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.
The paradox doesn’t escape me: I was born and bred in Mozambique, known as the homeland of poets, and yet for a long time I didn’t consider myself up to the task of truly appreciating poetry in all its depth.
This belief was first challenged in early 2017 with the launch of an independent press, Cavalo do Mar, which has published eighteen titles thus far, including the work of the three poets here, whose works haunted me and set me on this ambitious quest of translating Mozambican voices into English.
My introduction to Mbate Pedro’s Vácuos (Voids), the fourth book in Cavalo do Mar’s poetry series The Sons of the Wind, occurred one warm evening in March 2017 when I found myself sitting in one of the fifty or so plastic garden chairs lined up across the backyard of the Natural History Museum of my hometown of Maputo. I was distracted by memories of my childhood wanderings through the museum with my younger siblings when I suddenly noticed that the place was packed with rows and rows of people standing behind me. I had been to book launches before and was expecting to see about thirty people in attendance, so I was surprised by this growing crowd and rushed to buy a copy of the book sold at a corner table. The cover seized my attention, the title in red over a black pencil drawing of people in a bottle, set against a soft beige textured cover.
I didn’t know what to expect, since this was my first time attending a poetry book launch. I had met Mbate Pedro a couple of times at cultural events and was pleased to see how many people showed up to support his writing.
The book was introduced by António Cabrita, a contemporary poet and one of Pedro’s friends and mentors, who presented a selection of paintings and songs that dialogued with Voids. Pedro’s poems are fluid and light, and also boundless, making it hard to determine where they start or end, whether we are reading a hundred micro-verses or five long poems. Death, love, the city, and poetry itself inspire this collection that evokes a sense of arriving too late via wordplay and experiments with form. The audience squealed with delight at the sultry voice of Vanessa Riambau, a Brazilian writer and one of Mbate’s many friends, whose singing lent a melodic element to Mbate’s poems about love, death, and loss. Then Horácio Guiamba, donning a maxi dress and an apron, twirled around, knocking into walls and stairs, “the furled poetic fabric that switches the body on.”
I left in a daze, the high-pitched trill of Mbate’s mother’s ululating—known in Mozambique as nkulunguana—still echoing in my ears, and I delved into Voids.
That evening put Cavalo do Mar on my radar, and I quickly sought out Des(d)enhos (De(s)igns), the fifth volume in the Sons of the Wind collection. I bought it at a pop-up presale, my curiosity piqued by the biography of its author, Hélder Faife, a fellow architect and writer. I was intrigued by the title: De(s)igns, Child's Play for Grown-ups, and the brown textured cover with what seemed to be doodles on it. It is a seemingly weightless book, composed of short poems and childish drawings that Hélder’s four daughters traced all over his walls, his work, his manuscripts and even his passport. I devoured the verses and couldn’t help but begin to translate the poems first into Italian and then into English. I selected three of my favorites—“Punctuation,” “Hopscotch,” and “Sea”—for starters and spent the next couple of weeks tweaking at and polishing my initial translations.
De(s)igns was launched at a beautiful recital in April, where I surprised Hélder with my translations. I was delighted by the dramatized reading, which included hopscotching girls who turned Faife’s “butterflying” into a kuduro song. For this selection in Words Without Borders, I’ve chosen the title poem, in addition to “Punctuation” and “The End,” all of them shot through with a playful tone that at once celebrates life and explores its dilemmas.
During the winter of that same year, Rogério Manjate—an actor, theater director, and filmmaker born in Maputo in 1972—made his debut in Cavalo do Mar collection. A 2002 story collection had earned him the TDM Literary Prize, and the two poems that appear in this issue were published as part of his 2017 collection Cicatriz Encarnada (The Scar Incarnate), a finalist for the Glória de Sant’anna Prize for Poetry.
At the launch of Cicatriz encarnada, he had us all, his readers, seeing red, in a good way. The event included dramatized reading, a recital, and a conversation with Manjate. His acting background exercised enormous influence on the collection, which, more than poems act as something of a stage script at the same time they are an ode to his neighborhood of Malanga, in Maputo. Written over twenty years, Manjate gives life to a maze of tin roofs, reed fences, and walls riddled with holes, ideal for the prying, curious eyes of men-children. He marries to verse the songs and tears of girls wetting hanging their capulanas out to dry, vibrant red against the squalor and hunger of the early days of Mozambique’s independence. A world completely foreign to me, someone raised on the second floor of an urban high-rise, with its stacked clothes lines, where the red dye of an evening dress once dripped and stained the white shirt of my only school uniform.
The selection here is proposed not as a definitive list of the major Mozambican poets working today but rather a jumping-off point, a gesture toward the diversity of themes and styles to be found in the contemporary literature of Mozambique. It is, above all, an invitation to further reading.
"Mozambique, A Land of Poets" © Sandra Tamele. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
In these two poems, time bends and life begins to circle.
A Life Diverse
A minute goes by
a second stares
a third smiles
but in the corner
hovers in wait for me
like the eye of a horse
trailing the cart.
The future dies in reverse, the
slug tells me
It’s not anxiety
or else I’d throw out expectation
this gadget without hour hands
that shouldn’t rust here inside:
I want to be budding memory.
But my hands are empty
a presage of things astray
I try to grasp, my reach mistimed,
and am overcome with fear:
the exsanguine scar tears into live flesh.
Seated I await
from within my shadow and fullness:
my pact with hope is evergreen:
immense this green that makes a heart.
My life, a circle route
every side a destination
—what’s the word for this?—for instance
the poet’s gaze sees the bird
within its song:
once upon a time
a bird sang and sang
until a forest sprouted
when the poet reached
the middle of the forest
there was sweat, flowers, fruits,
grains of sunlight in his heart
he’d stared so long at the bird
from within its song.
Slowly flying from fire to fire
I do my thinking with my feet:
I wander the mysterious ways
this god works into
my life full of landscapes.
I carry new geographies on my feet:
never looking back
I am the future the footprint in-augurs.
I enter the ordinary things of dreams
I dream the memory of things
and augur savage joys
while innocence walks hand in hand with hunger.
A Life Inverse
My life circled round
every side a destination
—I’m a budding stone
the sky at my fingertips
I exist beyond the silence
inside voices and their words
inside voiceless words
And inside these insides where blue arouses the clitoris
as my dead pass teeming with sky
to the wonder of the earth floor dizzy with birds.
A floor within the swoon?
it is me passing by, it is we the budding dead
the sky within another sky
to the wonder of two eyes kaleido-scoping the horizon:
I have skies at my fingertips
and I am not short of ground:
—My life, a circle route:
"A Life Diverse" and "A Life Inverse" © Rogério Manjate. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Sandra Tamele and Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
For the longest time, Chile was said to be a “land of poets.” And truly, we have an extraordinary lyric tradition that has varied in style and purpose throughout the centuries. Written poetry is a foundational genre in Chile that emerged with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors: among them was the poet Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga, who wrote one of the most beautiful books of his time in praise of the newly “discovered” Chile and its formidable peoples, the mapuches. Inadvertently perhaps, the book contradicted the values of the imperial venture to which the poet belonged; from then on, our poetry has always had something to say about the politics and the peoples of Chile, and the lyric tradition that was to ensue made itself heard.
Indeed, poets were public intellectuals who were heard and revered internationally: one should not be surprised then to learn that Gabriela Mistral was, for Latin America, not only the first author and the first poet but also the first woman writing in Spanish to earn the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1945. Nor should one be amazed that yet another Chilean, Pablo Neruda, followed in 1971. Two poets in the Nobel academy was no small achievement for such a slim, peripheral country. This alone helped build the reputation of Chilean poetry as prodigious and boundless—hardly exceptions, Mistral and Neruda were just two great poets among other notorious albeit dissimilar and even oppositional figures that together justify of the mythic moniker of land of great poets.
This myth, however, has obscured the equally important prose written and published in Chile during the past century. Not to blame the poets. One way to explain this invisibility is the excessive cost of books in a country with a relatively small literate class, a tiny readership, the country's remote location, and a geography that certainly made the circulation of books difficult and expensive, both within and without national borders. As is known, Chile is framed by the driest desert in the world (the gorgeous Atacama which once belonged to Peru and Bolivia), and, to the south, by a rainforest that gives way to the Antarctic's eternal ice. The insurmountable Andes range is a natural border with Argentina to the east, while the Pacific Ocean churns to the west.
One must add to these topographic barriers two decades of a literary production shackled by a grim military dictatorship that gutted public education, closed publishing houses, levied heavy taxes upon books, and censored all forms of cultural expression, among other more gruesome acts against writers, intellectuals, and other civilians. Remarkably, only those who were able to transcend both geographical and political isolation had a chance to make their work known. This is certainly the case of Mistral and Neruda, both unrelenting travelers who spent long periods abroad.
However, novelists contemporary to these mythic poets remain largely unknown, or only known to experts in the field: the Argentine-born Manuel Rojas, who in his time was widely translated, or José Donoso, the only Chilean among the ranks of the Latin American Boom, although his work never gained the critical acclaim or the popularity of the celebrated Colombian Gabriel García Márquez or the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel laureates in 1982 and 2010 respectively. A contemporary of José Donoso, the extraordinary Carlos Droguett, fell into obscurity after some international success. These novelists, who might have turned this Chile-land-of-poets myth on its head, were figures who, on their own, lacked the influence to open up the field for the novelists who followed them. Interest in Latin American writers had abated by then, and editors seemed to turn their eyes to other continents.
It was not until the international uproar caused by the late Roberto Bolaño that some light shone once again upon the Chilean novel. What is of interest is that Bolaño, very much influenced by the idea that poetry was the genre of prestige, himself declared he was more of a poet than of a prose writer. Still, despite this claim, it would be Bolaño’s novels that would earn him renown and a lasting legacy.
Until Bolaño appeared, Chilean novels in English translation were extremely hard to find. A few selected works by Donoso, a novel by María Luisa Bombal, three by Diamela Eltit (a recent recipient of Chile's National Prize for in Literature) and the only novel by the queer performer and nonfiction writer Pedro Lemebel. Among that generation, there are other authors who have had only one book translated; that is, they are authors who were given only one chance before being abandoned by their US publishers.
In a translation field that remains strikingly small—Spanish fares relatively well compared to books originally written in other languages—it’s also important to note that a younger generation of novelists has benefitted from the curiosity of a new generation of translators who have focused their enthusiasm upon Latin American Spanish–Megan MacDowell, for one, has specialized in Chilean writing and now lives and works in Santiago. She is certainly not alone in finding a cohort of varied and vibrant voices, both emerging and well known (Natasha Wimmer, Sophie Hughes, Susannah Greenblatt, Ellen Jones, and Rahul Bery are doing their share) and this is no small matter: translators play an indisputably decisive role in what is being published today. More often than not, they are the first readers, they are the trusted informants, they are a book’s bridge to editors who are seldom able to read Spanish.
Let me turn from the life recently given Chile’s prose writers, from how Chilean novels have begun to shirk their invisibility on the Anglophone literary scene, and say a word about this issue on domestic life, a powerful selection of texts—but narrow and arbitrary, as all selections are—that presents works of fiction in various forms and styles written by authors whose childhoods were marked by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
The writers in this selection were born after 1970 and were raised in a subdued atmosphere of cultural obscurity and censorship where poets were regarded as heroes revolting against the system. This poetry, mostly self-published, often sold in the form of photocopies, had eluded censorship (censors were not sophisticated readers) and was readily accessible. These young writers surely applied their freedom of language and form to their own storytelling: now, in full command of a wide range of techniques, they tell stories that are as innovative as they are moving. In all of them the reader will find an exquisite refined concern for form, for the right word, for the decisive phrase. For these authors, storytelling is not only about crafting a plot but about seeking a structure that can hold its constituent parts, that will engage readers and demand they read differently.
Perhaps the most radical take here is Alejandro Zambra´s “Story of a Sheet.” Like Bolaño, this well-known writer was a poet before he turned to prose and is known for short novels on intimacy and family life. His piece inhabits the margins: not quite a poem, not yet a short story. Barely fragments of a story that readers may never figure out: the beauty and the horrors of family life play out in intense scenes that are seldom longer than a sentence. The time before a father burned down the family house. The bed where the parents slept (“in love or in error”). The sheet hung out to dry over and over again.
Moments of family violence also appear in Eduardo Plaza´s “Hyenas” (the short title story to his first and only book published in Spanish). What seems a more conventionally structured short story is in fact punctuated by unexpected turn of events, which revolve around the fearful image of a savage herd that “hunted down a wounded buffalo, and ate it while it was still alive.” This episode, told in passing, reveals itself as a symbol of the ferocity of family life and a celebration of love found elsewhere.
No matter who narrates the story, something always seems to be wrong at home. The poet Catalina Mena contributes here a manifesto of the housewife who deftly defines home as “a fire that that’s always being extinguished.” Something fragile that she, on her own, insists on keeping alive even to her own detriment. And her call is in sync with some of the dilemmas faced by women today, forced to choose between the private duties of the home and public endeavors.
The fragility of the happy family is also tested by fiction writer and essayist Alia Trabucco Zeran. Based on the story of a real murder, her short story—part of her book on women criminals just out in Spanish (Las homicidas, on the real cases of four women murderers)—features a cleaning lady telling the court, in an irreverent tone, in a defiant act of confession full of vibrant details, her tense relation with the housewife who employs her. Work is all there is for her, day and night. Her severe back pain becomes the metaphor of the fixed class structure she lives in, a place where there are no other prospects and no company. Because class struggle has no solution, it can only be sorted out by a violent act. By an act of revenge.
Also in a confessional mode, Nancy, the protagonist of Bruno Lloret's novel—from which we have selected a passage–narrates the progression of her terminal breast cancer and her loneliness while her husband is at sea (or at a bar getting drunk). Interspersed with black crosses—perhaps a visual indication of his imminent death or of the recurring X-rays that mark the growth of her tumor—hers is a tale of domestic loneliness.
Something of this same sort is present in the domestic scene narrated by the extraordinary novelist Nona Fernandez, in two short excerpts from her novella Chilean Electric: a girl describes the arrival of electricity to Chile as told by her grandmother. In the events that ensue, the girl enters a dark room where her grandmother is undressing, only to discover something mysterious about her body. A truth revealed without electric light but, at the same time, kept from the view of others. Like a family secret, behind closed doors.
These exciting works from Chilean prose writers now make their way into English—in this issue as well in forthcoming book-length works. Paradoxically, they narrate domestic scenes where, contrary to the epic, totalizing, and politically engaged narratives of the Latin American Boom, the scope is narrow, intimate, more local than ever before. The appearance of these works comes at a time when the idea of home has started to show its cracks everywhere.
"Behind Closed Doors: Outing the New Chilean Narrative" © Lina Meruane. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
In this third installment of Sang Young Park's novella, two friends steal a microphone and discover their own insignificance. Read the first installment of the series here, and the second installment here.
Oh flopped over the table. Flecks of black hair-loss-concealer powder fell upon the empty sashimi dishes.
At least I won in terms of hair and alcohol. Not that it made me any happier. Oh, still prostrate on the table, mumbled about how he had to get to the Environmental Film Festival. Wangsha, who had been drinking quietly, suddenly let out a drunken shout.
You’re right, this asshole is a fake fag! What fag keels over after a couple of shots?
I placed my hand over his mouth. Wangsha abhorred, above all else, people who could not hold their liquor. We quickly emptied the remaining two soju bottles. Mija took out 30,000 won from her purse and gave it to me, telling me to hail a cab for Oh. I put the money in my wallet and opened my cab-hailing app. Did Oh say he lived in Gangnam? Instead, I input a certain restaurant in Hwacheon, Gangwon Province, as Oh’s destination. What kind of taxi? A black cab, of course, in keeping with Oh’s high style. Not ten seconds later, he got assigned a Benz S-Class. The arrival notification came when Mija was busy figuring out how much who owed what. Wangsha and I grabbed Oh and carried him out of the restaurant. The desert dust blowing in from China made the streetlamps shine yellow. Wangsha had allergies, and Oh’s body jumped every time he sneezed. We got to the Benz and dumped his body in there. The driver looked at us suspiciously.
This is the one going to Gangwon Province, right?
Oh yes. Do drive safely to Hwacheon, no rush. He has a credit card.
I slammed the door. The black Benz disappeared around the corner.
Bye, Daniel Oh. I mean, Oh Choong-sik.
Mija had finally finished with the calculating. She came to us, shoving the receipts into her purse, and said her husband kept messaging her to come home. She slipped passed us before we could stop her and tried to hail a cab. I touched her shoulder. Her husband was calling her? It sounded like a lie, like she was trying to avoid us. But I knew she was loyal when it came down to the wire. I was drunk, and sad because of it, and so with one hand on her shoulder I begged her.
Please don’t go. Please.
Are you dying? We’ll get a drink someday.
You said that last time. You said you’d come and you never did. You said we’d be together forever. I’m the only one that’s left.
Mija stood and stared at me. It takes a lot to faze Mija and she was definitely fazed now.
On the fifteenth day of shooting my graduation project from film school, Mija brought the cast and crew a big bag of hamburgers from McDonald’s.
You say you’re poor, but you seem rich enough to get us the empire’s hamburgers.
It was a stupid joke. Mija didn’t laugh. Instead she broke down and started shouting at me.
I can’t afford the set menu so I bought separate burgers! Do you know how much I begged them to give me a lower price? But what the fuck would you know! All you care about is yourself!
Mija threw the bag of burgers on the floor and threw down a curse.
This movie will never be finished, and it should never have been made in the first place. Never!
She left the set. She knew, and I knew, and everyone knew that it was insane to try to film a movie with just 30 million won. We couldn’t pay the cast and crew properly, and our shooting schedule was so tight that we were pulling all-nighters for over two weeks. Mija had been the one keeping everything together, dialing down the complaints and resentment. It did occur to me that my selfishness was ruining our friendship, but I was steamrolling ahead. I was ready to do whatever it took to finish the film. And Mija didn’t return until the shoot was over and we were in edits.
Wangsha snaked his arm around Mija’s.
Yeah, Miss Mija, I heard you’re a good drinker. Just have one more bottle with oppa.
Oh, oppa. You need to go home, too. You have to work.
Work? I’ve been unemployed for over a year now. I’m depressed, come on, have another drink with us.
Sorry, oppa. We’ll hang out next time. I really have to go. I’m so drunk.
Wangsha started shouting at her for some reason.
Hey, do you think we’re drinking because we’re not drunk? We’re making an effort here! You goddamn heterosexuals, you’re all so fucking lazy. That fucking director hits the table after just a couple of drinks! And now here you are, whining about going home! Jesus, I’m so sick of straight people. Popping out their ugly babies all over the place.
Uh oh. But it was too late. Mija pushed Wangsha away.
Fine, asshole. I’m a lazy straight girl. And I want to pop out an ugly baby, too!
Mija had been seeing a fertility expert these past two years. She’d also had a miscarriage recently, which made Wangsha’s words especially hurtful. Wangsha hugged Mija, who sobbed uncontrollably. They hugged each other and cried like the reunited Korean War families on TV. I could feel my buzz fading. I knew I had to get her into a taxi before things got really sordid. I hailed one, ripped her from his arms, and guided her teetering form into the cab.
As the taxi drove off, Wangsha started screaming after it.
Where are you going, Mija! Buy me a drink! Buy me a fucking drink!
Jesus, the insults and the cursing when he got drunk. I slapped his back as hard as he could.
You idiot! Did I not tell you, again and again, that Mija is going through IVF? Why the fuck were you talking about popping out babies? What the fuck was that about heterosexuals? Are you crazy?
That’s it, Mija is straight. Straight people have babies. We can’t.
Wangsha’s wide shoulders slumped. I pretended not to see him as I lit a cigarette. His shoulders began to shake.
I ruined everything. Again. It’s my fault. I’m always ruining things.
I stubbed out my cigarette and stood him up straight. I wiped away the tears on his face.
Hey, hyoung, stop that. I’m sorry. Don’t cry.
You are? Then let’s go to a karaoke room!
He was all smiles, leading the way. Had that been sweat and not tears? Did he just pull one on me? It was too late. Then as now, he knew how to go for the jugular when it came to me. Eh, fuck going to work tomorrow. Something will happen. We put an arm around each other’s shoulders and went down the unfamiliar street in search of a karaoke. Every step was greeted by a sheet of sand in the air hitting our faces.
The streets of that redeveloped city were as neatly arranged as bento boxes. But we couldn’t quite find a karaoke and our buzz was wearing off. So we went into a twenty-four-hour convenience store and got some dried salty pollock (high in protein, approved by workout-obsessed Wangsha) and five bottles of soju, which we hid in Wangsha’s large workout bag. We each took a handle and marched on. The bag was heavy as a full complement of army gear.
Five minutes later, we started seeing neon signs that were like mirages in a desert. World Cup Karaoke. Chanel Karaoke. Obviously, we went into Chanel Karaoke. Between the World Cup and Chanel, it was always going to be Chanel. That’s the kind of thing that fake fags like Oh Choong-sik would never understand about the real life of gays. Wangsha and I pushed open the glass door, bursting into the joint.
The interior was of another era. Red and white lights flashed everywhere. The proprietor at the counter was a woman whose true age was obscured by her eyelash implants and liposuction. Her middle-aged voice gave it away though.
You gentlemen aren’t going to order any drinks?
We said we were only there to sing. We enunciated this as clearly as possible, trying not to seem drunk. She kept asking, You’re two men. You don’t want any drinks? Or anything else? We shook our heads. She accepted the 30,000 won that came out of my pocket with a sour expression. It was the taxi money Mija had given me. The karaoke joint was small but there were a lot of lady professionals moving about the various rooms. We shuffled past them and went into Room 7.
I poured soju into the paper cups we got at the convenience store and tore at the dried pollock. We downed our shots. Wangsha, somewhat red at this point, leafed through the hundreds of songs clamoring to be sung off the catalog, picking a mournful tune. Then, when the EDM beat dropped, Wangsha and I stood side by side and did army group dancing. His moves were forceful, but his smile never left his face. A true professional. I wondered if it was his flight attendant school training. He was truly awe-inspiring, like a moth swooping into a flame. A sadness and beauty, a dancer dancing his last in the face of imminent death. If only I could’ve picked him, I would’ve . . . When the song ended, his body soaked in sweat, he immediately input more song numbers into the machine. Songs by Untitled, Chae Jung An, FINKL, and Turbo. The numbers popped up on the screen. The selection was so Wangsha, this wide range of eras, octaves, and genders.
Our time abruptly ended when we had about twenty songs to go. We didn’t get bonus minutes. They had barely let us last our paid hour. Wangsha pointed at his watch.
I’m sure of it. They took out three minutes. They gave us fifty-seven minutes. I checked.
I knew of rumors that karaoke machines these days were rigged so that proprietors could knock off minutes on a whim. Who knew that it would happen to us? Bad enough they didn’t give us extra time, how dare they shave off our minutes! I threw my tambourine on the floor.
They’re doing this because we didn’t hire one of their lady professionals.
They’re treating us like dirt because we’re not partaking in prostitution? These fucking heterosexuals. They should die.
Wangsha was enraged. Then, having decided on something, he dropped one of the wireless microphones into his bag. I burst out laughing. Now was the time to show how classy gays can be. Wangsha and I tossed in the other microphone, the ashtray, the electric tambourine, and an empty soju bottle. We zipped it up and Wangsha hoisted the bag on his back, snaking his arms into the two handles. We took deep breaths, counted to three, and opened the door. We passed the counter, our eyes on the floor. The lady professionals looked away. The door chime rang loudly when we pushed open the door, and we ran down the steps instead of taking the elevator. Wangsha screamed, You fucking assholes,in their direction. We giggled as we ran out of the building.
We strutted down the well-lit streets of the new-old city. Wangsha was in high spirits and took out one of the microphones. It had a sticker label that said Chanel Karaoke in crooked handwriting. We weren’t the only ones stealing microphones, apparently.
What are they, ten-year-olds? What’s with the sticker labels?
Wangsha scratched it off. He was in a good mood. I snatched the microphone from his hand. I played Kara, Deuce, and Seo Ji Won on my cell phone and sang along. Wangsha, a true pro, knew the right dance to every song. Next up was Yu Chae Young’s “Emotion.” Our favorite dance song. Wangsha shouted at me. Why am I so excited? Yu Chae Young is such a great artist! He grabbed the mike from me and started singing. I didn’t know back then how to love someone. I barely made it through one line before the sandy air made my throat hurt. Wangsha hit a high note and cried a little.
Fuck. Why does everyone die.
I got teary myself. I thought I might as well have a good cry and really let it out. Wangsha cried, got tired of it, and gave me the microphone. I tossed it into the basket of a bicycle parked under a streetlamp. The joy of having got back at the evil Chanel Karaoke proprietor had been short. All the happy feelings we had disappeared and all we had in their place was fatigue. Our footsteps became heavy. It was 3:36 a.m., there were no buses or trains to take us back to Seoul. Wangsha said his bag was heavy. I took out the empty soju bottles and tossed them into a flower bed. I heard something smash. It didn’t excite me at all.
Hey, I’m hungry.
Yeah, me too. Let’s get hangover food.
We walked through the yellow dust like pilgrims and came to a sign that had risen in the distance like a mirage. Beyoncé Blood Sausage. We ran to it.
The building was a traditional hanok pagoda-roof house on the outside and cyberpunk neon lights inside. There was a man with a big head and a tattoo drinking by himself at a corner table. We sat at the table in the center and ordered blood sausage soup, and, what the hell, another bottle of soju. We dumped our rice into the soup and ate it with the soju. We were getting drunk again and feeling better about ourselves. They started playing Beyoncé in the restaurant. Wangsha took out a microphone from his bag and ripped off the sticker label. I smiled and started lip-synching to Beyoncé. We were really serving it until someone snatched the microphone from my hand. I looked up. The man with the big head and tattoo glared down at me.
This is Chanel’s.
Silence. I quickly looked up at the ceiling. Two security cameras with a full view from the entrance to our table. We were trapped! I don’t know what you’re talking about, I said casually. Wangsha blinked up at the man, a picture of innocence.
It’s Chanel’s. I saw you rip off the sticker. You know this is theft, right?
He smirked and called someone on his phone.
Hey Ma. I found our microphone. I’m at Beyoncé. Get here now.
The Chanel proprietor swept into Beyoncé Blood Sausage, fake eyelashes and all. Without asking permission, she sat down at our table and poured herself a cup of our soju in a water cup. She struck up a conversation.
I mean, I said to my son tonight, we just lost 600,000 won. The price of two microphones. We had to close early. Tonight was just not our night, you know? So we said, eh, fuck it. But look! My son then called me about finding the microphones. At this hour! At Beyoncé, no less.
He’s your son? Oh my, ma’am, you don’t look old enough to be his mother. But my flattery was hopeless.
Anyway, enough with the age stuff, my son was born in ’88, you know. Again: I was saying to him a moment ago that tonight was not our night. Let’s just shut it down and drink soju. He went on ahead and oh my, called me and said he caught you guys here? So I said, you know . . . where the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window. What I want to know now is why did you do it? Tell me.
Wangsha stood up and spoke in a loud voice.
Are you saying we’re a couple of goddamn beggars who stole your microphone? Look here. We went to college, we have good jobs, we have houses in Seoul. We don’t have to steal your shit.
