from the other side.
Advent came, it would be Christmas soon. The day before our performance, I pulled a tendon in my thigh. I couldn’t dance. I sat in the front row eating oranges and scarcely noticed when a family sat down in the empty seats beside me. A woman’s voice snapped out orders to her son who was running through the rows. I looked up disinterestedly. My body went cold when I saw it was Erika. Her cheeks were red with exasperation and she dug around in her purse and pulled out a little stuffed animal with which she coaxed her son back to her. He couldn’t have been older than two. Next to Erika, closest to me, sat a moderately attractive man with his arm on the back of her chair. After she calmed down her son and pulled him onto her lap, Erika turned to the man and quickly stroked his cheek. Just then, she saw me and smiled.
Aren’t you going to dance? she asked.
A moment ago, the thought of Erika’s gaze, her voice, would have made me feel wild with ecstasy. Now I felt cheated.
I pulled a muscle, I replied.
She nodded slowly, and then smiled again before turning her attention back to her son.
The performance began. I knew it was beautifully choreographed and that the dancers were talented, and yet—
I only saw skeletons. I saw twitches in tendons and muscles, toe tips that fell heavily against the floor, bruises on elbows and knees, the work that lay behind all of the beauty, the grit beneath all of the magic. Here was the body-work, the beauty-work, the love-work, I felt dizzy.
That night I slept fitfully.
I dreamed I was walking and walking toward a tall mountain against the horizon. The mountain was covered by a layer of clouds, but when the clouds broke up, the mountain was gone, and the only thing that remained was myself and the other people on the road.
I had never felt so lonely.
And then it was spring.
Sture Bergwall was acquitted and I went home to my flat and packed my things. I locked the door. I left Stockholm in the belief that I would return in the fall, but I did not.
"Fra den andre siden," from Jeg har ennå ikke sett verden. © Roskva Koritzinsky. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Becky Crook. All rights reserved.
Jan Kristoffer Dale's short story follows a weekend trip derailed by an unexpected participant.
They picked him up on Friday afternoon. Kenneth had thought it was only going to be Terje, Tor André, and him on the trip to the cabin in Kverve. But sitting down in the backseat, he saw that Tor André had brought along his workmate, Espen. He looked a few years younger than Kenneth and the others, and dressed differently too. Not to mention his posh, Eastern Norwegian way of speaking. Kenneth noticed Tor André had even started to dress like him: skinny trousers and tight-fitting shirts instead of his usual plaid. Terje was in the back, too. As Kenneth climbed in, Terje grinned and smacked him on the thigh.
“Get out of it,” Kenneth growled.
He threw his bag on the floor and it landed with a clink.
Tor André turned around. “Just bung your stuff in the back, mate. There’s tons of room.”
“Yeah, but give us a beer first!” Terje teased, giving Kenneth’s leg another slap.
Kenneth opened the boot and tossed his bag in.
“You lot bring your skis?” he asked, getting back into the car.
“Just them two,” Terje replied, using his beer to gesture towards Tor André behind the wheel, and Espen in the passenger seat.
“Yep,” said Tor André. “We spoke ’bout it at work.”
Espen turned round to face them and swept his shoulder-length hair behind his ears.
“Would you rather go back and get yours?”
“Nah,” replied Kenneth. “Don’t have no skis what’d work.”
Espen shrugged and turned his attention back to the road. Tor André started the car. Terje cracked open a beer bottle with a jerk of his keys. He took a swig, closed his eyes, and leaned back against the headrest.
Kenneth sighed. “Ahh . . . Yep, that’s the taste of weekend.”
Terje agreed and Tor André nodded. Espen stayed quiet. Stared ahead, with his eyes trained on the narrow, freshly-ploughed gravel road ahead.
“I’d forgotten you lived so deep in the forest,” Tor André said.
“Yup. But it ain’t that bad,” Kenneth replied. “Only twelve minutes and you’re in Osedalen.”
“Twelve minutes?” cried Espen. “It feels as though we’ve been driving forever!”
“Bah, just you wait till we get to this cabin,” said Kenneth. “That’s far into them woods!”
Espen didn’t respond.
Terje drained the last of his bottle and threw it on the floor.
“Oi,” yelled Tor André. “I don’t want no beer on that floor. Beer smells. And I’m not the only one what drives this car.”
“Bah.” Terje wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I’ll pick it up when we get there.”
They stopped off at the Spar in Osedalen to buy beer and food for two days. They couldn't make up their minds about dinner. They usually just made a big pizza when they arrived, but this time Espen and Tor André wanted to roast a lamb shank with potato gratin.
“Espen says he’ll make the lot from scratch,” Tor André explained. “And on Saturday he reckons he can make some kind of pasta.”
“I didn't think we’d be spending so much cash,” said Terje.
“Can't we just get something simple?”
“Oh come on, you lot!” moaned Tor André. “We always have pizza. Let Espen make us something different. You won't regret it.”
As Espen picked up meat, cheese, cream, potatoes, onions, garlic, and greens, Kenneth was reminded of his TV license bill, and the looming car insurance renewal.
“Let's divvy it up at the till,” said Espen.
Just as Kenneth was ready to pay, Espen heaped two joints of lamb, a bag of potatoes and a carton of single cream on top of Kenneth’s shopping.
“Wait up,” said Tor André, coming over with his own basket. He plonked in tomatoes, garlic, fresh pasta, and two bottles of something Kenneth didn't recognize.
“Am I supposed to be shelling out for all this?” Kenneth asked.
“Terje pulled out,” said Espen. “He got himself a pizza.”
“So you and me and Espen’ll split the rest,” explained Tor André.
Kenneth glanced at Terje, waiting at the back of the queue with his own basket. He was getting beer, three frozen pizzas, and a bag of pick ‘n’ mix.
The girl on the till looked up at him. Tor André and Espen glanced at each other.
“Are you feeling like pizza?” Tor André asked.
“Nah,” said Kenneth. “It’s fine.”
Terje took his six-pack into the backseat and cracked open another bottle. Kenneth did the same.
“Take it easy back there,” warned Tor André.
Terje shook his head and took another swig. On the way up past the old factory in Frolands Verk, Tor André and Espen chatted about a seminar they both attended. Kenneth opened another beer, glaring at Terje.
“You could’ve chipped in,” he hissed.
“Nobody told me we were gonna have this bloody posho food,” Terje grumbled.
“Me neither,” Kenneth muttered, gazing out the window. It was starting to snow.
Tor André left the motorway at the turn-off for Kverve, turning onto a narrow gravel road with high snowbanks on either side. Kenneth cast a sideways glance at Terje, who was checking his phone. Its background was a photo of his partner, Charlotte, and his three-year-old son. Charlotte was out of work, and they lived in her parents’ basement. Terje had a job making blasting mats for construction work. Kenneth looked at Terje’s hands: The ends of his fingers were black. Nails ground down to his fingertips. Kenneth regretted saying yes to the trip. He could have stayed home with Heidi this weekend. She had been doing night shifts at the hospital, so this Saturday she would sleep the whole day through. When she woke up late that night, she would be all hot and sweaty. Her blonde, curly hair running wild. He liked her like that. They hadn't slept together for more than two weeks, and he felt his belly getting warm at the thought. The two hundred kroner Kenneth had set aside for the trip should really be going towards the cost of all the food Espen had picked up, but Kenneth had brought along his poker set. Besides, Kenneth had been looking forward to playing cards and, if all went well, he might be able to get back some of the money he lost down in Osedalen.
“All ready for a rand when we get there?” he said, seeing Terje nod.
“A rand?” Espen asked, swiveling round in his seat.
“A rand of poker,” Kenneth repeated.
“You all play poker?”
“You know, I've never played,” Espen said, adding: “But I do play a bit of chess.”
Kenneth just nodded, and Espen turned to face forwards again.
“He's a right Magnus Carlsen,” said Tor André.
Kenneth could see Espen was grinning.
“The fact people even talk about that like a sport really gets on my nelly,” said Terje.
Silence. Then after a pause, Espen spoke up:
“But you know, it actually is a sport.”
“Nope. No sweat, no sport,” Terje declared, dropping another beer on the floor.
Tor André spun around.
“I told you, not on that floor!”
Espen shrieked, “Hey! HEY!”
Tor André spun back to face the road, and jerked the wheel, hard. Kenneth felt his seat belt clamp across his chest and his stomach somersaulting as the car careened off the road. Everyone screamed. The radio cut out. Kenneth felt himself bite his tongue, and tears sprang from his eyes. Tor André cursed and wrenched the door open. The others followed him out, and Terje had to crawl out from Kenneth's side. Kenneth stayed there in the ditch, gazing up at the road. They had narrowly missed driving straight into a group of birch trees, and only now did Kenneth realize how steep the ditch was. He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He spat into the snow, and noticed it was red. He could taste iron.
“Bloody Nora,” said Tor André.
Tor André wandered over to the car and climbed inside. When he started it and tried to reverse, its wheels spun in the snow. He tried again, but it wouldn’t budge. Kenneth watched him thump the steering wheel.
Terje had lit a fag and was blowing smoke in Espen’s direction.
“Well, come on lads!” Tor André was waving them back to the car. Kenneth followed Espen and Terje. The snow reached their knees.
“You lot go round the front and shove, and I’ll give her some gas,” he said.
Kenneth gave Terje a pat on the shoulder and gestured for him to follow. The car was buried in snow up to its headlights. Terje brushed them clean.
“She’s in deep,” Kenneth said.
They lined up shoulder to shoulder. It was steep, so Kenneth had to dig his feet into the snow as he leaned against the bonnet with both hands. On one side stood Terje, while Espen was on the other. Tor André counted down from the driver's seat:
“One, two, three!”
Kenneth put all of his weight in. He heard the revs rising. The tires spun and sprayed snow high into the air, but the car refused to move an inch.
From inside the car, they heard Tor André yelling “Push!”
“Give it some, then!” Terje shouted. Kenneth could see he was looking towards Espen.
“I am pushing,” Espen replied. His face was red.
“Pfft. Not enough,” Terje grumbled, turning back to the bonnet.
They took a break and Terje smoked another cigarette. Tor André gave another countdown. There was now a powerful stench of exhaust, and Kenneth was starting to feel dizzy and sick. He spat out some more blood and looked over at Terje, who was biting down on his lip and pushing. Espen slid backward in the snow and fell flat on his stomach. Tor André stopped pressing the accelerator and got out to help him up. Espen brushed the snow off his knees and readjusted his puffer jacket.
“That's too bloody steep,” said Terje, letting out a puff of smoke.
“Not half. We ain’t budging,” Tor André agreed.
“How is the car itself?” Espen asked.
Tor André zipped his jacket back up and tugged his beanie down over his ears.
“Reckon she’s fine,” he said. “It’d be tough to see nothing now.”
He fell quiet for a moment as he regarded the car. Then he said, “Me uncle lives up the road. He’s got a tractor. I'll see if he can come tow us.”
They got back into the car. Kenneth asked whether Espen wanted a beer, but he shook his head.
“He don’t drink beer,” Terje grumbled, removing yet another bottle from the six-pack. Espen turned round to face Terje.
“Well that's probably a good thing, too?” Terje made no response. Just popped off the bottle cap and took a big swig. Kenneth looked over at Tor André, who was holding his mobile to one ear. He put it down on the dashboard.
“Went to voicemail,” he said.
“Is it much further to your cabin?” Espen asked,
“A good three K,” Tor André replied.
“Well that's not too far!”
“Nah,” said Tor Andre. “But we gotta get back home again, ain’t we? And there ain’t no way we’re getting all our stuff up there on foot.”
“Would you mind turning the heating up a tad?” said Espen.
Tor André started the car and said:
“So how's school, Ken?”
“Are you still at school?” Espen asked.
“Just doin’ a couple of adult courses,” Kenneth explained. “At the people’s college.”
Espen said nothing.
“Coz I ain’t got the grades for uni,” Kenneth added.
“Well it's never too late, mate,” Tor André said. “Reckon it’s a good thing what you're doing.”
Terje had polished off another bottle. He wound down the window and tossed it out into the snow.
Kenneth could see Tor André shaking his head. Terje bent down, fished all the other bottles off the floor, and threw them out the window too.
“There!” he said. “Now you don't gotta worry about no beer anymore.” He grabbed a cigarette, opened the door and stepped out. The instant he closed it, Tor André’s phone started to buzz. He answered it.
“Hi. Yep. I did.”
He listened for a moment, then laughed.
“Well, we’ve had ourselves a little accident. Slid off the road. Right now we're in a ditch a couple of kilometers from your farm.”
Tor André paused to listen.
“Yep, that’s what I were thinking.”
He waited for a moment, his clean-shaven jaw illuminated by the blue screen on his phone.
“You there now?”
He nodded and cast a few glances around the car.
“So we'll wait then,” he said. “Cheers, uncle.”
He hung up and turned to face Espen.
“He’s down Arendal right now, but they were away to head up soon anyway. He said he’d be up as fast as he could.”
Espen slumped back into the headrest and groaned.
“That's an hour, easy.” Kenneth said.
“Yeah I know,” Tor André replied.
After half an hour of waiting, Kenneth went to the boot and dug out a bag of crisps. He shared it with the others. The salt burned the cut on his tongue. The bleeding had stopped, but it still felt swollen.
“Which subjects are you studying?” Espen asked.
“Social sciences, Norwegian, and math.”
“And what would you like to study at university?”
Kenneth thought for a moment.
“Wasn’t you thinking of being an engineer?” Tor André asked.
“Yeah, maybe. Dunno. We'll see.”
He thought about the books that lay unopened at the end of his kitchen table. It was so much easier to do anything else but open them. Yesterday he had decided he was going to start his Norwegian language textbook the moment he came home from work, but before he knew it he had mopped the corridor, gone upstairs, and run a bath. Then he had prepared some dough and popped it in the oven. He liked housework. It helped him relax, and he liked seeing things through. When he flicked through the Norwegian textbook after buying it, it had hit home that he didn't even know the difference between masculine and feminine nouns. Or the difference between regular and irregular verbs. More than nine years had gone by since he had left secondary school. That was where he had met Tor André. They had grown up as neighbors in Jomås. Terje hadn't finished high school, instead training to be a welder, and had got a job straight out of school in a factory in Arendal. He had worked there right up until the day it was knocked down. Which was when he got this job making blasting mats. Tor André hadn’t known what he wanted to do after school, so he spent three years doing odd jobs. He worked behind the counter at a Shell in Arendal and delivered copies of the local paper, Agderposten. But one day he made up his mind, and applied to study business and management studies at Agder University. Now he had a career in Arendal. A house and a good wage. All while Kenneth had been skipping from job to job ever since secondary school. Lately he had been working at a warehouse in Skeidar, out near Stoa.
“It takes time to sort your life out,” said Tor André. “Spent a few years working myself.”
Kenneth looked at Espen, who nodded.
“And what’s your story?”
“Me? After school I went straight to university,” Espen said.
“Yeah? What’d you do?”
“Well, I read various things, but my master’s was in business management.”
“Same as Tor André?”
“Well, yes. Almost.”
Terje let out a snort. Tor André stared at him.
“What’s your problem?”
Terje didn't respond. He just opened the door and got out.
“He's pretty sloshed,” Espen said.
Kenneth agreed. “Yep.”
“It's good you're holding back a bit, Ken,” Tor André said. “Can't all get off our faces.”
He checked his watch.
“Reckon my uncle’s gonna be here soon.”
Kenneth opened the car door and got out. Up on the road, Terje was talking into his phone.
“Just get over here, mate,” said Terje before hanging up. Then he looked up at the sky, opened his mouth and caught a snowflake on his tongue. For a fleeting moment, Kenneth thought he looked like a little boy.
“Nah, think I’m alright,” said Kenneth. “Actually, go on then.”
Terje held out his lighter and a red packet of Prince. Kenneth took one and lit it. He hadn't smoked for over three years. He felt a tickle in his throat, then the smoke warming his lungs.
“I'm off,” Terje said.
“Yep. No way I’m about to waste another second of my bloody weekend with them two. Tor André ain’t the same when he's here.”
“Espen, you mean?”
“Yeah. I can't stand it! He gets too fucking big for his boots. You remember the last time we went on a night out with them? The only stuff they spoke ’bout was school and work. You should’ve heard ’em when we drove up to get you. Espen’s brought cava with him. Tor André did too! And he was even saying how he had to go out of his way just to get hold of some beer he could actually drink. Time was, when he used to drink exactly what we drink now.”
“Oh come on! We’ll play cards. Screw what they’re drinking.”
“They ain’t gonna want to play no cards.”
“Well how you getting home?”
“I phoned a mate what’s coming to get me. Could probably take you up to Jomås at the same time.”
Kenneth took another drag. He looked down at the car in the ditch.
“I can't fucking stand them sorts of person. And Tor André’s turning out just the same. Posh pricks. Are you gonna end up like them as well?”
“When your studying’s done? Gonna go and give up poker and homemade pizza?”
“I was looking forward to kicking my feet up this weekend,” Kenneth said.
“Yeah, me as well. But I didn’t know he was bringing along that little shit.”
Kenneth went back to the car where Espen was showing Tor André pictures of a girl on his phone.
“I met her last week. She’s a very sweet girl.”
“Not half,” Tor André agreed.
“Although perhaps she was a little bit . . . simple.”
“How do you mean like?” asked Tor André.
“Just you know, simple. A little bit . . . provincial.”
“Well that's no surprise if you met her in Arendal,” laughed Tor André.
Kenneth spoke up: “Both you and your bird are from Arendal.”
“Yeah, and your bird’s from Froland,” Tor André replied.
“Well so’s me and Terje,” said Kenneth.
The boot opened. They turned around. Kenneth watched Terje getting his bag out.
“What’s he playing at?” Tor André said.
They got out of the car. Terje was walking toward the gravel road. Kenneth and the others followed him. When they got to the turning, Terje dropped his bag to the ground.
“What’re you doin?” Tor André asked. “You going walking on ahead?”
“Nope. Waiting for a lift.”
He had a half-drunk beer bottle in his hand. He held it to his lips and chugged until the bottle was empty.
“Have a good’un,” he said, tossing the bottle into the ditch.
“You’re leavin?” asked Tor André.
“Yeah, I’m fed up of all this.”
“Well it’s your sodding fault we’re standing here, ain’t it?” said Tor André.
“You’re the one who drove into the ditch,” Terje replied.
“Just let him go,” said Espen.
“And who the bloody hell asked you about anything? None of us even invited you!”
“Nah, I invited him,” said Tor André, “And it’s my cabin.”
“No, it’s your old man’s cabin,” Terje spat, picking up his bag. “So go have fun with all your fucking queer food.”
Tor André laughed.
“’Kay, now you’ve gotta pull yourself together, mate.”
Terje turned to look at Kenneth.
“We’ve got room for you, too, Ken. I think those two probs wanna be alone.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean!?” Tor André shouted.
“Don’t matter. Can’t be fucked.”
“Wait,” Kenneth shouted, but Terje was already turning the corner.
“Fuck him,” said Tor André. “He turns into such a fucking dick when he’s drunk.”
“He was looking forward to this.”
They went back to the car. Kenneth found himself a beer, opened it, and drank it as quietly as he could in the backseat.
“You know, I think the trip is going to be a lot more enjoyable now,” Espen said.
That was when they heard the tractor. A quiet, far off grumbling. Kenneth lifted the bottle to his lips and drank. The sound got louder. He turned around, looked up at the road, and saw the headlights shining through the snow and the bare birch branches.
“I ei grøft,” from Arbeidsnever. © Kolon forlag 2016. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by Bruce Thomson. All rights reserved.
On Christmas Eve, a bus driver transports a fragile passenger in Levi Henriksen's short story.
Listen to Levi Henriksen read "All the Way Home" in the original Norwegian.
I don’t know how she managed to get out, but suddenly she’s just standing there. Again I am struck by how well she has aged. Every time I look at myself in the mirror, my face looks like a photograph of drought-stricken flatlands in Africa, where the earth is full of cracks and nothing can live or grow any longer. Else’s face is like a savannah where everything looks just as it did twenty years ago.
“I’m going home,” is all she says and hands me five hundred kroner.
I know only too well where home is and look at my cell phone lying in front of me beside the steering wheel. I accept her banknote and smooth it out, even though it has never been folded, while I search for signs that she recognizes me. But her face is like a page in a diary that has never been written. No questions asked, no attempts to find any answers. Her mascara is brushed on perfectly, her lips are shiny red, and her eye shadow is, as usual, the same color it was back when I thought she could have been one of the women from ABBA.
I look at my phone again and glance into the interior of the bus behind me through the rearview mirror. About a half-dozen people are seated there. High-spirited stragglers, but also some who have just ended their shift and had a drink with colleagues before catching the last bus home before Christmas. I know I should call. I know I should stall while I try to get someone to come. But I am reluctant. I don’t think I can handle the looks, the way something evasive will slide over the eyes of the other passengers, something a bit patronizing, while Else’s eyes will just become helpless. Maybe even reproachful.
“No charge on Christmas Eve,” I say and hand back the banknote along with a ticket. Else nods and smiles and moves all the way to the back of the bus. I swallow and think back to the time when she would always sit in the front seat.
The snowfall started this morning as a silent sifting. Like when you lift up a bag of sugar in the store and there are almost invisible holes in the packaging. Now it looks like the bottom has broken apart completely and the snowflakes are as large as moths seeking out the headlights of the bus. For me, it’s been many years since it made any difference whether Christmas was white. The ground could have been covered only with beads of rime and the spruce trees along the road been as stiff as pokers, like blue-green souvenirs the autumn couldn’t be bothered to clear away, or all blanketed with snow, as they are now. It makes no difference. The Christmas spirit is something a person has within and there are no longer any seasons inside me.
I stuck the bottle of aquavit from the bus service company in my bus driver bag. Should all else fail, at the very least the taste of it will remind me of Christmas. Both Arne and Berit have invited me over and expressed genuine concern about my spending Christmas Eve alone, but I said that it wouldn’t cost me anything to drive the last run of the day again this year. That the old drivers did the same for me when my children were small. Both of them said that they understood, and I will see them all anyway at Christmas breakfast tomorrow. They will save some of the presents, at least the ones that are from me to my grandchildren. I told them I’m looking forward to it, and it’s true, at least in a way. I also told them that I have put their presents under the Christmas tree at home and that I will think of them when the time comes to open them. That’s not true. At least not the part about the Christmas tree. I couldn’t find any reason to have a Christmas tree this year, a sixty-one-year-old man alone in a huge house. But I’ve hung up the star in the window and put out what I have in the way of Christmas elves and angels, so at least from the outside it looks like Christmas.
When the children were little, yes, until they were teenagers and also on a few sporadic occasions after they’d moved into studio apartments in Oslo, we had a tradition of going out to find a tree together. Eventually, as they grew older, they went alone, but at first they always sat on the big sledge my father had used for hauling in wood from the stockpiles he had throughout the forest. Their mother was always dressed in her red Christmas cape, while the children wore red stocking caps that reflected whatever Christmas program was popular on television that particular year. I’ve always been a pretty poor fisherman and have never even held a rifle in my hands, so these times with my wife and children out in the forest filled me with a sense of connection to my parents, the first Forest Finns to settle in the town of Skogli. There was something about going out into the woods with a saw over my shoulder that made me feel self-sufficient. It’s another feeling altogether to sit behind the wheel of a bus. But even though I was the one who sweated away with the saw, the one who got his face full of snow when it sprinkled down from the branches, it was always the children who chose the tree. We agreed about that. Many of our friends shook their heads when they saw the spindly tree branches we’d decorated, but if Christmas isn’t first and foremost for the children, who is it for? I remember one year in particular when Arne insisted we take a warped spruce tree because it reminded him of something from Lord of the Rings. I have never read Tolkien and don’t know what or who the spruce tree supposedly reminded him of, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a finer Christmas tree.
I pull up at the last stop before the city limits and let off two men who I believe are nurses. I smile, nod, and wish them a Merry Christmas.
There are street lights illuminating the road headed out of Kongsvinger now, all the way to the turn-off down to Skogli. It wasn’t like this before and I remember we drove here, just the two of us, after we got married. That was also in December. I felt oddly shy in a way I’ve never felt since. It had nothing to do with my expectations about the wedding night; we had essentially got all that business out of the way and it was precisely for that reason we had to get married when we did, before the bulge under her wedding dress became too conspicuous. Nonetheless, I was tortured by a kind of feeling of inadequacy, by a sense that I lacked all the qualities a good husband should have. What did I know about being a father? I had never picked up a child, never held one close to my body, and kids had always made me feel a little ill at ease. Children seemed fragile and my hands better suited for gripping things tightly than for lifting something with care. But it all worked itself out and I believe I was the first man in the village to take paternity leave, at least in a manner of speaking. Of course no such schemes existed back then, but I spent my holiday learning how to be a father.
I try to swallow away the salty taste in my mouth and think about the time I carried my wife over the threshold of our new house. Although we didn’t make love that night, we slept with our fingers intertwined. Since then my hand has never stopped searching for hers at night, not even now when she’s no longer there.
I stop at the turn-off leading to the abandoned railway station and let off a guy I went to school with. When he shakes my hand and wishes me a Merry Christmas I can smell the alcohol on him and I think that he’s the kind of man who never makes it all the way home, even though he managed to catch the last bus this evening.
Only one more stop remains. I glance into the rear-view mirror and Else is sitting and looking out the window as if she’s never been here before. I pass Lake Flyktningsjøen where the children learned to swim and stop in front of the abandoned store where in the early years we used to do our Christmas shopping. At Eben Ezer Church all the lights are on, but this year there’s no nativity scene out front. The sheriff never did find out who set it on fire on New Year’s Eve last year.
“Last stop,” I say and the young couple seated halfway back in the bus stand up. I have to avert my face a bit, so they won’t see how touched I am by the way they hold hands as they step off the bus. Else also gets to her feet. I reach for my phone, but turn around instead.
“You can just stay seated, tonight I’ll drive you all the way home,” I say and Else does as I say without any apparent misgivings. I think about my car which is parked outside the bus garage and know that I am committing a serious dereliction of duty. But it’s Christmas and after forty-one years on the job, I don’t have a single blemish on my driving record. Once upon a time that was something that filled me with pride.
Through the driving snow I can see the lights blinking on the trees along the road, and I hope I left the lights on in the house so it won’t be waiting there like a snowbound tombstone in the night. I take the turn up by Lake Flyktningsjøen and almost graze one of the lights at the railway crossing. On one single occasion I drove a truck up these hills. That was when I transported cement for the foundation wall, but I’ve never driven a bus here and skid my way into first gear. I did forget to turn the lights on in the house itself, but our old Star of Bethlehem is shining hospitably in the kitchen window.
“Here we are,” I say and turn toward the back of the bus.
“How dark it is,” Else says and a look of bewilderment comes over her as she gets out of her seat.
“That’s just because the lights aren’t on,” I say and turn off the ignition.
“Are you getting off too?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say and nod. “I’ve parked the bus now. It’s Christmas Eve.”
“Yes, of course,” she says. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
I lead her off the bus by the hand and into the house, help her take off her coat, and show her into the sitting room.
“I just have to make a phone call,” I say and go into the kitchen and close the door behind me. Then I call the home and let them know where she is.
When I come into the sitting room, she’s taken the wedding photograph down off the wall.
“What a beautiful bridal couple,” she says.
“Yes,” I say and wrap my arms around her. “People always used to say that you and I looked like a couple of film stars when we were young.”
“Hele veien hjem” © Levi Henriksen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Diane Oatley. All rights reserved.
In this extract from Linn Strømsborg’s novel, a woman just out of graduate school moves back in with her parents and resumes her adolescence.
Høybråtenveien 23 K
It starts again, this feeling in the pit of my stomach, as soon as I’m alone in my old room at home: the feeling that time is standing still, that I’m the same as when I was eleven and fifteen and twenty-four. I lie on my bed, then get up and walk around a bit. I look out of the window and draw the curtains so I can’t see the windows on the other side—all the lights from kitchens, bedrooms, kids’ rooms. I open the closet and toss my bag in, shut it again. I can hear Mom and Dad talking in the living room. The sounds are so familiar, my room so small that I feel like I’m being filled up with nothingness. With that feeling you get when you think that everyone is out there experiencing things except for you, that everyone else has started living their lives for real, is going to the parties you only see in movies, kissing the boys you don’t even dare say hi to in the schoolyard. They go to bed with a smile on their face, while you lie awake and write in your diary about everything that isn’t happening. From when you start school and start seeing other people, from when you’re trading stickers with Nina in her room and dreaming of one day being just as cool and pretty as her, with just as many stickers—you long to be an adult, to be bigger, older, prettier, and cooler, you long to decide things for yourself, you long for a kind of new start, or maybe just a kickstart. You long for the life you know from late-night TV, and you believe that’s how it should be. In just six years, four years, two years it’ll all start, but then when you get there, when you’re standing there like an ordinary fifteen-year-old and you don’t look like the posters on your wall, you think you’ve failed and that you’re the only person in the world who hasn’t managed it, and you want the world to end, and you want the world to start again.
Where are the parties you saw on TV, where is Johnny telling your parents that nobody puts you in a corner, where’s the guy asking you to prom, where are the proms actually, those things in the gym here are just stupid, and you still spend your nights lying alone in your room and writing in your diary about everything that isn’t happening, and then you go to high school, and when the ball finally starts to roll, when the boy says hi to you, when you no longer cringe at the sight of your own face in the mirror, when the nights are beer cans and graduation parties, when you’ve forgotten why you longed for all of this, when you’re sitting in your own apartment, completely alone, watching your friends moving abroad, getting boyfriends, getting engaged, graduating and starting jobs, when you get up each day and go to the same place, whether it’s to a job or a spot in the library, when you realize that things are starting to be as they should, that things are starting to fall into place, then maybe you long for the bench you liked to sit on when you still didn’t know the person you are today, when everything that hurt was the worst thing that had happened to you, when everything that was good was the most beautiful thing in the world, when your feelings filled you up, and at least your heart was still warm.
Right by Haugen School
I swipe through my contacts and realize I don’t have Jo’s number. When did it disappear though? I don’t remember having deleted it. Maybe I lost it when I switched phones. I swipe on. So many names. Think if I could call them all at once. Think if everyone I know, everyone whose number I have for some reason—minus Jo—all said at the very same time: Hi, Eva.
I get up and pace the floor, sit down on the bed, then get back up again. Before I can dwell on it any further, I put on my jacket and go out into the hall, start lacing up my shoes, and shout to Mom and Dad that I’m going on a walk. It’s just like before, as though I never even moved out: I don’t wait for a response before grabbing the keys from the entry table, putting on my headphones, and disappearing out the door.
The cold hits me as soon as I open the door downstairs, but I pull my hood over my head, put my hands in my pockets, and just start walking. I walk toward the bench, toward the school, toward the schoolyard that’s empty over Christmas break, along all the apartment blocks with light glowing from the windows. Mist hovers in front of me and I slowly start to warm up as I speed along. It takes me four and a half minutes to walk to our bench, the place we used to sit, every recess, every evening. When I turn the corner of the block I can see it a few yards ahead of me. It’s covered with snow; I guess no one has sat here in a while. I approach it and kick off a bit of the snow, which is hard after it’s already thawed and frozen again a few times, even though it’s only December.
I brush off the backrest and crouch on the seat, put my hands back in my pockets, and look out over the schoolyard, over Furuset, over Haugen with the gravel pitch, the trees, the streetlights and the apartment blocks on Maria Dehli’s Way. It’s lonely sitting here now, without Jo. I never sat here by myself growing up. It was always the two of us, sometimes more. The bench was ours from first to tenth grade, almost every day for nine years.
It takes seven minutes and twenty seconds to walk from the bench to where Jo lived throughout our childhood. I always measured distances in songs. I measured everything in songs. From my house to the bench was “Hate This Place” by the Goo Goo Dolls, from the bench to Jo’s was “När det blåser på månen” by Kent and the first half of “Slide,” from Jo’s to my house was the rest of “Slide” and almost all of “747”—not the radio version, but the original. The long one. The one that lasts for seven minutes and forty-seven seconds.
I guess I walked faster than I used to since I’m already ringing Jo’s doorbell as “Slide” is starting. I haven’t heard this song in as many years as the last time I stood here. I clear my throat as the door opens. Jo’s mom is standing there.
“Hi,” I say, and she smiles.
“Hi, Eva! Are you looking for Joseph?” she asks. I nod and ask if he still lives here.
“No, but he doesn’t live too far away.” She gives me directions and since I more or less know where I am, I thank her and turn to go.
“Aren’t you cold, honey?” She looks at me and my jacket. I shrug, but she opens the door wide and tells me to come inside.
“Just for a bit, Eva. Get warm. I’ll make you a cup of tea,” she prattles as she heads toward the kitchen. I untie my shoelaces and take off my shoes. It smells like it always has here: food and something sweet. Something I don’t know, but that has always been here, in Jo and his mom’s house.
“Have you eaten?” Jo’s mom looks at me sternly. I shake my head and she sighs loudly and chatters to herself. It’s just like when I was fourteen and would come here after school. She opens the fridge and takes out some leftovers. It looks like benachin, a Gambian stew that we’d eaten together many times before.
“Sit down and we’ll get you tea and some proper food.”
She looks content, and I smile and sit down by the kitchen table as she fusses with the stove.
“It’s been a while since I saw you,” she says as she serves the food. I start eating right away and nod as I chew. It’s spicy. I’d forgotten how spicy she made her food.
“Do you want some water, honey?” She laughs at how quickly I nod and puts a glass of water in front of me. I can see in her eyes she’s enjoying herself.
I take a drink and keep eating. I get used to the spiciness quite quickly and it’s better now. I loved benachin when I was little. Jo never really liked it. He preferred meatballs. We used to joke that I was really the one from Gambia and he was the Norwegian.
“It’s good to see you eating, sweetie. You’re thin as a rail.” Jo’s mom stands and starts to tidy up. I drink another glass of water and thank her for the food. She waves me off and tells me to say hi to Jo.
“Tell him to visit his mom and that he promised to mount my new bookshelf!”
She gives me a hug and I go back out into the cold.
It takes a few moments before the lock turns and Jo opens the door. I can hear Lil Wayne in the background, probably from the living room, and it smells like food.
“Do you already have visitors?” He hasn’t said anything yet because he’s chewing. Jo likes to chew. He swallows and says no.
“Now you do!” I say and walk into his hallway. I kick off my shoes and hang up my jacket. Jo heads into the living room and I follow after him. There’s a pizza on his stove that looks homemade. It smells good. His living room is messy—clothes and DVD covers are lying all over the sofa and floor. In the kitchen, next to the oven and the pizza, I can see that there’s a ton of dirty dishes, empty soda cans, and a milk carton. There are more empty cans on the floor. I remember how his room looked when we were young, and that it wasn’t all that different from this, just that now the mess is on a larger scale. No mom to tidy up the kitchen and living room here.
“Are you hungry?” Jo asks. I look at him and tell him I just visited his mom.
“Ah, so you’re not hungry anymore, then,” he laughs and sits on the sofa, still eating the piece of pizza he had in his hand when I arrived. I glance around his apartment, walk over to the CD rack, and look at the albums. There isn’t much new here, but I’m guessing he downloads most of his music now. Lil Wayne fades out and I hear the start of a Timbaland song.
“I like this one,” I say, turning toward Jo. He nods and keeps eating, then gets up and goes to the kitchen to grab another piece. It smells so good that I wish I were hungry.
Next to the CD rack there’s a shelf full of DVDs. I glance over them and pull out The Notebook. It’s in my hand when Jo comes back from the kitchen.
“So is this your favorite movie, or . . . ?”
Jo sets his place on the table and finishes chewing before he answers.
It takes a while.
“Eva, you don’t mess around with The Notebook, OK? That movie there taught me what love is.” He walks over to me quickly and takes the DVD as I laugh. He puts the movie back before sitting down on the sofa and asking me if I’ve thought about coming to the party the day after tomorrow. I shrug and ask if there will be a lot of people there.
“Yeah, probably, but you know those big parties, New Year’s Eve and all that, they never end up how you think they will.” He takes yet another bite of pizza.
I nod and pick at the cuticle on my thumb.
“I could call you or something once I know what’s happening at home,” I say and look up from my hands. “I think my mom and dad will at the very least want me to eat with them since I wasn’t home for Christmas.”
“You weren’t at home for Christmas?” Jo is talking with food in his mouth and I laugh since he never does that. He always waits to talk till he’s done chewing, no matter how long that takes. Sometimes he even takes an extra bite to buy himself some time or just to irritate me.
“No,” I say and tell him about my Christmas, and it strikes me as I’m telling him that I haven’t spoken about this with anyone else.
“Wow,” Jo says, and I don’t really know what he means by that.
“Yup,” I say.
“But, uh, wasn’t that like, kind of sad?”
