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.
By fusing a dialect-laden verse with knowledge and respect for Dante’s original, the Scottish writer and illustrator has built a bridge across borders and nations.
Since the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri finished his Divina Commedia, in 1320, more than one hundred different translations of his work have been published in English, over a dozen in this decade alone. The selection currently available caters to various tastes and purposes. Allen Mandelbaum’s blank-verse effort, studied in thousands of classrooms and universities around the world, remains the canonical go-to and has been recognized as such by Italy’s literary establishment. Then there is Robert Pinsky’s Inferno, more lyrical, though arguably less faithful. It remains one of the most popular among international readers. Beyond these quite different tomes, however, new interpretations continue to pop up every couple of years, often with the proclaimed intention of making this masterpiece “more accessible.” Mary Jo Bang has adapted the Inferno admirably, in a jazzy and virtuosic free-verse. Similarly, Clive James has produced a vigorous, slang-inflected edition of the same text, the first and better-known section of Dante’s tripartite work, also composed of the cantos of Purgatory and Paradise. The J. G. Nichols edition is comparatively archaic, though none the worse for it, and has been praised for communicating the essential rhythm of the poems like never before. And this is to name just three of the most high-profile recent examples. The question, then, is unavoidable: do we really need yet another attempt?
For Alasdair Gray, the resounding response is “yes.” Despite all the noise, he argues in the introduction of his newly released translation of the Inferno, there remain new ways to play with Dante. The Divine Comedy, he writes, is a text “like the Bible,” with almost endless possible interpretations, and opportunities to pose new questions, and answers. It is a masterpiece to be revered, reread and, ultimately, rewritten. With the all-caps title of HELL, in place of the more customary utilization of the original Italian title, the eighty-three-year-old Scottish novelist makes his characteristically bold stamp on one of the world’s most beloved poems.
It has been a long time coming. From his 1981 novel, Lanark, to his many short stories, Gray’s work has long borne the marks of Dante’s influence. His imaginative worlds, his mythological vision, the ease with which he traverses the fields of folklore and high art all are prominent qualities of his work that suggest an affinity with the Florentine writer. This can also be felt in regard to Gray’s work as an illustrator, which often uses techniques inspired by illuminated manuscripts and medieval woodcarvings to evoke sublime scenes, such as those depicted in his extraordinary murals at Glasgow’s Òran Mór auditorium. These two features combine in this new volume, where Gray’s dense but characteristically playful language is positioned neatly alongside sharp neoclassical etchings of Dante and his spirit guide Virgil. The result is dreamlike, fantastical, and entirely appropriate to the subject matter.
Yet if Dante’s task in the fourteenth century was to fuse a sort of “everyday religiosity” with the then-new stylistics of courtly love poetry, Gray’s challenge today is almost the reverse. Instead of taking everyday superstitions of faith and ennobling them in a novel form, HELL is more concerned with reemphasizing the colloquialism and familiarity with which the Florentine public would have received the original text. This is something that’s too often lost in English translations of Dante’s work, which have a tendency to replace quite accessible meditations on faith, morality, and destiny with bloated, unapproachable metaphysics. Gray, who in addition to close-reading Dante has spent a lifetime mastering a flowing lyrical Scots, seems to have tasked himself with liberating the text from this unfortunate heritage. His success is evident from the opening lines:
In middle age I wholly lost my way,
finding myself within an evil wood
far from the right straight road we all should tread.
And what a wood! So densely tangled, dark,
jaggily thorned. So hard to press on through,
even the memory renews my dread.
A neologism, a romantic caesura. This is immediately quite different from Mandelbaum’s scholarly approach, which in the equivalent translation maintains a more rigid and antiquated tenor with lines like “for I had lost the path that does not stray.” In fact, Gray has cut large sections entirely—he has even jokingly described the effort as “paraphrasing” —and there are, predictably, and fittingly given the author’s intentions, no footnotes. Instead, this “prosaic verse” pushes forward with an unabashed vernacular-laden vitality, designed to capture the spirit, and dark humor, of the original Italian. At one point, for example, our narrator refers to his spirit guide, Virgil, as a “dominie” (a Scots word for a schoolmaster), while his own procrastination is simply “blethering” (rambling). Phrases like these just cry out to be read aloud, preferably in a thick Glaswegian accent.
There are a few original jokes as well, largely at the expense of the British ruling class. The Guelfs and Ghibellines, for example, are transfigured, a little clunkily, into Tories and Whigs, the UK’s eighteenth-century parliamentary groupings. Later, in a more pleasing and successful riff, Satan himself becomes “God’s prime minister.” There is quite enough political indignation, though, in Dante’s original narrative, and Gray is more successful where he strives to convey the poem’s more revolutionary cadences free from modish pretense:
Within a city or a nation state
Great force or cunning can accumulate
Properties, making some cliques dominate
Until the angel with so many names—
Luck, chance, fate, fortune, mutability—
Makes new cliques prosper, other cliques decay,
Whether by vice or virtue, who can say?
But those who trust, not virtue, but to luck
Have gone astray, aye, very far astray.
For all his cuts and innovations, as passages like this show, Gray has stuck more closely to the medieval source than, say, Bang’s attempt. This is particularly evident in terms of tone and rhythm. Terza rima, the form that Dante invented to tell his narrative, is notoriously difficult to render in English on account of the relative glut of rhyming words in Italian. Previous translators have usually been forced to abandon it all together, or risk an almost sing-song style, plagued by alien and archaic words. In HELL, Gray finds an effective compromise. Where it feels natural he uses end rhyme, following Dante. Where it doesn’t, he settles for internal rhyme. Simple. But it’s a brave decision and, despite a subsequent over-reliance on end-stopped lines, he pulls it off with style.
By fusing a dialect-laden verse with knowledge and respect for Dante’s original, Gray has, almost inadvertently, built a bridge across borders and nations. Yes, this is a strange, idiosyncratic, individual text, but it is at the same time an undeniably Scottish one. This is not an English, American, or Australian Dante, one that smells of campus libraries or open mic nights, but a Celtic, wind-lashed fantasy of medieval Italy. With humility, and great skill, Gray has shown that his own voice, and those of his compatriots, are as capable of participating in global, canonical storytelling as any other community, Anglophone or otherwise. HELL is a beautiful text, made even more remarkable by the political implications of Gray’s artistic accomplishment. It is also a timely reminder of the truth contained in Italo Calvino’s famous quip: “A classic book has never finished what it has to say.”
© 2019 by Jamie Mackay. All rights reserved.
Algerian Francophone literature is, one could say, a child of the twentieth century. It has its origins both in the struggle for independence—gained in 1962—and in Algerians’ determination to recount their own collective history and individual histories with the tools and resources of the French educational system, with its literature, past, and poetry, imposed on Algeria when it was a colony of France. Algerian-French literature remains lively today, post-independence, even as schooling is primarily in Arabic, albeit a standard Arabic (literary or journalistic) distant and different from the local spoken dialectal language, and still excluding Tamazight, which was and is the original language of Algerians of Berber/Kabyle origin.
A distinctive Algerian Francophone poetry emerged in the 1930s, first with the publication of the poetry collections of Jean Amrouche (1906–62), the son of Kabyle parents, village children who were French-educated. He was a poet-editor pioneer who some critics considered a generation unto himself. Amrouche’s mother, Fadhma Aïth Amrouche, wrote a remarkable autobiography, Histoire de Ma Vie, also in French and while in her eighties, which gives an unprecedented picture of a transition from village life to life in another language.
A group of important poets born in the 1920s, notably Mohammed Dib, Kateb Yacine (who declared: “I write in French to tell the French that I am not French”), and Jean Sénac, began to write and publish poetry, fiction, and plays just as the movement for independence was growing. Thus Algerian Francophone poetry was largely outside, and in contrast to, the post-World War II movement in French poetry of disengagement from political causes and particularized or ethnic/community histories in favor of linguistic experiment. While metropolitan France struggled to recover from World War II and the occupation, and began to enjoy a renewed economic prosperity, the Algerian War (1954–62) raged. Those French poets who continued to practice a poetry of engagement and find it necessary were, by and large, those who had enlisted themselves alongside the Algerian people’s struggle, including Charles Dobzynski, Franck Venaille, and Louis Aragon. For Aragon, Algeria was one source of his remarkable mélange of poetry, fiction, and history in homage to Arab Andalusia, Le Fou d’Elsa (1962).
The Algerian poets themselves published in samizdat journals during the war; those who were able to publish collections did so thanks to editors in France sympathetic to their cause: this was the case for Sénac, Mohammed Dib, Malek Haddad, and others. After 1962, books and anthologies of Algerian poetry in French appeared in both countries, notably Espoir et Parole, edited by Denise Barrat, Diwan algérien: la poésie algérienne d’expression française, edited by Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi, and Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie algérienne, edited by Jean Sénac. (A bilingual Poems of Jean Sénac, translated by Katia Sainson and David Bergman, was published by Sheep Meadow Press in 2010.)
In this issue, we are presenting three poets of what seems like three different generations, even though one age difference is only a decade’s. It was from Samira Negrouche that I first heard about Djamal Amrani, and learned his story: an activist in the Algerian liberation movement in his early twenties, he was tortured, imprisoned, and exiled. He wrote a book, Le Témoin, that may be juxtaposed with Henri Alleg’s La Question as testimony and indictment. His later career was that of a diplomat and cultural broadcaster in Algeria, who in part distinguished himself by demonstrating a notable generosity to younger poets. He left a considerable body of work that is still difficult to find outside Algeria except in anthologies.
Although Habib Tengour was born only twelve years later than Amrani, the latter was an adult partisan during the war of independence, and the former observed it as a child—who came to France with his family at the age of twelve in 1959. Tengour, an anthropologist, has gone back and forth between France and Algeria for his entire adult life, as a writer, as a student and an academic, and as someone whose extended family, too, lives on both shores. He is also a “passeur” of poetry: he edited and prefaced the complete poems of Mohammed Dib, and he co-edited and introduced with the American/Luxembourgeois poet Pierre Joris a 700-page English language anthology of North African poetry, translated from Arabic, French, and Tamazight, from the pre-Islamic poets to oral poetry to literary contemporaries. He currently edits a series of collections of contemporary poetry in or translated into French for an Algerian publisher, Editions Apic. His own poetry is sometimes lyrical, sometimes harshly or playfully satirical, and sometimes surreal, often with a strong narrative. It has been translated into English, German, and Italian.
Algerian women writers, like their French counterparts, have privileged prose forms over poetry, the most notable Francophone example being Assia Djebar, the pseudonym of Fatima-Zohra Imalayène (1936–2015), for whom Habib Tengour’s poem in this issue is an elegy. Imalayène was the first Arab writer, and the fifth woman, to be elected to the Académie Française in 2005, though she, too, wrote and published poetry in her youth, which appeared in anthologies published during and immediately after the war. Another exceptional poet is the brilliant Anna Gréki—like Jean Sénac, a “Roumi,” an Algerian of European origin. Gréki’s work appeared in anthologies, and one collection published soon after Algeria’s independence, but she died in childbirth in her thirties.
Samira Negrouche is in every way another exceptional woman. She is part of a new generation of Algerian poets born after 1970; she is trilingual and her life is rooted in North Africa, as is her work, which grows from the French language in all its expressions. She delights in collaborations with practitioners of other arts—painters and sculptors, with whom she has created installations and performance pieces, musicians and dancers, with whom she has imagined and performed collaborations. Her poetry sometimes mirrors the processes of musical or sculptural creation; often limns the city of Algiers, where she lives, with all its historical echoes; and dares an eroticism not often expressed by Maghrebin poets of any gender.
Francophone writers from the Maghreb—Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria—have modulated the landscape of French writing for decades, and are eloquently present today, from Tahar Ben Jalloun to Leïla Slimani, Abdellah Taïa, and Nina Bouraoui. As a reader, I can only hope that the lyrical strength and pertinence of the poets among them will draw more readers—French, North African, others—to North African writing, and back to poetry itself as a source of human communication, unexpected but useful information, and readerly pleasure in the French-speaking world and in translation.
© 2019 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.
With its postholiday malaise and gloomy chill, January (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) calls for an infusion of lightness, a bit of relief from the relentless grayness of this time of year. Although many readers associate international literature with the most serious of topics—what I refer to as the “long dark weeping night of Eastern Europe” stereotype—there is ample comic material in our archives, and we’ve called on a few examples for this issue.
When we think of translating humor, we may think in terms of capturing jokes, with their interdependent elements of rhythm, meter, sound, and meaning, and the culmination of all in the punchline. The virtually universal response to Jessica Cohen’s tour-de-force rendering of David Grossman’s standup monologue in A Horse Walks into a Bar—“How did you do that??”—suggests the complexity of the task. Illustrating the challenge, Grossman told the New York Times that the old joke that gives the book its title (“horse walks into a bar; bartender asks, ‘Why the long face?’”) doesn’t exist in Hebrew, since “long face” is not an idiom in that language; it’s that sort of conundrum—finding equivalents for the apparently untranslatable—that people think of when they marvel at translating humor. Yet that precision of word choice and attention to vocabulary and phrasing animates all successful translation, and is what you’ll find in the pieces presented here.
Although there is much to laugh at in these stories, their comedy lies less in structured jokes or inherently funny contexts than in the painstaking establishment of character and situation, allowing humor to grow organically. Indeed, many of the settings—a dinner party at the boss’s house, a routine flight, an international trade meeting—are serious or neutral landscapes into which unexpected humorous aspects are introduced. And while some of these authors, such as the satirist Empar Moliner and the deadpan Wladimir Kaminer, are known for their comic writing, others (such as the novelist, essayist, poet, and economics professor Fouad Laroui) may surprise with their departures from the sober.
Some of the narratives deploy the slapstick of anxiety dreams. Fouad Laroui’s crime victim, a diplomat waking in Brussels to discover a cat burglar has pinched his pants, hastily improvises at an Oxfam and turns up at a crucial negotiation clad in castoff golf attire of the sort known in the US as “jackass pants.” Another tale of being caught with one’s pants down comes from Iran—a country not usually considered a source of ludic delight—as Behnaz Alipour Gaskari’s protagonist comes home from work, sheds her clothes in the heat, and then locks herself out in her lingerie.
Often drollness faces off with the mordant acknowledgment of less enchanting elements. Wladimir Kaminer’s “Paris Lost” grounds the fantastic—a Soviet-built “Paris” and “London,” destinations for Party-awarded trips—in the quotidian oppression of Communist restrictions on travel; Empar Molinar’s “Invention of the Aspirin” provides a bored wife with an escape from her marital doldrums, only to find an equally deadening routine. And two stories with government settings—Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain’s graphic novel “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy” and Hilda Twongyeirwe’s “Baking the National Cake”—remind us that countries often operate despite bureaucracy, rather than through it. (Lanzac and Blain’s caustic look at ministerial backbiting, ambition, and general incompetence was filmed as Quai d’Orsay, released in the US as The French Minister.)
Business schemes on very different scales and equally divergent levels of success drive Huang Fan’s sardonic tale of real estate sales and Iharilanto Patrick Andriamangatiana’s cheerful fable of eggs and honesty. Marketing strategies drive the action of both tales, and despite the opposite settings of densely urban Taipei and a Malagasy village, the products involved have a surprising amount in common. And in both tales the chickens come home to roost.
Gabriela Wiener and Griet Op de Beeck depict markedly different approaches to the treacherous grounds of romance. The adventurous Wiener catalogs an extensive list of affairs, concluding, “I’ve been unfaithful, first and foremost, to my infidelities.” In contrast, Op de Beeck’s serial monogamist longs to settle down, only to see a promising date derailed by lurking menaces private and public.
And relations between the sexes take another turn in Saša Stanišić’s antic account of a flight from hell. Seated next to an angelic blonde child, the narrator quickly discovers she’s less heavenly than demonic. When the urchin’s mother and the flight attendant join the fray, it’s clear there’s a bumpy landing ahead.
Brevity being the soul of wit, we’ll end here and leave you to immerse yourself in the rest of the issue. We wish you a fine year, and one that frequently affords laughter in unexpected places.
© 2019 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
From behind the high walls of the Kremlin, a Tartar dreams of Sindbad and magnificent cities he'll never visit.
This particular Tartar doesn’t have four dromedaries for traveling
That’s what he usually says Not without a touch of irony
—it’s annoying to repeat yourself
Justify your immobility
Give all sorts of explanations
No one asks for them
Isn’t it the survival of some sort of atavism?
Nomadism is an art a camel is indispensable
The Tartars know something about it
What they recount was classed as a world heritage
But they’re not the only ones to have
Made use of a scholarly poetry on the question
And oases for thirst as the saying goes
Property of the picturesque nomad
The affirmation is categorical
Scathing cutting all discussion short
This particular Tartar doesn’t leave that is to say never leaves
the enclosure of the Kremlin
High walls pulled down now since June
Trenches filled in gigantic peripheral highways
Places for not-so-weekly markets
Not very talented maybe a mask
Strategy of representation
Poison of urban phantasmagoria
A character wrung out like a dishrag
It’s not amusing
Not dramatic either
He daydreams in his garret of unveiling the mysteries of magnificent cities
The briefest departure as soon as it’s imagined
Which is rare turns out to be a Chinese puzzle
He’s got to think about it at length very lengthily indeed
To mope to dissect to gnaw away at it to howl at the crows
In order to rouse himself
How do you decide to leave?
It’s complicated it requires loads of energy
Contrary to preconceived ideas
Or received ones
That cast shadows on the wall behind the dump
He’s constantly preparing detailed itineraries
Drawn down to the millimeter
With a Prussian staff officer’s precision
For minutiae he has a compass in his eye
Despite his genetic stain
He works on it nonstop for weeks
Suddenly just like that presto subito
Realizes that he doesn’t have the means to do this or
Another extravagant destination occurs to him
And then what good is it all?
What a pity
Going down the road to bargain-hunt at the Villejuif fleamarket or have a look
At the Canon at Gobelins that’s an expedition
A real one there where they shiver in bomb-craters
The famous voyages of Sindbad the Sailor on the Indian Ocean or the Coral Sea, that he devours greedily in the Galland translation (especially the prints that he acquired under the counter) are no great thing. Ordinary Sunday strolls, rubbish, compared to the slightest displacement he’s obliged to make out of his village.
That’s something serious!
Like hearing the moans at dawn
fifty leagues off, of Behemoths in heat
Nothing to do with meaningless roadside rustlings
It’s not that he’s cowardly like those Uighurs of the second
Or even the third generation and after
Those arrogant bastards don’t ever dare decamp from their seedy ghetto
Where they terrorize old ladies on the staircase landing!
Troublesome delinquents! Drug dealers!
Part-time swindlers and pyromaniacs!
And you, mate, you don’t like the Uighurs much
No one can stand the Uighurs!
It’s an open wound
Not a loafer like those Merovingian kings
Who, the new schoolbooks affirm,
Would travel sluggishly supine in ox-carts
Ambulant jellies obstructing the roadways
The palace mayors fortunately they were around
Put up with the job
No, certainly not
He wasn’t indecisive either
Don’t trust appearances
The Tartars obstinate enterprising people
Who don’t give in easily
Calloused hands agile minds in an era where
Ploughs / feathers don’t mean a thing
Defying maledictions all day long and daily
Demoralized and downcast for ages
Accursed crow so white and beautiful O God
Turned swarthy for having disobeyed deliberately or
Just mistaken a bag of lice for a bag of gold
A regrettable incident it only happens to people like us
Or we would have ended up like this
But we ended up like this
In the same satchel as the Uighurs
But none of this concerns him
His almost-official lodging on the outskirts of Bicêtre
A small government flat as he’s a veteran
While forgetting proverbs the steel of the tribe
To temper his nomad ancestry
To park his suitcases on the parquet
A dream the soldier cherishes while marching
Easier to say than to do but it’s done
An unchanging existence doesn’t kill you really
You taste things differently diminishing like soap
To draw a line through his past
—he’d like to write
One foot in the grave
The hope of a conversation with himself
Getting rid of his illusions
Finding the words to say who he is
It brings a kind of lightness
No moodiness or extravagance
He’d been able to attempt the impossible Win that great victory
Into the closet with his bellicose instincts his morbid frenzy his unsatisfied sexual appetites his trashy primitive nostalgia to peacefully cultivate a sparse rocky patch of land
(above all prefers pampering a tomato plant he brought back from Toulon with lettuces sorrel and wild thyme)
won without cheating
memorable Tarot reading
they still talk about it today
profusion of savory details
witticisms you had to admire
that card game at the Café de la Mairie
This particular Tartar is unbeatable at cards
Except for whist (not a game for Tartars)
Which permits him to make ends meet
Sometimes throw a party, a feast
Where all the neighborhood enjoys his largesse
Well-planned banquets, a sophisticated mise en scène
Remembered for a certain decorum
Generosity in the blood secular recommendations
What he says so as not to be labeled a brainless spender
And maybe he believes it
Everyone’s there to receive the manna
Celebrate the donor
Shouting his slogan: I sow gold . . .
We’re not likely to see such days again soon
There’s always a glistening pigeon favorable circumstances
Newly arrived in the neighborhood
lets himself be plucked
without a fuss Satisfied, even
The game takes place according to the rules
A good-natured politeness
Nothing to be said No regrets
no unseemly protests
Everyone sympathizes / calm / the sucker
holds the spittoon while they tot up the score
In such a situation you can lose with style
Not lose face
“Le Tatar du Kremlin” © Habib Tengour. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.
In this ode to the late Assia Djebar, Habib Tengour remembers Algeria through her voice.
Listen to Habib Tengour read "Celebration of the Absent One" in the original French.
For Eliane, Mireille, and Regina
We dreamed of a phlegmatic life for you
of sleep and siestas
sweet things, an honorable luxury
a carpet of rich flowers at your feet
to put your fears to sleep
—Malek Alloula, The Exercise of the Senses
Death’s dust has disrobed you even of your soul
—Pierre Jean Jouve, Matière céleste
whose whiteness flowed into lead
A black decade / years of blood
Rupture Algeria, la Maison Blanche
Austere welcome of the patriarch in his tight-fitting borrowed
who knew the rites of passage
the institution’s stringent checks
Arrivals and departures both distressing
Songbirds, the innocent larks at the border of Saint-Cloud
So many memories Eliane told me
Simple choices solid ties
Impatience to know the city’s every corner
Thirsty beneath the blinking neon
But you always did your homework
Slip from the frame to shape the film
A new world opening in the red
Salutary progression where you speak and
Give voice to peasant women joyously
Telling their stories
A thirst to speak
You burst through the screen
Impatient red desire the dazzling meeting
Impatient to live
All that black: no sooner liberated
Medina’s women excluded from the procession
Denial of the Messenger’s daughter
Rue Eugène Vartan How vast the prison
The world is not a film set
Disillusion, pain, on the horizon’s eighty degrees
Disappearance of the French language
Debacle, that will not let you rest until you
Drift where the word carries you
Joyous days standing to sing the country
Algeria the Fortunate setting itself free
Erasure of all trace
Of ancient Caesarea the smell of the sea without armor
And mute absinthe
Emerald at the foot of the lions’ mountain
Oran scoffs at the chiaroscuro of a gaze
To each his own shamelessness
Another Rimitti makes amends
The minotaur basks in the sun on the Cintra’s terrace
Brawling and fantasia keep a memory alive
You transcribe its austere narrative
From rags of the massacre
Weave the story’s brightness
Abdelkader roars on the Place d’Armes
The theater is open
White with all those dead calling us to order
The kingdom of shadows has no taste
Rest you too
Return in peace, O soul
The father’s house is a living language
Open to guests passing through
“Célébration de l’absente” © Habib Tengour. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.