Wangsha took out a card and shook it in front of her face. The Chanel proprietor slapped it away with her soju glass and the card fell in front of me. Wonjin Plastic Surgery Clinic, Assistant Marie Jin. I crumpled it and slipped it into the trash. The Chanel proprietor didn’t so much as bat an eyelid and said, If this is how you want to do it, we can take it up with the police. Wangsha immediately reined it in and spoke in a calmer voice. Who are you calling thieves? We just happened to carry out the microphones by mistake. It is most inappropriate of you to treat us like this. We were going to bring back your microphones when we were finished.
Then why did you assholes rip off the sticker label?
This was said by the tattoo guy, who spat into a rice bowl. The Chanel proprietor told us we better find the other microphone or pay for it. A chilly silence descended upon Beyoncé Blood Sausage. I proposed a compromise. I think there’s been a misunderstanding. We just made a mistake in the process of getting drunk, and we were going to go back with the microphone once we were done with our food. We’ll find the other mike and get it back to you.
The Chanel proprietor’s expression was forced, like she couldn’t decide whether to frown or smile. Please. Who knows where you’ll run off to then? Pay for the microphone first. I’ll refund you if you find the other one.
I thought of the microphone I’d tossed into the bicycle basket and slowly handed over my credit card. The Chanel proprietor said, Aren’t you forgetting something? I took out the electronic tambourine and ashtray and meekly put them on the table. The Chanel proprietor and the man who was supposedly her son took my card and the things and left. Wangsha said he’d find the microphone and left with them. I sighed, thinking the ordeal almost over, and quickly ate the blood sausage soup mixed with rice. A 300,000 won purchase text message notification arrived. Assholes. Take it all, why don’t you. I messaged Wangsha and told him not to forget the refund. I went back to my soup and soju.
Half an hour later, Wangsha came back, grimacing. He gave me back my card and a receipt. I got a bad feeling right then and there.
You didn’t get the refund?
Wangsha began to wail.
We were robbed!
What are you talking about?
Those bitches found the microphone first and were putting on a show.
What? We put the mike in the bicycle basket.
It’s not there. Not in the basket, not on the street, nowhere. We were had. Had!
I screamed. Wangsha tried to think of a way to get back at them.
They were drunk but they drove here. We can get them on a DUI!
It’s too late. Who knows where they are.
Then we can call Chanel in France and tell them their copyright is being violated. Like Burberry did to that other karaoke that time.
Do you speak French?
Yeah. We’ve been caught on too many CCTV cameras. We’re fucked.
We both flopped down on the blood sausage restaurant table and gave out hot sighs of impotent anger. Another perfect failure. And the thing about failure is that no matter how many times you get through it, you never get used to it.
On the last day of our mural-painting duties, we were doing the wall of Erbil’s biggest public school. It was near the end of our deployment and we were so used to each other that the job rolled like clockwork. It was an even sunnier day than usual, though, so we decided to take a break for a bit before finishing it off. The anime character I’d drawn on the wall and the cobalt blue that Wangsha had painted for a sky were drying next to each other in the sun.
Wangsha didn’t rest but passed out cookies to Iraqi children by a tall olive tree. I heard Lee Jung Hyun’s techno dance music coming from his mp3 player as I approached. Wangsha had given Korean nicknames to all the kids and kept talking to them. The kids joyfully scarfed down the cookies without seeming to care much about what Wangsha was saying. Wangsha had basically named the kids after the cookies they liked.
That one’s Potto, they’re Gosomi and Mon Cher, the little one over there is So Chan Hui.
How come she doesn’t have a cookie name?
Because she can hit all the high notes.
I had nothing to say to that. I just laughed. Potto was humming along to a song I couldn’t recognize.
Aren’t they cute?
They are. They dance everywhere. Just like you.
Wangsha hugged Potto. The guards were sleeping on the ground with their guns, their helmets pulled down over their eyes. Another ordinary afternoon in Erbil.
The reason we called it a day earlier than usual was the sandstorm. That’s what the desert was like, it would be perfectly clear one minute and a raging tornado of sand would go by the next. The nice day was replaced by sandy winds that whipped us silly. We couldn’t see a thing, could barely open our eyes. We’d been through enough of these to know they’d persist for a while. We put on our goggles and masks and gathered our things. We had to put off finishing the mural until tomorrow.
We were five minutes out on our jeep when the sound of an explosion big enough to shake the car resounded from behind us. We looked back and saw flames towering up from near the school. Screams echoed in the air. A black plume of smoke rushed up to meet us. I quickly put on my gear and secured my gas mask. The guards were also putting on their equipment. Even though it was unlikely, I was imagining things like biochemical warfare and poisons. Wangsha stared at the black plumes, frozen. Hey, what are you doing! Wangsha didn’t react to my shouting. I grabbed Wangsha’s gas mask from his gear and quickly put it on him.
It had happened in a second.
I learned in that second how everything in your life could end in a single moment. The years in which you think you believe you can do anything, when you don’t know how little is in your control. The world in which I believed I could paint anything if I had just five colors was coming to a close.
That night, Wangsha and I were the only people left in the barracks. Some of our unit members in the jeep behind us had inhaled a lot of smoke. They were transported to a medical center within the base. The explosion had happened at a market near the school and there were civilian casualties. It was said there were more than expected. Erbil had been a safe area. Our base was put on alert except for Wangsha and me, who were ordered to stay at the barracks and recover. We lay in our beds with our paint-splattered work clothes still on, silent. Wangsha spoke.
I wonder if the kids are OK. Mon Cher and So Chan Hui and Potto.
I’m sure they’re fine. They didn’t say anything about kids being casualties. They’ll be fine.
It was just smoke. Not biochemical weapons. Right? There aren’t any biochemical weapons here, right?
I don’t know.
Do you think we’ll see them again? Those kids.
I really don’t know.
What am I left with if everything dies or disappears.
Wangsha kept asking me questions that I couldn’t answer.
I thought I could be the one, the only one who would remain in his life. But I didn’t say it. I seemed to be the one thing Wangsha didn’t want to see remaining. I decided to do what I could do. I stood behind Wangsha, who looked so lonely, and hugged him from behind. There was a strong fragrance floating from the back of his neck. I closed my eyes. Wangsha stood still and said something to me, low and careful.
I’ve been meaning to ask you.
Don’t you have something you want to say to me.
Of course I did. I had too much to say to him. I wanted to tell him everything. That I tried my hardest not to show my awkwardness when I saw him. How he pushed me away, just so he could fool himself a little longer. How this was all a tired, played-out cliché of a cheap queer narrative. What I wanted to ask most was what was I to him. Just what the hell was I to him. But I couldn’t say any of that. He was already full of questions he was asking himself. His stiff neck, the way he didn’t turn to look at me, it told me plenty. And this was the Zaytun Division. There was a war on, bombs were exploding, and people were dying. My emotions were nothing more than another grain of sand in the desert. I knew that. But I didn’t have the courage to step forward. I withdrew my arms from his shoulders. I spoke.
I’m going to the Cannes Film Festival after we get out of here.
Wangsha grinned. What’s that?
I’m going to become a director and make an awesome movie, the likes of which the world has never seen.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night as I listened to Wangsha breathe. Through my half-opened eyes I could see his back turned toward me as he slept. I thought a lot as I watched that back. It was like a tall and strong wall. Maybe I could paint a face on it. Wangsha was probably frowning in his sleep again. I wondered what my face was like. What my face was like as I stared at him sleeping. Was it a face I knew. Or a face I didn’t know.
Our tour ended not long after that. Our final mural was never finished.
The last time our unit got together was at the opening of C’s restaurant. C managed to open an Italian restaurant in one of those tiny malls in apartment areas, using the money he got from his deployment. He was the only one who realized his dream. When we got to the restaurant in that little mall just outside of Seoul, we couldn’t help laughing. The name of the restaurant was Zaytun Pasta. C was so shy he was practically apologetic.
This used to be a realtor for Xii Apartments.
On the sign, he’d added a few letters to the Korean letters for Xii to spell the word for Zaytun. His mural-painting skills had proved useful. And if you thought about it, he did earn the money for the place at Zaytun. And there was all that olive oil that goes into Italian food.
C spent an hour making us our pasta that evening. It was overcooked and almost congealed. We had just barely managed to force ourselves to finish it when Wangsha arrived. His face was a touch gaunt and he was carrying a gift box of Del Monte juice. I tried to hide how glad I was to see him when I said hi.
After Zaytun Pasta closed for the night, we rented out a big room at a nearby motel and drank all night. We talked about how we each spent all our deployment money. Someone in another unit had lost it all at the casinos in Gangwon Province. A said he started day trading, and B said he paid off his student loans. I confessed I’d spent it all producing my graduation project. It was Wangsha’s turn. Wangsha, with a nonchalant expression, said he spent it all in two weeks drinking with friends from college. He spent half of it at a fancy club in Gangnam, and the other half in hostess bars. I wanted to block his mouth. He wasn’t looking at me, but I felt like he was talking to me. The other boys begged him to tell them of his exploits. I have a girlfriend now. Wangsha showed him her photograph. He said he’d met her at the club. The boys went nuts. Wow, she’s so pretty. Go get her, hyoung. I didn’t join in. I just drank. I was the first to pass out.
At dawn, I woke when I felt someone touching me. I was lying in the corner of the room. Wangsha had his hand on my crotch. The others were snoring. Wangsha, as if he did it every night, unzipped and lowered my pants. I opened my eyes and looked him in the face. His expression was calm and his eyes seemed empty, as if he had never filled them with any emotion in his life. I grabbed his hand and whispered, What the fuck. Wangsha ignored me and continued to take my clothes off. He said, Isn’t this what you wanted? I closed my eyes. I wanted to cry but of course I couldn’t shed a tear. I just bit my lips so I didn’t make a sound. And as I held in my breath, I realized that the Wangsha I had liked so much was no longer there. The me who had liked him, the me who had stared so longingly at his back, he was no longer there, either. Our feelings back then had swept past us like a sandstorm. When my thoughts arrived at that point I thought I would cry. I didn’t. It was enough that movies were melodramatic.
After I came, I hugged Wangsha. He felt deflated in my arms. He had lost a lot of weight. Maybe the anorexia had come back. He didn’t speak or move, and lay in my arms like he didn’t breathe, either. I withdrew my arms and pulled up my pants. I quietly left that apartment. I never looked back.
The mural unit met a few times after that, but Wangsha never showed. I felt an urge to contact him several times, but I always stopped myself. I believed that was for my own good, too. A few of the others tried to contact him but he had completely fallen off the map. There was a rumor that he had killed himself. I didn’t want to believe it. I called him. All I got was a message saying the number was unable to receive calls.
A year later, I got an unexpected call. A queer rights organization was screening a series of queer films that had been neglected in the past. A worker at the organization had seen my first feature-length film, The Unknown Universal Love, and wanted to put it in the program. This was around the time when every distributor in the country had turned it down. I got to my feet on the spot and bowed with the phone against my face as I shouted, Thank you, thank you so much.
The screening happened at a community art center outside of Seoul. One Thursday evening, I sat down with seven other dedicated art filmgoers and watched my movie. The center had been repurposed from an old factory, and the sound of other, adjacent factories echoed throughout the screening. Maybe that was what made my movie, which I’d seen so many times, so unfamiliar. Like I was seeing it for the first time. There was only one thing that I took away from the seventy minutes I spent watching it.
I’m really nothing.
My film was about a bunch of people who weren’t special and who loved in a not very special way. Oh, and an anticlimactic ending. Aside from the fact that the main character was gay, there was really nothing special about the whole thing. It didn’t even need to be a feature-length narrative. Mija was right. The film never should’ve been made in the first place. I was just drunk on my own ego. I’d never been able to see something for what it truly was. The credits rolled, and the audience left the room. I wanted to apologize to each and every one of them. I cried a little. I was about to really let it rip as I wallowed in my own worthlessness when some tall guy came up to me.
Hey. Long time no see.
He looked older and tanner than before, which made his eyes look even more sunken in. I sniffed. I thought you were dead. Wangsha smiled and asked why my voice sounded funny. I sniffed again.
I hadn’t been to Zaytun Pasta in a year. Its lights were off. We peered through the locked glass door. There was a pile of fliers and unopened mail right by the entrance.
I can’t believe it went out of business already . . .
It was a bit too late to go anywhere else, so we just went to a convenience store in the same building and bought a box lunch and soju. We sat at one of the plastic tables in front of the convenience store. Wangsha poured soju into a paper cup.
I hate beer.
Me too. You get bloated and it tastes like crap. Soju is the best.
Thou art wise. We’ve got a lot in common.
Wangsha practically vacuumed up the box lunch, a brand named after a famous middle-aged actress. I told him about what was going on with my life. Wangsha had gone to grad school but left after a semester because he couldn’t afford it. He looked for someplace to work and found a contract job as a teller at the National Agricultural Co-op. I asked him why a bank, and he said he didn’t have a real reason, it just happened to be the only place that accepted him. They said I looked really manly and solid and tough. Isn’t that hilarious? When I’m totally the opposite. But wow, you really became a film director. That’s so awesome. I didn’t know what to say to that. I just fondled my cup. Wangsha carefully asked me something.
But, uh, about that movie . . .
I know. It’s crap.
What are you talking about? I loved it! That’s not what I was going to say. I just think the movie is just like you. That’s all.
What was just like me?
The characters are always drinking and fucking, that kind of thing. I kept thinking you were trying to get my attention with it. Am I just being egotistical?
You haven’t changed at all. You look the same.
You’re a bit older.
And you still have no manners. You never call me hyoung.
We giggled and knocked our paper glasses together. Wangsha downed several shots. Then he got serious.
There was actually something I really wanted to say to you.
I wanted to say I was sorry. I wanted to say it for a long time.
What’s there to be sorry for?
Just, you know. Everything.
Eh. Water under the bridge.
But I still, you know. Wanted to say it. I wasn’t in a good place at the time. I couldn’t accept myself. Which is why I ended up hurting you.
I said nothing. I took another shot. Wangsha started talking about the things that had happened to him.
It was true about his suicide attempt. He didn’t succeed, and he was treated in isolation at a psychiatric ward for six months. He lost a lot of weight and some of his hair fell out. He said he didn’t remember that time very well. That he had yet to recover the muscle mass he lost during that time. He said this as he stroked his still formidable forearms.
I’m not like that anymore. I changed everything. Well, not everything, but I’m much better now. Like you’ve realized your dream of becoming a film director.
I’ve realized nothing. I made a movie that cost 30 million won, seen by a grand total of seven people.
That is truly artsy. I think you’re artsier than I am, now.
We giggled again. His smile was like his old self. A smile of someone who wanted to forget tomorrow for now to fully enjoy the moment. The smile reminded me of how much I had liked him back then. I grabbed his smiling self into a hug, and he obligingly hugged me back. We just stood there, in the middle of a suburban mini-mall, hugging each other.
That night, we determined we just weren’t drunk enough, so we went to the Itaewon district for more drinks. We danced at an empty gay club that Thursday night until 5 a.m. before we parted.
We shared the same drinking philosophy where if you’re going to get drunk, you better get drunk quickly. It made us see more of each other, this time as two friends. Whose sexual desire for each other had been gathered in and tucked away, to whom remains a bright, clear friendship shared by two people who are going through the most uncertain part of their lives. And now, gazing at his wide and solid back, I’ve decided to reconcile and accept the me of the past who had so much trouble accepting him or even the idea of liking him. As you can see, I still dream of the impossible.
We couldn’t bear to drink after all that fuss at the blood sausage restaurant. We ended up leaving half our soju undrunk. We’d never left drinks unfinished before. Wangsha and I walked the streets together. I heard him cough with every step. When we got to a crossroads, a car blared its horn as it zoomed past us. A silver Audi. Wangsha shouted.
Get that car!
It’s the car of those Chanel bastards!
I had no idea what he thought we were going to do when we caught the car, but we began to run after the Audi. I suddenly felt like I was born to catch it, that I had to catch it. We ran as fast as we could, but no human can outrun a car. The Audi ignored a traffic light and disappeared around a bend. Wangsha collapsed on the pavement and shouted in the direction of the car.
You drive the car of fucking war criminals! You dirty heterosexual bastards!
We were the only two people on the street. The sun was beginning to rise through the haze of the yellow dust. My eyes stung, whether from my sweat or the dust. I sat down and peeled Wangsha off of the pavement, righting him into a sitting position. He was crying.
Don’t do that, Wangsha. You’re drunk.
We fucking lost. We couldn’t even steal a microphone properly.
Stop crying. It wasn’t that expensive.
We fucked up. I lost everything. The mike, my dancing, my father. Everything I loved is gone.
Wangsha bellowed, Father! Father! and bawled his eyes out on the street.
Hey, come on, cut it out. You’re thirty-five years old. This isn’t going to bring your dad back.
Dad must be dead. Everyone must be dead. They all fucked up.
No, they didn’t fuck up. They’re just complete. Your father completed a successful life. And you’ve completed your dream of modern dance. We have, I mean, we’ve . . .
We’ve completed our dreams and all our feelings. That’s what I was trying to say but I was crying so I couldn’t. Wangsha didn’t even pretend to listen to me as he howled. If self-pity and craziness were prerequisites for artistry, both of us would’ve been the greatest artists in the world by now. I cajoled and comforted him, even slapped him. Nothing worked. He was always so conscientious, even about crying his eyes out. I thought about it for a moment and finally realized how I was going to make him feel better.
I took out my cell phone and turned on a song. Yu Chae Young’s techno dance number rang through the street. I didn’t know back then how to love someone. I started dancing to the music. I thought I must be really drunk as I was dancing in the middle of the street, but at least I realized it was stupid, so I couldn’t be that drunk after all. Wangsha was right, Yu Chae Young was a great artist. Her seductive voice could make anyone dance. I forgot about comforting Wangsha as I really got into it. Wangsha stopped crying and took out a bottle of soju from the bag. He said he grabbed it from the blood sausage place. He took a long swig and handed it to me.
So what is it that you’re good at?
I thought I should give the performance that my audience deserved. I took a deep breath and curled myself into a ball on the street. Then, I spread my limbs, and jumped up to the sky as high as I could. It was done with such a sense of restraint and grace that even I could hardly believe I was making it up on the spot. I thought I might cry at my own dancing. Wangsha cackled.
What the hell are you doing?
It’s modern dance. The title is, I Am Just a Small Dot in the World.
Wangsha shook his head. It’s not quite the right title. He got to his feet and held up the soju bottle in a toast.
We’re Not Even a Small Dot in the World!
He was right. We never even ended up being a small dot in the world. We never became anything. Everything we’d staked our lives on became nothing. Forget Cannes, I didn’t even make a good queer film, and he didn’t become a modern dancer. I never had a grand love affair and lurched into adulthood without even realizing what kind of person I was or learning about my own feelings. I was a homosexual but didn’t even homosex properly, I couldn’t even steal a microphone. I had fucked up at a level that was hard to find even in the movies. We had fucked up. We had fucked up and were nothing. Just a couple of queers who laughed and drank and had sex and were going to die. And nothing more, not now, not ever. We were nothing to begin with, became nothing, and would always be nothing.
Absolutely nothing at all.
© Sang Young Park. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.
In the poems below, Hélder Faife gives free reign to the frolic of children's imaginations, but it's not all child's play.
With every stroke of her pencil
the little girl unfurls dreams
and traces childhood’s uncertain roadmaps.
A twisted loom,
lines on a page mending sorrows
which she weaves into life’s purity.
In a scarring script
she tattoos the wavering future
on the bare skinned wall.
Without commas in her gaze,
the little girl dribbles colons with each breath
and swears an exclamation mark
is a lollipop:
“Is growing up for real or make-believe?”
Dot dot dot, I gasped.
A question mark is a fisherman’s hook.
I’d taken the bait of uncertainty,
when she offered me as consolation,
wrapped in quotation marks, a single Smartie.
In the end, tree, a cloudy shelter will come
to cover your dry, aged branches.
It will lend you, short on green,
the white glow of its weightlessness
As a drop undoes the cloud into tears
I’ll tell my children:
no, the tree didn’t die,
your childhood sun has set.
"Des(d)enhos," "Pontuação" and "No Fim" © Helder Faife. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Sandra Tamele and Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
In this meditation on death, the poet tries to climb outside of language.
I stepped back from my death
it was strange and inhuman to me
and now my eyes are knives slicing the night to
split the mist
like the tears of a poem
shedding its sadness
over the warm flight of egrets
after the docile defeat
now my eyes are knives slicing the mist like a di-vi-ded body
I stepped back from my death
and rose up
syllable by syllable
almost like the unwritten poem
hair tousled by days of abandon
I find your discontent
in a commonplace dress
the furled poetic fabric
that switches the body on
in a song without refrain
some fruit scattered
in the rush to ripen
these mineral days
I want to climb beyond the reach of words
where my death will not be
the death of others too
even if I see my sorrow in yours
and then I don’t.
From Vácuos © Mbate Pedro. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Sandra Tamele and Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
In this short lyric piece by Alejandro Zambra, a bed sheet is a blank canvas and a record of family history.
It was before my dad set the house on fire. Fifteen or twenty days before.
There was a closet full of sheets, almost all of them white with red thread at the seams, Italian red. And one light blue set that was mine, patterned with blue letters or treble clefs.
My mother, from the window, her back to me, facing a white sheet; fifteen or twenty days before, back, facing a white sheet. She wasn’t crying. She was standing there, simply, waiting for the sheet to dry.
It was a lightless day. She turned around and came closer to the window and began to look at me, to imitate my face looking at her, until a smile started. But then she didn’t come inside. She went back to her place, facing the sheet.
A sheet drying in the wind on a windless day. A canvas, a kind of scene. The scene continues until the audience understands that there will be no second scene.
I’m the one who starts the round of applause. I used to work doing voiceovers, but I got the ax. Now I’m the guy who starts the applause.
My job is to give closed slaps, closed applause. My job is to close my hands, bring them forcibly together, with force. My job is to seek out silences and fill them.
I’ll clap you—in the face! they used to say to me, sometimes, in jest.
Close the door from outside, they’d say, but as a joke.
Go see if it’s raining on the corner.
Long before, years before, my father had to rush home for an emergency; his wife was about to give birth to me.
But it’s a clean image, new and false. As it should be. Children pretend to be wounded in the climbing vines.
Once upon a time there was a white sheet drying in the sun. But it was a sunless day. It’s a very long story.
There is no second sheet. The sheet lengthens out, unfolds, but there is no other sheet inside.
Once upon a time there was a sheet around a white body.
Once upon a time there was a sheet that stained.
It seems they wrapped someone up. I don’t remember well, I was a little out of it.
“Don’t pose,” they say, but it’s hard not to pose. Even in dreams. Sometimes one fakes nightmares. Wake up with a shout, a shout of one’s own. Even aware that there’s no call to shout, accept someone’s tired embrace and keep quiet.
Don’t dream, don’t pose, fall asleep bit by bit. That’s how it’s said, bit by bit.
Once upon a time there was a sheet drying bit by bit.
Days before my dad set the house on fire, there was a sheet drying bit by bit.
I’m not going to open the window. Stop asking. It doesn’t open.
In love or in error, they sleep together.
The body grows or contracts during a night of sleep. The face loses and finds its features with the touch of the pillow.
Careful, your body could split in two.
Turn off the color bars and go back to sleep.
In the dream the cars went right past.
The ghosts left us with the table set.
Once upon a time there was a bulk and a sheet.
“Historia de una sábana” © Alejandro Zambra. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Megan McDowell. All rights reserved.
In this short story, Alia Trabucco Zerán spins a tale of class, connection, and human cruelty in Chile.
Neither good nor bad. Neither nice nor unpleasant. Neither short nor long. It was life, period. The cloth wipes the grime. The broom gathers the trash. The water wets the soap.
As I already said, the señora, the lady of the house, treated me well. If you ask her, she’ll say she considered me part of the family. Exactly which part I still don’t know.
I hadn’t been at the house long when she took it upon herself to start instructing me, to steer that meek, practically mute young thing down the right path. She would say:
Teresa, my girl, take note.
I would stare at her, stare without really looking while in my mind I tried to conjure loud thoughts; anything to stop me having to listen to her talk about me as if she really knew me. In time, mercifully, she stopped talking to me altogether. Or maybe that’s not quite true. Maybe we did still have conversations, if you can call them that. The señora would emerge from the shower, open the bathroom door, check I was still in her room—smoothening the bed sheets or shaking out the rugs—and then start talking. She talked as she dried under her arms and in the folds of her thighs, as she put on her deodorant, rubbed perfume onto her wrists, and as she slathered her skin, all that skin, in piles and piles of expensive creams. She spoke as if she were fully dressed, or as if I couldn’t really see her.
The girl, her darling little girl, would also be there. Sitting at the foot of the bed, facing the bathroom door, she would take in her mother’s every move. How to use eyeliner. How to paint her lips. How to brush her hair. How to talk without looking at you. I just listened, gentlemen. And every now and then I nodded. I nodded like the meek, well-behaved girl I was supposed to be. And I beat out the pillows, and from the floor I picked up sweaty shirts, stinking socks, underpants beaded with semen.
You can’t imagine how desperately I wanted to shovel those words back into her mouth. How I longed to become deaf.
Female. Lower class. Development within normal range and having adapted to her environment reasonably fast given the circumstances of her life.
I began suffering from the same pain my mother had always complained of. A deep, slow throbbing around my waist which prevented me from working. I had to get up earlier simply to get through all my jobs. Wake the girl, air her sheets, prepare her milk. Sweep and scoop up the dirt and throw it in the trash. Air, dust, polish, fold. The pain forced me to stop every two or three hours. I suppose the doctor must have caught me in the middle of one such break, or maybe he heard my groans and found me trying to pick up the laundry basket. He wanted to know how bad the pain was on a scale of one to ten. I didn’t reply. The pain made my legs numb and my back as stiff as a board; by no means could it be contained in a number. The doctor said:
Take these pills, Teresa.
I always loathed hearing my name come from his mouth: a coffee, Teresa, two slices of toast with butter, my black shoes, a glass of cold water, Teresa, where’s my white shirt, my woolen sweater, Teresa, my clean socks, bring them to me, I’m late. Whenever he spoke my name he would drag out the S till it was all used up and then leave it hanging there, effectively raising a wall with his silence. Teresa. His father before him used to call out my mother’s name. And my mother, like me, always answered: sí señor, no señora. To us, they were never more than that: the señores, the family. Their names are irrelevant to this case.
The suspect is aware of herself and her surroundings, lucid, has adequate self-control, and her powers of reasoning are within normal range.
The doctor handed me the pills and told me I should take them four times a day. Every six hours, he added, as if I wasn’t capable of dividing the day into four myself; four windows full of things things things to do. I should take a pill with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a final one in the middle of the night.
I didn’t have to set an alarm. The pain was always there to remind me it was time to wake up. And so, still half asleep, not even bothering to turn on the light, I would reach out, fumble blindly for the bottle of pills on the nightstand and place one right in the middle of my tongue. I could never swallow it. Let me finish, gentlemen. I want you to listen to me now. My body stiff from pain and tiredness, I would lie there, my eyes either open or closed, with that pill dissolving on my tongue and one niggling thought which drove me to distraction: that it was impossible, absolutely unthinkable, to think I could cure that, inside of me, with something which I could take.
She does not, nor has she previously suffered from episodes of insanity or dementia.