“Not really,” I say. “It was kind of sad not to be with my mom and dad I guess, but it was nice to be alone, too. They’re there, after all. Or, here.” I correct myself at the last second, and Jo keeps nodding.
“Yeah,” he says. He gets up to go to the kitchen, and asks if I want anything to drink. I say yes, and he comes back into the living room with a beer for each of us. Tuborg. Christmas ale. He finds the remote control and turns the TV on and the music off. Home Alone 2 is on and we sit there without talking.
Later, before I leave, I remember that I don’t have his number and he puts it in my phone for me. Then I stand in the snow again, on his steps.
“By the way,” I say, turning toward him. “The reason I came, really, was to ask if you wanted to go to the bench this week?”
"Cool. I’ll buy the beer. All you have to do is come.”
“Deal,” he says. “You need a proper winter coat, Eva.” He hugs me, and I feel his hand stroke my back through the thin jacket. Then I hop down the stairs—all three steps in one fantastic hop—and continue across the snow. I manage “Sundance Kid” two and a half times before I get home.
From Furuset. © 2012 by Flamme Forlag. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Olivia Lasky. All rights reserved.
In an excerpt from Mona Høvring's novel, two sisters gingerly renegotiate their relationship after one's breakdown.
Martha had managed to convince Father to drive her all the way up to the hotel. Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps Father was the one who suggested it. He loved going wherever the wind blew or visiting places where he’d heard there was a grand old bureau, a rustic writing desk or some antique decorations.
When we were children, there were times when Martha and I were allowed to join him on these trips. We learned early on that we mustn’t disturb him while he was haggling. It was one of the few things that could irritate him. One summer afternoon, we were with him in a crammed secondhand shop out in the country. He was interested in a painting and a rocking cradle which was decorated with traditional patterns. He had spoken warmly about these objects when we were in the car, but in the shop, he wrinkled his nose and just wandered around, scrutinizing all manner of clutter and junk. When, after a great deal of toing and froing, he took the cradle and the painting to the counter to pay, he noted nonchalantly:
“So it was 500 kroner for the painting and 800 for the cradle?”
“That’s right,” the shopkeeper said.
Father pulled a wad of notes from his inside pocket.
“That’ll be 1,200,” he said.
“No, it’s 1,300,” the shopkeeper said.
“Sorry, I’m so bad at mental arithmetic,” Father said.
“So you could just as well have said 1,400?”
“No,” Father said, winking at me and Martha. “I’m not that bad.”
I was reading on the sofa when Father and Martha came. I heard the key in the door and shot up, looking quickly around to see if any of Dani’s things were still lying around. But of course, there was nothing there that could betray her visit.
“Lovely, you’ve bought tulips,” was the first thing Martha said when she came into the room. She hugged me sincerely, holding me while Father set down her bags and waited. When she finally released me from this overwhelming embrace, Father grabbed around my waist and lifted me up.
“You look good,” he said. “You’re as light as a feather.”
“It’s because my hair is all gone,” I said.
Father put me down and ran his hand carefully over my head. He started to wander about, as he tended to do, with his hands behind his back. He went from room to room and from one piece of furniture to the next, turned a chair round, examined the base of a lamp, lifted a bowl.
“You guys have it good here,” he said, pointing at the stucco on the ceiling and the headboard with the neat carvings. .
“Not bad,” he said. “Not bad at all. Is the food good as well?”
I hastened to state that I thought we should find a place to eat down in the village.
Martha looked curiously at me.
“Why?” she asked. “They have a wonderful menu here in the hotel.”
I hadn’t prepared a good explanation. It was just a desperate attempt to avoid bumping into Dani or Ruth. I needed time. I was afraid I would make everything known with just one wrong breath. It was only now I realized that what Dani had set in motion was a betrayal of Ruth and that I had recklessly allowed myself to be pulled into it. Not for one moment had it crossed my mind to ask Dani if Ruth was aware of our nightly meetings, if the two of them had an open relationship, or if there was an agreement between them, a trust that Dani had broken.
No, of course Ruth didn’t know about it, I thought. Of course it was a betrayal.
I came out with something about how the staff were almost certainly busy preparing for the event that evening, and fortunately Martha agreed. In any case, we could both get some air before the party. We’d be able to grab a bite as long as we didn’t linger.
For the second time that day, I was on my way down the winding slopes. Martha sat in front, beside Father. She got carsick so quickly. I leaned in between the seats and asked Father how it was going with Mother. She had got it into her head that she wanted to go to Japan, he told us. She wanted to visit the Ama women. She wanted to learn to dive for pearls.
Father kept a straight face as he came out with this peculiar information. I poked him on the back of the neck and said he was lying.
They had a strange relationship, Mother and Father. They hardly spoke at home, especially not to each other. Even as a child I had understood that a shadow rested between them, a vague, ever-present shadow, which separated them from each other. Once, I heard Father say that he would have given his life to get Mother. It was a mysterious declaration.
“Oh, life is way too much,” Mother replied. “Give me some peace of mind instead.”
The only place to eat that was open in the village was a fast food café. Martha and Father each ordered a cheeseburger. I settled for a milkshake and a salad.
I didn’t say much, but it was good to be in their company. Father seemed so young sitting there.
“I’ve noticed something strange while I’ve been traveling around,” he said. “When it comes to women, it seems as though men in one country always think that men in another country are luckier than them. For example, Italian men like Swiss women. German men rate Spanish women the highest. And men from Greece, they love Nordic women. Yes, that’s how it is across the board, no exceptions.”
Martha laughed at Father’s comment. She was shining, her radiance almost stretching out toward me, and she repeated that short hair really suited me.
Martha. Martha, with her divine, seductive features. Martha, with her voice like a trickling stream. For weeks she had behaved as though she were the only person to have ever had a nervous breakdown. She had disturbed me. She had devastated me. I thought I couldn’t stand her. I wanted to distance myself from her, to protect myself. Why couldn’t I do it? Because I was afraid of her? Because I loved her? The thought scared me. But now, she was both devoted and trusting. Nothing threatened us. I was tempted to suggest that Father stay at the hotel for a couple of nights. It would do him good, I was sure of it. But then the spell was broken. Father checked his watch and scoffed the rest of the burger. He really had to get going.
Even though he was clearly busy, he insisted on driving us back up to the hotel. I didn’t say one word during the journey. Father gave us a brief lecture on mining, while Martha sat and whistled.
When we swung in front of the main entrance, the newly shoveled parking area was packed with cars.
“Where there is dancing, there are people,” Father said. “That’s how it is, out here in the provinces.”
Before getting out of the car, we hugged him. Martha first, then me, a little awkwardly over the seatback. Then we got out. Before driving off, he rolled down the window and shouted to us:
“I’m all for shenanigans, but with the right people. Remember that, girls. Remember that.”
We stood there and waved until the car disappeared behind the large mounds of snow which had been pushed to the side of the road’s sharp turn. To my astonishment, Martha grabbed my hand and led me. It took me so much by surprise that I didn’t even consider tearing myself away. Even when we walked past the reception, I let her keep hold of me. I caught a glimpse of Ruth behind the desk. She was busy welcoming some newly arrived guests. Her eyes darted up. I tried to smile at her but only managed to grimace, thinking my face must have looked like some sort of Asiatic demon mask.
I stopped in the middle of the stairs and pulled my hand away. I had lost control. And I hated it. But it didn’t seem like Martha noticed my irritation. She pointed at a portrait, commenting on the jaunty bonnet the young woman had on her head.
“I’m looking forward to the party,” she said. “I’ve brought three new outfits with me. You have to help me choose one.”
I didn’t reply.
Outside the door to our room, Martha stopped and grabbed my hand again.
“Thank you for being so lenient,” she said.
Lenient? I thought. Where did that word come from? And where had her sudden mildness come from? I had acknowledged, with relief, that I didn’t have responsibility for Martha. There were no longer any oppressive obligations between us. But I was responsible for myself, and now I just wanted to sleep, lie down, close my eyes and disappear. All of my audacious decisions were gone. I touched my head. Had my hair turned gray? It felt so lifeless. And my eyes? Were they yellow? Of course, I knew they weren’t yellow. They were about as yellow as the sky. As yellow as the glasslike surface of the mountainside. But still. Those yellow eyes. That yellow sky. That yellow snow.
I was more predisposed to drama than I wanted to admit. The thin air up in this altitude had made me childish and unpredictable. I realized that I was going to have to fight hard battles in this place. It was a fundamental truth. Or was it Martha’s sudden generosity that had unnerved me?
I let us in.
“It’s wonderful to be back,” Martha said.
She opened the sliding doors to the bedroom and, in one movement, leaped onto the bed.
I stood looking at her.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You have a nosebleed,” Martha said.
I wiped my nose with the back of my hand. I really did have a nosebleed, which was unusual for me. I found a tissue in my handbag, sat on the couch, tipped my head back, and stuffed a rolled-up strip up my nostril. Everything was flickering peculiarly toward me as I sat there with my throat tensed. I realized that I had been chasing life all these years, or more precisely, that life had been running away from me. I was full of emotions I couldn’t stand. And, as if it were the moment of my death—yes, I was predisposed to drama at the time—I pictured Mother, raking leaves in the garden. I was seven years old. I thought that we worked well together, Mother and me. I stood on my toes, lifted one arm, and let my index finger glide along the hem of her jacket. She leaned forward so that I could sniff her hair. Mother smelled like apples and rain and mint. A cloud moved over the sun, narrowing the light.
“Surely it’s stopped bleeding now?” Martha said.
I removed the paper carefully. The blood had dried. It looked black.
“We have to get ready for the party,” she said.
She took garment after garment from the suitcase: a shimmering gold dress, a pink silk blouse and a red skirt, several pairs of high heels.
I went to the bathroom and tried to flush the bloody paper down the toilet, but it bobbed up again like a fishing bobber. The water turned red.
Martha came in after me. It wasn’t possible to hold her back. .
“Remember that time we won five hundred kroner on that scratch-card you had?” she asked. “Remember we spent it all on sweets?”
I flushed the toilet again and the water rushed out from the cistern. I looked down into the toilet bowl. The bloody mess had finally disappeared.
While she continued trying on clothes, Martha reminisced about our childhood and our mutual love of treats. Did I remember how we used to eat loads of banana chocolate? How we would take huge handfuls and chomp until we drooled? And yes, I remembered. I remembered the luminescent jelly babies we stuffed into our mouths. It was as if we were both crazy. But when the nauseating sugar rush reached the muscles of our hearts, it was as if everything inside us was vibrating, and the trembling was almost unbearable.
“What do you think of this?” Martha said, twirling in the tight gold dress.
“You look lovely,” I said.
“Aren’t you going to change?” Martha asked. “Time is marching on.”
“Is it OK if I shower first?” I asked.
“Just leave some hot water for me,” Martha said.
I was quick. It felt wonderful to lather shampoo into my short hair. There was something calming about being able to feel the shape of my head so distinctly. I rinsed myself with cold water. And after I had toweled myself dry and warm, I pulled on a pair of grey woolen bell-bottoms and a petroleum-green polo neck.
Martha studied me, placing herself in front of me and frowning, like a model scout. And I knew what was coming. Now came the criticisms. Now came the small, subtle remarks which I hated protesting against. But no—she just told me I looked smart. I was so perplexed. I took a peach from the fruit bowl. I had always believed it was important to keep a certain distance from compliments like that, flattery which aligned with one’s nature, but now I was happy, even though I wasn’t sure if Martha meant I actually looked intelligent or if I just looked fashionable in this outfit. One could be more or less as good as the other. Surely it wasn’t the case between me and my sister that we suspected each other of betrayal all the time?
“What are you eating?” Martha asked.
“A peach,” I replied.
“But aren’t you allergic to peaches?”
“Perhaps my body has changed,” I said.
From Fordi Venus passerte en alpefiol den dagen jeg blei født. Copyright Mona Høvring. Published 2018 by Forlaget. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by Rachel Rankin. All rights reserved.
Conversations with the dead bring up explosive memories of Communist insurgency in this cult classic of Indian literature.
It is 2019 and Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Harbart reappears in a fresh English translation by Sunandini Banerjee. Since its initial publication, the novel has repeatedly returned in English like the future that is imagined by the book’s own ending. The afterlife of this spectral and political novel maintains its uncanniness. This is the third translation of the book into English (after Jyoti Panjwani’s in Sahitya Akademi’s 2004 edition and Arunava Sinha’s in Tranquebar’s 2011 edition), but the first one to open it to a wider audience outside India. The two previous translations, published by local Indian presses, were meant for national readership (considering India’s multilingualism, an English translation, unlike others, can be read across the nation) and did not reach foreign audiences. This new translation just published by New Directions should help the novel’s international reach.
Harbart was first published in Bengali in 1993, and it’s important to bear in mind that in more ways than one it is a product of 1990s India. The neoliberal reforms of the early 90s and the decline of the degenerate Communist government in the state of West Bengal, where the novel is set, informed its political discourse. With the fall of the Communist empire, not just in Bengal or India but around the world, and the current peaking of globalized capitalism, it is time for Harbart to reappear indeed. It is time for another tracing of the enigmatic and unpredictable event of revolution, mythologized in this book.
After reading Harbart, in 1997, the great Bengali novelist Sandipan Chattopadhyay (1933–2005) wrote in his diary: “In a completely different language, with the edge of radical revolutionary violence and explosives of an armed uprising, Bhattacharya writes this wonderful book. Just like Harbart, it will explode in the head.” The novel, like its eponymous protagonist, offers a parable of revolution—not the revolution of a true-blue political activist but that of a curiously marginal common man who practices necromancy. The ghosts in this book are as political as politics itself could be seen to be ghostly in the wake of the 1970s Maoist Naxalite movements of peasant revolution and the long sonata of the dead it produced. These movements consisted of a series of peasant protests in the tea gardens of Naxalbari in Darjeeling that swept across India in the 1970s, demanding social justice against capitalist exploitation. At the time of their appearance, these protests seemed to open up the possibility of a radical transformation in Indian society, as its adherents called for a war against the neocolonial state machinery. These promises were left unfulfilled, however, as the initial uprising failed to find sustained political life beyond the passion for change. The movement, which generated its fair share of violence, faced violent repression from the state. Bhattacharya’s novel can be read as an attempt to come to terms with this failed revolutionary past. Rooted in the 90s, the book goes back to the politically turbulent decade of the 70s in search of sparks of change in the present that might alter the future. Harbart—the novel as well as Harbart Sarkar, its hero—aims to resuscitate the political ghosts from a dead past to make a radical future of explosive change.
Bhattacharya (1948–2014), the son of renowned Bengali writers Mahasweta Devi (1926–2016) and Bijon Bhattacharya (1915–78), was already a well-known poet by the time Harbart was originally published. An author with radical left-wing sympathies, he debuted in 1973 with a famous collection of poems, E Mrityu Upatyaka Amar Desh Na (This Valley of Death is Not My Country). He was also active as an intellectual in debates over political justice, urban poverty, and the like. But his reputation would acquire a new stature after Harbart, his first novel,came out in 1993. Promptly recognized as a cult classic (and honored with the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award), the novel has since come to be regarded as a contemporary masterpiece of Indian literature, due to its political sagacity, an inventive variety of carnivalesque supernaturalism, and the fresh language of the underclasses, among other things.
The book is mostly set in the city of Kolkata, in West Bengal, in the early 1990s, although there are constant references and flashbacks to the political turmoil of the 1970s. Harbart is a necromancer who resists the European traditions of séance and sticks to his own cultural idiom, derived from ancient Indian practices. He is the son of a typical Bengali babu who served as an educated intermediary between the British colonizers and the colonized populace. Lalitkumar, his father, is a failed movie director in the recently independent India of 1940s. He and his wife, Shobharani, die while Harbart is still a boy, leaving him to be raised by his uncle and aunt. Lalitkumar and Shobharani appear throughout the novel as ghosts, however, keeping a watch on their son as the book unfolds. The couple cast a seriocomical, cinematic gaze upon the events in novel, and contribute to the fantastical realism of the text.
When we see him in the beginning of the book, Harbart is already over forty. The narrative goes back and forth to show his growing up and activities from two decades prior. Harbart grows up as a socially awkward, if not freakish, orphan whose friends and neighbors tease him with the nickname “Titbird.” His psychological universe revolves around the house—its “top-terrace,” bird nets, kites, and the rooftop water tank—until one day when he discovers skulls and bones in an old trunk belonging to his family. Though he sends them floating down the Ganges, Harbart starts studying Indian occultism and stashes his belongings in the same trunk. This is the trigger for his practice as necromancer. Harbart is fascinated by his dead friends, like Khororobi, who killed himself long ago. It is with the aim of talking to these friendly specters that Harbart begins conversing with the dead. To communicate with them is to call back the political past of the 70s.
The novel begins with a carnivalesque moment in which we follow the protagonist and his friends in the midst of some late-night drunken carousing. We are introduced to a native Indian occult discourse with excerpts from books on afterlife by Mrinalkanti Ghosh and Kalibar Bedantabagish. The atmosphere bespeaks proletarian festivity, and Bhattacharya’s subaltern language is well acknowledged by Sunandini’s translation with a flurry of cusswords [or “swear words”], floating on F’s (“fucked”) and swimming through S’s (“screwed”).
Besides rejecting the European occultist traditions of conversing with the dead in favor of ancient Indian practices, Harbart detests the English language too. Members of The Indian Rationalist Society who come to challenge him, in an attempt at public humiliation and unmasking, speak in the colonial language and Harbart abuses them in his Bengali cockney. The challenge of translation in a novel like Harbartlies in rendering faithfully this realistic but deliberately uncouth lingo, full of colloquial neologisms. Bhattacharya’s great achievement lies in crafting this linguistic register, so rarely found in the colonially constructed Bengali language with its underlying upper-class and upper-caste structures.
To give one brief example of how translation does and does not capture the politics of this proletarian tongue, the word memfurti, which means “enjoying a foreign girl,” is simply dropped by Jyoti Panjwani in her translation. The term is acknowledged by Arunava Sinha, who comes up with the word “slutfun,” a neologism that does justice to the lumpen frivolity embedded in the original word. Sunandini Banerjee takes things up a notch, however, by retaining the sound as well as the sense with creative fervor. She uses the expression “mem-merry, femme-frothy,” which alliteratively evokes both the “m” and the “f” sounds present in the Bengali original.
Such details are of utmost importance in Bhattacharya’s book. Language is imbued with political significance in the novel, beginning with the name of its protagonist. “Harbart” suggests a vigorous Indian phonetic mutation of the British “Herbert” (a nuance missing in the first translation, titled Herbert, but added in the second, Harbart). The colonialist complicity inscribed in his name, we might think, contrasts with his nativist practice of necromancy. Harbart’s surname also has its own ironic implications: “Sarkar” means government in Bengali, but he will become an antigovernment revolutionary agent. Harbart is also nicknamed “Haru,” in an increasing cultural domestication of the original British name.
As the novel progresses, we have a peek into Harbart’s mental universe but not through psychological narration. Haru’s world is depicted through his solitary activities of reading and observation, all from his favorite top-terrace with the hint of a lonely kite in the sky. Be it the infatuation with the neighbor’s girl, Buki, or the ants that bring back memories of locust plagues in Kolkata, or better still, his shelter in the water tank, Harbart’s world is projected on this meticulously detailed external scene.
Harbart uses intertextuality and citations from books on the Indian occult and popular Bengali ghost stories (such as “The Horribly Haunted Circus”) that inscribe numerous voices in the narrative, giving it a polyphonic quality in the way it evokes a distant cultural and political past. The antiquarian practice of calling forth the dead by way of the occult finds a further literary complement throughout the novel in Bhattacharya’s chapter epigraphs. These are quotations collected from obscure poems of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Bengal. They haunt the novel like textual ghosts, representing a cultural past of the language.
Melancholia for a leftist utopia and the bygone is at the heart of the novel: “On that top-terrace, now sits only a Star TV satellite dish: Harbart gone. Soviet Union gone. Hippodrome Circus gone. The famous Dinu Hotel beside the Gosain house on Simla Street, gone.” At the center of this lost time sits Harbart, our spectral protagonist, bringing back his nephew Binu’s spirit through his spectro-political practice. Binu had died from a police bullet as a Naxalite revolutionary in 1971. He is not a ghost that Harbart literally invokes but becomes an extension of Binu’s revolutionary dream instead.
The friendship between the two men is highlighted in Haru’s memories as well as in moments of flashback in the mid-part of the book. Unlike most of his family members, who consider him abnormal, Binu treated Harbart like a sane person. This leads to great camaraderie between the two when Binu comes to Kolkata for higher studies. Binu reads Mao’s Little Red Book out loud to his uncle. Harbart can make a connection between communist literature and his own interest in Indian discourses of spectral afterlife. As the Naxalite movement spreads its fiery wings across Kolkata, Binu becomes an active participant, and Harbart’s top-terrace a veritable refuge for the revolutionaries.
Following Binu, Harbart too participates in the movement in micro ways, acting as a messenger. The warmth he receives from Binu and the fellow revolutionaries makes him own up the movement from an affective point of view. Harbart’s political activities are inseparable from his passionate and emotional attachment to his nephew.
Just before dying, Binu directs Harbart to his diary, hidden away behind the picture of the goddess Kali (an important figure for the Indian occult). After that, Harbart’s dreams get more and more occultist, with gods of the netherworld appearing in them and Kali becoming the recurrent reference point. Harbart sees Binu’s ghost in a dream, full of glass, ravens, and caverns. He reminds Harbart of the diary. This diary works as a talismanic object that instigates Harbart to the practice of communicating with the dead.
The theme of necromancy not only builds the novel’s magic realist ethos but it also works itself into the childlike character of Harbart and his playful experiments, soaked in innocent wonder and merriment. He knows that he is lying to the clients who come to him in order to know more about their dear departed family members. Like a child feeling sorry for his naughtiness, his heart aches for everyone. And yet, he believes in ghosts. These are political ghosts of another era that has left its traces in the present, like specters. Harbart’s childlike quality explains his passionate involvement in politics. It also shows up in tandem with the magical moments when Harbart puts on his civilized attire, including a trench coat, and roams the streets of the old city, only to be transfixed by the fairy statues in antique shops.
Bhattacharya’s text expresses a strange nostalgia for colonial Calcutta and its culturally hybrid Westernized babus. Notwithstanding his political leanings, on winter afternoons Harbart feels like a Brit as he strolls around the city. His nonsensical articulations (“cat, bat, water, dog, fish”), all in English in the original, touch upon his child’s identity, his madness, and the dormant colonial fervor. Bhattacharya’s tale allegorizes all these three dimensions. It shows the sociopolitical and cultural alienation of the child, of the mad person (he is called “spastic” at one point), and of the out-of-place babu culture that survives as a relic of India’s colonial past, especially in places like Kolkata that were hubs of the Raj.
To all this is added the historical specter of radical-left politics, already a thing of the past in the 90s and more ironically so, because the Bengal state government (unlike the central government) at the time is nothing but a Communist government. Harbarttraces this internal fight within left politics, between a CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist)-led governance model, pushing early tenets of globalization, and a radical brand of Naxalite-Maoist politics of going against state-machinery through armed uprising. Harbart’s practice is a form of resistance against the hyperrationalist culture of globalization where belief itself has taken a back seat to what?.
Harbart’s necromancy risks becoming a commodity in the global market. The character of Surapati Marik acts like a self-appointed agent, promising big things to Haru. The timing of his suicide is, therefore, perfect. Bhattacharya makes sure Harbart’s resistance does not become commodified in the market-logic of globalization. He turns him into a dead human bomb instead. The novel does not explain away the mystery of Harbart’s suicide. It remains an enigmatic protest against the hyperrationalism of modernity that conspires to make life miserable for a man like Harbart who cannot be swallowed by its capitalist dragon mouth. Perhaps Harbart kills himself to communicate with himself as a ghost. Binu and his revolutionary friends had hidden some dynamite under his bed. During cremation, a great explosion happens, making Harbart a postmortemagent of radical politics. The explosion bamboozles the cops as they cannot find any straightforward political connection or conspiracy here. This is Bhattacharya’s final comment on the radical contingency of revolution as a political event. The famous lines from the novel, ably translated by Sunandini Banerjee, read:
The deplorable series of events that unfolded around the cremation of Harbart’s bloodless body inescapably signal that when and how an explosion will occur, and who will cause that explosion—of all such knowledge the state machinery remains woefully ignorant still.
This is the ultimate political lesson in Bhattacharya’s novel. It offers a spectral faith in the everlastingness of resistant politics. Politics meets spectrality as the explosion happens during the cremation of a necromancer. It leads to a great deal of rumor about a supposed supernatural connection. These dynamites are Harbart’s last conjurings. They come back after two decades of hibernation, like magical traces of a past, seemingly dead, but not powerless to be reborn. The last chapter, crucially written in a faithful future tense, describes how Haru’s scattered belongings in some hypothetical future might initiate yet another political sequence. Harbart remains in his remains, as the name of an energy, a belief, a conviction. It’s all about believing in ghosts.
Siddhartha Deb’s afterword to this new translation is carefully lyrical as well as informative. It helps the readers identify the political and cultural milieu of the novel and gives them a flavor of Bhattacharya’s literary background as well as a small taste of his larger corpus. The detailed translator’s notes at the end make for some rich exegetical and contextual material that make the local cultural references less opaque for a global reader. Though this review has charted the story in somewhat granular details, Harbart, as Siddhartha Deb rightly observes, is so much more than its plot. It is the explosive form of the novel, bringing forth a pulsating life-world that the reader must feel. The new translation maintains the original’s local colors without compromising readability—always a difficult alchemy. I hope this translation will lead to further translations of Nabarun Bhattacharya’s other great works. With German and Italian translations already published, the scene is pregnant with promise. Nabarun deserves to be translated for a global audience because his books truly speak to a world beyond local colors. Let the Harbarts of the world continue to return with one explosive translation after another.
Religious life in China has been the subject of much speculation, misunderstanding, and projection by the West. In the present day, much of what we receive is filtered either through news stories about the officially atheist state or through (usually older) translations of Tang Dynasty poets such as Han Shan, who have come to be known as free-thinking Chan masters wandering through the mountains. Their sound is familiar to us from the Beat Generation of poets, who gave them a particular cadence, which we now associate with the totality of “Chinese poetry”:
Spring water in the green creek is clear
Moonlight on Cold Mountain is white
Silent knowledge—the spirit is enlightened of itself
Contemplate the void: this world exceeds stillness.
(Han Shan, trans. Gary Snyder)
Other poets who sometimes write in this vein, like Li Bai and Wang Wei, have come to make up the bulk of the limited number of Chinese poets to be known in the West. This is in part because the poetry is often wonderful, and there is much to appreciate in it. But this is also because there have been lamentably few Chinese poets throughout history translated into Western languages, a problem that we still face today. This small sample size gives a limited and misleading picture of religion in China, which is in fact highly varied and complex. Not only Chan Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Daoism, but also Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Mongolian shamanism, Sufi-related mysticism, and countless local spiritual traditions have survived despite every attempt to suppress them at some point throughout history, including the period from the Communist revolution up to the present day.
Yet according to China-watcher Ian Johnson, there are somewhere around sixty million practicing Christians in China today, along with several hundred million members of Buddhist and Daoist religious organizations. Although official churches come under constant scrutiny, surveillance, and sometimes outright destruction, house churches and bible study groups abound. Though the historical temples and monasteries located on the famous Daoist and Buddhist mountains are kept under strict government control, and now serve mainly tourists rather than genuine believers, there are many other smaller temples and local teachers and monks who serve as religious guides and who keep their particular faiths alive. In western China, where forms of Islam and Tibetan Buddhism are concentrated, religious activity is viewed with suspicion and is harshly constrained. Any activity that can be claimed to fall under the rubric of “extremism” is suppressed, at great human cost.
Still, religious life continues in China under many guises. Even innocuous morning exercises in the park may be forms of Daoist taiji or the internal energetic work of qigong. All a practitioner of Chan Buddhism needs is a place to sit. Calligraphy and other art forms can be used as different kinds of traditional Buddhist meditative practices. Chinese translations of the bible are easy to get hold of, even just to read on one’s own. Religious and spiritual activities persist, both in public and in the private sphere.
Within this larger sociopolitical context, Chinese poets today utilize many different strategies to write, directly or obliquely, about their religious and spiritual lives. Many poets avoid specific references to religion, and those who do write on religious themes are often careful to couch it in unthreatening language or to bury references within subtexts. The poets presented here are among those who write explicitly on religious themes, sometimes in ways that directly challenge the state’s desired hegemonic control over religion.
Among a handful of poets writing forcefully and overtly about Christian themes, Li Hao is steeped in religious literature and Biblical texts, often referencing them in his work. He must toe a line as a younger poet living in Beijing and working for an official literary publication, careful to keep his verse free of material that might be considered proselytizing. Nevertheless, his first published collection, The Tempest, was banned and pulled from shelves not long after its publication.
Also living in Beijing, but kept under constant state surveillance as an outspoken Tibetan poet, Tsering Woeser writes about a world that has nearly been lost. Along with religious themes, her poems address the tremendous cultural destruction that has been inflicted upon Tibet, often in the name of “progress” or “economic development.” Her sensitivity to ecology, flora, fauna, natural monuments, and religious monuments both macro and micro are captured beautifully by her translator Ian Boyden, who has engaged in interactive translation and conversation with Woeser for many years.
Xi Wa, although ethnically Han, was born in Xinjiang, a far western province that borders Tibet and is perhaps most closely akin to Tibet in its situation vis-à-vis the central government. She writes on many themes, including music, the natural world, and female independence, but in this selection from a longer work, she explores her personal Tibetan Buddhist path. Wa has immersed herself in Buddhist texts for many years, and even in her less unambiguously religious work, Buddhist theology underpins or frames many of her poems. Her translator here, Chloe Garcia Roberts, brings her considerable experience from translating the esoteric work of the Tang poet Li Shangyin to bear with wonderful affect.
Darren Byler, who has done tremendous work to bring the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang to the attention of the outside world, and Joshua Freeman, a highly accomplished literary translator from Uyghur into English, bring us the work of Tahir Hamut, a Muslim Uyghur poet living in exile in Washington, DC. In his poetry, Hamut gives voice not only to his own religious experience, but also to a people who cannot at the moment speak openly for themselves. He writes from a perspective that may soon be lost to the world, as the place in which he grew is rapidly disappearing.
These poems are in no way representative of the breadth and depth of religious poetry being written in Chinese, both in China and in the Chinese diaspora. The collection is instead a small sampling of the riches to be found within a complex, fraught, and ever-changing literary landscape. Mindful of their connections to the past and to the unplumbable depths of the literary tradition that they have inherited, these poets traverse new ground, cogently and powerfully expressing their contemporary condition. It is high time that the Chinese poetry available in English-language translation better reflect the linguistic and expressive innovations of Chinese poets writing today.
© 2019 by Eleanor Goodman. All rights reserved.
In this poem by Tahir Hamut, a woman's wait for a phone call turns into a series of reminiscences—or are they figments of the imagination?
Listen to Tahir Hamut read "Phone Call" in the original Uyghur.
A phone call makes the heart tremble
The vexing wind swoops
like an ancient Indian dance
This was a day passed
inside a whirlwind
A phone call from the last century
connects to a simple “Hello?”
An intermezzo from the dusky elm’s trunk
fans the spirit lamp into a bonfire
while on a mattress
amidst an armful of hair
a beautiful woman tosses and turns
In her mind she kisses the voice
In her mind she sees the daybreak
The man on the phone
with his flair for invention
of an army of ghosts
A phone call makes the heart tremble
A fistful of white wool cast on the fire
She intends to see the dance
Darning her socks
she intends to await her call forever
And the witch cat of legend
jangles a ring of keys
October 1993, Beijing
"ئىلى دەرياسى" © Tahir Hamut. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Joshua L. Freeman. All rights reserved.
It was one of those double-edged moments when you catch a glimpse of yourself as others see you. Sitting in a crammed Trinity College bar, fifteen years ago now, following a seminar on Branwen ferch Llŷr, a friend was asking about the difference between contemporary and Middle Welsh, how much of a leap was required for me to read this iconic medieval text. As I considered, a voice cut in from the table next to us: “Welsh?” I knew his face but not his name. I’d seen him around College: an economist, I think. “It’s all medieval, isn’t it?”
As innocuous a comment as this might seem, it—along with countless incidents like it—has come in my mind to represent the narrow silos where Welsh-language culture is categorized away in the collective imagination. If known at all, it is often through a gauze where Wales remains druidic, heroic, romantic. Othered. From here there may well be a jump to a Thomas or two—Dylan, R. S.—but more often than not they appear as lonely figures, separate from the broader, national, crucially bilingual culture of Wales through which they wrote. “Despite our speech,” as R. S. wrote in his 1958 poem “Border Blues,” “we are not English.”
The relative invisibility of the contemporary Welsh-language scene can feel incongruous to its core readership, which enjoys a literature of caliber, depth, and ever-increasing diversity. There is no doubt that it is a tightly-knit community of readers, nor that publishing and marketing practices for an audience of half a million or so Welsh speakers operate along different lines from other mass markets: the spaces where Welsh-literature happens are, to an extent, different. The annual National Eisteddfod in the first week of August, the largest cultural festival of its kind in Europe, remains the key date in the publishing calendar and the winners of its numerous literary awards highly celebrated. And if the Eisteddfod is the establishment, the custodian, there is also a proliferation of local festivals and live literature nights, many of which consciously evolve the centuries-old live poetry tradition of Wales for a younger, contemporary audience. We have literary fiction, popular novels, a zine culture: publications which, by and large, continue to be sold at smaller independent bookshops or cultural centers. The young editorial team at Y Stamp magazine are leading a new charge in experimentation and self-publishing. O’r Pedwar Gwynt, our foremost literary magazine, is defiantly European and internationalist in its outlook as it nurtures a uniquely Welsh editorial stance. For a culture so often understood in terms of its fragility—and rightly so in many regards—more than ever there is much to celebrate.
Literary translation remains crucial to ensuring broader access to Welsh-language writing, but so too do other and, in some senses, profounder acts of cultural reconciliation. For a small nation we are millstoned by many internal borders, the residue of a population which for so long was not equipped with its own unified history and culture. There is a charged interplay of literary and nonliterary Welsh, of standardized language and regional difference, which can render even fluent speakers reluctant readers. Increased access to Welsh-language education, both in schools and communities, is absolutely central in this regard. There is the perceived divide between the Welsh-language and English-language literatures of Wales, which since the publication of Caradoc Evans’s My People in 1915 have run along parallel, if not oppositional, lines. A subtle shift marks a significant difference between that which is Cymraeg—of the Welsh-language—and that what is Cymreig—of Wales. Increasingly as a community of writers and readers we are operating on much more cross-cultural terms, or as the scholar M. Wynn Thomas puts it, “across the cultural divide that has been both the making and the undoing of modern Wales.”
For me, it was back in that College bar, a young student thrust into the position of an apologist, that a slow process of reconciliation began. While it had been easier for me to project outward my own desired image of Welsh-language culture and heritage, the challenge as I came to understand it was fully to engage with the productive complexities of the contemporary scene. I gravitated toward the cultural touchstones which I simultaneously longed to champion and to challenge. And so I would have traced for you Welsh literature’s roots back to the sixth century. I would have opened that red hardback of Branwen in my hand and explained its position in Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi (The Four Branches of the Mabinogi), a literary marvel, the earliest prose stories of Britain. Through the work of some of its finest artists—from Gwerfyl Mechain to Dafydd ap Gwilym to Dic Jones—I would have plunged into the intricacies of cynghanedd, an ancient system of assonance and internal rhyme which remains at the heart of much Welsh-language poetry today. But I don’t know if I would have mentioned a single contemporary novel. The work of the writers on my bedside table—several of whom are among the authors presented here—would not have tripped so easily from my tongue. And the English-language literature of Wales? That would have felt like a different conversation altogether, not necessarily mine to have.
The urgency of this process of reconciliation is compounded by the precariousness of Wales’s current political standing. Culturally we are at a crossroads, and reflected in the finest of contemporary Welsh-language literature is a process (a struggle) of resolving ourselves to the particularities of our own nature. As Jan Morris wrote in her foreword to Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country (1984):
It is a small country, in many ways the archetype of a small country, but its smallness is not petty: on the contrary it is profound, and if its frontiers were ever to be extended, or its nature somehow eased, its personality would lose stature, not gain it.
Much of the broader value of Welsh-language literature derives precisely from the dense, complex, cultural layering in which it is forged, in this small patch of earth on the western fringe of Europe. If the topic of Wales, of Welshness, occupies a central place in the national canon, this should not be mistaken for parochialism or protectionism. It is a feature of a literature which, often through the bludgeonings of circumstance, has had to deeply consider the politics and poetics of place, of language and memory, of incorporating diversity into a fight for survival. In a world reimagining its cultural and political axes, Welsh-language literature gives voice to an experience more necessary and valuable now than ever. Instigating a meaningful conversation with ourselves does not limit our relevance. Rather, limitation lies in that gauzy, majoritized imagination which reduces a minority culture into a lesser one, a static part of a purportedly greater whole. Contemporary Welsh writing cannot be read in those terms. It is a national literature (re)defining its own story as it writes.