In this poem, the speaker leads us across a landscape of grieving deserts and volcanic desire.
Listen to Samira Negrouche read "In the Shadow of Grenada" in the original French.
in a desire
Night will close its voices to you
night will take pleasure in the dew
of its skin
The storm will be inside you
Heartbeat with a flame’s
Flees from us
to a tilted
grounded our idle
in these hamlets
our limbs assembled
in the wind’s
I enter the beach
by the shore’s
The tide rises
in a celestial shudder
on the impermeable
with your face
of its shadow
Come to the ridge
a roaring star
on the path
No one takes notice
desire, like leprosy
gnaws away the steel
of a body
or a bee
A heap of prohibitions
heavy as lava
Milky down, uncertain
on your skin
climaxes on your doorway
on the dew at dawn
scent the plain will
make its beasts tremble
Its body on the bed
That “you” half-asleep
in the springtime
Tears are diluted
in the doorway
of your eyes
The wind ceases
and you draw your dreams out
into a last
You spring out of oblivion
in Nordic sunlight
You enter a life
of your lair
You spring out of yourself
like a shadow
embraced by the night.
watched for by the orchard
I can’t invent
a different season
for your moods
The storm wavering
at a persistent zenith
Your jungle whose shadow
the desert explodes
I’m at your feet
in my divine one’s
She tells me not to be
a holy land
or a mine of tenderness
She doesn’t tell
her objections are
My words are
to someone else’s beat
Not even a whim.
autumns are burning
I rinse my eyes
like an imperfect
They said they saw them
brighter than daylight
They said they even saw them
in the crackling
Will my eyes see
The silence of you
like the bite
of the ocean
I fall through the vertigo
of your mute
The shadows laugh at me
and your inconstant
I’ll break my back
to your chasms of torture
where my eviscerated words
Prison is born of love
You don’t betray
by wanting it
At the end of a chain
the walls are
To fear truly
the ruined act’s
The burned face
flees your presence
and your disgusted
Skin that furrows
I’ll live and not belong
to that morbid
the forgotten landscape
the phantom opera
I’ll go and waltz
in the vanished
perhaps sleep through
I’ll make the earth
under my feet
when the volcanic
flows up toward me
to wash out
I’ll leave my streets
to your secret
My dreams are only
tag-ends of amnesia
and you my
Of my nights I’ve made only
who’ll leave you
to hang around
Forgetting is my slothfulness
since your too-
I’m obliged to believe
in your nights
when my body
My fingertips have forgotten
I’ll tune in my ear
to the low notes
of hours spent wanting
An argument will be made
against my harsh vocal
I must say nothing
about my pale glimmerings
Clay put to death
under the sterile
I must say nothing
about my unaesthetic
In the shadow of Grenada
my body shudders
My breath sediments
in the light
of the tropics
in the din of time
stretches out into infinite flagellation
in a heart’s din
leaves the caravan
in the fading sand.
In the shadow of Grenada
on an undefined
on the valley
In the shadow of Grenada
I’ll burn my velvet words
“A l’ombre de Grenade” © Samira Negrouche. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.
In this meditation on time, memory, and the usefulness of expectations, nothing is what it seems.
Listen to Samira Negrouche read "Minus One" in the original French.
The outflow of your drifting—
up until now you’ve slid along the road
I would like
in a faraway language
to tell you what I don’t
Nothing pulls you back from doubt any longer
your body is amnesia plural futile limpid
stands in for space
stands in for an emptiness
to circle round
Not visible the sense
slumbers teeters on the edge
you expect nothing of the hours
not the days returned
There had been no
days without sand
and you thought the sun
you had not seen:
the lantern is cold
clamber up your confusion
on the cord
all of life still
to begin each morning
at the same hour
starting from zero
to answer time’s memory loss
and the drift of ages
your mother, trembling
the genealogy of the worst
the disaster of the gods
to finish counting the remaining hours
You can’t bring yourself
to let go of the sky’s edge
at nine o’clock
you hold the sailboat’s breath
head for the narrowest path
to redraw the mirage
You ask yourself what is
a place of your own
if you must fade yourself out
unweight yourself of promises
yesterday you wanted to know if
and now you no longer know why
you should have dived in with no expectations
“Moins un” © Samira Negrouche. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.
The poet eulogizes the revolutionary fighter and guerilla leader of Algeria's National Liberation Front, Ali la Pointe.
Pour Ali la Pointe
Here where each day calls out to our suffering
Here where each step chains our desire for hope
Here where everything cries out misfortune violence famine
Here where blood is confirmed silently and grief gains ground
He died. Died buried under a pile of rubble
While he trampled hatred down with his proud blood
So that the roots of his impatient people
Would grow knotty in the shadow of the flag
Gray tears, so slow to cool
Endurances curved round the sacred fire
Because they wanted to condemn our long
Arid thankless processions to the shadows
Because they wanted to tear up our lives
At the borders of oblivion
Ali La Pointe, son of a land that took up arms
Sole penance, disturbing spacious nights
Who wrestled down infamy, devoured disdain
At first sight of their guns
Here he is indicting at one more meeting
Their blood-gorged breath; he is there
For those who know the universe at the dark hour
Furies of one shared past!
His face—mirror of cruelties—where a chorus of cries
Fuses our hope, sharpens our freedom
Here he is again, living hostage in the wrinkles around
Our eyes where the new sun has driven away
Shame and emptiness forever. I say: spotted, wrinkled, polished fruits.
We sow because death is determined
Because death is stronger than hunger
O mother country, he called you Certainty before his rapture
Then gave himself to the flames to restore
Your sovereign brightness.
Yesterday strapped down once more by insults of the lords and masters
Swallowed up by incest misery
He loved the humble, set tenderness free
Devoured the past
At the multiple hour of inheritance
When our joy tells the beads of present freedoms
When his name is whispered in our silences
I cry out: Child of the Casbah
Spring thaw on the ramparts
You broke the chains of the forbidden gardens
“Sous un tas de décombres” © Djamal Amrani. Translation © 2019 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from La nuit du dedans, the poet reflects on the secret corners of his home.
Who will tell the sun about my land
my harried medlar tree
my springtime without nervures
my helpful hand
Who will recount my rootless
and my door open
to all comers
my night of faraway sounds
my wheat that absorbs
Who will cure me
of my sequestration
and sweet secret
—my monochrome dream
my space gone gray at the temples
the barter of my frenzy
the slumber at the edge
of my well of fever
My steppe with an abundance of laughter
Perhaps it would be enough . . .
But I watch
"La Nuit du dedans" © Djamal Amrani. Translation © 2019 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.
References and Further Reading
Alves, Miriam.Mulher Mat(r)iz. Belo Horizonte: Nandyala, 2011.
Alves, Miriam. Entrevista. Duke, Dawn (Org.). A escritora afro-brasileira: ativismo e arte literária. Belo Horizonte: Nandyala, 2016.
Barretto, Lima. Obras Completas. Barbosa, Francisco de Assis (Org.). São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1956.
Cruz e Sousa, João da, 1861-1898. Obra Completa. Organização de Andrade Murici. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Aguiar, 1995.
Cuti (Luiz Silva). Negroesia: antologia poética. Belo Horizonte: Mazza Edições, 2007.
Cuti (Luiz Silva). Literatura Negro-Brasileira. São Paulo: Selo Negro, 2010.
Cuti (Luiz Silva). Lima Barreto. São Paulo: Selo Negro, 2011.
Cuti. Conceição nos Cadernos Negros. In: Ocupação Conceição Evaristo. Disponível em: http://www.itaucultural.org.br/ocupacao/conceicao-evaristo/escrevivencia/. Acesso em: 05 mar. 2018.
Cruz e Sousa. Obras completas. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Aguilar, 1995.
Dalcastagnè, Regina. Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea: um território contestado. Vinhedo: Editora Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro: Editora da UERJ, 2012.
Duarte, Eduardo de Assis (Org.). Machado de Assis afro-descendente: escritos de caramujo. Belo Horizonte: Crisálida, 2007.
Duarte, Eduardo de Assis; Fonseca, Maria Nazareth Soares (Orgs.). Literatura e afrodescendência no Brasil: antologia crítica. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2011.
Duke, Dawn (Org,). A escritora afro-brasileira: ativismo e arte literária. Belo Horizonte: Nandyala, 2016.
Evaristo, Conceição. Poemas da recordação e outros movimentos. Belo Horizonte: Nandyala, 2008.
Evaristo, Conceição. Literatura negra: uma poética de nossa afro-brasilidade. Scripta,Belo Horizonte, v.13, n. 25. 2º semestre, p. 17-31, 2009.
Farias, Tom. Carolina: uma biografia. Rio de Janeiro: Malê, 2018.
Fonseca, Maria Nazaré Soares. Literatura negra, literatura afro-brasileira: como responder à polêmica?. In: SOUZA, Florentina & LIMA, Maria Nazaré (Orgs.) Literatura afro-brasileira. Salvador: Centro de Estudos Afro-Orientais; Brasília: Fundação Cultural Palmares, 2006.
Gama, Luiz. Primeiras trovas burlescas de Getulino. Salvador: P55 Edições, 2011.
Gomes, Heloísa Toller. Algumas palavras sobre a tessitura poética de Olhos D’água. In: DUARTE, Constância Lima; CÔRTES, Cristiane; PEREIRA, Maria do Rosário A. (Org.). Escrevivências: identidade, gênero e violência na obra de Conceição Evaristo. Belo Horizonte: Idea, 2016.
Gonçalves, Ana Maria. Um defeito de cor. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2006.
Jesus, Carolina Maria de. Quarto de despejo: diário de uma favelada. São Paulo: Editora Ática, 1995.
Jesus, Carolina Maria de. Meu sonho é escrever...contos inéditos e outros escritos. FERNANDEZ, Rafaella (Org.). São Paulo: Ciclo Contínuo Editorial, 2018.
Menucci, Sud. “A carta abolicionista de Luiz Gama a Lúcio de Mendonça”. In: O precursor do abolicionismo no Brasil. São Paulo: Cia. Editora Nacional, 1938.
Quilombhoje. Cadernos Negros: os melhores poemas. São Paulo: Quilombhoje, 2008.
Reis, Maria Firmina dos. Úrsula. Belo Horizonte: Editora PUC Minas, 2017.
Ribeiro, Esmeralda; Barbosa, Márcio. Cadernos negros: os melhores poemas. São Paulo: Quilombhoje, 2008.
Silva, Franciane Conceição da. Corpos Dilacerados: a violência em contos de escritoras africanas e afro-brasileiras. Tese de Doutorado. Programa de Pós-Graduação em Letras da Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais, 2018. Disponível em: http://www.biblioteca.pucminas.br/teses/Letras_SilvaFC_1.pdf. Acesso em: 12 nov. 2018.
Sobral, Cristiane. Só por hoje vou deixar meu cabelo em paz. Brasília: Ed. Teixeira, 2014.
In this excerpt from Yu Miri's Tokyo Ueno Station, forthcoming in 2019 from Tilted Axis Press, a homeless man remembers a parental failure.
There’s that sound again.
I hear it.
But I don’t know if it’s in my ears or in my mind.
I don’t know if it’s inside me or outside.
I don’t know when it was, or who it was either.
Is that important?
Was it important?
Who was it?
I used to think life was like a book: you turn the first page, and there’s the next, and as you go on turning page after page, eventually you reach the last one, but life is nothing like a story in a book. There may be words, and the pages may be numbered, but there is no plot. There may be an ending, but there is no end.
Like a sculpted tree on the vacant land where a rotted house has been torn down.
Like the water in a vase from which wilted flowers have been removed.
But then what of me remains here?
A sense of tiredness.
I was always tired.
There was never a time I was not tired.
Not when life had its claws in me, or when I escaped from it.
I did not live with intent, I only lived.
But that's over.
I watch slowly, like always.
It’s not the same scene but it is similar.
Somewhere in this dull scene, there's pain.
In this seemingly familiar time, there are moments of hurt.
I look closer.
There are lots of people.
Each and every one different.
Each and every one with different minds, different faces, bodies and hearts.
I know that, of course.
But seen from a distance, they all look just the same, or similar.
Each and every face looks like nothing so much as a small pool of water.
I’m watching for myself on the day I first set foot on the platform at Ueno Station, in the throng of people waiting for the Yamanote Line inner loop train to arrive.
I used to look at my appearance reflected in mirrors, glass panes, and pictures, and I had no confidence in myself. I do not think I was especially ugly, but I never had the kind of looks anyone would have gazed at.
My reticence and my incompetence troubled me more than my appearance, but most intolerable was my unluckiness.
I had no luck.
I hear that sound again. Just that sound, like blood coursing—like a vivid current—back then, I heard nothing but that sound, running around inside my skull, like there was a hive in my head and hundreds of bees were trying to fly out all at once, it buzzed and burned and hurt, I could think of nothing anymore, my eyelids twitched and trembled as if they were being hit by raindrops, I clenched my fists, all the muscles in my body tensed—
It ripped me to shreds, but the sound wouldn’t die.
I couldn't catch it, trap it, or lead it far away.
I couldn't close my ears to it and I couldn't get away.
Ever since then, that sound has lived with me.
“The train now approaching platform two is for Ikebukuro and Shinjuku. For your safety, please stand behind the yellow line.”
When you go out the ticket gates at the Park Exit of Ueno Station, there are always homeless people sitting on the enclosure around the thicket of ginkgo trees opposite the crossing.
When I sat there, I felt like an only child who had been orphaned, but in fact both of my parents, who had never left their village in Sōma, Fukushima Prefecture, had lived into their nineties, and following my own birth in 1933, my parents had four daughters and three sons: Haruko, Fukiko, Hideo, Naoko, Michiko, Katsuo, and Masao.
The fourteen years between Masao and me made him more like my child than my brother.
But time had passed.
And here I sat, alone, growing older—
During my brief, light slumbers I would snore, exhausted—and when my eyes opened now and then the netlike shadow traced by the leaves of the ginkgoes would sway, and I felt that I was wandering directionless despite being here, despite having been here in this park, for years—
“Enough.” The word shot from the man who had appeared to be asleep; white smoke rose, slowly, from his mouth and nostrils. The cherry of the cigarette he held in his right hand looked like it would soon burn his fingers. Years of sweat and grime had changed the colors of his clothing beyond recognition, but with his tweed flat cap, checkered coat, and brown leather boots, he looked like an English huntsman.
A car climbed Yamashita-dori toward Uguisudani. The lights turned green, the signal for the visually impaired bleeped, and the people coming out of the station at the Park Exit started to cross the road.
The man leaned forward at the sight of the people crossing the road—people with beautiful decorated homes—as if he were searching for the limits of his vision—and then, hand trembling, as though this gesture took all the strength he had left, he brought the cigarette up to his mouth to inhale—his beard more white than not—then exhaled as he put the thought behind him, spreading his aged fingers to drop the cigarette, snuffing out the embers with the toe of his faded boot.
Another man with a large translucent trash bag full of scavenged aluminum cans between his legs clung in his sleep to a clear vinyl umbrella as if it were a cane.
A woman with white hair tied up in a bun with a rubber band lay face down on the maroon backpack at her side, using her arms as a pillow.
The faces had changed, and the numbers had gone down.
After the asset bubble burst the population swelled, and the park was so blanketed with tarp huts everywhere beyond the paths and the facilities that you could no longer see the ground or the grass.
When an eviction, a “hunting expedition,” took place before members of the Imperial family were due to visit one of the museums or galleries in the park, we would be forced to take down our tents and driven out of the park, and when we would return after dark to our former site, they had erected signs saying, “Lawn maintenance in progress—please keep off the grass,” and our choice of where we could build our huts would further shrink.
Many of the homeless in Ueno Imperial Gift Park came from the North East.
“The Gateway to the North”—during the post-war economic boom, young people from the North East had taken overnight trains en masse to search for work in the capital, and they all first set foot at Ueno Station. And when they went back home for the holidays with only the bags they could carry, they had caught their trains at Ueno.
Fifty years had passed; parents and siblings had died, and the family homes we should have returned to had disappeared for the people passing day after day in this park.
The homeless people sitting on the concrete enclosure around the grove of ginkgo trees are all either sleeping or eating.
A man wearing a dark-blue baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes and a khaki button-down shirt was eating a bento off the lap of his black trousers.
We never lacked for food.
There was an unspoken agreement with the many long-established restaurants in Ueno: after they had closed for the night, many places did not lock their back doors. Inside, clearly set apart from the food waste, the unsold food would be divided and put into neat bags.
Convenience stores, too, would put together bentos, sandwiches, and pastries past their best-before date in the area next to the dumpster, so if we went before the trash was collected, we could claim anything we wanted. When it was nice out we had to eat the food that day, but when it was cold, we could keep it in our huts for days and heat it up on camping stoves.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall provided us with curry and rice; on Fridays, it was the End of the Earth Mission Church; and on Saturdays, the Missionaries of Charity distributed food. Missionaries of Charity was Mother Teresa’s, and End of the Earth Mission Church was Korean. They had banners which said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and young girls with long hair who sang hymns and strummed guitars—women with frizzy perms stirring giant pots with ladles—homeless people would come from as far away as Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Asakusa, so often the line would be long, nearly five hundred strong. When the hymns and sermons were done with, they distributed the food. Kimchi rice with ham and cheese and sausage, rice and beans with yakisoba, sweet bread with coffee . . . Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, praise the Lord’s name, hallelujah, hallelujah—
“I’m hungry, Mama.”
“You want some of this?”
“Don’t want it.”
“Well, then, Mama’s gonna eat it all.”
“No, Mama, don’t!”
A little girl of about five years, in a short-sleeved dress pale pink as cherry blossoms, walks with her head turned to look up at her mother, whose body-hugging, leopard-print dress suggests a job in the night-time economy.
Another young woman in a navy blue suit passes them, her heels clicking.
Just then, a sudden downpour strikes the deep canopy of the cherry trees and falls onto the white paving stones, leaving its dark footprints here and there.
Even in the rain the stream of people never stops.
Under their umbrellas side by side, two old women in loose blouses and identical black slacks chat as they walk.
“It was twenty-two this morning, wasn’t it?”
“You can’t say it’s cold, but it is chilly, I feel like I could freeze!”
“What a chilly rain!”
“You know, Ryuji won't stop going on about his stepmother’s cooking.”
“Oh, how dreadful for you.”
“He thinks I could learn a few things from her.”
“So awful, isn’t it, this rain.”
“And the rainy season’s just begun, we’ve got another month of this to look forward to.”
“Are the hydrangeas in bloom now, do you think?”
“Oh, not yet.”
“And the Japanese oaks?”
“They’re not in season either.”
“Things have changed around here a bit, haven’t they? I’m sure that wasn’t a Starbucks.”
“Yes, it’s got a bit chic, hasn’t it?”
This is the lane of cherry trees.
Every year in mid-April this area is crowded with people who’ve come to drink and eat under the blossoms.
When the cherry trees are in bloom we don’t need to go looking for food.
We can eat and drink people’s leftovers, and with the ground sheets they leave behind we get brand new roofs and walls for our huts, replacing tarps which have crumpled and begun to leak over the past year.
Today is Monday, the zoo is closed.
I never took my children to the zoo.
I came to work in Tokyo at the end of 1963. Yoko was five and Koichi was three then.
The pandas came to Ueno Zoo nine years later. The kids were both in middle school by then, past the age when they would want to go to the zoo.
I didn’t take them to the zoo, nor to the amusement park, the seaside, the mountains; I never went to their beginning-of-year ceremonies or graduations or to a parents’ open day or to a sports day, not even once.
I went back only twice a year, in summer and in winter, to my village in Fukushima where my parents, my brothers and sisters, and my wife and children waited for me.
One year when I was able to return a few days before the Bon holidays, there was a festival or something, and I took my children to Haramachi for a day out.
Haramachi was only one station from Kashima, but it was the height of summer and it was hot on the train, making me lethargic. Hit by drowsiness, the children’s excited voices and my half-hearted responses felt indistinct as if I were in a fog, while the train cut through the endless landscapes of sky, mountains, farmland and rice fields, passing through the tunnel before accelerating. I saw my children’s hands, outstretched like geckos, and their foreheads and lips glued to the window, beyond which there was only blue and green. The tang of their sweat filled my nose and for just a few moments I let my head drop.
When we got off at Haramachi, the ticket inspector told us that we might be able to take a helicopter ride in Hibarigahara, so I set off down the Hamakaido Road with Yoko’s hand in my right and Koichi’s in my left.
Koichi, who saw me too rarely to even miss me and never tried to pull anything or get his way, squeezed my hand. “Daddy, I want to go on the helicopter.” I can see his face clearly now in my mind, wanting to say something, opening and closing his mouth several times before he finally spoke and, in the end, turning bright red as if in anger. But I had no money. The helicopter ride cost about three thousand yen at that time, or over thirty thousand in today’s money . . . It was too much.
Instead, I bought them each a Matsunaga ice cream, which cost one hundred fifty yen then. Yoko brightened up immediately, but Koichi turned his back to me and began to cry, his body shaking with sobs as he watched the helicopter take off, full of boys with wealthy parents.
He pawed at his tears with his fists.
That day, the sky was as blue as a strip of cloth. I wanted to give him that helicopter ride, but I couldn’t afford it, and so I couldn’t—I still regret it. And ten years later, on that awful day, that regret again stabbed my heart, it is still with me now, it never leaves—
From Tokyo Ueno Station, forthcoming in 2019 from Tilted Axis Press. Translation © 2019 by Morgan Giles. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
Sam Bett deconstructs the myth of an ethnically homogenous Japan and illuminates its rich, if underrepresented, diversity.
An image has been circulating of a bold red circle paired with a dizzying caption: “Did You Know? Japan's flag is also a pie chart of how much Japan is Japan.” This incidental graph has one value, comprising 100% of its total, as indicated by the redundant data caption: “Japan is Japan.” While humorous for its discovery of an infographic in the obtuse realm of vexillology, and printed on coffee mugs available for purchase, it points squarely, through its red circle, at the tenacious and harmful myth of a monoethnic Japanese society. For much of the world, and indeed much of Japan, Japan is Japan. But how does this jibe with reality?