On my days off I tended to spend every last hour in the back room; the one you, gentlemen, insist on calling my room. I didn’t care to go out. I didn’t want to move. I would stay in, lying motionless on my back with my hands resting on my thighs and the television on. And there, with my body finally at ease, I would watch the morning mass, the commercials, the kid’s shows, the news at one, more commercials. And I would relish the calm, the absolute rest and repose, until, after hours and hours spent waiting, that same something inside of me would snap again. Then, the chest of drawers, the nightstand, the lamp, the walls, the ceiling, the television; every object in the room would open up suddenly, to receive me. They accepted me as one of their own, and I was able to escape myself and to enter into the silent space with them. Into the great family of objects. And I would gaze at those hands for the first time: the knobby fingers, the bitten-down nails, the withered, blanched knuckles. Two strange hands cast onto a body that was now dying, that was slowly dying of unreality.
The given reports allude to slight difficulties in remembering details and events (first report) and poor language skills (second report).
But you haven’t locked me up here to talk about objects or how I was alarmed by the feel of my own fingers against my legs. You want me to talk about the girl, to tell you what happened.
The ironing board was stored down by the side of the fridge. Don’t look at me like that, gentlemen. That is how the story begins. It was an old ironing board with metal legs and a faded floral cover. I only had to unfold it and that screech, the sound of the feet against the floor, was all it took. Daisy was never long in coming. In her usual doleful manner she would appear at the laundry room door, push it gently with her muzzle and, as if no one could see her, as if she were invisible, lie down in the doorway. From there, curled up, she would watch me. With her squiffy, pale blue eyes she stared straight at me, as if really seeing me. She was blind, Daisy. Perhaps that’s why she thought that no one could see her when she snuck into the house. She wasn’t ours. What am I saying, ours? After everything that’s gone on. What I mean is that Daisy didn’t belong to the family. She didn’t belong to anyone, and, since she was alone and stray, that little dog was mine.
She was part of the family unit.
She never got over her mistrust. Half her body outside, the other inside, she would wait for a bone, a bit of milk, a morsel of bread. That was all. She demolished whatever I gave her and licked the palm of my hand in gratitude. If she was hungry, she didn’t ask for more. She would simply cup her head between her front legs, close her eyes and sleep. Sometimes her legs shook as if she were chasing an animal in her dreams. At other times she would wag her tail against the floor as if she were counting: one, two, three, four. And if I made a noise, if I coughed or sneezed, if I hummed a tune, she would raise her light brown head with its patchwork white muzzle and sniff the air as if to check I was still there, keeping her company.
During the trial she never appears to take offence.
I didn’t think the señora was being serious. I didn’t think her capable.
With the old board facing the door, facing Daisy, I stood ironing: the girl’s T-shirts, the dishtowels, my aprons. I didn’t mind ironing. Shrinking the world like that. Some materials resisted, which meant I had to press and singe them slower to reduce them to their smallest possible size. Huge white bed sheets transformed into neat squares of light.
Sometimes the girl would watch me iron. At other times, she ate her snack in silence at the kitchen table and I would watch her chew every mouthful with her mouth perfectly shut, her neck straight, her elbows never, ever on the table. And all the while I would iron: the armchairs, the beds, the tiles, the chairs, the pots and pans, the trees. I would have ironed my own hands had I not needed them to iron.
She was a trusted employee.
The señora didn’t like Daisy coming to visit me at the house. She was afraid of what that animal might do to her, to her husband, to her children, to her children’s children. She was scared it might give them rabies. The girl, on the other hand, wasn’t bothered by Daisy. One time she even stroked her. She walked cautiously toward her, crouched down and ran the palm of her hand down Daisy’s closed eyelids. As if she too loved her.
Between life and death, gentlemen, there’s little difference. Curing and killing, fixing and afflicting: two sides of the same coin. Ask the doctor. He was the one who brought that little bottle of pills into the house. I wouldn’t have even known what they were called, where to get hold of them, what to do with them. It was a white bottle, as I said, and so very similar to the one for my backache pills. Only on this one the label read, in big blue letters, poison.
I know how to read. I know how to write. I know the secret of the word “poison.”
Strychnine is the most common alkaloid. Its chemical formula is C21 H22 N2 O2.
Daisy never went near the front door. She wasn’t stupid. She didn’t sniff around the house when the doctor and the señora were in. Instead she came to the back door, and even then she only stayed if I was there to protect her. But it’s true, she was hungry. And hunger, gentlemen, is a weakness.
That afternoon I was in the kitchen. I might have been washing the dishes or slicing an onion or peeling potatoes. I don’t remember. The señora came in and began opening all of the drawers. The doctor had hidden them high up, in the cupboard, where the girl couldn’t reach them. They were white but with a black dot like a period in the middle. Finally, the señora found them. She took one out, wrapped it in a slice of ham and hurried out into the backyard.
All of the kitchen drawers were left half open.
A dose of up to a few milligrams causes increased sensitivity of the sensory organs. A dose of 10 to 20 milligrams triggers shaking, diarrhea and anxiety.
I stopped chopping or mopping or whatever it was that I was doing and ran as fast as I could to the front door.
There, outside, a few steps from the entrance, was Daisy. At first I thought she was sleeping, and I let out all of the air in my body. But moving in closer I saw her eyes. Those pale blue eyes were wide open. As if seeing for the first time. Her mouth was shut, sealed for good. And a fine trickle of blood, outstretched and winding, drew a short path from there to my feet. A message that I, and only I, could decipher.
Daisy’s body shuddered in silence. She didn’t growl. She didn’t bark. There was barely a groan, at the end, as if a very heavy door were closing.
I didn’t shout either, gentlemen. Not then, and not later. I understood that if I shouted, if I opened my mouth to release my long wail, I would never stop. That wail, like the first cry, would mark the start of real life.
The master was standing beside her, erect and stock still. He glanced at me and ordered me to take care of it.
Take care of all this, Teresa.
Give the floor a good scrub, Teresa.
Teresa Teresa Teresa Teresa
I felt a burning sensation in my mouth and behind my eyes, as if I were on fire.
The drug’s principle effect on the nervous system is caused by a clear increase in synaptic transmissions. This produces a sensation of terror, shuddering and tightness in the chest.
I had to put her in a black garbage bag.
I had to scrub the floor, but the stain wouldn’t go.
I had to carry her over my shoulder and walk with her, with the body that had been Daisy, beyond the property boundaries.
The ground had dried up from the dry spell. It wasn’t raining, and I knew that it would never again rain on that land, but the black bag against the floor sounded like the ocean’s pleas:
The word “poison” written in blue ink.
The señora had said:
People will believe what they want.
I went back to the house, hid away in the back room and lay down on the bed. I blinked. The rise and fall of my eyelids made my eyes smart. Daisy was out on the road, alone. She’d be eaten by vultures, worms, all manner of vile beasts. I would have killed her painlessly, gentleman. I would have closed her eyelids. I would have kissed her little head and, before closing her mouth, before sealing it for good, placed a morsel of bread on her tongue.
I don’t know how much time must have passed. I know that it was still night. And then, moved by who knows what force, by what will, I got up.
I got up, gentlemen, and I went back out onto the road.
The heart was failing to contract and dilate.
My breath came out white and silent in the darkness, and it was then, as I dragged Daisy back to the house, that I had an idea. An idea covered in thorns.
I used a digging bar and a shovel. And by myself I dug a pit in the interior courtyard, in front of the laundry room door where Daisy used to watch me.
I pushed her in, covered her in dirt and placed a piece of bread on top of the mound.
Then I really knew there was no way out. There would be no escaping a shadow that vast.
The law seeks to protect victims. It hopes to provide them with refuge within the home.
I made my bed, splashed my face, brushed my hair, and took a cold shower. I brushed my teeth, put the water on to boil, and I put the dishes away. The forks with the forks. The spoons with the spoons. The knives with the knives.
The señora said:
Lay the table for five.
The señor, the señora, their two guests and the girl.
There was nothing in the family history, dating back several generations, to suggest any congenital defect that could occasion such a rare, quick, and aggressive death.
Skin the rabbit butcher it season the meat add wine salt pepper onion put it in the oven wash the potatoes check the oven remove the eyes the eyes the eyes Daisy’s eyes peel and chop them boil them and wash the parsley and cut the parsley and serve the food and die and die and die and die.
The pills had a black dot in the middle.
They ate the lot: the rabbit, the potatoes, the onions, the parsley.
All of them, except for the girl.
The girl, who was sitting opposite her father, refused to touch her plate. She must have seen a real rabbit in the countryside, or perhaps a dead dog in her own back yard.
The señora said:
Would you like a glass of warm milk, my darling?
She was the apple of her eye.
Asphyxia can occur for various reasons.
I walked back into the dining room holding a full white glass, a glass full of whiteness and the girl said yes yes yes.
She said yes without saying a word.
And she drank that clean, amnesic milk.
The powder was white.
I waited in the kitchen and made myself a tea. A black tea with some bread.
Barbiturates such as pentothal, amital, and nembutal are specific antidotes for strychnine.
Something like a sigh, that’s what I heard.
And then a commotion, some shouts and a silence just like Daisy’s.
Teresa. Teresa. Teresa. Teresa.
It should have frightened her, given her modest condition as a servant.
I still had to wash and dry the dishes. Soak the pans. Mop the floor. Water the potted plants. Put away the forks with the forks. The spoons with the spoons. The knives with the knives. I still hadn’t done everything, all those things, so many things, when the señora came into the kitchen.
My tea was still warm.
A black tea with some bread.
The señora took a few short steps, as if hesitating, as if her body no longer belonged to her suddenly, as if she were scared of tripping and falling over a nonexistent cliff edge.
A colorless, odorless substance.
And she looked me in the eyes, gentlemen. For the first and only time in all those years, the señora looked me in the eyes.
Evident mental incapacitation.
And when she saw them, when at last she looked into my eyes, she turned white.
I saw her. She turned white.
My eyes, too, had a black dot in the middle.
Their very own period.
"A Bitter Pill" © Alia Trabucco Zerán. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.
Boyhood friends meet again after years apart, sparking a trip through the narrator’s memory that leads to a forgotten—and harrowing—episode.
Listen to Eduardo Plaza read "Hyenas" in the original Spanish.
Miguel Rodewald and I were good friends. We knew each other because his family, who lived in Temuco, used to spend their summers in Coquimbo. When they were kids his father used to rent a house a few blocks from ours, in El Llano. We’d meet, five of us in total, behind the church, in a clearing where every afternoon we’d partake in our favorite holiday activity: setting fire to stuff. Full schoolbooks, old clothes, bits of junk, footballs that were coming apart at the seams. Then we’d run inside and steal some water. If later on we didn’t feel like burning junk anymore, we’d let the air out of car tires to kill the time. Or we’d use our sneakers to make marks on the white doors of the nice houses. One of these houses was Rodewald’s, or at least it was his for the first three weeks of every February, over a period of four years.
We saw him sitting at the doorway, watching the cars go by from left to right, and I don’t know why but instead of waiting for him to go back into the house, I asked him if we could kick the door, because it wasn’t theirs anyway, so what did it matter. Not his, and not his father’s. Maybe I wanted to start a fight. Maybe I just did it to mess with this boy who spent the whole day just looking out onto the street and who, far from getting angry or running off, asked us if he could kick the door first.
That was Rodewald; he and I were good friends.
We met again when we were much older. I say “again” because one year February came around again and they weren’t there. They didn’t come back. I never asked for his telephone number, why would I, we didn’t have one, not everyone did back then. Anyway, why would I have thought to call him? Exactly. We, the beach kids, had always lived with this precarious fate of making friends who then disappeared.
I’d been living in Santiago for a year when I saw him again. We bumped into each other because we’d both chosen the same options in college. I was starting a doctorate I’d later end up quitting halfway through, like everything else in my life at the time, while he was finishing off the last credits he needed for a master’s he was meant to be defending that year. I struggled to recognize him: he was thin, tall and a little bald, and the image of him as a chubby, rosy-cheeked boy was stamped on my memory. But he didn’t even hesitate: shouting my name from halfway across the cafeteria in Gómez Millas, he approached me with an enormous smile on his face, gripping me with his powerful arms. “Dude, it’s me, Miguel!” That afternoon we skipped classes to go and drink beer over by the gas station.
Rodewald had married Beatriz. He showed me a few photos on his mobile: a tall, tall blonde, pale and smiling, embracing him on a beach in Rio. A tall, tall blonde holding her birthday cake up. A tall, tall blonde, posing next to him at a family meal.
In addition, Rodewald had also become a sociologist.
He’d gone back to Coquimbo a couple of times, but not as a boy: the year we’d last seen each other his mom had died of a heart attack, which completely crushed his dad, and in an attempt to flee from his memories he took refuge in a life dedicated exclusively to work. Rodewald only went back in his twenties. One time he took Beatriz with him, and they walked the same streets the two of us had once walked.
After this initial meeting, we once again started seeing each other every day. That first night we ended up at his flat with his wife, talking and laughing until, to our surprise, we opened the curtains to see the morning light poking through. We talked about our own pasts as if they belonged to other people. Mere witnesses to those boys, we were men, as far away from the stories we told as we were from our homes.
Three weeks later, Rodewald left again.
Beatriz became a widow at the age of twenty-five. She was also from Temuco. They moved because Miguel was offered a good position and she had decided she would support him in the decision. They had no one in Santiago apart from Bea’s father, who lived between Vitacura and Algarrobo.
After Miguel’s accident, she chose to stay in the capital. A return to Temuco would surely have been the end of her. Santiago gave her the tranquility of anonymity: every day she could discover a new neighborhood, a festival, a square. She walked a lot. When she’d walked enough to be familiar with everything within a fifteen-block radius, she decided it was time to buy a car. Another car, that is. She lost the first one when she lost him.
I began accompanying her on her trips, initially because I wanted to know more about Rodewald. It was impossible to talk to a dead man, so I talked to her instead. Neither one of us felt like sitting down to memorialize him, which is what happened when Beatriz visited home and had to endure all those conversations, always patiently and politely: how are you doing, I still can’t believe it, twenty-nine years old, how can someone die at twenty-nine, I don’t know how you can keep going. That wasn’t our style.
We tried to find a way of keeping him in our presence without mourning him. She helped me explore the world of the guy she was embracing in those photos. The guy who’d become my friend before death had showed up out of nowhere, right before our eyes. We who would never die, our lives barely having begun, we were so aware of the limits of others’ lives and so oblivious of our own.
Over time her company became revitalizing. On weekends, we’d go out and have lunch. We wanted to find new, different places, that was our project, to traverse the length and breadth of Santiago. Of course, our definition of “the length and breadth of Santiago” only included the space within the outline formed by Los Zapadores to the north, Matucana to the west, Departmental to the south, and Bea’s father’s house to the east. Sometimes, when she felt like driving, we’d go to Mahuida and drive up as high as the car would take us, which wasn’t very high. We’d walk through the reserve for a mile or two, and she’d talk to me about the way her boss exploited her, about the wedding of her older uncle, who’d sworn never to marry again, about the thousand different personalities she had as a teenager: hippie, goth, hip-hop head. I looked at her and tried to imagine her as a goth: blond and milky white, dressed in black and made up for a funeral. A goth at her wedding. A goth panting her way up Mahuida. I told her that ever since I was little I’d been obsessed with the smell of gas. For her it was the smell of the water in the cistern. We both liked the sound of stones as they hit the surface of the water before sinking.
Occasionally she’d turned up unannounced at my flat. “I’m downstairs,”she’d say, the car engine still running. She’d smoke as she waited. She smoked so much! I’d take ten minutes to have a shower and find a T-shirt. I guess she assumed that if she was alone, I’d also be alone. After all, the city was something both of us were merely borrowing. Santiago. And I had gotten used to how new loves and friendships always vanish before long.
Her father, who hated seeing her alone and found himself forced to confide in me, asked me to suggest that we take a trip to the beach together. If I say it, she’ll definitely think I’m doing it to protect her, and Bea has never allowed herself to be protected, he told me. Beatriz is strong, at least on the outside. Inside, it’s hard to know. I’m going on holiday to Panama, and you can stay in my house. Come on, it’ll do her good to get out of that apartment. Contrary to what her father believed, the truth is that Beatriz was never there. She worked all day managing a mid-level department in the Catholic University. In the evenings, after work, she walked home: twelve blocks via Portugal, Diagonal Paraguay, Rancagua, Salvador, and Francisco Bilbao. She’d make coffee, have a shower, drink the coffee when it had cooled down, we’d have a five- or ten-minute text conversation, and then she’d turn on the TV and fall asleep before the commercials.
We were eleven years old, behind the church: me, Rodewald and two other friends, and night was already beginning to fall. We’d agreed to meet to burn Juampa’s plastic pencil case because his grandfather had given him a new one, much bigger and with the logo of El Indio Mining, where he worked, printed on the side. So Juampa donated his old one. We filled it with dry leaves, paper, and pencils we’d brought from our houses.
Before setting it alight, Seba sprayed it with his older brother’s deodorant. We’d already seen his brother transform the can into a flamethrower on the square, in front of all his school friends. That’s how we knew it was flammable. We couldn’t do the same thing, but stealing it to use in our pyromaniac games was daring enough in our eyes.
After bathing the pencil case in deodorant until it reeked of Atkinson English Lavender, Seba lit four matches at once and tossed them on: suddenly the whole thing was transformed into a short-lived but beautiful blue and orange flame. It only lasted a couple of seconds, then the flame began to go out and we had to strike more matches, lighting the old pencil case at its edges. The flames burnt bright, setting on their victim with no remorse. At times the pencil case seemed to be leaping about, twisting with pain.
We were four boys, eyes wide open, watching it all burn.
That night, as we walked back toward his house, Rodewald told me he’d seen a video in which a group of hyenas hunted down a wounded buffalo and ate it while it was still alive. The animal howled like it was really suffering, he said: a hoarse, drawn-out sound. As if, hanging between life and death, it had chosen to become a ghost. He told me the pencil case had reminded him of it, and that he didn’t like it. He didn’t like remembering.
We left late. Beatriz picked me up. We loaded up the car with a box full of food, beer, and tequila, and left for Algarrobo. It was cold and the rain was blowing about in the wind. Neither of us were planning to swim in the sea, so we didn’t really mind if it poured over the weekend. The idea was to bring books and fill up the days with pounds and pounds of backlogged reading, as well as the material for the PhD I’d abandon soon after. We also planned to hunt hares and doves on the outskirts of Casablanca. Actually, that was Beatriz’s idea: I was a total wimp when it came to this kind of thing, and I could barely operate a stapler. Rodewald had also had to endure his wife’s hobby, which she’d learned from her father, who in his turn had inherited it from his father.
The house was on top of a hill, a few yards away from a small wood. It looked on to the mountains, far from the hubbub of tourists and beaches. We’d hardly arrived before it began to rain and there was a power cut, so we decided to cancel the few activities we’d planned and jumped onto her father’s bed to watch films on my laptop. We opened a 40 of beer. Tell me what you want to watch, I asked. We decided on the new Batman films, all three of them. We opened another beer. We’d managed to start The Dark Knight when the battery ran out and we had to move on to Beatriz’s computer. We put some music on and kept drinking. Is the rain still bad? she asked with a smile a few minutes later, as she moved toward the window. I’ve got a joint in the car. Do you mind getting a bit wet? It’s in the little box we use as an ashtray. There was no dilemma as far as I was concerned: I put my jacket on, tied my shoelaces, and went out through the muddy entrance, circling round until I got to the car and the joint.
The wind was splattering the rain into my eyes, and I’d forgotten to bring a flashlight. It was already pretty dark. When I got back inside, I headed to the room and saw Beatriz sitting totally still before the light of the computer screen, covering part of her face with both hands. Her entire aspect had transformed. I stayed there watching her: she was in the same position for twenty seconds, as if she was praying with her face covered. Suddenly she let her head fall forward by ninety degrees, without taking her hands away, and her breathing quickened. You could see it in her shoulders. At the same time, each bone in my fingers throbbed with cold.
I took a cigarette from my wet jacket pocket and lit it, letting out a mixture of smoke and condensation, and looked into the room at that pale, limestone statue, the way she seemed to fear the storm might shatter her into pieces. I felt that only Miguel could embrace her, enter into the pit of all that hurt. Seconds later she took her hands from her face, wiped her eyes and came out to find me. Hey, did you find it, she said, smiling by the doorway.
It was already evening when we came back with Rodewald, running breathlessly in an attempt to win the race against time and avoid a telling-off from his dad, who wouldn’t let him come out with us after seven. The time on his digital watch said nine forty. When we got back to his house we found his father smoking underneath the lintel. Rodewald came to a sudden halt. Cross the road, he said, pulling me by my T-shirt, get on the pavement, and he pushed me away. I could see from looking at the pores on his face how grave the situation was, and so I took his advice. Rodewald’s dad’s eyes followed me. I think the only thing we could hear was the sound of the earth and pebbles beneath Miguel’s feet as he approached the door to his house, dragging his feet in trepidation. I’m certain his dad could hear it too. Cars floated through the space between us, erecting a wall between one side of the street and the other. I stopped, waiting for what was about to come. When Miguel was sufficiently close, his dad told him to stay still. “Stay still”, he repeated, more firmly this time. “Lift your head up. Look at me.” He noticed the ash stains on his arms and shorts. Show me your hands. Miguel didn’t want to. “Your hands!” he shouted. He showed him the black palms that gave us away. "Now put your hands in your pockets. I said look at me, raise your head, and put your hands in your pockets.” He might as well have asked him to look directly into the sun without blinking. Everything stopped after that. Often we beach kids didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to each other. We’d wake up one morning to find that the houses were empty again, awaiting new guests, perhaps people without children our age. Other times there’d be hugs and farewells. And on other occasions, such as this one, sudden departure was the punishment laid down for disobeying the rules. That’s how it started. The slap went down in history. The sound of his dad’s arm cutting through the air and breaking like a wave upon the cheek of my friend, Miguel Rodewald. There was no going back. “Stand up straight. Move your hands from your face. I told you to put your hands in your pockets. Stand up straight and look at me!” His face had turned a dusky red. He didn’t wait for Miguel to open his eyes before landing the second blow. There was the short, sharp sound of the palm striking the boy’s tear-sodden skin, before this time he let out a yell and fell to the floor. Just as I was starting to think that the man would keep on hitting him until he died, he stopped and entered the house. I couldn’t move, I just wanted Miguel to look at me so I could ask him to forgive me for leaving him alone, at the mercy of the hyenas. But then, suddenly, instead of tidying himself up and going inside, he turned around and ran off. He refused to accept the fate that awaited him in the house. I wanted to shout and tell him not to do it, but instead I followed him. Go back or they’ll kill you, I was thinking. They’ll kill you, they really will.
After one block I saw him stop in a small, dark square with wooden swings. Seba’s older brother’s friends had broken all the streetlamp bulbs and no one ever came to replace them. When I got to him he was hiding behind a bench and crying inconsolably. I sat down with him and begged him to go back home so they’d stop hitting him, believing that this was the only punishment a boy could possibly receive from his dad. Still crying, Miguel Rodewald hugged me tightly and between the sobs he let out a single phrase, faltering and disjointed, like a leaking tap: burn him. Burn him, burn him. I took his miserable face in my hands, wiped away his mucky tears, and gave him a long, suffocating kiss. Don’t worry, we will, we’ll burn him. We’ll burn him, I repeated, and then I burst into tears.
"Hyenas" © Eduardo Plaza. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Rahul Bery. All rights reserved.
Catalina Mena's manifesto confronts the dilemmas facing women forced to choose between private household duties and public endeavors.
Listen to Catalina Mena read "The Head of Household Manifesto" in the original Spanish.
And if the Head of Household were to draft her manifesto, it would be in the absence of a form that can hold her. And because this same absence left her adrift. Stamped like a Chilean census form. A form that called the Head of Household a national hero. But that was just statistics.
Always sanding down the edges of words unsaid. The Head of the Household isn’t head in the usual sense of the word. The authority vested in her, encoded in her imaginary kitchen apron, is another: she oversees the days’ chaotic toils.
The hearth is a fire that’s always being extinguished. No longer a tribe united for survival. No longer that blaze crackling in insistent splendor. Now the hearth is a flame that flickers out in an apartment in a residential neighborhood. It feeds on sighs and stammers, on sweat, smiles and armchairs, on loves, tantrums, and flowers.
Jostling the alimony apparatus, wandering the halls and corridors, negotiating profanities about origins and blame.
"Manifesto of the Head of Household" © Catalina Mena. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Susannah Greenblatt. All rights reserved.
A girl of seventeen agrees to marry a gringo on their first date. Nothing in this impulsive start to their marriage hints at the coming misfortunes that will tear them from each other and themselves.
Whoredom and wine and new wine take away the heart.
He said: I know you. You used to live in Ch, near the big port—isn’t your name Carla? I told him he was right except for the name, recognizing the same roughness in his accent as those gringos we use to go to Playa Roja with sometimes ✕ ✕ ✕
✕ ✕ ✕ My name’s Nancy ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕
✕ ✕ ✕ He smiled and asked me out for a bite to eat ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ When I saw him up close I realized he was the same lost gringo we’d almost run over ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ We shook hands clumsily and headed to a rotisserie chicken place ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ There he asked me to marry him before I’d eaten a single chip ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ I looked at him for a second, terrified he wouldn’t let me eat if I said no ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ I shoved a couple of chips in my mouth and, as they turned to mash between my teeth, I considered him carefully ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ Judging by his looks, I reckon Tim couldn’t have been more than thirty-five at the time. I was seventeen. ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ I said yes then and there and we went to live in Guayaquil, until one day we realized, out walking in a tropical rainstorm, that we didn’t belong there but in Chile ✕ ✕ ✕ We decided to move back and settle in this disgusting port town, where rum and Teletrak betting took my husband from me ✕ Over twenty years Tim managed to lose every job imaginable, till no one except the Japanese would hire him ✕ Working for the Japanese was a kind of slow death sentence ✕ He’d leave one day and spend a fortnight offshore with two hundred other hired hands, trawling and processing and canning the fish then and there ✕ He always came back smiling, serene, but it didn’t last. He’d go straight to some bar and spend the night getting soaked with his friends
✕ Still, we were fond of each other, even after we grew apart ✕ While I waited for him I’d remember nights when I’d stare at the sky for hours on end, lying on the bare earth outside the dump that was my home in Ch. I felt closer to everything going on up there than I did to that idiot ✕
Booze got the better of him. Every night. Without fail. ✕ ✕ ✕
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And I’d think: when did you agree to this, Nancy? ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ When did you agree to live like a widow before your time?