Contemporary writing began for me in the 1990s, as I came of age alongside a generation of writers who each in their own way challenged and recharged the torpor of Welsh writing at the time. The critical response to Robin Llywelyn’s debut Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn (A White Star on a White Background) captured an important cultural moment in this regard. This highly original novel, interpreted by some as a critique of neo-imperialism, was hailed a masterpiece by the judges of the 1992 National Eisteddfod, who awarded Llywelyn that year’s Prose Medal. Its publication heralded an equally enthusiastic counterresponse in what ultimately became a debate centered on the nature of Welsh readership. Championing this work was seen by some as an act of elitism, flowing counter to the development of the popular Welsh-language readership, which had been largely nurtured on social realism. To my teenage mind as it was then, Seren Wen was among the books that taught me that my culture was confident enough not to seek to please. Mihangel Morgan’s work also belongs in this category, particularly his early novels Dirgel Ddyn (Mysterious Man) and Dan Gadarn Goncrit (Under Solid Concrete) and the short story collection Saith Pechod Marwol (Seven Deadly Sins). Morgan’s queer, dark, funny writing continues today to confront the absurd banalities of everyday life, and to subvert with cutting affection the preciousness often associated with Welsh cultural life. The figurative and psychological landscapes these authors traverse—be they Seren Wen’s Gwlad Alltud (Land of Exile) or Dirgel Ddyn’s Welsh for Adults evening class—imbue the familiar with a sense of the uncanny, in a manner that is usefully unnerving for a tightly-knit readership.
It would be satisfying to present a narrative of the 1990s as a decade which began with this literary awakening and culminated in an act of devolved social democracy, with the founding of the National Assembly of Wales, Y Senedd, in 1999. There is of course no such neatness of resolution. With this degree of self-determination came even greater scrutiny of the question of Welsh identity, or, more correctly, identities. The generation of authors featured here have come to literary maturity in a postevolution age, the cultural confidence and frustrations of which are equally reflected in their work. The relationship between politics and Welsh-language writing has always been close, particularly so with socialist and nationalist movements. Many of the best and most popular writers of the twentieth century—Kate Roberts, known as Brenhines ein Llên (Queen of our Literature), Saunders Lewis, Islwyn Ffowc Elis—were central figures in the establishment and early development of Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales. Lewis’s iconic 1962 BBC radio lecture, Tynged yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), provided an impetus not only for the protest movements of the 1960s and '70s but also for the renewed flourishing of Welsh language publishing and cultural production in film, television, and music.
Nid dim llai na chwyldroad yw adfer yr iaith Gymraeg yng Nghymru. Trwy ddulliau chwyldro yn unig y mae llwyddo.
It will take nothing less than a revolution to restore the Welsh language in Wales. Success is only possible through revolutionary methods.
The late Gerallt Lloyd Owen’s Cerddi’r Cywilydd (Poems of our Shame), a strident response to Charles Windsor’s inauguration as Prince of Wales in 1969, represents a pinnacle of this tradition. (Ask a Welsh literature student of my generation and they’ll recite to you much of this collection by heart.) But the forcefulness of this writing is less of a defining characteristic than the hard-won awareness which lies behind it, that of the power dynamics deeply embedded in the use of, and suppression of, language and culture. There is not an author writing in Welsh today who will not be conscious of their personal-as-political agency in this regard, however they choose to engage with it. This is far from a new phenomenon: the enduring popularity of figures such as the poet and essayist T. H. Parry-Williams owes a great deal to the honesty of their push-and-pull portrayal of this cultural responsibility. As he signs off his iconic poem “Hon” (“This One”): Duw a’m gwaredo, ni allaf ddianc rhag hon: “God help me, I cannot escape this one.”
The exploration of this equivocal middle ground is also a feature of the English-language literature of Wales, and especially so for those writers who choose to work in both languages. As Gwyneth Lewis writes in her poem "What’s in a Name?" from the 2003 collection Keeping Mum:
Today the wagtail finally forgot
that I once called it sigl-di-gwt. […]
Lleian wen is not the same as 'smew'
because it's another point of view,
Much of our best writing inhabits such nuances and slippages: our tradition of praise and religious writing equally met by the literature of doubts and misrememberings which emerges in the negotiation of the Welsh experience.
The social drive of Kate Roberts’s work, both as a novelist and short story writer, is expressed not in grand gesture but in the subtlety of her psychological observations, focused on characters or communities otherwise ignored: women and children; the impoverished workers of industrial north Wales; those living with mental illness. More recently, the novelist, children’s author, and activist Angharad Tomos and the poets Menna Elfyn and Nesta Wyn Jones are notable for their exploration from a feminist perspective of the intersection of personal and political in the Welsh experience. The publishing house Honno, the longest-standing independent women’s press in the UK, continues to do vital work in presenting contemporary and lost classics of Welsh women’s writing, in both our languages. The founding of the poetry collective Cywion Cranogwen, the 2018 publication of the anthology Codi Llais, and the pop-culture magazine Codi Pais all speak of a confident, progressive new generation of women writers in Wales.
In Imagined Communities (1983) Benedict Anderson held the novel form to be the best “technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation.” Increasingly in Welsh-language writing form and genre themselves are challenged, boundaries blurred so as better to reimagine a space for itself. The writers presented here are best known by and large for their prose, but they are also recognized as dramatists and scriptwriters, singer/songwriters, poets and podcasters: the collective impact of their creative energy is felt across literary and cultural forms.
The recent rise in popularity of Celtic Noir has not only presented Welsh culture to new international audiences, but created a space within the culture where different forms and communities speak to one another. The dark worlds depicted in television series such as Y Gwyll (Hinterland) or Craith (Hidden) draw on the same sources as the work of authors such as Caryl Lewis and Llwyd Owen, both featured here. While these writers initially seem to inhabit wildly different worlds, they bear equal witness to fundamental shifts in the make-up of contemporary Wales. Owen’s exploration of Cardiff’s criminal and psychological underbelly inversely speaks to the new power structures and political classes of Wales’s young democracy and lays bare what is often seen as the cozy hypocrisy of middle-class suburban Wales. The dystopia presented here, “after the vote,” represents a natural progression from his established dark worlds.
The changing psychological and linguistic landscapes of rural Wales form the basis of Lewis’s work, its communities emptied of the increasingly urbanized Welsh-speaking population. The exquisite, near timeless vocabulary with which she evokes the natural world runs counter to the time-and-duty-bound existence of the characters who inhabit her landscapes. In theme and tenor, she shares much with Cynan Jones’s lyrical prose. Something of the darkness of survivor literature runs through the work, though there often remains an element of quiet celebration and resistance. As Christopher Meredith’s Welsh-speaking character Wil responds to a compliment on the quality of his English in the 2012 novel The Book of Idiots: “Thanks […] Call me Caliban.”
The expansion of Manon Steffan Ros and Fflur Dafydd’s body of work toward science fiction (gwyddonias) speaks of this increasing drive in Welsh culture towards brave new worlds. The sparse postapocalyptic landscape of Ros’s profoundly moving Llyfr Glas Nebo (The Blue Book of Nebo), winner of the 2019 Wales Book of the Year, is simultaneously informed by her deep sensitivity to the relationships between people, place, and home. The universalizing strength of her writing for young adults is never more profoundly felt than here. A siege on the National Library of Wales in Fflur Dafydd’s 2009 thriller Y Llyfrgell (The Library) sets the scene for an exploration of collective memory and cultural ownership. Adapted into the film Y Llyfrgell (The Library Suicides) (Euros Lyn, 2016), there lies in its deliberately-within-touching-distance 2020 setting an implicit challenge to the futures we choose to build for ourselves through the readings of our own past.
It is also in the challenges of inherited memory that much of Llŷr Gwyn Lewis’s work is located. His prose debut, Rhyw Flodau Rhyfel (Some Flowers of War), deliberately injects personal experience into writing which grapples with the lines between fact, fiction and memory, the real and the unreal. His short-story collection Fabula, an extract of which is featured here, continues in this vein and, to adapt a line from his own poem “Rhyddid” (Freedom), seems to “take pleasure/ in the ambiguity of its wavelengths.” In some ways occupying similar ground to Patrick McGuinness, whose Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory won the 2015 Wales Book of the Year, Lewis’s work has the additional charge of a young person’s, a new generation’s, need not only to seek a place in the world, but to form of the world’s disintegrating framework a new reality.
In 2016, Parthian Books published what came to be Alys Conran’s award-winning debut novel, Pidgeon, side by side with a specially commissioned Welsh translation of the same work, Pijin. A novel of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of language, it is a book in which the psychological relationship between English and Welsh resonates at its emotional core. It resonated also with a broad readership within and beyond Wales, with many readers buying a copy in both languages. To my mind, contemporary Wales is one of the few places in the world where such a bold, culturally significant act of simultaneous publication could take place: it speaks of a particular confluence of cultures at a significant moment in its history. Welsh literature does not by any means present a silver bullet when it comes to the assimilation and acceptance of cultural diversity: many authors, from Tony Bianchi to Kate Bosse-Griffiths to Charlotte Williams, attest to the complexities of the Welsh experience in this regard. But they remain fruitful complexities through which to inform a broader conversation. To quote M. Wynn Thomas once more, engaging with the “significant differences, creative hostilities, silent connections and hidden attachments” of Welsh literature is enabling us further to develop a diverse, inclusive literature that remains very much our own.
© 2019 by Casi Dylan. All rights reserved.
This poem by Tahir Hamut reflects on Sama, a type of rhythmic dance punctuated by unified shouting while dancing in a circular pattern. Its roots are in pre-Islamic Zoroastrian fire dances, but over the centuries it became an element of Sufi ritual practice. Up until 2014 it was an integral part of Uyghur festival celebrations.
Listen to Tahir Hamut read "A Night Sama" in the original Uyghur.
Sixteen writhing white lines,
Each looks different from the next.
Glimmering gracefully in the howling wind,
Unlit under the moonlight.
They sank into a pitch black recess,
Continuing their ceaseless writhing spin.
Now I count fifteen of them, one has been lost,
Their wailing won’t let me sleep, won’t let me sleep . . .
October 1991, Beijing
"تۈندىكى ساما" © Tahir Hamut. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Darren Byler and Dilmurat Mutellip. All rights reserved.
In this epistolary short story, a Welsh missionary goes to Japan but ends up converting to a new way of life.
Listen to Llŷr Gwyn Lewis read "Dolores Morgan's Letters from the Far East" in the original Welsh
Letters in the hand of Dolores Morgan, a missionary for the Union of Welsh Baptists, to her friend Leila Farr Bevan. The Union was a new body that sent missionaries to Japan soon after the country changed its long-standing policy of isolation and opened its ports to foreign shipping for the first time. It seems that this was their first missionary endeavor, and that they chose to proselytize in a different sphere from the Calvinistic Methodists, whose sights were mainly set on Africa. The responses to these letters (if there were any) are apparently not extant.
20 April 1868
To my dearest friend, Leila Farr Bevan,
Greetings and blessings upon you from the furthest reaches of the world, where I now find myself residing. I have been here in Kyoto for several days. I was welcomed here when I disembarked, feeling exhausted after the three-month voyage, by some Christian friends who have been here for some time preparing the way, and who somehow succeeded in obtaining a place for me to stay, something which they themselves had not had when they arrived in this country, in the palace of the emperor himself. To this day I do not know how they achieved this, nor what I have done to deserve such a privilege, unless the tireless work of the others has begun to bear fruit, and the Holy Ghost is already at work among the Japanese people. It is likely that there is a connection with the recent change of heart regarding foreign affairs, and the emperor’s desire for his people to be more welcoming of strangers. Therefore, after I had rested a while in the friends’ accommodation, I was welcomed to the palace of the emperor himself, and to my magnificent room, which has wooden walls, paper screens with the most intricate decoration, low tables, and a bed. There are no chairs here, and I will need to remember to order some, for I have not yet become habituated to the custom of sitting on the floor, which is common among the Japanese, even among those of the highest social rank. However, I approve of their habit of divesting themselves of their shoes whenever they enter a building.
I imagine that you have heard a great deal about this extraordinary land recently, since its inhabitants have risen up in rebellion against the government. I myself had heard rumours of these troubles during the voyage, and I was therefore quite fearful and full of dread when I reached the end of my journey a few days ago. And yet I gave heartfelt thanks to the Almighty for seeing fit to bring me here at such a fateful juncture, and I begged Him earnestly to inspire me to make the most of the fragile political situation facing the Shogun at present in order to liberate this land once and for all of its barbaric beliefs, known respectively as Shinto and Buddhism.
Soon after I arrived I came to understand that some noblemen of the empire, individuals named Satsuma, Choisu, and Tosa, respectively the commander of the army, the governor, and prime minister of the country, had in the past few months led a rebellion against the Shogun, as a result of their desire to see real power returned to the Mikado, the Emperor. Until recently, I had thought that the sovereign authority in Japan was shared between two different persons—one spiritual and the other pertaining to the state. However, the distinction made between spiritual and state power is mere fiddle-faddle. The only difference is that the Mikado is the main fount of power, while the Shogun has been the one who, for decades, has put that power into practice. Despite that, the Mikado can, if he chooses, relieve the Shogun of his duties. Thus, in effect, the Shogun governed but the Mikado, or the emperor, was the real constitutional ruler.
It appears now as if the emperor, upon whose mercy I am dependent here in the ancient city of Kyoto, will in due course reclaim the power that had been stripped from him, to all intents and purposes, some centuries ago. A number of the Shogun’s palaces have already been burnt down in the past few months, and I am told that it is simply a question of time before he is forced once more to go on bended knee before the emperor and to give up his dominion over the land. At present, the true strength of the country—or rather this group of islands, over six thousand in total—lies, and has lain for some decades, actually, in Edo, a vast city east of here which makes even London seem like an insignificant settlement on the edge of the empire, rather than the capita mundi. The emperor’s power and influence over the past few decades have been negligible, and he has not been afforded the same respect and admiration as enjoyed by our own dear queen.
But all this is about to change. There was a time—and not so long ago either—when it was dangerous for a man of another nation to set foot in Japan and even for his ship to drop anchor in one of her ports. The Mikado must have changed his mind on this matter recently and must have come to feel more of a rapport with foreigners just as he came increasingly to resent the Shogun. I am dwelling with the emperor in Kyoto, and my aim and intention is, therefore, with Christ as my guide and protector, to take advantage of my privileged status to ensure that the true faith, Christianity, will be in the vanguard when the emperor takes back his birthright.
Forgive me, my friend, for that contextual preamble, which was necessary for you to be able to understand my situation. Indeed, I derived no small pleasure in putting everything into words in that way, for it has clarified it all in my own mind as well. It has also served sufficiently to convey to you the magnitude of the perilous task that lies ahead of me, for the country is full of fear, terror, and barbarism on all sides. Bloodthirsty heathens lie in wait everywhere and were it not for the will of Christ I would not wish to tarry here a second longer but rather would return home to you. One example will suffice to convey to you the strangeness of these people and the way in which quotidian life is vexatiously different. I am referring to the tea, which the Japanese drink endlessly. We British are thought of as inveterate tea-drinkers, but here in Japan the people assign a central and reverential place to this beverage in rites and customs, except that they drink a green, slimy tea which in my view is by no means pleasant.
In my first days in the palace, when I was still quite weary, Chihiro, a member of the emperor’s retinue, offered to show me some of the sites of the city. Even though I was hardly eager in spirit, for the only thing I wished to do was to lock myself within the palace walls, I accepted her offer. I expressed in the meager Japanese I was able to muster before coming here that I would like to visit a temple, in order to learn more about the strange and terrible religions practised here. I mentioned the only temple I could remember, having read about it in the single book it had been possible to find about the country and which I have by my side now as I write, namely A Brief and Concise Introduction to the Customs, Habits and Practices of the Japanese People, Being Also a Useful and Moral Guide to their Temples and Places of Worship by Albert F. Thrapp. I remembered having read in this book of a magnificent temple, made of fine gold, which glittered on an island in a lake on the edge of the city. I therefore expressed my desire to visit the Ginkaku-ji.
After a good deal of walking and wandering and climbing, we eventually came within sight of a temple on the brow of a hill, with a magnificent garden made of gravel raked in a pattern suggestive of an undulating sea. The effect of this was to quieten the mind and spirit of the visitor. When we gazed beyond this stony sea, however, I was disappointed to see that the temple appeared as gray as the gravel at my feet. Through broken English, even more broken Japanese, a Welsh word here and there, and an excessive amount of hand gestures, I succeeded in discovering from my friend that I should have enquired about the Kinkaku-ji, rather than the Ginkaku-ji, and the alarm and disappointment on her face changed to laughter and contentment. Although I was greatly disappointed, I too could not but laugh with her, and in so doing I realised that this was the first time a veritable smile had appeared on my face since I set foot in this country. It would be wrong to give credence for a moment to the lunacy and barbarism of the Shinto religion or to the devotees of the philosophy known as “Zen,” but it is true to say that I experienced there some of the mental and spiritual calm that comes from spending an hour near that stony sea. To this day, however, I have yet to visit the temple of gold.
Leila, my soul and my companion, I have held forth for far too long, and so here I will bring my letter to a close. There is much more that I wish to describe to you, but it will have to wait for the time being. All that remains to do is for me to express my intense longing for you and for dear little Wales, and to say that I hope one day to return to her maternal lap. Thus I conclude this stream of thoughts for the moment, and I bid you farewell,
Yours, as always,
1 May 1868
My dearest Leila,
I enclose here the following, namely the substance of a speech lately addressed to the government by a Japanese priest:—
The disgraceful religion of Jesus, Lord of Heaven, is an evil which threatens the empire. There are fools who are drawn to that doctrine, and such fools are numerous among our people. Moreover, men from foreign lands are making efforts to spread the word of this doctrine. We are much vexed by this, and we desire that rebuttals be published continually against the doctrine. We are those humble ones who, devoted to the Buddhism which has made Japan great, are ready to live and die for the empire.
This is the type of wickedness, dear friend, in which the country I currently reside in wallows, and I myself am readier than ever to expunge it from the land. I must apologise for sending word to you again so soon after my last missive. However, as you no doubt realised, at the close of my previous tidings, I still have much to convey to you. I urge you to let me know when that first letter has reached the end of its journey, and this second one in its wake. The address is included at the head of the missive, and I am confident that any communication from you will reach its destination in safety.
I long to tell you of my experiences in this extraordinary country. I feel that I am truly on the other side of the world. For the first time in my life—I am accounted to be tall! All here bow to one another and particularly to me, since I am such an utterly strange person to the inhabitants of this land. And although, as I am all too well aware, in my homeland it is May Day—oh, how the passing of the seasons, and the common rituals of life appear to me more clearly, more painfully, and more unattainably here, Lily!—the rites and celebrations here are of quite a different nature: primarily, the tea ceremonies. Chihiro and I attended one of these rituals, and there, on my haunches, with the cup held in both my hands as I passed it on, always to the left, I gained my first taste of the odd but strangely pleasant infusion.
Several days ago I went to visit the Kiyomizu-dera, a grand temple on a hilltop on the edge of the city. Here there is an aura, and a heady, unique perfume, quite different from what I am accustomed to at home in the Land of Song. To my sense of smell it seemed like a mixture of tea leaves, incense, water, and the wood used to build Japanese dwellings, and all of it as it were slowly decomposing. Indeed, these last two elements, wood and water, are highly prominent in Kiyomizu-dera. It is a structure of considerable size which seems as if it were nesting on the hill’s side, and beneath it is a framework like a scaffold or platform which serves as a foundation for the whole. I was informed that not a single nail was used in the whole edifice. The temple takes its name from the waterfall that flows in a raging torrent to the ravine below: the meaning of Kiyomizu is clear or pure water. This torrent is situated beneath the main hall, where the water cascades in channels to a small lake, and where the water can be collected and drunk. For me, a Baptist as you well know, this was appealing and comforting, I must confess, and made me begin to wonder how much difference there actually is between the religions of the world. The paganism of the Japanese seems to imitate or echo some of the rites associated with Christ himself, and whether that is something that should horrify me or not, I do not know. This much I do know: on that hill I was spellbound by the waters.
To my eyes and on the surface it appears that Shinto, the native religion of the country, and Buddhism, a foreign religion to all intents and purposes, lie together and tolerate each other surprisingly peacefully here, certainly more harmoniously than our Nonconformity and Anglicanism, not to mention the animosity among denominations, or the suspicion of Papists. But then these schisms are derived from profound theological considerations which can only arise from spiritual and intellectual depth.
Chihiro and I descended from the hill by a different route, following quiet streets where life was lived as it were in episodes or small, self-sufficient chapters, behind paper doors as thin as a moth’s wing. Suddenly, I was alarmed for I imagined for a moment, Leila, that I saw your face looking out at me from behind one of these doors. However, your visage disappeared as quickly as it had formed. On seeing my alarm, and hearing what I thought I had seen, Chihiro told me that to see a moth, for the Japanese, meant to see the spirit of your beloved, who is about to die or is in purgatory. Was it your face I saw there, Leila? Or was it in truth a moth that was flapping its wings, and creating a ghostly image between candle and paper door?
The incense wafted more strongly from some houses than others; elsewhere, we could hear hushed whispering or the laughter of a child. Then we descended to another district by the name of Gion. Here there were none of the usual street lamps, but rather paper lanterns everywhere, flickering like corpse candles. For some reason it was quieter here too, with no rattling carts or the noise of children playing. Chihiro explained to me that this was the district of the machiya and the ochaya—the teahouses where the geisha practised their ancient and secret craft. Behind every paper door was a completely mysterious world to me, and the only trace I perceived of them was the rows of shoes placed tidily at each entrance. We had a glimpse before leaving of a geiko hurrying across the road, going from one appointment to the next. I had heard much of these women over recent weeks, and I expected to be disgusted at them when I saw them. Yet there was something entrancing about this girl, who walked as if she were floating, and who bore such an expression of peace on her white countenance. Then she disappeared behind a paper door, again almost like a moth, and there was nothing of her to be seen apart from her strange, high shoes on the doorstep. I long to hear from you, my dearest Leila. Send word to me by care of the emperor himself, if you wish:—your letter is certain to reach its destination. To hear from you, or from any of my dear kin or acquaintance in gallant little Wales would be sure to cheer my heart.
I am as ever,
15 May 1868
Although your continued silence dismays me, I persevere with my correspondence in the hope that this letter will reach you as a token of my safety and contentment, if not happiness, here in Japan. I hope and pray that you are all in safety across the distant seas, and that you receive this missive from my hand. I have not heard either from the Baptist Union—who sent me, like Noah’s dove, across the waters. I would be grateful if you would convey to them that I am safe and continuing with my mission here.
My dwelling is now Nijo-jo, a sort of castle within the imperial palace, Ninomaru. Ever since the emperor proclaimed his rule over the land in January this year, plans have been afoot to move the palace and retinue to Edo, and to rename that city “Tokyo.” However, the quarrelling among the noblemen has been such that the move has been postponed for now. There are brawls and battles all across the land, and the young emperor is seldom here in the palace, which is frustrating since I have no occasion to urge him to turn his mind to Jesus Christ and the true faith. Yet this palace, in its own way, is also a world and a universe, because of the complex strata it contains. Only the emperor himself, and those nearest to him—his intended empress, together with his concubines or consorts—may gain admission to the inner sanctum. The remaining members of the court are then disposed according to their rank and importance around that sanctum. Strict control is maintained over these hierarchical strata, and though I am very grateful for the emperor’s hospitality, I am yet on the margins of the outermost circle. Chihiro, however, by virtue of her nobility and her status in the retinue, dwells closest to the inner sanctum. This rigidity is understandable, for the Mikado, the emperor, is constantly under threat of attack or an attempt on his life. It would be difficult to imagine a better defensive position than this one, though, on account of the structure of the castle itself. The wooden walkways surrounding the rooms have been created with such skill and ingenuity that they twitter like birds when they are walked upon: they are called uguisubari, or nightingale floors. The experience of traversing them during the day is quite vexatious; but at night, there is a kind of comfort to be had from hearing the court’s comings and goings, and from knowing that any lurking figure can be heard approaching, if he dares.
Indeed, the civil war is creating such a perilous situation that I feel quite frustrated at not being free to travel about and wander as I would wish. Chihiro and I have become quite good friends, but I am not permitted to venture anywhere outside the palace unless I am in her company. In spite of that, life goes on in the old ruined city, and we are reasonably comfortable although we hear every day news from this place and that about losses and victories. One way of life which has been especially favoured among the nobility for some centuries still persists, as if there were no war happening at all. For that matter, I myself have given way to this way of life—perhaps indeed my peers at home, and you amongst them, Leila, would be inclined to say “excessively.” Yet you do not witness as I do the threat of that ever-present yet distant destruction.
I have completely fallen in love with this way of life: it is commonly referred to as ukiyo or 浮世, which in translation conveys something like “The Floating World.” The life of ukiyo or the Floating World is an entrancing and simple one. The emphasis is placed always and above all else on pleasure and the best things of this world, and on the joys of the flesh. Do you know, for instance, that a particular season is set aside here simply for wandering beneath the cherry trees to savour and admire their blossom? Another season is dedicated to the appreciation of the beauty of the dead. You are aware that from time to time there are earthquakes in these parts, which are prone to shake the foundations of the lives of the whole population. I surmise that it is from the consciousness that their entire world could come crashing down about their ears at any moment that this pleasure-seeking and sensuous way of life derives.
In this world, pleasure is king, and to please that monarch I have been wandering from the kabuki theatre to sumo wrestling contests. I even had the opportunity to see one of the dances of the geiko in Gion, and I was ravished by it. Another way in which this Floating World is manifest in my daily life is in the onnayu. In these public baths, women are treated like minor goddesses and men bow and grovel before them, in a way that would never occur at home in dear little Wales. Here the flesh and nakedness are completely natural, a warmth to be shared among us, as we bathe together and caress one another’s skin. There in the onnayu, Leila my dearest, I experienced a thrill and a kind of earthquake, not entirely unlike those earthquakes which I have not felt since our youthful days together, when—but I am being too bold, to my shame. Do you see the way in which this country has taken me in its clutches and has made me fearless? I almost hope that the fate of this letter will be the same as its predecessors, and that it will never arrive at its destination—your hands and your gaze. And yet—your warm hands, your gaze . . . Do you remember, dear Leila?
I know that my feeble words, unworthy as I am, can never convey to you one grain of the colour, the excitement and the awakening of body and soul, that this way of life gives to one. To me Kyoto possesses an ancient majesty, a ruined, fragmented splendour not to be found in Edo (or Tokyo) nor anywhere else except in a city which was once the centre of a universe but which has now been consigned for a considerable time to the margins. I am under the spell of this city, and I fear that whenever I must leave it will be too soon.
I must now fall silent and take my farewell,
4 June 1868
My dearest Leila,
I am not yet ready or willing to give up hope that one of my letters will reach your hands, nor to refrain from believing that our friendship is still able to fly over land and sea and traverse oceans, as it does at times in my dreams. Thus, I write to you once more—and yet I believe that by now I do so as much for my own sake as for anyone else’s, in order to chronicle the experiences that have come to my part, so that I do not in future, when I look back on the period of my life that I spent here, fail to believe the things I saw, heard, and felt.
At last an opportunity arose to venture abroad a little further because a period of relative peace has descended, and the Emperor has more or less won the day. The rumour is that the entire imperial retinue is preparing to move to Edo. I expressed to Chihiro my desire, before we leave for Tokyo, to travel to the city of Nara, one of the most sacred of cities for the Japanese, and therefore it was arranged for a party of us to undertake an excursion there which was to take the better part of a day. This was a research visit for me, of course, to discover more about the beliefs and temples of Buddhism and Shinto, so that I am better able to educate the people about the True God. I thought that I had had my fill of temples, but these temples were otherworldly and marvelous, to a degree that no other temple will ever again compare to them in my mind. What struck me in the rural location of Nara was the spaciousness, and the small glimpses of temples seen from afar caused a thrill to pass through me. As we passed by them, I could not resist passing my fingers heedlessly over a row of prayer wheels. I immediately felt ashamed of myself.
There in the Todai-ji, a gigantic and ancient temple, the largest wooden building in the world, is the largest brazen statue of the Buddha ever made. The place makes one light-headed as one stands within its holy precincts. Dear Leila, I have an utterly miraculous story to relate to you, one that even now I can scarcely believe. I am sure that you have heard of the origins of the Brythonic people, of how we came from the womb of Europe, or the sooty depths of Asia and the mountains of Siberia. You will have some interest therefore in the belief in these parts that the true roots and origins of the mighty Celt lie much further back than that.
Is not our history as Celts and Brythonic peoples one long journey toward the west? After traversing the wide-open steppes of Russia and the darkest depths of Asia, civilizing benighted Europe, we landed on the furthest shores of the edge of the known world. Then after we were subjugated and lost our own lands and our language, on, on again across the great ocean toward the land of Canaan! To settle once more on the margins of Brazil and the shores of America, where Madoc had been a founding father before us. Yet here am I, having returned to the east, going against the grain, as I have done so often in my desire to break free of the bonds of this poor, weak, female body.
But I think that here I have come across a little story—whether it is a story or a fable, I do not know—to explain the origins of the Welsh people, even further back than their sojourn in furthest Russia.
There was a short, genial-looking monk dressed in gray sackcloth guiding us around the temple. When I told him that I came from Wales originally, he smiled broadly, bowed, and then laughed. He was utterly delighted—Wales was famous in Japan once. Indeed, in this man’s opinion, Wales and Japan had an indissoluble connection with each other, and he had been waiting patiently for some decades to meet one of our compatriots. The man said that one of the Buddha’s disciples had asked his master as they sat meditating in the very hall in which we stood: what can I do to reach Nirvana? There was a round hole in one of the wooden columns of the temple, no bigger than a pig’s bladder. In order to reach Nirvana, his teacher said to him, it was necessary to meditate deeply and for a long time, and that would be enough to pass through that little hole. Unfortunately, this pupil was unable to meditate sufficiently. The Buddha thought carefully, and then said to his pupil: if you were able to meditate long and deeply enough, without a break and concentrating so hard that you could create and imagine a whole nation in your own mind, completely formed and whole, with all the talents and attributes that belong to a nation, then you would be able to pass through the hole to Nirvana, for you would have reached the furthest depths and breadth of your thoughts.
You will never believe the story, Leila, but according to the monk who told me the tale, this pupil embarked conscientiously on his meditation and continued for six months and six days. He sat in the Hall of Dreams with his back straight and his eyes closed, and he did not move a muscle. His hair and his beard and his nails grew long. Food was brought to him every day, but when they came back to fetch the crockery hours later, the bowl and the chopsticks were untouched. By the time he emerged from his meditations at the end of this period, he had fully formed in his mind a little nation of people, who lived on the margins of Europe, on the rocky edges of the continent, its edges stretching out toward the ocean, a very different ocean from the one with which the pupil himself was familiar. This nation was open to the elements, but she had mountains too, small mountains in comparison with giants such as Fuji, but mountains which nevertheless sometimes acted as a refuge and shelter.
And yet—and yet . . . He was a pupil, and neither his mind nor his ability had achieved its full development and amplitude, and the result was that he imagined a kind of unfinished nation, a wretched half-made nation, with a long and sorrowful past, but possessing no future. She had no national institutions, and she had for centuries suffered under the yoke of a powerful foreign nation. Indeed, she had been in thrall to that nation for so long that she had begun to deceive herself into believing that she was a part of that larger nation, and had been tempted and encouraged to perform the wicked deeds of the larger nation for it. This was a half-nation, and the Buddha was quite disappointed with the pitiful meditative gifts of his disciple. He said as much to him; “But they have their own language,” argued the pupil, “and a long and venerable literary tradition in that language, both oral and written, and poets galore to maintain the memory of the glories of the past, and an old, old religion.” The Buddha replied, “Is that enough to sustain a nation? Isn’t there a need for more than a tradition, more than antiquity, in order to become a full member of the nations of the world?”
The monk smiled, and said to me, “Wales was the nation that the pupil imagined.”
I did not return his smile. I was annoyed and agitated! Was I not there, standing in front of him, as true as the day, the Welshest of Welsh girls that ever set foot on this land? I retorted that the Welsh nation was a small but proud one, and that she most certainly existed. She is not the culmination of the dreams of some lowly, inept monk. The monk’s only reply was to take my hand and lead me across the hall, and there was the self-same hole in the wooden pillar—exactly the same size as a pig’s bladder.
Look here, I protested, could I not speak the Welsh language to him? Was that not proof in itself that the language of heaven and its homeland existed? He continued to smile, alleging that what emerged from my mouth and entered his ears was a series of meaningless sounds and symbols. Much more evident to him, he said, from looking at me, was that I looked like a girl from Japan in my clothing, my carriage, my conduct and, yes, even in my language. There was no quarrelsomeness or hatred in his argument, nothing but tenderness.
I became ashamed and was disgusted at myself. The monk was perfectly correct. I have for some time abandoned my old clothing and have taken to wearing the fashions of the court, I arrange my hair carefully every morning, and have taken, hesitatingly, to applying a thin layer of white powder to my cheeks. I saw myself for what I am now: I have become Japanese and I am no longer a Welshwoman (at least, not from the outside). But I vowed that I would return, dressed in the best Sabbath dress of my youth, with the language of my forefathers on my lips, with pictures and books from the old country to show him.
I was not as sure of myself when I returned dejectedly to the old city a few days later. From where had I come? Had Wales been merely a foolish dream? Oh my dear Leila, write to me soon, so that I can persuade myself that you are no illusion, nor is the country that was everything to me for so long, and that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was no fleeting dream.
27 June 1868
I am sorry for the lengthy lapse of time since my last letter, for the spirit of haste and anxiety in which I write these tidings, and for the things which I am forced to disclose in sending you these words. However, great events have befallen, and the world has changed, indeed many worlds have changed. I apologise also if you have recently seen fit to write to me in Nijo-jo—I no longer have my dwelling there, and I fear that I will never in my lifetime see the place again.
It is odious to me to place these words on record, but the truth must be told somewhere, even if that truth happens to be lost somewhere on the wide ocean. Leila, you know how I gave myself thoroughly and uncompromisingly to the ukiyo way of life. I ventured so far away from my Christian upbringing! My fall was complete. I have already expressed to you (I will no longer call you by the polite form “chwi”; calling you “ti” will be the least of my transgressions) the way in which I became accustomed to the daily onnayu, and it was there in one of the public bath-houses that I became acquainted with a flock of geiko. I was extraordinarily bold in bathing in their company; such comfort in our mutual nakedness I had never felt before. Yet that in itself was not the worst sin, though it was a foreshadowing of what was to come. Their company had awoken in me the desire for sweet flesh and a passion for soft, young skin. Moreover, not just any flesh, but—oh! To record it here for the first time fills me with terror and relief—a woman’s flesh. Leila, I desired your flesh once, and to declare that now is of no concern because I know that I will never see you again.
The truth of it is that I, still yearning for you, was caught in bed with Chihiro in her chamber. I can only wonder at my own daring and boldness, and even today I do not understand why I acted as I did, unless there was something, which had until then lain hidden and buried within me, that had been revealed and exhumed by this miraculous country and its customs. The emperor’s foot soldiers heard my footsteps tiptoeing across the nightingale floor to Chihiro’s chamber. I was so certain that I had taken every precaution! I do not know whether this will horrify you further and fill you with disgust, Leila, but I find it incumbent upon me to emphasise that I did not feel, and I do not feel, any passionate love for Chihiro. It was entirely a physical attraction, and an attraction that seemed wholly natural in the nakedness of the baths, and in the heat of the sheets of her castle, but one which, now that I am some distance away from there, is completely distasteful to me. Yet I can do no less than bleed for her, for she was apprehended and I escaped, and her dearest wish to become in due course a handmaiden to the emperor is now in tatters.
At this time, since I succeeded in escaping, I am in hiding here in Hakone, a small town near the foot of Mount Fuji where boiling water bubbles up from the depths of the earth, and where it flows and escapes not far from here in yellow bubbles and a noisome odour. The journey here was long and tiring, and the climb through the damp, wooded foothills wearisome. I worried constantly that I did not resemble everyone else, and that they would ostracise me. But oh! such humility and kindness have I encountered on all sides. The climb almost finished me, but I was able to rest one night in the home of an old woman, and to taste once more that healing draught, green tea. I went on by the mountain ways until I arrived here in this spot so remote that the emperor’s soldiers may never find me. I gained shelter in an isolated boarding house, not far from the lake, and here I am still with hardly any possessions or treasures, composing these words in the light of a paper lantern.
