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from the November 2017 issue

The World at Home: US Writing in Translation

At first glance, this month's issue may seem not merely at odds with our usual approach, but completely contrary to it. Why is a magazine specializing in international literature translated into English publishing an issue of writing from the US? In fact, this issue is not a departure but a continuation: in demonstrating the vital importance of reading and learning about the world outside our borders, it confirms the renewed urgency of our efforts in the face of disturbing political and social trends.

Public discourse in the US has been marked in recent months by growing anti-immigration sentiment and rising nativism, reflected in government policies aimed at curbing entry and increasing deportation. In response, we’ve compiled this issue to demonstrate the wealth and variety of literature produced by international writers living in the US. The writers presented here all came to the US from other countries and continue to write, and publish, in their original languages as well as in English translation. Their work contributes to the literatures of the lands and languages that defined them before they immigrated; but it also expands both our sense of literary creativity and our understanding of life within, and without, the boundaries of the US.

The eleven contributors hail from as many countries. The length of their residency in the US ranges from months to over twenty years, and their biographies vary widely as well. Some fled oppression and persecution, and several have been or still are hosted by the International Cities of Refuge Network and City of Asylum programs. Others came to the US for the reasons so many have over the years: to find employment, religious freedom, a safer environment, a better life. Several teach in US universities, and one spent ten years as a cabdriver, but all have continued to work as writers. We're pleased to present the results of that labor here.

Peruvian journalist Marco Avilés opens his evocatively titled “I Am Not Your Cholo” with a scene from his visit to a high school in Maine, where he has been invited to talk about his experience as an immigrant. He disarms the (possibly anti-immigration) students with the tale of an American couple who moved to Peru and started a restaurant, then adds that many other Americans have followed: the largest number of immigrants to Peru are from the US. His audience’s surprise—"Wasn’t it Latinos who migrated and set up home in a country that wasn’t theirs? Citizens of the First World actually cross borders looking for a better future?”—provides a starting point for a searing interrogation of skin color and privilege, both in the US and Peru, and how that combination both drives and impedes the essentially human impulse of migration.

Ezzedine C. Fishere’s “Bahaa and Shareef Escape to New York” illustrates the violent homophobia of his native Egypt. Head over heels in love and tired of living a lie, Shareef wants to come out. His lover, Bahaa, balks, reminding him that coming out—to “their families, friends, and a whole society with all its cultural and historical garbage piled up through the ages”—would be nothing less than suicidal. In an impulsive move, Shareef announces their relationship on Facebook. When his sister calls to alert him that someone has hacked his account and posted “disgraceful” things, he proudly tells her it’s no hack, then makes the post public, with immediate and devastating results. It’s a wrenching look at the dangers of being openly gay in Egypt and a cautionary tale about the destructive power of social media.

Osama Alomar’s concise fictions are renowned for their brevity and wit. His sly moral fables and political allegories, often featuring speaking animals or inanimate objects come to life, swing from anger to wry detachment, bitterness to irony. Coded to elude censors, they reflect both the repression of free speech and the ingenious circumvention thereof. Alomar left Syria for Chicago, where he drove a cab, sometimes with his translator riding shotgun as they worked on his texts between fares. He’s now in Pittsburgh as a resident at the City of Asylum.

Hiromi Itō emerged as a leading Japanese poet in the 1980s and relocated to California in the early 1990s (“in the year the Persian Gulf War started”). Her poem “Roadkill” recalls her first confused days in the US, struggling with language and idioms. Itō’s perplexity at the term “roadkill” (“But why does roadkill end with kill / And not killed? / It has been killed, it isn’t doing the killing”) leads to a catalog of the corpses she sees on the roads and makes a powerful connection with the casualties of the war.

Chinese poet Zhang Xinxin’s life has been shaped, and derailed, by politics, from the Cultural Revolution that interrupted her education in childhood to the events of Tiananmen Square, which stranded her in the US. She now lives in Atlanta with her husband. Her wry “After the Inferno” recounts how, strapped to a stretcher in an ambulance following a serious car crash, she was inexplicably compelled to discuss comparative versions of hell and the afterlife with her bemused husband. She finds his Western system wanting—“Your hell has a design flaw”—and details why the Eastern belief in reincarnation is far superior. (Happily, this position was not immediately put to the test.) The conversation is an amusing snapshot of an incongruous moment, but also a reminder of the multiple lives she’s already led, and the cultural differences she navigates daily.

In 2013 the poet, activist, and blogger Tuhin Das was targeted by fundamentalist militant groups in Bangladesh. When police responded by combing his writings for anti-Islamist statements to use against him, he went into hiding, then fled his country in 2016. His defiant poem “The Assassin” testifies to the persecution and terror of his previous life and suggests the relief his current safe harbor provides.

Burmese writer and activist Khet Mar also fled her country, in her case after years of persecution, arrests, torture, and imprisonment. She now works as a journalist for the Radio Free Asia Burmese Service. In “The Sound of Snow,” she recalls a night in her home in Maryland. Awakened by trees banging against her window in a powerful late-winter blizzard, she flashes back to memories of police brutalizing peaceful student protestors in Myanmar. Howling winds turn into screams of pain; as the storm blankets the landscape in white, bloody images turn her vision red. “All we wanted,” she reflects, “was to put an end to the cycle of violence and misery.” The blizzard will eventually taper off, but will the repression in Myanmar follow suit?

Most artistic expression is strictly policed in Iran. The novelist Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar defies these restrictions, addressing inflammatory topics including women’s rights, revolution, the war, political and social crises, sex discrimination, and sexual violence. His “A Slice of Darkness,” in which the torture and ominously detailed interrogation of a writer leads to a horrifying result, suggests why his work is banned in his native country.

On a lighter note, Mexican novelist Yuri Herrera riffs on Julio Cortazar’s “Casa Tomada.” It’s not the first such homage (or even the first to appear in our pages), but Herrera adds a dog and children to the mix, throws in a surprising new character, and stirs in his own mordant take on the events. Herrera’s usual territory is the Mexico ravaged by drug wars and government corruption; here his characters battle a different but equally insuperable opponent.

Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou offers a different sort of homage to his fellow Francophone African great, the late Mongo Beti. In a dusty park in Beti’s native Cameroon, a visiting writer is accosted by a voluble street person. The crazed man is known for reading aloud from, fittingly, Beti’s Story of the Madman, but soon turns from the text to hector the narrator; his unhinged tirade strikes a surprising nerve. Mabanckou left Congo for France in his early twenties and has spent the past fifteen years teaching literature in universities in the US. He is currently a professor in the department of French at UCLA.

Journalist and novelist Ibtisam Azem grew up in the Palestinian Territories and now lives in New York, where she is a correspondent for the Arabic daily al-Araby al-Jadeed and co-editor at Jadaliyya. In an excerpt from her second novel, The Book of Disappearance, a man remembers his grandmother and his childhood in the divided city of Jaffa. Family stories entwine with history as the narrator laments: “We inherit memory the way we inherit the color of our eyes and skin.”

These writers, and others like them, open channels of communication and dialogue to places that politics may marginalize or close off. Literature transcends geographical and political borders; thanks to translation, it can overcome language barriers as well. These writers have crossed all these borders, demonstrating the power of translated work to enlarge our worldviews and enrich our sense of literature, and humanity.

© 2017 Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

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