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It was Tim that got me listening to the radio, to stop from feeling lonely and because I was tired of talking to myself ✕
I’d say to myself: It’s like I’m his damn mother
✕ He worried me so much. I’d imagine him dead somewhere, even though Tim was a lucky old drunk: he never did get hurt and would always show up eventually, when everything had finally shut, out cold, dragged home by some other waster. Once he was stretched out on the sofa he’d be there for hours, that gringo of mine. Eventually he’d get up, shower, go and buy some hake and vegetables and make me the best dinner in the world. I’d watch him and worry just as much as I did when he wasn’t there, my chest hurting like he’d never come home at all ✕ We’d eat in silence, hardly speaking, and then we’d make love in the dark for five minutes ✕ On a good day ✕ The last time we did it was the day I told him I was dying of cancer. We stared at each other like divers under water, sunk in uncertainty, until I poured another glass of wine to break the silence ✕ Then he took me by the hand and led me to bed, like when we did it in Santa Cruz all that time ago, the first time, and while he took off his trousers I lay down on my stomach and waited, burning, dying, but happy, for him to give it to me ✕ Instead of crying I held in the need to pee and crushed my face into a pillow ✕ Tim was so rough it felt like the handful of times I’d slept with Jesulé ✕ ✕ ✕ While he was going at it he asked me: Is it for sure? I said, of course, the doctor told me it was a miracle I was still alive, really. He gave a couple more thrusts and, coming inside me, let out an electric moan, horrible, like he was in pain ✕ I needed to pee so badly a couple of drops actually came out ✕ I ran to the bathroom and peed for three whole minutes, nonstop. Through the door I could see the silhouette of my husband, lying on the bed, panting, and I felt an oppressive heat rise up through my legs from the freezing tiles ✕ I pressed the soles of my feet onto the floor and then lifted them up, transfixed by the sweaty prints they left on the white tiles, by the way they slowly disappeared, and I thought: why can’t cancer be like this, why can’t it disappear, like words, like cigarettes
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For the next three months neither of us mentioned it. When I saw Tim for the first time after they removed my breasts and uterus, when he got back from trawling, his face remained serene ✕ He asked me to show him ✕ I took off my dressing gown, wincing, and we looked at me together: where my breasts and belly button used to be it was like I’d been zipped up ✕ The morning light came through the window and I felt completely alone ✕ Tim said: Like an Amazon. That was all. He hugged me, carefully, quickly made some lunch, then went out drinking ✕ When he was upset, his nose, red and broken, used to twitch up and down ✕ His eyes, slanted and blue, used to glisten a bit under his cap, though you’d never notice unless you knew him really well ✕ He’d breathe through his mouth and moisten his lips ✕ Those were the signs ✕ He looked unfazed but I knew he needed a drink. Knew I wouldn’t see him for a while ✕
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The chemotherapy was looming and I decided to shave my head so I didn’t have to see my hair fall out in big handfuls ✕ I did it alone, so when Tim came back from his stint offshore and found me pale and shivering, my skull wrapped in a multicolored scarf, the only thing he could think to do was give me a kiss on the forehead then go back to his same old shit ✕ He left, dragging his feet.
And that was that.
Knowing you’re going to die is horrible not just because you don’t want to die, but also because there’s always some residual, surviving doubt. It survived in me all right, a fledgling hope, hiding behind the eyes. Even though I was skeletal, mutilated, barren ✕
✕ I thought: no motherfucker should have to die alone like this ✕ ✕ ✕
If only the world had ended in 2012 like everyone said it would, that would have been perfect ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ I was twelve that year—I had Pato, and my mum wasn’t so crazy, or at least I felt I could handle her ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ And now? What have you got left, Nancy? ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ Hope? ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕
Sometimes when I woke up, even if I was really tired, it didn’t feel like I was dying. How could I be, when there was still a body reflected in the mirror ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ But the locals took it upon themselves to remind me ✕ ✕ In the street people simply stopped saying hello, and this drove me to complete despair. Weeks could go by when the only reason I didn’t talk to myself was because the radio was on at full volume, and only then because I couldn’t hear my own voice ✕
Under my breath, I’d whisper:
Chavela Vargas, pray for us
Palmenia Pizarro, thy kingdom come
Orquesta Huambalí, thy will be done, on earth as it is . . .
✕ After a while, silence is worse than actually dying ✕ Maybe even worse than hope ✕
The side effects of chemotherapy eventually kicked in, and I went into a slow decline: I barely ate, and spent long hours in bed, lying half-asleep, feeling all the bones in my body tightening ✕ In rare hours of lucidity I’d try half-heartedly to shower and wash up. The water was so cold, like metal, even when it was boiling, so instead I had to sit shivering on the toilet and clean myself with wet wipes ✕ ✕ In the kitchen I’d rinse the dirty plates and cutlery under the tap, struggling to hold them by the edges to avoid the chills I got from touching the water ✕ ✕ ✕
✕ I devoted myself to contemplating the dust invasion. I couldn’t really believe it. I sort of thought that if I looked at it long enough the dirt might somehow disappear ✕
It didn’t ✕
And the mannequins in the street
the old ladies with waxen skin
and me turning to papier-mâché
✕ Don’t even get me started on the nausea ✕
A couple of days before I started taking morphine—I may as well have had no husband by this point, the gringo wasn’t even coming home to sleep anymore— a friend of Tim’s banged on the door, waited the fifteen minutes it took me to get out of bed and drag myself out front, and said, quickly, not looking me in the eye, that my husband had been involved in an accident offshore and had gone to a better place ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ What happened? I asked ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ He was sucked into the tuna processor ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ And his body? ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ There is no body, he replied, and, after he’d hugged me, added that someone would come on behalf of the Japanese to give me their condolences and a check for the funeral ✕ And that was that: an hour later an official––short, barely comprehensible, bowing continually—told me he was sorry for my loss, and that they’d cover all the expenses, the funeral and that sort of thing, but unfortunately they couldn’t give me any compensation because, according to the insurance company, Tim had been drunk when the accident happened ✕ As I listened to this diminutive Japanese specimen I leaned against the doorframe, trying not to pass out from pain, and struggled to understand what the fuck was going on ✕ I shook my head and asked again about his body ✕ ✕ The Japanese man looked displeased, like it was rude to demand to see the gringo’s remains after he’d explained what had happened, and although in the end he said nothing I imagined him replying, coolly, that the only thing he could do was give me a moment alone with the 2,500 tins containing my dead husband ✕
✕ (In fact, I’m convinced he was perfectly capable of saying it, only he rushed off after giving me the check so as not to waste any more time) ✕ ✕
That afternoon I took out my grandmother’s First Communion dress and dyed it with aniline. While it was hanging in the sun, dripping black water, I polished my shoes and stood in front of the mirror, preparing myself for the wake, which would be the next day in the fishermen’s chapel. All night I lay on the bed in my widow’s clothes, eyes open, waiting till it was time
✕ A few workers from the processing plant came to the chapel, mainly women, but that was it really ✕ The burial was even emptier ✕ After the final shovelful of earth, the last few stragglers silently dispersed, not daring to give their condolences, and I went back to being a ghost ✕ The only person who continued to give me the time of day during this whole nightmare was Isidorita. A kindly fat woman who comes and looks after me every now and then ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ We share our regrets sometimes, quietly, and I try and console her ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ She wanted to be the carnival queen and everyone had laughed at her ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ When we ran into each other in the street she looked like a kindred spirit. She saw me sunk in a void, alone. I saw how anxious she was, everyone acting all friendly then laughing behind her back ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ Sometimes they laughed in her face, too ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ I love that she talks to me, that she washes the dishes, and most of all that she tries to smile between sighs ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ ✕ She convinces me, more easily each time, to turn on the TV so we don’t miss Gavilanes de Cristo: Juan the missionary under the jungle palms, exchanging glances with Enriqueta ✕ ✕ ✕ Sweating as they clean the lepers’ wounds, hearts racing, completely besotted with each other ✕ ✕ ✕
The morphine means I’m usually sunk in a dream even more painful than the cancer eating away at my bones ✕ When the gringo was alive at least I had someone to worry about, but it all went so fast
I’m here, waiting.
From Nancy © Bruno Lloret. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Ellen Jones. All rights reserved.
Climbing into bed with her raconteuse grandmother, a young woman anxiously expects another of the old lady’s stories of a bygone Santiago. Instead, she discovers a physical deformity that provokes a reflection on the stories our scars tell of us.
My grandmother had no belly button. I found that out one night when I went into her room without knocking. It was late, I’d woken up from a bad dream and, to feel safe, I walked down the hall, thinking I’d get into bed with her. It was something I did a lot. I’d climb in between her stiff, mothball-scented sheets and in the darkness she would tell me a story to help me fall asleep. They were always stories about her life. Old family stories about her job at the ministry office, or about her fights with Octavio, my grandfather, or Don Arturo, her second husband. The setting was a bygone Santiago that I never quite got to know, though frames from it appeared in every scene she described. Everything took place in the center of the city. The Plaza de Armas, the Pasaje Matte, the Labor Ministry, the Parque Cousiño, the Politeama, the catch-as-catch-can at the Teatro Caupolicán. I always liked those stories. My grandmother spent any bits she had to spare—that’s the word she used, bits—to go and see the ñatos wrestle catch-as-catch-can. Another funny word: ñatos. All kinds of ñatos, in all kinds of spangled suits, clutching each other and fighting all kinds of ways in the ring, as she yelled from her seat: give it to him, ñato, give it to him good. As she was telling me this, she threw up her hands in bed and though I couldn’t see her in the dark, I could feel her enthusiasm. The same enthusiasm of fifty years ago. For the short time that her story lasted, we were transported from her stiff sheets to the Caupolicán. In our balcony seats we ate roasted peanuts, camouflaged in the crowd. The theater was packed, everybody shouting in the dark, eyes fixed on the ring below. A perfect square lit by spotlights: the stage or the altar where the ñatos slug it out, collapsing, contorting, howling hidden behind their brightly colored masks, as she, my grandmother, twenty years old, paycheck in her pocket, shrouded in darkness and anonymity, throws peanut shells like offerings and waves her arms, cheering on her favorite ñato. Give it to him, ñato, give it to him good.
That night I opened the door to her room expecting one of those stories. Unsuspecting, I turned on the bedside lamp and to my surprise I saw something I had never seen before: my grandmother’s naked body. She was changing clothes, sitting on the bed. I don’t know how she was doing it in the dark, but she was. Probably she always did it that way, by feel, with the light off, so that no one would come in suddenly and catch her there, as I had done. I saw her white belly, enormous as a swollen globe, completely smooth, with no belly button dividing it in the middle. It’s not that her navel was hidden under some fold of skin. It simply wasn’t there; it didn’t exist. It was like nothing I had ever seen or ever would see. Only some of my dolls had bellies like that, but I rectified their disturbing condition by pricking tiny holes in them with a pin. Nobody couldn’t have a belly button. Not even a doll bought at the corner store.
It was years before I said anything about what I had seen. My grandmother, I imagine, was grateful. I don’t know whether she was bothered by not having a belly button. Women of that era and their relationship with their own bodies was always a mystery, and in the case of my grandmother, a fathomless enigma. Never in any of her bedtime stories was there a hint of a clue that might shed light on the question. When I grew up, I was told that she had been operated on for something—an ulcer, I think—and at the end of the operation the doctor had decided, for some reason that I’m guessing was not aesthetic, to close up her belly button. He left behind a small scar that I’m sure I didn’t see that night, because if I had, it might have helped me invent an explanation for myself.
I remember the boy I saw lying on the ground in Santiago’s Plaza de Armas in 1984. There, in the same place where my grandmother saw electric light for the first time. We were in the middle of a protest and a national police officer hit the boy in the face, leaving him sprawled on the cement in a pool of blood with his eye knocked out of his head, dangling beside his face. There’s more to the story and it could be told in my own dark room to my own grandchildren, but for now I’ll stop there, with the image of that boy without an eye.
I imagine how hard it must be to grow up without an eye.
I imagine how hard it must be to live without an arm, a leg, a kidney.
Next to these thoughts, the difficulty of living without a belly button sounds minor. It’s just an orifice, a hole where grit and grime collect, a scar. But it’s the first scar. Proof of a past life, nine months long at least, mark of a time that we can’t remember no matter how hard we try.
Maybe the mystery of that past is what makes belly buttons necessary.
A kind of eye watching us from inside. Seeing us from a new angle. Like the eye of the boy in the Plaza de Armas, looking straight into its owner’s face for the first time, in close-up from the ground, in the middle of all that blood. An eye that sees our blood, our grimaces of pain, our worst nightmares. Heartless and cruel as a projectile, strange as a space probe, collecting information in a galaxy as dark as my grandmother’s bedroom, where we keep pieces of a yesterday that we have no way of remembering.
From Chilean Electric © Nona Fernandez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Natasha Wimmer. All rights reserved.
Since its original publication in 1980, this genre-defying book has gained a cult reputation that established Jovanović as an important counterculture figure in Serbia. Written in a highly experimental style, the book follows a woman’s coming of age in 1970s Belgrade, creating a fragmentary amalgam of life in socialist Belgrade, intense sexual relationships, and family conflicts in the shadow of old age.
“You have to push a dying person into talking about love,” declares the narrator of Biljana Jovanović’s Dogs and Others (Psi i ostali), recently released by Istros Books in John K. Cox’s dynamic translation. The narrator, Lidia, lives with her mentally ill brother and their elderly, infirm grandmother. Written in a highly experimental style, the book follows Lidia’s coming of age in 1970s Belgrade in something between stream of consciousness and the flat tone one might find in postwar existentialist fiction. The complicated prose, compounded by the protagonist’s combative personality, makes the novel an uncomfortable read; the translator’s endnote calls it “strong medicine.” While translation always requires a degree of compromise and flexibility, Cox performs lexical acrobatics to capture Jovanović's dark humor and double entendres. Jovanović clearly intended the bumpy ride, however, taking a unique and challenging approach to the traditional Bildungsroman, especially in regards to women’s sexuality. For all its difficulties, Dogs and Others is a vital part of the emerging canon of queer literature in post-Communist Europe.
Jovanović was born to a journalist and a well-known Montenegrin politician in the Yugoslav parliament, spending her childhood in Belgrade among books and ideas. She studied philosophy and was an active member of several human rights groups beginning in the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s, when she devoted herself to the peace movement during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Her activism encompassed all manner of causes, including environmentalism, feminism, ethnic diversity, and campaigns for artistic freedom. As a public intellectual in Belgrade, she wrote across nearly every conceivable genre—poetry, plays, letters, novels, and a considerable nonfiction output related to her work as an activist. Dogs and Others is her second and arguably most avant-garde novel. Since its original publication in 1980, it has gained a cult reputation that established Jovanović as an important counterculture figure in Serbia. She died from a brain tumor in 1996, when she was forty-three years old. What recognition she failed to receive in life has been growing since her early death—while official critics initially balked at her unorthodox and often electrifying ideas, her bravery in both civil and literary life is finally being recognized.
Although Lidia displays a certain grasp of the tenets of philosophy—she references Schopenhauer and Dewey, among others—there is no mistaking the novel for autofiction. The book is written in a fragmentary style and is not concerned with giving its protagonist a clear or explicit storyline. It is a rich and innovative amalgam of unvarnished urban life in socialist Belgrade, intense sexual relationships, and family in the shadow of old age, disability, and “madness.” At times, one is hesitant to call it a novel at all because the plot is so frequently interrupted by childhood recollections, vitriolic letters from an anonymous writer, changes in pace and structure, and the sporadic appearance and subsequent disappearance of new characters. The rapid and disorientating pace is bound to Lidia’s internal tempo, but what this fragmentation achieves is neither fully explained to us nor entirely understood by her.
Lidia’s intimate world comprises her brother, Danilo, her lover, Milena, and her grandmother Jaglika. An absent, abusive mother makes occasional appearances, always accompanied by a new boyfriend or husband. Unlike Lidia, Danilo does not work, struggles with drug use and addiction, and often requires psychiatric care. The siblings’ father took his own life many years before the narrative begins. Danilo’s struggle with an untreated mental illness, likely the same as his father’s, becomes progressively hopeless and culminates in an important turning point.
Lidia meets Milena through friends and is utterly captivated by her. She initially brings a refreshing joie de vivre to Lidia’s otherwise unhappy life. “If I thought of someone’s neck, then it was Milena’s,” she thinks. Milena is self-assured, acutely aware of her own sex appeal, and seemingly uninterested in the opinions of others. “Milena only came over so she wouldn’t have to be alone when she talked to herself,” Lidia remarks. She also introduces several radical ideas into the text, lamenting how women go to great lengths not to insult men’s sexuality, likening male genitalia to worms, and questioning where this “compassionate relationship to worms” comes from. Their affair plays out over several central chapters before Milena leaves Lidia, echoing much of the casually cruel treatment Lidia receives from mother and grandmother.
Lidia suffers merciless mistreatment from members of her immediate and extended family. Her mother and grandmother routinely call her a whore, “bullshit-nik,” or sometimes simply “that girl.” Furthermore, sexual abuse is also glaringly pervasive throughout the novel. Jovanović takes care to underscore its domino effect: Lidia is raped by her psychologist and her brother Danilo finds out, driving the siblings apart; Milena is assaulted by her dentist and, in turn, Milena assaults an intellectually disabled teenager, describing it as a gesture of goodwill.
While Dogs and Others is widely hailed as the first recorded sexual relationship between two women in Serbian literature, it may also be a pioneer in its time and country in the way it depicts mental health issues and their implications for prevailing views on gender differences. Mental illness in men is often presented in literary works as a sign of covert genius, whereas in women it is usually a mark of weakness and hysteria. Jovanović challenges this idea by giving sufficient space to both Lidia’s depression and her highly rational, critical self. She offers a detailed exhumation of the violence and sexual abuse that Lidia must come to terms with in a way that highlights the whole person—strengths and shortcomings—without giving in to either cliché, the genius or the hysteric.
Lidia thinks of herself as emotionally orphaned, with a dead father and absent mother, and resents her grandmother Jaglika, but she still looks for familial warmth and approval. This is most evident in an uncharacteristically vulnerable moment between Lidia and Jaglika:
[...] every day I’d ask that dying figure from the doorway, wrapped in her fifteen blankets—in her rocking chair with her glasses on the tip of her furrowed, likeable nose, her swollen feet in slippers with black tassels, the same thing:
"Do you love me, grandma?"
"What’s that you’re saying?" (The first thing to go is ears, and then it’s the eyes and the heart, when you’re dying.)
"I was asking . . . whether you love me?" (I was screaming; you have to push a dying person into talking about love.)
"Why’s that? Do you love me?" (This only makes it look like a dying person has a greater need for love than the one who’s asking [. . .])
The tenderness of the interaction is soon lost when Jaglika begins, feebly, to beat her granddaughter (“the immobile Jaglika lurched forward—really, like in a bad movie”) and call her derogatory names, bringing us back to a dire reality.
Though it tangos with these topics, the novel is never all that concerned with actually dissecting sexuality or sexual politics in 1970s Belgrade, despite several overt narratorial interventions. Instead, it addresses the more universal categories of family, the psyche, and personal trauma. Dogs and Others is Jovanović’s first novel to be translated into English, and it arrives nearly forty years after the original publication. From a writer fixated on social problems, the degree of sexual assault, harassment, and sexism in the novel is too high to be ignored. Nor can its feminist voices of dissent, such as Milena, however flawed they appear. That these issues continue to have a painfully contemporary feel speaks to their deep roots and the long, ongoing excavation. The novel comes to an uncertain end as Lidia tries to find her bearings after considerable loss, still tormented by a host of family memories—some melancholy, others excruciating. Dogs and Others questions how much one generation’s trauma can be inherited by the next, while it also gestures at vastly diverse forms such trauma can take.
In October 2015, Indonesia made its appearance as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair—the first country from Southeast Asia to be so honored. Words Without Borders celebrated with our August 2015 issue, which offered work by nine poets and fiction writers. Now, three and half years later, Indonesia heads to London to appear in the same role at the London Book Fair, and we’re marking the occasion by presenting four authors, two of whom will participate in the fair.
The authors here represent a range of genres and topics in settings extending from distant planets to the very center of the earth. Novelist Clara Ng, one of the twelve authors attending the fair, contributes a moving intergalactic love story. Cen is from a “blue planet” not unlike our own, with deserts, snow, and fireflies; Tiansun hails from “the silver planet,” where the frequent meteor showers delight Cen. The lovers are separated not by their differences, but by the cruel, inexorable force of time. On Tiansun’s planet, time is measured in hon, and he has relatives who lived to ten thousand hon; but Cen’s life expectancy is a fraction of Tiansun’s. “If I can only live with you for one hon,” Tiansun declares, “then I will love you for one hon.” Now, at two thousand hon and counting, he mourns his lost love; but he has not been left totally alone.
In “The Prayer of the Flame that Sparked the Forest Fire,” poet M Aan Mansyur speaks of devastation that leads to rebirth. “Permit me / to turn to ash the dry leaves at the feet / of trees so that they might one day / become a greater forest,” he asks, concluding, simply, “Make me free of pride.”
Essayist Nirwan Dewanto, who’ll also be at London, trained as a geologist before moving into literature and cultural commentary. His “Geology” maps the differences between that discipline and geography: “If the nature of geography is endless horizontal movement, geology is the effort to move downward, to uncover the strata that form the topography of today. Of course, this cannot be done in any absolute way.” As he moves through this terrain, he notes, “We’ll never be able to get to the interior of the earth except through interpretation.”
And short-story writer Raudal Tanjung Banua sends an author on a unique assignment. A biographer-for-hire is summoned by a previous subject, a successful cane merchant. He assumes the businessman wants to update the earlier volume, but instead the man asks him to write the life story of a unique client: a newborn. Puzzled, he responds, “What could a baby have to show for its life?” A longer conversation with the merchant clarifies not only his assignment but his own life story, which functions as an allegory of the nation’s history.
This selection suggests the great variety of Indonesian writing and serves as a taste of the country's vibrant literary culture. We’re delighted to share in the celebrations, and to promote this country's literature this month and beyond.
© 2019 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
The poet reflects on death and rebirth.
Make me more simple. Extinguish
the greater part of my life.
If to burn is my destiny, permit me
to turn to ash the dry leaves at the feet
of trees so that they might one day
become a greater forest.
Tell the sad stories to the sky:
the orchid dying before it blooms; the fruit dropping
before bearing seeds; the bird who, lost in smoke,
lost its nest as well—so as to make her cry,
for her to shed tears. For seedlings to sprout,
to leaf, and for the forest to be green again.
Return me to the garbage heap in the city,
to the hearths of those who hunger,
to the blood of those who shiver in loneliness,
to the husband and wife who sleep
with their backs to each other.
Make me free from pride.
© M. Aan Mansyur. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by John McGlynn. All rights reserved.
In this Indonesian short story, one baby’s fate is entwined with that of the nation.
For the first time in his long career as a biographer, Abraham Yusra felt that he was being put to the test. Someone special had asked him to write the biography of a baby and he felt that he couldn’t refuse. But what could he say about a baby that had just come into this turning world? What would the child know of life? How would one begin the narrative?
Abraham Yusra looked out the window. The hot sun shone brightly. He swallowed. There was a bitter taste in his mouth. He had not yet said that he was willing or able to accept the task; there was no deal so far; he had asked for time to consider it. But there wasn’t too much time left because the book had to be launched soon. Time was limited. Especially in comparison with the other books he had written. He had always needed a long time. For research and finding accurate information. Positive words and respectful language. In the current terminology: “an inspiring narrative.” He had a reputation to uphold. Having once made his name as a journalist, he had then walked away and decided to focus on writing biographies.
He had written many biographies of important people, from vice presidents to ministers, field marshals, generals, warriors, business people and governors. Sometimes the people he wrote about still held those positions, sometimes they had retired. Everything always went very smoothly, and the books had been warmly received at their launches by the delighted families, friends, kinsfolk, and relations. These events usually took place at birthdays and wedding anniversaries. Just one person, a cultural figure, had asked that his biography be launched to mark his retirement.
Only one of his books had ever been controversial. He had written about a rebel leader in a district that wanted to break away from the Republic. But thanks to his literary skills, Abraham had been able to convince the public that his subject was a great nationalist; he and his troops had taken to the jungle in order to correct the over-centralization of state power. The outcome did not affect Abraham’s reputation; in fact, in many ways he was praised for having successfully depicted the man in a precise and well-balanced manner.
There was a lot that one could write about people like this because they had led interesting lives. But what did a baby have to show for its life?
Abraham Yusra could have rejected the strange request. But despite everything, he felt challenged. Very challenged. He felt that he couldn’t resist. Because he had written biographies for many years, he had grown accustomed to certain patterns. The plot ran in a straight line. It was neatly integrated. If it sometimes zig-zagged, it never deviated very far. The characters had predictable parts to play. Now the commissioner wanted to turn things on their head. To do something very different. Whether this was some kind of breakthrough didn’t really matter. He would just try to do something he hadn’t done before, for good reason.
“Why should one only write the biographies of successful people?” Abraham wondered. Why not the failures as well? Why should the leading figures be major individuals and not ordinary people? Why should they be sixty, sixty-five, seventy, seventy-five years old, and covered with wrinkles? Why couldn’t they be young, teenagers or children, even babies, whose future could be guessed, rather than their past which was already settled? Babies were just as attractive. They cry loudly, they laugh loudly, they move at will, they are innocent. Look, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters were defined by their relationships to babies, like an umbilical cord bound to the afterbirth. And our babies cast a spell over everything that is natural, honest, unadorned.
Abraham Yusra sighed again. A long sigh.
He looked out the window. A baby not only has its family, he thought to himself, it also has an amazing external world: history, ritual, civilization. Yes! Babies are often mentioned in history and in the holy books, aren’t they? Ismail, the son of Abraham, began his new life by crying and kicking at the sand around him, and in this way he created the Zamzam well in Mecca, which will run with fresh water until the end of time. And remember Mary’s holy baby, who overturned the common way of creation as she wept alone beneath a leafy olive tree.
And if we live in binary oppositions, between happiness and suffering, trial and success, who says that babies are exempt from this? According to the Koran, all the male children were massacred in Pharaoh’s time, except for Moses who was saved when his woven basket was caught in the bathing place of Pharaoh’s daughter. Muhammad, the Prophet of God, was born in the dark age of paganism, when baby girls were considered a burden and often killed before they took their first breath of desert air.
Unfortunate babies flashed through Abraham’s mind. He had once seen a film about babies who were aborted in their mother’s womb. The fetuses struggled to avoid the pincers which would crush their soft skulls. Each time they avoided the instruments, the pincers chased them again. Eventually the tips grabbed their heads and finally they had to surrender. They came into the world as innocent shreds of pure flesh.
How many babies had been strangled, thrown into grassy fields, abandoned outside the doors of strangers, or drowned in gutters? How many!
And what about babies in war zones?
Abraham Yusra was shaken. Very shaken. The force of his emotions banged against the window. He knew that there was a war raging across the sea, at the tip of the continent. There were babies being dragged beneath barbed wire fences, in fields filled with wild dogs and wolves; floating on the ocean, one of whom had been washed up dead on a beach dressed in elegant boots; some were moaning hopelessly in ragged tents. He also remembered a small-scale war that was taking place in his own country—a minor disturbance—and how horrified he had been to see babies falling to the ground. And the story of the civil war that divided his own village, babies being born with swollen bellies and sunken eyes, too weak to cry.
Although Abraham’s thoughts gathered and wove together various ideas about babies, fortunate and unfortunate, with families and without families, in times of war and peace, he had gained all he knew about this particular baby from Tanamas. Abraham’s biography of the successful cane merchant had been published and launched in 1995. After that Abraham had no further contact with Tanamas, a professional practice he always tried to observe. It was important to stay on good terms with people, but he was reluctant to continue relationships with his subjects in other ways. Especially when the other person was very busy. He had only met Tanamas twice while he was writing about him, getting the rest of his data from other sources. For that reason, the biography was rather short. Perhaps that was why Tanamas’s trusty men had contacted him again after twenty years and he had answered their call. He was sure that Tanamas wanted to revise the book or ask for a sequel.
When they met in Cirebon, they wasted no time on polite preliminaries. Surprisingly Tanamas made absolutely no reference to his own biography. Instead, he asked Abraham to write the biography of a baby. “Does that seem weird?” Tanamas calmly asked him.