I am cold here. I went in the blink of an eye from the company and life and noise of the court to this state of loneliness and exile in Hakone of the mountains and boiling waters. The scent of incense has been displaced by the scent of sulphur. I hide here with no word or news from anywhere, not knowing what has happened to the court at Kyoto nor to any of my old friends there. The owner of the boarding house and some of the inhabitants of this scattered community are kind enough: but they are also suspicious of me, and though they do not wish to drive me away, they do not wish to have cordial relations with me, especially in these worrying, warlike times. That is what is difficult, I believe—I have this desire to escape from myself to be with someone else. I do everything with just myself for company—it is no surprise that I begin to tire of that company! Leila, in my shame, I beg you now—if you wish to send word, send it here to this address to lighten the spirit of a sinner such as myself.
Note with letter A35
There is a significant gap in the correspondence between letter A34 and A35, and it is uncertain whether there are some letters missing or not. It is quite possible that Ms Morgan stopped writing for a time in order to avoid being found. Another possibility is that she did not have access to writing equipment, such as pens and paper or parchment. The next letter in the series is remarkable because it is written in katakana, the simplest and most basic alphabet in Japanese, often used to express words and syllables in foreign languages; as far as is known, this is the only substantial attempt ever made to write Welsh using this alphabet. The letter, once translated, is dated “the eighth day of the ninth month,” the first time that Dolores used this system of dating, which means (according to the western calendar) 23 October 1868.
The eighth day of the ninth month, 1868
My dearest Leila,
I write to you, though I know with considerable certainty that no such person as you exists, and that the hours I spent in your company were no more than a dream which lasted a little too long after awakening. I have received no word from you since my arrival here in Nippon, and I worried about that for a long time; I understand now that there was never a possibility that you would answer me, for you are no more than a ghost, a vague illusion conjured from my own imagination.
I have experienced a trace of the inner peace that comes with deep meditation and with following the way of the Buddha. Here in the mountains where the water emerges warm from the earth I feel that my self is becoming whole. I feel that I have been climbing Mount Fuji, have been on a long journey and am on the verge of reaching the end, almost at the peak.
By now I long for one thing above all else, namely to be able to return to Nara, to thank that monk who revealed to me those things which I always knew in my heart, who made clear to me the illusion of what I imagined and dreamed, and who awoke me to my true life. I was called away from that small nation on the margins of Europe, the nation that does not exist except in the mind of one monk, in order to return here to the Land of the Rising Sun. I know now that Wales never existed except in my dreams.
If the court were to go to Edo, I might perhaps venture down from the mountains and visit the temple in Nara. I could return to sit at the feet of the monk, and lay before him my entire soul in order to meditate there for the rest of my life, and one day be able to pass through that hole to Nirvana. However, just two days ago I heard a rumour that the emperor had been crowned in Kyoto, with his empress by his side and his concubine in the vanguard of his retinue. I do not know what became of Chihiro. The Great Empire, Dai Nippon Teikoku, is reaching its zenith, and I rejoice in that. I bear no ill will toward the emperor nor to any of his court. Yet for me, there can be no return. As it stands, I can see only one means of escape, and in that I will be imitating the samurai themselves. The emperor and an entire class of nobles were brought to their knees; what hope therefore can there be for a missionary like myself who dreamt for so long of a nation that did not exist? Yet I can put an end to my floating way of life in the same way that they did, and in so doing gain control, at least, over my own death if not over my life, and turn into a mere moth.
If you existed, Leila, I would explain to you something I learned and came to understand quite recently. I will do so now, and I will send this letter, in the hope that it will reach the end of its journey somewhere, on the margins of Europe where the land’s edge prostrates itself to an ocean that is quite different from the one I can see far beyond the horizon in Sagami Bay. There is another word in this language which sounds to the ear exactly the same as the ukiyo by which I was once infatuated. In order to explain the difference, I must turn to the kanji syllabary. Ukiyo, the “Floating World,” is spelt like this: 浮世. But the word ukiyo has another meaning. It is spelt 浮き世 and it means “Sorrowful World.” This is the world of trouble and grief and sorrow, of death and rebirth, from which the followers of Buddha seek to escape. In my folly, Leila, though in an artificial language from the margins of Europe, I fear that I confused these two things atrociously, the floating world and the sorrowful world, without thinking for a moment that the two could, in the end, lead to the same place.
"Dolores Morgan's Letters from the Far East" © Llŷr Gwyn Lewis. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Katie Gramich. All rights reserved.
A woman and her son fight to survive in a postapocalyptic landscape in this excerpt from the Wales Book of the Year.
Mam says that it's best to write like this now. Because she can't be bothered to teach me, I think. Can't be bothered or can't find the energy. I'm not sure which it is. Or if there's any difference.
She used to sit with me for an hour each morning, the hour when Dwynwen sleeps. Stuff like adding and reading. Not like we used to do at school, no graphs or times tables or anything like that. She got me to read books and then I had to write about them. She marked them with a red biro, telling me where I'd spelled something wrong or said something stupid. Then after doing adding up and taking away, there was no more math. She started to worry. About the biros too, because we don't want them running out.
“I don't have anything else to teach you, Siôn,” she said yesterday. She'd just read through something I'd written about a romantic novel about a man and a woman who meet on a train and I think something clicked in her. “There's no point carrying on like this.” So, she said, as long as I spend an hour writing every day, she wasn't going to bother me with schoolwork anymore.
She got this book from a house we broke into in Nebo. It was in one of the small drawers of a little desk in the corner of someone's living room. Usually, we only steal the really important stuff like matches or rat poison or books. But she held this notebook in her hands and turned it over a few times before putting it in her bag.
“You have that,” she said later, when we got home, “to write your story.”
“The Blue Book of Nebo,” I smiled, taking the book from her. The pages were blank and wide, like a new day.
“Eh?” asked Mam.
“Like The Black Book of Carmarthen, or The Red Book of Hergest. That's how they did it in the olden days.” I'd read about them in a book about Welsh history. “Important books that said something about our history. And now that’s a part of history too, isn't it?”
The book's jacket is a lovely rich dark blue, almost black. It doesn't look like an important book, but all books are just words strung together.
After that, I put the book on the top shelf in case Dwynwen got hold of it and I went up to the lean-to to fix the leaking corner. You wouldn't believe how much water can get through a tiny hole like that. It only needed a tiny lump of plasticine, and then a piece of tarpaulin on top, about two inches square. I could only spare one nail, because there weren't many left. It'll do for now.
Dwynwen started crying, and Mam went to fetch her from the cradle.
There's a hell of a view from the lean-to. Down toward Caernarfon, where you can see the castle towers jutting out like gnarling teeth, and then the sea and Anglesey beyond it. I can't ever remember going to Anglesey, but Mam says I went loads of times when I was a little boy. There were nice places to go for walks, Mam says, with nice beaches all around, because Anglesey is an island. I was thinking about that yesterday when I was sitting on the roof of the lean-to, looking out. Seeing the sea and the island, which looks too big to be an island from here. There are trees and fields and places I don't know between here and the sea. Yesterday was a cold day—cold enough to make my mouth steam, like snow in a saucepan. I sat there thinking about all those people in the olden days, poor things, going to beaches in their cars and sitting there all day with nothing to do. Standing with their feet in the water, then splashing about a bit and then having a picnic. I try not to think about those people too much.
Then I heard Mam coming out with Dwynwen strapped to her breast, and I climbed down the ladder. There was too much to do to waste time thinking about Anglesey and the olden days.
Our house is in a dead place. What I mean is, it's in the middle of nowhere, and no one ever comes here. Well, almost no one. In the olden days, an elderly couple lived in the house called Sunningdale, which is about seventy-eight steps from our house. They went away soon after The End, same as everyone else.
“What's Sunningdale?” I asked Mam one day after I'd been looking though their windows.
“A bloody stupid name,” she barked back. “Keep away from that house, Sionyn. It isn't ours.”
I think I can remember Mr. and Mrs. Thorpe, but I can't be sure. He was tall with white hair and glasses that always seemed to be reflecting some light, so you could never quite see his eyes. She was small and thin and stared at you as she spoke. Sunningdale is exactly the same as it was when they left it, except that I've used their garden for planting and I've cut down a few of their trees for firewood. I want to go inside the house, but Mam says no. For some reason, she's a bit funny about Sunningdale and Mr. and Mrs. Thorpe.
The truth is, they've probably gone forever. They were old, old enough to have stopped working. They did pointless things, like playing golf and growing tiny trees called bonsai in their kitchen window. They probably went away to find their families and decided to stick with them. Somewhere in England, probably.
Today, I was cutting down branches from their garden to dry out and use as kindling. Mam was standing at the bottom of the tree, and Dwynwen was tied to her chest, trying to talk. Mam was bundling up the branches as I was throwing them down, because that makes it easier to drag them home. It's easier for me to climb trees and to go up on the roof and all that, because Mam has a bad leg and walks with a limp. But she still climbs onto the roof of the lean-to with me when it's sunny or starry.
Curtains with tiny pink flowers on them, and the neatly made bed, the covers pulled tight and smooth. A wardrobe painted white, and little white tables on each side of the bed, books piled high but tidily on them.
“Come on, Sionyn. It's going to start raining properly in a bit!” Mam said, waiting for the branches.
I cut another one and threw it down before saying, “They've got a lot of books in there.”
Mam was silent.
“And blankets on the bed. A duvet, I think. And two pillows.” I dragged the saw slowly and heavily over another branch.
“It's got nothing to do with us,” said Mam firmly. I knew then that I had to shut up. Mam isn't a woman who argues—she just closes herself, like a door or a book. She thinks that breaking into Sunningdale is different to breaking into the other houses in Nebo, and I can't see why.
She is thirty-six years old today.
We still have the old calendar, the one from 2018, the year The End came. And we can't be certain that we're in the right place, because the days when we were sick at the beginning all went into one mess of time—it might have been three days, it might have been a fortnight. But never mind. We've guessed where we are. Mam doesn't like celebrating, but I think it's a big thing. Thirty-six years of living! And I've been with her for fourteen of those. She's been with me.
“You've been me with almost half your life,” I said, chucking down another branch.
She stilled and looked up at me through the leaves. Her hair was wet, and she'd zipped up her raincoat over Dwynwen. All I could see of my little sister was a blue fleece hat.
Sometimes I think it's impossible for someone to be as beautiful and ugly as my mother.
I know it's a horrible thing to say. Mam hates it when I call people ugly, even people in stories, and I can't understand that. As long as they don't hear it, what's the harm? But Mam says that the people who see others as ugly on the outside are themselves ugly on the inside. I must be hideous inside because sometimes I think that Mam is really very ugly.
I don't see many people, so perhaps I can't judge who is ugly and who is beautiful, but I remember The End. I was six, after all, and six years is a long time to collect memories. I think I can remember women looking like they do on book covers—fat pink lips, smooth milky skin, and soft hair with no bits sticking up. Mam isn't like that. She has a long thin face with huge eyes and a small mouth, and a nose that's too long for her face. Her body is tall and strong, not fat but all hard, no soft bits. Before The End, she used to cut her hair short and dye it blonde, but cutting hair is just another job now, and it grows like brambles around her head, thick as dog hairs, black as a November midnight with tiny silver wires here and there.
I wonder if I look like her.
She looked at me for a long time, up in the trees. I thought for a bit that she was going to tell me to break into Mr. and Mrs. Thorpe's house, but in the end she just turned away. Dwynwen chatted to herself under Mam's coat—I could hear her voice although I couldn't see her, a disembodied chatter of nonsense words. She's getting too big to be carried now.
I'll go hunting tonight. Try to get hold of a rabbit or a wild cat so that Mam can have some meat on her birthday. There are traps down on the potato field already. She'll have a good birthday this year.
I caught a rabbit yesterday. It was twitching in the trap, so I killed it quickly with my pocket knife and caught the blood in a bottle. Mam makes a sauce with it to put on the potatoes, because it makes us stronger. She had to drink it sometimes when Dwynwen wanted her milk all the time, because a woman has to be strong to make milk. Sometimes, Mam would drink half a cup of it and throw it all back up again. She says that however cold it is, blood always tastes warm to her, and it makes her feel sick.
I skinned the rabbit and took it home, and said, “Happy Birthday Mam.” I'd been to fetch the birthday card this morning, and had put it on the mantelpiece. There's a photo of a racing car on it, and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY—SIX TODAY” written on it, but never mind. That's the only card we had left. I had thirteen birthday cards, but we decided to burn the rest after The End, because we didn't know anything then, not even to store kindling in a dry place for winter.
“Thanks, love,” Mam smiled. Dwynwen was on the floor playing with the toy snake Mam had made out of a sock. I put the rabbit in a pot on the fire.
“Did you skin it?”
“It's drying out in the shed.”
I don't remember Mam's birthdays before. Well, I remember the most recent ones, of course, but not the ones before The End. But I remember my own birthdays. The cakes and the candles and the shiny wrapping paper on the presents. And I remember the other children's names, though I can't remember their voices or the way they moved or laughed.
There must have been more than that, but I can't remember. I've tried and tried, but the more I try, the less I remember. It's like trying to remember a dream.
We eat the rabbit with walnuts. It’s wonderful. We keep half for tomorrow, because you wouldn’t believe how much meat you can get off a rabbit.
Tonight, when Dwynwen is in bed, we sit on the roof of the lean-to because the sky's so clear.
“You're enjoying the writing,” said Mam, and I wasn't sure whether she was asking me a question.
“Yeah, but I think something needs to be written about The End. It doesn't make sense otherwise. And I don't know enough about it.'”
Mam nodded. “You were only little then. It was a long time ago.”
“You should write, Mam. Share the book with me. Just say what happened.”
“I was rubbish at writing at school.”
“You've read thousands of books since then. You'll be better at it now.”
And we agreed, Mam and me, to share The Blue Book of Nebo. She'll write about the olden days and The End, and I'll write about now, about how we live. And we've agreed not to read what the other has written, just in case. In case of what, I'm not sure.
“Except if something happens to one of us,” Mam said with a gentle little sigh, and I didn't reply because I didn't need to. I get it. We were quiet for a while.
“I'd love a smoke right now,” said Mam. She says that sometimes in the evenings. Smoking is a thing from the olden days where people put a small thing on fire and then put it in their mouths, then they swallowed the smoke. I can't remember much about it, only the smell. It was warm and thick and lovely to begin with and then went stale and bitter after a few hours.
“Is that what you'd choose as a birthday present? If you could have anything you wanted?” Mam stared out over Anglesey and thought about it. She smelled like outside.
‘Nothing,” she said after a while. “I wouldn't choose anything.”
That sounded lovely, and I knew it was a lie. Everyone wants something. “Anything in the world, Mam. Even from the olden days.”
Mam sighed. “OK. I'd have a Bounty.”
“Bounty. It was a chocolate bar, Siôn.”
I can remember chocolate, of course, but not that kind. I remember Dairy Milk and Penguin and Milkybar and Rocky.
“The inside was all pieces of coconut. Sticky with sugar. I always ate the chocolate first, and then the middle bit. The milk chocolate one came in a blue wrapper, and the dark chocolate one had a deep red one.”
“Are coconuts like walnuts?”
“No, no. They're sweet, and they're lots and lots of little bits, all stuck together.”
I regretted asking about her ideal gift then, because Mam goes quiet when we've talked about the olden days, and it's not the kind of quiet you get when you work but it's a kind of quiet when there aren't any words that fit.
“I never thought about it, you know,” she said after a while. “Nobody did. You just walked into a shop or a garage, and if a bar of chocolate or bag of crisps took your fancy, you bought it.” She shakes her head. “Even if you weren't hungry!”
“I can't remember,” Mam replied. She was quiet for a bit and then she said, “Because it was there.”
I've tried writing things down before, but nothing ever works. It never feels like the truth when I read it back to myself. It feels like it happened to someone else, in a world that was never real. And so many winters have gone by since The End, and I'm scared that if I don't write it now, I never will.
It happened so quickly. The End. I might as well be straight from the very beginning in case you're looking for answers—I don't know what happened. Not properly.
Siôn was in school and I was at work. I worked in a hairdressing salon, mostly doing small children and old ladies. The people between those age ranges tended to go to the more expensive salons in town, where they could get sparkly nails and shaped eyebrows too. I was happy, because I never suited those kinds of salons, and Gaynor, the owner, let me finish work in time to pick Siôn up from school. Sometimes, if we were busy, I'd bring him back with me and he'd sit in one of the leather chairs by the sinks and speak in an old-fashioned way with the old ladies. He knew how to get them to lean over their small boxy bags and unclasp them before offering him a cool pound coin. Gaynor would keep a stash of crisps and Penguin bars in the cupboard under the till especially for him.
She was kind.
Then, one day, the news came on the radio—we always listened to the radio at work—that bombs had been dropped on some of America's big cities. And Gaynor and I looked up and locked eyes over the heads of our ladies. And after I finished with mine, I told Gaynor I was feeling unwell, and she gave me the afternoon off. She knew I was lying, but she also knew I wouldn't lie unless I had to.
This is what I did.
Walked to the other end of the village to Mei's Garage and hired a transit van for the rest of the day. Drove to the big Tesco in Bangor, which was becoming busy with panic buyers like me. And I bought all the dried food I could load into the trolley. Chickpeas and beans, pearl barley, sacks and sacks of different sorts of rice. As many painkillers as I was allowed to, which wasn't that many in case I wanted to kill myself. And then I went on to B&Q and bought loads of things I wasn't sure I'd ever need—nails and screws, batteries, two wind-up torches, huge sheets of plastic. Two polytunnels and whole boxes of seed packets. Two apple trees (it was spring). A gardening fork and a spade. Rat poison.
On the way home, I stopped at the Spar to get Siôn a couple of Freddos.
I went home and unloaded everything into the garage. Went into the house, and printed page after page of information from the Internet. How to make a rabbit trap. How to grow vegetables. Old fashioned remedies that grew in the garden. Which wild plants are safe to eat. How to purify the water supply.
I returned to the village and took the van back to the garage, and fetched Siôn. I went to the Spar again to get more chocolate. People had cleared the place of all the tinned food, but there were a few pizzas going out of date, so I bought those for our tea.
Back in the salon, as Siôn was busy scoffing his Freddos and chatting to an old woman about his teacher, I said to Gaynor, “You can come and live with us.”
She smiled, a tight little smile I'd never seen before. “Good God, Rowenna, don't overreact. We'll be fine!” She was brushing the floor, a horizon of gray hairs stretching over the lino.
“Of course we will. But if you ever need to. Come to us.”
Gaynor cleared her throat, as if she was trying to rid her mouth of the words that were threatening to escape. And she carried on cleaning, and we had a coffee, and the hair salon felt like the safest place in the world.
I can't remember what we said after that, but I do remember that before Siôn and I left, she said, “You've been very good to me.” And I didn't understand, because she'd always been the one who’d looked after me, just by being in the same place and being the same way every single day I'd known her.
Everything was normal for a day or two. Siôn still went to school and I still cut women's hair, and the stack of stuff in my garage started to feel like a foolish indulgence which I'd gone into debt to buy.
Then one morning, as I was painting a pale color into an old lady's hair, the electricity cut out. Just like that. It didn't flicker, just turned off and didn't come back. The radio became silent, and the lady sitting under the lamps murmured, “Bloody hell, what now?”
We waited a few minutes but it didn't come back. I had to rinse the lady's hair with cold water, which she moaned about since she'd only just shaken off a cold.
“Is it OK if I pop over to the school, in case they've lost their power too?” I asked Gaynor.
“You might as well go home for the day,” she replied. “I'll have to close if we don't have power.”
The schoolchildren were playing outside, and I stood there for a bit, watching Siôn. He was pretending to be a plane, two of his friends beside him doing the same. His arms outstretched like a man crucified.
We went home.
The electricity never came back. I waited for it for the first few days, but after a while I seemed to stop hoping. Siôn asked when he'd be going back to school, and I told him that I wasn't sure.
I think I'm hard now.
Sometimes, I think about who I was before. Rowenna, pretty and tidy and always, always making an effort. The make-up and straighteners and nail polish. Having been on a diet since I was twelve, I am now thin, and muscled, and tired and worried and stern. I haven't worn make-up for eight years, and my hair is turning white. I am thirty-six years old.
From Llyfr Glas Nebo (Cardiff: Ylolfa, 2018). © 2018 by Manon Steffan Ros. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Manon Steffan Ros. All rights reserved.
Photo: Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser (left) and translator Ian Boyden
For the last thirty years, the Tibetan writer and humanist Tsering Woeser has documented the relentless colonization and destruction of her homeland and its culture by the Chinese. She bears witness to this unfolding tragedy through essays, blogs, poems, social media posts, and photographs. Her documentation of events and her outspoken positions have put her in direct opposition to the Chinese government, thus placing her in a position of extreme danger. Despite years of intimidation, Woeser has continued to write, and today, not only is she the most prominent public intellectual in China discussing Tibet, she is one of the most followed and respected Tibetan voices in the world. While her essays and blog posts have been widely translated into English, her poems have received far less attention. Part of my ongoing project of translating her poems of the last decade is to also understand who Woeser is as a poet and to begin to understand what impels her to poetry. This is one of the first conversations with Woeser, and certainly the most in-depth, about a single poem to have appeared in English. This conversation unfolded over roughly six weeks while I translated the poem “Absent, or Not Absent,” which she wrote in the summer of 2017 for the Dalai Lama on the occasion of his eighty-second birthday.
As a Tibetan born at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Woeser has experienced the full brunt of Chinese imperialism. Her poems of the last decade are driven by an intense sense of urgency, outrage, and grief. Woeser, a devout Buddhist and follower of the Dalai Lama, reveals that her internal world is occupied with aspects of religious experience that not only go to the very core of her identity as a Tibetan but also to a set of spiritual practices by which she understands and knows her own changing self. When one’s country is invaded, the entire fabric of reality is disrupted, and this includes aspects of the internal self. The very act of naming things which are missing becomes an act of resistance, rebellion, and subversion. The Dalai Lama’s physical absence from Tibet is not only symbolic or political, it is also a psychological and spiritual violence of untold proportions because it has affected the hearts of every Tibetan. This poem, “Absent, or Not Absent,” meditates on the resilience of the self as a form of defiance in the face of this scale of violence experienced by Tibetans.
One characteristic of Woeser’s poetry that deserves attention is the way she engages and employs symbols. Woeser has a remarkable eye for details in her environment that have the capacity to invoke larger cultural, social, religious, and/or political realities. She makes these details the overt subjects of her poems, and as she discusses their place in Tibetan culture, she simultaneously documents their transformations, often their deterioration, destruction, and subversion by an alien culture. As the poignancy grows, these singular details begin to serve as focal points for alluding to more pervasive changes in her world. For instance, in the first section of “Absent, or Not Absent,” we are presented with a dharma throne, which is the name given to a seat where lamas sit to lecture on Buddhist teaching. We then learn this particular dharma throne was made specifically for the Dalai Lama, and that it was once covered each day with flowers offered by his followers. We then learn that this seat stood empty when the Dalai Lama was forced into exile, and what’s more, that it was destroyed by the Chinese about a decade after they invaded and began to actively colonize Tibet. Where it used to exist, the Chinese erected a monument to the communist “liberation” of Lhasa. Thus, the dharma throne becomes a microcosm of sorts—what happens to this throne in the poem becomes a way of commenting on what has happened to Tibet, the Tibetan people, and their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, as well as the practice of Tibetan Buddhism under the forces of Chinese imperialism, and the ubiquitous devastation wrought by Chinese colonialism. There are elements of our physical world which serve as direct reminders of what is missing. This poem is a meditation on a set of elements that speak to absence.
Woeser’s poems, perhaps difficult for readers unfamiliar with contemporary Tibet, are well worth the effort. At a time when Tibet is largely ignored by the international community, Woeser vividly conveys what it is like to experience the destruction of her culture, whose breakage and erasure is devised specifically to be revised and replaced by the occupiers. Woeser’s poems are not abstract meditations: they are of this world, which is our shared world. The violence she documents is real violence. The grief and heartache are real grief and real heartache. Her words are a call to conscience.
—Ian Boyden, May 8, 2019
Ian: I’ve wanted to translate this poem for a while, but have been feeling a little intimidated by its complexity and length. Let’s start with the title “Empty, or Not Empty.”* I immediately think of a Buddhist Hamlet’s variation on: “To be, or not to be?” And if I replace Denmark with Tibet as the background, the effect is remarkable. I see you, maybe your entire generation, maybe the Dalai Lama himself as Hamlet. Hamlet’s future, his love, all facets of his life have all been stolen by the treachery of King Claudius. The treachery of China. The parallels are startling.
Woeser: Empty, or not empty. To be, or not to be. I feel that in my life, and the lives of many Tibetans like me (and I am afraid it is not only Tibetans), we all face this question, this terrible dilemma. Of course, if you apply the principles of the Dharma, emptiness is superficial, and non-emptiness is profound. And then if you think about it more deeply, non-emptiness is superficial, and emptiness is profound. But this way of thinking is very esoteric, and it is only suitable for those who have made great achievements through meditation.
Ian: So, the “Empty” of this title does not refer to the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā?
Woeser: No. I am not referring to śūnyatā; I am talking about a specific set of elements of this world being empty, or not empty, or something being absent, or not absent. For people like me who choose to live in this world, we are more concerned with those aspects of reality and history which are absent, or not absent, whether something exists or does not exist. To be, or not to be? Hamlet can certainly be read as a metaphor for Tibet. But I think The Tempest also provides a fitting metaphor.
The Dalai Lama's dharma-throne—the Potala Palace. The photographer and date of this photograph are unknown. It was likely taken sometime between 1900–1940. Part of the Shuktilingka can be seen in the lower righthand corner of the photograph, and the throne itself used to sit in this park more or less directly in front of the Potala Palace. Photo courtesy of Woeser.
Ian: With that let’s turn to the first section of the poem, “The Empty Dharma Throne: Shukti.” What is a dharma throne? What is the significance of this particular one?
Woeser: A dharma throne is a seat where lamas sit to teach the Dharma. These thrones are found in many monasteries all over Tibet. Sometimes they are located outside the monastery like this one. In the case of this poem, the throne was not ornate like the gold throne of the Norbulinka. As far as I know, this one was made of simple stone. Dharma thrones are very important objects. And, the throne in the Shuktilingka would have been one of the most important of all because it was the dharma throne of the Dalai Lama, a figure who unifies the political and the religious. After the exile of His Holiness, it became an “empty dharma throne.”
Ian: Do you have a photograph of the stone dharma throne that used to sit in the Shuktilingka before it was destroyed?
Woeser: I have looked for a photo for years but without luck. It may be that such a photo does not exist. I have photographs of the dharma throne in the Norbulingka and the dharmathrone in the Potala Palace, but not a single photograph of this throne.
Ian: Is your description of this dharma throne based on historical writings, or was this knowledge transmitted to you by word of mouth?
Woeser: My description is based on descriptions that older people, who saw the throne when they were young, have related to me.
Ian: When was this one built?
Woeser: No one knows when this dharma throne was established. The word lingka in Shuktilingka means a forested park. If you look at old photos, you will see that the Potala Palace was surrounded by a natural environment of open meadows, ponds, and trees. The reason the section of forest in front of the Potala Palace was called the Shuktilingka was because it held the dharma throne, which in Tibetan is called shukti. So this park was named after the throne. My suspicion is that it was established during the time of the fifth Dalai Lama (Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, 1617–82). He brought together both religious and political authority to establish the Tibetan government known as the Ganden Phodrang (in 1642). And he was the first Dalai Lama to start living in the Potala Palace. So, I think that the shukti (dharma throne) of the Shuktilingka may have been built in the mid-seventeenth century. But this is only my guess.
Ian: I often wonder how we can forget about monumental things like this dharma throne, or even an entire civilization. This happens again and again throughout history. A poem like this that remembers something which has disappeared becomes very special because it holds memory in a way that is not easily erased. It resists this form of monumental forgetting.
Woeser: This is the case with this throne, its existence has been largely forgotten. The person who first showed me the exact site where the dharma throne stood was a man who lives in Lhasa. He was born in the mid-1940s and knew about how the throne and the entire Shuktilingka were “disappeared” by the “liberators” after His Holiness left Lhasa. He and I went to the square. There were tourists standing around, and the army was there holding the Chinese flag and carrying guns. He brought me to the exact position where the throne had been. And he could not help crying, he covered his eyes with his hands.
Ian: Did he tell you what year it was destroyed?
Woeser: The Shuktilingka was destroyed in 1965. In the blink of an eye, the park and its wetlands were drained and filled, then covered with concrete to become what was then known as the People’s Cultural Palace Square (人民文化宫广场). This square was subsequently renovated in 1999 and renamed as Potala Square. In 2002, it became the site of the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, a 120-foot-high structure commemorating the PLA liberation of Tibet in 1951. And in 2005, it was once again renovated to its current state.
Ian: I am interested in the poem’s detailing of the grass and flowers growing from the throne. Do you think these were wild plants, or would they have been intentionally planted in the cracks between the stones?
Woeser: Based on other stone dharma thrones I have seen in other monasteries, I think it was likely naturally growing grass. In the old photos there was grass growing all around the Potala Palace. The area where the dharma throne used to be is all paved over now, but the meadow of the Dzongyab Lukhang behind the Potala Palace is still there and it is full of dandelions and the like. My guess is what is there today is similar to the meadow that used to be in front of the palace. But it is not like the throne itself was covered in grass. The other stone dharma thrones have grass growing around the base and in some of the cracks between stones. But not on the top of the seat itself.
Ian: In your vision of this throne, the grass growing from the empty throne seems to carry a hidden meaning, perhaps some statement regarding the human condition, how the heart responds to absence. I’m thinking of Whitman’s first poem in Song of Myself, when he writes, “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air.” Throughout that book the grass symbolizes hope; there is a democratic aspect to grass with each blade a symbol of the individual within the larger whole. I think Whitman saw something akin to reincarnation in the grass, the grass growing on the grave, its roots turning the remains of the dead back into life again.
Woeser: I should reread Whitman. That verse is so beautiful, visionary. But the actual reality is so grim—I’m talking about the reality of the grass that grew from the empty dharma throne of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In fact, this dharma throne no longer exists. The grass that grew there was pulled out, any grass that remained was sealed under concrete and stone tiles. This is the character of the modern Chinese imperial seal. Any surviving grass was smothered to death underneath it all. The intruders changed the geography. This is the most common thing imperialists do—they first target the geography. They spare no effort in destroying and changing the original geography. The grass has all disappeared. If one or two blades were to escape and begin to grow up through a crack in the cement, they will soon be trampled to death by the imperialists.
The reality is too cruel.
Ian: The act of vanquishing a culture often involves colonizers sterilizing the environment. So much of human history is a history of scorched earth. In the United States, those who colonized this continent slaughtered bison en masse, cut down most of the ancient forests . . . . Genocide is accompanied by a parallel ecocide.
And in this context of ecocide, you open the second section of the poem, “The Empty Room,” by honoring the photograph you have of the Dalai Lama with bouquets of flowers.
Woeser: Before we talk of flowers and photographs, let me tell you about another dharma throne that has its roots in resistance. There is a dharma throne in the Norbulinka that is known as the Golden Dharma Throne, and it is made of gold. But the fact of it being made out of gold is not what is remarkable here. Instead, its birth was a form of rallying cry. In 1957, the Chushi Gangdruk, an important Tibetan resistance force against the Chinese Communists, issued a call to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s twenty-third birthday. They asked the Tibetan people to make offerings of gold and other precious gems so that they could build a golden dharma throne. The dharma throne was completed in less than a month, and it symbolizes the unity and piety of the Tibetan people.
I think you can say the flowers I offer to the photograph of His Holiness are a symbol of resistance. They are also a symbol of piety. They also symbolize beauty and nature.
Ian: Having a photograph of the Dalai Lama is prohibited. When was this ban first put in place?
Woeser: The photograph of His Holiness has been banned at various points after his exile in 1959. There were not many photographs at that time. But by the Cultural Revolution his photograph was completely banned. But after the Cultural Revolution up until 1995, it became OK to have a shrine with a photograph of His Holiness. In 1995, because of the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the Chinese Communist Party once again banned photographs of His Holiness, a ban that continues to this day.
Ian: Has making it illegal to display or worship this photo changed your relationship to the photo?
Woeser: Yes. For me the photograph of His Holiness now has two meanings: one, it is an expression of my faith and belief in His Holiness; two, it has become an expression of resistance, resistance to violent power.
Detail of the dharma throne in the Gzim Chung, with Kashag banknotes left as an offering and as a symbol of Tibetan autonomy. Photograph by Woeser.
Ian: It is noteworthy how powerful things can become when they are outlawed. The greater the restrictions placed on something, the more powerful it becomes. Now that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not present to sit on these dharma thrones, the places where he used to sit and teach the dharma have a new form of power. Now that his photograph is banned, it too has taken on a new form of power. It is as if this state of absence makes the dharma more powerful. How would you describe the power of absence?
Woeser: Materialists are obsessed with everything in this life. They are obsessed with objects, they believe everything before their eyes is real. And when they are in power, when they have weapons, money, and technology, they believe they themselves are invincible. They like to say, “The people will prevail,” but what they are really saying is that they themselves will prevail. Therefore, they prohibit the dharma character of His Holiness from being shown in broad daylight, they prohibit the photographs of His Holiness from being shown in Buddhist temples and on the altars of his believers, they destroy or conceal the dharma thrones that belong to His Holiness. They believe that by doing this, they will make His Holiness disappear from Tibet. This is the arrogance of materialists in power. This is the arrogance of colonists.
However, the opposite is true. As you said, the more something is prohibited, the stronger it becomes. I wrote of a similar phenomenon regarding the Potala Palace in another poem:
Although it has been vacant for fifty-nine years,
It is still the body of the dharmakāya, the body of reality itself.
The bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara will come to fulfill our wishes,
My Sage will arrive as scheduled.
But you also said that the photograph “has taken on a new form of power.” I am not sure I understand that, I don’t know what a new form of power might be. I think it is really a form of existence, similar to the existence of the dharmakāya, it is spiritual, religious, and eternal. Because his photograph is forbidden, His Holiness is held in the mind and remembered more deeply.
Ian: At the end of “The Empty Room” you describe a sandalwood bench in an unnamed monastery on which there is a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama . . .
Woeser: In recent years, in many places across Tibet, people print out life-sized photographs of the sage and place these images sitting on a dharma throne, on an altar, or even a regular bench like the one in this poem. They do this especially during the Kalachakra ceremony or on the birthday of His Holiness. It is an expression of how much they miss His Holiness, and it is also signifies that, even though the throne is empty, His Holiness is present.
Ian: This brings us to the third section of the poem, “The Empty City: Lhasa,” and your amazing description of your experience meditating at Lhamo Latso and receiving a vision of Avalokiteśvara. This bodhisattva, the most beloved of all bodhisattvas, has an extraordinary name. In Chinese, Avalokiteśvara is considered female and goes by the names Guanyin (觀音), Guanshiyin (觀世音), and Guanzizai (觀自在), meaning “Perceiver of Sounds,” “Perceiver of World Sound,” and “Perceiver of Self-existence” respectively. All three of these names embody the fundamental Buddhist orientation toward compassion for suffering: and one can easily expand the name to "One Who Perceives with Compassion the Suffering of Self-existence." In Tibetan, Avalokiteśvara is male and his name is Chenrézik. What is the meaning of this name in Tibetan?
Woeser: Karmapa discussed the meaning of this name in a lecture he gave at Bodhgaya several years ago:
The Tibetan name Chenrézik means "to use your eyes to perceive." What are the eyes referring to? They refer to compassion; compassion is like an eye. Who is the object of this perception? This would be all beings who wish to escape suffering and live in happiness. What is the method of observation? To perceive using the vast compassion of a bodhisattva. So, the full meaning of Chenrézik is "to perceive all sentient beings consistently with a compassionate eye." Therefore, this name should be interpreted as a form of ethical and moral character, and not as a signifier of a specific person.
Ian: Do you feel the ethical and moral character embodied by Chenrézik is your fate or destiny?
Woeser: My understanding of Chenrézik is quite simple and unadorned. It is based on traditional Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, and based on my traditional Tibetan cultural heritage. In Tibetan culture, Chenrézik has a long history flowing out from the distant past, and is related to the origins of the Tibetan people. In one of his incarnations, he came to Tibet as a monkey named Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa, and out of compassion and mercy, he married an ogress, and they gave birth to the first Tibetans. King Songtsen Gampo, who is said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet, is considered an incarnation of Chenrézik. And each member of the lineage of the Dalai Lama is also regarded as an incarnation of Chenrézik.