According to the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, as of May 2018, the population of “Japanese people” was 124,354,000. In contrast, according to the Japanese Ministry of Justice, as of the end of June 2018, there were 2,637,251 “mid- to long-term residents” living in Japan. These statistics are further broken down by nationality into 28.1% Chinese, 17.2% Korean, 11.1% Vietnamese, 10.1% Filipino, 7.5% Brazilian, and 3.2% Nepalese. The most telling aspect of this second data set is that it describes foreign nationals, not Japanese citizens. Rather than picking apart the pie chart, we are looking at another graph entirely. Comparable demographics on the ethnic breakdown of Japanese citizens, if kept at all, are certainly not circulated, and impossible to find when researching in English. This obscures the identities of people with multiple heritages, including Okinawans, many of whom do not identify foremost as Japanese due to their Ryukyuan ancestry. In this sense, Japan, by its own definition, continues to be a red disc.
This feature offers a limited sampling of writing from the underrepresented minorities of Japan: authors who write in Japanese but whose heritage classifies them outside of Japanese ethnicity. Shirin Nezammafi, an Iranian writer who writes in Japanese, was born in 1979 in Tehran, Iran, where she grew up speaking Farsi, before moving to Japan as a young adult. Yu Miri, a Zainichi Korean writer, was born in Yokohama in 1968, and is one of only a handful of writers who are not ethnically Japanese to have received the prestigious Akutagawa prize. Shun Medoruma, born in Okinawa in 1960, is a writer and activist whose work focuses on memory and trauma, and often confronts the US military presence in Okinawa. What these authors share, as insiders to the Japanese language, is a firsthand perspective on a culture whose monoethnic self-image often excludes them by default but to which they nevertheless assert their membership, while deftly prodding at its morals, folkways, and assumptions.
In an excerpt from Shirin Nezammafi’s novel Salam, translated here by Aoi Matsushima, an Iranian student studying in Japan is enlisted to interpret for the immigration attorney Tanaka and his client Leila, a teenage Hazara refugee in Japan applying for asylum. We visit Leila in an immigrant detention center, essentially a prison, where the narrator encounters a guard “almost too well built" to come across as Japanese, and describes Leila as the type of person "you only see in films these days.” Doing her best to interpret between two foreign cultures, she thumbs her Dari dictionary and relays to Tanaka what details she can glean of Leila’s family: a brother killed by shrapnel, another living with their father, about whom she is unwilling to speak. The narrator fixates on Leila’s “khaki” eyes, “reflecting the scarf around her hair,” and marvels at the cracked skin of her hands: “She had never even used hand cream.” All of this is happening, originally, in Japanese, but neither the seer nor the seen is explicitly a part of Japanese society.
The excerpt from Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles, delves into the day-to-day of the homeless population around Ueno Station, among whom the narrator is living. The focus is community and family: in the first few lines, the narrator, the eldest child in his family, lists the names of all seven of his siblings, and notes how the age difference between him and the youngest makes the latter feel, to him, “more like my child than my brother.” In a reminiscence of a rare outing with his own children, he recalls their “hands, outstretched like geckos’, and their foreheads and their lips glued to the window.” These images of extreme proximity nevertheless suggest unfamiliarity, as if his own children belong to a different world.
In the glimpse provided here of Shun Medoruma’s novel Rainbow Bird, translated by Sam Malissa, the main character, Katsuya, turns away from quotidian detail by popping a rented sci-fi movie into the VCR. We rocket through a kaleidoscopic and graphic hallucination experienced simultaneously by an entire team of Soviet first responders to a meteorite that has fallen into the forest. Battlefields of spears and axes melt into primeval hunts and “a million-year-old animal struggle for survival.” The imagery oscillates between the celestial and the personal, settling on the specter of a baby in a stroller, who soon crawls across the floor to Katsuya, who is unsure if he is still watching the movie or perhaps experiencing his own hallucination. The final image is one of gravity, or rather its absence: “The weight of the baby disappears,” a statement pointing at the way even feverish trauma can be willfully blocked from public consciousness when we treat it as a record rather than a part of who we are.
As goes for the whole of Japanese literature, much of the writing from these minority voices of Japan remains untranslated into English. Key works awaiting exposure outside Japan include the public-domain essays of twentieth-century Okinawan poet Baku Yamanokuchi; the writings of Yourou Wen, born in Taiwan to Taiwanese parents, especially her 2015 essay collection, Born in Taiwan, Raised in Japanese; fiction from Yang Seok-il, a Zainichi Korean author born in Osaka, whose work as a Tokyo taxi driver led to his 1981 debut novel, Taxi Rhapsody; and fiction from Yang Yi, who became the first non-native Japanese speaker to win the Akutagawa Prize for her 2008 novel, A Morning When Time Blurs. As a new generation of Japanese translators engages with a progressively diverse array of authors, we can look forward to hearing more of these minority voices outside of Japanese for the first time.
"Beyond the Circle: Minority Voices of Japan" © Sam Bett. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
Rainbow Bird tells the story of Katsuya, a young Okinawan man longing to escape his life in the criminal underworld of the island where he grew up. Set in 1995 shortly after three U.S. servicemen stationed in Okinawa kidnapped and raped a twelve-year-old girl, the story unfolds against a backdrop of protests and mass demonstrations. Katsuya’s job is to force women to prostitute themselves while he photographs the transaction, then blackmails the clients. When his newest girl, Mayu, begins viciously attacking the men she is set up with, Katsuya senses that his world is becoming unstable. Weighing sympathy for Mayu against self-preservation, he faces a choice: tell his violent boss about the attacks or cover them up. As he tries to figure out what to do, the story reaches back into his past, revealing a dark history of dangerous school gangs and desperate legends about a rainbow bird in the jungle that holds the power of life and death. This excerpt comes late in the story, as Mayu is starting to fall apart and Katsuya is having a harder and harder time dodging his boss.
Katsuya got a bottle of water from the fridge and went back to his room. He grabbed the whiskey off the shelf and pulled at it, drank some water, then more whiskey. Opened the desk drawer and took out the sheet of pills, tearing the silver foil and spilling two into his palm. He crushed them between his teeth, washed them down with a swig, then inserted the rental video into the machine. Sinking into the bed, he fast-forwarded through the previews until the film started.
It was an older movie. A meteorite crashes to the ground, deep in a forest in the Soviet hinterlands. A team is sent in to investigate. The force of impact has flattened the trees for miles around, and once the five members of the team enter the surreal landscape they are all overcome by the same hallucination.
A condensed history of all the conflict and slaughter that has unfolded since the dawn of life on earth. The members of the team join the endless battles, becoming warriors from different times and places, becoming life-forms other than human. A war fought with spears and axes hundreds of years ago, a hunt for great beasts thousands of years in the past, a million-year-old animal struggle for survival. The setting lurches from age to age and land to land, space is warped, the colors grow too vivid and shapes begin to blur, until form and color collapse and reform and the world appears as though through the eyes of some new creature.
Katsuya wasn’t sure if what he was seeing was the movie image of the investigative team’s hallucination or his own drug-induced vision. His body was heavy and slack. He might even have been dreaming.
Sound and color shudder and bleed as the vision flows onward, human against human, humans against other organisms, mammals and birds, fish and insects and plants, all killing each other, then breeding, then killing again. The great toppled trees snap back upright, the frigid climate turns tropical, and amid the strangling heat and damp of the forest, thousands of battles, millions. Reptiles and invertebrates and vegetation locked in endless cycles of combat, then the scene shifts and the struggles of ancient life-forms unfold in the sea and sky. Grotesque fish and squid and ichthyosaurs tear at each other's flesh as they swim through water black with blood, gargantuan birds swoop down from a dizzyingly multihued sky to slash with beak and talon at giant jellyfish that glow like clouds of fireflies.
In the end the hallucinating members of the investigative team kill each other, their fallen bodies left to be devoured by animals and insects and bacteria. The last surviving member takes his own life. A flock of birds peck at his corpse before winging off between the dark clouds and toppled trees. After a long while they reach the edge of the forest and a city bristling with high-rises comes into view. The birds fly away beyond the rooftops, but one little sky-blue bird breaks from the flock and flutters down between the buildings to a park, toward a stroller. It lands on the outstretched finger of a cooing baby. The camera zooms in on the bird’s head, and in the depths of its jet-black eye appears a forest. The baby is there, standing against a tree, only now it’s grown up, and naked. A hand hanging at its side, clutching a knife covered with blood.
The mother’s voice calls out and the screen fills with the baby’s innocent face. The bird hops over to the mother’s open hand, and she exclaims with delight while her baby burbles happily. The little sky-blue bird hops now to the hood of the carriage and begins to sing sweetly. Its head is cocked as it sings, then for an instant it seems to flash an insinuating smile. The mother pushes the stroller through the park under the vivid red maple leaves, headed back to her apartment, walking away from the camera as the film ends.
Even after the credits stopped rolling and the blue government warning turned into a blizzard of static, Katsuya kept staring at the screen, a vague grin on his face. His body was dead, but his eyes were alive, transmitting images to his brain. The baby from the movie is crawling across the floor toward him. He tries to escape but he can’t move, can’t even scream. Somehow he manages to shut his eyes. He feels the pressure of the baby’s hands and knees on his thighs, he does everything he can to ignore it—and then he hears the click and whirr of the videotape auto-rewinding. The weight of the baby disappears. The images flicker up from the depths of his mind but never quite take form, instead being sucked back down into the darkness as sleep spreads out from behind his eyes.
From Rainbow Bird © Shun Medoruma. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 Sam Malissa. All rights reserved.
When a lawyer and his interpreter visit a Hazara woman in a Japanese prison, they discover there are questions she can't—or won't—answer.
Mr. Tanaka filled in two copies of the visitors’ application form and passed them to the man on the other side of the small reception window. A few minutes later, a heavy iron door opened in front of us, and a tall, sturdy policeman appeared. He was almost too well built to be Japanese, his muscles bursting out of his uniform.
“Please come this way,” he said. He ushered us through the door, entered himself, and locked the door behind us. We found ourselves in a long, narrow corridor. Iron doors lined both sides, with the occasional small window, so it was very dark. Though it was morning, little daylight reached here, but some small lamps provided just enough light to see right in front of you. The corridor would be pretty scary at night, like something out of a horror film.
The big policeman guided us to one of the rooms off the corridor. It was filled with lockers. We were told to leave all our belongings here. My bag was searched thoroughly at a security check before we entered the building, and we had left our mobile phones and keys downstairs, so I assumed we were ready to go into the interview room without yet another layer of screening . . . Mr. Tanaka mumbled unhappily to himself. This was inconvenient: he had too many files to carry without a bag. Frowning, he emptied his bag. If I had known my bag would be searched, I wouldn’t have brought that pink sparkling cosmetics pouch or the spare nylon stockings. Worse still, my bag was full of used tissues because I had a runny nose . . . I was flooded with embarrassment when the guard saw them.
I took out my essentials—a dictionary and a pen case—and left the room. Mr. Tanaka had a little argument with the policeman over whether he could take his bag with him, but in the end he took out a pen case and some very thick files and put his bag in the locker. The big policeman guided us further along the corridor where a second policeman appeared. He greeted Mr. Tanaka, unlocked the door in front of us, then stood aside to allow us to enter. I followed Mr. Tanaka into the room, and the tall policeman followed us, closed the door, and stood guard.
The room was relatively small and as gray as the rest of the building. A glass panel divided it in two, which made the whole room look much smaller. There were three chairs in front of the glass panel, and Mr. Tanaka chose one at the end. I sat at the other end, leaving a chair between us. A little later, on the other side of the panel, a door opened and a policeman came into the room, bowed slightly to us through the glass, then turned around and gestured for someone to enter. Behind him, a slender girl of medium height entered the room, her eyes downcast. She was wearing colorful, baggy clothes of the traditional sort and a long khaki headscarf with sparkly patterns tied around her hair. She reminded me of a nomad out in the countryside, the sort of person you only see in films. The policeman pointed at the single chair on the other side of the panel, and returned to his position by the door. She was still looking down, not at us, and just sat, hands in her lap, without uttering a word. She never made eye contact with us as we stared at her intently.
Mr. Tanaka cleared his throat and began the session.
“Salam!” He greeted her in Dari to be friendly. I saw the large transparent file folder by his feet, and noticed a thin, colorful leaflet for children in it, listing “greetings from around the world.”
The girl kept looking down, without reacting or raising her eyes.
Mr. Tanaka glanced at me. That was his sign: please interpret.
“I’m Tanaka,” he said, a bit nervously. “You must have been told that, as of today, I am here to defend you. There’s nothing to be afraid of, so let’s work together.” It was a very Japanese greeting, and after saying what he wanted to say, he looked relieved. He shifted in his seat and turned to me. But just as I began to translate, he suddenly stood up from his chair saying, “Oh, excuse me!” as if to himself. He pulled out a business card from the inside pocket of his jacket and slipped it through a small hole in the glass. She couldn’t hide her surprise at his sudden action, and looked up to glance briefly at us.
It was only for a moment, but I was struck by the look on her face. Her eyes were cloudy and without expression, as though the lights were turned off. They didn’t look at all like the eyes of a living creature—it was as if they were made of plastic. There was no movement or expression, and I couldn’t help wondering if she could see anything with those quiet eyes.
Mr. Tanaka’s voice brought me back to myself. As he watched me, I began to translate his words, slowly, so she wouldn’t find it difficult to understand my accent.
She didn’t react at all. I had expected her to be happy to hear Dari again after a long time. But she showed no recognition. Mr. Tanaka gave me a doubtful look, and continued.
“In order to work together, you need to answer all my questions. I need to ask you various things, and it may be a bit hard for you, but it’s all for your sake, so please try to answer.”
She still didn’t respond. Mr. Tanaka gave me a sidelong glance. I protested quietly: “I translated exactly what you said!”
She took hold of the edge of the long khaki headscarf and started to wind it around the fingers of her other hand. Her hands were tanned, wrinkled, hardened, the skin of her fingers cracked. Dirt had accumulated and blackened her short nails. They were the hands of someone who had never heard of hand cream.
She didn’t seem to listen to Mr. Tanaka or to me. His business card lay there ignored. Mr. Tanaka took out a stack of documents from his clear plastic folder and looked at his list of questions.
“What is your name?”
I interpreted his words for her. After a short silence, she replied “Leyla.” Her voice was faint, hard to hear, and surprisingly husky. She would have had no idea how sexy and exciting it would sound to male university students. As soon as he heard her response, Mr. Tanaka straightened up, looked at her happily, and then back to his questions. His voice rejuvenated as if his batteries had been recharged, he moved on to the next question.
“What is your family name?”
“When were you born?”
“In the summer.”
“I meant dates or years . . . ” He looked at me. The simple expression “date of birth” completely disappeared from my mind. I quickly took the Dari dictionary I’d bought a while ago from my bag and searched for the words I needed. Once I found the expression in Dari, I repeated the question. I closed my dictionary and looked up to find her looking at me with her enigmatic eyes. Perhaps my action of searching for the words was interesting. When our eyes met, I got goose bumps.
“I don’t know. My mother only told me I was born in the summer.”
Leyla’s eyes dropped again. I took a closer look at her face, her tanned skin, the beautiful bone structure. The wrinkles around her eyes and mouth deepened as she spoke. She looked like a teenager, but her skin seemed thirty years older. She was young, but her skin was worse than a hardworking middle-aged woman’s, completely dried out.
Mr. Tanaka looked puzzled. “Do you know how old you are?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Probably seventeen or eighteen!”
Mr. Tanaka was beginning to sound frustrated at the prospect of having to defend someone who didn’t even know how old she was.
“I don’t know. My brother says I’m seventeen, but my mother always said a year older.”
Troubled, Mr. Tanaka looked up at the policeman in front of the door, as if asking for help. The policeman said, matter-of-factly, “A lot of people don’t know their age. They don’t have proper ID cards or passports.”
“Well, what can I do?”
Mr. Tanaka held his head with one hand, tilted his body a little. With the other hand he took a small hand towel from his trouser pocket and wiped sweat from his forehead.
“It’s OK not to be too precise. It’s the same with everyone,” said the policeman, clearly used to this sort of answer.
“OK, let’s say seventeen, then. Or should I believe her mother and say eighteen?”
He wrote something down on the sheet of paper in front of him.
“Where were you born?”
“Mazar-e Sharif,” she replied in her low, nearly inaudible voice.
“Mazar . . . You must have had a hard time.”
Mr. Tanaka looked at his documents.
“You are a Hazara, aren’t you?”
She paused for a moment then nodded slightly, without saying a word.
“I see . . .” Mr. Tanaka mumbled to himself.
“Where are your parents now?”
She replied, looking down, “My mother died.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s very unfortunate.”
While jotting down his notes, he did not forget to add a word of condolence. Then he mumbled something, which I didn’t need to translate.
“And your father?”
When I translated this question, Leyla suddenly looked up. She gazed at me with those blank, enigmatic eyes. I’d never seen eyes of such a color: neither brown nor gray, they could be described as khaki, reflecting the scarf around her hair.
Mr. Tanaka’s radar picked up her concern, and he added quickly: “As you already know, we are friends. We are here to help you, so please don’t worry about telling me anything.”
While translating, I realized that I had become a part of this circle of “friends” who were strangers to each other. Who were the friends of this young girl without hand cream? An idle student and a plump lawyer!
“My father is in Pakistan.”
She stopped winding the khaki material between her fingers. Still blank, unlit, motionless, her eyes were gazing into the far distance.
“I don’t know.”
“What does he do?”
Leyla looked down. A few minutes passed without a word. She clearly had no intention of answering any questions about her father. Mr. Tanaka sighed deeply.
“I can’t do anything until you tell me what you know.”
She didn’t react. She was absolutely determined not to give away any information about her father.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Giving up on the father, Mr. Tanaka had changed tack.
“I have two older brothers.”
“Where are they now?”
“One is dead. The other is with my father.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Could you tell me how he died?”
“In the war. A piece of shrapnel hit his head. I didn’t see his body.”
As I translated the cold facts that she disclosed in a matter-of-fact tone, I felt cold sweat run down my spine.
“What does your brother do with your father?”
“He is helping my father.”
“Can you tell me what he does?”
Again, a few minutes passed without a word from Leyla.
Mr. Tanaka looked at his watch.
“It’s about time.”
I followed his eyes to his watch. So late! Without realizing it, we had been in the room for two hours. This interview was not what we had hoped for. Mr. Tanaka had warned me that the first interview was always tiring—the goal was not to get a lot of information, but to build trust.
Many people don’t like to be interrogated by lawyers. You are bombarded by someone you don’t really know with questions that required accurate answers and a clear memory. Lawyers wade into the depths of privacy with their shoes on until they get information that will appeal to the court. However you see it, the questioning will reach the point where the word “privacy” means nothing. Clients answer questions because the lawyers are there to defend them, but they never open up their hearts. Mr. Tanaka must have thought his job through and understood that he had to proceed gently so the client wouldn’t clam up. Crossing his arms, shaking his head, he told me:
“These days we’re in the IT era, and some young lawyers are so careless that they type private information into a computer in front of the client. They’ve got no idea how cold-hearted and unconcerned it makes them look. My policy, at least, is never to enter information into a PC in front of a client. I may waste time later transferring the info from a notebook to a PC, but it means I can spend the precious time with the client chatting like friends. That’s really important to building a relationship. Making eye contact with the client while talking is the most important thing. If you do that, you’ll be able to understand each other’s small reactions and facial movements, then eventually you can talk about everything.”
Quite surprisingly given his appearance, Mr. Tanaka spoke passionately about his method of working with clients. But would it work with this girl on the other side of the glass panel, eyes downcast, headscarf wound around her fingers?
“Thank you very much for speaking with me today. I’m planning to come again next Tuesday.”
While talking to Leyla, Mr. Tanaka glanced at the policeman standing behind her as if to confirm that this was OK.
“That’s fine, just leave your name and the time slot with the guard outside,” the policeman said.
“Thank you.” Mr. Tanaka stood up and nodded.
The policeman called to Leyla and opened the door behind her. She stood up without a word and disappeared through the door, without looking back at us.
The policeman behind us unlocked our door, and we were soon back in the locker room where we had been before. Our mobile phones and keys were on the table. We gathered our belonging and signed out. Mr. Tanaka offered me a lift to the station. We left the building together and got into his car. Before we left the premises, we passed a final check at the gate. The passenger-side rear-view mirror reflected the big, shining letters that spelled out “Border Agency” on the wall behind us.
Mr. Tanaka dropped me off, but I didn’t go straight to the train. I didn’t have any plans for the rest of the day. That didn’t mean that I could do whatever I wanted, but I didn’t feel like going back to the university. I just needed to get some fresh air outside the Border Agency center. It was nearly lunchtime, so the big shopping mall in the station was crowded with salarymen looking for somewhere to eat, housewives shopping for groceries at the supermarket, students who had finished classes early, and “freeters” who had nothing much to do.
The dark and scary Border Agency center only a few miles away seemed completely foreign here. The bustling station was bright and spacious, with a small park and even a play area, and ringed with advertisements for cram schools and English language colleges—so many schools of different types that made it hard to believe there was somebody who couldn’t even read or write her own language just a short distance away. There were signs for izakayas, karaoke bars, game centers—none of which Leyla had ever heard of. She had never even used hand cream.
I went into a small coffee shop, ordered a coffee, and sat by the window. The aroma of roasted coffee beans teased my nose. It was still too hot to drink, and as I waited for it to cool down a little, I looked around the café. Sitting there comfortably, in these relaxed surroundings, brought me back to my reality. This was where I was living, in this rich country. I picked up the cup of coffee and brought it closer to my face. It smelled wonderful.
© Shirin Nezammafi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2018 Aoi Matsushima. All rights reserved.
Little more than a month removed from the election of Jair Bolsonaro—who, in addition to being homophobic and misogynist, has adopted openly racist positions—Words Without Borders brings you this issue of Afro-Brazilian writing.
To assert that Bolsonaro is these things is not reducible merely to a political argument: he has repeatedly made derogatory references about minority groups, including insults about residents of quilombos, the maroon communities established over centuries by fugitive enslaved Brazilians, and a promise to put an end to the “whining” of the underprivileged in Brazil’s Northeast. (Black people constitute a majority of the population in the region, which has long been ridiculed by some people in the southeastern and southern parts of the country, which tend to be whiter and wealthier.) Bolsonaro's vice president-elect, Antônio Hamilton Mourão, also has declared that Brazilians inherited a lazy nature from the Africans brought to Brazil via the slave trade. Earlier this year, Rio alderwoman Marielle Franco, a queer advocate for the rights of her city’s black and LGBTQ communities, was the victim of a political assassination. The perpetrators, more than two hundred days later, have yet to be arrested.
It might be hard to believe then that during the late nineteenth century, a black man was among the country’s most celebrated writers. His name was Machado de Assis. Many have suggested that white Brazilian elites extolled Machado in part because he did not address race—a viewpoint that has grown less popular recently. However, it is true that the symbolist poet João da Cruz e Souza, a black contemporary of Machado’s who grappled more directly with race than did Machado, did not enjoy anywhere near the same degree of success. In many ways, these same questions of race and recognition remain unsettled to the present day.