Abraham was surprised but tried to smile. Without waiting for a reply, Tanamas continued: “You’re an experienced writer. I want you to write something unusual this time.”
Abraham said nothing. It was possible that had he heard such a request when he was thirty, when they had first worked together, he would have been excited and responded quite differently. Perhaps he might have suggested that such a project could change the world. But now, in his fifties, it seemed an enormous task, very existential indeed.
Tanamas then told him about this “rather unusual” problem. About a reddish newborn baby that had dropped into his lap, like a falling star. “The path that has brought us together is long, very long,” Tanamas said. He didn’t know why he had always believed that the presence of the baby did not just begin and end in the capital, but, directly or not, was connected with many other events as well.
In fact, Tanamas continued, it began with the civil war in Central Sumatra in 1958. The military Buffalo Council was supported by the Socialist Party and the Muslim Masyumi. They declared themselves to be the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia, PRRI. Jakarta responded by sending other Army forces, who were known to support Sukarno and were considered to be the Capital’s army. The largest military operation in the history of the motherland began. The militia of the communist party also became involved.
Everyone followed a different path. While Tanamas admired Syahrir, his father was totally dedicated to Masyumi. Some of his relatives joined with the PRRI. But on the other hand, Tanamas had a good friend called Marlupi, who was an important member of the communist party in a small cold town—which quickly heated up when people crossed each other’s paths.
The conflict lasted almost three years. The PRRI troops began to tire and they gradually came down from the mountains. Quite a few of them surrendered and were then massacred by the communist troops. This brutality may have stemmed from Sukarno’s troops wanting to regain their reputation, a desire for revenge, or as a true act of commitment to the Republic. Tanamas sold things people needed when they were living in a war zone and was eventually exposed as a PRRI informant. One day he was captured.
Fortunately, Marlupi begged the troops to hand him over. The national army may have thought that he would then be killed at a particular place, as the communist party often did. But Marlupi had let him go. “Get out of here before my friends find out.” Tanamas went to Tanjung Karang, then took a boat to Jakarta.
After three years in the capital, Tanamas heard that Marlupi, the friend who had saved him, had also moved to Jakarta. Marlupi had been chosen to expand the party and given a high position. Tanamas and Marlupi met several times. They were still like brothers, even though they did not work together on the same sort of activities. The communist party went from victory to victory, protected by Sukarno and the army.
Unexpectedly, one dark evening in October 1965, someone knocked repeatedly on Tanamas’s door at Kalimalang. Tanamas opened the door and found Marlupi and his wife crouched outside. It was their most emotional meeting. Bainun, Marlupi’s wife, was holding a reddish newborn baby, although it seemed very pale when one came closer. Perhaps the night was cold. Tanamas dragged them into the house. Before he or his wife had a chance to ask what was happening, Marlupi said: “Please look after Bainun and the child. I need to assess the situation.” That was all. Marlupi left immediately, vanishing into the thick darkness. The night became even blacker.
Tanamas did not yet understand what was happening, even though he had just heard that an ominous new comet was making huge scratch marks across the sky of Jakarta, and stealing the light of other stars in that sky. Yes, the stars on the big shots’ uniforms. Those with the most stars were killed. And the slashes of the comet extended across the whole sky throughout the nation, and not only snatched the stars from the shoulders of the great, but also extinguished the flashes of compassion in the souls of the common people.
Tanamas only began to understand the situation after Marlupi did not come back. When the situation became even more difficult, Bainun, the mother of the baby, asked to be allowed to leave. Tanamas and his wife did all they could to prevent her from going. “The situation is critical,” Tanamas said, repeating something he had heard on the radio. But Bainun was planning to rejoin her husband at a specified place. She entrusted the precious baby to Tanamas’s wife. She never returned. Tanamas realized that Bainun, the good mother, had tried to protect Tanamas’s family, including the baby, from the accusation that they were hiding a criminal. Because, shortly afterward, a mob had raided the houses in their neighborhood, wanting to find anyone who was hiding criminals or being hidden by the residents.
The baby boy in his wife’s lap made Tanamas nervous. There were all sorts of possibilities. It was an insane time. Some of his neighbors were jealous of his cane business and often spied upon the baby in a threatening manner. “What if they said that my wife had never been pregnant and had never given birth to a baby?” Tanamas was worried.
And that was what happened. In March 1967, several large men came to Tanamas’s house. One of them, a man with bloodshot eyes, said without any hesitation: “We know that your wife was not pregnant. She couldn’t possibly have had a baby. We will take the child and give it back to his real mother.”
The precious baby was still sleeping in its cane crib. Moved by her motherly instincts, Tanamas’s wife edged forward and tried to take the child to the back of the house. But rough men’s hands forbade her to do that.
Tanamas’s blood boiled. He was angry at anyone who tried to tell him about the baby, and even angrier at these visitors.
“Be calm, friend. We’ll return the baby to its mother. We know that she is at a certain place.” The second man’s voice was partly convincing, yet suspicious. But Tanamas was happy and surprised to hear that his friend’s wife might still be alive. Somewhere or other.
“Where is Bainun?” he asked impatiently.
The man smiled. “You’ll find out. We’ll take the baby first.”
Tanamas realized that he had been caught in a trap. But he struggled. “This baby is my flesh and blood.”
“As far as we know only Jesus had a birth like that. His mother was suddenly discovered to be pregnant. Somehow she gave birth to him and still remained a virgin. This here is even stranger. Your woman was never pregnant, yet here is a real baby of flesh and blood . . .” The man took some papers out of his pocket. “Just sign here, or else!”
There was nothing Tanamas could do in the face of such a cold-blooded threat. The baby changed hands. His wife wept briefly. Tanamas stiffened. He had hoped that he might be able to use his remaining strength and resources to raise the innocent child. He imagined it as a small red baby learning to crawl under his guidance, then standing and taking its first few steps . . .
Tanamas immediately moved to Cirebon without drawing any attention to himself. He had wanted to move for a long time because there was a network of cane collectors in Cirebon. The terrible event he had just experienced made it impossible to postpone the move any longer. He and his wife were in definite danger as well.
That was the story of the baby as far as he knew it, and that was what Tanamas wanted the biographer to write. “There has to be more than one chapter!” he said at the time, very poetically. “The tree of this baby holds many names and bears the fruits of many events.”
He turned diplomatically toward Abraham, who could only stare at him. “You must understand me, my friend.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that before?” Abraham asked in a quivering voice.
“Be kind, friend. The Big General was still in power. Even the smallest connection with anything red was dangerous. He took advantage of difficult situations. Nevertheless, I had to look after my business. I did, my boy! Well, do you want to write the whole story?”
Abraham indicated that he wanted to think about it. He needed time.
Abraham struggled with time, worked with time. He breathed deeply. Bewitching the world he was creating. Considering one act of destruction after another.
Abraham realized that there were far more things that he didn’t know than those he did know. Babies in their mothers’ wombs, as far as he knew, were not completely blank. Allah, the Lord of Life and Death, had bound various promises around them. But exactly how He bound them was uncertain. Abraham had only heard a few stories from his teacher at the mosque. The teacher had said that before a spirit entered the womb, it promised to always be loyal to the Creator. After the spirit entered through the crown of the head, the baby promised to be faithful to its lord.
But the World changed everything. It fouled the pure innocent baby which belonged to the realm of the soul and the womb. The babies who died before they were sprayed with muddy specks of worldly filth, his teacher had told him, didn’t count. Because they were still pure. In fact, thanks to the attenuation of their sins, they could help both their parents and their relatives, who were living in the afterworld.
The elderly teacher also said that the souls of innocent babies were rocked in cradles hanging on a tree in the moon. If they had siblings on earth, they could follow their siblings wherever their brothers and sisters went. At that time, Abraham couldn’t understand how this might happen. But when the moon was full, Abraham and his friends deliberately walked more quickly than usual because they seemed to feel the moon move swiftly through the sky with them. Abraham remembered that he had felt sad because the moon seemed to stand still when he walked. Even though he sensed that the moon was following him, his friends stubbornly insisted that the moon was not following anyone. “Why not?” he asked, in a sort of a protest, to no one in particular.
“How do we know?” one of his friends replied.
“Perhaps you aren’t related to anyone up there,” said another.
“My mother said my older brother died the moment he was born,” he insisted.
“Did he have a name?”
“He did, he really did. He never used it, of course, because he was already dead in the womb.”
“Well, we don’t know. Just try to do it.”
And as tiny Abraham tried it again, the other children shouted: “The moon is moving! The moon is moving! Hurray!” Abraham was happy. The children all jumped about happily.
“Your mother and father chose a name for your brother so it is still useful,” said the child who was considered the cleverest of the large group of boys. “You can find the proof on the moon.”
Abraham smiled when he remembered his childhood. He could see it spread out on the window, as bright as the full moon, everything was there. He felt that he could see lines on the moon which suggested a bending tree, covered with the cradles of baby spirits. Even though he knew now that this was only a myth, he still felt something was missing every time he walked beneath the full moon and he shouted, “The moon isn’t moving, the moon isn’t moving . . .”
He walked more quickly. His friends hurried him up, saying that the moon was not moving at all.
“My father said that my dead older brother had a particular shape and appearance. It was just that he never drew breath.” Abraham sounded quite forlorn.
"But our mothers say that you are all alone. You don’t even have a mother and a father.”
“Oh, don’t I?” he replied, patting himself on the chest.
“They aren’t your real mother and father!”
“Our mothers say that Pak Syamsurizal has no connection to you.”
Abraham shrank and began to cry. He went home and wept in front of his father, Syamsurizal.
Slowly but surely Syamsurizal turned over his cards. “Don’t cry,” he said, “that is just the way things are.” Syamsurizal told him how Abraham was taken out of the capital when his birth mother died in Bukit Duri Prison, without ever having had any trial. At that time Syamsurizal had a food stall near the prison. He saw with his own eyes how the children of Adam suffered behind the wall around that old building. He was allowed to take rice to the guards, without any supervision. He saw women repeatedly interrogated, repeatedly tortured, but still refusing to speak. As he washed the plates and glasses, he often heard groups of men speaking coarsely, as if trying to outdo each other.
“Damn bitch! She wouldn’t say one word.”
“I’ve been all over her skin, Commandant . . .”
“I’ve woken her up with wild cats, but she wasn’t bothered . . .”
Another guard rushed towards him looking happy. “I’ve found a way, Ndan.”
The man called Ndan, Commandant, turned to the guard. “What way, heh?”
“She had a baby. I’ve found out where she left it. We can use the baby to make her talk.”
The Commandant wasted no time. “Let’s get it!”
That was all Syamsurizal heard. He didn’t know how they found the baby or brought it to the prison. He was only aware of hearing a baby crying behind the prison walls. For several days, the baby refused to stop crying. Finally the guards gave up. They argued again.
“Damned bitch! You haven’t got anywhere with her that way.”
“No Ndan. The woman is even sicker. She might die before long.”
“Take the baby back to where it came from. I don’t want to be responsible for two deaths. The mother is enough trouble. Get rid of the baby.” The Commandant appeared to be somewhat panicked. But he couldn’t lie to himself: the baby’s eyes had made a deep impression on him. He had dealt with tens, even hundreds, of people and hadn’t been bothered, but for some reason, it was impossible to look at this baby. The eyes, the clear innocent eyes, dragged his soul—if he could be said to still have a soul—far into the fathomless depths of his being.
“Don’t forget. Ask the cane merchant to pay for the return of the baby,” the Commandant shouted fiercely as the soldiers started to leave with the baby. He had a reputation to uphold. “If the husband and wife won’t pay to get it back, drag them here!”
Syamsurizal didn’t know what happened when the baby was returned to “where it came from,” the cane merchant’s house. But he clearly heard the baby crying again the next day.
“Damn,” the Commandant sighed. “The cane merchant has gone away. No one knows where he is. And the baby’s mother is dead now. Where can we leave the baby?” He was frightened by the baby’s eyes.
Syamsurizal, who had been married five years and only once succeeded in making his wife pregnant—and the baby had miscarried—answered spontaneously: “I’ll take it, Commandant.”
The Commandant frowned. He was amazed. The offer freed him from the spell of those two eyes. It was one “small” problem solved. But he joked: “Prepare us a hundred packets of cooked rice, Bung Syamsul, to redeem the child.”
And Syamsurizal did precisely that. He prepared one hundred parcels of rice. When he took them to the “headquarters,” the cruel guards couldn’t escape. The baby changed hands. This was the last rice Syamsurizal cooked, because he closed his shop and took the baby back to his village at the foot of Mount Singgalang.
It was strange how Abraham had suddenly remembered that village at the foot of a mountain. He remembered an old man who welcomed him with open arms the moment he returned home. Even though, to be honest, he had never known where his father was, or where his mother was buried. But he gave thanks to God for the situation. Two old people who could prepare curries and beef rendang were as good as his own parents, weren’t they?
Abraham felt relieved. “I’ve found the missing link at last,” he mumbled. It had been a long, weary journey. He decided to telephone Cirebon. He imagined the special book he would write, to be launched on Tanamas’s seventy-fifth birthday—and, although the cane merchant didn’t know this, Abraham’s fiftieth birthday.
A gentle afternoon breeze blew through the window, ruffling the sheets of the draft’s white pages. It revealed a correction: the word “biography” had been crossed out and replaced with the word “autobiography.” His autobiography and that of his nation.
Translator’s Note: The story presents an allegorical history of Indonesia: “His autobiography and that of his nation,” as the final sentence states. The main points of reference are the PRRI regional rebellion in North Sumatra (1958–61) and the 1965 “Abortive Communist Coup,” as well as the rise and fall of President Suharto (1966–98). The nation is likened to a newly born baby, which logically has no history but in fact has quite a lengthy list of events to its name already.
© Raudal Tanjung Banua. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Harry Aveling. All rights reserved.
In this Indonesian science fiction tale, love is intergalactic.
There were big eyes everywhere in the darkness. Darkness that seemed to go on forever. Then every one of the eyes opened, dispelling the dark.
It was 11 p.m. at a distance of 25.3 light-years. The coordinate was fifty-seven degrees south of the constellation of Taurus. Tiansun stood idly facing in the direction of the enormous star, El Nath. His hands shuffled a broom back and forth, sweeping up the very fine dust scattered around him that a machine could not pick up. His job as sweeper of microdust gave him some standing at the ripe old age of two hundred and thirty-six years.
Tiansun scratched his head. There was no sound to disturb him. It was rare for anyone to pass him by and if they did, they never stopped to call out to him. But Tiansun hoped at least one satellite would use this trajectory. At least then he could stop it and order a coffee.
Coffee! He longed for a cup of coffee like the ones he had often had with Cen at the coffee shop on Aetos Dios Street. Tiansun liked the red of the glowing stripe on the ceiling there. The owner was a man from Ursus Major whose eyeballs would often pop out when he laughed too much. Sarin had thirteen eyeballs in his single eye socket. Just imagine if all thirteen fell out! Cen used to delight in the game of betting on how many you’d find.
Thinking of Cen made Tiansun feel all warm again, like the cup of coffee that Sarin had freshly made for him. Tiansun still remembered Cen’s embrace on the night of the meteor shower. The sky was drowned in the light from the trails of thousands of meteors racing across the sky from north to south. So many of them, crisscrossing each other, bright at first, but gradually fading until they died out in the darkness. Gazing at meteors like these made Tiansun remember how often Cen used to reminisce about her childhood. She’d tell Tiansun about her home on the blue planet called Earth. On Earth they didn’t have meteor showers like these, only swarms of fireflies.
What’s a firefly? Tiansun asked. Cen said that they were insects that emitted light like stars and could be seen clearly at night. Tiansun laughed when he heard Cen telling stories about creatures he’d never seen in his whole life. He tightened his embrace and kissed her on her rosy pink lips. Cen’s lips were so funny. As a being from the blue planet she ought to have blue lips. Not like him, who came from the silver planet and had glowing silver lips.
The sky was still dark, but Tiansun’s eyes had become accustomed to the darkness. He looked around him but was not really taking anything in. What was there to see anyway? Just like the deserts that Cen had often spoken of, Tiansun saw such things every day. The disappearing horizon, its far extremities invisible. The end that had no end because the end was unfathomable.
Tiansun swept faster. He had five more minutes to finish sweeping up the celestial dust. An hour had passed since he’d begun working later in the night than usual. He needed to drink some Koma, made from a type of dried fruit that had been ground up and made into a liquid. It had been forty hours since he’d last had any Koma. The other reason he had to hurry was his child would be waiting for him.
If Cen hadn’t had any sleep for forty hours she was not to be disturbed. She would close her eyes and you wouldn’t be able to engage her in conversation for hours. This aspect of Cen was very puzzling to Tiansun. He didn’t need to close his eyes because he didn’t have any eyelids. And why couldn’t you get Cen to talk while she was asleep, anyway? Since he’d known Cen, Tiansun had wanted to go to the village where she was born and meet her family. He imagined being with Cen when he was thousands of hon old.
But I’ll probably only live until I’m seventy-five years old, Cen said. None of my friends or family has lived to a hundred.
How many hon are seventy-five years? Tiansun asked.
Cen appeared to be thinking, calculating. About a thousand hon, she said.
Tiansun was puzzled. Some of my family are still alive at ten thousand hon. She did some more calculations. That would be seven hundred and fifty years. I can’t live that long, darling, Cen whispered.
Tiansun gazed at Cen, his face full of emotion. If I can only live with you for one hon, then I will love you for one hon.
Cen hugged him as if she never wanted to let him go. In the sky the meteor shower began its display. The night was never fully dark, like it was now. Because Cen was often homesick for the village, Tiansun had asked her to live in this place where the meteor showers were most plentiful. Cen would shriek with delight when the meteors began their race.
Falling stars! Falling stars! she cried gleefully.
Those stars aren’t falling, darling, said Tiansun, stroking her soft cheek. No star ever falls out of the sky.
I know, said Cen sweetly. But that’s what people call them in my village.
Tiansun kissed Cen beneath the dome of the meteor shower. The sky was afire with the blaze of the meteor trails. They were sweethearts who were madly in love. They were mere drops in an entire vast ocean, but Tiansun regarded them as a constellation of stars, connected to each other to form a figure in the heavens.
You’re romantic, said Cen, laughing. There is no one in my village as romantic as you.
And you’re funny, replied Tiansun.
From then on Tiansun always called meteors “falling stars’” and Cen always made Tiansun adapt to her strange terminology and calculations. Tiansun began to use years, months, days, and hours. He didn’t care that the laws governing time and place were different on his planet.
Tiansun groped around in his pocket and pulled out a circular object on a leather strap. It was Cen’s wristwatch. This was the marker of time Cen always used. In the place where she was born, several decades past, Cen would soon surely have been about to breastfeed her baby.
Tiansun cleaned his work tools and hurried off. The little red star, faintly visible in the distance, was like an eye staring sharply at him. He had forgotten nothing; it was all still so clear in his mind. He even remembered the faint scar at the tip of Cen’s curving eye.
You may be old in terms of years, darling, but it’s only age. Life itself is never old. Whatever can be the meaning of death, when life goes on for the one who has died. Don’t cry, darling, don’t cry.
Tears always made Cen look beautiful. Because Tiansun couldn’t make tears himself. His eyes were made up of hundreds of tiny dots. But those dots could construe images as clearly as Cen could with only two eyes.
There’s someone waiting for me in my village.
We call him “husband”—it means someone who can give you a child.
Do you want to go home?
Cen shook her head. I want to be with you until I die.
The Magnitudes arrived. It was a round vehicle encased in glass, whooshing by soundlessly and pulling up next to Tiansun. He vanished and reappeared inside the cockpit. As he was putting his broom away in the storage compartment, a liquid plate fell out, striking his hand. He picked it up and it moved in his hand, transforming itself into a map of the sky.
It was a picture belonging to Cen before she died. She had sent it to him so he would always remember her. The map in Tiansun’s hand was of the Milky Way galaxy. Tiansun read the tiny writing on the plate. Whichever way you look, look at the Milky Way.
Tiansun put the plate back into the storage compartment next to the broom. He went over to a small table and took out a dark-colored circular object, as dark as the sky outside. He shook it and placed it in his nose. Leaning back, he sucked up the Koma. It tasted so pure, so refreshing to his body. He didn’t move at all while he was drinking. His small ears were like furled leaves. The action of sucking up the Koma gradually petered out, as if Tiansun had sunk into unconsciousness.
The Magnitudes flew quickly, swaying like a playground swing. Tiansun’s daydreaming and the silence were one and the same thing. His body was warm from the Koma. An image of Cen came to him, along with her stories about dreams. People dream when they are asleep, Cen said. I always dream about you, even though my body is here.
The watch in his pocket went on ticking.
He heard a soft click and a faint vibrating sound. Tiansun opened his eyes. The Magnitudes had arrived at his destination. The screen before him showed a series of wavy lines indicating that the Magnitudes was sending a message in machine language. Tiansun understood what it meant. He undid his seat belt and in a flash he had disappeared. And all of a sudden he reappeared outside the Magnitudes.
Right next to him was a metal sign. Aetos Dios Street. A dim light shone from the café on the corner. Tiansun slowly went over to the café. On this planet clear yellow stuff was constantly dropping out of the sky, swirling around Tiansun’s head. Celestial dust. The locals called it al anz. Cen said, Al anz is like snow, but snow is white, not this pure yellow. The café was closed but from the window Tiansun could see the shape of Sarin moving back and forth. The door was suddenly flung open. Sarin’s warm smile made Tiansun forget how tired he was.
Has the shower started out there yet??
Tiansun shook his head. It will, any minute.
From the upper floor the sound of footsteps running down the stairs could be heard. A head with two eyes and silver lips appeared from the back of the café. She was carrying a little bag and some other things. Tiansun looked at the little creature before him, seeing an image that transformed into another person.
Let’s get home before the showers start, Zosma, Tiansun said. Say good-bye to Uncle Sarin.
Outside the meteor shower began to put on its show. The sky was luminous with millions of meteor trails. Tiansun pulled Zosma along faster. They disappeared and entered the Magnitudes’ cockpit. The vehicle swayed left and right but gradually stabilized, piercing through the bright shower of meteor rays and the silence. Zosma snuggled up to Tiansun’s side, groping around for his nipple. Her lips smacked as she sucked greedily on the milk. Outside the meteor shower was becoming torrential.
© Clara Ng. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Toni Pollard. All rights reserved.
Indonesian poet and cultural critic Nirwan Dewanto explores metaphors of geography and geology.
Geography is what our eyes can catch as far as vision takes them—to the surface of the earth disappearing beyond the horizon. We try to touch that surface, to own it, but in the end, what is high and what is low admits defeat to the sheer breadth of that expanse. Such relief is important only to state that horizontal motion is far more important. Rivers move from the mountains to the ocean. Mammals migrate in search of water holes. Humans move from the village to the city. The ash from volcanic explosions spreads to the outermost periphery.
Geography is perhaps the most naked embodiment of our lust to possess. Living space is directly proportional to the area of land we possess. Our country is situated across a vast expanse and the nation-state exists from west to east and not from below ground to outer space. A “landlord” lords it over the face of the earth and, when he gets real wealth, sets forth with a will to gobble up the lands on either side of him. And geography is the arena of our origins. My ancestors in West Sumatra and my ancestors in East Java did, in the end, meet in this earthenware pot known as Indonesia. My art is characterized by geography, is through geography, and becomes geography. Using geography, it’s easy to assign the roles of “our culture” and “their culture.” But we don’t have to own something in any literal sense. Our eyes are limited in their vision and unable to discern what lies beyond the horizon. And so we created maps. So we can gaze at the entire world. We now view the sweep of the earth’s surface from on high, from up in the heavens. So many horizontal movements are visible as to seem unlimited, so that really at any time what we are looking at is whatever we want to see. We are unable to see the commotion in all that movement, so we create—force—a certain pattern onto the face of the earth in order to see the changes.
In geography we recognize, and in fact create, center and periphery, capital and interior, progress and backwardness, and so forth. Through geography and for geography, we create resistance and opposition to the center and in this way actually reinforce the character of the periphery. The interior, including the literature of the interior, only occurs in the realm of geography: regions which can only formulate themselves when confronting the coast, which itself indeed often goes by the name of progress. The universal (including universal literature) and the contextual (including contextual literature) start from and end with geography.
In—and through—geography, I can say that Padang, for example, is an “enclave” which has been dynamic in exporting new names to the treasure-house of Indonesian poetry, and that Bandar Lampung did the same thing, at least up to seven years ago. I always wonder why I don’t meet North Sulawesi and South Kalimantan in our most up-to-date literary geography, while nowadays Flores is fairly writhing with vibrancy. In the current map of the arts of Nusantara, for the most part vacuums—very likely deserts, abandoned fields, or fecund lands covered over with poisonous brush—are ubiquitous.
But I am also aware that it is geography that makes some people spend their time readying for renewal, rebellion and opposition against “the center.” It’s as if such artistic creativity proceeds alongside territorial ambitions. What is “center” and what is “periphery” isn’t really wiped out; on the contrary, in cyberspace—on social media—everyone can make himself or herself something, something free from the old media networks. It turns out that the internet succeeds in reinforcing orality and all our pre-science talents.
I sometimes suppose that we don’t have the luxury of denying geography. Whatever makes me accustomed to living here and now is geography: I am an Indonesian who looks out at the whole world; or, I am a villager who is trying to extend my kampong—my village—across the sea or reach for other kampongs in this world.
My work is rooted in geography, in the society than gives me language. It is said that I’ll find individuality in maps of cultural diversity peddled by people from the past. When I realize that I am only writing in a national language, it is precisely geography that adds to its meaning. My literary language frames a living space, a shed in the zoo of world literature.
If the nature of geography is endless horizontal movement, geology is the effort to move downward, to uncover the strata that form the topography of today. Of course, this cannot be done in any absolute way. We’ll never be able to get to the interior of the earth except through interpretation. No tool can break through to that interior. On the other hand, geography allows us to make horizontal excursions as we please, whether in risky adventures or in package tours. If geography starts with enthusiasm and optimism, it would appear that geology is the opposite.
Geology may be a way of disregarding the self. As writers, each of us has painstakingly with sweat and blood given birth to work after artistic work. And because we have given birth to them, they are our spiritual children. So how can we not see the importance of those spiritual children and not record them in the history of national literature, for instance? But take a good look at the whole world. You’ll see that it’s an ocean of great works from the very beginning of the history of mankind. I am merely dropping those grains of salt I call my poetry, my books, and my very self into that ocean. So, what’s so important about adding to that vastness?
But perhaps we aren’t writing to add anything to this world. Writing is speaking, using language, breathing. Serving these verbs isn’t just the responsibility of the human organism; it’s our very nature. Seeing ourselves as unimportant will seem excessive, not only because doing that retards us homo sapiens in the evolutionary process, but also because it builds up the pollution that has gone from bad to worse. In that way, a poem that we write can add a void into the chaos of this world. And don’t ever suppose that creating a void is the same as not doing anything. The road to that void is knack, skills—“techniques.”
If geography makes us believe in whatever is on the surface, geology begins with suspicion. Our surface is not neat and tidy, or at least does not reflect what is inside. The earth’s strata of course only occasionally appear—are visible—on its surface because the face of the earth is most covered by the land and vegetation. But a geologist knows where there are outcroppings, that is, the rock bodies that appear before us. Our geologist will look for those outcroppings, characterize their types, species and tilt, and connect one with the other in order to produce a geological map or geological cross-section. This map or cross-section may be “disinterested,” that is, it merely interprets the genesis of the region in question, or it may be “full of interest,” meaning, it is hunting mineral reserves, hydrocarbons, and so on.