Ian: The late American poet Sam Hamill regarded Guanyin as a revolutionary, saying that she showed us a way of nonviolent resistance. It seems that poets, who hold the ethical and moral character of Guanyin in their hearts, resist using words.
Woeser: I think Sam’s view of Guanyin as a revolutionary providing a way of nonviolent resistance is very accurate. It is also a precise form of awakening that occurs when someone born outside of Buddhism becomes inclined toward Guanyin. There is a form of distance there, something similar to that of a bystander. When I think of Guanyin, or Chenrézik, it is as if I am thinking of a loved one, a loved one whose favor and blessing is also a long and precious inheritance. This is how it feels to me.
Lhamo Latso is a sacred lake. It sits in a U-shaped valley, like the crown of a buddha. It is the soul lake of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When Wang Lixiong and I went there, we were all alone. We did not sit close to the lake. We were sitting on the slope overlooking the lake, a slope covered with stones and prayer flags.
Ian: In the photo you sent to me, you can see the valley was carved by a glacier. A glacier sat there for thousands of years, carving and compressing the earth. The lake, a mirror of blue sky amid all those jagged mountains, is a response to all of that pressure, maybe it’s even a reincarnation of that glacier. Now, I suddenly feel like this slope where you were sitting is a form of dharma throne. Maybe each stone can be understood as holding the potential of a dharma throne—even the stones the red-billed choughs were standing on.
Woeser: I don’t think the stones I sat on at the lake were a dharma throne. A dharma throne is sacred. I am vulgar, mortal, not qualified to sit on such a throne. I am traditional in this regard, and this tradition needs to be respected. This so-called dharma throne has spiritual and sacred meaning.
Red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax phrrhocorax). Photograph by Israel Didham.
Ian: I am interested in the birds that took part in this vision. The red-billed chough is a corvid, related to crows and ravens and jackdaws, that has captured the human imagination across its range. Its Latin name literally means “Fire Raven” in part because its beak is red, but also because it is known to steal burning materials like lit candles. In ancient Greece it was the sacred bird of Chronos, the embodiment of time. You state in your poem that in Tibet, they are emissaries of the dharmapalas, the guardians of Buddhist doctrine. Does this bird’s name have any special meaning in Tibetan?
Woeser: I still don’t know what the meaning of skyung ka is in Tibetan, however, it must be interesting. The Tibetan name may be like a key to unlock a hidden meaning, something related to a terma.
Ian: I hope we can discover this meaning. What if its meaning is the very sound of its own voice? Birds play such important role in our visions of the future. When these two red-billed choughs landed next to you, what did it mean to you?
Woeser: For me, understanding this vision has been a long and tortuous process. Why did I hear this single sentence, “The skyung ka is an emissary of the srung ma, not a bad omen.” This has profound meaning. This is because in Chinese culture, crows and ravens are associated with times of disaster, and their appearance is considered unlucky and a bad omen. As a person who has been brainwashed by Chinese culture, I have not liked crows and ravens for a long time, and have considered them unlucky birds. However, in Tibetan culture, corvids are not inauspicious birds, on the contrary, they are propitious birds who are said to bring auspicious omens. The red-billed chough is considered to be an emissary of the dharmapālas, the appearance of a red-billed chough is unusual and has a prophetic auspiciousness.
Ian: Wait. Buddhist vocabulary is so complex, and I am trying to track these terms across Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, and English. I just realized that Palden Lhamo, who is said to reside in Lhamo Latso, must be a dharmapāla. Is this correct? And if so, then these two choughs are her emissaries?
Woeser: Yes. Palden Lhamo is a mighty dharmapāla. And it is said that the chough is one of her emissaries. In the world of dharmapālas, these birds are minor dharmapālas. We are at Lhamo Latso, the lake of visions of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, observing a prophetic vision of the future. At the very moment that I saw the image of Chenrézik in the form of His Holiness rise from the middle of the lake, these two red-billed choughs flew to me. Of course, I realized this was unusual, and so I was very excited. After I returned to Lhasa, I consulted my Lama, Khenpo Rinpoche, who appears earlier in the poem, and he concurred, repeating what I had heard in my vision, “The skyung ka is a messenger of the srung ma, not a bad omen.”
Woeser standing on the slope overlooking the sacred lake Lhamo Latso. Photograph by Wang Lixiong.
Ian: I want to return to where we started. This poem meditates on the presence of the absence of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. And part of my mind keeps turning back to śūnyatā, the most fundamental concept of Buddhist philosophy. The title of the poem could be read “Śūnyatā, or Not Śūnyatā,” though I recognize you have stated emphatically that it is not to be read that way. Still, I have been wondering what the opposite of śūnyatā might be? Can it have an opposite? I wonder if Avalokiteśvara’s name might hold the answer. What if the opposite, or complement, might be “self-existence,” the zizai of Guanzizai.
Woeser: So-called śūnyatā in Buddhist philosophy refers to ultimate truth. The secular word “empty” has relative meaning, it is relative to “not empty,” and it describes things of this world. The secular world is a relative world, based entirely on matter. One equals one, two equals two. For instance, if a person’s body is here, then it is not empty (absent). And if a person’s body is not here, then it is empty (absent). The śūnyatā of Buddhist philosophy is pure emptiness, it is the essence of the Dharma. I don’t know if it has an opposite. Buddha nature or the fundamental nature of your own heart should be empty. Self-existence is a condition. Is there an opposite to śūnyatā? If there is an opposite, it would have to be the dharmakāya, the body of the dharma.
Ian: So magnificent. I suddenly see the sky-blue mirror of Lhamo Latso as a symbol of the dharmakāya and His Holiness emerging out of it as if coming out of cosmic dissolution. But he did not do this on his own. You and the vision are interdependent. This poem and the reader are interdependent. The throne is inseparable from the Dharma. We all form a matrix. I appreciate your distinction that self-existence is a condition. What we chose to do with this condition is who we are. I think one invitation of Chenrézik’s name is a question: how can you turn your heart into a dharma throne?
Woeser: I like this question: How to turn your heart into a throne? Who will come and sit in the heart-throne? I will think of my heart as an empty throne.
*The title of this poem presents an impossible challenge. In Chinese, the character 空 (pronounced kōng or kòng) has a multitude of meanings, including empty, absent, space, free time, sky, air. It is also the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word śūnyatā, one of the foundational concepts of Buddhism. When I first translated this poem, I chose to translate it as “empty” so as keep the resonance with śūnyatā,which is often translated as ‘emptiness,’ as well as to maintain the parity with the three section titles. This is why I refer to the poem by the title “Empty or Not Empty.” However, as I talked with Woeser, I began to understand that the primary meaning was absent, specifically the absence of the Dalai Lama from Tibet.↩
Divine and mortal love intertwine in this poem by Li Hao, one of a handful of contemporary Chinese poets writing forcefully and overtly about Christian themes.
I invited you too soon
to my city, because I wanted to live
with you, because I wanted
to find in your songs
the Almighty’s power and love. Because I wanted
to know how you loved Him, and your
sweet former lives. I know your
bodies are the language the Lord bestowed upon me.
I see your unfamiliar riverbank
and walk toward you. I decide that I and the rows
of poplars will surround your place of prayer
in a circle wider than the eye can see,
and the quiet lawn is like the sky, invisibly
rippling. On the lambs’ pasture,
you play music, hover, fly out from the light
to protect our fallen loves,
the injured Father in our souls.
"天使们" © Li Hao. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Eleanor Goodman. All rights reserved.
In this poem about the Shuktilingka, Tibetan poet and activist Tsering Woeser writes about a world that has nearly been lost.
Watch a video of Tsering Woeser reciting her poem "Absent, or Not Absent" in the original Mandarin.
Dedicated to Gyalwa Rinpoche on his eighty-second birthday
1. The Empty Dharma Throne: Shukti
The Shuktilingka once stretched out
before the Potala Palace, lush and verdant.
Shukti means “dharma throne”;
and lingka means “park.”
It was filled with ancient trees whose branches twisted
counterclockwise like dragons
and mirrored in the ponds crossed by small bridges.
A little ways away stood a stele,
the Lhasa Zhöl Pillar,1 a tall, square column
recording imperial deeds from a thousand years ago.
The dharma throne in this park
must have been made with layers
of the flattest possible stone.
There would have been tufts of grass growing
from the crevices, and flowers would have bloomed,
and even more bouquets of flowers
would have been offered by visitors
who came each day from near and far,
the fragrance permeating every corner.
This vision, from my own imagination,
matches the memories of the older generation.
A few years ago, I was brought to this spot
by a son of old Lhasa royalty, a handsome man
with a shallow karmic reward.
He couldn’t bear the sight, covering his eyes,
he looked out through his trembling fingers
pointing through tears to where the throne had stood.
All vestiges of that park had been obliterated.
What had been a park was now a “public square,"2
filled with red lanterns, flagpoles, memorial monuments . . . .
And loudspeakers, large and small, blared
songs of propaganda. The melodies were old,
but the lyrics had been changed.
That honorable dharma throne, which existed before March 1959
—how did it disappear? What stories could it tell,
always vacant left waiting among the trees and flowers?
I have asked many people: Have you heard of the Shuktilingka?
A retired official from the local TV station burst
into tears. He asked, Can you understand
what it feels like to yearn for a memory?
Have you known the taste of heartbreak?
And he told me this memory from before the occupation:
In those years, His Holiness was a mischievous teenager.
People eager for a blessing would pass by
and could not help but raise their heads
and see the young Gyalwa Rinpoche3 sitting on the throne,
so young, his face like a smiling flower.
There is no way this man could forget the sight,
he wouldn’t forget over the course of his life.
I continue to ask in a low whisper:
Have you heard of the Shuktilingka?
I met a young man named Choenyi Jampel4
born in a farmer’s house
near the hometown of the great Songtsen Gampo.5
He had a great talent for painting,
able to depict a lost paradise he’d never seen.
Among his paintings, one stood out—one of the last
he completed just before his unfortunate death:
layers of emerald mountains, rolling
white clouds, a few houses that no longer survive,
and there, right in the center,
sat the completely empty dharma throne,
richly decorated, the heart’s dream waiting
like a balloon floating through desire.
2. The Empty Room: Gzim Chung
Five lilies bloom in the black of night.
At this late hour, one is finally able to witness
the most beautiful moments,
and so I want to make this offering:
lilies in a simple glass vase placed before a photograph.
There are some rooms, no, there are many rooms,
where even this photo is not allowed.
In this world there are those who are afraid
of a photograph. What kind of people are they?
Aren’t the intrepid materialists fearless?
The blooming lilies bring comfort.
In their dense fragrance,
I prostrate myself in prayer.
At least this room is no longer empty.
I have seen many empty rooms
in the Jokhang, in the Norbulinka, in the Potala Palace.
The honorific word for one of these rooms is Gzim Chung.6
One day, I encountered a monk I had known for many years.
He showed me a single key with a mark on it
attached to a large ring of keys.
Seeing we were alone,
we ducked our heads and entered a room
covered with yellow curtains.
The smell of incense was thick,
as though covering up another fragrance.
I did my best to identify it,
as if searching the past for a silhouette
of one who could not bear a heavy burden.
The silent monk pulled me back to reality,
and with his eyes indicated a wall
painted with images of bodhisattvas and other beings,
gouged by fierce bayonets.7
Before the empty dharma throne, a white khata
and a few complete Kashag banknotes,
steeped in meaning.8
A few days ago, I was sent a song
sung by two Amdo youths9 that goes:
“Under the sun, the child of yesterday frolics about.
He grinds the planets into pigment,
and with the pigment draws tomorrow—
he tosses all his problems to other people,
but the world is deaf and mute, it doesn’t make a sound . . .”
I think of a famous temple in northern Kham.
If you open the door unknown to others,
you will shed tears at everything you see:
a life-sized photograph of the sage sitting
on a beautifully carved sandalwood bench,
all kinds of offerings, each selected with care.
And inside that room, beneath the warm light of a crystal lamp,
a pair of golden slippers in front of a pure white bathtub.
3. The Empty City: Lhasa
Stand right here.
Each time I stand here in this city,
I am “surrounded by a strange fading landscape.”10
In my innermost heart,
there is a voice that refuses, that rebels:
If we are to achieve a reverse in course,
we must do it as soon as possible,
otherwise it will truly be too late.
I think of the deep autumn of that year.
Wait—no, it must have been early winter
when we carried a few strands of prayer flags,
a bag of powdered bsang,11 some fresh-ground barley,
a bottle of barley wine, and walked slowly along a ridge
four thousand meters high, our hearts beating faster and faster.
Before we left, the Rinpoche exhorted:
You must not talk, must not shout.
Sit down, pray that you may see the future.
To one side, the sunny slope,
where sunlight bestows a little warmth;
on the other, a slope in shade, covered in a shallow snow.
Lhamo Latso.12 This holy lake is the Buddha’s crown,
a pure mirror held by this U-shaped valley.
Filled with power, it’s so vivid it seems unreal.
Not a soul around its edges. Only me and my husband.
First, I offer the bsang and barley wine to Palden Lhamo.13
Then I tie prayer flags between the stones
to speak on our behalf.
We sit down, some distance from one another,
so as not to encroach on each other’s thoughts.
I focus my mind and gaze at the lake:
“Please grant me a vision of my fate.”
Suddenly two choughs appear.
One lands to my right, one to my left,
an un-choughlike cry and I turn my head:
black feathers, red beak and claws.
“The skyung ka 14 is an emissary of the srung ma,15
not a bad omen,” I seem to hear someone say.
The choughs pace back and forth.
They caw occasionally while I continue to gaze.
Gradually, an image emerges from the lake,
his smile is familiar in its compassion:
a vivid miracle, outside the realm of words.
When the sky grew dark, we returned hand in hand
to that city which has been empty for decades.
Along the way, two deer ran lightly by
as though we were within the Kalachakra mandala.
Could it be so?
Like so many of my people who have returned—
my heart is not empty. It is filled with love and hope.
July 4–5, edited July 6, 2017, Beijing
"空，或者不空——献给嘉瓦仁波切82寿诞" © Tsering Woeser. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Ian Boyden. All rights reserved.
Translator's note: What extraordinary karmic reward to share this life with Woeser, Eleanor Goodman, Andrew Quintman, Michael Richardson, and Jennifer Boyden, all of whom provided invaluable suggestions and insights, as well as copious amounts of delight as I translated this poem. My deepest thanks. And my gratitude as well to the National Endowment for the Arts for their support of the larger project from which this poem comes.
1. The Lhasa Zhol Pillar (ཞོལ་རྡོ་རིངས་ཕྱི་མ་) was erected in the late eighth century and describes deeds of the Tibetan Empire. It is also one of the oldest surviving examples of Tibetan script, a writing system attributed to Thonmi Sambhota, who was a minister to the founder of the Tibetan Empire Songtsen Gampo who is mentioned later in the poem (see note 6). ↩
2. The Shuktilinka was destroyed in 1965. The park and its wetlands were drained and filled, then covered with concrete, becoming what was then known as the People’s Cultural Palace Square (人民文化宫广场). This square was subsequently renovated in 1999 and renamed Potala Square. In 2002, it became the site of the monstrous Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, a thirty-seven-meter high structure commemorating the PLA liberation of Tibet in 1951. And in 2005, it was once again renovated to its current state.↩
3. Gyalwa Rinpoche is one of the honorific names of the Dalai Lama.↩
4. Choenyi Jampel was a very promising young artist in Lhasa. He was tragically killed in a car accident on March 29, 2011. He was only thirty years old.↩
5. Songtsen Gampo (སྲོང་བཙན་སྒམ་པོ) was an early seventh-century king. He is credited with founding the Tibetan Empire and introducing Buddhism to Tibet.↩
6. In the past, the Dalai Lama would stay at the Jokhang during the Buddhist ceremonies celebrating the New Year. He had a special room, which was known as Gzim Chung (གཟིམ་ཆུང་).↩
7. During the Cultural Revolution the Gzim Chung was occupied by Red Guards, members of the Opposition Party, and the People’s Liberation Army. During this time, the murals in this room were scratched by bayonets, and these scars exist to this day.↩
8. In 1911, the Tibetan government printed and distributed Kashag banknotes. They also minted gold, silver, and copper coins. Only an independent government can issue its own currency, so the presence of these banknotes is not simply nostalgic, they speak to a time when Tibet was independent.↩
9. The song is titled “Empty Room” and is sung by the Tibetan Patient Band (西藏病人乐队).↩
10. This is a line from the poem “For the Egyptian Coin Today, Arden, Thank You” by Raymond Carver, in No Heroics, Please: Uncollected Writings (Vintage Books, 1992).↩
11. Bsang (བསང་།) is a powder made of various aromatic plants and is used as an offering of purification.↩
12. Lhamo Latso (ལྷ་མོའི་བླ་མཚོ།) is the most sacred lake in Tibet. It is where visions are sought for the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and is presided over by the the Dalai Lama’s guardian goddess Palden Lhamo. It is located in Gyaca County, Lhokha Province, to the southeast of Lhasa.↩
13. Palden Lhamo (དཔལ་ལྡན་ལྷ་མོ།) is the primary dharmapāla, or goddess of protection, in the Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon and is the guardian god of Tibet, Lhasa, and the Dalai Lama.↩
14. Skyung ka (སྐྱུང་ཀ) is the Tibetan name for the red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), which is a species of corvid found across Tibet. Its dramatic red bill, loquacious vocalizations, and extreme intelligence have made it a powerful symbol in many cultures. Its Latin name means “fire raven” because it is said to be attracted to burning materials and to even fly off with lit candles in its mouth. ↩
15. Srung ma (སྲུང་མ། ) is the Tibeten word for dharmapālas, mighty deities who protect the Dharma. ↩
16. Chenrézik (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས།) is the Tibetan name for the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.↩
A poem about suffering and the Divine by the Chinese poet Li Hao, whose first collection, The Tempest, was banned in China.
The clamor of the dead on the wall
spin in the lobes of my lungs
the vault of heaven’s many
Leviathan of my soul,
covered in knifepoints, making the heavens
rain down iron nails. Eternal light
strikes upon the earth’s altars.
Lord, I am foolish,
I am suffering, and my body,
like a spoon, here on this earth, sweetly scoops out
"'我要走向上主的祭台'" © Li Hao. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Eleanor Goodman. All rights reserved.
In these three poems from the collection Perhaps: Love Poems, Tibet-born poet Xi Wa explores her personal Tibetan Buddhist path.
1. Vimalaki Sutra
Simultaneously we sink into May
The scent of the locust tree bloom, the fragrance of enlightenment, falling
upon a single tendril from the vine of language
My seeming frivolity, my carelessness, cannot completely eclipse
our first encounter, when my heart was brushed atremble. Tangled. Insatiate . . .
Escaping the torrential rain, the mildew and rot beyond the open window
Our intimate conversation
swirls around basic truths, asanas, inner sight, and true nature
Two crystal streams converge in a deep pool . . .
I dare not use mortal eyes to contemplate you
much less my worldly heart to quantify the true meaning of your absolute body
As if I am serving in a temple, receiving the blessing
though my torso, swaying, distills
vague honeyed words, what seems like a test, what seems like an omission,
and what is diluted by off-the-cuff jokes
Aloeswood and the scent of myrrh, long invisible,
make my May lightheaded, my posture slouch.
Do they arise from your face and lips? Or do they arise from
me, among other Buddhist disciples, diligent yet half aware?
End the longing and waiting of these past years,
Wake up. I draw one foot closer to you, then a bit more
and an unfathomable karmic force
pushes me back to where I began. Causing longing even more longing, waiting even more waiting
Then in this meeting place, I knew
Vimalakurti: The reason for your sickness is my own, and that of all living beings.
3. Lamplighter Buddha
Digging open lightning, coal cinders, and other things of false appearance
Lamplighter, You reach straight to my inner heart
the basic root of the thing
As always, I bury myself deep in the dust
head to toe, my root hairs sense you, forgetting you’re already here
in fluid waves of wisdom, you offer this prophecy:
“You shall see . . .You shall be . . . You.”
Vanquishing the basest of happinesses and joys, I bend down
entering the kitchen where, day after day, I pluck and rinse
celery, fennel, bitter chrysanthemum . . . the profusion of leaves, the rot and scars
reordered and removed: delicacies enshrined on a momentarily empty dining room table . . . .
True, I am unable to follow you—Lamplighter
Thus I am dependent on my own finger,* it
preserves the line of my whispers, my spoken and intimate desires, all in worship of you—
your appearance of triumph and “greatness” alone, is sufficient to allow me
to persist, pointlessly, with my petty work in this world of dust
* A reference to the Buddhist analogy of someone mistaking the finger pointing at the moon as the object of regard instead of the light of the moon. It refers to someone mistaking the teachings as the object of regard instead of what they point to: the light of enlightenment.
You say: Look, even the birds preach the Dharma
Lowering my head on a long distance run, in a summer spanning over 60˚ of the earth’s surface*
from the media village to Olympic Park
on a path wide enough to seem like a thoroughfare
I know what I am facing now: the greatest heat wave in history,
misfortune, distortions of the mind
I hear birds calling,
but I don’t understand their gospel
I see Cymbidium, the “true heart orchid”
Could it be alerting me to an unexpected path
through the many misfortunes of the day?
My ear is grazed by the sound of the wind, grazed by the sounds of singing at the crossroads
“I am struggling, struggling to draw near to you
but before my eyes lies an interminable distance . . . .”
Amida, whether you have already opened yourself to me or not, I need not concern myself or look for proof,
I must lower my head, undaunted by this long run
I run by things that know me, I run by crowds that don’t
I run along the intersecting lines of an open palm, all the symbols, the distracting thought
And suddenly I am in a trance—your magnificent radiance
on the lone line of my travel, you were with me always, the way a shadow follows form
Amida, your hand holding mine, we head straight toward
this heat wave, misfortune, distortions of the mind . . . to the center
You say: Look, even the birds are preaching the Dharma—
stand apart from worldly things.
*The country of China covers 60˚ of latitude of the earth’s surface.
"维摩诘," "燃灯人," and "阿弥陀" from Perhaps: Love Poems © Xi Wa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Chloe Garcia Roberts. All rights reserved.
The foundations of a house and a marriage are both under siege in this short story by Caryl Lewis.
She was taking the wet clothes out of the twin tub when she spotted the tile. She had rolled her sleeves up and lifted the damp clothes into the basket, ready to hang them on the line. She had kept the water from the first wash for the second load, and it was now clouded with muck and bits of fluff and grass seeds. She listened to the pumping of the machine, like a heartbeat driving out the dirt along with the water into the sink.
The machine had been a godsend, and Dai had been happy for her to have it. There had been no electricity in the house until the beginning of the sixties, and soaking Wiliam’s nappies in buckets had been a real chore. Eirwen had had to walk to the phone box at the top of the lane to call the shop and order it. She had been saving a little money here and there and the machine was bought cash in hand. She had heard that Rosemary at Tŷ Po’th and some others had to pay week by week, but Eirwen’s cheeks flushed at the thought of such a thing.
She turned and happened to look along the red and black tiled floor through the narrow kitchen, past the dining table and toward the grandfather clock that stood somber at the far end of the small room by the back door. Yes, there was a shadow there. She stopped where she stood, the wet clothes in her arms dampening her apron. It was her habit to scrub the floor every Saturday evening when Dai would walk over to the Red Lion. Without him under her feet, she could lift the chairs onto the table and run a basin of hot, soapy water and scrub it all clean. But today, although the tiles shone, and a pathway of light stretched over to her feet, there was a shadow at the edge of one tile.
She put the clothes down in the basket and walked toward the shadow. She stopped and looked down at the tile. Nothing. She pressed down on it with the sole of her foot. She moved her foot from one side of the tile to the other. Yes, it was uneven. She bent over and noticed how red the skin of her arms was from the washing. In fact, she had noticed of late that the skin on her hands was aging from being constantly in water in the milking parlor and the house. Rosemary next door rubbed hers with some kind of cold cream every night but Eirwen had laughed at her for being so silly. She felt the tile with her fingers. Yes, one side was coming up. She sat back on her knees and felt them pull.
As she put the clothes out on the line that hung between the old apple tree and the pear tree behind the house, she could think of nothing but the tile. She folded the clothes over the line, and when the basket was empty, she turned back to look at the house. As a child, she had been in the habit of coming here to see Dai. They had walked every step of the way to school together and later, at fourteen, worked on the same farm at Llain—she in the house and he in the fields. As one of eleven children, she was expected to marry him so that there would be one mouth fewer to feed at home. Her mother, being busy with the smaller children, was not much interested in Wiliam when he was born, and Eirwen felt that her visits brought her mother more trouble than pleasure.
She had been fortunate in both Dai and the house, and although he spent a good deal of time in the village, and she had usually finished milking and would be feeding the calves by the time he arrived home, he was great company for her. Eirwen looked at the small windows, which kept out the light and the heat, and noticed the young ash tree that had reached over to the hedge of the old house. It had caught her eye years before, a stubborn, alien sapling in the old garden. She lifted the basket and walked over to it. The trunk was straight and sturdy and the leaves fondled the roof at the back of the house. There was moss growing on the old slates here and there, and Eirwen had told Dai countless times that they needed cleaning.
Eirwen’s gaze followed the tree down to its base, and, to her amazement, she saw its gray roots pushing in underneath the house. She dropped the basket and felt panic rise in her breast. Then, without picking up the basket, she ran back inside. She looked again at the tile. A root had pushed through the old earthen floor and was determinedly lifting up the tile, damaging the surface. Eirwen heard the old clock strike three. Wiliam would soon be home from school, and it would be time to go and fetch the cows for milking, but she was unable to take her eyes off the dark shadow on the floor.
When Dai came home that evening, she told him about the tree as he cleaned out his pipe with his pocket knife. The tree would have to be chopped down, Eirwen suggested, but Dai flared up at her. He had been all day in the village seeing Jams about this and that. He wanted peace and quiet, not a whole lot of fussing about some bloody tree. He went and sat down in the sitting room by the fire to smoke his pipe.
Eirwen put Wiliam quietly to bed before going back to sit at the little table and stare again at the tile.
Over the years, the ash had grown, darkening the house still more. Its leaves filled the gutters, causing the dirty water to drip down over the whitewash on the back wall. Eirwen would have to fetch a ladder from the shed and try and clear them before tying a handkerchief round her head and whitewashing the old wall again. The wisps of hair around her forehead would be white by the time she had finished, and her shoulders would ache, but she would stand firm between the tree and the house. The tile was by now almost completely pushed out of place.
Sometimes, in the winter, when her cheeks burned from being pinched by the wind, Eirwen would lie in bed listening to the comforting sound of Dai’s breathing. But her dreams would be filled with the ash tree’s leaves, like hands, like dark talons destroying the house. The roots would seethe underground, strong and muscular, ready to burst through the floor and shatter the orderly red and black pattern of the chessboard of their lives.
Like his father, Wiliam did not have farming in his blood. He took no great interest and by the time he moved to town, the ash had darkened the back of the house altogether. Wiliam had a son himself, and although Eirwen had plenty of time to look after him, his wife worked too, Wiliam explained carefully, and it was more convenient for his mother-in-law to take care of the little one.
Now, the twin tub sat in the milking parlor, covered with straw. Because she had been so careful with it, the old machine had lasted twenty years, but, as with the empty milking parlor, things had moved on. Eirwen sat at the small table nursing a cup of tea. The oilcloth had been worn to a blurry white under her arms and Dai’s after the years they had spent sitting opposite each other. She heard the new washing machine humming quietly behind her in the old, narrow kitchen. She had laundered the collar of his white shirt clean and pressed the tongue of his black tie under the iron till it was shining and smooth. Dai would soon be home. The funeral was at one o’clock. She got up and went over to the stove to take a look at the meat. It was roasting noisily in the enamel tin. She closed the door and began to set the table. She went to the cupboard before turning and walking to the sitting room. She went to the dresser and opened the glass door. It had been polished clean. There, the best dishes shone—the ones the couple had received on their wedding day. She gathered them carefully and clutched them to her breast, carrying them to the table. She went to the drawer and took out a white cloth that had been starched into a small square and opened it into a streak of white along the table. The vegetables were boiling.
The service would go on till two and then he would have to go to the graveside. Then there would be the tea, of course. It was normally Rosemary who did the tea in the chapel, together with Marion from Llety Hen. Eirwen proceeded to set out knives and forks before lifting the meat onto a plate and pressing it in foil to make the gravy. Dai might have had too much tea to eat a meal like this, but he was very fond of a roast dinner.
At half past six he came home. He sat at the table with the clock behind him. The smell of dinner filled the house. He took off his tie and Eirwen asked him to go and change in case he made a mess of his best suit. He looked up at her. He rose to his feet and moved, before kicking the tile loose with one of his polished shoes. The two of them watched as it skimmed across the surface of the other tiles and ran square into the skirting board on the far side. Eirwen looked at him, afraid. There lay the root, naked and wild in the darkness of the earth. Dai lifted his head and looked at her.
“She’s gone,” he said.
Eirwen knew that the woman her husband had been having an affair with for over thirty years lay in the cemetery. Eirwen nodded at him. His skin was somehow paler against the black of his suit. Eirwen rubbed her tired arms with her hands and looked at him.
“It’s time to cut that tree down,” she said at last. He nodded, his face somewhat softened with age. “It won’t take long for the root to die back.”
The two of them listened for a long time to the ticking of the old clock before Eirwen turned to bring the supper to the table.
© Caryl Lewis. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by George Jones. All rights reserved.
A library porter is left alone on duty and plans to take advantage of it in this excerpt from Fflur Dafydd's novel The Library.
As he did every morning, Dan walked down the red carpet toward the entrance of the National Library, knowing that the whole world waited for him behind those doors. There was a beautiful stillness in this moment, a superiority which thrilled him as he walked along that strip of red, as though toward an audience hungry for his arrival. But once he opened the door, he found that he merely annoyed his audience, that they were impatient with him, that all they wanted to do was shuffle past him, and pollute that beautiful carpet with their ungrateful feet.
It was a thankless task, opening up a library. Those on the other side of the door didn’t realize how powerful he was; that he could choose to peep through that keyhole for hours, leaving them in the cold. Hoarding all the knowledge for himself. No one appreciated his power, or realized that he was, by very definition, an authority figure. But such was the nature of library-goers, Dan realized. They were locked away in their own worlds, living in the archives of their own minds. To these people, a porter was never going to be anything more than a guy who opened and closed a door. The one who let them in and let them out again.
One would expect that each day at a national institution brought with it new challenges. The bitter truth was that it did not—they were the same faces, every day; the same small mouths whispering their even smaller requests. Every morning, he’d be amazed by the fact that these people wanted to spend a clear, beautiful day inside a library, that they queued up in bright sunshine in order to nab their place in the dark. He had archived them into categories in his mind. Some of them were lifers: those in it for the long haul—long-term-library-lovers. Others were part-timers, sheltering in the darkness until whatever it was they were working on—that article, that PhD, or a family tree—was complete. Others were surfers, roamers, library loungers: those who came and went like the wind, who blew in because the library seemed like a better option, because a library was free, because it judged no one and was the world’s friend. Then there were the mappers: a special breed in waxed jackets and thick spectacles who came to pore over yet another medieval map of something long gone, or to stare at a patch of existing land on paper rather than experiencing it in the great outdoors. Those were the worst, he thought; those who chose to lose themselves in a library because it was safer than losing themselves in life, because here, they knew where the door was.
Which is precisely, Dan thought, where he came in.
Every morning, the library-goers pretended to give each other space on those steps, but once that door creaked open they would happily trample over one another in order to get to their chosen desks. They bickered every morning over a corner of a table, competing for certain patches of mahogany, complaining about the angle of a seat, the crookedness of a chair leg. They bemoaned the way the sun poured in through the tall windows and obscured their screens; some said that an angle of sunlight was detrimental to their thought process, that too much sun—or too little—impacted their creativity, that many a great idea was known to shrivel up in sunshine.
This was why Dan liked to have a bit of fun at their expense, especially at those who came at nine when they knew full well that the doors didn’t open until half past. His chosen victim today was the blonde girl who was compiling a study of all the nation’s firsts: the first strict-meter poet; the first language activist; the first woman in the country to be registered legally as a man. Primacy was simply her way of life. Her voice was the first to be heard every morning, she was the first face he saw when he opened the door. Her boyfriend, a rather second-rate creature with a lock of hair that closed like a curtain over his left eye, was usually dragged along behind her, his hand firmly in hers.
“Can I see your library card?” he asked her.
“I was here yesterday,” she barked at him, as other library-goers whooshed past her, a first, second, third, and fourth contender for the largest desk in the reading room.
“It’s for security purposes,” he said. She fumbled in her bag for the card. “We need to be careful these days. We’re living in the age of terror.”
“I didn’t bring my card. I didn’t need it yesterday, or the day before. Or the day before that, for that matter. Don’t you remember me? I’ve been coming here for six months!”
“No, sorry, I don’t,” he said to the face that was so familiar he’d seen her in dreams. “You’ll need to make a request for a day ticket. Over there, love.”
He tried to direct her toward the library reception but ended up touching her elbow, the tip of his finger catching the sleeve of her cotton print dress. Her skin swelled indignantly beneath it.
“Did you just touch me?”
Dan tried to move away, but it was too late.
“I think he just touched me inappropriately!” The girl turned to her boyfriend for support. “You saw that, didn’t you? He touched me indecently, almost . . . threateningly.”
“I suppose he did,” said the subordinate boyfriend. “A licentious touch . . . a dirty grapple.”
By now the library-goers had stopped in their tracks. They congregated around the prima donna.
“Just go get your ticket at reception,” he said, not wanting to let her win. “Then you can go in.”
“And make a sexual harassment claim while I’m there?”
She stared at him, her green eyes flaring.
“Just go in,” he whispered, defeated.
She flounced off, no longer concerned with him, cantering up the red carpet toward her table. Her lover stopped and lowered his voice.
“You got any . . . ?” His words dried up in the air.
“Not today,” Dan answered, moving him on before the next library-goer came too close.
“But you said . . .”
“Come and see me later, OK? At lunchtime.”
The boyfriend walked off. Dan sighed. Ungrateful little beggar. Nothing was ever enough for him. But then, Dan supposed it wasn’t the best idea in the world to start dealing drugs to students. Or at least, to this one, when his girlfriend was in the business of writing down anything that made anyone a maverick, a first-timer. Dan was pretty sure that the lockers he kept his stash in hadn’t contained that amount of skunk in the entirety of their shiny, veneered lives.
Things were usually quiet after the initial flood of visitors. By nine forty-five, there was hardly a soul to be seen. He stood by the empty lockers, opening and closing their doors, staring into the little rectangular shadows, pretending to be checking things, waiting for something to happen. Hoping for some kind of event or incident, just to shake up his day. They’d been training them recently—all the porters—to double as security guards. There was talk of a terrorist attack on the smaller countries, now that all the big ones had already been hit. But Dan knew it wasn’t coming his way. Not in this end-of-the line seaside town, with its one national institution on top of a hill. A library wasn’t a target, no matter how much they went on about it.
Today, his boss, known as the Arch Porter, was taking a group of colleagues down to the city for even more security training. He’d cherry-picked the ones he wanted to progress to the next security level, and in fifteen minutes, they would all assemble on the red carpet, hands in their pockets. They’d all be giving him this look—the look that told him not to get ideas above his station.
Dan didn’t want to get above his station. He was happy minding the station.
He knew he wasn’t really being left in charge. He was being left alone so that he could have the space and time to cock up. Everything Dan did could be watched via CCTV from the government buildings in the city. The excuse for leaving him behind was that he understood the technology; he could be responsible for linking them up.
“You’ll be fine, won’t you?” the Arch Porter asked, his mustache quivering atop his upper lip. “It’ll be a good opportunity for you, make sure you take advantage of it, prove yourself. It’s about time.”
Dan smiled back at him, knowing full well how he’d take advantage of it, how he’d prove himself. He knew how the day would go, or more to the point, how their day would go. Far from here, the Arch Porter would get drunk on free wine served up to him by the government and gorge himself on fresh seafood served up on a silver platter, a million dead eyes staring at him. He’d get to his feet and make a speech, he’d talk about the sophistication of a little security device in his hand that could lock people in as well as lock people out, and the porters and politicians around him would applaud like seals even if they weren’t really listening. Then, the First Minister would get up and go out and talk to the press—she’d talk about the nation’s institutions taking the future into their own hands, how they were safeguarding their heritage, their culture, she’d talk about how the nation was ready for an attack and protected against it. How they’d cut down on their carbon emission and how paper had become secondary to cultural preservation. And she’d be reading it all off a little teleprompter without thinking much about what she was saying, because she was still hungry—because seafood never really fills that hole in your stomach, at least not if you’re talking the whole way through lunch and sharing the table with greedy, good-for-nothing porters who don’t realize there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Dan believed it had all started going wrong when they took away his keys. He missed the jangling of a good set of keys in his hand, the cold coupling of steel and skin. He liked the sound they made as he got nearer to a door; the way keys announced an arrival. They were macho little stick men in his hand, while the security device he used now was more like a virginal nun, singing a single note of openness that was so quiet, one barely noticed that the door had been unlocked.