In a 1990 essay in the New Yorker, Susan Sontag declared Machado to be the greatest writer that Latin America has ever produced. Machado enjoyed critical acclaim during his lifetime and was the first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters upon its founding in 1897. But his relationship to and place within a tradition of Afro-Brazilian or a black Brazilian literature is not clear-cut, in part because the definition of Afro-Brazilianness and black literature remains unsettled. For this reason, as Brazilian literary critic Eduardo de Assis Duarte has noted, not a few people were caught off-guard by Harold Bloom’s declaration in his 2002 work Genius that Machado must be considered “the greatest black writer in universal literature.” (That there was a conscious campaign for years to “whiten” Machado de Assis, who has been described as a pre-Proustian Proust and who has been situated within a largely European pantheon that includes Shakespeare, Sterne, Flaubert, and Gogol, is not in dispute.)
The problem with how to characterize or define an Afro-Brazilian literature begins with the term itself. Many Afro-Brazilian writers, among them the much-celebrated Conceição Evaristo—the only black writer to win Brazil’s vaunted Jabuti Prize, in 2013—prefer the term black literature (literatura negra) or black Brazilian literature. Some activists have suggested that the term "Afro-Brazilian" is yet another erasure of the black experience, a more palatable denomination aimed at emphasizing the Brazilian element over the black. But the question runs much deeper than the arrival at an agreed nomenclature. What is an Afro-Brazilian or a black Brazilian literature? Who writes it?
Here is where terminology and questions of representation and appropriation start to grow muddled. For some, literatura afro-brasileira is a term that encompasses books written about, but not necessarily by, Brazilians of African descent. This idea has more adherents than a U.S. audience might expect, its proponents being agreeable to the fact that literary identities are more fluid and often overlap. We can see just what degree of havoc this wreaks when we come to the work of Mário de Andrade, one of the leaders of Brazilian modernism, whose racially mixed ancestry included African heritage, whose ethnomusicological research included an exploration of the Afro-Brazilian currents in Brazilian folk and vernacular culture, and whose fictional masterpiece, Macunaíma, mythologizes the country's black and multiracial roots.
With all this in mind, it’s no surprise that questions of representation and appropriation abound. Does the work of Jorge Amado qualify as Afro-Brazilian writing given some of his themes and given the fact that he was a white man? Critic Domício Proença Filho and others have pointed to the objectification of the black body in Amado’s fiction, such as his novel Gabriela. In 2005, a renowned white writer, Marcelino Freire, won the Jabuti for Contos negreiros, a collection of short stories that takes as its subject matter the lives of black Brazilians. The book was praised by some for its profound empathy, and people pointed to Freire’s own marginality—as a gay man from Brazil’s Northeast—when defending the book’s merit. Others weren’t so sure. Did it qualify as Afro-Brazilian literature?
What’s quite clear is that the term literatura negra—black literature—is a marker of literature written by black people. As critic and academic Franciane Conceição Silva notes, Evaristo and other important writers, such as Cuti and Miriam Alves, argue that literatura negra has a strong political component that the term Afro-Brazilian literature does not. To identify as an escritor(a) negro(a) is not only to stake out a claim within Brazilian literature but to call attention to the fact that through its history, Brazilian literature (and the culture at large) have not accommodated black writers or their work in the literary mainstream. When Abdias do Nascimento established his racially conscious and activist experimental theater in Rio de Janeiro in 1944, he specifically named it the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN); some four decades later, when the Quilombhoje group of São Paulo–based writers, among them Cuti, Paulo Colina, Abelardo Rodrigues and Oswaldo de Camargo, began publishing their annual anthology of writing by and about black Brazilians, they titled the publication Cadernos negros (Black Notebooks).
In her essay in this issue, a sort of panorama of Afro-Brazilian literature, Francine Conceição Silva looks at the history of the Quilombhoje Collective and its Cadernos negros series, which had its start in the late 1970s, while Brazil was still living under a military dictatorship. Poets Ricardo Aleixo and Cristiane Sobral are exponents of the more openly political poetry that portrays the experience of black Brazilians and asserts its place in the country’s literature. (Intentional or not, the dialogue between Aleixo’s “My Black Man” and the writings of James Baldwin will not be lost on readers.) It is safe to say that those writers included in this issue, whether they consider (or considered, in the case of Lima Barreto) themselves Afro-Brazilian writers or not, would most certainly be recognized as escritores negros by those who advocate for a literatura negra.
In recent years, the venues for this literature have grown. Rio-based publisher Editora Malê publishes such writers as Sobral and Evaristo, but also voices from other parts of the African diaspora, such as Alain Mabanckou. In 2017, the Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty (Flip) chose to honor Lima Barreto, a pre-Modernist contemporary of Machado de Assis whose short story “Blue Hair and Black Teeth” appears in this issue, accompanied by an essay from Barreto specialist and literary critic Felipe Botelho Correa. Unlike Machado, observes the literary critic Alfredo Bosi, Barreto was overt in his use of literature to criticize Brazil’s racial and social iniquities. As Botelho Correa tells us, Barreto made shrewd use of the growing popularity of national news magazines to further his project. In three short pieces from his collection Aflitos, set in the Salvador, Bahia, neighborhood of the same name, Jean Wyllys writes of sexuality and many shades of violence.
What is certain is that the result of a Brazilian literature without a fundamental role for black writers leaves a huge gap not only in the literature of the country itself but in literature globally. If the literature of a country with the second largest black population worldwide (only Nigeria has a larger black population) does not include that population in its literature, one must ask which Brazil we’re speaking of when we speak of Brazilian literature.
"Another Country: Afro-Brazilian Writing, Past and Present" © Eric M. B. Becker and John Keene. By arrangement with the authors. All rights reserved.
Franciane Conceicao Silva considers how racial relations in Brazil have affected literary history.
As the inquisition
and belittles the blackness
of my body-word
in the semantics
of my verses,
I carry on
[ . . .]
I carry on in search
of other words,
words that are still damp,
In my take on Afro-Brazilian literature in Brazil, I chose to consider first the works that had the most cultural impact, and which best represented the experiences that were specific to Black writers. As a scholar who is deeply connected not only to my research but to the writers who produce the works, I feel I have an ethical and political commitment to make their voices heard and establish their presence as critical to the history of Brazilian literature.
My choice to write in first person is a reflection of my position as a black intellectual, researcher, and social activist in the Movimento Negro. This movement, starting in the seventies, challenged not only race discrimination and economic marginalization but the literary tropes and expectations of the academy, and is a continuation of the various forms of resistance among Black Brazilians since the sixteenth century. Resistance and protest were key to establishing an identity that was reflected in the new forms and literary content produced by Black writers seeking to upend the status quo.
More than fifty percent of Brazil’s population is Black,1 but literary education in Brazil is white and whitewashed. Color, gender, and social class determine what gets taught, and the largely white faculty in educational institutions tends to research and teach literature produced by writers who share their profile of white men who belong to a certain economic and intellectual elite.2 The authors I introduce throughout the course of this essay will be unfamiliar to most Brazilian readers and even to most researchers, who for the most part overvalue canonical texts—to the detriment of those written by the marginal or marginalized. I hope this essay adds to the choir of voices that have long been silenced—voices from bodies subjugated and made invisible by the forces of racism, still present in the Brazil that many, especially racists, call a racial democracy. Writer, actress, professor, and researcher Débora Almeida asks poignant questions that get at issues raised in this essay:
Are we simply trying to occupy more spaces, or would we rather affirm a black identity? Is there a black way of speaking, a black way of combining words? Are the conflicts of a black character the same as those of a white, or indigenous, or Japanese character? All of this speaks to the issue of our collective-identity affirmation and our political occupation of spaces. [...] To make black literature in a country like Brazil is to make politics. As such, when we write our stories and characters, we need to think about the kinds of spaces that I, black Brazilian writer, am reclaiming with my speech, which spaces I want to occupy in this white, racist, misogynist, and elitist society, within a capitalist system.
A good place for us to start, given the complexity of Afro-Brazilian literary history and racial relations in Brazil, is with Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Machado, as he is known affectionately in Brazil, is considered by many to be the greatest writer that Brazil has ever produced. He also founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Born in 1839 in Morro do Livramento, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Machado wrote poems, short stories, novels, plays, crônicas, and literary criticism. He began writing during the Brazilian Romantic period and gained prominence during the shift to Realism—he initiated the Realist movement in Brazil with the publication of his novel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881). In this sui generis narrative, Machado introduces a deceased first-person narrator who reminisces about his life. Sarcasm, irony, and harsh social criticism are all characteristic of Machadian texts.
Machado published many other novels after Posthumous Memoirs, including Quincas Borbas, Esaú and Jacob, Memorial de Aires, and Dom Casmurro. He is key to the Brazilian canon. But the elite in Brazil rejected Machado’s Black identity for a long time. Most photos in textbooks portrayed him as white or of a lighter complexion. Even as recently as 2011, the Caixa Econômica Federal, Brazil’s main government-owned financial institution, aired a television commercial in which a white actor played Machado. Some members of the Movimento Negro criticized the advertising campaign, and Caixa publicly apologized, pulled the ad, and then aired a new commercial with an actor who looks more like him—that is, a black actor. Caixa Econômica’s “mistake” lays bare the foundations of Brazilian racism: the assumption that Black people are incapable of producing intellectual work, incapable of generating knowledge. Racial relations in Brazil, a recurring theme in Machado’s fictional writing, also appear frequently in other Afro-Brazilian literature, even before the publication of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas.
Since the nineteenth century, Afro-Brazilian writers have been committed to undermining the negative stereotypes of Black people, whom white writers represented almost without exception as devoid of intelligence. Black characters were put in a subaltern position in relation to the white characters and were primarily featured as over-eroticized or bordering on feral, especially in the case of female characters. In her 2009 essay, “Black Literature: a Poetics of Our Afro-Brazilianness,” Conceição Evaristo—a Brazilian writer, poet, and intellectual—reflects on the negative portrayals of black female characters in most of the texts produced by white writers in Brazil:
[Brazilian] fiction is still anchored in images of slavery from our colonial past, in which the black woman is only seen as a body that fulfills a role in the workforce, a procreation-body for new bodies soon to be enslaved, or an object-body for the male master’s pleasure.
Nineteenth-century abolitionists and writers Maria Firmina dos Reis and Luiz da Gama, both precursors of Afro-Brazilian literature, wrote texts that, as the Afro-Brazilian writer and critic Cuti observed, position themselves differently as ethnically black individuals. In 1859, twenty-nine years before the Golden Law that abolished slavery in Brazil, Firmina dos Reis published Úrsula, a transgressive novel not only because it was written by a Black woman but because it was written at a time when slavery was still in full force in Maranhão, in northeastern Brazil. The plot includes Black characters who, while not the protagonists, go on to gain prominence throughout the book, and who inevitably evoke pity when readers are confronted, says Cuti, by the humanity of the slaves. Firmina dos Reis pays particular attention to old Suzana, who reflects on the sacrifice of Black Africans like herself who were brutally stolen from their homes to be enslaved in Brazil:
They put me and some other three hundred comrades of misfortune and captivity in the narrow and pestilent hull of the ship. We spent thirty days of cruelty and agony in that tomb, without all that is the most important, until we finally approached the Brazilian shore. We’d traveled standing the entire time, so we, human goods that we were, could fit in the small space and would be unable to rebel, chained like wild jungle animals captured for the enjoyment of powerful Europeans. They gave us filthy, rancid water, and in small quantities, and disgusting food that was poorly made: we watched many of our fellow countrymen die of suffocation, of hunger, of thirst.
In the same year that Firmina dos Reis released Úrsula, Gama published his book of poems: Primeiras trovas burlescas de Getulino. Written during the Romantic period, the book makes no secret of the poet’s opinions on slavery. Gama was also one of the first Black Brazilians to fight against racial whitening ideology in Brazil. In an 1880 letter, Gama lets no one off the hook:
With us, even color is a flaw.
An unforgivable birth sin,
the stigma of a crime.
But what our detractors forget
is that our color is the source of wealth
of millions of thieves who
insult us; that this color of
slavery is the color of
the land, that it houses within its dark
surface many volcanoes, where burns
the holy fire of freedom.
Gama’s and Firmina dos Reis’ revolutionary poetics denounce the abuses perpetrated against Black Brazilians, also a feature of the poetry of nineteenth-century writer Cruz e Souza. One of the most important Symbolist poets in Brazil, Cruz e Souza became prominent with the publication of the prose poem Empaderado (“Against the Wall”), the final text in his 1898 book Evocações. The speaker of the poem “foresees that the black population’s progress and their participation in activities that were until that point reserved for non-blacks will face barriers built as obstacles in their journey,” Cuti writes. For many literary critics, Empaderado is a testimonial from the writer, a cry of pain and despair against the racist system of oppression that imprisoned him.
Ah! insignificant humanity, twisted, tangled, assaulting souls with the force of wild animals, of sharp claws and hard carnivorous teeth, you can’t understand me. [. . .]
What you can, simply, is to hold with frenzy or hatred onto my painful and lonely Work and read it and loathe it and turn its leaves, mutilate its pages, blemish the white chastity of its time, desecrate the sanctuary of its language, scribe, trace, sign, cut with stigmatizing sayings, with obscene slanders, with deep blows of blasphemy, the violence of intensity, tear apart, at last, all of the Work, in a cowardly moment of powerlessness or pain.
The denunciation of racism, a recurring theme in Afro-Brazilian literature during the nineteenth century, also appears in the work of Lima Barreto at the beginning of the twentieth century. The author of novels and short stories also wrote newspaper articles and crônicas. He also explored other controversial themes, such as political corruption, military abuses against civilians, violence against women, social ostentation, bias in the press, intellectual snobbery, and feminism But it is the pain of racism that is most often a refrain in Barreto’s work. This is especially true in his first novel, Recordações do escrivão Isaías Caminha (Observations from the Scrivener Isaías Caminha), published in 1909, and becomes more acutely felt in his best-known book, Clara dos Anjos (Clara of the Angels), a 1922 novel published posthumously in 1948.
These early writers paved the way for others to speak out against racism. There is the piercing voice of Carolina Maria de Jesus, who was fundamental in bringing attention to Afro-Brazilian letters abroad. She rose to prominence in the 1960s when she published Quarto de desejo: diário de uma favelada (Child of the Dark: the Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus). De Jesus, originally from the now-defunct Favela do Canindé, in São Paulo, and a mother of three, describes her own life, and how she survived by picking up trash, and the lives of other favela residents, showing the misery, violence, vices, and illnesses assailing the local population. The book sold more than ten thousand copies in São Paulo in one week alone. It was translated into more than twenty languages and published in as many as forty countries. Among her themes, hunger nearly becomes a character of its own:
May 13, 1958
At dawn it was raining. Today is a nice day for me, it’s the anniversary of Abolition. The day we celebrate the freedom of former slaves. [...] I feel so sorry for my children. When they see the things I bring for them to eat, they shout: Viva mamãe!
Their commotion pleases me. But I’ve since lost the habit of smiling. Ten minutes later they want more food. [...] It rained and got colder. Winter had arrived and in the winter people eat more. Vera asked for food and I didn’t have any. It was the same old litany. [...] It was nine o’clock when we finally ate. And that’s how, on May 13, 1958, I fought against the day’s real slavery—hunger! (de Jesus, 1995, 27)
De Jesus’3 diary is a political manifesto, and she is aware of the power of language and of her writing: “Politicians know I’m a poet. And that poets face death when their people are oppressed.” De Jesus’ insatiate writing has what I call poetic fierceness, a way that many Afro-Brazilian writers uniquely portray violence. For example: “The night is warm. The sky is already sprinkled with stars. I’m exotic and would like to cut out a piece of the sky for a nice dress.”
The publication of the series Cadernos negros,in 1978, was a turning point.4 The idea came from militant writers Cuti (Luiz Silva) and Hugo Ferreira. The first volume collected poems by eight writers who shared the costs of publication. In November 1978, the first edition of Cadernos was published, with a print run of one thousand copies. The following year, the second volume was released, but instead of poems, it collected the short stories of twelve writers. It has been published annually ever since, each year alternating between genres. In December 2017, the series released its fortieth volume. The series is a symbol of resistance in Black literary culture in Brazil. Conceição Evaristo was one of the most influential writers to debut in Cadernos. Born in Belo Horizonte, in Minas Gerais, in 1946, she published her first pieces in the anthology when she was forty-four years old.
After her debut in Cadernos,5 Evaristo published Ponciá Vivêncio in 2003, followed by Becos da memória in 2006. In 2008, she published Poemas da recordação e outros movimentos, her only book of poems. She published three collections of stories: Insubmissas lágrimas de mulheres in 2011, Olhos d’água in 2015, and Histórias de leves enganos e parecenças in 2016. Evaristo is the most celebrated and studied contemporary Black writer in Brazil.6 Her work, as Heloísa Toller Gomes has noted, shifts between affirmation and negation, between indictment and celebration, between life and death.
In 2015, after the publication of Olhos d’água, she was shortlisted for the Jabuti Prize, the most prestigious literary award in Brazil. Evaristo calls her literary texts escrevivências, or “life writings.” This concept is related to other Black Brazilian writers’ declared commitment to writing fiction and poetry from their personal experiences of the Black diaspora. In a 2017 interview, Evaristo explained what she means by escrevivência:
I would like to emphasize a place of difference in the conception of my writing. [...] I conceive it from my position as a black woman. [...] My fictionalization can only come from the place where I stand. And I stand in my place as a black woman in the Brazilian society, in my place as a poor woman in the Brazilian society.7
This need to write about life experiences is a way for Black writers who have overcome many instances of violence, especially racial violence, to make themselves seen and heard. To think about the concept of escrevivência is also to think about writing as a form of activism. Evaristo’s politically engaged writing is typical of writers who have published in Cadernos negros over the past forty years. This same commitment unites all of the Afro-Brazilian writers mentioned in this essay, including their precursors.
The Cadernos negros anthology is the most important of its kind, and now shares a publishing space with an increasing number of small presses (Malê, Pallas, Nandyala, and Mazza) dedicated to publishing Black writers, both solo and collectively. They are making more space for voices that have traditionally been silenced, such as those of indigenous authors. But this is not to say that no Afro-Brazilian writers have been published by large presses in Brazil. Ana Maria Gonçalves, author of the 2006 historical novel Um defeito de cor,8 is published by Record, one of Brazil’s biggest publishing houses. (An excerpt of the novel was published in English translation by Eric M. B. Becker as part of PEN America’s 2016 anthology Glossolalia: Women Writing Brazil.) Um defeito de cor won the prestigious Casa de las Américas award in 2007. A monumental book, at 952 pages, and the result of meticulous research from Gonçalves, the harrowing story about an old African woman named Kehinde spans the eight decades she spends searching for her lost son. Brazil’s history intertwines with Kehinde’s personal history, or rather, Kehinde’s personal history intertwines with Brazil’s history: slavery, uprisings, and unspeakable violences.
I cannot neglect to mention the 2011 anthology of criticism Literatura e afrodescendência no Brasil, organized by scholars Eduardo de Assis Duarte and Maria Nazareth Soares Fonseca. The anthology includes four hefty volumes gathered with the help of sixty-one researchers from twenty-one universities abroad and six in Brazil, and features one hundred Afro-Brazilian authors, spanning from the eighteenth century to the present day.
No discussion of Afro-Brazilian literature would be complete without addressing a controversy that never seems to go away. Some critics defend that Afro-Brazilian literature can only be the literature produced by Black people. Others, on the other hand, defend that the author’s skin color is not a defining factor for the Afro-Brazilianness of the text, instead arguing for taking into account the content, language, and perspective of the work. Along these lines, some believe that if a white writer shows great empathy for Black people and produces a text in which Black characters face some of the themes mentioned in this essay, then the text qualifies as Afro-Brazilian literature. In this matter of what can and cannot belong in the Afro-Brazilian tradition, I side with Cuti, who categorically states that Afro-Brazilian literature, or, rather Black Brazilian literature, is literature necessarily produced by Black people. The reason he gives? The unique position from which the Black writer speaks in his or her denunciation of prejudice and discrimination.
Cuti also writes:
The neuralgic point here is racism and its connotations as manifested in the black, mixed-race, and white subjectivity. What lived experiences, what feelings nurture people? What fantasies, what life experiences, what reactions at last are experienced in the face of the consequences of racial discrimination and psychic presence, of prejudice? That is the point!
When Afro-Brazilian writers enact the pain of racist violence in their texts, even when the pain seems to belong to only one individual, the wound is always collectively shared. Miriam Alves9 writes about enacting this shared reality through the “proximity to certain life experiences”:
I think that the literary treatment I give my protagonists [...] is existentialist, not a hermetic internal monologue but rather a dialogue with an existentialist reality. Most of the time, the narrative seeks to clarify how black female characters resolve an issue, and emphasizes that in order to solve these problems they are made to reflect on their very existence. They have to make a decision, to choose a direction. They are all black because I am talking about proximity to certain life experiences; even if I choose to turn my story into science fiction set in Mars, I will undoubtedly still be constructing this fiction from my place of proximity to certain life experiences and knowledge.
Cuti, Conceição Evaristo, Miriam Alves, and the majority of the writers who have published in Cadernos negros have emphasized the importance of self-identifying as black Brazilian writers as a political act. This also informs the strategies they use in their work as a space for unique expression.
The emergence of black characters, authors, and readers has raised questions pertinent to the formation of this literature, such as how cultural elements of African origins are incorporated in the theme and form, how a collective subjectivity is rooted in the subject’s ethnic discourse, and how the literary paradigm has changed, and how works of fiction and poetry are classified and conceptualized. (Cuti, 2010, 11)
Researcher Maria Nazareth Soares Fonseca has sought to solve the polemical nature of the terms Black literature and Afro-Brazilian Literature with the following definition: Black literature entails a resignification of the term Black, which traditionally has been a negative term; Afro-Brazilian literature reinforces the idea of a connection between the literary work written by Black Brazilians with their African roots; Afro-descendent literature, meanwhile, returns to this idea of African origins and the inevitable mutations of these origins in the diáspora.10
Afro-Brazilian Literature, while now accepted as central to the history of Brazilian Literature, is still marginalized. But we finally have a broader view of what it means to be Brazilian and can celebrate the fact that Brazilian literature is not, and never was, a single white story.
*A note on terminology. What is Black-Brazilian Literature for some is Afro-Brazilian Literature for others. These terms were created to meet the specific interests and goals of certain groups. I use the terms Black-Brazilian Literature and Afro-Brazilian Literature interchangeably, even though I am aware that there are no perfect synonyms.
1. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, as of 2017, fifty-four percent of Brazilians identify as black.↩
2. Data from Regina Dalscatagnè’s study in Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea: um território contestado (2012). Dlascatagne's study reveals alarming figures when it comes to the publication of Afro-Brazilian writers published by Brazil's major publishing houses. After analyzing 258 novels published between 1990 and 2004 by these publishers, Dalscatagne found that three-quarters of the novels published were written by men; ninety-four percent of these men were white. Further, the protagonists of these novels are almost invariably white and are often acting in professions such as journalism or fine arts, whereas the few black characters that do appear are almost invariably criminals of some sort. ↩
3. In addition to Child of the Dark, Carolina published four other works: Casa de Alvenaria, Pedaços de Fome, Provérbios, books that had little or no visibility. After her death, researchers discovered more than five thousand pages’ worth of unpublished work, of varied genre. Works published posthumously are Diário de Bitita (1986), Meu Estranho Diário (1996), Onde estaes felicidade? (2014), Meu sonho é escrever (2018). ↩
4. Cadernos negros (Black Notebooks) was released in 1978, in the midst of a heated social climate of strikes and student demonstrations. The Unified Black Movement Against Racial Discrimination (Movimento Negro Unificado Contra a Discriminação Racial) was established while other progressive organizations questioned the military government and demanded democratic liberties. After the Movement was created, the struggle against racial prejudice reignited. (Ribeiro & Barbosa, 2008, 11).↩
5. According to Cuti, Evaristo published a total of twenty-eight poems and eleven short stories in the anthology between 1990 and 2011.↩
6. In a recent interview, Evaristo criticized Brazilian racism and questioned the system that only allowed her to become well-known at seventy-one years of age. The full interview can be found here: https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-43324948.↩
8. More than ten years after Um defeito de cor, Ana Maria Gonçalves is soon to publish Quem é Josenildo? (Who is Josenildo?), a cross between detective novel and science fiction.↩
9. Miriam Alves has been publishing in the Cadernos Negros since 1982 and was one of the first women to have her writing included in the series. She is the author of the poetry collections Momentos de Busca (1983) and Estrelas nos Dedos (1985), the short-story collection Mulher Matr(i)z (2011), and the novel Bará na trilha do vento (2015).↩
10. Fonseca, Maria Nazareth Soares. “Literatura negra, literatura afro-brasileira: como responder à polêmica?”↩
"Insurgent Voices: A Panorama of Afro-Brazilian Writing" © Franciane Conceição Silva. By arrangement with the author. Translation Bruna Dantas Lobato © 2018. All rights reserved.
A mugging reveals a man robbed of more than his money.
For Edgard Hasselman
Of all my acquaintances, I’d known this young man the longest. Forged on the street, in brief encounters in the cafés, our relations became increasingly friendly. At first, I took him for an invariably jovial person, indifferent to the more inconsequential things of this world, a skeptic in his own way; but before long, beneath this polite mask, I began to realize he was something of a whiner, a bitter man whom melancholy, the result of impossible, fugitive aspirations, had cloaked with a blanket of sadness. After, his character and his constitution would conspire to ensure his was a plagued existence. Too intelligent to love the society from which he’d emerged, and of too fine a sensitivity to content himself with merely being tolerated in any other, Gabriel kept to himself, content with his own company and his own thoughts, like some odd anchorite who took refuge in in the clamor of the city.
At times he would appear among us with the airs of a Chinese savant, a scholar of the Thsaï-Tseu, calm, supreme, sure of himself, and only too happy to sacrifice himself to the immanent logic of things. He never uttered so much as a sigh, he eschewed self-pity, perhaps fearful that his plaintive cries might disturb his spirit’s voyage “par-delà du soleil, par-delà de l’éther, par-delà des confins de sphères étoilées.” 1
One day we met up with him, me and a few others from our circle, and when one of us asked him, “What will you do now?”, alluding to the consequences of the latest disaster to beset him, Gabriel responded:
“Nothing! The highest good is not to act at all.”
Days later, he confided in me how, like an idiot, he had been chasing, through the streets and several trolley cars, the beautiful dark eyes of a French governess.
His nature was fickle, two-faced. At times, his features came into confrontation, engaging in combat without ever banding together, without ever converging, leading one to believe that between these two distinct parts was a gap, a lacuna to be filled, and that any union between them was impeded by some mechanical obstacle . . .
This bifarious aspect of his figure, his generous disposition, and a raging temptation for material gratifications had transformed his life into a series of disasters; on account of which, as that life took its course, the layers of his facetious prankster’s veneer were completely stripped away, revealing the joy and the jocosity of a pessimistic, sardonic philosopher ridiculing the lies that masquerade as truth, inhabiting this counterfeit image that is our world. When he was about thirty-four, I went looking for him at his home, a tiny little house, on a street at the edge of Caju, next to that deadly sea kissing the beaches of this outlying district, where it had a view straight onto the grayish mountain panorama.
He didn’t live badly, his job demanded little of him and compensated him relatively well; a bachelor, he resided in a tiny house with an old African man—his friend, his oracle, and his cook—and a dastardly poetaster of the streets, a half-mad good-for-nothing.
It was a community of ratés bolstered by African forbearance.
When I walked into his house that afternoon, his entire being was radiant. It appeared that the inner light we had long felt to exist in him was finally about to reveal itself. His face grew more slender, his forehead long, there could be detected in his gaze an unfamiliar flicker; it was as though divine favor had come down from above, inhabiting and imbuing his soul to such a degree that it swelled until filling his bright, cheerful, and now tranquil expression.
“What’s with you today,” I began, “has your lover finally surrendered herself or have you met . . . your destiny?
“Lover? Destiny? What are you talking about?” he interrupted. “The wise man eschews passion so as to better appreciate the harmony of the universe.”
And after that maxim, borrowed from some Hindu or Chinese philosopher, he read the following to me, written in a tiny and messy script on two dozen scraps of folio paper teeming with passion:
At this time, I lived on a secluded street off a train station located in a distant suburb. Despite the absence of sidewalks or decent lighting, I would wander for hours in search of that solace-lending home. My responsibilities, and, generally, the demands of my temperament, which craved the bustle and city lights, led me to linger along the central thoroughfares. I rambled through these streets, without aim, wending round for hours and hours, observing and stopping to talk here, there; and when I found myself overcome with fatigue, I went looking for a train and for the next half hour, timidly, cowardly, curled up in a corner, I retreated into my thoughts. I suffered at the slightest sneer, and the most fatuous comment cut straight to my soul. It was a constant worry that I might transmit my suffering to another, that in time it would inevitably spread. Beneath the burden of that eternal anguish, I carried deep inside a secret that demanded to be revealed, even to someone lacking my nobility of spirit, someone aloof to the immortal substance guiding his life. I felt myself compelled to reveal it.
It was on such occasions that my thoughts turned to love, but . . . quite quickly, however, my genius dwindled, fell into daydreams, was immured against pleasure. After exhausting mankind, I turned to dogs, cats, birds, plants, the earth, in search of a confidant.
Once, standing before the majestic, green, translucent sea, I felt the urge to confide my secret to it, but again I was seized by dread that the winds would bear my words back to this vast city, in the same way that the reeds that sprouted in the hole the town barber in the King Midas story dug, unable to contain the secret of the king’s donkey ears any longer, whispered the truth to all.
When my awareness of my condition, of the essential facts of my life, became clearer to my eyes, I engineered plans to flee to faraway places, to write books that quivered with godly wrath, but I executed none of them. Some very obscure element of my psychology, perhaps even the sentiment of the logic behind the hostility that surrounded me on all sides, impeded me from reacting, actively or otherwise. I surrendered before my genius, and then I downed teardrops full of bright fire, bright enough to fill those realms of limpid purity, and, for a fleeting moment, I felt content because:
Heureux celui qui peut d'une aile vigoureuse
S'élancer vers les champs lumineux et sereins,
Celui dont lês pensées comme des alouettes
Vers les cieux le matin prennent un libre essor
Qui plane sur la vie e et comprend sans effort
Le langage des fleurs et des choses muettes.2
After having carefully listened to this language, my bitterness began to grow. My genius barked out orders, complained, demanded this and that, found fault with everything, sought to escape its confines, it grew impatient in its prison, in its cell; and so, in my predicament—oh! blasphemy—I found the proverb inverted: “a man shall not live on genius alone . . .”
One night, delaying longer than was usual, I ran to the station at two in the morning. All was still, desolate. There was a constant breeze, causing the trees beside the cottages to bow and causing the yellowish lights to dance like terrifying ghouls. The staunch homes, painted white and impenetrable to the outside, stood like dark-doored tombs. The darkness nestled the hills in its wings. I picked up my pace. The street, bordered by bamboo on one side and the other, scarcely lit and blanketed in mist, was like an endless museum gallery. Halfway to my destination, a man jumped out before me and, knife in hand, ordered me to stop.
“You there! Give me all your bronze.”
To be perfectly frank, I was little experienced in such situations but nevertheless was able to match the man’s elegance stride for stride. I coolly reached into my pockets and retrieved the little money I had and—pale but not trembling—handed it over, together with a few trolley passes, to my momentary oppressor.
It was a magnanimous gesture that impressed the bandit to such an extent that he didn’t dare dream that I might have left some valuables concealed in the lining of my coat. There is, it’s been said, more naiveté to be found in criminals than we generally suppose. He accepted the wad of bills that I held out to him with something approaching repugnance; he was already making his getaway when a flickering gas lamp cast a wave of light upon me, and he noted something about my hair and, voice dripping with sarcasm, inquired:
“Are those wings? Why, you’re blue! What the hell . . . your hair is something special.”
Hearing this, I stared at him with my pupils aflame. My face must have had such an anguished expression that the thief’s own became stone cold. He shuddered. His words had once again reminded me how my entire existence had been poisoned by that singular accident; the disastrous indecision that had defined it; the irritating acrimony, the lingering aftertaste of hate and bitterness that covered me like soot. The torment to which my very own soul subjected me. And in one fell swoop, the entire sequence passed before my eyes like some demonic obsession, something desperate, cruel, inhabiting everything, every mouth, the mouth of the thief.
“Even you! Gosh, what more do you want of me?” I asked him. “Does your interest in passersby extend to something beyond the pocket-money they’re carrying? Are you not also a member of this society? Are you not at all moved by considerations pertaining to it?”
I peered at him inquisitively. The man’s expression had changed. His lips were ajar, they quivered, pale. His eyes were glazed over; locked onto my face, they did not move. He peered at me as one does a duende, a ghost. But, containing his agitation, he was able to manage a few words.
“Black teeth! My Lord! Why, you’re the devil. You’re a lost soul, a ghoul.”
His entire visage expanded, his pupils widened, his hair stood on end—this man who was so generously relieving me of some burdensome coins! He would have set off running if fear hadn’t turned his legs to lead.
He remained in the same position for several minutes until noticing that the expression on my face announced tears, exposing a fatal grief. My interrogator transposed the horror-stricken contortion of his features, opening them in a tender smile of brotherhood.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Ignorance is a kind of blindness.”
Making no effort to string his thoughts together, he continued.
“Don’t take me for some miserable highway robber, a common street thief. Opportunity knocked and I answered. I’m generally engaged in much higher ‘labors,’ but I require a little ‘spare change,’ so, to obtain it, my métier has forced itself upon me. If I were to delay, my opportunity is lost. As you well know, life is war; one either kills or is killed. But . . . the Lord will come to my aid. Take your money. I’ll find a way to begin my great ‘work’ without it, that work which is the aim, the object of my existence, which will, finally, earn my rest” (at this, a glimmer overtook him), “the regard of my fellow man, and society’s respect. Go, you are without hope. Be off . . . and accept my apologies.”
That blue hair of mine, hair that had been my lifelong torment, and those black teeth of mine fell into formation, coming together in a jovial smile of gratitude and tenderness.
“But who causes you all this suffering, young man?” the stranger asked.
“No one,” I told him, “no one. It’s my genius, my way of seeing things, it’s the way it renders this world that goes round.”
We were about to part when he insisted yet again:
“You must suffer a great deal over this.”
This time, before responding, I spent a moment thinking things over. Who was this man? Was there a chance I would come across him again? Never again, of that I was certain. After that brief episode in his career, he would carry on undeterred in his great mission on this earth. He would have every reason to run from me, to disappear from before my eyes, or, alternately, if I were to recognize him the next time I came across him but I did not expose him, he would always think of me with gratitude. Why, such as things were, would I not open up about my secret? He would listen, but he would not grasp much; if I were to try telling it to someone else, words would fail me. Confident of this and of the fact that this rare show of empathy was not some ploy, much less a show of politeness, I began, almost spontaneously, to recount my misfortune.
“Of course it pains me. It pains me a great deal. It’s the devil dogging me, it’s my perverse evolution. He makes for poor company, bitter, tenacious as he needles and tears at me. He follows me everywhere I go, everywhere, on each path I tread, in the sunshine or in stormy weather, whether the road is busy or deserted. He never abandons me, never releases me. He sleeps with me, dreams with me; if I pull away for even a second, he follows close behind me, too close, whispering in my ear with a sharp shushing sound: here I am! He’s an irksome monkey making faces behind my back and then darting out in front of me, dancing and kicking.”
The thief’s astonishment was now of a different order: it was astonishment at my words, lofty words. His natural, primate’s rudeness, entirely untempered by any sort of education, meant they went right past him, he understood only half of what I said, and his genius grew sharper, more probing.
“If, on a bright sunny day,” I continued, “I duck between some trees, believing myself to be alone, and content, a vile, passing hound abandons his inexorable search for a bone to stop and observe the apelike features that have overtaken me, and laughs, half terrified, half pleased. Then, as though by a spell, the path is suddenly filled with people. Suddenly there’s a hum here, a cry there, a laugh there. I hear the trees rustling: ‘Hello there, I see you’ve dyed your head in blue sky, but where have you muddied your mouth? Pebbles roll, crackle, and in their vileness they do not measure their words, they do not waste time with witticisms, but rather scream: Monster, scourge of the earth!’”
The robber eyed me up and down. He gazed upon my eyes, my nose, my lips; even my hands, my feet, were deserving of extended analysis before his eyes. As he did so, I remembered to look at the figure who was in front of me. He was a tall man, with broad shoulders and striking limbs, and with a Spanish “accent,” he said to me:
“You’re a poet! It’s all a fantasy . . . you see things that are not there!”
“Perhaps it’s my sensibility . . . But no, no! I’m physically incapable of lying, my body professes the truth: it is like a microscope discovering a hostile world where nothing can be seen with the naked eye,” I retorted.
“You never go out, to the theaters or the cafés—so how is that even possible?” he inquired.
The question gave me some trouble; they were in my nature, these ostensible contradictions, but in the end I was able to find an answer.
“It’s true . . . but I trudge around such places enslaved to my temper, the servant of my own rationality, which is my body’s enemy; I may run from it, but it’s only with great difficulty that I’m able to follow the imperious path set forth by my nerves. I don’t know . . . I don’t know . . . I ought to flee, vanish, I can hardly take a step, hardly sneak around the corner, or pass by a window, or beggars, or coach drivers, from the most vile to the most refined sort, without hearing: There goes the man with the blue hair, the man with the black teeth . . . It’s torture! Everything goes dark inside me. This is all that shines through. If a friend is referring to me in a conversation with others, he’ll say: you know, the one with the black teeth . . . My dreams, my time spent reading are filled with images of smirking monkeys. If I write and the words are missing syllables, if I am studying and fail to quickly grasp my subject, the ape leaps out in front of me and with a mocking voice says: ‘It was I who ‘dropped’ them, it was I who prevented you from understanding . . .’”
My chest heaved, my eyes must have had a strange glow to them. All my agitation passed from me to the listening man. At my words, he trembled all over . . .
“So then work, be strong . . . fight,” he advised.
“Good advice, good . . . Ah! You sure are one weak strategist! Don’t you realize that I’m unable to wage battle, that I’m an army that always leaves a flank exposed to the enemy? Defeat is certain. If I were to cow to that which has been decreed, I could . . . Now . . . I simply can’t anymore. Notwithstanding, my fate in life is to follow the narrow path of caution and humility, I cannot stray from so much as an inch, because to the right await the legions of imbeciles, and to the left, the smart set and their wisdom threatens to grind me to pieces. Each move I make must be like that of an acrobat across the tightrope. I lean to the left, lean to the right; on all sides I feel the tender caress of the infinite, the uncertain, the boundless. If the wire begins to wobble, I immediately lose all courage. Suddenly I’m reminded yet again of the yelling down below, the shouting from all sides: the man with blue hair, the monster, the man with the neurasthenia. Amid all these shouting voices comes that of a man in a top hat, a hat that appears to be hollow, as though he were an enormous crow that doesn’t fly, his feet bound to the earth, and he follows a straight, unwavering path carved into the soil. The man screams out loud, so everyone could hear: ‘I guarantee you this man is a degenerate, a lowlife, his unusual features are owing to certain characteristics inherent to bastards and their despicable physical forms; twenty thousand wise men—Germans, English, Belgians—can back me up’ . . . That’s my life. It’s as if each day, in such a way as not to affect the noble, life-giving organs, people slowly began to bury pins into my flesh, their number growing one by one with each new day . . . How long will this go on? How long?” I gestured wildly.
A gust of wind nearly knocked out a nearby streetlamp. Adding to the crowing of roosters was the sound of carriage wheels turning, the next street over. The distant suburb was rousing from its sleep. I took leave of my assailant. I’d walked a few steps, and as it appeared to me as if some group were calling to me, I turned around to find the rectangular figure of the thief, anxiously shaking his head like the Virgin of Mercy at an execution.
In the ensuing years, the monotonous, unchanging days that defined my life, the thing that caused my soul suffering much, much greater than this incurable anguish of my youth was the sincere pity I provoked in that man.
1. “Elevation,” from Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal.↩
2. In Norman Shapiro’s translation of Les Fleurs du Mal: "Happy the man—despite the frets, despite / The woes that smother life’s dim murkiness— / Who, strong of purpose, flies high, nonetheless, / Off to the calm and peaceful fields of light; / Whose thoughts, in morning flight on lark-like wings, / Rise to the heavens, above the fray, swept free; / —Who understands, aloft, effortlessly, / The speech of flowers and of all silent things!”↩
“Dentes negros, cabelos azuis” first published 1920. Translation © 2018 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
At a time when public education and a rise in the rate of literacy were changing the audience demographic in Brazil, one writer challenged the increasing classism and elitism of the literary establishment by writing for the people.
Afonso Henriques de Lima Barreto (1881–1922) was born to a generation that grew up in Brazil with two important words reverberating ideas of equality among the members of society: abolition and republic. On the one hand, the demand for equality between citizens regardless of their origins; on the other hand, the demand for political power to be held by the people through their elected representatives rather than a monarch. As a descendant of Africans, Lima Barreto witnessed these two decisive moments of Brazilian history in 1888 and 1889 while still a child. However, the promise of social reforms emanating from these twin historical turning points did not fulfill the expectations of some writers who emerged in the post-abolition and post-republic context, including Barreto.
The apparently democratic and progressive ideas of the final years of the nineteenth century, however, eventually paved the way for what has been defined as a tropical belle époque, a period characterized by the blossoming of a new republican elite culture. In literature, this was expressed in the form of frivolous optimism, mannerism, and elitism, sometimes even adopting aspects of pseudoscientific racism. These aspects, of course, dominated what has been conventionally defined as the elite culture of Brazil’s First Republic, encapsulated by the cultural paradigms of the European aristocracy adapted to the new carioca urban life.
Indeed, Barreto was one of the many writers who endeavored to discuss these complex transformations, but perhaps one of the few to openly criticize their racist and aristocratic underpinning. Embedded in his frustration at not witnessing the values of equality of the abolition and the republic put into practice in everyday life, he embarked on a crusade against the new Republic’s establishment figures, focusing his writings on the mechanisms of social differentiation that were practiced at the time, particularly those that aimed at creating an elitist white culture distanced from the “degenerate” masses. According to Barreto himself, the aim of his crusade was to produce a type of literature that he defined as “militante,” engaging with the society’s most pressing issues and communicating these issues to a wider audience in accessible language.
Borrowing from various writers of the second half of the nineteenth century, Barreto absorbed the idea that literary value should not be judged on beauty alone but on a combative language aimed at bringing about real impact on society. He echoed writers such as Tolstoy, who claimed in his essay What is Art? (1897) that the language of a relevant piece of literature for the time had to be “contagious” and aim for the masses, further asserting that “the common people have a right to art.” In his reading of Tolstoy, Barreto emphasized that the tendency to create obscure, elitist works that were inaccessible to the masses should be strongly opposed. For the Russian, “great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone.” Barreto emphasized this mission throughout his works and managed to summarize it in Amplius, his 1916 manifesto.
Our duty as sincere and honest writers is to cast aside all the old rules, all the outward strictures of genre [. . .] At its best, this is what the literature of our time has been doing, and may it, through the virtue of its form, no longer seek to replicate the vaunted ideal of beauty of bygone Greece [. . .]; no longer the exaltation of a love that was never at risk; but the communion of men of all races and classes, bringing about mutual understanding between them, in the infinite anguish that defines mankind. [. . .] We no longer desire a disengaged literature. [. . .] That is not what these times require; but rather an activist literature that might contribute to the greater glory of our species.1
Lima Barreto’s intellectual project was largely influenced by the major debates of fin de siècle Europe, which had as its backdrop the emergence of mass society. This new context came out of not only the urban population boom but also the expansion of public education and the consequent rise in literacy rates, as well as the growth in the number of newspapers and magazines and their ever-increasing circulation.
This technological and social revolution of the turn of the century divided intellectual circles, especially in Europe, and the perspectives of writers toward the unprecedented masses participating in the intellectual and public life varied widely. In this battle of the extremes there was, on the one hand, a supposed need for intellectuals to declare war on the masses; this eventually took the form of exclusion of the popular classes from the debate of ideas or even ideas of physical extermination of their ever-growing ranks. At the other extreme were those intellectuals who perceived mass society as a powerful instrument of social change that could be fostered through the written word, particularly through major newspapers and magazines.
Intellectual discomfort in relation to the growing masses gained force in the first decades of the twentieth century with the population boom and the concentration of the masses in the cities, and subsequent overcrowding of public spaces such as trains, parks, hospitals, schools, beaches, and streets. To some, like the philosopher Ortega y Gasset, these masses were invading spheres that were once reserved for the well-heeled, creating a “dictatorship of the masses.” In aesthetic terms, many like him believed that art and modern literature should be markers of distinctions in society, with artists producing something necessarily inaccessible to the masses, whether due to the means by which the works were published or even the language and literary diction they used. Art and literature were for the select few, not for the many.
This perspective had been circulating in various intellectual circles of the late nineteenth century. In his major work on this subject, the critic John Carey points to Nietzsche as one of the most influential voices of the period pushing intellectuals to declare war on the masses and, if necessary, annihilate them. Extreme enthusiasts of such ideas even suggested that these pariahs should be exterminated in enormous gas chambers while watching the images projected by a cinematographer (movies had become a popular form of entertainment in the first decade of the twentieth century).2 Aware of the European debate at the time, Lima Barreto had a very different perspective on the subject and even made radical public objections to Nietzsche's ideas. His most striking rebuke was published in 1920.