What I mean here of course is a metaphoric geology, as has been performed in the past. Psychology, to give an example, is a type of geology. It sees us as a stratification of the (un-)conscious. What the historian Denys Lombard did in his three-volume Le carrefour javanais is also a sort of geology: Javanese culture and civilization as the result of stratification—from top to bottom—of the cultures of the West, Islam, Hindu-Buddhism, and even farther down. We may also consider the “hermeneutics of suspicion” as geology: whatever is on the surface is always suspected of being the result of the work of some power, and that power was built by knowledge, or more precisely, the sediments of knowledge.
A poem is an outcropping. Or more simply, you could say that it is the tip of an iceberg, with its body the giant mountain of the poetic tradition that supports it. But the geology that I mean here will make you work a bit. A poem by Chairil Anwar connected with other poems is a geologic stratum. Underneath it, there may be the stratum of Amir Hamzah’s poetry. Then further down, the strata of syair and pantun, the stratum of Malay poetry. But aren’t there also influences of European and North American modernism contained in Anwar’s verse? And isn’t there also a degree of orality mixed in with the literacy?
In that way, you can devise a different “system” of stratification in Chairil Anwar’s poetry, one which can list all the traces of “influence” embellishing its content. You will be producing several alternatives. Let’s say you link Chairil Anwar and Amir Hamzah within one stratum, for example, a stratum of conglomerate or breccia—fragments of world poetry blended together in the matrix of Indonesian Malay. Because perhaps in this way you are going to pile another stratum on top of this one, perhaps that of the quiet “singing” of Indonesia, which then can underlie your own stratum, your creation, which will collect and hold all the ruins and relics of mass culture.
And you yourself, your “identity,” is also an outcropping. In the furnace of creativity, such an identity is important, not for being immortalized or exalted—as in “national identity,” for example—but as an object of suspicion. In the laboratory, in the ivory tower, when you write, what you possess is only a form of “identity.” If you are convinced that your “identity” is perfectly sound, you will then begin from inspiration. Like a prophet, you feel you hear a heavenly voice, a voice which you digest within you and issue forth again as your creation. In this way, your creation is “original.”
But originality is the gateway to mediocrity. So, for me, “identity” is a construct and there is no other road except to play around with, nibble away at, and subvert such constructs. I myself am also the result of stratification, the “system” of strata bequeathed in different ways. In my inner depths, various strata of rationality and “madness” pile up, one on top of the other. Supposing that stratification has an origin, it is the different types of “Indonesia” and “the world” which are piling up on each other by dilation, folding, metamorphosis and other geologic processes.
In this, geology would be the opposite of geography. In geography, people make themselves into Balinese, Javanese, and Minangkabau. Thus, Indonesian literature takes on the form of the Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park. Those who come from the Minangkabau lands will have—must have—Minangkabau characteristics; Riau, Riau characteristics; Java, Javanese characteristics, and so on. The place of origin and residence of the writer, the “color” and the spirit of the work are automatically linked. That is a form of essentialism, perhaps fundamentalism even. In geography, a person becomes an orientalist for himself or herself and his or her own tribe, so as to “conserve” that which is already called cultural diversity.
Geology provides the opportunity to act subversively toward—to make a sub-version of even!—ourselves. When I say ourselves, “our identity,” it is a form of outcropping, so we can form various “sub-versions,” that is to say, below-the-surface verses, our “identity.” In such a way, then, the geological interpretation would be a verb, an action word, the action of creating various strata of culture that makes it possible for our “identities” to emerge. Those strata emerge through various surfaces as diverse outcroppings that cannot be captured by geography. At the same time, you are providing the opportunity for different kinds of tectonic energy that can “ruin” that stratification.
In other words, geology is against the essentialism, orientalism, and fundamentalism bequeathed by geography. In essentialism, a person considers the surface as a limitless interior. Such a person lives with a stratum of origin that is endlessly reinforced. That is why, in the realm of our art, people are fond of speaking about “returning to the source,” “returning to our roots.” That way, a stratum of inheritance from our ancestors may be considered a wealth that has never stopped being exploited. But don’t we live with legacies from the entire world? With geology, we sort and re-sort those legacies, make them a “system” of stratification, demolish them, rearrange them, demolish them again and so on, to produce outcroppings that live.
In the never-ending creation of literature, the geology that I devise in this writing plays tag with the history of literature, the sociology of literature, comparative literature, and literary biography. If the four disciplines of literature which I have just mentioned are objective, then the character of geology is subjective. Objective: meaning the history of literature gives us a sequence, a chronology about the birth of the milestones of literature. The sociology of literature brings together literary works with their social environment. Comparative literature connects literature in diverse languages and cultural environments. And literary biography joins literary works with the lives of their writers. Objective: meaning knowledge provided by those disciplines is out there, outside of us.
We must draw that knowledge into ourselves and make it our deeds. Of course, knowledge often comes to us in imperfect fragments. As an aficionado of comparative literature, for example, I can only do distant reading or second-hand reading, neither of which may be done by a genuine comparatist. Or, as a believer in the history of literature, I am never confident that all the information of our national literature reaches me. Or, as a hunter of literary biography, I always want to “kill” the writer, because I am all too often suspicious of various phases in the creative life. Or, as a fan of the sociology of literature, I often consider reading socio-politics as useless or superfluous. Don’t literary works often betray the environment that gives birth to them?
My geology takes that fragmentary knowledge and makes it a part of myself. Comparative literature, for example, can give me a stratum of sub-version, so to speak, that I could not get from the history of literature. Just as an example, I can add strata of Brazilian or Polish poetry below or above the stratum of Indonesian poetry that has already been given by the history of our literature. If that stratification is too neat and never produces the results—those outcroppings!—that I hope for, I will add, for example, the intrusion of the literary biography of João Cabral de Melo Neto and Zbigniew Herbert.
Geology is also subjective in the sense that I can change my stratification “system,” whenever needed. At this point, I have to remind you again that making stratification is a meaningful act. At any moment it may be that we can slightly overlook the disciplines of literature to undertake stratification that is richer in the content of mass culture in all its forms. At another time, for example, if I want to write an “anti-lyric” about things, I only have to draw from the treasure trove of paintings and sculptures as the most important stratum or as a “destructive force” against the literary formations I already possess.
Geology subverts geography and all the traps of originality. With geology we discover our deficiencies and find substitutions for them in a variety of strata that work beneath the surface. In other words, geology is the means to perform within deficiency. The work of stratifying is how we filter and organize the bursts of knowledge and skills from this entire world to display outcroppings—works or products!—on the surface that is covered by piles of the soil of popular culture and the vegetation of oral culture.
Our geography promises diversity and decentering. However, our big cities which are economically “wet” continue to be bone-dry when it comes to the creations of art, science, and all the facilities that support those cultural works. The greater part of the provincial capitals are cities that are barren and that murder the public space. They are barren as well in a literal sense, that is to say, without wooded areas and historic neighborhoods. Our geography must have stretches of “land and water” that support a synthesis of the various legacies of the global past with the approaches for the future. As it turns out, our geography is noisy with praise for the “Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park.” With geography, culture is merely something that keeps our ancestral heritages dust-free.
In the endless work of creating the arts and literature, you’ll have to be supported by a healthy geography. My city and your city “normally” have a network of libraries, museums, art centers, communities of artists and scientists, universities and public spaces. In short, networks of education and culture. Yes, there should be these. Nonetheless, we have none of them. But, oh well, never mind! We have worked on poetry, books of poetry, biennials of literature, and communities of the arts. In the past, you might have said such products were like oases, perhaps because you wanted to root these deeply in the surrounding environment, maybe even the long-parched national environment. But, as I said above, our geography is laden with “territorial ambitions” and new orientalisms.
For me, those products are outcroppings in the midst of an expanse of that soil of popular culture and vegetation of oral culture. If you want poetry to be deep-rooted, for example, you can only do so in a culture of writing, which, sooner or later, will “betray” your primordial heritage. To formulate a writing culture and environment is to formulate the origins of your literary work. But origins are many: the history of national literature, your “identity,” “world literature” (meaning the foreign literary works that you read), the orality around you, the environment of your regional dialect, and so forth. All of that helps give birth to your works. At this point I must remind you that in the midst of a general discourse dominated by geography, the efforts to find origins fall easily into orientalism and essentialism. Geography forces you to be heroes. And just when you feel you have found “a perfect identity,” linked with the ancestors, you are, on the contrary, facing a “culture” that is hostile to writing. For me, the only way to avoid that trap is to plunge into the wide world, into the seas of knowledge and skills which the world has bequeathed us.
But our “identity” is so limited. We aren’t “world people,” only “kampong folk.” That’s why we choose whatever is the most meaningful and make that the strata of meanings linked to our “kampong” nature, a nature that exposes itself on the surface which is covered with mass culture. But the “stratification” of that meaning can expose itself in other realms and present other natures as well.
Geology organizes those strata of meaning and knowledge and directs all of it into outcrops to spur on future knowledge. When we find seepages of crude oil or gold ore on a surface, for example, geology will tell us all that is just “tricks.” That is, the real wealth of that reserve is not at the coordinates of that seepage, but far beneath the surface of other coordinates, unimaginable ones. Geological exploration is the act of suspecting outcroppings to find the body of rock, the rocky layer that goes on to other outcroppings, a layer which just might contain reserves of a resource at some unknown depth, beyond the surface that we straddle.
I have devised this metaphor to remind us all that the “wealth of local color” is only that seepage of petroleum, while the reserve of its creativity—the reserve of petroleum, metaphorically speaking—is actually beneath a surface which absolutely does not hold that seepage. Petroleum only leaks bit by bit through fissures that of course do not “stand upright to the sky,” to borrow a phrase from the novelist Iwan Simatupang. And so, “the Javanese heritage,” “the Minangkabau heritage,” “the Balinese heritage,” the from-wherever-heritage will find abundant and renewed reserves of imagination beyond the geography already painted by our forefathers.
"Geology" © Nirwan Dewanto. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by George A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
In this second installment of Sang Young Park's novella, a failed filmmaker finds himself onstage with his archrival. Read the first installment here.
When we opened our eyes, we were lying in a single bed. Wangsha was the one to let go first and turn to me. This isn’t what I wanted. He seemed conflicted. Then, he spoke firmly.
I’m not that kind of person.
What kind of person is that?
The kind that does it with men.
He hadn’t wanted to do it. It had been a mistake.
Wangsha looked confused. He said he didn’t have anything against that sort of thing, but he was a very ordinary man and had a girlfriend before he was conscripted. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself. He wasn’t even paying attention to me. He said he needed to shower and left the container. I sat up in bed and looked down at the place we had just lain in together. I had the slightly bitter taste of Chanel perfume in my mouth.
Wangsha treated me no differently after that. He smiled at me, patted my head, and sometimes wrapped his arm around my shoulders. But if I reached for his hand first or came up close, he would always stiffen and back off. The sight of his rigid, rejecting back made me feel like he was bounding away from me. But I couldn’t stop my eyes from traveling to him. I began learning more about him as I stared. The shape of his left eye as he squinted in the sunlight, the curve of his tanned neck, the color of his veins when he rolled up his sleeves, the way his cheeks rounded when he smiled. I bet my feelings reached out for him through my expression, my attitude, from my entire body. Like a rice cooker giving off steam.
There were days when my emotions boiled over. The hardest thing was when there were just the two of us.
One night, we returned to the barracks and lay down in our respective beds. Wangsha went right to snoring like always. His perfume kept piercing my nose. I couldn’t sleep. I tossed my pillow this way and that, but it was useless. My heart pounded louder than Wangsha’s snoring. I got up. I tiptoed to Wangsha’s bed. I saw Wangsha’s face thanks to a tiny shaft of light that shone from the window. Wangsha slept with a slight frown. His body, curled against the covers, was as familiar as my own. I came up to him really close and paid attention to every detail of his face. A face I dared not stare at too much in the daylight. Thick eyelashes and a long nose, high cheekbones and small, slightly parted lips. I touched his lips with mine. My lips grew slightly warmer whenever he exhaled. I slipped my hand into his shorts. His genitals fit into the curve of my hand. My breath was getting rougher so I stopped breathing. His genitals grew harder and warmer in my hand. I couldn’t tell whose heartbeat it was at my fingertips. Wangsha’s snoring ceased. I took out my hand and stood up. Wangsha’s eyelids were trembling. I flung open the barracks door and ran outside.
I didn’t know where I was going, I just ran. I felt like every step pushed my feet deeper into the ground. A cloud of dust obscured my vision. But I kept running. I had to run somewhere. Beyond Zaytun. Beyond Iraq. Somewhere far enough where I didn’t have to look upon him anymore. I wanted to run out of myself, out of my own thoughts of him. But I couldn’t. My legs gave way and I fell to the ground. I lay in the sand for a long time. Tears flowed down my face. Tears of hate, shed for only me.
When I returned, Wangsha was the one who rolled up my trousers and cleaned up my bleeding knees. It was hard to watch him kneeling in front of me, disinfecting my wounds. It would’ve been easier if he’d pretended to see nothing. And why the fuck was he being so nice? Didn’t he know what I just did to him? After he applied the band-aids, he sprayed my ankles with relief spray. Now my body and his hands smelled of the same medicinal scent. That was probably the only time in our lives that our bodies smelled the same.
When I woke up from dozing, the movie was making a break for the end. I sat up and started listening to the exaggerated enunciation of the actors.
Do you think it’s really too late when you think it’s too late, Yunhee?
The realization is always too late. That’s just the way it is.
The man left the room. The woman, alone, opened the window to the attic. Through the opening of the window, the sun slowly began to rise.
The credits went up, the lights went on, and I noticed I’d drooled a bit on the chest of Wangsha’s muscle shirt. Wangsha pulled down his shirt, as it had ridden up quite a bit, and wiped away at the drool with a wet-nap. I said I was sorry and pretended to throw myself at his feet in repentance. In any case, I was in trouble. I hadn’t watched the movie, so I didn’t have anything to ask at the Q&A. Desperate, I asked Wangsha about the plot and his impressions of the film. Wangsha gazed at the screen with moist eyes as he spoke.
It’s the epic story of a woman who realizes her true love is not to be.
It made me want to punch him in the face. What the hell was I going to say about a movie that looked like it was designed to lull its audience to sleep? Posterity would’ve been fine if the film had been locked away in an archive forever. Mija gestured to me to come on down. A few audience members squealed as Daniel Oh took the stage. Mija gave me two sheets of questions: clichéd, superficial questions, obviously written by her. Mostly about the social media darling Daniel Oh rather than the movie. I’d basically been hired to kiss his ass. Too late to back out of it now. I took the microphone, put on my perky-dude-from-sales smile, and bounded up the stage. We stood side by side as the audience stared at us. I spoke first.
Please welcome Daniel Oh, director-turned-social media star!
Loud applause. Oh bowed low and sat down, crossing his legs and gently gripping his microphone, looking leisurely and professional, and like an asshole. I also sat up as straight as I could and moved away from him as much as possible so my head didn’t look so goddamn big by comparison. I started mechanically reading off the questions on the sheets.
You said in a previous interview that this was your favorite movie. Why is that?
Maybe it’s the caution with which it handles human emotion, how it dares not speak its name and yet tries to look as closely as possible? I’m moved by the sheer effort that went into all of its tiny, seemingly insignificant details. I think that such details ensure there’s no convergence into a single interpretation, giving the characters a rich life and texture. I’m on the side of doing the same thing myself.
But isn’t that the exact opposite of what you do . . .
I thought I’d said it under my breath, but it had come out louder than I thought. Part of the audience laughed. Director Oh spoke, in a somewhat befuddled voice.
Really? I thought I was doing something similar in my work.
Aren’t your latest works a bit on-the-nose? A bit, well, easy. Uh, no offense, I mean, you’ve got to lose a bit of character when you’re focusing on the narrative. Your movies are so quick and fun. That’s why I thought so.
I was actually using the words he had said to me six years ago. Oh replied, I guess another person might see it like that, and smiled like he was a good sport. But there was something off about that smile. I continued reading him the meaningless questions on the sheets, and Oh replied with his characteristic condescending voice. The audience looked like they were getting bored of him, given that he wasn’t as interesting as his social media posts. I bit down, trying not to yawn. Mija had changed since she’d been in school. I wondered whether it was because she’d been in a corporate setting for such a long time that all her questions were so basic and dull. There was one last question.
What do art and the creative act mean to you?
Oh seemed to ponder this for a moment before replying in that fake-sincere manner of his.
Typical bullshit disguised as cutting insight. A few audience members coughed out surprised bursts of laughter. Oh seemed to enjoy the reaction while transparently covering up his pleasure. He spoke, in an overdramatic manner.
Certain masturbatory emissions are worthy of documentation.
He went on about the similarities between masturbation and creativity, and what exactly constituted a masturbatory emission worthy of documentation. There was nothing special about his perspective, which boiled down to his saying, if he took a dump and called it art, it was art. The relationship between art and humanity, the communication between experience and artworks . . . The longer he droned on, the more people started getting up to leave. Despite his rambling finally coming to an end, there was still twenty minutes left for the Q&A. I had to make shit up now. I pretended to look down at my notes and secretly Googled Oh’s name.
Oh’s latest film was Salvation, a film that opened two years ago. I remembered downloading it as soon as it opened in theaters. It was your usual Korean melodrama with a sprinkling of gratuitous pedophilia on top. The film appropriated the pain of social minorities by objectifying them, and I felt the same discomfort as when I saw his supposed queer film six years ago. I scrolled through the filmography and came upon news results saying he had been appointed to sit on the ethics and human rights committee of a progressive political party. In recognition of his warm gaze upon the plight of the needy or somesuch. Uh, sure. The most recent articles had nothing to do with filmmaking and everything to do with P, that idol-group boy he was supposedly seeing.
Oh was sitting there with a lordly expression. I slipped him a question about the rumors. The mention of P’s name brought short screams from the audience. Oh tried to deflect the question by giving us his thoughts on P’s group’s latest song. I knew better than anyone else that Oh was not gay, that he was just using these rumors with P for more clout on social media. That’s the kind of person he was. A heterosexual who used homosexuals for his own ends. Undaunted, I kept asking him questions like when did he first meet P, how often did they meet, what did they do when they met, and what kind of stuff did they talk about. The audience finally began to liven up. Oh was panicking. He tried to shut me down by saying his private life was his own business. His voice was firm but his eyes were trembling. Mija, who was sitting in the front row, looked more and more pissed. I wondered what question I could ask him next and noticed a book of his tweets sitting in front of me (it was a prize to be given away at the end of the Q&A). I handed it to him and asked him to read his favorite tweet.
They’re like my children, I couldn’t possibly choose between them.
Pick the masturbatory emission that you felt was most worthy of documentation.
I’m not a professional writer or actor. I’m not used to reading aloud.
He sure took his time finding the right tweet. Finally, he dramatically lowered his voice like some Shakespearean actor and started to read. Somewhat drama-school-ish for someone who just said he wasn’t used to reading aloud.
Certain inverted nipples drive me crazy . . .
My laughing into the microphone created a feedback noise. I switched it off and turned my head. Giggling like a boy going through puberty, when I was almost old enough to have a kid going through puberty. I tried to prevent my shoulders from shaking in laughter. I pressed down on my breath so hard I felt my blood pressure rise.
I couldn’t get off the stage for a long time after it was over. Oh’s fans who had stayed behind had massed onto the stage, looking for an autograph. As part of my ass-kissing job, I dutifully received Oh’s assorted gifts and bouquets and neatly added them to a stack before putting down a fresh sheet of paper in front of Oh for him to sign. The last woman on the line got Oh’s autograph on her copy of his book and, as if feeling sorry for me, got my autograph on a crumpled receipt. I bowed to her as she turned away. Thank you so much.
The afterparty was at a sashimi place nearby. We ordered soju along with our flounder and cuttlefish. I got drunk enough to loudly proclaim that certain cuttlefish were worthy enough to be documented. Oh was the only one who didn’t laugh. Instead, his face red, he asked me a question.
So what are you doing these days, Director Park? When I search your name, all I get is the fencing champion.
I’m writing about crazy people who drink a lot. Like us right now!
Oh poured himself a cup of water and sneered at me.
So how come I’ve never seen any new films of yours?
I’m writing a screenplay.
For six years?
I don’t want to rush into it and gain a reputation as a hack and a one-hit-wonder, like some people.
Mija, who sat next to me, refilled our shot glasses and gaily butted in.
My how our esteemed directors must’ve missed each other! Talking about ancient history and everything.
The skills of a solid six-year veteran in corporate. I didn’t say anything and downed my shot instead. Oh wasn’t one to lose so he downed his own shot.
Director Park, you haven’t changed at all. Especially that rebarbativeness that comes out when you drink.
But you’ve changed a lot, Director Oh. Like your name. (Also, your wrinkles, and your hair is falling out.)
Everyone changes. Oh yes.
Had he been a village elder in a past life? His delivery of the obvious in that fake wise voice was the same as ever. I could feel my face heating up. I poured Oh another shot, with all the hate in my heart. The rage I felt six years ago was clawing its way to the surface.
We were at the afterparty for the First Diversity Film Festival. Drinks at some meat grilling place in Hwacheon, Gangwon Province. It didn’t take too long for diversity to break down there.
Mija and I were supposed to jump on a train to Seoul as soon as the closing ceremony was finished. But then Mija’s acquaintance Q told us there was going to be a little afterparty near the movie theater and we might as well get some free drinks before we leave. Since we’d never had free drinks before in our lives, it didn’t take much for us to go along with the plan.
The place was huge, and the smoke ventilation wasn’t working well. In the haze sat Oh, me, Mija, an old critic named Kim who was one of the judges, another judge, R, and the program director, Q. They all seemed to know each other except for Mija and me. We sat like still-life fruit and quietly filled the others’ glasses, or accepted it when someone filled ours. Critic Kim’s face was red with drink as he tried to console me.
Don’t feel too bad, Director Park. You’ve basically won second place. If this were Cannes, it would be the Silver Bear!
Yes, sir. (Um, you mean the Berlin Film Festival.) Thank you.
Q agreed, speaking in an obsequious tone. Mr. Kim is right. We’re just so hard up in the art film world, otherwise we would’ve given Director Park a prize, too. I cried when I watched your movie!
Director R placed a hand on Oh’s shoulder. But Director Oh definitely deserved an award. What a masterpiece he bestowed on us.
Piece of shit, more like. Oh’s prizewinning movie was a disaster. Some innocent guy runs into a gay man and they have sex like dogs. He feels unsure about his sexuality and feels affection for the gay guy but (of course) ends up being used. The guy, having failed at love, sells himself at host bars. He fucks a series of anonymous men before being randomly gang-raped by a bunch of heterosexuals and kills himself. How moving. Watching the movie made me 100% sure that Oh was straight. Straight directors are all about the exaggerated nailing of the ass and slobbering ridiculous kisses when it comes to depicting gay sex. Oh’s movie fits the bill. I mean, the characters even cried after having gay sex. Why the fuck would two guys who love screwing guys cry after screwing a guy? Not only was I sure Oh was straight, I doubted he knew anything about straight sex, either. His movie was seriously objectifying, its tropes more fit for an 80s artifact than recent work. Critic Kim said the film beautifully showed a relationship between two people of the same gender and brought up homosexuality to the level of universal love. They all talked about ordinary people and what was universal like they knew exactly who these people were and what exactly was so universal. I had no idea what was so special about gay love, and I was actually gay. Jesus, straight people ruin everything.
I’m not saying your movie was bad, Director Park. It’s just that, I don’t know. The gay parts weren’t realistic.
Huh? What do you mean? (On my part, I’d basically filmed a video diary of my life.)
Think about it. The characters are too happy. They have no depth.
Yes. The characters claim they’re gay, but they have no deep well of the soul. That makes no sense.
What in the actual fuck are you talking about?
I don’t know about people your age, Director Park. But people my age have a hard time accepting gay people who accept their sexuality. Isn’t that a bit naïve of you? Why would a socially isolated group use such language?
Q, who had been sitting silent, interjected in a polite tone.
I agree. I had the same point. And all the people in your movie seemed like they were crazy with sex. Like, oversexed, you know?
But when we watch movies about straight people having affairs, we don’t accuse straight people of being oversexed, right?
Critic Kim intervened.
Look, Director Park. Don’t take this personally. The thing is, your film doesn’t have that special point. That . . . thing that makes queer movies queer. You don’t quite have the right idea about gays, you know what I mean? Their love story is just like straight people’s! Your film is all about young people going out and drinking and dancing and having sex.
What the fuck was up with this point shit? Were we playing tennis, or something? What did they want from me? I pressed down on my anger as much as I could before replying.
Good. I wanted to make a film that was more or less about young people drinking and having sex.
But if that’s so, why make it a queer film? Because queer films are trendy?
I didn’t make a queer film. I made a love story.
Look at this kid. Should I call him modest or bold? He’s using the gays like some commodity. Hey, all you’re trying to be is some cheap version of Hong Sangsu.
So according to his logic, queers needed some kind of point to be in a film, something acceptable to his idea of ordinary people. And any character that just drinks and fucks is a rip-off of Hong Sangsu. Me? Hong Sangsu? Name one Hong Sangsu movie that doesn’t feature a single female character. If I were cutting limbs off in my movie he’d call me Kim Kiduk, if I were murdering some character in a room with pretty wallpaper he’d call me Park Chanwook. They were never going to take a single step out of the small world they knew so well. They knew nothing about queers. How could they? To them, queers were just a bunch of people who did sad and weird sex. They couldn’t imagine ordinary, cheerful queers, and if they had met one they’d think they were made-up. They never thought of queers as ordinary people. I could almost feel the veins popping in my eyeballs. I downed shot after shot. Mija gripped my arm, tightly. She was telling me to quit it. I remembered how my nickname in film school was Trigger. Because a flick of a finger would set me off. I downed the last of the soju and began to shout.
So if anyone drinks or fights in any movie ever, that’s a rip-off of Hong Sangsu?
Hey, calm down. You know Hong Sangsu already said all there is to say about drinking and fighting and having affairs. Are you saying your films are better?
Oh butted in.
Look here, Director Park. Critic Kim is saying your movies are too simple and easy. OK?
What did you just say? Are you saying my films were easy to make?
I don’t know about that but come on, they’re shallow. You don’t even know how weird it is that gay characters would be so upbeat, so casual about their problems. Are you sure you thought the issue through when you planned it?
And do you know anything about gays yourself, Director Oh? Have you ever even seen a gay person?
Of course I have. I worked at a gay bar to prepare for this movie. I did my research. And that’s what made me realize how empty and futile their lives were. They drink every day, they do drugs and have sex with anonymous men. If you knew what their lives were like, you wouldn’t have made such a shallow film where all they do is joke around and laugh.
Please shut the fuck up.
What the fuck did you just say?
Shut. The. Fuck. Up.
You little bastard!
I don’t remember who it was that flipped the table. The restaurant erupted into chaos, and Oh and I had grabbed each other by the lapels before being kicked out. Critic Kim, film festival judge, vowed that I would never be able to eat lunch in Chungmuro again.
As Mija dragged me out of there, I shouted again and again that I would never lose, that I would prove myself through my work, that my name would shine so bright those bastards would never utter it lightly. I proclaimed this again and again.