Dan was constantly made to feel inadequate in front of the other porters. The Arch Porter had caught him smoking a spliff once around the back with a few research students (the second-rate boyfriend and his third-rate post-doc mates) and that had been it—he’d been singled out for constant reproval.
“I hope you haven’t forgotten, my boy,” the Arch Porter said, his stomach straining against his trouser belt. “That I trusted you, I gave you a chance.”
If only Dan could forget it. It was a constant weapon to be used against him; the way he had broken the trust so freely granted when he first came to work here. He knew that institutions did not hire people with criminal records; and that was something he needed to be grateful for. But he also knew they had been short-staffed at the time—that it made sense to drag the community-service-part-timer over to the interviews and force him to stay. People like Dan, they said, were used to institutions, and it made sense for him to substitute one establishment for another.
And in some ways, Dan thought, it wasn’t unlike prison at all. He was fed at regular intervals. He walked up and down the same old strip of corridor. He was treated coldly and apathetically by those around him. He spent days staring out of windows that were too high to properly see out of, wishing he were somewhere else.
The Arch Porter and his minions walked past Dan, one by one, out into the sunshine and into the white van that boasted the library and the government’s logos. Dan watched them on the CCTV camera behind his desk, mocking the self-important way the Arch Porter now carried himself; his head thrown back to emphasize his lack of tie, his new, crisp corporate shirt and blazer ruffling uncomfortably around his blubber. This was what happened when a country like Dan’s finally formed its own government; the funniest people were put in positions of power. He watched as the porters were guided into the van, one by one, before the white gloss of the van doors obscured them completely. The only creatures visible now were the Arch Porter at the wheel and the Head Librarian, who was now (Dan ascertained from another camera) approaching in her stiletto heels.
The Arch Porter shuffled out of the van to open the door for her, a gesture he knew she found distasteful but which she tolerated all the same. Once the Arch Porter had shut the door on her, he stared up at the CCTV camera, as if he knew that Dan was watching him. He raised his radio and spoke directly into it.
“We’ll be watching you, Matthews!” he shouted. “Don’t you forget that, OK? Now link those cameras the second we leave, do you hear me? The rest of them will be watching the library from the back of the van on their tablets.”
Dan smirked at the thought of what the porters in question would be watching on their tablets. It would not be him. Not really. It would be a version of him, taken from a few days ago.
“OK!” he replied. “Enjoy yourselves. Over and out.”
He heard another grunt before the final deadening click. He moved toward his desk and dialed the link to the government’s IT offices. He heard the familiar voice of Teleri, the CCTV officer, coming through the loudspeaker, a husky voice that spoke of city living. He knew that he was at a disadvantage, hearing only her voice each time while she saw his whole being, illuminated on a large screen in front of her. He was still expected to flirt into the unknown darkness. Although Teleri tried to keep her voice youthful and jolly, he could tell she was not young and there was a constant tremor in her voice that told him she was not really jolly, either.
“OK, sweetness,” she said. “What have you got for me?”
“They want to link conference room 340 to the library’s CCTV,” he said.
He heard laughter, the pretense of joy rattling in a windpipe.
“Don’t they trust you, sweetness? You must be very, very bad.”
“Why don’t you come here one day? Maybe then you’ll find out,” he replied, matching her performance, though it made him feel sick to his stomach. He could somehow make out her contours through his blindness, the rubbery sides of her, the blouse that was too small, wrinkling at the bust.
“I’ll wait till you come here,” she said, sounding faintly alarmed.
He heard a buzz as Teleri linked the cameras to the screens.
“Oh, I like your hair like that,” she said.
Dan froze. The footage from last week had come on sooner than he’d expected and now she was staring at another version of him with freshly cut hair, sitting behind his desk, looking down at his phone. To say another thing would ruin his whole plan. He watched his week-old self, hoping that something in his gestures would somehow correspond with Teleri’s conversation. The week-old him began eating an apple with gusto. He ate one every break time, remembering how jealous he’d been of apples when they were handed to him in prison, simply because they had come from outside and were free in a way he was not. They made him so depressed he let them rot on his windowsill. Now he could devour the little fuckers.
“Well I haven’t got all day to sit here and watch you eating an apple, sweetness, I don’t care how good-looking you are.”
And with that she was gone. His plan was set in place. He watched as the week-old Dan finished his once-free-now-dead apple and tossed it away into the future.
A future where there was no one watching him.
From Y Llyfrgell. © Fflur Dafydd. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2019 by Fflur Dafydd. All rights reserved.
Llwyd Owen imagines a Wales where the Welsh language itself is a crime in this excerpt from his novella Iaith y Nefoedd (The Language of Heaven).
He opened his eyes.
He checked his phone.
“Shit!” Half past one in the afternoon. Not that he’d missed an important appointment or anything. Just half a day. Another one. Same as yesterday. And the day before. And the one before that too. Not that he can remember properly. Manon’s fault, for sure. And the booze. Not to mention the drugs, of course. A shitload of pills, fuck all thrills. He stared at the piss-yellow ceiling and tried to find the necessary energy to drag his body from the bed. He rolled his tongue around his mouth. It felt like sandpaper. Or a sun-dried slug. His teeth were covered in a layer of plaque so thick that he could almost feel the bacteria attacking his gums. He made a mental note to buy a toothbrush. If he could afford one, of course. He turned to face the curtain-covered window. The daylight was doing its best to penetrate the cheap material, but thanks to the lovely view of a narrow back alley and the wall of the neighboring building, the effort was all too much, even for the sun.
He got out of bed a little too quickly, his lower back on fire, making his whole body convulse. He ground his teeth. He breathed deeply and surfed the soreness; his eyes closed tightly to stop the room from spinning. The pain abated. For a split-second, he considered doing some stretches, but what was the point. He looked down, glad to see that he was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. Especially the socks on his feet. These days, putting on socks was one of life’s main challenges. That and making enough money to pay for the essentials. A new toothbrush, for example. And food. Not to mention his medicine of choice: whiskey and slimming pills.
After emptying his bladder, he came face-to-face with his own features. In the mirror, he looked much older that his forty-one years. Manon’s fault, for sure. And the booze. Not to mention the drugs, of course. Under a nest of unkempt curls, his eyes stared out at him from their caves. A lack of nutrition had caused them to start sinking into his skull. A common feature in the world of today, a decade after the vote. A world full of mayhem, where almost all hope had been lost, leading to almost daily disturbances and arson attacks across the city. A world where little old Wales had been isolated from the rest of Europe and anchored to England’s asshole, like a malignant tumor, beyond all redemption.
In the windowless kitchen, he reused yesterday’s tea bag to make a cuppa. Weak as piss. No milk or sugar. He used to take two sugars in his tea. Before the vote. Before the unnecessary and voluntary segregation. Before all of the predictions and warnings came to pass. Food rationing was now commonplace, while the goods for sale were so expensive that people like him could not afford them. Food banks are one of the country’s main industries now; having replaced actual banks, who fled the island like rats from a sinking ship. In line with their forewarnings.
He made his way to the lounge, crouching to pick up a letter from the floor near the flat’s front door. His right knee crunched, but his lower back thanked him. Gingerly, he sat in his favorite chair. The only chair. He picked up the remote, turned the telly on and, as he rolled the first fag of the day, bad news spewed from the screen. He watched the disturbing images of armies assembling on the other side of the globe.
America threatening China.
America threatening North Korea.
And Russia watching everything from the shadows with a sly smile on its lips.
He heard familiar words. Words that used to terrify him. But words that were so common these days that they’d lost all of their meaning and edge. The threat of nuclear war was very real, no doubt, but, considering all the desolation and despair outside his front door, it was very easy to ignore what was going on in the South China Sea. With the perpetual poverty and day-to-day violence, the incessant racism and xenophobia, part of him thought “bring it on” every time he heard another report about the inevitable apocalypse.
Ten years after the vote, everything had changed in the world of T. Lloyd Lewis and the country’s Welsh-speaking population in general. Where once there was honor and dignity, today they were forced to hide their true identity. Thanks to the power of the hatred that came to light as a result of the vote, the Welsh-speakers of Wales had now been marginalized, ostracized, and pushed to the edges of society, to such an extent that any semblance of a “Welsh-speaking community” had disappeared. This was particularly true in the city, although things were a little better in rural Wales. Apparently. You heard rumors of people meeting clandestinely to keep the language alive. To keep the fire burning. To pray, to sing, or just to have a chat. But the only sign of life that bubbled to the surface from time to time in the capital was the defiant pro-Welsh graffiti that would appear overnight. Of course, these words would soon be replaced by hateful, anti-Welsh messages, but at least some hope remained. According to urban legends, there were gangs on the loose that hunted the natives, burning any Welsh-language tattoos that they found before turning the unfortunate individuals over to the secret police. T was terrified that someone would clock the words to one of his favorite songs, which were inked on his left shoulder, before reaching for the blowtorch.
You don’t need a girl to break your heart,
When you live in Wales.
He grabbed the remote and turned the telly off in the middle of a report about the appearance of Comet Read in the sky. T could remember watching a few firmamental phenomena during his life. Comet Hale-Bopp in ninety-seven, in the company of his classmates. The solar eclipse of ninety-nine, when the whole country lost its collective mind for a few days and spent millions on special specs to watch the event. As he sparked his cigarette, he heard a loud bang on the door, which made him choke on the smoke, but he stopped himself from coughing up a lung because he knew exactly who was there.
“Mr. Lewis, I know you’re in there!” bellowed Mr. Smith, his landlord. “Mr. Lewis, this is getting out of hand.”
T owed him two months’ rent. Money he didn’t have.
He smoked his roll and waited for him to fuck off.
“I can smell you, Mr. Lewis.”
That made him smile. Thanks to the government’s austerity measures and cuts to the national budget, the whole country stank, especially urban areas such as this one. The streets were awash with litter, while the fires that burned every day polluted the air and the environment.
At last, the knocking and the shouting stopped. T rolled another fag and turned his attention to the letter on the coffee table. His nicotine-stained fingers looked like radioactive chipolatas against the envelope’s whiteness. He noted his publisher’s stamp in the upper right hand corner. This gave him a lift and filled him with hope. Momentarily, at least. He took a deep breath before proceeding, and prayed to a God he didn’t believe in for some good news.
However, he was soon overcome with disappointment.
Disappointment and shock.
He was disappointed by the total amount and shocked by the number of books he had sold during the past six months, since the release of his latest tome. The royalty statement noted that his novel, A Better World, had sold a measly fifty-two copies and, as a result, Gwalia Publishing had deposited £62.32 in his bank account.
Better than nothing.
But nowhere near enough to pay the rent.
His four previous novels were also listed on the statement, although none of them had sold a single copy. T knew that people had to prioritize, but he was still a little disappointed, especially when he considered the effort that went into writing them. But the simple truth is, when there’s no food on the table, no one’s really thinking a great deal about literature.
He remembered the excitement he felt when his first novel was published. Manon was with him all the way. Good days, full of creativity and love. Before the vote. Before the threats. Before the country imploded. Before Manon left him for another man. She was so proud of him as she watched from the front row at the launch party, smiling with delight, her eyes overflowing with admiration. But the respect she had for him soon wilted, as the novel failed to find an audience. And although the publishing company supported T through it all, Manon wasn’t so faithful.
There was a handwritten note attached to the statement, the words written in Welsh.
T, call in when you get the chance.
We need to have a little chat.
“J” for Joe.
The founder and head of the publishing company. An old man nearing eighty. A man with a vision. A man who believed in T and gave him a chance. A man who probably regretted that decision.
“J” for Jesus fuckin’ Christ!
A little chat. T can easily imagine the way it’ll go. The end of his career. But, with the end of the world around the corner, was there any point worrying about it?
He choked the stump in the overflowing ashtray.
He blew smoke toward the ceiling.
He coughed like an old man suffering from bronchitis.
He searched in the usual places for some powder and swore when he couldn’t find any. He pulled on his anorak, grabbed his rusty bike and left the flat, keeping his eyes peeled for his landlord. He heard shouting in the flat next door. A man and a woman really going at it—the pressures of life on the margins reaching boiling point. This reminded him of Manon’s last few weeks in the flat. Days of silence, punctured by unexpected emotional explosions followed by tears.
He still missed her.
He descended the stairs of the old Victorian house, which had been divided into four flats, opened the front door, and stepped outside. The drizzling rain made him stop on the stoop, where he considered going back inside. After all, he didn’t have to go and see Joe today. The note was pretty vague. He could return to his flat and . . . and . . . what exactly? Watch telly? Go back to bed? Hang himself? Fuck that! Right then, the sun tore through the clouds to tickle T’s milk-white skin. He smiled as a rainbow appeared over the roofs of the terraced houses opposite. He hadn’t seen anything as beautiful in a long time. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he saw a rainbow. He almost cried, but in the end the spectacle lifted his spirits and spurred him on.
T lived in the middle of the city.
By the river.
By the stadium.
A nice place. At one time in the not-too-distant past. But now, the city was like a dystopian scene from one of T’s novels, not a nation’s capital. Or a region, as was now the case. Cycling around town these days was a little like playing a game of real-life Mario Kart. You had to avoid all types of obstacles—human, natural, and man-made. In fact, it was almost impossible to go anywhere without getting a puncture. Litter covered the ground, and nobody came to clear it away. Glass. Cans. Paper. Plastics of all shapes and sizes. Everything being pushed around by the wind, piling up in corners and collecting down alleys. T could remember the political and social campaigns to create “plastic-free communities,” and the endless stories of plastic islands floating in the oceans, laying waste to aquatic life, stealthily and relentlessly.
The vote buried all hope of reversing the situation.
In fact, the vote buried all hope.
He crossed the bridge and looked down at the brown water flowing slowly toward the barrage. He could remember swimming in the river when he was younger, some four miles upstream from here, by Radyr Weir—the water full of fish, herons and kingfishers hunting them in the reeds. But the birds won’t go near the water these days. The gulls had moved permanently to the built-up areas, slaying every pigeon that stood in their way. T didn’t have a clue what happened to the ducks, swans, and cormorants. All he knew is that they’d disappeared.
There are people everywhere, and no cars on the roads, thanks to the fuel shortage—another knock-on effect of the vote. The shortage was going on four years now, with no end in sight. The only vehicles you saw today were owned by the rich and powerful, the police or the armed forces, when things got out of hand. The situation had no major impact on T’s existence, mainly because he’d never owned a car, although the fuel shortage had led to many riots, disturbances, and deaths, not to mention the damaging, and in some cases fatal, impact on businesses and the economy in general.
As T approached the castle, the former home of a pride of concrete animals peeping over a wall, which had been demolished and destroyed in the not-too-distant past, he saw a pack of wild dogs watching him from the shadows of the ancient trees.
Seven pairs of eyes, staring in his direction.
Seven tongues licking their lips.
Seven hungry bellies.
He got the hell out of there, as fast as his legs would take him.
The castle walls were covered in graffiti. The local authorities completely incapable of stopping the practice or even cleaning the ink off the elevations. One piece of art in particular caught T’s eye.
He turned the corner and aimed for the civic center, which had long lost its sheen and grandeur, thanks mainly to the graffiti that covered the walls, but also because of the tent city that had established itself on the lawn in front of the city hall and national museum, where T could remember watching Chumbawamba perform live a lifetime ago. The smell that rose from the tent city was bad enough to make T retch, so he put his head down and kept going.
Joe lived about six miles away, on the slopes of the mountain that rose like a turtle’s shell beyond the motorway, to the north of the city center. But before reaching his destination, T had to cycle through the area where the city’s student population used to live, before the vote changed everything. All of the flats were empty now. Well, they didn’t house students anymore, although every room was occupied. To the rafters, too. The tent dwellers would kill for the opportunity to move into one of these blocks. The Beverly Hills of the city’s homeless population.
T struggled on to the suburbs. He cycled through the area where he grew up, although he barely recognized the place. The green lawns and the glistening cars had long gone. And in their place: tall fences and barbed wire, security cameras and signs warning potential home invaders of the electric nature of the fences. He saw bars over windows and mean-looking dogs guarding most properties. He was glad that his parents had died before the world turned to shit.
He passed the home of one of his childhood friends and remembered playing footy in the street. He recalled a sense of community. He remembered being happy.
“No cycling!” He heard a voice from behind a bush, and then saw a man in his sixties running toward him waving a spade above his head. “Can’t you read?”
T pedaled away from the loon, his heart beating fast and his eyes looking around for a No Cycling sign. He couldn’t see one anywhere. Madness. Another common side effect.
He crossed the bridge over the motorway. A graveyard to a bygone era. Abandoned vehicles as far as the eye could see. To the horizon and beyond. Left to rust when the fuel ran dry. He watched a human form move between the vehicles and then noticed faces staring out from behind the dusty windscreens. The homeless had moved in here too. Either that or a zombie apocalypse was about to start.
T could see smoke rising from a chimney in the trees. This was his destination. His salvation. Less than half a mile away. He tried pedaling up the hill, but gave up and pushed, keeping one eye over his shoulder at all times. Soon, he was out in the countryside, where nature was busy reclaiming the land—trees, hedgerows and grass growing wildly all around.
He was soaked in sweat by the time he reached the estate’s entrance, and he stopped for a rest before pressing the button. His breathing slowed as the thunder rose. A low rumble, drawing nearer. He grabbed his bike and hid behind an ancient oak, where he watched from the undergrowth as an armored truck drove in his direction, with one man behind the wheel and another beside him holding an M16, the rifle’s muzzle pointing out of the open window, ready to fire, ready to kill.
"2026: In the Beginning" © Llwyd Owen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by George Jones. All rights reserved.
With The Wind That Lays Waste, Almada may have invented an entirely new literary genre, something that could be called Southern Cone Gothic.
Reverend Pearson and his teenage daughter, Leni, travel the forgotten towns of rural Argentina spreading the good word. When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they are towed to the closest mechanic shop, run by Gringo Brauer with the help of his assistant, Tapioca. The repair is expected to take some time, so the father and daughter seek shade from the sweltering heat among the landscape of mangled cars. Tapioca and Leni are both sixteen years old and although they never speak of it, both are marked by the loss of their mothers. Reverend Pearson and Gringo Brauer share a connection to the road. The preacher is in constant movement as he travels back roads saving souls; the mechanic stands in place, receiving the twisted remains of the road’s latest victims.
Ever confident that the Lord has placed him exactly where he needs to be, Pearson is happy to wait patiently in this rustic setting after meeting Tapioca, “a pure soul” who seems to have been raised in ignorance of God’s transcendent powers. To Brauer’s annoyance, the Reverend begins to work his evangelical magic on quiet, sensitive Tapioca.
This minimalist dramatic nucleus sets the stage for Selva Almada’s slim debut novel, The Wind That Lays Waste. First published in Argentina in 2012, it shot Almada to prominence after being highly praised by critics, most notably the influential Beatriz Sarlo, who called it “eccentric” and “original” for its ways of playing with the language. In the seven years since, Almada has established herself as a well-known name in contemporary Latin American writing.
The theme of family dysfunction is one that appears throughout Almada’s work and the two families portrayed here are no exception. Leni respects her father for his ability to move crowds of worshippers yet has little patience for him. She dreams of leaving their lonely nomadic life to go in search of her mother, whom the Reverend left behind at some rural outpost. Tapioca may or may not know that Gringo Brauer is likely his father. The boy met the mechanic for the first time at age eight, when his mother dropped him off at the shop and never returned. Like Leni, Tapioca yearns to reunite with his mother. Part of his attraction to the life offered by Reverend Pearson may lie in the promise of visiting the city where his mother went to find work all those years ago.
Flashbacks to Reverend Pearson’s past and fragments of his sermons serve to break up the linearity of the narrative. In one powerful scene, the pastor, moved by the Lord, pulls a woman to the front of the church, begins to bite at her dress, writhing like a snake, until he grabs between his teeth something black and slimy, reeking of the Devil, and spits it out. Chris Andrews’s translation perfectly recreates Almada’s clean prose, centered around action and materiality, her elegant descriptions, as well as her measured pace. When asked in a forthcoming interview about the process of translating this novel, Andrews mentioned the unique challenge posed by Reverend Pearson’s sermons, which “should sound both formulaic and persuasive, because Pearson is doing his shtick again, but he has genuine talent (when he’s in full flight even the cynical Leni feels her resistance melting away), so I hope that the rhetorical mechanisms are visible but animated by a perceptible fervor.”
As the story flows smoothly from past to present, in and out of each character’s head, a storm brews in the parched dusty field around the mechanic shop. The humans are oblivious, but the dog smells the ensuing storm:
The smell of the depths of the forest. Not its heart but something much deeper, the bowels, you might say. The smell of the earth’s dampness under the excrement of animals, the microcosm seething there beneath the dung: tiny seeds, minuscule insects and blue scorpions, the lords and masters of that little dark plot.
This dramatic passage serves as a good example of Almada’s forceful descriptions, which often depict nature as somehow wiser, more perceptive than man. A torrential downpour forces the adults and teens into close quarters. The tension between Pearson and Brauer comes to a head. More than differences of faith, two conflicting worldviews are in dispute. The preacher’s life is one of constant performance. He is known far and wide for his ability to whip large groups into a state of frenzy. The mechanic, strong and stoic, almost a hermit, is grounded in the land and has no time for religion, focused instead on the practical concerns of his wrecked cars and his dogs.
Leni is the only female character in the story (even the dog is male), a lone girl trapped in a man’s world. Selva Almada is an outspoken feminist, and she infuses her stories with a critical view of the patriarchy. In an interview about her work in El Espectacular, she states: “When a writer has a commitment to certain issues such as gender violence or feminism, in one way or another that’s going to find a way into their texts.” Leni has internalized conventional, submissive gender roles. She is eager to do domestic chores because she doesn’t get many chances on the road to practice what she sees as her womanly duties. Her largest act of rebellion is listening to the radio on her Walkman instead of the Christian tapes her father thinks she’s playing. When Gringo Brauer and Reverend Pearson both support Tapioca’s right as a young man to exercise his free will but immediately dismiss the choice Leni has made for herself, she accepts that the only valid decisions are those taken by men.
With The Wind That Lays Waste, Almada may have invented an entirely new literary genre, something that could be called Southern Cone Gothic. The narration is tied to a landscape that is proudly Argentine but the story weaves in elements typical of the gothic writing of the southern United States, such as rural isolation, oppressive heat and invasive dust, decay, fire-and-brimstone religious fervor. Flannery O’Connor, master of the Southern Gothic, states in Mystery and Manners: “The novelist always has to create a world and a believable one. The virtues of art, like the virtues of faith, are such that they reach beyond the limitations of the intellect, beyond any mere theory that a writer may entertain.” Through sparse, monochrome scenes, Selva Almada creates a believable and powerfully visual world that transcends the page.
A new anthology collects a wide range of writing inspired by the Portuguese city, from Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago to authors from former colonies like Kalaf Angelo and Orlanda Amarílis, but it leaves out some key short-story writers.
Lisbon Tales is part of a long-running series of anthologies published by Oxford University Press seeking to collect some of the best writing set in or inspired by notable cities around the world and present it to an Anglophone audience. The addition of the Portuguese capital to this editorial project is a timely one as the city becomes an increasingly popular destination for foreign visitors.
The selection of stories in this volume indicates a wish to represent a variety of visions of the city, with the translator citing “quality of writing” as the prime criterion for inclusion. Fourteen pieces are included, dating from the late nineteenth century (represented by the well-known cosmopolitan figure of Eça de Queirós) to the present day (with the final two contributions being blog posts by the Angolan writer and musician Kalaf Angelo). The genres and nationalities included are diverse, featuring an excerpt from the Nobel Prize Winner José Saramago’s travelogue Journey to Portugal and a short story by Orlanda Amarilis, a woman writer from Cabo Verde.
There are many fine inclusions here, with excellent stories by authors who will be largely unknown in the English-speaking world: two writers from former Portuguese colonies in Africa (Amarilis and Angelo); the long-term exile José Rodrigues Miguéis; the political dissident Soeiro Pereira Gomes (much of whose work could only be published in clandestine fashion under the Estado Novo dictatorship); and the contemporary figures of Teolinda Gersão, Hélia Correia, Mário Dionísio, and Mário de Carvalho. The latter's story “The Collectors” was my own personal favorite within this volume for its credible and beguiling portrayal of the fantastic within a recognizably contemporary setting. Among the other most striking stories were “Lost Refuge” by Soeiro Pereira Gomes, where the initial depiction of miserable living conditions on the fringes of the city is soon overtaken by the all-embracing angst of the political dissident seeking constantly to cover his tracks while continuing in his struggle, and Amarilis’s “Cais do Sodré Station,” which flits between the protagonist’s memories of her long-lost Cabo Verdean homeland and the realities of her life in Lisbon, leading to the eventual realization that she can never fully belong in her present environment nor truly identify any more with her homeland. In this story, then, the railway station as a point of transit comes to represent the main character’s painful inability to emerge from a state of in-between-ness: neither fully Portuguese, nor fully able to identify with her homeland.
Nonetheless, while the choice of stories selected for this volume will clearly be to some extent a question of personal taste, the nebulous formulation of “quality of writing” to justify inclusion in this collection remains less than convincing. In her introduction, the translator Amanda Hopkinson regrets that “the short story is not a particularly indigenous form” in Portuguese-speaking countries, but one may ask then why such notable writers of concise and compelling fictional accounts of Lisbon life as Maria Judite de Carvalho, Irene Lisboa, Lídia Jorge, and José Cardoso Pires (to name but four obvious candidates) have been omitted, when many of the tales included could not be described as short stories at all (and when one writer is represented by two pieces). There is, in fact, a long tradition of the short story in Portugal, but many of the finest examples of the genre have been published (initially at least) in multiple-authored anthologies or journals, where the authors’ identities do not achieve the prominence given to the novel; yet some of the most inventive and experimental writing in Portugal is conducted precisely in the form of short fiction.
The choice of a tantalizingly short excerpt from Eça’s Alves & Co. gives the impression that this author is represented more out of a sense of obligation to his reputation than because this particular story was well suited to this volume, but even if Eça is regarded as essential (as a result of his international reputation) it remains unclear why, for example, the full text of his masterful short story “José Matias” was not chosen instead. The story that represents the equally canonical figure of Fernando Pessoa (taken from the chest of miscellaneous manuscripts discovered after his death) is also incomplete and not among his best work on the city; perhaps it might have been better to choose an excerpt from The Book of Disquiet, where (contrary to the translator’s insistence that his portrayal of Lisbon is “characteristically free of description of the external world”) the life and scenery of the city are often represented in vividly recognizable forms. On the other hand, the inclusion of Agustina Bessa-Luís (largely associated with the rural north of Portugal) seems peculiar in that there is no explicit allusion within her story at any point to a setting in the capital, and it is as likely to be based in Porto as in Lisbon.
The translator’s introduction indicates a particular focus on writers from the Salazar dictatorship of the mid-twentieth century, a dark period in Portugal’s history, following the tone set by the rather drab black-and-white cover image of a solitary woman on a bleak-looking city staircase. While the stories chosen all have their merit, the mixture as a whole could perhaps have displayed greater variety in character and tone. I longed for stories reflecting in some way, for example, the exuberance of the June processions and festivities of the cidade triste e alegre (“city both sad and joyful”) celebrated by Pessoa’s famous heteronym Álvaro de Campos.
The rendering of the stories in English is fluent, appealing, and (as far as I could tell in the case of those texts with which I was already familiar in Portuguese) faithful to the original, with helpful explanatory footnotes added when required. It might have been useful, however, in making sense of the powerful conclusion to Saramago’s chapter on Lisbon to have clarified that the Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo whom the author wished symbolically to propel into hell was the very same Marquês de Pombal mentioned at the beginning of the final paragraph who was responsible for overseeing the reconstruction of the city after the 1755 earthquake.
There is much to enjoy in this collection, and there would undoubtedly be scope for a further volume dedicated to Lisbon in this series; certainly there have been many writers, Portuguese and otherwise, throughout the centuries reflecting on this fascinating city. A comparison with the companion Barcelona volume suggests that the section dedicated to further reading about the city could also have been expanded somewhat. But the reader who wishes to discover Lisbon through fictional writing in English will still find much to savor; I would simply suggest that, for any second edition, the translator and publishers attempt to add some ingredients to enrich the variety of the offering.
The Spanish author and Man Booker International nominee elides the distance between novel and memoir in a book that confronts the killing of her grandfather by the ETA and her mother's death from cancer.
I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape . . .
—Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”
Calendars add a particular cruelty to grief. The annual recurrence of a month crossing paths with a number can make the wounds of loss feel present again. Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest, translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by Transit Books, is full of such moments of remembrance. The past—personal and collective—haunts the present in this novel, returning dutifully on regular occasions. “I believe dates are important; anniversaries must be marked,” Ybarra writes. “My mother died on a Tuesday, and I remember her every Tuesday. My mother died on the 6th, and I think of her every 6th.” The anniversary is condensed, experienced at the smaller scales of weeks and months. These regular intervals are mnemonic devices, allowing us to infuse order into what seems to just happen. They create a poetic meter in the flux of life.
The dinner guest of the title corresponds to the smallest such unit of repetition: “The story goes that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal.” This guest comes every evening, eats with the family or at least inhabits the place that’s been set for him. And sometimes he makes a scene: “Every so often he appears, casts his shadow over the table and erases one of those present.” Death, personified by the invisible specter sitting across the table, is an insistent presence at dinner, but he’s also unpredictable, moved by a logic of things unknown to us: whenever he likes (“[e]very so often”), he takes someone.
This guest is present from the novel’s first pages, and thus Ybarra establishes early in the narrative a contrast between the regular drip of life, the consistent rhythms of days and weeks and months, and the contingency that threatens to disrupt this order. Death is the ultimate such threat, a conviction that seems present throughout the pages of The Dinner Guest—pages we are explicitly invited to read in relation to the author’s own biographical reality. In a preliminary “Author’s Note,” Ybarra identifies the events of the novel with real moments in her family history, though without insisting on a direct, one-to-one correspondence between words and world. Rather, as she describes the research and imaginative labor that underlie her writing process, she seems to elide the difference between outside and inside, between author and narrator. Such distinctions dissolve into something more elemental, an imaginative writing that resembles in turn a documentary, a memoir, or a novel, suggesting perhaps that we all occupy the function of narrator in the lives we believe ourselves to be authoring.
The first part of the book is dedicated to reconstructing the kidnapping and murder of the narrator’s paternal grandfather at the hands of ETA, the Basque separatist group known for its use of high-profile terrorist attacks, in the late seventies. The novel then shifts its focus to the illness and eventual death of the narrator’s mother. It is the latter death that seems to most fully insist on the randomness of life’s tragedies: “Before my mother’s death I lived as if the normal thing was to die of old age,” we read toward the novel’s conclusion. “Now I believe that the standard is to die before one’s time, like my grandfather Javier, like my mother, or like a friend of a friend who was hit by a car that ran a red light on the Castellana. An untimely death is always violent.” All deaths, we might extrapolate, are untimely.
In this formulation, Ybarra draws a connection between the two deaths that are the novel’s focus, besides adding a third one—that of the friend of a friend who died in an automobile accident. This connection helps elucidate a main aspect of the narrative’s structure: its coupling of the death of the grandfather in the late seventies to the death of the mother in 2011. How are the two deaths related? The kidnapping and execution of Ybarra’s grandfather result from the political motives and strategies of ETA and reflect her family’s historical prominence in the public life of the Basque Country. Her mother’s death, from a cancer that appeared to be in remission only to return swiftly and almost invisibly, might be seen to occur in a different realm, disconnected from the world of politics. Why, then, are they joined together as the axes of this novel?
One reason may be that Ybarra wants to challenge the distinction I have just suggested—between death due to political violence and death due to illness. The two, after all, are not unrelated. Cancer becomes political once you consider environmental determinants and disparities in treatment, as do many other illnesses, just as overtly political causes of death like war and terrorism have devastating effects on the health of families and individuals, besides conditioning, to a large degree, our notion of what a family is and what it’s for. Perhaps by joining together these two realms, Ybarra wants to show how they overlap and blur together.
More clearly, though, this narrative technique underscores the role of imagination in memory and perception. Such an interpretation would be consistent with the explanatory note that Ybarra includes at the novel’s opening, where she describes the book as “a free reconstruction of the history of my family,” in which the first part, especially, relies on documentary research, the imperfect recollection of conversations overheard, and the creativity inherent in deciding when one version of things is preferable to another. All memory is, to some degree, imaginative; Ybarra’s novel seems to assume this assertion to be the case, straining to get the past right but without believing that it can be known in itself, independently of the creative act of storytelling. “Often, imagining has been the only way I’ve had to understand.”
And this is the case not only with past events. The second, longer part of the book focuses on the illness and death of the narrator’s mother in the near-present. Here, too, what stands out is Ybarra’s portrayal of confusion, or at least incomplete knowledge, in which metaphor, often visual in nature, is essential to organizing perception. The suggestion seems to be that even as events are happening we are often unaware of what they are or what they mean. Almost immediately after the narrator learns that her mother’s cancer has silently metastasized, a friend visits Ybarra in New York and they go out to get something to eat:
While we were on our way to the deli the earthquake hit. A tremor of magnitude 5.9 on the Richter scale was rocking the east coast of the United States. Outside we didn’t feel it, so I talked on, oblivious of tectonic plates, and my friend smoked, indifferent to the movements of the earth. In Washington the Pentagon was being evacuated, the airports had just been closed, and the foundations of Manhattan’s skyscrapers shuddered, knocking over the coffee cups of office workers. Still, the only tremor that I felt that afternoon was in my head.
This experience encapsulates many of the main points of Ybarra’s nuanced reflection on life, death, and narrative: what we perceive is partial, what we remember is imagined, and when we recount our experience, we make use of poetic devices like metaphor. The earthquake shakes the earth, whether we know it or not, and as it happens, something resounds within her head, a feeling she describes as a “tremor,” as if borrowing from the earth a lexicon that might correspond to her grief and shock.
Perhaps it is because we seek to find order, poetic or otherwise, in such experiences that we insist on anniversaries. Despite the pain of losses remembered, there can be comfort in the regularity of marking time. And yet this comfort is evanescent, always about to dissolve, for the world ultimately doesn’t care for our rhythmic requirements. Hence death. A significant accomplishment of The Dinner Guest is to portray the act of seeking, imagining order in our lives and deaths, all the while knowing that it will inevitably be interrupted.
The Turkish writer of Kurdish descent has been jailed since 2016. The stories in Dawn can be read as a series of missives written by Demirtas from the inside, home to so many of the Turkey's best and brightest, dissenters who have refused to bow down to Erdogan’s demands.
The purge has been systematic and unrelenting. In the past few years, as Turkey’s strongman Recep Erdogan has consolidated his power following a failed coup attempt in 2016, thousands of dissenting politicians, activists, intellectuals and university professors have either been imprisoned or forced into exile. Newspapers, literary magazines and other forums of expression and public debate have faced censorship and scrutiny, with many editors harassed for content that does not toe the Erdogan line.
Democracy as Turks knew it has been sliced and diced, diluted and distorted, and Selahattin Demirtas has been in the middle of the massacre. A member of the Turkish Parliament and co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party, Demirtas was arrested in November 2016 under charges of disseminating “terror propaganda” and thrown into a maximum-security prison, where he remains to this day. Dawn marks his debut as a fiction writer and it reportedly sold more than 200,000 copies in Turkey. It is a book of poignant and prescient short stories which can be read as a series of missives written by Demirtas from the inside, home to so many of the countries best and brightest, dissenters who have refused to bow down to Erdogan’s demands. Literature and politics, in Demirtas’s view, are both avenues of contention. Both, he states in the preface to his book, are “expected to create meaning and to observe their societies closely and reflect upon the issues that the societies face.”
All the stories in Dawn are examples of this very close and keen observation. “The Man Inside” is an imagined exchange between the narrator and a pair of sparrows that nest inside the prison. It is a curious and sparklingly original rendition; the male sparrow, an exceedingly patriarchal sort, is upset at Demirtas’s offers to help the female. The female lays eggs, an item banned in the prison, a seemingly small event with larger implications, hinting at the inherent feebleness of repression and suggesting that “life will always prevail.” Eventually, some thugs—“inspectors from the Department of Nesting Code Enforcement”—show up. But the adroit, stalwart female refuses to give them access to her precious babies. In her actions, first building a nest and then guarding it, Demirtas gives us a feminist sparrow: unafraid, unrelenting, and eventually victorious.