Though my vices are numerous, I do not believe hypocrisy is one of them. / I do not like Nietzsche; I feel a personal antipathy toward him. [. . .] It was he who gave the rapacious bourgeoisie that governs us the philosophy that best expresses their behavior. He has exalted brutality, cynicism, amorality, inhumanity, and, quite possible, duplicity. [ . . .] / It's hard to imagine how humanity, which can only exist through the society of men, might exist without the very sentiments that strengthen this society and make of it a thing of beauty./ Nietzsche is very much the philosopher of this era of predatory bourgeoisie, lacking as it is in scruples of any kind; [the philosopher] of this era of brutality, of hardness of heat, of this make-money by all means possible, from the bankers and businessmen who do not hesitate to reduce thousands to poverty, to wage wars, all to make a few million more.3
Lima Barreto's emphasis on intellectual efforts that could promote harmony among the different rungs of society was a reaction not only to Nietzsche but also to the influential interpretations that combined the ideas of the German philosopher with the postulations of eugenics. This combination aimed to formulate new moral codes to combat a supposed racial, intellectual, and social degeneration. These theories were based on the idea that human capacity was generated not by education but inherited (Hereditary Genius is the title of Francis Galton’s influential book, first published in 1869). This, in turn, would only prevent degeneration if “racial purity” were cultivated, maintaining supposedly “intrinsic racial hierarchies.” In other words: according to this narrow reading of the time, the Übermenschen of Nietzsche would be the result of the elimination of miscegenation.
Theories based on eugenics were spreading quickly at the turn of the century. In the first decade of the twentieth century, one could already find various eugenics education societies in many countries. These institutions sought to give public visibility to studies on heredity and their arbitrary racial hierarchies, supporting efforts to guide public policy that argued for supposed biological improvements in societies. Their members included several influential intellectuals who publicized these ideas in their writings in the first half of the century, such as the German physician Alfred Ploetz (1860–1940), who coined the term “racial hygiene,” and John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), the renowned British economist who was an active proponent of eugenics and became director of the British Eugenics Society in the late 1930s.
Lima Barreto perceived the vileness of these doctrines very early on in his career, clearly positioning himself as a writer opposed to the dissemination of such ideas in Brazil. This reaction is a characteristic of his work and helps to understand the humanist vocabulary used throughout his works. In a long, powerful entry from his journal in 1905—when he was just starting to write his first pieces for periodicals—he makes his point with extraordinary clarity:
There is, throughout the globe, the increasingly common notion that some races are superior and others are inferior, and that this inferiority, far from temporary, is eternal and intrinsic to the very structure of those races. / It is also said that any mixture between these races constitute a social ill, a plague, and all other sort of ugly things. / All this is affirmed in the name of science and in accord with the authority of those wise Germans. / It’s unclear to me whether someone has already observed that German has increasingly taken on, in this our lucid age, the prestige once reserved for Latin in the Middle Ages. / Whatever is said in German constitutes transcendental truth. For example, were I to say in German that a square has four sides, this would be received as something extraordinary, despite the fact that in our lowly Portuguese this is but a banal near-truth. / And thus this whole thing gains new legs, thanks to the weak critical faculties of those concerned, and more than this weakness, to the intellectual cowardice that we possess in the face of important European figures. It is imperative we see the danger of these ideas, both for our personal happiness and to our mankind’s position of superiority. Currently, such ideas have yet to emerge from the offices of politicians or from the laboratories, but tomorrow they will spread far and wide, they’ll be at the disposal of politicians, they shall fall upon the heads of the uneducated masses, and we may well have to endure killings, humiliating separations, and our most liberal era will find its new Jews. [. . .] Today, it is cause for joy that I am able to say such things, to address these august institutions without feigned restraint. It is my soul’s satisfaction to be able to offer rebuttals, to aim my sarcasm at the arrogance of such judgments, which have caused me suffering since the age of fourteen.4
More selectively, but no less drastically, eugenics was one of the many ways in which intellectuals reacted to the rise of the masses at the turn of the century. And it is evident that Lima Barreto conceived his project of a “literatura militante” as a weapon to fight against the absurdities of that moment, when many intellectuals dreamed of extermination or the sterilization of the masses, sometimes suggesting that many could not be considered human beings.
Another debate related to the intelligentsia’s reaction to the growing masses revolved around the expansion of public education implemented across several countries during this period. Many have even suggested that the masses should not be literate at all, and that only intellectuals should dominate the sphere of written culture. Nietzsche himself argued that education should remain a privilege and be selective, being offered only to those most equipped to produce great and lasting works. For him, education for the masses should not be the goal of any society.5 While some explicitly argued that the masses should have purely physical lives and activities and should not learn to read and write, others rejected the liberal idea that the masses could be educated. Some went as far as stating that there was statistical evidence that crime increased with the spread of education and that schooling turned members of lower classes into menaces to society.
Much of this debate was related to public policies in several countries that expanded access to education during that period. It would take several decades before the ambition of universal literacy, which emerged among Europe’s Illuminist philosophers, was put into practice. And it was only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that literacy rates began to grow and approach universality in industrialized countries, coinciding with a demographic explosion that marked the beginning of mass popular culture. At the beginning of the twentieth century, adult literacy rates in some European countries reached above ninety percent. This expansion was one of the principal changes marking the turn of the century. This unprecedented huge literate public eventually revolutionized various aspects of the production and dissemination of print culture, particularly that of newspapers and magazines.
It is at this historical moment, for example, that popular, large-circulation publications started to gain more space, seeking to win over this emerging audience. This is a period of transformation in the structure of the press, with newspapers and magazines becoming sources of profit and taking on the form of large commercial structures. With growing print runs and advertisements on their pages, these publications sought to provide their audience with attractive, accessible content in a constant effort to maximize their readerships.
Many European intellectuals did not look kindly upon the growth of popular newspapers and magazines. Their reactions were marked by hostility. One of the elements of this reaction against commercial publications and their mass audience was the drive to obfuscate the spheres of the written word. Some, like Aldous Huxley, regarded this lack of simplicity in literature as the first attempts of writers to be consciously literary in a period that witnessed the beginnings of mass popular culture, leading to a reaction of the most elaborate artificiality characterized by a language as remote as possible from that of ordinary life. Decades later, critics such as John Carey saw this tendency for obfuscation in the early twentieth century as a literary mechanism to separate intellectuals from the masses. According to him, certain writers would deliberately produce texts not aimed at less initiated audiences and readers, championing those with the capacity to make their work accessible only to a few.
Many writers, however, openly embraced this new audience, who largely lived in the suburbs of large cities of the Atlantic world. In The Suburbans, a famous book on the subject published in 1905, the British writer Thomas Crosland shows how a new literary diction was created in these popular publications, defining what he called “a suburban talk.” He saw this colloquial style of the white-collar suburb in authors who explicitly explored literary approaches that dialogued with the masses. This suburban diction became a concern for traditional intellectuals, in part because it trivialized “serious” subjects with colloquial, irreverent, and playful language, avoiding complex artifice and bringing literary texts closer to the language of ordinary life.
In Brazil, particularly in the capital of Rio de Janeiro, Lima Barreto was one writer who chose to deliberately foster new approaches to the literary language of his time, and he did so on two main fronts: on the one hand, he put in practice his “literatura militante” in books and literary magazines published in Brazil, which usually had a very limited and selected readership; and on the other hand, he wrote for various popular magazines with nationwide circulation, reaching an unprecedented audience as a result. This allowed him to put into practice some of the basic pillars of his “literatura militante”: clarity in discourse, wide dissemination of the message, and active engagement with the most pressing social issues of the day.
Although still modest compared to other countries, the growth in the absolute number of citizens able to read in these first decades of the twentieth century was substantial in Brazil, as their number grew from 2.5 million in 1890 to more than 8.7 million in 1920. Spread across various cities, this unprecedented number of readers was precisely one of the main drivers of the expansion of the press in Brazil in the early twentieth century. Among the publications that emerged in this period, one particular type was a pioneer in appealing to this new readership that previously had little access to the written culture: the weekly popular illustrated magazines.
Although illustrated magazines had been circulating for a long time in Brazil, publications such as O Malho, Fon-Fon, Revista da Semana, and Careta began to achieve new record-breaking levels of circulation. Like many others of their type in the Western world, these magazines were all founded in the first decade of the twentieth century and meant to become the defining publications of their period and pioneers of mass media in Brazil. Their popularity derived not only from their political cartoons, photographs, and humor pieces, but also from their nationwide circulation (in contrast to daily newspapers, which were largely local). In fact, most of their readers were not in the capital, Rio de Janeiro, but spread across the country. These were not small-circulation literary magazines. Their fundamental role was to deliver contents and goods (advertisements were a fundamental feature of these publications) from the capital to other distant parts of the country by train or cargo ship.
In 1919, Monteiro Lobato suggested that readers of these popular magazines were mostly lower-middle class workers, such as train drivers, porters, waiters, and white-collar workers who had received basic education and lived in suburbs and small towns spread across the country. For him, these popular magazines attracted this mass readership thanks to their humorous, simple articles, and through their caricatures and captions that employed a more conversational and ordinary language, in striking contrast to the literary language of academic writers such as the prolific Coelho Neto, a founding member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters famous for a prose style full of linguistic virtuosity, extravagant vocabulary, and a grammatical approach more attuned to European Portuguese. However, it was precisely this appeal to a mass readership that meant these publications enjoyed less esteem among intellectuals and writers, who tended to galvanize around more select literary publications.
By writing for the press, particularly for large-circulation magazines, Lima Barreto combined popular appeal and intellectual sophistication in search of his “literatura militante.” His Tolstoyan project of writing for readers of all kinds is everywhere expressed in his reaction against the distinction between high and popular culture, theory and empiricism, fiction and journalism, and his way of combining a deep literary knowledge with his own personal experiences in Rio at the turn of the century. By placing himself in between these opposing categories, Barreto was waging battle on at least two fronts. First, he criticized elitism and mannerism among writers who sought classical beauty in dissonance with the radical transformations and debates that characterized Brazilian society at the time. Nonetheless, he did not identify with popular culture to the extent of calling himself a representative member of the lower classes. By rejecting both positions, Barreto could produce works that functioned as an intersection between the Brazilian intelligentsia and the emerging masses, particularly their literate members. It was from this standpoint that he spoke throughout his career as a writer.
His critique of elitist and inaccessible uses of literary language was intimately linked to his perspective in the debate on the role of literature in an unprecedented moment of intense expansion of mass communications. For him, literature served a social function as a powerful weapon to fight social fragmentation (racism and classism) in post-abolition Brazil. These were the two biggest targets. While this has long been clear through his aforementioned collaborations with popular magazines, the impact gained new dimensions with the discovery of 164 unpublished pieces, mostly signed with pseudonyms. These discoveries were made public in my Sátiras e outras subversões (Penguin-Companhia das Letras, 2016), in which I explain how digital technologies made it possible to find such a high number of new texts by an author whose “complete” works were already established.
These discoveries, as well as the recent biography Lima Barreto: triste visionário (Companhia das Letras, 2017), by Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, have opened new avenues with regards to the life and works of this Afro-Brazilian crusader. While the biography gives a much more nuanced understanding of the racial issues that Barreto faced in that period, with detailed chapters on the racial challenges faced by his parents and grandparents prior to the abolition of slavery in Brazil and the impact on Barreto’s childhood, the recently discovered texts shed light on the extension of the engagement of the writer with the popular press. Although these collaborations with magazines had been frequently downplayed, with scholars emphasizing his novels, these new works have shown that on the one hand Barreto’s literary crusade was mostly fighting against racism and elitism, and on the other hand, how this mordant Afro-Brazilian writer made use of the popular press as one of his main weapons in the public debate during those years of the First Republic in Brazil.
Barreto, Afonso Henriques de Lima. “Amplius” A Época 10 Sep. 1916. Hemeroteca Digital Brasileira. 15 Jul. 2017. http://memoria.bn.br.
Carey, John. The Intellectuals and The Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939. London: Faber & Faber, 1992.
Correa, Felipe Botelho. Lima Barreto. Sátiras e outras subversões: textos inéditos. São Paulo: Penguin-Companhia, 2016.
Crosland, Thomas. The Suburbans. London: J. Long, 1905.
Gasset, José Ortega y. La Rebelión de las masas. Madrid: Revista de occidente, 1930.
Huxley, Aldous. “Euphues Redivivus.” In On the Margin. London: Chatto & Windus, 1923.
Lobato, Monteiro. “A caricatura no Brasil.” In Idéias de Jéca Tatu. Obras completas, vol. 4. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1964.
Needell, Jeffrey. A Tropical Belle Époque: Elite Culture and Society in Turn-of-the-Century Rio de Janeiro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Schwarcz, Lilia Moritz. Lima Barreto: triste visionário. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2017.
Tolstoy, Leo. What is Art? New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1904.
1. A Época, Rio de Janeiro, September 10, 1916.↩
2. D. H. Lawrence in a letter to Blanche Jennings apud Carey, John. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880—1939. London: Faber & Faber, 1992, p. 12.↩
3. “Estudos.” Gazeta de Notícias, Rio de Janeiro, August 26 1920, p. 2.↩
4. Diário íntimo. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1956.↩
5. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Lecture III. In: Anti-education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. New York: New York Review Books, 2016.↩
© 2018 by Felipe Botelho Correa. By arrangement with the author. Translations of Lima Barreto © 2018 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
In the following three micro-stories from Aflitos by Jean Wyllys, men and women handle defeat with toxic—even murderous—reactions.
The Course of Happiness
The room in disarray, two used condoms strewn on the floor. The sun, which entered through the wide open window, aggravated her headache. She tasted bitterness in her mouth and heard the shower running. She quickly ran to the bathroom and came across a masculine silhouette behind the box. The still unknown person opened the door—the body nude and wet—and said, "Good morning. Or maybe I should say good afternoon. It’s already after three o’clock." Right after that he bared his teeth in a smile. She wanted to ask, "Who are you?" but thought it might be too offensive; finally, she thought, if this man was in her house, it was because she herself had brought him there. So she asked him, "What exactly is your name?"
The boy responded, in a disgusted manner, that his name was André, and asked right after that: what was her name? I believe he was on a bender last night too, she thought. "My brother is about to show up," she told the boy, who at that moment was rolling a towel around himself like a belt. She always used that lie when she wanted to get rid of the previous night's depressing prey. Yet she didn't consider herself alone in the world because she believed in God (the sole one who remains when everyone else has gone away, even the ones she didn't want, anyway). Her parents had been dead for ten years and her only sister was lost in some corner of Brazil. Every man was her prey because, since she had been abandoned by her husband, she brought them to her bed after a night out hunting. Her prey was this cycle of self-destruction; she chose clothing that she considered sexy, she put on her makeup carefully, she selected accessories, she spritzed on perfume, and she drove her car to the Pelourinho or Barra or the Fish Market or bars on the shore in search of a man to alleviate, at least until sunrise, the weight of her loneliness.
On one of those nights, lacking available men, she managed to come home with a lesbian (a "sandal-wearer," she thought at the time, referring to the delicate fashion and the young woman's beauty), but she couldn't manage to entirely give herself to the experience. She liked feeling her breasts burning in a man's warm mouth. And what this one said to her! A short guy, close to her ear: obscene words. Only with men did she experience the fleeting happiness that is the orgasm. Every orgasm is a fugitive happiness that materializes in the release of sexual fluids that flow out into emptiness. "You need to go," she repeated to no one. She had spent so much time in her daydreaming that she didn't see the boy disappear into the elevator well, leaving her house and soul empty. Emptiness into which happiness itself disappeared.
Love Without Words, Silent Movie
To be read to the accompaniment of "Weeping in the Countryside," with Lobão.
I've thought enough before writing you this letter. I know that you will be shocked, but I needed to alleviate your conscience. The cause of our separation is me, it's my desire. I don't know how to begin the topic, but it's better to be direct: I have betrayed you every evening, in my sessions at the porn theater. I always say I am not going, but when I look up, I'm in front of the theater. Desire always defeats reason. In no time I am submerged in that darkness, in the middle of those young, brown guys—shadows that rise and fall, frequently exchanging seats and leaning against walls. As we're being captured in the prison of voluptuousness by our hunger for bodies, we throw ourselves onto each other without any criteria or words. We act as if we're in a mute siege, based only on gestures and looks. To us, the only important thing is the touch, the mouth, the sex. We circulate like roaches and rats in the dark, seeking sustenance amid the filth and mildew. Rats and cockroaches that, at the least ray of light, scatter back to their holes. I would very much like to write without metaphors, but the naked words, closer to reality, assault me. Or better, I fear that person I was and what I am capable of doing; I abhor my baseness. Returning to the topic at hand, after we convert our bodies into a swamp of sweat, saliva, someone else's semen, after we shatter in orgasms, we feel nauseated by each other and ourselves. The soul is empty, as if it were a woman soon after birth, except the fruit of that childbirth isn't a child, but an energy that burns and is inexhaustible. Defeated by desire, punished by remorse, we leave, looking all around us, heading directly for the shower, in the hope of washing ourselves clean all the way down to the spirit. But, although one might consider us to be defiling ourselves in these relationships, I also recognize that we are all looking for love. A love without words that comes to fill that eternal white space of our hearts, that lacuna ready to be occupied. Although we travel by torturous roads, we want to be happy. It's only that, or rather, that's all it is. I'm stopping by there only to grab my bags. I don't ask that you forgive me, but that you understand me. Thank you, Lúcio.
Astonished, Clarice didn't know whom to turn to for support. She soaked the page in tears. The day seemed to pity her. She walked from one side of the room to the other, without any direction. She screamed, twisted herself in knots. And she cried and cried and cried. It wasn't possible! At what point had she failed? She was furious! She grew silent again, went upstairs, and searched the nightstand. The pistol was there. She placed it in her purse and went to the garage. Her eyes looked like mines bubbling with pools of hatred. She headed down Avenida Contorno in the direction of Comércio. The waters of the Bay of All Saints were a drop compared to her weeping. She stopped the car on the other side of the street, directly in front of the bank where Lúcio worked. Five minutes later, he came out, accompanied by colleagues. From inside the car, Clarice pointed the pistol in his direction. Her hand trembled. She observed her husband for several seconds, his weariness and his unhappy smile. And she turned the gun on herself.
Don't Manipulate My Fear
The sun flooded the majority of spaces in Salvador's center with light and heat. It was midday and the few people who were outside their homes or workplaces were waiting for the bus beneath the shade of the trees, to such an extent that Pedro walked the entire Rua Padre Feijó without encountering a living soul. Near the top of the road at the Hospital das Clínicas, he came across a somewhat dirty and badly dressed man holding a syringe. "Pass me some dough, otherwise you're going to die," the man said.
Pedro smiled, half nervously, and tried to keep on his way. But the guy, now more menacing, advanced in his direction, forcing him to recoil. "This syringe has AIDS. If you don't pass me the dough, I'll stab you," he threatened. Paralyzed by a sudden panic, Pedro in seconds dredged up all his prejudices concerning that disease. Years back, for a long period, Pedro thought he had AIDS and started manifesting some of the symptoms of the disease, but, soon thereafter, discovered that he was a victim of his fears' phantasms.
There are few people, it seems, who aren't at some point assailed by the fear of having AIDS. Few are those who don't suffer insomniac nights because they only committed a minor mistake while having sex. And all of this craziness is the fruit of the reactionary and unsympathetic discourse of the State and its technocrats, who, instead of convincing people to use condoms, preventing themselves from getting HIV and not giving it to their fellow human beings, disseminate fear, identifying only supposed groups and risky behavior, making AIDS a more lethal disease than in fact it is.
As any person who was terrified by the possibility of being infected by the virus would do, if he encountered it before him, Pedro blanched. He said that he didn't have any money, but he could give up his watch and tennis shoes. The man accepted the proposal. Pedro took off his tennis shoes and his watch in less than half a minute and handed them to the individual. With the objects in hand, the guy began to laugh and called Pedro a sucker. "AIDS . . . How is it that the sucker believed that?" he said, turning his back to Pedro and playing with the syringe in his hand before dropping it. Gripped now by a hate without measure and feeling himself profoundly humiliated, Pedro, in an abrupt gesture, seized the syringe from the ground and drilled it, with all his might, into the man's neck.
From Aflitos (Salvador: Fundação Casa Jorge de Amado, 2001). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by John Keene. All rights reserved.
In these three poems, Ricardo Aleixo explores how to be a black man, how to know someone, and how to protest and resist.
Video: Ricardo Aleixo reads “My Man” in Portuguese.
I am whatever you think a black man is. You almost never think about black men. I will always be what you want a black man to be. I am your black man. I’ll never be only your black man. I am my black man before I am yours. Your black man. A black man is always somebody’s black man. Or they are not a black man at all, but a man. Just a man. When they say that a man is black, what they mean is that he is more black than he is man. But all the same, I’m a black man to you. I’m what you imagine black men to be. I can spill onto your whiteness the blackness that defines a black man in the eyes of someone who is not black. The black man is the invention of the white man. It is believed that to the white man falls the burden of creating all that is good in the world, and that I am good, and that I was created by whites. That they fear me more than they fear other white people. That they fear me, but at the same time desire my forbidden body. That they would scalp me for the doomed love they bear for my blackness. I was not born black. I’m not black every moment of the day. I am black only when they want me to be black. Those times that I am not just black, I am as adrift as the most lost white person. I am not just what you think I am.
I Know You by Your Scent
I know you
by your scent,
by your clothes,
by your cars,
by your rings and,
by your love
By your love
I know you
by your scent.
I know you
by your scent
and by the dollar signs
your eyes that
love of money.
For your love
and all that
the asylum, the
cell, the border.
I know you
by your scent.
I know you
by the scent
of pestilence and horror
wherever you go
—I know you
by your love
Under your love
God is a
father so cheap
for his miracles.
I know you
by your scent.
I know you
by the scent,
which you can’t mask
which clings to
all that you touch
for the love
For your love
to a smile, to pleasure,
I know you
by your scent.
I know you
by your scent.
Smell one of you and
I’ve smelled all
of you who
by your love
For the love
you turn even
your own daughters
to hard currency,
to pure gold.
I know you
by your scent.
I know you
by your scent.
I know you
by the stench
of your rotting
for its love
Night of Calunga in the Bairro Cabula
I died how many times
in the longest night?
In the motionless night,
heavy and long,
I died how many times
on the night of calunga?
The night does not end
and here I am
nameless and again
dying with each
in the musculature
of the person I once was.
I died how many times
in the bleeding bruised night?
In the night of calunga
so long and so heavy,
I died how many times
on that terrible night?
The night most death
and there I was
voiceless and again
dying with each
in the deepest depths
of what I remain
(and with each silence
of stone and mortar
that sheds the white
of your indifference
onto the shadow
of what I no longer am
and never will be again).
I died how many times
in the night of calunga?
In the brackish night,
night without end,
the oceanic night, all
emptied of blood,
I died how many times
in the terrible night
the night of calunga
in the Bairro Cabula?
I’ve died so many times
but they never kill me
once and for all.