It didn’t take long for the vow to become meaningless. Critic Kim didn’t need to lift a finger; I fell apart on my own. Since that night, I couldn’t finish a single script, queer or whatever, and soon it was hard to tell if I’d ever had anything to do with films at all. Maybe I was always ready to sabotage myself. And all my dreams, my hopes, my determination, all that it had been drinking from was a single well of baseless confidence.
And now my life is like I’d picked the worst of everything for myself. My creativity was depleted before it started, I barely made minimum wage, and I was a thirty-something going around illegal downloading sites, searching for “desiring sleeping muscle boy.”
© Sang Young Park. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.
This issue started with a question that sharpened to a point in the autumn of 2017, when a neo-Nazi organization was given a permit for a protest that would begin outside the annual Göteborg Book Fair. Leading up to this moment was the Book Fair’s controversial decision to yet again allow Nya Tider (New Times), a far-right extremist publication, to exhibit on the convention center floor. Debates raged for months and months in Sweden, as well as in Finland, the 2017 guest of honor at the fair. And among the questions raised, the most prominent became: Whose story gets to be told?
Watching the events around the Göteborg Book Fair unfold—the discussion of the limits of free speech and humanist values; the authors making the decision to attend the fair or boycott it and what either action meant in terms of resisting anti-democratic forces; the sudden emergence of independent book fairs organized in protest of the Book Fair’s decision and in hopes the Fair would change its mind—prompted me to evaluate my practices as a translator.
Taking a line from Kira Josefsson’s essay in the Women in Translation Tumblr, “What Does it Mean to Choose to Translate Women?”: As a reader, I read to see the world. As an author, I write about aspects of the world that I want people to see. My debut novel, Permission, published this spring by Coach House Books and Dialogue Books, tells a story about Los Angeles and BDSM that I haven’t found elsewhere. It’s about grief and healing, community and care. You can also just read Permission as a love story about a failed young actress set on the L.A. coast, but along with other questions, the desire to illuminate and explore an often misrepresented part of society fueled this project. As a translator, I have mostly translated literature by women, among them Lina Wolff, Karolina Ramqvist, Lena Andersson, and Katrine Marcal. These authors question the shape of society and the assumptions we make, with a particular interest in sex and gender, language, economics, and power. Until Göteborg 2017, I felt content with the contribution I was making as a translator: being part of addressing the gender imbalance in publishing, expanding the reach of contemporary voices who are doing important work with regard to feminism and economic inequality. After Göteborg 2017, it felt necessary to expand my reading, with a view toward expanding the scope of the authors I champion when I talk about Swedish-language literature in the Anglosphere. Taking stock of the currents and concerns running through Swedish-language literature in Sweden and Finland—two countries often idealized when viewed from abroad—felt urgent. This issue offers vital dispatches from parts of those societies. This is a glimpse at the realities behind the idealized image, colored by moral fortitude, being forerunners in gender equality and environmental matters, not to mention the idea of a welfare state that catches people before they have a chance to fall. There are great pleasures to be found by escaping into a fantasy of endless forests, red summer cottages, sparkling lakes, and archipelagos, but it’s not the full picture. For some, this fantasy may resemble reality, but my aim here is to broaden the view.
A personal inquiry has shaped this project, as well. Two generations of Vogel women have immigrated to Sweden: my mother as a young woman from Austria, then my sister and me from California, where we were both born and raised, Swedish passports in hand. We have no family in the North in a traditional sense, but this is a place we call home. And yet, it never felt self-evident to call myself Swedish. I’m still unsure why. It has something to do with moving to Sweden as an awkward, naive teen, but I know there’s a more complex answer, one I’m still trying to figure out. In part, the Sweden my family returned to wasn’t like the one my mother had first encountered in the Sixties. Her stories had quite resembled the fantasy idea of Sweden, and added to that fantasy, the place she described was full of people from around the world who had found a home there. Some had come as refugees, others, like her, had simply fallen for the North. I think I assumed that I would arrive in Sweden like a new tile ready to be added to the mosaic. Instead, I felt like a foreign object, always on the outside. Until I began working as a translator in 2013, belonging never seemed like an option for me. I moved away, hoping to find a place where I felt like my presence made sense.
Translation was an inroad to Swedish culture and society, turning my position as someone who sits between cultures into an asset. In carrying literature across borders, some sense of “Swedishness” became available to me. Via the relationship I’m building with Sweden through my work (as well as other factors, such as age and experience), I’m finding ways to feel like the word “citizen” is available to me as well. I think back to my Swedish-as-a-Second-Language classes in ninth grade and remember how dismissive the teacher was of a boy in the class when we were talking about folklore in our countries of origin. She shared stories of trolls in Sweden, accepted my tale of blood-sucking chupacabras with a sort of bemused nod. When a Gambian classmate shared a story about voodoo, told with great seriousness and eyes full of fear, she responded with a scoff. In that moment he seemed to shrink, and was never quite the same in that class. The difference in how the teacher received our stories revealed to my teenage self a cleft in Swedish society, which became more apparent as time went by. If it was this difficult for me to imagine myself as part of that society, what was it like for my classmate?
In researching this issue, I read with Swedish literature as my starting point, with a view of complicating what that meant. First that question led me to certain authors and stories, then it led me to works in the Swedish language, which is also one of the national languages of Finland. Fenno-Swedish literature deserves a close look of its own with a focus on its particular social, cultural, and political context, and here we only have a taste. As a translator, it felt important to acknowledge that when we speak of Swedish-language literature, we are not only speaking of literature from the country of Sweden. Including Finland-Swedish writers is also a nod to how political borders shift, how language and culture moves, and the complex human history of migration that disrupts any notion of a stable and self-evident idea of a “nation,” providing a counterpoint to the exclusive visions of the far-right.
“Belonging” is a theme that the writer Johannes Anyuru has explored throughout his work, and it is in his most recent novel They Will Drown (which I am translating for Two Lines and will be published in fall 2019) that I have found the title for this introduction and the common thread of the issue: “Who Dreams of Us?” In They Will Drown, which examines the run-up to and aftermath of a terrorist attack in Göteborg, one of Anyuru’s characters recounts a conversation between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde.
“James Baldwin and Audre Lorde were in conversation once,” she said. “Baldwin said something about the American Dream, that both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had believed in it, in spite of everything. Something like that. Then Audre Lorde said that no one had dreamt of her ever, not once. No one dreamed about the black woman except to figure out how to eradicate her. (…) I wondered if that’s what it was like for Muslims in Sweden today.”
The question “Who dreams of us?” is another side of the question of whose story gets to be told. It rises from feeling unseen, unheard, unwelcome, of trying, in the words of the American activist Rachel Cargle, to exist in a world that was not built to support or acknowledge you. With this issue, I hope to encourage readers to expand their ideas of Swedish-language literature, and beyond this body of work, ask themselves how inclusive their dreams of this world are.
The eight writers in this issues—Johannes Anyuru, Linnea Axelsson, Balsam Karam, Mara Lee, Nino Mick, Adrian Perera, Mathias Rosenlund, and Andrzej Tichý—will give you a taste of some of the currents running through contemporary Swedish-language literature and will hopefully inspire further reading. Many of the writers’ concerns overlap with themes that have been at the forefront in the US and UK: inclusivity, poverty, identity, representation and stereotypes in literature. I’m grateful to the writers for allowing us to share their work.
Words Without Borders was an important platform for the early development of my career in translation, and it felt natural to seek out translators who were early in their own. Some of the translators are like me: a few books and a few years in. I like to think what unites Christian Gullette, Kira Josefsson, Alice E. Olsson, and Nichola Smalley is a thread of activism. They approach translation as an art, craft, and career that sits at the intersection of politics, storytelling, and language. Olsson’s work as an academic and translator has a particular focus on human rights; Gullette examines intersections of categories of race, masculinity, and sexuality in contemporary Swedish literature and is also a poet; Smalley has turned a comparatist’s eye to contemporary urban vernaculars in Sweden and the UK; and Josefsson’s writing bridges American and Swedish contemporary political-cultural landscapes as she keenly examines how language can shrink and stretch, and what it can hold. They were a dream team of translators. I’m grateful to them for these fine translations and their dedication to this project.
As far as the pieces in the issue, allow me to begin with what I have been searching for since I started working as a translator in 2013: a story about the Sami, the indigenous people who live in the northern parts of Fennoscandia. When this story finally came across my desk, it was in an unexpected package: a seven-hundred-page epic minimalist poem. Linnea Axelsson’s Aednan (2018, here in my translation) is a multi-generational saga about a Sami family, reindeer herders by tradition, that explores the legacy of Swedish eugenics and colonialism and the plundering of the land. It is exceptional and reads like a novel.
Balsam Karam first caught my attention on an episode of Hysteria, writer and critic Sara Abdollahi’s podcast about women and creativity, when she discussed the aesthetics of solidarity, Marxist feminism, and menstruation in literature. Her 2018 debut Event Horizon (jointly translated by Alice E. Olsson and me) was a critical success that announced the arrival of an extraordinary talent. In "the Outskirts," a community of undocumented mothers and children, a young rebel leads an uprising, is captured and tortured, and chooses martyrdom in space over execution on earth. Like many other Kurds, Karam's family was deported from Iraq to Iran in the early 1980s; they fled during the war and settled in Sweden when she was seven.
Johannes Anyuru is the exception to one of my organizing principles for the issue: he has previously been published in English. When translator Kira Josefsson brought me his lyrical essay “Alhambra” (which is interspersed with letters from Sara Nelson to her dying mother), I had to relax my rule. First published in the literary magazine Glänta, it is essential reading for our time. Moving from the Stockholm subway to jazz to the Alhambra, Anyuru explores Muslim identity. You can read his 2012 novel, A Storm Blew in from Paradise (World Editions 2015), in Rachel Willson-Broyles’s translation.
I’m particularly excited to have the chance to publish Finland-Swedish writers Mathias Rosenlund and Adrian Perera. Rosenlund popped up on my radar after a 2015 Helsinki edition of Literary Death Match, and I’ve been following his writing ever since. In this extract from his 2013 memoir Kopparbergsvägen 20, Rosenlund lays bare the realities of class, poverty in one of the most prosperous countries in the world, and being a writer against the odds, while grappling with the sense in his pursuit of the writing life.
Adrian Perera’s essay about living “in a city that tolerates people who want me to die,” attending 2017 Göteborg Book Fair, and the desire to flee your own skin, published in Hufvudstadsbladet, the highest-circulation Swedish-language newspaper in Finland, brought his poetry to my attention. White Monkey (2017, in Christian Gullette’s translation) is a searing narrative collection about growing up in Finland with a Sri Lankan mother and a Finnish father, dealing with everyday racism and “well-meaning” comments. The moment in this extract that strikes me the most—perhaps because I want to believe we are past such thinking—is when the “I” of the poem meets with a publisher who says, in effect, that certain Danish and Swedish poets have already filled the box that they can imagine him in, specifically referencing the celebrated Swedish-Iranian poet Athena Farrokhzad (White Blight, trans. Jennifer Hayashida, Argos Books, 2015). This passage, as Perera has pointed out, shows the publisher operating on the assumption that the general public "will only read the poet as someone who writes about racism, and that market is limited." In a biting twist, when the poet asks what else people are writing about—what’s new?—the publisher responds with three stereotypical themes in literature from Finland: the archipelago, the Winter War, and alcoholism. These lines speak to how the imagination of another can be so flat, whereas the imagination of self can effortlessly contain multitudes. And we should not forget: how we imagine the market shapes the market.
In Twenty-five Thousand Miles of Nerves (2018, extract also translated by Gullette) Nino Mick echoes this theme of contending with ready-made boxes. In their autobiographical poem about their visits to the Gender Identity Clinic, Mick (who uses the nonbinary singular pronoun) skewers the absurdity of bureaucracy in matters of identity. Are these categories even relevant anymore? Can we embrace complexity? How can we support each other?
Finally, we arrive at Andrzej Tichý and Mara Lee. Lee is one of Sweden’s finest intellectuals and writers on desire. In this extract from the lyrical poem Love and Hate (2018), Lee depicts, with touches of Anne Carson and Maggie Nelson, a run-in with neo-Nazis on the beach in Sweden in the 1980s, and how the fact of having been identified as “other,” and the corresponding fear that triggers, find their way into an encounter with a lover later in life. In 2017, I read Tichý’s expansive, splintered novel Kairos, which moves between critical moments of crisis in history to explore migration and how history is rewritten, and was overcome by his technical virtuosity. When I began researching this issue, I found that Tichý’s Wretchedness (first published in Sweden in 2016) was forthcoming from And Other Stories, with Nichola Smalley’s translation capturing the extraordinary music of his prose. It is a raging novel about the flood of memories unleashed by a cellist’s encounter with a young homeless man that looks at the people contemporary Swedish society has disavowed. I’m thrilled to be able to share an excerpt from his debut English-language publication.
Over a year has passed since I started working on this project, and much has happened since. Aednan won the 2018 August Prize for Fiction, one of Sweden’s most prestigious awards for literature, typically awarded to novels. Two Lines decided to publish Anyuru’s August Prize-winning novel They Will Drown. The Spanish rights to Karam’s novel Event Horizon have been sold.
The 2018 Göteborg Book Fair has come and gone. In the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, the Fair’s new director, Frida Edman, was shown in a reflective mood, having emerged from the crisis of 2017 with a promise that Nya Tider would not be allowed to exhibit again, and a commitment to keeping the focus of the Fair on literature, education, and reading. Two of the independent fairs reappeared. Scener & Samtal (Stages & Conversation), an outspokenly political nonprofit event, returned independent of the Book Fair to the World Culture Museum for a day of programming. In 2017 “Bokmassan,” (a play on the Bokmässan, Swedish for “book fair,” that turns the word for “fair” into “the masses”) organized by publishers ETC and Leopard, drew 10,000 visitors to a tent in Göteborg, and in 2018 it returned to the show floor with a program of talks themed “Hope.” Shortly before it was to be held, the city of Göteborg cited security concerns and stopped the Alternativ Bomässan (the Alternative Book Fair), whose main sponsor was Nya Tider, from being held.
The events around the Göteborg Book Fair were a welcome reminder of the power of protest as a tool of change—and a reminder that our voices matter, the stories we tell matter—but the questions raised around the Book Fair in 2017 are far from resolved. The tensions it laid bare are still running high. The 2018 Swedish elections gave us more to untangle, not least in the increase in far-right representation in government.
The ache that runs through the Baldwin passage cited earlier is reflected in each text here. It’s a sense that these authors are writing inside of and to a world that is not built to support the lives in the stories they tell, a world that refuses to see them or hear them, or that doesn’t know how. I hope this issue offers new ways of seeing and listening, and in doing that, expands the dream of “us.”
© 2019 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.
Linnéa Axelsson’s August Prize-winning epic traces Sami history in the twentieth century.
Vass Valley. Fall 1920
(Aslat the dead)
You left me
on the Swede’s farm
alone and wrapped
in my large kolt
I didn’t stay there
One fall and one winter
we cried together
Then you joined
the herd and
As for me I spread
my kolt into wings
and flew away
from my body and
I couldn’t stay
Where I had fallen
never to rise
Did you feel me Father
blowing across the sea
Didn’t you hear me
Among the sea birds
when you arrived
with your summer-fattened
I was the lone
strand from the reindeer’s coat
gliding across the surface of the sea
in the bay by
the reindeer’s swimming spot
And the pretty hill
in the fall-summer sun
Where the herd
had to find its own way
down the rocks
Until thick fog rolled in
And it was
impossible to see
the pitch of the slope
I was the forest
around the great
in olden times
Where your lead reindeer
cleaned its horns
Did you feel it Mother
in your hand
that long while you spent
milking the tame cow
who then disappeared
among the trees
To search for lichen
and mushrooms and lick
urine from the ground
I was the weight
in the stone you brought
back from the coast
to place on
One stone each summer
you carry home
to the winterland
Nila and you
Mother you caress
that scar on my
as though it were a
whisper from me
Because I once
threw a wooden log
that hit right there
Nila when I fell
to treat me
as though I
The same old
while my head quietly
wanted to roll back
deep between my shoulders
Nila did you feel that
I was the movement
under the boat
in the mountain lake where
Mother and you
spread the nets
Did you catch
in the eye of the storm
I stood on a branch
my legs were like
When the wind bent
back the yellowing
I saw strange mountains
with roaring rivers
And I flew over
the boat and called
There will be rain
there will be rain
Dápmotjávri. Aslat’s grave. Karesuando Cemetery.
the Lapp Bailiff came
The ruling language
ran over us
impossible to pronounce
They pushed in
through our clothes
coated our skin
The needling gaze
a rain through
all that one loves
Dirty were we
living with dogs
followed after livestock
Bread so tough it
made your teeth fall out
baked by our women
In the midst of the breeding grounds
with the darkening sky
To hold forth
cows in heat
He had a message
from the three
Far away from
the reindeer’s world several
families had been selected
We had to start forcing
our herds to graze on
We were to be driven
from the forests mountains
Migration paths and songs
had to be stifled
stricken from memory
The herd’s memory
the reindeer calves’ legs
led us home
Now they would be born
on other lands
Now each step
homeward in autumn
was a departure from
My brother and the others
said farewell to the trails
Never again would
we sit on the island’s slope
where the ocean smoothed
where Aslat once
had learned to walk
With this my stomach
tied itself in dark knots
from all the colors
And we tried
to scare off wolves
we traveled fast through
Then I was again
at home in the winterland
dwindle gray between
In the birch forest
across the ice
was a group of cots
With pillars of smoke
where you were waiting
the graveyard walls
by Aslat’s grave
I took your hand
you had an
infected wound above
Silent you placed
the last stone
from the coast
on his grave
had to be held
And the familiar
of a freedom
in the sea
I said that I
hated the reindeer
but needed them
We have to leave
For the sake of work
and the herd
Here he would
While we were being driven
from our homes
Then you said:
What kind of home is it
where no one dares say
our son’s name
Aslat is forgotten
Only his fate
But you promised me
that his head was resting
safely in his grave
were not allowed to be
And the bells
We were called
to a church weekend
One last time
meet our own
Because now it was full
It was full of
people in the village
Karesuando church village. Winter 1920
The Swede’s fingers
all inside my mouth
across the floor
it was because of my
that the traveling doctor had come
With hard tools
he measured me
in every nook
I could tell that the
was taking shape
on their papers
Using royal ink
the racial animal
of our obedience
my home-sewn belt
My breasts hung
their distaste blazed
I saw how they
all the while
My friend beside me
was quick to help me
on with my kolt
Then she quietly translated
about what we did
Over the doctor’s shoulder
And I heard him
say in Finnish:
The way their men drink
makes God cry
and the Devil laugh
And the shame
took root in me
because of my dark hair
Outside the barn
my friend’s daughters
for their treatment
And my poor Nila
was fished out
from where I don’t know
A camera was pointed
until he just
sank through the floor
I watched them trample
with heavy boots
were dragged out and they
sat down on him
I noticed how big
not a child anymore
there he stood lost
and mute among their
He should come
with us to the institution
said the doctor
my body obeyed
And I went up
to the men
and pulled the weak one
from the Swede’s grip
From Aednan. © Linnea Axelsson. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.
Swedish poet Mara Lee encounters a menacing pack of men on a deserted beach.
Skåne August 6, 1986
I left my bike in the usual spot, by the farthest electrical box, before the dead-end street turned into the woods. Yellowing needles fringed the bending planks leading through the pine grove and down to the sea. You could hardly breathe for the heat rising from the ground. Down on the beach someone had pitched a tent. A Swedish flag was swaying outside it. Four pairs of black boots were lined up in a tidy row at the front of the tent. Beer cans were scattered in the sand.
I lay down at a distance. My pastel green dress gave off an unnatural glow. It was steaming in the heat. I kept it on. It took seven minutes for them to notice me and another minute before one of them started heading in my direction. The sun was in my eyes, but I could see the air around him vibrating. He was older than I was, sixteen, seventeen maybe.
Pale calves, black military shorts. His eyes were swimming, veiled, but there was a spark deep inside. Diamond shards. I clung to that dim sparkle.
His loose grip on the beer can. White undershirt, angular shoulders, and an armband. He squinted at me, swaying in the wind.
Blood or soil, he asked.
Neither nor, I replied.
A bird dove from the treetops, skimming his head, causing him to falter.
Lukewarm beer ran out on the sand. Harsh laughter was carried by the wind. He swore under his breath, mouth ajar.
He repeated the question. His knuckles were white as chalk. I clenched my jaw and repeated myself.
I hadn’t moved the entire time he was standing there blocking my sun. The soles of my feet were turned to the sky. My back bent, a tense bow. My elbows sank deep into the sand.
Do you live here? he asked.
I nodded and pointed behind me, past the pines. He was crushing the can.
Were you born here? Is your mother Swedish? Your dad?
I shook my head.
But what in the . . . you have to be something.
He was clearing his throat, as if getting ready to spit, when his legs gave out under him.
Shit, he said and dropped to his knees.
He propped himself up on one hand, in the other was still the beer can. His face was close now. I could smell the stale beer. Right across his left eyebrow, a scar white as chalk. He noticed my identical one and pointed at our split eyebrows, smiling.
Suddenly he whispered: Nothing is your fault, you can’t help this.
He gestured oddly with his hand, as though he were trying to bat away and take hold of what he was seeing: me, I. The tense, unmoving bow I’d become. I barely dared nod or shake my head.
Wait, he said, getting back to his feet. He stumbled across the sand and called out to his friends: She’s like us!
The sun was almost directly above the beach and its glare on the sea was unbearable. My eyes tracked his slender back as he slunk toward the tent. He had a hard time staying upright. When he arrived, he leaned against one of the tent poles and pointed in my direction. Voices carried by the wind. Teenage voices, roars.
With each blade of light that shot up from the sand, my jaw tensed. I knew they’d come over here soon. There were four of them. On the secluded part of the beach, it was only me and them. Now the sun was murderous. It splintered against the sand and sea. They would be here soon, it was only a matter of time.
Seconds passed. My head booming with sun. A half hour passed, and I saw them take off their undershirts and walk to the shoreline. They were up to their knees in the water. Then they waded out, one after the other, their arms held high. The very next second they were floating in the waves. Their clean-shaven heads glinted in the sun. Hot winds singed my cheeks. I couldn’t wait a second more. I felt the sweat gathering in my eyebrows. The unendurable burning spurred me on. I knew it was dumb.
Slowly I walked to the water. The ocean drew a great, burning breath. This was when everything wobbled. But a whole beach quivering with sun was behind me, driving me forward. From a distance I saw his small pale mass surrounded by a blinding halo of light and ocean spray. I didn’t hesitate, I threw myself in. Embraced by cool undercurrents. With determined strokes I swam toward him.
Surprising him from behind. I let my fists rain down on his shoulders. I would never have dared had I not seen that he was helpless in the water. It’s just a game, I panted, when our heads were both back above the surface.
His mouth kept filling with cold water, and he fought for air. Maybe it was just the shadows on his face, but it looked like he was laughing.
Wait, he said between breaths. He tried to do the same to me, pushing my shoulders underwater, but he was too busy keeping afloat and I glided from his grip. I allowed myself to sink to the bottom while running my hands along his hips underwater. His legs were flailing. The skin stretched taut across his belly was bluish in the water. I let him believe he’d caught me, weaving my fingers into his for a moment, then tearing myself away. But I didn’t swim off. Instead I swam around him, inspecting the weakening body flailing. I touched him: his arms, his wrists. The inside of his underarms weren’t smooth, but ridged. As though etched by white lightning and stripes. Tiny fizzing bubbles rose up around him. I pulled him downward. Sank with him. My heart was about to burst. The oxygen almost all used up. I had to tear myself free, but I couldn’t. I wanted to sink a little deeper still, hold on, a tight grip on his wrists.
I swam as long as I could underwater until I was a fair distance from him and his friends. With my head back over water, I heard a chorus of voices. They were calling a name. Cracked, jittery teenage voices. I kept swimming until their shouts were swallowed by the wind, until I heard new sounds. Children playing, cries of joy. Adults admonishing. The peopled part of the beach. The one without currents.
My legs were shaking as I emerged from the water. The hot sand burned the soles of my feet, but I kept walking. Away from the beach, the sun, the blinding shower from the sky.
On the bike ride home my head was pounding and my hands shook. But I wasn’t afraid. I’d glided out of his grip. All I could think of was the under-sea sound. The hum of its water again.
Just because it paled doesn’t mean it disappeared.
Just because it hurts doesn’t mean it isn’t nice.
It sings, rises, a fiery call.
He did something to my insides
Each night a return, I bend deeper.
Us, he said, deeper and deeper.
Raging I begin again, a new take, a new end.
His grip on my shoulders, I tear myself away,
move in circles around him, unfold, slip free
Then my desire to touch what is blinding, joints
This is where it goes wrong.
As soon as I take hold of his wrists he starts to sink
can’t help it, I want
to touch what cuts and carves, blinding white streaks in
straight lines. Us. Linger. Brush up against each resistance.
I hold on
I promise, I press and sense only this, us
let us go down
together deep down
And I will show you: under the sand
is but stone
Recurring are the reflections from the surface of the sea as viewed
from beneath, his head not resisting the currents
a youth sinking. He’s wearing black
swimming trunks black-red armband, moving his hips
not actually swimming.
He’s already as undressed as anyone can be.
Balancing his undressedness between his wrists’ tender
almost imperceptible movements. There. Bind it. Hold fast.
Preserve the charge, the bend.
Saltwater and foaming waves.
The youth is pale, slim
down there a white light pulses
I don’t hold back, I could throw something back
sever something and stop breathing
I bind what can be bound, want to hear him
say wait —
again and again. Nape of his neck, wrist, hip
He moves barely, in earnest now
a concentrated jerk of the neck
the arrogant bow of his lips
I realize that they have to be pale it’s 1986
I realize that in 1986 they have to hate
I want it and want it more
my gleaming gray fixation
give it up, bend him backward, give it up and
I spell it out: it’s a dark word
a dark word sinking
d o n ’ t s a v e u s
This is what we are.
She crawls across the bathroom floor. It is full of sand. She
is not a child but she looks like a child. Sand in her hair
and mouth, knees on cold ceramic tiles. She spreads her legs,
a wide angle. The shadows falling across her back
aren’t from who’s standing above her, who’s standing
stiff and observant, but are from something long ago.
History. The word. When his gaze falls on her back
the words start mumbling again. When he presses
her cheek to the floor—gripping the back of her neck—her throat
it pounds. Everything left unsaid, the silences the keeping quiet.
All that has been muted becomes moans.
Half-sunk against the bathroom floor blocking
her airways, and her voice sounds like it’s breaking
when she tries to ask him to either keep going
She wants him to cover her mouth.
She wants her screams to slip between his fingers,
while looking at his white lines, etched in narrow rows
across his arms.
Her back bends into a bow. He’s going to do things
Instead of words, hands.
Instead of hands, the back of the hands.
The darkness is ours, and the word. The word that runs along
“Interludium,” from Kärleken och hatet, © Mara Lee. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.
The leader of a resistance movement chooses death in outer space over prison torture.
It could have been any year at all—once again—chestnut trees flamed like lanterns over the gates to the wharf in springtime and settling along the beach was a haze that broke in and lifted up the water colored pink to spray the sky.