The feminist theme, of women doing the heavy lifting, continues throughout Dawn. There aren’t always victories, but there is bravery. “Seher,” the title story, tells of a young woman who agrees to go on a date with a colleague from work, despite such interactions being forbidden. The man and his friends kidnap and rape her, leaving her bloody and bereft. This is not the only cruelty in the story. When her father learns of what has happened, he has his own moral purity and community standing to defend, ones that leave no room for forgiveness or empathy, for errant daughters who end up raped. The now “tainted” daughter is taken to a field and killed in the name of honor. As Demirtas puts it: “One evening in a forest, three men robbed Seher of her dreams. One night in an empty field, three men robbed Seher of her life.” The story presents the wretched cruelty of patriarchal power, the violence it inflicts on women’s bodies. Everyone from Seher’s mother to her little brother are complicit, enacting different parts of the murder—mute, submissive, and unendingly cruel.
Many of the stories in Dawn plumb the depths of such societal cruelties, the immovable institutional power of cultural mores that prescribe that women should be “pure,” that men must prevail over women, that the truths of the individual must be discarded in mute obeisance to edicts of oppression and repression. One of the collection’s most remarkable tales presents the story of “Nazan the Cleaning Lady.” She takes the bus to work every day, but her attention is drawn to the cars surrounding her in traffic. Her father taught her that cars can reveal many things about the people driving them, and a look through the bus window is all it takes for Nazan to spot the nuances of Turkish society in the automobiles going by. She finds herself one day in the midst of a political demonstration, while trying to get to work. Struck by a projectile and left bleeding, she ends up in an ambulance and then a hospital. Her physical wounds are tended to, but neither a lawyer nor the doctor can save her from a prison sentence, unthinkingly imposed despite the fact that she was only a bystander caught in the mix. The turn comes unexpectedly at the story’s end, when Nazan ponders the lessons to be taken from her predicament: “Being in here I’ve come to see my neighborhood in a completely different light. And while I may not be in prison much longer, these six months have been enough for me to get to know myself. And there’s an important lesson I’ve learned in here: if you walk with courage and determination sometimes you can move faster than a car.”
The stories in Dawn are indeed experiments in exposing how the world appears in “a different light.” The lives of cleaning ladies and office workers and sparrows are all angled in such a manner that the truths within them are brought into the open. Ordinary people contain multitudes. In excavating them, Demirtas reveals the dissenters and the executioners among them, along with the intransigence of bureaucracy that can engulf and enervate the soul in captivity. It is one thing to observe oppression at a distance, in the lines of newspaper articles. It is quite another to see its impact on ordinary lives captured in such evocative prose. Dawn proves Demirtas’s own pronouncement regarding the similarity between the politician and the writer; here is rebellion in literary form, the cost and cruelty of dissent laid bare and open. In times of trouble, the telling of truths can best be encased in the half-truths of fiction, the author’s act of subterfuge forgiven for its courage.
From interview to collage, from poetry to prose, from the 1950s to the 2000s, this volume edited by Ben Lerner combines a generous compendium of the Waldrops' work as poets, translators and publishers with a selection of essays and interviews in which they meditate on their craft.
To spend time with Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop’s Keeping/ the window open: Interviews, statements, alarms, excursions is to enter into a flux of time that is both the past and future of American letters. The 372-page, large format book, recently published by Wave Books, is a tribute, a compendium, and also a repository of illuminating insights for writers and translators concerned with the questions that Rosmarie and Keith have been struggling with since the beginning of their trajectory—the relation between form, language, and materiality being perhaps the most conspicuous among a group of central concerns that are considered from different perspectives throughout the book. Keeping/ the window open allows the reader to follow the development of these themes in chronological order, but at some point in my reading I began jumping around: from interview to collage, from poetry to prose, from the 1950s to the 2000s. I was thinking, as Rosmarie Waldrop points out various times in the book, of how poetic writing is a dialogue with language itself, and of how the words found here “reveal their own vectors and affinities, pull the poem into their own field of force . . .” One doesn’t have to read this book in a straight line, from beginning to end, to see the development of both Keith’s and Rosmarie’s artistic lives and recurring poetic obsessions. The crucial themes in this book can be better apprehended through another kind of reading, one that roams its pages freely to produce jump cuts, collages, superpositions in the material gathered there: from Keith’s early playscripts to his letterpress broadsides, from Rosmarie’s very first translations to her later essays on the craft.
Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop met in Germany, where she is from, when Keith was stationed there with the US Army. They met at a Christmas concert in Kitzingen in 1954. Their first joint translations date back to this era; it was with translation that their romance began. Later, they met again at the University of Aix-Marseille before Rosmarie moved with Keith to the University of Michigan. They have worked and lived since the early 1960s in Providence, Rhode Island, where Keith is professor emeritus in the literary arts program at Brown University. Through many years of working on translations, writings, and publishing projects they have continued to collaborate, particularly on their publishing house, Burning Deck Press. Created in 1961, the press produced numerous books of poetry and experimental prose, including many important titles of German and French poetry in translation. By the time they announced in 2017 that they would be closing the press, they had already published 247 titles.
More than once in this book, the Waldrops discuss their relation with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the avant-garde group that developed around the eponymous magazine created by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews in the late 1970s. Although their concerns can be seen to overlap at times, this relation is not one of direct affiliation. The difference in the Waldrops’ understanding of their own work, when compared to Andrews’s or Bernstein’s, is perhaps that they never believed it would cause revolution—if anything, slow deliberate change would have been a more likely outcome for them. They are clearly interested in the political implications of writing, however, to the point where even the basic structures of language can be seen to have political import. At one point in “Alarms and Excursions,” an essay about what it means to be a writer, Rosmarie writes: “[sentence structure] is also a feminist preoccupation . . . So I propose a pattern in which subject and object function are not fixed, but temporary, reversible roles, where there is no hierarchy of main and subordinate clauses, but a fluid and constant alternation.”
The close attention to language applies to all forms of their work: poetry, prose, translations, interviews, but also what they do as editors and publishers. In an interview with Ben Lerner, Rosmarie discusses her move from Germany to the United States in 1958 and her decision to begin writing in English. She felt paranoid about Germanness seeping through her work, she says, but then she had a revelation when she realized anglophone poets are putting on voices as well: “Why am I so afraid? Am I trying to prove I know English? In every poem? Thereafter I loosened up and also felt free to use German texts.” These words can serve as a model for where literature can move from here, beyond national borders or homogenous conceptions of language that imply something self-contained and restrained. It is this attitude of play and willingness to change that makes the collection so valuable to all kinds of writers. Peter Gizzi, in his interview with Keith, points out that the Waldrops set a model for him and so many others of how to make a “life in poetry.” An important distinction, because shortly before that moment Keith mentions how he “can’t quite fathom wanting to be something.” Doing the work, writing the poems, that has always been the important part. And somehow this seems rebellious today, to be unconcerned with labels and outcomes, to be concerned firstly with the task at hand.
The loosening of language confines goes further when Keith writes: “I remember him [Richard Wilbur] saying that he had a particular liking for words that mean one thing and one thing only. This struck me as a very interesting idea, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, if I had to make a choice, it would be quite the opposite: I would prefer words to have a spread of meaning, so that one could say more than one thing at once.” It is the opposite of so much that we have been told about language, about translating. It is a strategy that moves away from realism and toward a surreal, proliferating, multiplying text. It is also a more honest assessment of the reader and everything she brings with her to each reading.
One of the most admirable elements of the Waldrops’ collective work is the subtle line of theory running through it while also never having to make itself too explicit. The theory does its work so that the poetry can embody the principles Keith and Rosmarie each later mention in essays and interviews. In her discussion of the fragment, for instance, an important topic in literary theory since the writings of the Jena romantics between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, Rosmarie affirms that the “ultimate task” of translation “may be to bear witness to the essentially irreducible strangeness and distance between languages—but whose immediate task is exactly to explore that space.” One can read in a remark like this one the traces of Maurice Blanchot’s thinking, his idea that the fragment represents the closest possible reflection of thought in writing, the honest and broken piece of a too large world. Blanchot is ever present in her books and letterpresses so wonderfully reproduced in this book, but he remains, as other important references, a background figure, someone Rosmarie is constantly conversing with even if she doesn’t address him directly.
The relationship between words and sentences and languages is what the Waldrops have spent a lifetime exploring. Charles Olsen comes up often to reiterate the importance of the relationships between words rather than the search for the mot juste. Another oft-appearing name is that of Edmund Jabès, whose The Book of Questions is one of Rosmarie’s first published translations. In fact, discussion of Jabès, how Rosmarie came to translate him, and the Waldrops’ friendship with Jabès and his wife Arlette is an important element of the book. The couple helped the Waldrops when they were living in Paris and became lifelong friends and collaborators. This friendship is one sign of the larger project of the Waldrops’ life—to build community through language.
Reading this collection of texts leaves one feeling that there is a great deal of possibility in the world of publishing and writing avant-garde works of literature, and, to be clear, a feeling-centered sort of avant-garde. That is, a writing not concerned with experimentation for the sake of experimentation, but a pushing of limits in order to allow language to speak to our deepest ideas and emotions. In an essay on ideas about writing, Rosmarie remarks: “The poem will not work through its content, through a message which in any case would speak only to the already converted, but through its form.” It is the structure that will somehow make change. Structure seems infinitely important to their work but it is also the biggest challenge both in their original texts and in translation, though they never seemed to make a distinction between translation and their own writing. The elements of both practices infiltrated each other, demonstrated that in fact they were all part of the same practice. Keith writes, “The fact is that to translate is harder than writing something ‘of your own,’ since you face all the problems, all the difficulties, of composing any text, but in addition, the obligation to relate it in some way to another given text.” Writing as composition. It is no coincidence then that they greatly admire the writings of John Cage, a music theorist and composer who was concerned with silences, breaks, and defining music within the found material of our modern soundscape.
Looking over the ideas and forms presented in Keeping/ the window open, it becomes clear that both Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are supranational authors, authors who have never been concerned with the creation of a national literature or tradition but rather are in search of a higher set of concepts around language and the written word. In Rosmarie’s translation of the third volume of The Book of Questions, there is a quote from someone named only as Reb Aloum: “My book has seven days and seven nights times the number of years it took the universe to let it go.” This book of the Waldrops is a small piece of the large book of the universe. It is personal, wise, and has something to offer anyone trying to “make a life in poetry.”
Translator Anton Hur on the increased visibility of queer Korean writers.
Am I proud of this mini-feature of Korean queer literature in translation courtesy of Words Without Borders?
We have Lee Jong San, the second out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction, and an excerpt from that very book in question: Customer!
We have Kim Bong-gon, the third out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction, and an excerpt from that very book in question: “College Folk” from Speed, Summer!
(The only reason WWB hasn’t published the fourth out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction is because a fourth book doesn’t exist yet. And yes, WWB has published the first out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction as well, thanks for asking.)
Korean literature has always had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to queer literature, but having out queer writers—as opposed to closeted queer writers or writers who were out to their translators and friends but not to the public, etc.—was somewhat elusive. But it’s history waiting to happen, and boy is it happening. Last year, I went to a panel for queer literature hosted by Seoul National University where Lee Jong San and Kim Bong-gon sat next to each other and I thought, Damn! We can fill an entire panel now! Kim Bi and Kim Hyun don’t have to be alone anymore!
You don’t have to be an out queer writer to produce unmistakably gorgeous queer Korean literature. I mean, have you seen how gay Korean literature has always been??? But in case you needed a reminder, we have Lee Hyemi’s sensuous poem “The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam” and Kim Hyejin’s About My Daughter, both works that also deal with the closet and what stays “hidden and sweet” or comes marching out of it with a lesbian-in-law in tow.
Queer rights in Korea has taken a battering in recent years: we have a homophobic president, witch hunts against gay soldiers (military service is compulsory in Korea; you want us to serve in the military and go to jail? Make up your goddamn minds!), and Christian fanatics are coming down strong—and violently—against queer pride all over the peninsula.
But we are fighting back. We have always been fighting back, but there has been something different in the air these past couple of years: the out authors, their books that suddenly seem to be doing quite well, and the domestic and international response, nay, demand for their work is mounting by the day.
In these very pages, I once wrote about a lunar sorority of queer Korean literary translators. Now, thanks to our authors, we’re ready to step forth into the sun.
"Korean Literature Is Stepping Out" © 2019 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.
In this short story from Kim Bong-gon, a Korean student in Kyoto saves his professor from scandal, then finds himself on the verge of creating a new one.
Professor Shibata’s publishing class, with all its good intent, was slightly unrealistic.
“A good writer makes a good editor, and vice versa.”
Her very first statement sounded like a fine opening, but upon giving it more thought, one began by asking “Oh, yeah?” and ended with a “Like hell it is.” She flung her words out from the middle of nowhere, directed at neither writer nor editor. It was naïve to claim that all creative activities become art. Even if you weren’t up to it, you had to play the game. I was getting pretty sick and tired of the sophistry sold by art schools.
Tell us the truth, I wanted to shout. But then, I couldn’t blame her for not being upfront. She had the students’ dreams and artistic flair to think about, which would have compelled her to present an idealistic picture. Professor Shibata struck me as highly talented in planning and editing but not at all cut out for teaching. My expression turned into one of “Oh dear, how will she get by?” Realizing I wasn’t in a position to be worrying for a professor, I rested my chin on my hand and gazed out the window.
The Kyoto University of Art and Design, or Kyozo for short, taught editing as part of its creative writing program. Regardless of whether one believed editing was an art or not, schools were fighting to recruit only the experienced, which had both teachers and students aging before their time. This was a common phenomenon in Japan and Korea. Had I been a student for too long? Deep in thought, I had completely lost track of what was going on. Something I was well used to. I met Professor Shibata’s eyes and chanted my cure-all spell: Only in your country.
Now that the last theory class was over, we were left with the group assignment of making a book. I could see myself being subtly excluded, just like how I treated foreign students back in my undergraduate days. Thinking of the worst possible scenario failed to motivate me. Yeah, you guys go ahead. I’ll settle for a passing grade while repeating “gomen gomen.” Wait, it’s a pass/fail course for me. No sweat.
Sunlight begins to seep in through the window, slanted to follow the angle of the roof. At 4 p.m. in May, the classroom was like a greenhouse. I took off my jacket, hung it on the chair, and rolled up my sleeves. Professor Shibata had drawn her version of Girard’s triangle—the relationship between writer, editor, and reader. I watched her continue writing for a while before downloading, out of habit, a dating app. I had been lonely, so it surprised me that I hadn’t installed it earlier.
I requested a verification code by e-mail and routinely set up my profile with a fake age, weight, and photo—usually of a bear. This time, I chose Ice Bear from We Bare Bears. I jumped over to Seoul with my GPS disabled. The list was a slew of familiar faces. Guys I could put a face to just by looking at their lower half. I jumped to Yeouido, the neighborhood where Hyeong-seop works. His photo came up after a few flicks. He was cuddling his dog while watching TV—a photo I had taken. He had been in a relationship at the time I left Korea, but who knows what might have happened since. His profile said he was just “looking for friends.” I was done here.
I changed my settings to read for my location. Three users within fifty meters! Could they be in this classroom? None of them seemed like it. I tapped on each photo: one was a fashion design major whom I had sometimes bumped into at the cafeteria, and the other two hid behind their fake photos. What a waste of time. I blocked them and deleted my profile. The final step of sterilization was uninstalling the app. Men, who needs them anyway.
At the end of class, I trudged down the stairs, which everybody called the Stairway to the Sky. The setting sun added a more delicate, dreamy effect to the surroundings. This city is too sentimental, and that’s why I like it. At the same time, this thought upset me. I was tempted to drop by Sukiya for dinner but walked past it. My recent purchase of a Tiffany lamp in Gion had left me with only three thousand yen. There were five days left until my next allowance. Deciding to skip dinner, I headed to Café Myu.
Since turning thirty last winter, I had begun to see that “marriage” was not a necessity and had grown more accepting of open relationships. These changes stemmed from within, uninfluenced by others. I had quit trying to meet someone, and the sexual tension I felt, if any, was a delusion. These days, all that made me happy were retro objects reminiscent of the Showa period, buildings, plants, and the occasional gripping discovery of things having different forms yet the same qualities. Literature and men, once my greatest sources of joy, were now reduced in status.
I no longer had love in my heart, and this alone made me undeserving. Not wanting to drown further in my sorrows, I shut the Nagai Kafu book and lit a cigarette. Through the window, covered in post-its, I saw leaves of different kinds dancing in the wind. The sago palm, kentia palm, sal tree, and the list went on. It was my first moment of joy that day. As I stared blankly past the trees, the café manager put on a new song. I recognized it as Miyuki Nakajima’s It’s Only Love. The songs I preferred had a stronger folk feel, but this was great too. It was nice of him to remember I’d named her a favorite. When the song ended, I went out for some fresh air. Then, I texted Hyeong-seop.
—Hey, Japanese guys are so ugly. Seriously, there’s not much to look at here. I feel so sorry for myself!
In Kyoto, I hadn’t met anyone remotely close to the burly man of my dreams. I had no idea it would be this bad. Oh well, it’s only the airport. Yeah, those guys aren’t Japanese. That one’s had better days. Age must have caught up with him.
Sure, Korea had its share of bad apples. There were times when an entire month would pass without a handsome guy in sight. Considering how gifted I was at falling in love, I was surprised that this dry spell could go on for two months. Just as difficult was finding gays. Had my gaydar broken when I crossed the Korea Strait? Was the nonke1 style more popular in Japan? Or, was it because I was in Kyoto, where people’s minds were hard to read? As these questions flooded my mind,
—East or West, home is best.
was his response. He had finally gotten a sense of humor. I chuckled, and replied, “bullshit lol.”
I continued to live with him for more than two years after breaking up. Even now, his house is still my home. I sometimes forget it altogether, even to the point of calling a friend a nutjob for meeting up with his ex. I lost all feelings for Hyeong-seop when I lost my place in his heart. Living with your ex isn’t that big a deal.
Sure, I’ve had uncomfortable moments. Friends who were more reserved would raise their eyebrows about my living situation. Men with whom things seemed to be going well would shake their heads at my confession and distance themselves. A gay friend who should have known better asked if we ever did it after. This made me want to sever ties with him, but I let it pass.
He had found someone new at the start of this year. Two years ago, I felt exhausted after a string of short-lived rebound relationships and decided to quit dating altogether. Unlike me, my ex kept playing the field. Every guy that came after me was younger. Was it his strong sense of responsibility that appealed to younger dudes? In this respect, he deserves to be praised. After all, he was taking care of the rent, and even gave me allowance money.
The one time we got mad at each other was when he thought I wasn’t home and barged in with his new lover. I lashed out, saying it was basic manners to check before bringing a guest. I would have acted the same whoever it was, but he often slept out after that. Before leaving Korea, I told him to feel free to set up his home like a newlywed, just like we had. I was the one living off him, and me going away would help him save on motel rooms. It was also my last chance to sign up for a student exchange program.
—How’s Kuma doing?
It was something I asked every three days or so. He gave a curt “Fine,” and flashed a photo. Behind the sleeping dog, I noticed a large stuffed elephant from the Songkran festival he went to with his gay friends. I’d thought of him as the most boring man in the world, with the most boring life, but even that was changing. There were more and more things I didn’t know about him. Out of spite, I told him to squeeze Kuma’s anal sacs if he had the time to spread his ass. I ended the conversation with “Byeee!” There was no reply.
Perhaps I had failed in both weaning and mourning. I knew I would eventually have to stand on my own. Just a little longer, I thought. After I’m done with my thesis, after graduating, after getting a job . . . I could have put it off forever. Things probably would have stayed the same unless something big came up.
Come next week, it would be June. At long last, the welcome program was over. I had survived the awkward welcome events, the lame campus tour, and orientation. “Have a nice life,” I thought as I said good-bye to my orientation mentor, who was more touchy-feely than necessary. Knowing who to talk to and who not to, I looked forward to being more settled down. While most graduate students take nine credits, I only needed six. Fed up with writing, I had thought about applying under a different major, but didn’t have the nerve to take the risk. Anyhow, the Department of Literary Expression sounded just as flaky as what they call it back at my university: Narrative Writing.
I signed up for Professor Shibata’s publication class and Professor Ehara’s writing class, which involved reading and writing a short story. I was determined to complete one out of the three pieces required for me to graduate next semester. On a yellow post-it, I wrote my goals for the summer.
—Make a book.
—Read and write.
Two simple lines. As clear as day.
Kyozo was in many ways similar to the Korea National University of Arts. They were both on the outskirts of the city, which meant there was no place nearby to hang out or dine. They were inefficient in their use of space, and had the preposterous idea that an exposed concrete finish would create a modern atmosphere while inspiring creativity. The students at Kyozo were dressed pretty much the same, but stood out among the locals. As for the art students, I could easily make out their major on my own. Could art schools get any more alike? I totally belonged here.
The one person who didn’t fit the mold, of Korea or Kyozo, was Professor Ehara Hironobu. He wasn’t the stereotypical art professor: uselessly modernesque or on the borderline of sanity. Born in 1977, he was on the young side, but felt like someone of my father’s generation. Our conversations—he was always in control—were subdued and comforting. He studied French literature at Kyoto University and came to teach under the title of novelist, but had a greater passion for translation. The slight outward squint in his left eye, if you didn’t look closely, gave the impression that he didn’t know where to place his eyes—I found it cute. He was of average height, had droopy eyes, and always had a two-day stubble. He wasn’t exactly my type, but being around him lifted my mood. In one word, he was fuckable.
Professor Ehara’s office always smelt of slightly unripe citrus, and it was where we met for individual lessons, making me more nervous than usual. At the start of each lesson, he would hand me a cup of matcha frothed with a bamboo whisk. I would gulp it down, thinking it was green tea latte, and the bland taste surprised me each time.
Today, I was sitting across from him with Kafu Nagai’s A Strange Tale from East of the River between us. Me with the Korean translation, and him with the original. I rattled off, with my limited vocabulary, what I thought of it. The script I had prepared went like this: When you think about it, Kafu’s views on women are surprisingly outdated. The frame narrative is hard to stand if you don’t bear in mind it was written eighty years ago. His intelligent honesty puts me off. But, the way he revives the Edo period by overlaying it with the present is remarkably beautiful and natural.
“Does reading his work make you want to write?” He regarded me as an overly faithful reader. It was true.
“I haven’t thought about it.”
“His method of composition isn’t applicable today. But a work that weaves together reality with writing, illusion, and the story itself is timeless,” he said. I jotted down his words. I usually feel a greater desire to make analogies than to write. What I really wanted to ask was whether he saw the resemblance between Kafu’s exploration of the red-light district and a gay man’s late-night cruising.
He gave a recap of writers and their works in the age of militarism. Sensing that he had gotten longwinded, he continued with a more balanced perspective of Kafu’s views on women. Reminding me that I could decide what to take and what to throw out, he recommended a few works of prose by the same author. I said I was glad to have read the book, even though that wasn’t how I presented myself.
“Mr. Kim, didn’t you mention liking Roland Barthes and Philip Roth?”
“I may be of some help when it comes to Barthes. How about reading him next time?”
“This time, Mr. Kim, you decide what to read and drop me an e-mail.”
He sprang to his feet and threw a grayish-green cardigan over his arm. I looked at the clock and saw there was still more than an hour left to class. According to the professor, we wouldn’t be doing right by Kafu if we were to remain on campus after reading his work. And with it being such a fine day, he suggested taking a walk toward Demachiyanagi Station. Absolutely, I said.
I’m informed that Demachiyanagi is where the Takano River meets the Kamo River. I’m not sure why that’s important, but I was fond of the Kamo River, which runs through Kyoto from north to south. We cut across the university field and walked slowly toward the river. The campus had an old-fashioned charm. I followed behind, taking photos of some students playing catch.
Professor Ehara called himself a native of Kyoto. His declaration was a mix of subtle pride and scorn. “I’m friendly, but don’t trust me” or “I’m suave, and at the same time, shrewd” was what he seemed to be saying. I stopped every now and then to ask what the term was for something unfamiliar. He replied kindly each time. This is called a happi. That’s the raccoon dog statue. KWSK is KY-go2 for “kuwashiku,” which means “in detail.”
The river, flowing below the bridge, was peaceful and serene. It was a post-Kafu picnic, yet we didn’t say a single word about him. There was nothing strange about that, but not knowing why got me anxious. He asked if I wanted to head down to the bank and walk for a bit longer along the river. I nodded. I got a good look at Professor Ehara’s frame when his off-white shirt clung to his back in the wind. After walking wordlessly for about twenty minutes, we crossed a small bridge leading back to the pavement. We walked past the Kokoro Research Center and found ourselves standing on the east side of the river.
Hyeong-seop had sent the books I asked for by express mail. They came in one big bundle. It would take an entire semester—longer—to read them all. A few weeks ago, I had asked him to buy some books to follow the new syllabus that Professor Ehara had prepared for me. Hyeong-seop mentioned how hard it’d been for him to get a copy of Empire of Signs. I was too excited to give him a proper thank you. I clutched the book, worn and frayed, and went “hehehe” before running out to the veranda. How low the buildings, how high the trees! “Hehehe!”
In the daytime, Café Myu was my reading spot. Besides the good selection of folk songs, I enjoyed watching the male students, each engrossed in something meaningless. The café had the feel of a grimy, run-down manga hangout. The manager liked that I was an aspiring writer and cheered me on. It felt like I had only been showing him my reading side, so I thought about doing some writing. In my notebook, I scribbled a few words and fragmentary sentences. The leaves and patterned curtains cast a shadow on the page. Again, I was distracted. In nearby Osaka, an anti-Korean rally was in full swing. Even the nonchalant Hyeong-seop expressed his concern, but here I was, relaxing on what couldn’t be a more peaceful afternoon. Was the world deceiving me? Oh well, it didn’t matter anyhow.
I didn’t miss Korea at all. Rather, Japan was pure bliss. Back when I was a film major in college, a professor asked, “So what is it that you eventually want to achieve?” My answer was, “I want to perfectly restore Jinhae to how it was in the 1980s.” Childhood and hometown have always been, and are still, my focus. I have quite a collection of writings and photos of my hometown. When I realized how pointless they were, I felt a slight pang of regret. I thought I had guarded my memories well, but here in Kyoto, I was surrounded by my childhood scenes. They came naturally without me having to make-believe or indulge in illusions. In each and every space, I discovered my childhood. All I had to do was pick them up, like a miner during the gold rush.
Around sunset, I left the café. The buses in Kyoto, with a dark green line drawn against a pistachio-colored background, were very similar to the Cheil Transit intercity buses from my childhood. Just as I brought to mind the old bus terminal, I was enveloped by a mist of car exhaust. In it, I caught the scent of a man. I longed to get another whiff on the way home, but it was gone.
From a distance, I saw that the three-story co-op house was lit up except for my room. A folding bed that left my feet dangling at the end, a desk and chair too small and inconvenient, and a tatami mat that should have been replaced ages ago. I took a photo of the room with the book poking its nose under the Tiffany lamp. This had me in a much better mood. Save for the fact that I was a little hungry, all was well.
The events of that morning are vivid in my mind. It was the first Monday of July, and I had left the house with a reminder from the newscaster to pack an umbrella. I felt relieved knowing I’d get to school before the rain. I headed toward the statue of Yoshida Shoin for a quick smoke before class.
Not long after I had lit up, a drop of rain fell on the statue’s cheek. I quickly put out the cigarette and dashed into the building where Professor Ehara’s office was. The school was deserted on Monday mornings. Through the half-open window at the end of the corridor, I saw that the rain was falling harder. The door to Professor Ehara’s office was cluttered with A4-sized prints of photos and typed words. At first, I thought it was an art installation or an assignment where you had to use tape to achieve three-dimensionality.
Stuck on the door was a selfie of Professor Ehara. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, he was giving a thumbs-up while wearing a masculine expression. In the bathroom selfie below, he had on a pair of white briefs. Next to it was a low-angle photo of a naked man, hands tied to the headboard and penis erect, with his body covered in lewd comments.
Hironobu, slave pig dying to be tamed! I’m your dirty bitch hole.
The words were scrawled in black paint. The high-res photo that showed every wrinkle was clearly not manipulated. It had been cropped around the nose, but the cleft chin was unmistakable.
In the last photo, he was lying face down and ass up, hands bound, and in a state of drooling ecstasy.
Slave hole Ehara, you feeling good? Are your adultery novels all fake?
Professor Ehara, is your back-pussy daijoubu?
The photos were surrounded by a tangle of typed words.
As I slowly digested the messages, the front of my shirt became soaked with sweat. The photos were all screenshots from a dating app. My heart was thumping louder than ever, and my breathing getting heavier. I had to keep myself from shouting.
I ran out to the main corridor to make sure no one was around. I hurried back to the office, tore down the sheets of paper, and stuffed them in my bag. A sudden craving for a cigarette took over. Outside, I smoked three cigarettes in a row. The humid air worsened my breathing, adding to it a bout of dry heaving. I went into a toilet, took off my drenched undershirt, and dumped it in the trash. After washing up and getting my breath back, I headed for Professor Ehara’s office. It was twenty minutes past nine.
When I knocked, he invited me in. He seemed to have just arrived. As I took my seat, he placed his briefcase below the desk, and removed his Barbour jacket, wet from the rain. As usual, he started whisking a cup of matcha. I stared at his hands and fought to look away from his body. There came a moment when I had to raise my head, and his chin came into sight. I was haunted by an image of him breaking apart at the cleft. I sipped the tea he passed over, but the gross taste made me vomit. I was rambling on about cleaning up the mess when he pressed gently on my shoulders.
“Mr. Kim, you’re breaking out in a cold sweat. Are you all right?”
I insisted I was fine, but he said it’d be better for me to take the day off. He told me where the student health clinic was and gave me his number so I could call just in case. Since the queasiness passed, I chose to go home.
Back in my room, I smoothed out the crumpled pieces of paper, and taped them back where they had been torn. This time, words far more profane caught my attention. A screenshot of Professor Ehara’s profile revealed personal details, from body measurements and sex positions to how he liked to spend the weekend.
While taking it all in, I tried to deduce who the culprit was. But I was clueless. I couldn’t assume it was a student’s doing based on the word “professor.” Anyone pretending to be gay could have accessed the photos. The sole evidence seemed to be that the outer had read his novels, not that this made much of a difference.
They were clever, deliberate statements that didn’t reveal anything significant. The photos lingered in my mind, and an imagined voice belonging to someone of unknown gender and age pierced the obscenities into my ears. There were clear risks involved in meeting up. Caught off guard, we were laughably weak.
For the few days that followed, I searched the school’s online bulletin board and Facebook whenever I could. There was neither exposé nor public testimonial. I was relieved, and at the same time, engulfed in insecurity knowing the assault could be repeated. Professor Ehara seemed his usual self when I met him in class on Wednesday. I couldn’t jump to the conclusion that he didn’t know, but I couldn’t ask either. I had to make do with guessing.
I rang up Hyeong-seop for the first time in a long while.
Hey, my advisor here is gay!
was what I stopped myself from saying. I inquired about Kuma instead.
“It’s getting really hot here. I wrapped an ice pack in a towel for Kuma. I’m on my way to work now,” he said.
Resisting the urge to tell him about Professor Ehara, I asked after his relationship. “Same old, same old,” was his reply. “Can you help me choose some clothes for summer? I’ve no idea what to wear.”
I recall how I’d crammed my luggage with all the summer clothes I could find in the house. I thought about ordering some clothes online and sending him the bill, but decided to shop for him in exchange for the books. When it was about time for work, he hung up.
After class that evening, I headed out to Gion. I bought some T-shirts and pants for him at a few SPA brands, and stretched my budget a little on a shirt from Brooks Brothers. From the bargain counter, I chose a few flimsy T-shirts for myself. I had a hard time deciding if I should get a pair of gray gym shorts as short as my swimming trunks and went with it in the end.
A few days later, we were again seated across from each other with Empire of Signs. The drink was cold oolong tea. I managed to meet his eyes, but I wasn’t completely at ease. The photos kept flashing before my eyes. Putting his hands together, Professor Ehara leaned forward in his seat. I had to stay calm.
“Mr. Kim, let’s hear what you like about Barthes.”
“He’s sensitive and persistent. Among those who show such qualities, Barthes is the only one who writes beautifully. I guess I vibrate on the same frequency as he does.”
“Have you ever thought of him as making much ado about nothing? Or that his logic is flawed?”
“Aren’t those the basic qualities of a writer?”
My comeback made him return a smile.
I loved everything about Barthes—his exaggeration, his logical jumps, his obstinacy. Above all, I was drawn to his beautiful layers of metaphor. A gift box wrapped in layers and layers of chiyogami paper. Most of what Barthes wrote supported his existence as self and as a homosexual. The non-center, the inexplicability of punctum, impersonality and degree zero, codes, and fantasy. These were what Barthes kindly placed in his gift box as intellectual and emotional proof of his queerness. His structural intentions resonated with me so much that I couldn’t have interpreted otherwise.
“Professor, do you like Barthes?”
“Is it possible not to?”
What I would have regarded as simple assent on any other day sounded like it had more between the lines.
“I sense a depth in him.”
Professor Ehara nodded.
“Barthes’s writings come from depth. That depth stems from a thoughtful sincerity.”
I agreed and disagreed.
“Do explain what you mean by sincerity.”
“I’m not referring to superficial expressions. That’s hardly desirable as the language of literature.”
From another perspective, I thought of Barthes as having a cowardly style. I wanted to say, be more extreme, be crude, and tell it as it is. But there was no denying that the essence of pleasure was in being bound to his secrecy as a confidant.
“A better choice would be beating around the bush.”
“Is that how Barthes writes, or how people in Kyoto speak?”
He flashed another smile. Now, Professor Ehara was to me a text written by Barthes. I wanted to rip apart his layers of metaphor.
When he rose with a palm-up gesture, as though admitting defeat, I caught a whiff of citrus and the pleasant scent of a well-groomed man. I felt a welling up, like bile, and my heart thudded. I was fully erect. He turned to me, about to speak. I scooted the chair back, enough to spread open my legs. I placed my hands on my thighs. His gaze dropped to my crotch. My penis beckoned beneath my gray gym shorts. He looked away, licked his lips, and turned back again to my groin. I was in luck.
I was seized by a burning desire to pounce on him. I imagined taking off his pants, burying my face in his sweaty crotch, and licking him all over. If he wanted, I would have agreed to being trampled or drinking his piss. But, I thought it’d be best to stop here. Of this, he was more certain.
“Mr. Kim, you have fully persuaded me.”
His hands were stuffed deep into his pockets. Leaning his head back and stroking his stubble, he added, “That’s it for today.”
1. Straight male.↩
2. Literally “KY language,” which abbreviates Japanese phrases using roman-letter initials.↩
"College Folk" © Kim Bong-gon. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Kyoung-lee Park. All rights reserved.
A student meets her first androgyne and makes a startling discovery in this chapter from a futuristic novel by Lee Jong San.
My feet were wet when I met Ahn.
It was the day before the Entrance Ceremony. The snow, which started falling the night before, had lasted till morning, and everything outside had turned white. For me, the ankle-deep snow was so exciting and new that I walked around in it outside for quite some time before returning to the dormitory. I opened the door to our room and Ahn was standing there. Xe was wearing a T-shirt.
“Hi,” Ahn introduced xyrself.
I stood there speechless. Before opening the door, I’d been thinking only of soaking my feet in warm water.
Ahn asked, “Are you Suni?”
“You must be Ahn.”
The room was a double. I’d seen the name written next to mine. I’d imagined what Ahn might look like. The person who stood before me looked completely different from what I’d imagined. Ahn was luminous. Xe had an expressive face and a penetrating gaze. And was about eight inches taller than me. Xyr close-cropped hair suited xyr toned and trim figure. Black hair, just like mine.
“Can I ask you something kinda rude?”
Ahn nodded. I took off my boots. My feet felt like they would freeze solid.
“Are you a girl?”
At first glance, it was impossible to tell if Ahn was a boy or a girl. I felt self-conscious. Now that I had asked, it sounded extremely rude.
Ahn smiled. “I’m androgyne.”
I’d heard about androgynes. People who were both male and female at the same time. I heard that their overflowing hormones made them dangerously seductive, and I heard they were impulsive. In particular, I heard a rumor that they caused a lot of violent incidents. All the rumors surrounding androgynes didn’t paint a very nice picture. People gossiped a lot because not many had actually met an androgyne. This was my first time meeting one. Ahn’s face and frame were large and solid, like a well-built man’s. And, as if in opposition to that, xyr chest bulged out and xyr waist was slender, creating curves. Xyr features were delicate. It was true that xe exuded sexual magnetism, but xe didn’t look like the violent type. Actually, Ahn looked peaceful and reserved—the polar opposite of the rumors.
“So can I also be a bit rude?”
This time I was being asked by Ahn. Xyr tone was breezy. I nodded, just like Ahn had done.