My blood is a seed
that the wind roots
in the belly of the earth
and I am born again
and again and my name
is that which does not die
before making the night
no longer the silent
partner of death
but the mother that births
children the color of night
and watches over them
as a panther
who shows, in the light
of her gaze and in
the sharpness of her teeth,
just what she will do
if the hand of evil
troubling the sleep
of her cub.
I’ve died so many times
but I am always
brave and beautiful—
all I know is to be.
I am many, I extend
across the world
and across time inside
me and I am so many
one day I will make
Author's note: This poem was written especially for the magazine OMenelick 2Ato, at their invitation. It examines the impact of the massacre of thirteen black youths at the hands of military police on the outskirts of Salvador, Bahia, on the night of February 6, 2015. The black activist organization “Reaja ou será morta, Reaja ou será morto” (“Rise Up Or You Will Die”) dubbed the events the “Chacina do Cabula” or “The Slaughter in Cabula,” Cabula being the neighborhood where the slain boys lived. Playing with the double meaning of the word calunga—sea and death—the poem, which I read for the first time in public during a debate in which I participated on March 23, 2015, at the Paris Book Fair, declares itself at once as a protest against the normalization of the extermination of black youth in Brazil and in other countries and also as a tribute to active resistance in the name of life. It is dedicated to my daughters Iná and Flora and to my son Ravi.
"My Man," "I Know You by Your Scent," and "Night of Calunga in the Bairro Cabula" © Ricardo Aleixo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 Dan Hanrahan. All rights reserved.
In these four poems, Christiane Sobral breaks down the door, is spat on by a dragon and deliberately burns the beans in the pot.
I am a black renegade
I refuse the mirror daily
Which tries to massacre me inside
Which tries to deceive me with white lies
Which tries to discolor me with its rays of light
I am a black renegade
Determined to face the system
I drum up the black without a hitch
I bum-rush the stage
I am a black renegade
I advocate a necessary darkening
I unmask any racists in the closet
I shove my foot in the door and walk in
is an essence
I carry within me
Time and its strands
They've been coiled inside me since my navel was knotted
It has as its complementary counterpart
The space between time and its options
Time, lord of the hours
Subtly, on a silver cord
People don't kill time
He is the killer.
The first time I kissed
It was my girlfriends who kissed
They invented a flavor, a style, a smell
My lips weren't there.
The first time I kissed
The prince was chosen by these dreaming girls
He was a jerk to me
A toad, a dragon that spat its fire on me
I don't know what it was like
They didn't see my closed eyes
I wasn't there.
I Won't Wash the Dishes Anymore
I won’t wash the dishes anymore
Or dust the furniture
I've begun to read
The other day I opened a book and a week later I decided
I won't carry the trash out to the trash bin
Or clean up the mess of leaves falling in the yard
After reading I noticed each dish has its own aesthetic,
an aesthetic of traces, of ethics, of static
I look at my hands as they flip the books' pages
Hands much softer than they were before
I feel that I can start to be all the time
I feel. If something happens
I am not going to wash anymore. Nor bring
your rugs in for dry cleaning
My eyes grow teary
Now that I've begun to read I want to understand,
I read and I read and I read
I even smiled
And left the beans to burn. . .
See, the beans always take time to cook
Let’s just say things are different now. . . .
Ah, I forgot to say
I won’t do it any more
I've resolved to have some time for myself
I've resolved to read about what's going on between us
Don't wait for me
Don't call for me
I won’t be going
From everything I've ever read, from everything I understand
It was you who went
Went too far, for too long, past the alphabet
It had to be spelled out for you
I won’t wash things to cover up the true filth
Or dust things clean and scatter the dust from here to there and from there to here
I'll disinfect my hands and avoid your moving parts
I won't touch alcohol
After so many years literate
I’ve learned to read
After so much time together
I’ve learned to make a break
My sneaker from your shoe
My drawer from your ties
My perfume from your scent
My canvas from your frame
That's how it is, I’m not washing a thing anymore
And I stare at the filth at the bottom of the glass
The moment always arrives
of shaking things up, of moving forward, of making sense of things
I do not wash dishes anymore
I read the signature on my Emancipation Proclamation in black capital letters,
size 18, double-spaced
I set myself free
I do not wash dishes anymore
I want silver platters
And gold jewelry
The real kind
So is the Emancipation Proclamation decreed
“Black Eye,” “Time,” “False Advertising” and “I Won't Wash the Dishes Anymore” © Christiane Sobral. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 John Keene. All rights reserved.
Edited by Mary Ann Caws, this anthology delivers new insights into this radical movement and rectifies past omissions to its canon with more intellectually daring and provocative non-French and female voices.
One tends to forget, particularly in the United States where fluency in foreign languages runs low, that Surrealism began and had it widest influence as a literary movement. Poetry, reviews, short stories, essays, novels and various forms of experimental writing were at the core of its revolutionary practice and the radical notions they promoted were embedded in the very form these texts took on. Mary Ann Caws, distinguished scholar and beloved doyenne of all things surrealist, has edited a slim but utterly delightful volume of essential surrealist writings titled The Milk Bowl of Feathers. It is a collection that delivers new insights into this radical movement with a laser focus, and, importantly, rectifies some past omissions to the surrealist literary canon with a few deft and expert inclusions, namely of women and non-French writers.
When Surrealism emerged from the Dada movement, it was grounded in a decisive new literary style—automatic writing—and dreamlike and avant-garde visual art. The experimental movement, which had at its core the Freudian and anti-rationalist practices of experimental writing, trafficked in radical notions and quickly revolutionized visual art, printmaking, filmmaking, and literature. While many associate Surrealism mostly with visual artists, such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst, there is a strong argument to be made that it was in the realm of writing that surrealist experiments were most influential, helmed by the poet André Breton, who published his Manifesto of Surrealismin 1924.
Caws, a professor at the City University of New York graduate school, is well-known for her surrealist anthologies, including Surrealist Painters and Poets (2013). She has made it her life’s mission to popularize the writers and artists of this movement, and The Milk Bowl of Feathers can be regarded as the latest installment in a long series aimed at this goal. Her introduction reads equally as surrealist prose poetry and scholarly summary, which sets a creative and playful tone for the short and captivating texts that follow.
Along with the usual suspects of French poets Louis Aragon, André Breton, Robert Desnos, René Char, Philippe Soupault, Benjamin Péret, and Paul Éluard, Caws includes the inimitable literary polymath Georges Bataille. But Caws has done us a great service, and has corrected the record, by devoting a third of the volume to women. Now we have provocative and intellectually daring work by Mina Loy, Gisèle Prassinos, Méret Oppenheim, Dora Maar, and others, to give us a more complex view of surrealism art and its practitioners. Although Penelope Rosemont’s ground-breaking Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (1998) first introduced these writers, changing the course of scholarship in this area, Caws’ anthology gives us an even fuller appreciation of the individuals who were either at the center or the periphery of Surrealism.
The heart-wrenching “Despair” by Alice Paalen, better known today as the painter Alice Rahon, is a haunting lament to her lover Pablo Picasso. Rahon’s husband Wolfgang Paalen manipulated her into leaving Picasso—perhaps to her lasting regret, because this prose poem feels like a psychic suicide note. Leonora Carrington’s “The Sand Camel” reads like a surrealist Grimm’s fairy tale, with a matter-of-fact tone that makes the fantastical all the more believable. In “The Invisible Adventure,” Claude Cahun hints at her photographic mission when she confides: “Until I see everything clearly, I want to hunt myself down, struggle with myself.”
There are other inclusions that help us look at surrealism anew. A welcome addition is the earthy and evocative “The Automatic Crystal” by Aimé Césaire, translated from French by Caws herself. Césaire, an author and politician from Martinique, is best known for his essay, Discourse on Colonialism, and as the founder of the literary Négritude movement, vital for black intellectuals living in France’s colonies in Africa and in the Caribbean because it gave them a rallying point around which to confront issues of race and imperialism. It’s refreshing to see Césaire’s sensual, stream of consciousness surrealist fiction, which would have appeared in the journal he began in 1941, Tropiques, included here.
Many of the writers in this volume were also visual artists: Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Paul Magritte, and André Masson. Their texts are testament to their ability to work seamlessly in both mediums. It reinforces not only surrealism’s literary roots, but also the connective flow of key ideas and tropes that crossed all manner of borders. Scattered throughout are nods to the Dada movement. Man Ray’s “Dadamade” makes the connection explicit, and particularly satisfying is the inclusion of “Mefk Maru Mustir Daas” by the ferociously transgressive Elsa von Freytag-Lorringhoven, whose long-neglected work has finally been receiving its due in such studies as Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writing of Elsa von Freytag-Lorringhoven (2016) and Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity—A Cultural Biography (2003). Both are by Irene Gammel.
The topic of love preoccupied the men of surrealism. Paul Éluard’s “Lady Love” and “Your Hair of Oranges” exude a quintessential dreamlike reverie. Breton’s touching ode to his infant daughter Aube, “Dear Hazel of Squirrelnut,” also bears an uneasy relationship to his notions of the femme enfantas he muses about her sixteenth birthday: “let me believe you will be ready then to incarnate this eternal power of woman, the only power I have ever submitted to.” Léona Delacourt, the inspiration for Nadja (1928), Breton’s iconic paean to amour fou, is usually relegated to the role of muse, not creator. When you read her impassioned and distraught letters to him—“After your departure, Why not just go to sleep forever”—the frenetic urgency of Nadja becomes more understandable. The Egyptian-French Joyce Mansour, particularly neglected in English translations, offers a tart counterpoint to the metaphor-laden love poems of Éluard and others. Her celebration of sexual desire is clearly stated: “I want to sleep with you.” The American artist Kay Sage gives a cool and detached expository on what to expect from lovers of various nationalities and is hilariously biting when she sporadically compares those lovers to breeds of dogs.
Caws’ book is an eye-opener, and if you seek out more of these writers’ work, the book has done its job.
This collection of early stories by the celebrated Chinese author shows a writer determined to make a name for himself in a literary world that at the time was rife with experimentation.
In the title story of Yu Hua’s The April 3rd Incident: Stories, the narrator hears his family and friends whispering about something that will happen on April 3rd. There is no reason to suspect that this event is any more nefarious than a birthday party, but the narrator immediately starts entertaining ominous thoughts about the conversation he has overheard. The sense of a plot against him becomes so intense that he ends up leaving his hometown on a train. His destination is not necessarily any clearer than the mess he leaves behind, but at least, he thinks to himself, “he was now moving farther and farther away from the plot.”
This and the other early stories collected in this volume were first published by its author—now one of the most celebrated Chinese fiction-writers of his generation—between 1987 and 1991. As Yu Hua’s first published fiction, they show a much more experimental and daring literary ambition than later (and currently more well-known) works, such as his novels To Live (1993) and Brothers (2005). Reading The April 3rd Incident, it is possible to see Yu Hua “moving farther and farther away from the plot.” Only in this case, the “plot” that these early stories seem keen to avoid is the narrative one, the ordering of events in a story according to a conventional structure of beginning, middle, and end.
When he wants to achieve a certain effect, or experiment with narrative form, Yu Hua goes beyond what many of his predecessors both in China and abroad were practicing. Yu Hua’s early writing has often been compared to the works of Kafka, a natural parallel, considering the sharp feeling of restlessness in Yu Hua’s prose and its repertoire of lonely, alienated protagonists. It would be just as easy, however, to think of such writers as Kawabata, Barthelme, or Borges in comparison. More important is the overall impression that Yu Hua is jumping, even clawing, at postmodernism. This spate of early stories shows a writer determined to make a name for himself in a literary world that at the time was rife with experimentation.
The brilliant “In Memory of Miss Willow Yang” shows Yu Hua at his most experimental. The story begins with a young man who lives in the town of Smoke. He enjoys wandering the town alone, and one day he meets an “outlander” who tells him a story about ten “time bombs” that were buried in Smoke back in 1949. The outlander himself heard this story ten years earlier from a fisherman on a bus.
“Ten years ago,” the outlander says to the narrator, “That’s to say, May 8th, 1988.”
The narrator corrects him: “You mean 1978.”
“If it had been 1978,” the outlander says, “that would be twenty years ago.”
After the initial contradiction in dates, this story starts switching quickly from third person to first to back to third again, narrating the lives of the outlander, the protagonist, and the Nationalist officer who planted the bomb. Their stories share so many elements that they become the same story—a trauma of confused actors and causes. One of the characters begins to feel the presence of a small, imaginary girl in his heart. “The sound of her breathing was so minute, it called to mind the furrows formed by the wrinkles on my face.” Another character receives a corneal transplant from a girl who died after being struck by a truck driver from the People’s Liberation Army. A third character visits a different dead girl’s father and sees next to her bed a detailed pencil drawing of the Nationalist officer. None of the bombs explode—at least not on scene. As anchors of the different timelines, the bombs are a reminder of the limits of human action and intention.
Anything we may expect from a plot washes away in the shifting voice, leaving behind a handful of vibrant motifs. Unexploded ordnance, especially in areas that experienced intense World War II-era bombing, is a kind of time device in itself, keeping past conflicts present, unseen but still capable of killing. The alienated characters who live alone, in apparent danger of split identities and random accidents, feel reminiscent of a post-Mao China in which the artist grappled with new creative freedoms; it was a liberating but also vertiginous and highly self-conscious time. And finally there is love, a strange counterpart to Yu Hua’s other themes but a natural subject for any young writer.
The difficulties and dangers of love in fact propels the drama in all of these stories, and often seems to infuse the strongest moments of Yu Hua’s writing. “Love Story” is a traditional narrative about a high school couple traveling outside their city to an abortion clinic. The boy is cruel to the girl, and forces her to sit far away from him and to accomplish “her business” quickly and alone. In this story, too, the narration alternates between first and third person. The meaning of this splintered perspective is not clear until the end, when we realize that the boy has been thinking back on this incident after ten years have passed. He has now married the girl, but no longer wants to be with her. “Neither of us can give the other any surprise at all,” he complains. It is a simple argument, but far-reaching: The boy’s memories are controlling his present. The girl’s response is equally simple. “In all the time I’ve known you, there’s just once you’ve been a wreck,” she says. “When was that?” asks the boy, thinking of the abortion. “Now,” she responds, speaking to the gap in their remembered experience.
Love is also conjoined with fear in Yu Hua’s writing—fear of persecution, accident, and disruption. From the young boy of “Summer Typhoon,” who fantasizes about his physics teacher’s wife while struggling to predict a potential earthquake, to the truck driver of “Death Chronicle,” who runs over a beautiful young girl and, while trying to save her life, is mauled to death by her townspeople with iron rakes, hoes, and sickles, Yu Hua’s characters all suffer physical consequences of their love. The man with the invisible young woman in his heart allows his mind to stray too far and apparently causes the death of the invisible woman’s living counterpart. Then, when the young man himself steps out to buy curtains one day, he too gets hit by a car: “I heard the crisp snap of bones breaking and felt the blood in my veins thrown into chaos, as though a riot had erupted.” Yu Hua emphasizes the danger of stories born from love, as a story may confuse and overwhelm love.
Allan Barr’s translation appears stilted in places, but this could be the result of Yu Hua’s own style, which overreaches occasionally in pursuit of an effect. In the opening paragraph of the collection, for instance: “Sunlight had sneaked in through the window . . . a skein of sunshine reached my pant leg; the little splotch of leaping light made me think of a golden flea.” Yu is also fond of the unexpected simile: “Rosy light sprinkled itself everywhere, like fresh blood, and the sun fell slowly like a punctured balloon.” Elsewhere the translation is flawless. “Death Chronicle” in particular is a superb achievement: the rambling, matter-of-fact narrator sounds right out of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It is difficult to translate prose from an ideographic language like Chinese, as the rhythm has to be invented anew, but Barr walks the right line between symbolic imagery and lively English, while sometimes suppressing the former in favor of a flowing style.
For readers familiar with Yu Hua’s work, The April 3rd Incident will reveal the strong, even violent artistic tendencies that Yu Hua has since moved away from, as well as inklings of the more politically informed novels he has written since (Chronicles of a Blood Merchant, Brothers). There are no explicit political themes in The April 3rd Incident, but it is remarkable how Yu manages to infuse even such nondescript details as names, dates, and songs with political significance simply by his manner of description. In the title story, for instance, the unknown event that will take place on April 3rd feels urgent because of its tacit reference to student-led protests that led to national uprisings, such as the May Fourth Movement (1919) and the June Fourth Movement (1989), even while the surrounding story has nothing to do with politics. Yu Hua deftly confuses his timelines to make the present feel just as historical and ill-remembered as the past, so while the residue of the Cultural Revolution can be felt everywhere, and while new love erupts everywhere, the present does not become a more privileged ground for truth.
© Andrew Hungate. All rights reserved.
This selection of writings is by no means or intention a full and general picture of Vietnamese literature. The reading choice returns/moves toward the presences, the ruins, and the enduring silences of writers-in-between, the hyphenated writers, the writers who hide themselves, the writers of unshareable struggles. The past, the present of the past, the present. North, South, the North in South, the South in North. Inside and outside. Here and there. Vietnamese and English. The fallen and the risen. The stopped and the continuing. The staying and the leaving and the returning. The life and the death. A stirring to erase the binaries of underground-surface, official-unofficial, male-female, young-old. A condition of the dropped context. A latent resistance to the fear of uprooting from a context and the uncertainty of all contexts.
Silence, among Vietnamese authors, seems to have become a compelling tradition, a seduction, even a kind of ritual of self-discipline: who can stay silent the longest? But writing has proceeded to overcome the prison of space-time, resisted its imagined fate. Those who have completed the journey. Those who are still fatigued. The should-have-been-writers. Those who write without the toil of lifting an utterance. It would seem that all are excellent in their abilities of silence, in accepting to exile themselves with an unchosen silence.
And so, like the life of much literature consumed (by whom?) in silence, Vietnamese literature often relies on reader-companions: those who keep hold of the books in cataclysm, those publishing ventures that give enduring and hidden beauties, those translators who preserve through releasing new lives. I have the vague revelation of Vietnamese literature’s physical body with its broken fragments preserved through their wandering. Translation is a wandering, is wandering together. Those who have written—who have been silent—who are writing—continue to translate themselves and be translated inside their readers, even after death has finished the body, even when the books have been ground to dust, with the voices, the dreams, the delusions all torn to shreds, to be able to transform and imagine the adventures inside an “endless universe.”
Trần Dần's novel Những ngã tư và những cột đèn (Crossroads and lampposts) was written in 1966, with the book living in exile and lying in dust for forty-four years until its first appearance in 2010. Một giấc mơ (A dream) by Dương Nghiễm Mậu, a Northern-born writer who moved South in 1954 and quietly lived the rest of his life there after 1975, was written in 1962, first published in the South in 1966; and only now, in 2018, can the book quietly return to another life, after the writer has passed on from this one. The newborn of Trần Thị NgH’s first collection was halted halfway in its upbringing by the fall of Saigon, then republished outside of Vietnam after decades and reappeared only recently inside the country. Bùi Ngọc Tấn's books were ground to powder by the government, and still his love for life and his writings endure. And the younger ones, Đinh Trường Chinh, P.K., Pháp Hoan, Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên, drift more or less calmly between places and languages where nowhere is their home. Each writer bears a weighty history, of the country and of their own. Their writings now uttered, their tongues now untied, their lives might remain quiet.
The questions and the vulnerable mình//bodies exposed here across these pages: for what reason do we continue to bear our human body/fate in this devastating life, when the ghost of the war is always there, when solitude and separation are unavoidable? Is there a place to be shared among uprooted beings? Can love and joined bodies resist the destruction of time, age, fate, and death? Can “the speaking feet” hold the memory of our lives in the end-stopped journey, to transcend to an “endless universe”?
One persistent debt that in no way can be paid in the lurching of my reading: What Vietnamese literature do I read? Who is reading Vietnamese literature? Reading to understand. Reading to never be able to understand. Reading to escape. Reading to never be able to escape. An endless process of translation and retranslation. Reading as a person inside, and at the same time, with translators, as those always outside a language, an utterance, a people, an earthwater, a frame of circumstances. Those who are outside while being inside and those who are inside while being from outside meet each other at a fragile point: Vietnamese.
In the terms of a translation, perhaps holding to the images of inside and outside does not serve so well, in this century of diasporas and transnationalisms, where movements of bodies continue to disrupt any possible settling of context inside and outside of which I may call myself. For those on the inside (of a literature, of a language) can always be more deeply inside, while those outside have no idea how much more outside they could be. The translation wanders with, not necessarily into, not necessarily across, not necessarily toward, and in its wandering creates a possibility of reading that can fall into step with the moving bodies of the world. And so the questions of how to read, how to read a translation, how to read Vietnamese literature in translation pose alternate chances for engaging in the contextualized decontextualization of the between.
An abyss opens, there are some ones who together look down into the immensity.
© 2018 by Nhã Thuyên and Kaitlin Rees. By arrangement with the authors. All rights reserved.
In Ariel Urquiza's short story, a young man is forced to deliver drugs on his mother's behalf, but after arriving at his clients' party, he finds little motive for celebration.
“What do you want?” Gabriel asked when he opened the door.
“I’m Jonathan,” he said. “Renata’s son.”
“Wow, I didn’t recognize you. You’ve gotten so big, you’re almost as tall as me. Come on in. It took you a while, I was just about to call you again.”
Jonathan took a package wrapped in brown paper out of his backpack and handed it to Gabriel. The entry hall featured a gold-framed mirror and a number of marble sculptures. Through a rectangular arch, Jonathan could see part of the living room and hear voices.
“Let’s see how good this shit is.” Gabriel opened the package, dipped a finger in the powder and put it in his mouth once, and then again. “Did you have trouble finding the house?”
“No, it was easy.”
“It took you so long I was starting to think the cops had stopped you.”
“You live here now?”
“I wish. A house in Condesa like this? No, it’s my friends’ house. They were having a party and ran out of blow. When they called I didn’t have a single gram on me, can you believe it? There’s a lot of demand for product these days. I’m sorry if I yelled at you, I was a little high-strung when you called. It’s just that I told your mom she should call me as soon as she arrived from Peru. Hey, is she feeling better?”
“My mom?” Jonathan asked, distracted.
“Didn’t she have the flu?”
“Yeah, so she stayed at the hotel.”
“Knowing Renata, she must feel pretty rough not to come herself. Tell her hi for me and that I’ll call her soon to settle up. Well, come in. Unless you have to go take care of your mom.”
“It’s fine, I should let her rest.”
“Then come on in and have a drink. You look awful, kid.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, our hero with the vitamins has arrived,” someone said as Jonathan entered the room. He couldn't see who, he was a little overwhelmed—the house, the strangers, the Rivotril. He even received applause.
But what he saw was not his idea of a party. There were no more than six or seven people in a room so big that his house in Arequipa would fit inside it several times over. Three sofas formed a U in the center of the room, surrounding a pile of pillows. Each sofa was different, as if each guest had brought their own from home. Jonathan sat on the only one that was unoccupied.