Xe pointed at me and said, “Are you a Worm?”
“How can you tell?”
“You haven't met the others yet, have you?”
“You'll figure it out when you do.”
I hesitated, then asked, “Do you hate Worms?”
“How do you feel about androgynes?”
“Well, I’ve never met one before, so what do I know? You're my first.”
“And you’re my first Worm,” Ahn said with a smile.
Xe didn’t look upset. Seeing how calm xe was helped me relax. I felt a closeness.
“I’m gonna wash up. I was out there so long I almost turned to ice,” I said and left for the communal showers shared by the whole floor. I was only going to soak my feet but changed my mind and decided to take a shower.
My first friend.
My heart pounded as I walked down the hall.
There was no one in the chilly shower room. Hot water poured down as soon as I turned on the shower. As my frozen body melted, my skin prickled, then grew warm.
Night fallen snow, morning views, the feeling of my feet punching through the snow, a cool roommate, a hot shower.
A wonderful feeling. My body melted in the hot water.
Where could all the anger I felt on the ship have gone?
I felt my hair, I felt my body. It was as if the anger and sadness that had built up these past few days spent alone in the dorms had been washed away.
When I returned to the room, Ahn was reading a book. My book. A book I had been given, full of information about all the Custom shops. I had lovingly marked up the book, noting all the shops I wanted to visit, and tried to disguise my embarrassment with anger.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I felt my face flame up as I thought about Ahn seeing the little memos I had written in the margins, like “A Must-Go!” and “Cute ♥.”
Ahn calmly put the book down, “Sorry. It was sitting on your desk. Are you interested in Customs too?”
It wasn't just an “interest,” but I didn't respond. Where I come from, we didn’t touch other people’s possessions without permission, even if we were really close. Did the kids here have a different concept of personal property?
I picked up the book and put it up on the bookshelf. The shelves looked desolate as I didn’t have many books yet.
The room spun with silence. Awkward. I pretended not to notice Ahn noticing my mood and lay down on my bed. I tried to think about what I should eat for dinner, but it didn't go so well. Ahn still stood there, anxiously. I thought that xe would have a more uncaring personality.
In the end, Ahn spoke first. “Hey, I’m going to head into the city, wanna come?”
“Where’re you going?”
“I was just gonna look around and get something to eat.”
Truthfully, I was really happy that Ahn invited me out. I was going a bit stir-crazy after being stuck in the dorms for the past few days.
We turned our backs to one another and started changing clothes.
What’s Ahn’s body like?
I suppressed my curiosity, dressed quickly, and put on my coat. I bought it at a market near the dock the day my ship came into port.
“Do you have any Customs?”
I looked behind me. Ahn was wearing loose khaki trousers and a white T-shirt.
“What’d you get done?”
I said yes.
Ahn showed me the Customs to xyr body one by one. Xe had five.
The first were xyr eyes. Xe said that xe had changed the shape to almond. I thought they looked like a cat’s. The second were xyr irises; they were a pure pumpkin color. Ahn said they looked yellow in the light. The third Custom was a pattern incised on xyr wrist and the fourth made xyr fingernails turn green and emit a dark light.
I stared into Ahn’s eyes and took the hand xe offered to look at xyr wrist and fingernails.
These were common places to get Customs, even in the Worms District. But the sweet scent coming from Ahn’s body made the Customs done to xyr eyes and hands feel special.
“Your fifth Custom is your scent, isn’t it?” I asked. Now that I stood closer to Ahn, I felt xyr scent chase all my thoughts away.
“Yeah, I got it done at Dirty.”
Dirty is a Custom store that specializes in scent. They can put a particular scent on your whole body or make it come from a specific part of it. Even I knew about it because it was often featured in the magazine Customer. They don’t have any stores in the Worms District, but there were several stores dotted around the Jade and Sun Districts. It was somewhere I wanted to visit at least once.
“Did you mix the scent yourself?”
“I picked out the elements, but the expert helped me mix it.”
“What did you put in?”
“That’s right. And?”
“I’m not sure.”
It had the sweet perfume of flowers, but there was also a cool scent mixed in. I put my nose to Ahn’s neck and breathed in.
Ahn moved away from me and pulled on a windbreaker. The scent faded as xe zipped it up. “Let’s hurry up. We’ve gotta be back by nine.”
I was well aware. The dormitory curfew was 9:00 pm and roll call would be starting tonight. Ahn and I locked the door and exited the dormitory. My first trip outside.
* * *
I stood, stunned, in the entrance of the store and a man with a mane stared back at us. He had no human hair and instead had a horselike mane that grew voluptuously from the top of his head down the back of his neck. It had a deep red luster, bringing to mind sunset-lit barley. I only looked away when annoyance flashed in his olive-green eyes. He had been standing in the Nails section. The corner devoted to fingernails and toenails was closest to the shop’s entrance. I had little interest in nails. Ahn and I walked past the register and went deeper inside. The first place to pique my interest was the Eye section.
The Eye section was decorated to look like a laboratory. A skull with fluorescent pink plastic orbs slotted in its sockets instead of eyeballs was displayed at the entrance. Without thinking, I tapped its pink eye with the tip of my finger.
“You’ve come to the right place. Wanna trade eyes with me?”
The skull’s jawbone moved and laughter rang from its mouth. Lights flashed in its eyes. I furiously shook my head. Ahn saw me do this and laughed.
Ahn’s gaze held no wonder as xe took in the flasks filled with eyeballs or the eyelashes crafted from insect legs. Quite the opposite of xyr, my eyes were whirling around. They just about rolled out the back of my head.
An enormous pyramid-style flask stood in the center of the display area. It was nearly twice as tall as me and was pretty wide around as well. Fake eyes of all shapes and colors bobbed around in the clear liquid that filled the flask. Some had floated to the top and others had sunk to the bottom, but most of them were clustered together somewhere in the middle, tumbling and colliding as if in a fight.
What really caught my attention were the small flasks, which each held a single animal eye. They gave off a completely different vibe from the humanoid kind. Pig eyes. Cow eyes. A myriad of fish eyes, even one from a goldfish. Chicken eyes and bat eyes. Every single type of eye imaginable, they were all there.
I started to feel a bit queasy and moved on to where the human eye selection was displayed. There were even more types of human eyes, so instead of being in flasks, they were lined up in display cases. However, none of them could be popped into your head. All of the eyes in the display cases were just samples showing the different shape and color options.
I skimmed over the everyday eyes and focused in on the specialty eyeballs. Eyes with stars punched into the pupils. Eyes that glowed with aurora light. Eyes with patterns drawn on the whites and more! Looking into the hologram mirror, I played around trying out all the fancy eyeballs.
I tried on eyes until the novelty wore off, then made a full loop of the floor while also looking out for Ahn. I looked all around the Hair, Nose, Mouth, and Ear sections, but couldn’t find xyr.
When I finally found Ahn on the second floor, I felt so relieved I grabbed xyr arm. Ahn didn’t show any surprise and didn’t shake off my loose hold. A faint smile played on xyr lips.
“What’re you looking at?”
Ahn answered with a flick of xyr eyes. It was only then that I realized we were standing in front of a wall of male sex organs. We were in the Genitals section!
“What? You want a bigger one?”
I tried to bluff my way out with a stupid joke, but I was burning with embarrassment. I had touched a plastic penis during health class, but I had never seen the real thing before. I only knew the difference between an aroused and an unaroused penis in theory.
“More like the opposite,” xe answered coolly.
Another blast of bravado burst out of me, “Is it so big you trip over it or something?”
“Give it up. You’ve gone all red.”
On the second floor there was a section that dealt with body parts Customs, from simple Customs like lengthening or shortening legs to more complex ones like changing the skeletal structures. They even did Customs modeled on animal legs. I didn’t have any real interest in changing any part of my body, so I just casually browsed the displays of the Arms and Legs section.
* * *
I had seen all the second floor had to offer. We passed the column with the sign and went down to the basement. Now that really blew me away. I grew ecstatic when I saw all the tails, wings, and horns. These were exactly what I was interested in.
I made eye contact with a dapper monkey-tailed man who raised his cap in greeting. My heart pounded and I looked over at the Wings section. A woman with immense butterfly wings on her back stood at the counter getting help from the salesperson, testing how her new wings flapped and folded.
I fell into panic mode.
Ahn grabbed hold of me and asked, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I’m just so happy. This place is amazing.”
“If you don’t get it together, we’re not going to get to eat before we have to go back. Are you going to get a Custom today?”
“I’ve got to.”
“Well then, let’s decide what kind of Custom you want.”
What should my first custom be?
I repeated the question to myself, over and over. It was something I had debated thousands of times before, but now that the moment had finally come, my mind emptied to a blank, bright white.
I was at a loss. Ahn pulled me into a corner and sat me down. Cushioned in a soft chair, I took deep breaths and was able to gather my thoughts. Now that I had calmed down, I remembered what I wanted my first Custom to be.
A horn. Just like the one growing from the forehead of the mermaid who once rescued me. I wasn’t sure if it was a dream or a memory, but that image had always stuck with me. I wanted to put a mermaid horn on my body.
“I’ve decided. Let’s go to the Horn section.”
There must’ve been hundreds of people who wanted to get horns! It was so packed that I could hardly find a place to stand.
A man with horns all over his body approached and inquired, “Do you have a specific horn you’re looking for?”
He had small horns poking out along the shell of his ears and he had big ones on his head that curled up at the end like a bull’s. He also had a trail of tiny horns running from the middle finger of his left hand to his elbow that looked like a red line from afar. His hair was half white, but I’m pretty sure it was a Custom and not a reflection of his age.
In front of a Customer like him, I felt like such an amateur for wanting to get something so small.
“I’m looking for a horn to put on my forehead.” I said shyly. Ahn was nearby, looking at the horns on display.
“What sort of size are you looking for?”
I glanced at the nametag pinned to his shirt.
Of course he’s called Pan.
I became tongue-tied, unable to express what I had in mind, so Pan walked me over to a display. Horns were displayed according to size in a vertical case. The second smallest size, one inch, looked about right. I would be able to hide it behind my bangs when I went home for the holidays.
“Now you need to pick what shape you’d like. We’ll be able to make them any color.”
Unlike his mischievous namesake, Pan was very friendly as he helped me. Now that I’d gotten a better look, I could tell Pan was very handsome. If he shaved his extravagant mustache, his face would look quite kindly. Even though it hid most of his face, his mustache couldn’t hide his soft eyes. When you noticed that he hadn’t changed his eyes with a Custom, it was hard to tell if Pan had hated his original, softer look. In any case, any man or woman who looked into those eyes would want to take care of him. Even I felt that way.
“I’ll let you know when I’ve made up my mind.” I said politely, trying my best not to cause him any extra trouble. Pan smiled and went to help another customer.
“See anything you like?” Ahn asked. Xe had finished looking through all that was on offer.
“I’ve almost made up my mind, I’m debating between these two styles. It’s between the corkscrew or the spiral one with the little lines cut in.”
“Since you’re getting a small one, I think the corkscrew will look good. The spiral just doesn’t have any impact.”
I nodded in agreement. The horn of the mermaid in my dreams was spiral with deep lines. The horns in the display case didn’t compare. Like Ahn said, the corkscrew would look better.
I found Pan and told him I had made my selection. “I’ll have the corkscrew.”
“Great choice, come this way.”
Pan sat me down at a large vanity table with a hologram mirror. The monitor had a program where you could select the shape and color of your horns. Pan touched the screen, inputting the style of horn I wanted and where on the body it would go.
“Now you can pick the color while looking at your reflection.”
Listening to Pan’s instructions, I tapped the middle of the purple group, and then the me reflected in the mirror had a purple horn on her forehead.
Ahn helped me pick the color. For a moment, I thought I might get them the same color as xyr fingernails, but I stopped that train of thought; if I copied someone else, I’d regret it later. Gold or silver were too common, so I passed over them and tried out my favorite colors one by one, but nothing really felt right.
After a long time spent debating, I decided on a deep silvery gray with a hint of purple pearlescence mixed in. Now that I had made my choice, I was pretty pleased with the results. Pan was in the middle of an engrossing conversation with a woman who had an orange horn on the bridge of her nose, but came over when we called him.
“Follow me, please.”
My heart skipped a beat when Pan brought me to a small booth with a sign that said “The Punching Room.”
Pan saw how nervous I was and smiled, asking, “Is it your first time?”
“Yes, it’s my first Custom.”
Pan nodded. “It’ll look very cool.”
“I think so too.”
I went into the Punching Room. I had to put my face up to the machine with a small camera hanging from it and stand still.
“Don’t worry, it won’t hurt. It’ll be over in a flash. Just close your eyes.”
“Wait! Are there any sort of side effects? Or anything I should know?”
Pan thought about his answer carefully, then said, “Well, since you’re putting something on your forehead, it will be uncomfortable to sleep face down. It’s best if you don’t do pushups. And what else is there . . . Oh! If you fall over, make sure you fall backward.”
He scratched his chin and gave me a look asking if I was ready now. I put my face against the machine.
Pan left the room. The door closed and I could hear the sounds of the machine moving. I felt light flash before my closed eyes. And then the machine turned off.
Was that it?
“Could you come out, please?”
Pan spoke to me through a speaker hanging on the wall. I moved away from the machine and felt my forehead. There was nothing there.
Did something go wrong?
Nervously, I left the booth.
Pan was twirling his mustache around his finger and frowning at the monitor. He looked like a doctor who had just found signs of serious disease in a patient’s X-ray. Ahn, standing behind him, also had a strange expression.
“Is something wrong?”
“Come take a look. You already have a horn.”
I looked where Pan was pointing on the monitor. There seemed to be something round in the middle of my forehead. It looked to be over two inches in diameter.
“This is the root of a horn.”
“You’re telling me this is a horn?”
“Yes, I’m certain of it.”
Pan tapped the cow horn on his head. “What would you like to do? Would you like to put them anywhere else on your body?”
“I have to think about it some more.”
“So you really had no idea?”
Was he seriously asking if I hadn’t known about a horn rooted in my forehead? Of course I hadn’t known! Do Mom and Dad know? Still in shock, I looked to Ahn.
Our eyes met and Ahn gave me an awkward smile. I started to get scared that xe might start to think I was weird. I feared I might lose the first friend I made.
"Customer" © Lee Jong San. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Victoria Caudle. All rights reserved.
Susan Harris introduces our tenth Queer issue.
Nearly a decade ago, our former editor Rohan Kamicheril planned an issue of queer writing. The issue proved so popular, and so reflective of our editorial vision, that we decided to make it an annual event. You’ll find queer writing at WWB throughout the year, but our June issues have provided a space to bring this multiplicity of voices into conversation with each other and with readers. This month we bring you our tenth Queer issue.
This time around we’re presenting nine short prose works and a single poem. The characters are united by several themes: they seek success in love and work; they find themselves in the grip of romantic obsession and preteen confusion; others find themselves points of obtuse (in multiple senses) triangles and objects of surprising affections. All the pieces are told in the first person, lending intimacy and immediacy to the events they describe.
Short fiction has been a mainstay of our queer issues from the very first, showcasing some of the form’s master practitioners. This year is no different. Afro-Caribbean writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro won the National Short Story Prize of the PEN Club of Puerto Rico in 2013 for her collection Las Negras. Known for exploring the limits of female characters who challenge hierarchies of power, here she traces a relationship that morphs from bullying to bond. Muscular young teen Elena fights her way into a tough boys’ gang as they pummel the effeminate Ricardo. As she navigates often-confusing social and sexual currents, and faces her own crush on the alluring Johana, her relationships with both the gang members and their target evolve.
The Italian writer Matteo Bianchi, too, is adept at exploring characters who move with tentative steps across unfamiliar territory, often defying expectations along the way. His work Cher upon a Midnight Clear, a “fairy tale for adults,” looks at a little boy’s love of what his parents consider girls’ toys. The prolific Bianchi, whose work also includes an edited volume of American gay fiction in Italian translation, first graced our pages in August 2004 with “Maternal Love,” an antic, affectionate tale of two very different people whose paths cross at the Padua pride parade. He’s one of our favorites, and we’re delighted to welcome him back with a story set in the late eighties. An anxious college student picks up a working man, then finds himself falling for him. As they warily move into a relationship, Bianchi deftly sketches the milieu, showing the jumpy narrator warily maneuvering among friends, family, and fellow students as his feelings for Alessandro deepen. Can these men defy societal and familial expectations to find happiness? As in “Maternal Love,” Bianchi provides a surprising, deeply satisfying answer.
As celebrated Chinese author Lu Min demonstrates, power structures can be inverted and exploited, and boundaries defied. Lu, a rare out lesbian in China, has collected multiple awards for her fiction, which has been translated into nine languages. In “Scissors, Shining” she finds a young apprentice to a village tailor measuring clients and sizing up their relationships with his enigmatic boss. When a neglected wife attempts to interest the tailor in a more intimate assessment, the apprentice finds himself caught in a different sort of calculation. Min deftly captures the woman’s desperation and the tailor’s inexplicable lack of interest through the lens of the apprentice’s innocence, as the bewildered teen struggles to make sense of the emotional turmoil. As Master Song’s tiny shop becomes a site of assumptions overturned and boundaries violated, Min captures the potential for abuse in all hierarchies.
The power structures that provide the mooring for Montenegrin novelist and screenwriter Stefan Bošković’s short story are both personal and professional. In his “Search: Porn” a fading fiction writer arrives at the home of his editor (and former lover) for a dinner that quickly goes pear-shaped. Arlen thinks they’ll be negotiating edits to his short story collection; instead, his editor and the latter’s new girlfriend serve up a demonstrative display, interrupting their embraces only long enough for his editor to announce that he intends not to publish the book at all. Reeling from this double rejection, Arlen brings the evening to a vivid conclusion worthy of 2016 Festival of European Short Stories runner-up Boškovic.
Is outright rejection worse than being strung along? Icelandic poet and novelist Kári Tulinius asks in “Abel’s Autobiography.” Abel falls in love with Jerome, who is in an open relationship with the genderfluid Lionel. Abel’s infatuation with Jerome is soon equaled by his jealousy of Lionel; he turns to spying, stalking, and a singularly poor decision, all related in a breathless syntax that mirrors his headlong obsession.
In “So Long, Luise,” noted French novelist Céline Minard asks what happens when our syntax is not our own. Minard, who has explored topics including space travel, medieval history, and the Western, provides a giddy peek into an elaborate literary hoax. While outlining her will, the narrator, a Parisian celebrated for writing in English, cheerfully confesses that, in fact, her books were written in French; the English versions are translations. She traces the impetus for her imposture to her great love, Paige, an Australian whose mother tongue launched the author’s professional (and personal) triumphs.
Speaking of triumphs, we’re particularly pleased to salute the increasing visibility of queer writers in Korea with a selection edited by star translator Anton Hur. As Hur notes in his exuberant introduction, Korean literature has long had queer undercurrents, but only recently have writers felt free to be explicitly out. Highlighting the work of four contemporary voices, Hur brings us some of the freshest, most exciting work we’ve published.
Lee Jong San’s novel Customer is the first of a trilogy that takes place on a future Earth. The narrator, Suni, comes from a desert region whose residents are known as “worms.” Selected for a scholarship to a prestigious school in a well-to-do city, she begins a romance with her roommate, an androgyne, and encounters the subculture of “customers,” people who undergo a variety of body modifications, or “customs.” In Customer Lee creates a world where people can mutate and enhance their physical forms to match their emotional make-ups.
The body looms large in Lee Hyemi’s poetry, as well, which is characterized by fluidity and immersion. In “The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam” Lee contributes an erotic ode grounded in lush metaphor. Lee has spoken out on sexual harassment, both within Korean literary circles and the global #metoo movement; as with her activism, her poetry recreates and holds space for agency and queerness in female sexuality.
In counterpoint to the work of Lee and Lee, Kim Hyejin’s novel About My Daughter and Kim Bong-gon’s “College Folk” confront the shaming and rejection faced by many who identify as queer, often by those closest to them. In an excerpt from About My Daughter, a widow invites her underemployed daughter to move in, but is less hospitable to a third party. The mother, a caregiver in a nursing home, struggles to accept her daughter’s sexuality and her partner; the younger women, in turn, fight poverty and sexual discrimination. In her portrait of the resistant mother and the stubborn couple, Kim draws a nuanced portrait of a clash both generational and social.
A student saves a professor from scandal, then finds himself in a position to embroil them both in a new one in Kim Bong-gon’s “College Folk.” In an interview with the Korean Literature Institute, the author notes that the story was his first in which he both took his time and included his own experiences, and declares, “it contains my three favorite elements: queer, liberal arts, and romance.”
“Queer, liberal arts, and romance” are some of our favorite elements, too, and we find ourselves in increasingly larger company in this than when our first Queer Issue came out in 2010: same-sex marriage is legal in the US, Ireland, and many other countries, most recently Taiwan; the Edith Windsor case has granted same-sex spouses the benefits of heterosexual couples; Iceland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Serbia, and Ireland have elected openly gay prime ministers, and an openly gay man is among the many declared candidates for the US presidency. Yet Brunei recently declared same-sex activity punishable by stoning; the US military now bars transgender applicants; and the self-professed homophobia of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, stoked the atmosphere that made it necessary for our Afro-Brazilian contributor Jean Wyllys to flee for his safety. Come what may, rest assured we’ll still be here with stories that celebrate the queer experience in all its plurality. We hope you’ll enjoy the selection we present here.
© 2019 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
A sensuous prose poem from South Korean poet Lee Hyemi.
We stood on our tiptoes and fumbled around the top shelf for a taste of those red, red things. With mouths dyed red, we felt like a pair of nipples.
Sister, we must be a cleverly split person. The morning we wore the disheveled green crowns of strawberries and spoke of our first wet dreams under the covers. We laid a chewy seed in every pore, growing recklessly private and gradually tender. In the kingdom for two who sway inside translucent jelly.
If I had a spare season, I would’ve rushed to whisper vulgar words like a bird with a disappearing beak and gifted you, Sister, the sweetest song on the verge of rot. I would’ve squished the all-pink rainbow and called over the morning owl with the strange joy of guilt.
Feeling like there was more to hide now as the sweet stickiness dripped down between my fingers. If I had another pair of lips, another pair of thin mucous membranes, we would’ve been able to talk about the flavors that deepen as they’re mixed together.
But today, simply with our arms spread wide, we experienced our ruddiness of old. Of the days when we loved what was still hidden and sweet.
From Unexpected Vanilla (Moonji Publications, 2016). © Lee Hyemi. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by So J. Lee. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Afro-Puerto Rican author Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro, a tough preteen girl fights for acceptance and finds unexpected kinship.
I've come to the conclusion that purple is the color of secrets. In art class, the teacher insists on teaching us that colors have meanings. Red means passion. White is purity. Green seems to be the color of hope. Nobody speaks of purple but I encounter it so often, accentuating the skin, cheeks, and knees of so many classmates around me, that for a long time I wondered what it meant.
Today I know.
In 1969, Ricardo Santos and I are not friends. Our loathing is mutual. Every chance I get, I throw his schoolbooks on the floor in the middle of class. Ricardo imitates me and does the same to mine. If circumstances allow, I break every possible pencil he owns. Then Ricardo does the same with my crayons. I even spill the glass of milk that is included in his lunch, while he does the same over my slice of raisin bread.
I take part in the first and second thrashing that various students give him in one of the corners of school. I knew they called Ricardo mujercita, but that wasn't why I joined in on beating him up. I did it because he's always challenged me in the style of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If I tear his ruled paper in half, he does exactly the same with mine. If I rip his uniform shirt, he tries to do the same, or at least makes a hole in my plaid skirt. If I stick out my foot so he trips during recess, Ricardo discreetly waits for me in the hallway that leads to the library and makes me fall there. Since he doesn't seem to fear anything I do to him, I join the little group that gives him the beating.
The group is made up of the scalper's twins, the barber's son El Cano, and also the stepson of the captain of the Cataño ferry, a kid whose arms and legs are always covered in purple bruises. When I accidentally overhear them planning to thrash him, I express my desire to join them. Right away, El Cano denies me entry into the gang. His reasoning is , "You're a girl and a machúa. We ought to beat you next, maybe then you’ll learn that yourself."
To my astonishment, the others protest. They claim that it would be advantageous to use me precisely because I'm butch, a strong girl—and daring. Miguel says that, in the middle of a ferry crossing toward Old San Juan, his stepdad told him to be careful with me because mujerotas like me hit really hard on account of our more masculine hormones. Twin Pedro asks what the hell hormones are, but nobody pays him any attention and the group gossip goes on as they call me strapping, bearded, and a marimacha. I still haven't reacted, mouth agape and with no idea what to say, when the other twin, Andrés, exclaims, "But she's heavy and she has muscles. That's why it'd be good for us to have her in the club, to give big marronazos."
Next I know, everyone’s convinced. They hug me and congratulate me on having been admitted to the club. They even muss my hair in a sign of approval. I’m so happy I even forget how confusing the whole thing had felt.
And that's how, one month before the launch of an astronaut to the moon, we gave Ricardo the beating of his life. The kid defended himself as best he could, but he still wound up pulverized. He didn't come to school for a week.
When he returned, his body was covered in purple bruises, earning him the nickname of Niño Morado, the Purple Kid. Ricardo also had one arm in a sling and a pronounced scratch on his left cheek.
The boys in the gang boast that I threw the strongest punches, but the truth is that I don't remember much.
I guess that the thrill and the adrenaline were to blame for my actions.
Two weeks before watching the moon voyage everyone’s talking about on TV, I discover Ricardo on his knees sucking Pedro's bicha. They're hiding behind a warehouse. To my surprise I see the other twin approach, push his brother to one side, and demand his turn. Pedro pulls up his shorts and straightens his shirt. Andrés unzips himself and pulls out his tiny penis. Then Ricardo opens his mouth again and settles in once more.
Stunned, I move clumsily, and I try to avoid being spotted. The twins don't see me, but Ricardo's gaze latches onto mine. Still sucking that pubescent chunk of flesh, he blinks as if he were sending me a message, begging. It's not very clear to me if he was asking for help or wanting me to leave them alone.
On Monday, at school, El Cano greets me with a punch to the shoulder. He does this in front of the whole group and that makes me mad. It's a habit of his. He hammers on the other guys just like he does with me. But since he doesn't like me, he hits me much harder.
"Why don't they shave off that beard of yours at your house, Elena? We can do it for you at my dad's place, if you want."
"Leave me alone," I shout at him, and run my hand over the wooly hairs of my double chin.
"I'm going to steal your girlfriend," he whispers, grabbing his crotch. "Don't think I haven't seen how you look at Johana."
"I said leave me alone," I shout even louder this time.
"Don't you shout at me, I'm the boss."
Cano's challenge makes my blood boil.
"If you were the boss, they'd be sucking your dick as well. But nobody wants you."
"What is this marimacha talking about?" El Cano demands.
The twins look at each other a few times. They lower their heads and remain silent.
"Come on, you little chicken-shits, talk," he explodes. "Tell me what that pato Ricardo does to you with his little mouth."
What happened next came as a surprise. "He sucked off the rest of you, too?" Miguel asked.
I wanted to ask "what do you mean, too?" but there was no need. Miguel explained that Ricardo's first beating was because he started to do his faggy things to him. "And I didn't want to. I didn't want to," he said, vehemently. The twins started shouting out loud that he had done the same to them. The boss, that is to say El Cano, declared that the time had come to teach Ricardo another lesson.
"That way he’ll learn some respect," he decreed.
Summer slid by in the village, hot and full of excitement. I discover that one can see all kinds of commercial exchanges in the streets, now that we don't have classes. In plain daylight, the cacos sell little bags full of white powder, little bags with crystalline rocks, little bags of green or brown herbs. The prostitutes, adorned with necklaces and earrings, show off their bodies, shimmering with sweat. Lottery tickets are sold, and chicks and hens, scalped tickets, lilies and candles with the image of Saint Lazarus, even collecting debts can be arranged if the chance arises. For example, during one of my walks I notice the barber and Miguel's stepfather embroiled in an argument. They suddenly move in close to whisper things, and it seems like the first man tells the second that he can't pay him. He claims he has few clients and buries his hands in his pockets, only to turn them out to show they're empty. This incontestable gesture of not having even coins on him doesn't go down well with the captain, who shoves him and promises, "I'll come by the barbershop then, for the usual."
Because it’s so hot, the drug dealers open the fire hydrants and all of the kids bathe in the middle of the street, squealing with delight.
I'd like to jump into that stream of water and get all wet with Johana, who I recognize right away frolicking with the other kids from the building. But I can't. I'm on my way to perform an errand.
Today it's my turn to bring some goods to the vet who talks with the mares. They were sent by my mother, who's got a reputation for getting her hands on strange or even illegal things. Inside the bag I'm carrying there's a syringe full of horse tranquilizers. It was explained to me that such things are used in animals and in humans, although they say it can be fatal to people. That's why I should never try it on anyone, I wasn’t to even open it without permission, no squirting it on my fingers to play with it, or even smelling it, nothing. If I did, Mama told me, it would even get into my hair.
The vet's name is Ulises, and according to what people say, he's not a doctor at all. He's just someone who got used to treating the pets of the neighborhood's horse rustlers. From time to time he has to operate on the animals or put them to sleep. Since he doesn't have a license or anything like that, he needs to buy contraband syringes like what my Mama sells him. I give him the package and in exchange Ulises gives me an envelope of money, but not without first showing me how to start conversations with the mares. He explains to me that the stallions are nasty bastards, and that's why he doesn't even say a word to them. But the mares are docile and eager to please, he’s quick to add. He says any old thing to them and they whinny and show off their teeth. To me it seems like the funniest thing ever.
For some unknown reason I decide to stick my hand into the envelope of money, pull out two dollars, and walk toward El Cano's father's barbershop. I see the sun is about to set and it's possible the shop is closed. However, I think it’s worth a shot. Maybe El Cano will take pity and will help me deal with my facial problem. Normally I wouldn't do it, but the sight of Johana left me unsettled.
When I reach the front door I find it closed, but I hear sounds coming from inside. I think that El Cano might be in there, still sweeping up all the hair that's fallen to the floor, since that's the daily chore his father always demands of him. I know because El Cano spends hours on end complaining about having to clean the floor and leave it free of all the hair—gray, straight, curly, or dyed—of all the people who pass through there. I go around to the back and decide to try the rear door.
As I open it, a large, rough man wearing a sailor hat comes out. It's Miguelito's stepfather, the captain of the Cataño ferry. He almost bumps into me because he's a bit drunk.
He tries to stare at me but he is unsteady. Before pushing me aside to continue on his way, he whispers: "Mujerota . . ."
I can't say anything back to him though his comment makes me furious. It all happened too quickly.
Inside, still not finished sweeping the floors clean of hair, I find a Cano who is a bundle of nerves. He pulls up his pants and dries the tears on his cheeks.
"Don't you dare say anything to anyone," he threatens me.
My heart is still beating fast when, spellbound, I see behind the thin strip of fabric of his tank top the bruises that are starting to form on his shoulders.
On July 21, my mother and I eat queso de bola and drink coffee in the living room of the house of Ricardo's parents. There is also guava paste, olives, and soda crackers. We're waiting, together with the rest of the neighbors, for the transmission of Neil Armstrong's moonwalk.
Ricardo's parents are the only ones who have a television and they've gotten the whole old neighborhood used to gathering together to watch events of this type.
The veterinarian who isn't a veterinarian takes advantage of the gathering and thanks my mother, in a low voice, for getting him the xylazine. He's going to need two more syringes very soon because he needs to amputate a leg from the mechanic's mare.
"I owe him a favor, see," he adds. Then he explains that the mechanic helped him to repair his Datsun. So, by way of exchange, he'll try to save the mare's life.
"And cross your fingers that the gangrene hasn't spread to the rest of the poor creature's body," he says.
Mama chews on olives and guava paste as she assures Ulises that there won't be any problems. She has a boyfriend in the San Juan agrocenter who will get the medication for her.
"I'll send it to you tomorrow with the nena."
Both of them look at me and I smile. Although it sounded absurd to me, I realize they're talking about me. I am the nena, the little girlie.
As NASA recounts in English and then a translator explains in Spanish everything happening with the Apollo 11 spaceship, I realize that Johana is leaving the room to go out into the yard. As I munch on a few squares of guava paste, I see out of the corner of my eye the way she greets the Niño Morado. She asks him how he feels. He smiles, nearly recovered. He touches his head and a scar with butterfly stitches over his eye, and tells her he's fine, that he's holding up. Johana says something in a soft voice and Ricardo howls with laughter. Then I hear the phrase "I'm in love" and try to move in closer when Ricardo starts to pull a photo out of his back pocket.
Johana has a look of astonishment. Her eyelashes are fluttering quickly and she flushes a deep red. She seems happy. She’s very pretty when she's happy.
I move away and go back to the table with the sandwiches. Mama hugs me and asks Ricardo's mother if it isn't true that I look better now, after having my beard shaved off. Our hostess agrees, of course. And she adds that the yellow skirt and the patent leather heels look very nice on me. She promises to ask her husband to bring some ribbons from the fabric warehouse where he works, so she can make bows for my hair. Johana's aunt, who has been listening attentively to all this, proposes to take me to the beauty salon one of these Sundays, to cut my bangs—so long as I promise not to get mixed up with “all those gang kids.” When my mother nods, I imitate her.
I look back toward the yard. I try to guess where those two have disappeared to. I walk toward the exit and down the steps. There, hiding behind a few snake-bark bushes, Johana applies red lipstick to Ricardo's mouth.
"I need your advice," I say nervously.
"What do you want to know?"
Ricardo is sickly, he looks like a baby bird and his battered nose is like a pigeon's beak. Johana and her aunt have left. Many of the other neighbor kids’ grandparents and godmothers have gone as well. My mother is chatting animatedly with the owners of the house, who are explaining to her how to make adornments and frills for the curtains, bedroom, and bathroom.
"Why don't you break? How do you do it?"
He chews some gum and plays with some dayflowers on the ground.
"There's nothing to give up, Elena. We just are the way we are."
"And if I want someone but she doesn't want me?"
The Niño Morado pulls out the photograph he's been hiding in secret and shows it to me. It's in black and white, but there is no doubt that the one posing before the camera lens is El Cano.
"I also want someone who doesn't want me," he whispers.
"Then you need to get closer. Little by little. And never give up. And never back down. Just talk. If they listen to you and get used to listening to you, that's already a big step, no?"
I nod and then ask, "Even if they beat you up and make fun of you?"
Ricardo looks me over from head to toe. He sighs and says, "I liked you more when you looked like a boy. You saw yourself as someone braver."
In 1970, Ricardo Santos and I become inseparable. So much so that he sometimes brought the flowers I sent to Johana, agreeing to not tell her who they were from. During the third thrashing the gang gave him, I defended him.
I threw punches left and right until I managed to get the other kids to leave him alone.
From that moment on, El Cano and I declared war. We loathed one another. We glared at one another with infinite hate whenever we were in front of other people. If we found ourselves standing next to one another in line at the cinema or the verbenas, we pushed one another, shoulder to shoulder.
When no one saw us and his father wasn't around, he let me into the barbershop through the back door. The ferry captain is no longer a bother any more, neither drunk nor sober. Not to us nor to anyone else. It's said around the neighborhood that one day he got so drunk that he fell and hurt himself in a very private area. They also say that it had to be amputated, although the biggest mouths claim that, when he woke up from his monumental binge, he started to shout, his voice full of desperation. He shouted that his thing had been chopped off. He'd been knocked out with drugs, he insisted. He lost a lot of blood. He was very sick in the hospital and they relieved him from his job. He's still recovering. One might have thought that his stepson Miguel would have been very sad about this state of affairs, but it turned out that he spent most of his time playing with us, he no longer showed up covered in bruises, and he seemed very happy.
During that same period my mother punished me. And she forced me to spend a handful of days without going out to meet up with the guys. It seems that on my way to bring the order to the veterinarian, I lost one of the two syringes. The mare couldn't be saved.
After everything eventually gets back to normal, El Cano shaves me once more to get rid of the bothersome strands of hair that still grow from my jowls. And so, at the start of the new school year we played lucha libre in secret and even made drawings on construction paper stolen from art class.
El Cano didn't let me talk to him about Ricardo. He made that quite clear the first time I tried.
And he said that if there were rumors going around that they kissed some time, they were just that. Rumors. Lies. I shouldn't pay any attention to them, he insisted.
What he did let me do was talk to him about Johana. And he let me show him the crescent moons I drew and later painted with watercolors. He asked me if the little figure I sketched on every moon was Neil Armstrong making his moon landing. No, I answered. It's me. Me, because when I grow up I want to be an astronaut. Cano asked me to tell him more stories. And he encouraged me to tell him how I imagine Johana's face will look after we share our first kiss.
"The Niños Morados" © Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro. By arrangement with Editorial Egales. Translation © 2019 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.