“What are you drinking?” Gabriel asked.
He sat staring at him.
“Beer OK with you?”
“Yeah, sure, a beer, thanks.”
Gabriel passed him a Dos Equis and went to the kitchen or wherever he was weighing and cutting the coke he was about to sell to these people. Electronic music played faintly, as if it were coming from somewhere else. He felt like he was in a museum despite the fact he had never been to one, but something told him they were just as opulent and sad.
“What’s up, Gabriel!” a blond kid yelled. “What’s taking you so long with the refreshments? Or are you snorting it all yourself?”
“Bring it on, Gabriel! What else are we paying you a fuckload of money for,” another guy said. He looked like a clown. Hair à la Christopher Columbus, red pants, tight yellow shirt, gesticulating wildly with a glass of whisky in hand. Going on and on, occasionally caressing a pretty girl with uneven bangs, and the whole time the blond kid, who is dressed in all white, laughs at every stupid thing this clown says.
It’s not that Jonathan cares what these people do or don’t do. The truth is that he doesn’t care about anything anymore. He came to deliver the goddamn blow and that’s all. From here on out he has no plans. He has nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to do it with. He’s alone in the world and the world is a dream, on fire. He’ll need lots of beer to put this dream out.
Everyone seems to have forgotten he’s there. The excitement of his arrival has worn off. So he watches them all as if through a window. Strange people, really strange people. A slightly chubby guy, for example. With brown curly hair. Lying on one of the pillows on the floor like an Arab sheikh, explaining reincarnation in great detail to an anorexic girl. She’s all hunched up, her vertebrae showing through her blouse, mesmerized by what the guy says. The girl with the shaved head sitting on the rug next to the wall is even stranger. Staring sideways at a tapestry on the wall next to her, rocking back and forth. And on the sofa to the right of where he’s sitting, a dude sleeping totally naked, his ass in the air, face down on the pillow.
The only person who seems to realize he’s there is a woman leaning against the doorframe where Gabriel disappeared. She appears to be above it all, fifty years old, hair pulled back in a chignon, dressed for a party. This was a party, of course, he’d forgotten that for a moment, but she was the only one dressed elegantly. And she was looking at him. He felt self-conscious so he downed his beer. The woman wasn’t paying any attention to the clown in the yellow shirt. She didn’t care that the police had pulled him over and that his Rottweiler had jumped the cop and been impounded. The dog. And that he had to pay its bail. In Las Vegas, the day after marrying a girl whose name he couldn't remember and who left the hotel with all his cash. The fact was, none of this was of interest to anyone since it happened to a guy wearing a tight yellow shirt, cowboy boots, and red trousers.
As soon as Jonathan finished his beer, his head was in a different place, he couldn’t shake his negative thoughts, one image after another, so awful that his stomach churned.
The woman with the chignon approached him and sat down.
“Why are you crying?” she asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m not crying, it’s allergies.”
She looked at him the way a kindly aunt might.
“I was thinking of my family in Peru,” he lied. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them.”
“Are you new to Mexico?”
“No, I’ve been here a few years already, though I go back to Lima once in a while.”
“You like it here?”
“Yeah, but I haven’t gotten to see much.”
“Come, I’ll show you the house.”
The woman led him up a staircase to the second floor. They walked down a hall lined with doors on both sides.
“My son and I live alone now, but once upon a time my in-laws and all their children lived here. All six of them, my husband was the youngest. And other relatives and friends were always visiting, back then it made sense to have such a big house.”
The woman stopped in front of a door.
“Trotsky spent the night here,” she said, and stepped aside so he could take a look. The wallpaper was peeling and the carpet was worn, as if no one had set foot in there for years. “You don’t know who Trotsky is, do you?”
He shook his head.
“I told Margarita to air all the rooms,” she said to herself, entering the room opposite. “Come in. This was my husband’s study. He died five years ago, but I’ve kept it just as it was when he was alive.”
The walls were lined with shelves full of books.
“What did your husband do?”
“He was a doctor. And a historian, an amateur one. He wanted our son to be a doctor, or an engineer like his uncle. But Ignacio’s calling is art. He’s a wonderful graffiti artist, his work’s all over the city.”
“Your son is downstairs?”
“Yes, the blond dressed in white. My husband would have been displeased to see Ignacio wasting so much time having fun, disregarding his future. But then I think, what good did it do my husband to spend so much time learning? He was never happy, he was always worrying. So I let Ignacio have all the parties he wants. I’d rather he has fun at home than go out who knows where.” She paused to brush a wisp of hair out of his eyes. The old lady was a coquette. “You look sad. Do you miss your family? Or is it something else?”
He didn’t answer. He was on the verge of crying again.
“You remind me of a boyfriend I had in college. He was two or three years older than you when he was hit by a bus. I was one of the passengers. Or the coach. I don’t know what you call them in Peru. He was waiting for me at the bus stop. Well, let’s go downstairs, I’ll get you another beer.”
On the stairs Jonathan heard some reggaeton and started to feel a little better.
“Did a lot of people go home? Gabriel told me there were a lot of people here.”
“Yes, most of the guests left. The party was really the night before last. More than fifty people. A lot of them were still here last night.”
Downstairs the mood had picked up. They had been filling their nostrils with the blow he had delivered. Everyone was totally high. Everyone except the naked dude, who was still passed out on the sofa. Even the girl who had been rocking herself in the corner was chatting animatedly.
Gabriel had been looking for him. He pulled him aside and handed him a wad of bills. He’d give him the rest in a few days, he’d call his mother on Wednesday.
“I’m heading out. You are, too, right?” he asked, but he said no, if he didn’t mind he’d stay a little longer. Gabriel didn’t think it was a good idea.
“Don’t listen to him,” the woman said. She was eavesdropping. “You can stay as long as you want.” So Gabriel waved good-bye to everyone and the woman walked him to the door. Jonathan sat down on the same sofa. He couldn't be bothered to get himself another beer.
He tried to pay attention to what was happening in the room to prevent himself from thinking about anything else. Anything else was his mother, the hotel, the worst day of his life. Worse than all the times his stepfather had beat him as a child, even worse than the time he found the sonofabitch kicking his mother on the floor, and, blinded by hate, sunk a knife into his belly. He wondered if everything that had just happened in the hotel was some kind of poetic justice; he couldn’t get the image of his mother out of his mind, her skin gray against the white sheets of the hotel, and he tried everything in his power to get these thoughts out of his head, even listening to the idiocies the clown was spouting without the glass of whisky in his hand, now he was holding a platter full of blow. He was even more of an imbecile than before, the coke had gone to his head.
“At the end of the day, this is shit,” the moron was saying. “Good shit, I won’t deny it, but all it does is make us feel like we’re invincible, like we can change the world, when the truth is that we can’t change a thing.”
The clown had put the platter of coke on his head, like a waiter carrying a tray, and the mere sight made his heart race.
“We should be smoking opium by now,” the clown said. “If we keep going we won’t sleep for a month. Plus, coke is so over. Opium makes you wise, it opens your third eye.”
Stop talking shit, he thought, nothing could make you wise, and I’ll open your third eye for you if you don’t put that platter down on the table.
“What do you think about calling an end to this White Age, a symbol of Western decadence?”
They were all listening enraptured as if he were some kind of genius. Right then the clown threw the platter into the air, spilling all the cocaine on the floor, and started laughing.
Once again he felt like crying, this time out of anger. He looked around the room for the woman, who knows why, perhaps because she was the only sane person in the place, but he didn’t see her. So he stood up, snatched a beer bottle off the floor and struck it against the side of a table. He grabbed the clown from behind, holding his head in one hand and pushing the broken glass into his neck with the other.
“Don’t waste it, you motherfucker,” he said. “You have no idea what my mother had to go through to get you your coke. Shut up and listen! My mother brought this coke into Mexico in her bowels, you understand? One hundred and thirty capsules. And because one fucking capsule burst, my mother is dead, and she can see this all from heaven and she sure as hell doesn’t like what she’s seeing, you faggot. So you better snort it all. Snort it up along with these girls’ pubic hairs, that’s how you’re gonna snort it. Because my mother died for this shit and I can’t even afford to have a funeral and give her the burial she deserves. No! Shut the fuck up!” The naked guy had woken up and was asking what was going on. But no one answered him. No one even blinked. “I had to get drunk and cut my mother open with a knife, you understand what I’m saying? I cut her open to get all this blow that you’re tossing around in the air like it’s flour. And then I had to leave her body in the hotel room because I knew that if I didn’t deliver this fucking shit they’d come find me and kill me.”
Now the clown was on his knees, begging for forgiveness, the edge of the bottle against his carotid, pretending to cry for mercy, while the pretty girl with the bangs and the anorexic one vomited on the carpet.
“All so you and your stupid friends could have this fucking party. You heard me, get this blow off the floor and start snorting it now. And the rest of you snort everything that fell on the table. Let’s go! I want to see you all snorting!”
The woman appeared and asked him to let the clown go. He did, but first he put a foot on his shoulder and shoved his head into the carpet. Then he grabbed his backpack and walked out the door, slamming it behind him.
Night had fallen and it was cold as he wandered out into the dark.
"Resabios de una fiesta en la Condesa" © Ariel Urquiza. By arrangement with Literarische Agentur Mertin Inh. Nicole Witt e. K., Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Translation © 2018 Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.
Marcin Wicha discovers that choosing the right urn for his father's ashes is a process fraught with nightmarish options that could wake even the dead.
“Please choose an extension number or wait to be transferred to the front office,” and the voice of Louis Armstrong on the phone:
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world!
I wonder who chose this song.The manager of the crematorium? The answering machine retailer (“I have something suitable for your sort of business”)? It's conceivable that the sweetly hoarse golden oldie is number one on some mourning playlist—incidental music most frequently chosen for the cremation ceremony.
This trope often appears in American comedies. Ashes in a bag, a box, a biscuit tin. The mortal remains in a little vase on the mantelpiece, in a kitchen cupboard, on the windowsill. “What do you keep in this?” “Grandma.” A flurry of hilarious hijinks ensues. Gag upon gag explodes. A cat knocks the urn over. A drunk party-goer mistakes the ashes for cocaine. Finally the climax: the ritual of scattering the ashes, always in windy weather, so that the playful breeze can blow the gray cloud straight into the mourners' faces. Later—an orgy of sneezing, coughing, and brushing down clothes.
We used to watch many dumb movies together.
I came home, where he no longer was. My mother's friends had gathered, there was general commotion.
“On the Warsaw or national pages?”
“Are you allowed to keep the ID card photo?”
“Would you happen to have a bit of cream? Normal milk is OK if you don't.”
The management of the cemetery. The crematorium. Life has been divided into a series of tasks to be completed. The feeling of helplessness caught up with me a few days later, as I was leafing through a glossy catalog of urns at the funeral parlor.
All the models looked like a cross between a Grecian vase and a Chinese thermos flask. They sparkled with glitter. They shimmered with chrome. They were gold, white-gold, malachite, and black. They had ornamental handles and grips. Some looked like old-fashioned preserving jars with wire clips. Others resembled Winnie-the-Pooh's honey pots. Plastics dominated, but the range also offered natural stone (apparently nature has off days too).
And—obviously—crosses. Carved. Painted. Stuck to the side. Protruding on top (like a miniature of the Giewont mountain). Of course, there was also the inevitable crown of thorns, Mother of God in half-profile, and the Pensive Christ. Poor Dad. A nonreligious Jew, completely uninterested in issues of faith, ended up outside the target group.
The alternative was a flower—a white lily or a fading rose. According to the funeral industry, Poland was inhabited by two kinds of people: Christians and members of a florists' cult.
I flipped through the catalog, the funeral parlor boss was getting impatient. Under her gaze, I finally chose a model. It was slightly less decorated, its shape was a bit simpler, and even the white rose looked rather discreet.
Later, for a few hours I deluded myself that it was OK. But it wasn't. Dad would never have agreed to a receptacle like this. It's vile to disregard somebody's sense of aesthetics just because they're dead.
My father's taste defined our lives for many years. His verdicts were impetuous and definitive. We lived in an aesthetic minefield. In time I learned to avoid the traps, and as I carved a safe path, I felt our sense of complicity grow. We became brothers-in-arms in this war against the whole world.
The thing was: Dad wouldn't let ugliness cross our doorstep.
We lived in a state of siege, the Amish of the visual. The political system was against us. As was the economy. And the climate. A half-inch outside our apartment door, an oil-paint dado and terrazzo flooring began. The elevator with the melted buttons was waiting, along with the block of flats. The landscape of late socialism.
When talking about the people we loved, laconic diagnoses are out of place. What concerns our loved ones should be complicated and unique. In fact, it was simple and unremarkable. Simply put, there are people whose day can be ruined by the wrong-colored plug. Who prefer to stay at home than go on holiday to a seaside guesthouse where the carpets are repulsive. Poor wretches tortured by expanses of plaster finish.
Yes, yes, I know. Taste is a category of class. It sets out hierarchies and divisions. It reflects our aspirations and fears. It allows us to put on airs, to lie to ourselves, to cheat. And so on.
At least in terms of the urn, I had my way. In the orphaned address book, I found the number of a sculptor Dad had worked with once. I called. I explained the issue. The funeral was in two days. The artist listened to me unsurprised. He thought a while.
“I made flower boxes for a church in Ursynów. If I take off the legs, it'll be perfect . . . ”
And so I buried my father's ashes in a black granite cube. The name and surname were carved into one side. Font: Futura. Majuscule. Two times five letters, elegantly justified, just as he liked. I was bursting with pride. The urn was beautiful. The problem was that the only person who could appreciate that, the only person whose opinion mattered to me, was already dead.
From Jak przestałem kochać design. © Marcin Wicha. Published 2015 by Wydawnictwo Karakter. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2018 by Marta Dziurosz. All rights reserved.
The author remembers how his father asked for American cookies from the hospital bed, and how, after a tumor claimed his life, no one ate the oranges in the garden.
In memory of José João Serrano Peixoto
The day begins to stir and things around me begin to stir a little also. I open the shutters. The flowers in the vases lift themselves toward the slender light that bathes them. The light skims low over the earth, like a plague stretching out and galloping, advancing like a wave that never retreats. Little by little, tiny movements begin to stir in the hanging branches of the trees. Behind the whitewashed wall of our back yard, the olive trees stretch into the distance. The sparrows in the sky begin to waken. Time is light, Dad. And you come with the sun, banishing night, bringing with you the morning, like when it was Saturday and you would come and get me out of bed and, on our way to the vegetable patch, I would gradually wake up. And we would pick and eat some oranges or peaches, depending on the season. If it was raining, we would pull on rubber boots and I would follow you along the muddy paths between the plants dripping with rain. If the sun was in the sky, I would follow you to the top of the vegetable patch and, from the tank, we would make the water run down between the rows, fresh, clear water running over earth, and on its descent we would divert it into every thirsty square you had planted. And it would seep slowly into the pores of the earth, slaking the fire that consumed it within. We could feel the burning earth beneath our feet. Clumps of earth: cinders. Water running down between the rows, like the purest blood. And we would unroll yards and yards of hose until it reached the trees you had planted; serenely, a little round lake would form at the foot of each trunk. That winter when you were still here, Dad, no one ate the oranges in our garden. The boots stayed where we left them, between hoes and seeds, as if at any moment you might open the door and pull them on once again. I know you can’t. I feel as if I am the only one who knows, but cannot tell this terrible secret. I feel stranded in my pain when the morning sweeps across the sky, across the whole world. The morning you longed for and which came without you. The morning we went to fetch you from the hospital, so that at last you could leave it, as you had longed for so many times. Dad, I see the nomadic singing of the sparrows and I know; I see the newborn day and I know; I see the pureness of the dew on the green earth and I know. I know and still I wait.
Morning came and I left our house. I closed the doors and shutters; darkness. I locked in the shadows. I rummaged in my pocket, deep like yours, and with the keys that were yours and are still yours and that you left us, I double-locked the door of the back yard. I locked in the ground covered with leaves that fell for you; the peach trees, grateful for spring, also covered with leaves; I locked in the armlike branches of the plants, clinging silently to the walls; the henhouse, the rabbit hutches, the dovecote, already lifeless, already emptied; I locked in the washtub and the olive grove and the lemon tree which no longer provides lemonade for afternoon refreshments. I locked the yard door and, in the van, I left. Nobody ventured into the streets I passed through, only the whitewash and the sun and the houses remained in the place where we had known them for so long. I drove fast, fleeing the streets and the houses; fast, unlike that other sleepless morning when they made us drive slowly, you with us for the last time, slowly suffering the plodding journey and people people people behind us.
Dad, the streets I used to take to go to school, my schoolbag on my back, the yellow schoolbag you gave me. The streets I raced around on my bike, and someone would tell you that I was going too fast, the blue bike you brought home one day, on my birthday, in the van. The bicycle and a football. I haven’t forgotten, Dad. I drove quickly through the streets I know and will always know by heart. Engraved on my memory. And I went past the school, and at the entrance to, the exit from our own piece of earth, I stopped. In front of those iron gates that close every day to separate us from each other, in front of the tall, thick whitewashed walls, I heard the bells chiming softly in the breeze, in the silence. The white cemetery, only white, its outlines only black. I held the gate, cold like all things that exist and separate us, made of iron much stronger than our failing flesh, our flesh too weak to conquer and yet always struggling on. I went in.
I went in and, far from the morning, the sun bathed itself in cool obscured light, like sunset. And I passed down the line of tombstones, moss clinging to their marble. Inside me, you know, the constant pain the constant pain. You know. The chapel ahead of me drew closer in the slow monotony of my processional footsteps. The cypresses whispered their accumulated laments. And I walked as if my body was no longer with me. Bodiless. Immaterial and yet with my own inconvenient weight, above ground. I reached the chapel and went around it and there I caught a glimpse of you, Dad. In the distance, the shape of your stone bed, your last one, your simple altar. I followed a path between the graves, always looking at you. Walking without looking, following a line, looking at you, shining between the sleeping. Dad. Closer to you with every blackbird that glides above us; closer to you with every cloud that meets the weary sky. With every silence in the wind. I came to where I know you are, to where you lie, or where you lay; to where you are, under a glass bell-dome of crystallized time, of time that doesn’t pass, of marble. It has your name on it, Dad. Your momentous name, Dad. Written forever, like the clouds, like the things that don’t die. And your enameled face stared up at me from the photo on your gravestone. You haven’t seen me for a long time. We stared at each other and I know you wanted to speak to me, to ask me. I told you the news of my sister’s little girl who still asks for you, who can already say grandpa. And I saw a smile in the parenthesis of your gaze. Beneath your name the day you were born and the day you died. Do you remember when I brought you here? The silence, the mourning, and I wanted to carry you. The hearse stopped. The rain stopped. And I wanted to carry you. All the things you did for me; you made me, and I could only carry you. I took one of the handles, and your weight told me father things, and I crossed a wide expanse of time, and I left you on two planks over the grave, for you to be lowered down with ropes. And the earth on top of you, the earth falling on top of you, the earth. On top of you, the weight of your gravestone, no cross, the weight of the earth, of all the mornings. Wisps of grass grow around you, Dad. From you the cypresses reach blackly upward. Before leaving, because you know very well the visiting times, Dad, you know very well that if I stay longer the nurse will come and send me away and scold us both; before leaving, I said I can do it, Dad, I will build as you built; these arms are your arms, these arms are your arms, Dad. We looked at each other again. Yes, I’ll be back, Dad, I’ll be back. And you watched me walk away. And the constant pain, the constant pain. Together we wept. You know we did.
The van goes with me. It is carrying me now. Spring is here, Dad. Through the whole morning that still exists, like a gaze that you still hold, as long as the space between earth and sky, fresh and luminous as ever, smoothly luminous just as this spring is soft and the whole morning through. If only I could fall down and rest for as long a time as you, Dad.
Blind, in the earth, chest damp with sleep, in the night. So many decades and centuries, serene statue submersed in a clean fountain of drinking water. Angel impervious to fatigue, between flowers, between flowers, between fields and plains. Oh, Dad, if only I could fall down and be your enameled portrait, the reddened tones, the blood of your enameled portrait stuck to the marble. Dad. Here there is only sleepless time. And the light that now punishes the dry earth. And what passes blandly on for having passed so many times before. This road that goes with me, this road that carries me. This road that brought me here and now takes me away from you. This light that grabs hold of me with arms of light and won’t let me go and won’t let me go and compels me to follow. And I carry on, Dad. I carry on as if there was no will left inside me. But you know that there is. I inherited my willpower from you. And from here, from the indifference of it all, I remember our locked-up house. Yes, I’ll be back, Dad. I’ll be back to clean out the yard and tidy up the vegetable patch. From here, I remember your face in the country where you dwell, that immense white-black country, your face following me, lost, lost, needing me, lost in an archipelago of graves and grief and morning still. Dad. Your voice goes with me within me. I’m listening, Dad. Like when you’d call me over, when you’d take my hand and place it on your tumor-ridden belly. Blotches. Your deformed belly. Lumps. And in your innocent words, blotches and lumps, you were telling me that you were getting worse, that you wouldn’t get better. And I always lied to you, I always lied to you. Our sad, sad gazes. Dad. Like in the hospital, you asking us for American cookies. Maybe I’ll be able to chew them, because the food here just rolls around my mouth and does me no good at all. And us looking for them everywhere and people laughing, Dad. American cookies like the ones you used to eat at the fair in Estremoz, when you would go there with your mother and brothers and sisters. Dad. Your voice, the faint tremor in your breathing, my mother and I watching you, we who knew you, going to fetch you from your room, we who knew you, helping you to the bathroom. Dad, even this you couldn’t manage, and we who knew you, we held you by your arms, we carried you. The faint tremor in your voice, the failing strength in your legs. Your voice, Dad, which is my voice, reminds me of all this. All of it is fixed in the perpetual funereal morning that holds me tight and stops me from ever forgetting.
And I neither want nor can forget what I once felt from your gaze. I stayed in the silence of the winter you embraced. There is no spring without imagining new grass from the words new grass spoken by you; there will be no summer without imagining the sun from the word sun spoken by you; there will be no autumn without imagining the deep oblivion of the word death spoken from your lips. This is why, Dad, hanging in the air, the silence from you is to suffer, in the time that goes by, in the air, in the time that no longer goes by. Time does not pass, sustained by the lie of little falsehoods that merely change places, that merely follow one after another, lying but leaving their trace, rustling their way on little rat’s feet between the shriveled dead bushes and lush green ones. Then the sun rises from the last dusk that died with you, and the breezes mimic the true breezes that once touched your face; even the clouds and the stars are not the same: they are nothing but lies replacing lies at every moment in time that does not go by. We need you to make time go forward. We need your gaze to guide us if the rain pulls us back. Dad, having your memory within mine is like carrying a grudge, it’s like carrying a sack on my back with a grudge against this world that cruelly punishes us, this world that tramples on the other world where we could have lived together, the world we will always be proud of and which we loved and will never forget.
© José Luís Peixoto. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2018 by Robin Patterson. All rights reserved.