The city lay stretched out flat and weary and like other summers it let itself be driven to a way of breathing other than its own; the roar of the sea, white and foaming, lapped the strip of sand to the pulse of the cruise ships and along the avenues the cafés were putting out their tables and opening their parasols once more. Docile, the beach stretched out beneath the tourists’ white feet, dragged between dense stalls selling soap and whisky, and the tired, bored vendors stood by their carefully stacked goods and smiled. This one? I’m practically giving it away, how many would you like?
It was to this place that the mothers and, later, the children of the Outskirts used to go; to this market where they under the arboreal shadows that framed the promenade unfolded a towel and took out crocheted washcloths in green and pink, long necklaces of crushed china and colored glass, and one or two trivets made from odd books, bottle caps, and metal lids. Here, madam, feel this—the softest cotton and linen, crocheted and dyed by hand. I’m practically giving it away, how many would you like?
At dawn, first the mothers and later the children too would mount the Outskirts’ single broken bike in order to spend three days and two nights carefully unfolding the towel by the promenade and placing out necklaces and washcloths.
As the third night drew near, the mothers and children would pedal all the way back in the safety of darkness and when they finally arrived at the foot of the mountain they’d help each other carry the bike up the slope of the Outskirts and in among its homes. There, all the other mothers were waiting with tea and sugar—with bread, butter, and coffee if there was any—and with freshly washed shirts for them to change into.
It was either very late at night or very early in the morning.
It was early enough for the children to be up but far too late for them to want to sleep, and just as the children resumed their game—waiting, watching and running to the edge of the slope to see if anyone was climbing it—the sun rose over the mountaintop in a blaze of blue and green and so the day began.
Yes, the children and sisters of the Outskirts waited for their homecoming and welcomed them with heated water and mango found among the rubbish and cut into small pieces over the fire. The moment they’d washed away the city dust and wrapped towels around their bodies, those who had returned were fed the fruit, now warm, which they carefully took in their mouths and rolled under their tongues. By then they had not eaten for a day and a half and hoped to get something more to eat after a good night’s sleep, here in their home, here in the shadow of the mountain that rose black against the red sky in the afternoons and right next to the ditch that purled and bobbed brown and green past the houses of the Outskirts. Here, at home, embraced by their own, with tea steeped over the fire and by the sides of houses where the morning sun made its way to warm the walls of corrugated iron and tarpaulin stretched between the houses.
Later, when the Outskirts had found a second bike to use, the mothers and children who either pulled the cooler fully packed across the beach or spread out their necklaces along the promenade in the evenings would pedal to town together, and there would be more of them who carried things there and more who carried things back, more who picked out fruit, milk cartons, and what bags of onions they could find in the dumpsters, and more who ganged up when cars with windows rolled down suddenly slowed and stopped across the street.
It could have been any year at all; autumn came later than usual and took the place of winter and the water pipes were extended and the tap was switched out in accordance with Milde’s terms and conditions. In the morning the Outskirts waited to hear news of Milde’s imminent space flight and thus sat down in clusters to eat whatever was at hand around Essa’s portable radio turned up loud. Had she left yet? Where was she? Would she come here to visit beforehand? Who was holding her captive? The mothers and the children continued to gather for months until news of Milde had ceased and Essa no longer got up in the morning and no one dared knock on her door asking to borrow that radio. One morning the children who were waiting for Essa in the school would no longer put up with having an absent teacher and would troop to her door. Come now Mother Essa, it’s enough now the children would say and Essa would lift the tattered rag from her eyes and sit up on the mattress.
It was the year of the departure and of sleepless nights in the pool—meals and coffee breaks in the dining room of a spaceport and the body which either laid itself down at its own feet and gave up, or stretched out on the floor, trying to remember.
Milde ate when she was supposed to and slept when she was supposed to—went on walks when she was supposed to and showered as she pleased.
The women Milde had gotten to know at the spaceport and who invited her for tea and cake in the staff room, nothing more than a kitchen with five broken chairs and a window cracked open onto the courtyard, kept telling her how much they admired her and how they wished her luck. Milde would look at them and say: I’m doing it for the sake of my sisters and for the Outskirts. So that for once in my life I may dissolve into surroundings that resemble me, and to once again live in the hope that somewhere out there is a world that wishes me well. A world that wishes I were there.
Of course I can travel up into space and die, why not? I’d rather die in the depths of a black hole than wait around to be executed here, if you see what I mean. I’m doing it so that I can lean back and for once rest without a knife or the lid of a tin under my pillow and if only for one day not have to look at those same white faces wishing me harm.
Of course I can travel up into space and die, why not? I’d rather die there than continue to be at their disposal here if you see what I mean. I’m doing it for the sake of my sisters and for the Outskirts—for the children and the slope and the cats’ yowling just as it’s time to sleep and the mist is pressing against the roofs; I’m doing it for the sake of the washing lines and the washbuckets, and for every tap in every place where taps rust away but damn well keep working, do you see what I mean?
The women would put a hand on her shoulder, push the coffee pot across the table nodding silently. They would hug her again when she got up to leave and visit her with tea and cake in the evenings. You’ll not go to bed hungry they would say and Milde would nod and say thank you.
The nights were longer at the spaceport than in the prison, she didn’t know why.
The body that for eleven years had been missing its left eye and both index fingers would look at its broken nose in the mirror at night and trace a hand over its collarbones. It would trace the stub of its finger over deep scars on its arms, legs, and stomach, and in the glow of the bathroom light slowly count them as if to then be able to set them aside.
The body would try to remember how the dungeon smelled and what the body looked like when after eleven days it was finally allowed to rinse off the menstrual blood that had run down its thighs and caked like darker incisions across its calves and heels. Milde would try to remember how painful it was and how pain was measured back then, according to what measure and why, and how come she no longer measured pain that way.
Milde remembered that the places of torture were connected to the houses where the prisoners lay on a damp prison floor and, cold and stiff, placed their hands under their heads until they went numb and woke them up.
Across one such prison floor, where the prisoners had blindly crawled their way forward in order to find a corner in which to piss and shit, Milde too had lain curled up with her legs against her stomach and tried to fall asleep, this she remembers.
The places of torture, and where Milde was later woken by her numbing hands and sought out the corner where she’d pissed before so she could piss there again, were just below the prison floor she was making her way across in the dark, scraping her body against it. She crawled over to the wetness in the corner, squatted and wiped her hand across the wall for lack of clothing on which to dry herself.
It was in one of the rooms below the prison floor that she had sat awake on a chair for five days and five nights begging to be allowed to go to the toilet, she was menstruating.
Milde had said: I need to piss and I’m menstruating, let me go to the toilet.
The blood, ebbing and flowing, had run out of her and dried, she had writhed in the chair and gotten nowhere.
When finally she pissed herself she was released by the guard who then undressed her and wiped the floor, darkened with urine and soiled deep-red, using her shirt and pants, which were frayed at the knees and hem.
The guard had then picked up the stained clothes and dressed Milde again, lifted her back onto the chair, and pressed her body, now cold in the wet garments, against the seatback, hands cuffed behind her.
After that he would only approach Milde in order to undress her, wipe up, and put her clothes back on. Ever colder and now more bruised she’d slide in and out of his grip and again and again slip down to the floor and stay there.
When the guard after impossible to say how long had come over to clean up what she had strained to hold in and that had spilled from her loose and pale brown, she had screamed that she’d rather be naked, they could leave her as she was, let me freeze to death, don’t dress me again, don’t dress me again you asshole do you hear me, you make me sick Milde had screamed before she was met in the mouth by the butt of a rifle and collapsed.
Later she had woken up to the stench of herself and then to the absence of all sound. This is what it was like to face the dungeons and this is how all the sisters with whom she later shared a cell would remember it: they’d opened their eyes in the dark and had found nothing, closed and opened them once again, and again had found nothing.
In the dungeons where initially each was kept on her own, their ulcered fingers had searched their faces from mouth to eye socket—pressing into their wide-open eyes to assure themselves that they were there—and let those hands fall once more.
The prisoners had said something, to test their voice, and heard nothing. They’d repeated what they’d said but louder now and still nothing.
They’d stuck their fingers in their mouth and felt their tongue, counted their teeth and wiggled their toes. They’d run their hand across the bridge of their nose, asking if their nose had always been like this and in that case for how long, run their hand across their hair, asking if the taste of blood had always been so pungent and in that case since when.
The prisoners had lain down to sleep on the damp prison floor and pressed their nose against it, tried to sniff out the source of the damp and whether the overspill from the drain ran down the rough walls; they had wondered if someone had been in here before them and in that case who it had been, and whether they were still bleeding menstrual blood or if the blood came from elsewhere.
It wasn’t until the cell doors had been pulled open and something had been thrown inside—first bread, then water in bottles hitting her body—that Milde realized some of her vision was still intact.
Afterwards she’d searched for the crack in the door for days on end—crawled up to it right when it was time for the door to be flung open—and aided by the light tried to find what gave a contour to her gaze and allowed it to navigate.
To begin with the prisoners would always shut their eyes and in this way hold the memory of the door crack for longer inside them, bringing it to life between turns and trying to imagine that somewhere out there was still a sky and a sun, a sandy beach, a sea and cats bounding down the paths cut by mothers and children who fell into each other’s arms and did not wish each other harm.
After a while they’d realized they could turn away from the door right as the key was shoved into the lock so as to let the light reveal to them something in their cell; the floor and ceiling, how small they were, the corners and cracks, what was there.
The prisoners had let the light from the crack in the door illuminate the cell and so they knew where to go to eat and where to piss—where they should be to avoid the impact of the water bottles against their back and ribs, and where they should lie down to sleep when nothing but sleep could help.
Milde remembered that in the places of torture the light could sometimes be tinged with blue and sometimes with a dazzling white that stopped her eyes now accustomed to the dark from functioning. Later she was unable to summon the vision of any other light as clearly and had on some nights, still dazzled, difficulty sleeping. When one afternoon between coffee and coffee she told the women in the spaceport about the changing color of the light they all created their own memory with which to connect it. One said the morning my mother left me on my own and another said when I was seven years old and got lost in the rooms of the hospital where grandmother was on her deathbed.
Milde said: In the torture room there was a marble floor, gray and white concrete walls, and a steel chair that made the body conduct electricity.
She remembered that her body was always damp and that she’d fallen to the floor many times. She also remembered the interrogations and her back-bound hands, how the policemen inhaled, cigarettes between their lips, and blew smoke in the prisoners’ faces, stamping lit cigarettes on the prisoners’ nipples then forcing them to scrub the wounds clean with soap and water.
It was said that Milde was behind the uprising, the first to suggest arson and the one who had long been agitating the Outskirts’ children and mothers; she had been seen on site and was said to be the one who’d procured the rifles and who’d refused to name her collaborators. That is why they stubbed out a cigarette in her eye right before the end of the final interrogation and she was carried to a cell where twenty new sisters were waiting, and dropped down among them unconscious. She was forced to remove the cigarette herself and after twelve days the whole eye using a pair of nail scissors someone had managed to smuggle inside, then didn’t know what to do with the eye and finally called the guard over and placed the eye in his hand. The sisters in the cell had held her head in their arms, pressed her chest as if to make her hold her breath and handed her the nail scissors with care. Milde had in fact held her breath and then collapsed, had let her hair be caressed with slow, soft strokes and stayed with her new-found sisters for eleven years.
Holding her tray in the cafeteria line at the spaceport Milde would look at one of the servers and say: Once I ran across the mountain with a rifle slung over my shoulder and at dinner time my foot slipped and I fell into a hollow. It wasn’t high up, but there I was, stuck for hours all the while the sun licked the sugar cane fields and stung my eyes. Do you know what that feels like?
Milde would say: In prison I found a second home with other sisters and other mothers and when they called me to the isolation cell someone else always stood up and said “here I am” and followed the guard out. And they threw Sabina in the isolation cell and they threw Marisol in the isolation cell and they threw Silvia in the isolation cell time and time again. And when one day they called Sabina to the isolation cell I got up and said that I was her and gladly followed the guard who didn’t notice that my left eye and both my index fingers were missing. Do you know what that feels like?
“Event Horizon” © Balsam Karam. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Saskia Vogel and Alice Olsson. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt, a group of musicians debate the glamorization of violence and drug-dealing in rap music.
We should go, said the guitarist after a while. I don’t know how much time had passed, but it was enough for the full realization to hit us that there was nothing we could do, nothing at all. We saw the paramedics come and deal with the body, someone else was looking after the driver, and several times I was about to open my mouth and say something about how I’d met that guy before, just a little while ago, just before you came, by the canal, by the police station, but for some reason I couldn’t manage it, didn’t know where to begin, from which end, from which sensory impression, and now the guitarist was silent, too, and the composer just said Jesus, and fucking hell, a few times, and we walked to Central Station, bought our tickets, and took the escalator down to the platforms. We drifted down and I felt like I was having to shout to make myself understood, even though the guitarist and the composer were standing right next to me, so close I could hear them breathe, hear the swishing and rustling of their clothes. This is how things are, I thought several times, more or less involuntarily, and without even knowing what that meant. This is how things are. This is my life. It has to be this clear and simple. This tyrannical. The tramp is dead and I’m the only one left. Then I thought, still on the escalator, going down and down and down, that it was idiotic, that my thoughts were idiotic, that I was an idiot. And we got on the train, in silence. The guitarist got out his phone and started tapping at it. I looked at the composer, she closed her eyes and sort of massaged them, rubbed her fingers against her eyelids, and I took the chance to lean my head back and close my eyes too, my hands resting on my lap as the train glided across the Sound. We got off at Nørreport and wandered across to the cathedral. The guitarist said something about a car accident he’d been involved in where everyone had escaped with their lives, and the composer showed us a scar she’d got when a car she’d been in drove into a motorway barrier. We reached the church, paid the entrance fee, and sat right at the front on the left-hand side, each with a program in our hands. Then Christoph Maria Moosman entered. I turned around, looked up at the organ, and could just make him out as he sat down at the manual. He began to play Pärt’s Annum per Annum and everything seemed to close in, filling with weight and levity, the room expanded and contracted as though it were breathing, and I breathed with it, and a few seconds into the first chord’s powerful vibrations I breathed out, before holding my breath for the rest of the minute the chord sounded. Then it ebbed away, and I drew breath, deeply and noisily, much too noisily in the quiet church, as though I’d been underwater and was now struggling up to the surface, up to the oxygen, just as the pause, the silence, was at its most intense, and when those first weak, light, playfully searching notes began to sound I couldn’t help once again thinking about Soot and about that last night, about what I’d done, what I was, about Kiko and Rawna, about that bus, on that roundabout, that circular motion and the centrifugal force that pushed me out towards everything with such satanic power. We were supposed to be going out and having it, as we used to say, and we’d chilled at Kiko’s, and then onward, met Dima, Becky, Argo, Saima, Fernanda, I don’t know who else, Hansson maybe, Zoltan, Vadim, and were heading up to Elsa V’s to get some shit, do a quick job for her. We dropped one there straight off, but had to wait an hour at least before she let us in, seemed there was a lot of people passing through, a lot going on. She gave us the gear and we took off in search of Slovak, the Bulgarian. A few evenings before, I’d been sitting in Arben’s crappy Mazda 323, with its driving ban, waiting for Hansson who was running around trying to sell those nine-bars from Christiania, and the radio was playing some new song by some new rapper and Arben said to Kiko, who was sitting there grooving and nodding along, that he hated those fucking gangsta fuckers, as he put it, that whole thug style, he said, what even is that, ey hey yo waddup, man’s glidin in the whip, he mocked, the screen’s all tinted, guy’s fuckin minted, let’s go, shorty’s so damn wet, with a retarded expression, suit’s got three stripes, but my cock’s so crooked, nigga speak real funny, all this coke got me cookin, and we laughed and I said cuz dem bars is on fire, but he was being serious, said damn I fucking hate them, I swear, I mean actually living that life is one thing, not saying nothing about that, but bragging about it, chatting shit that way, tricking the kids into thinking everything’s cool blingbling, it’s bullshit, man, it’s totally wack, no joke, and Kiko thought he should calm down, it’s just music, he said, but Arben said it’s more than that, it’s advertising a lifestyle, and anyone who’s seen that life at all knows it’s ninety per cent stress, he said, and I said he’d just said it was better to live that life than to rap about it, but that’s not what I mean, he said, you know yourself it’s ninety per cent chaos, but Kiko said hey, what you chatting about, per cent this per cent that as if you work in a bank or something, course it can be stressful but there are quiet times too, admit it, who gives a shit if it’s not bling, but Abbe insisted, listen man, ninety per cent panic, he said, believe me, all night long when you’re on your own and can’t sleep and your mates, your fucking brothers, could stab you in the back at any moment, for nothing, and not even for the cash, not for some tinted whip, man, for nothing, just coz they’re scared and tired too and they have to play the fucking game, honest to god, Tony Montana this and that, such fucking thug chat, I can’t even hear it, has anyone ever even seen the whole of that film, don’t they know how it ends, and I said: You think you kill me with bullets? I take your fucking bullets! and Kiko was bent double with laughter and told Arben he should become a politician, or work for Save the Children or something, don’t you realize it’s art, bro, music, and what you’re saying’s not true, loads of people tell you how bad that life is, rap about stress and suicide, even Biggie and that lot did, but you know what, they have to be hard and real at the same time, you know, they have to have respect from the streets, and Arben opened the window and spat. Real, go fuck your mother, he said, this is real, and then he pulled up his shirt and showed us the scars under his arm, but I don’t go round acting like some fucking monkey, and Kiko grinned and said yeah yeah, bro, you’re hard, but you’re no gangster, you’re a fucking small-time thief, man, a bike thief, and you’re getting old, fifteen-year-old kids rob you, so don’t take this the wrong way, bro, but who’s gonna rap about that, about being stressed out and poor, unemployed poly-addict, failure among failures, you get me, brother, I mean, just look at your car, man, not exactly an ad for your lifestyle, and Abbe looked pissed and said we could get out if it was so shit, and just when I thought they were gonna start fighting for real, Hansson turned up and said the guy didn’t want to pay and also we were probably being watched now coz that fucking idiot didn’t warn us. And surprise, surprise, we got stopped by the pigs three minutes later. They lined us up by the nursery school, right in front of the kids and staff, all staring, frisked us and searched the Mazda. They impounded the car but none of us were carrying anything, so they had to let us go. Then we rang Dima, who came after half an hour and drove us home, he dropped me off last and that’s when I found out why Arben had been so pissed. His dad had got his sentence and was going down for eighteen months. I thought I’m gonna cheer him up, so I rang and said mate, I’ve got a bottle of Bacardi, want to pick up some Coke and come over and have a few, estilo cubano? He laughed at me and said stop being a dick. I said what? He said he couldn’t be bothered, he was going to drop a few benzos and watch a film or something. Estilo cubano, he said. You’re totally thick in the head, man. Two hours later Hansson rang. He’d sold the nine-bars. Time to get paid, bro. Are you in for the next round? And I didn’t really want to anymore, but I thought about the first time we’d gone over to Christiania to buy up the stuff and everyone was there apart from Marko who chickened out, we’ll get banged up, he said, and if we don’t get banged up we’ll get taxed by one of the big guns. We said your loss, man, more green for us then, and then everything went fine, no problem at all, and we made a bit, not that much but still, you know, a bit extra, while he had all these different jobs: official, unofficial, legal; but he was still poor and trying to get his grades and all that and in the end he went to some club to chill out, but this psycho-bouncer started hassling him until Marko flipped out and then he got five or six months for aggravated assault. I went in to see him the first week he was there and he said he regretted fighting back, said it was pointless, you always get it wrong, regardless. Then I’m suddenly standing there in front of Elsa again with the team behind me. What’s up? She looks me in the eye, then at the faces surrounding me. You’ve brought your friends, she says. New faces. As long as they’re halal. Dima giggles with nerves. I give Elsa the money. She’s got her tiger face on. She casts a glance at the notes, folds them once, and stuffs them in her pocket. I reach out my hand. The others giggle too. Thanks, I say, a little too quickly, before she’s given me anything. Same to you, she says, taking my hand in hers. Enjoy responsibly. I put the bags away and the wraps the kids had folded for her. Then she gets out the big packet and a dark blue rucksack, she passes both over. Give this to Slovak and he’ll give you the money. Be careful. You can go out that way in a minute, the others have just gone, she says and points to the door in the back. Thanks, I say. Yep, you already said that. Relax, it’s cool. She grins and turns around. She has a big scar on her upper arm. It says DOOM on her top. We go out, and then into the club again via a door guarded by this absolutely enormous guy with an Ivan Drago hairdo, black polo shirt, and a fat gold chain over his shirt. Want something to drink? Becca says to me. Nah, it’s cool, I say. Then she tells me about this guy who’d tried to play the hero. He’d come by a little money, she says, said he wanted to take me out to dinner. We went to some place, kind of like a falafel joint but a bit nicer, with Persian food. We ate this beautiful rice he liked, then he said he was going to take care of me. He promised, you know, all formal. I’m going to protect you, he said. He told me with him I’d never come to any harm. And to be honest I felt grossed out. I looked at him. Then I picked up the fork and stabbed it into my arm. It made four holes and they were pretty deep. We just sat there a while. It was bleeding and he looked hurt. Almost desperate. It felt lonely. For both of us, I’m guessing. He tried to eat the rest of his food, but I just drank a bit and held a napkin against my arm. Then I said I should go home and disinfect the wound. Can I come along, he asked. And I felt like sticking the fork in his eye. But instead I just said: of course. We laugh at the guy. I get up. I’m going for a piss, wait for me. I hate this UV light. Weird that she thought we were cops. She can’t seriously have thought that, for fuck’s sake. How you doing, Cody? I’m fine, I’m fine. You’ve got blood on your knuckle. On your knuckles. It’s dripping. Shit. I didn’t notice. Sorry. What happened? Nothing. Did you get any on you? Here, tissue. How’s it going? It’s fine, it’s cool. Stop asking the whole time, I’m getting spooked with you asking me that the whole damn time. How are you doing yourself? Cool. A bit glazed-over, dunno. Sorry. How are we going to find the Slovak anyway? He’s not a Slovak. He’s just called Slovak, he’s like Hungarian, or Bulgarian or something, I dunno, a filthy pimp in any case. Is everyone here? We’re here. Did you get the bags? Yeah. And the nine-bars? Yeah, I got everything. What are they up to in there? Come on, let’s go. We have to test it. We go to the pub, some wack place with darts and a slot machine and football on the TV and we order beer and cider and Dima goes into the toilet to test it. Comes out and you can see straight away it’s a good high. Makes a ker-ching sign with his arm and then my turn and everything is suddenly dazzling, you know, the way it gets.
From Wretchedness.Translation © 2019 by Nichola Smalley. Forthcoming 2019 from And Other Stories. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
In this essay, Mathias Rosenlund reflects on the intersection of poverty, mental health, and masculinity.
I fear the day I find myself bending under everything about which I am writing.
Under the weight of depression. Under the yoke of poverty. Under hopelessness.
I have on occasion—when I’ve been called up and asked, but not often enough to earn a decent side income—worked as a helper on a truck. I don’t have a driver’s license so I can’t work as a driver, a better paying job. This has been night work. We’ve driven around the greater Helsinki area carrying frozen goods for large stores and shopping centers.
Helsinki at night is a calm and quiet place. I know that now. I know this because on many nights I have seen that it is so. Cities have their own life at night. They are places of shadowy buildings and deserted streets waiting to be put to use. It’s peaceful driving around, delivering goods. My older brother did it almost every night for several years. My father did it until he was fired; now he drives a bus instead.
My little brother did it until he was fired, too. Now he’s just trying to survive his bipolar disorder, a depression that caused him, when in a whisky stupor, to slice his wrist deep along the artery. The ambulance brought him to the Aurora hospital, where they mended his wrist and sent him home, still wasted and wearing bloodied clothes. Nowadays when I don’t hear from my brother for a few weeks, when I can’t reach him by phone or email, I picture him in that small apartment in Helsinki, bloody, dead.
I’m the only one who doesn’t drive. I’m the only one who reads and writes. I have to weather jokes about my lack of masculinity. About my girly interests in poems and books. I get angry. I can’t bear to listen anymore. Maybe because I know I should change tack. That my passion for books and poetry will never be economically advantageous, and will remain a pastime.
But it’s all I know how to do. This, and transporting goods and caring for children. Literature is all I have an education in and all I have a competency for, and my life with books is what defines me.
Literature is my only longing, and day after day I feel it dying inside me. To write. To learn, to read, to slowly achieve something that resembles education, but to see the uselessness in it.
I was once offered a job at a bookbindery. I accepted. On the first day, I took the bus to the specified address where I found a dark little basement under a tile-clad single-family home. I rang the doorbell and announced myself as the new worker. I walked in and was told that my job was to laminate books. Thousands of books that libraries around the capital paid to have laminated in plastic. This was the first time I was on the clock working with books. Shakespeare, Hemingway, Lagerlöf, Lindgren. The pay was bad. If I remember correctly, it was seven euro an hour minus tax, but a few months’ work was enough to support my family for a short while, so I’m not complaining. In fact, I was grateful for the work. It was calm and pleasant, and it had to do with books. I sat in a small dark cellar in a house in the Sockenbacka area of Helsinki. I listened to the radio. When I picked up a fresh book to laminate, I leafed through it. Seven euros an hour to sit in a cellar and pick up a book and some plastic. Put the plastic on the book, and then repeat the same monotonous movements for five hours straight.
To be gainfully employed. To work to be able to afford your upkeep. Gainful employment: to earn, to make a living.
What living have I made after all those years studying at university? After all those years of poorly paid temp work and income support?
“Does poverty exist in the Nordics?” a good friend, an Argentine author, once asked. He was very surprised to hear that it did. That there are people who don’t have enough food for the day. That there are those who work a lot and work hard but still can’t afford their own rent. That there are those who choose to stay at home on the sofa, because the support they get from Social Services gives them more money than their salary would be as a truck- or bus-driver, nursery school assistant, cleaner, or teacher’s aide. This is what it’s like—being poor in the Nordics today is to realize that labor is required of you but sometimes it isn’t worth it.
During our most recent parliamentary elections, one of the party leaders kept saying, “all work pays off.” I almost reached out a few times to correct him. To say: my work mostly does not pay off. My work as a critic and reviewer, as far as income goes, is something to sniff at. My temp work has been a waste of time. My remuneration for various kinds of cultural work has been a joke. To suggest he update his attitude toward work and find out if in practice it really is true that all work pays off.
I used to think you could do what you like with your money. I thought money always meant freedom. Now I know you can do what you like with your money only if you have enough of it in the first place. I also know what it’s like never to have enough money, not even to cover your basic needs. This is my poverty: having grown up in a home where the income has never been as great as the outgoing expenses.
My friend was very surprised to hear that I, too, counted myself among the poor in the North. I explained myself, telling him about how my wife and I had managed all this time. I told him about the temp work I’d had over the years. That I’d worked as a nursery carer and a youth leader, a book laminator, as a helper on a truck, as a recruiter for various citizens’ organizations, as a clerk at a parish, as a freelance writer, as a failed translator of books, and as a substitute teacher. I told him that none of this has made it possible for me to live without economic lack. Not once.
People have asked me: why don’t you get a little side job while you study? I’ve never known how to answer that question. It sounds so simple. You get a little side job. And then you get paid. And then you have more money than before. That’s incorrect. In our system, it only works like that when you have a high enough income to start out with. If you live below the minimum income level, as set by the authorities, a whole other set of rules applies.
When you’re studying and you seek income support, the student loan you qualify for counts as income. It doesn’t matter if you take out a student loan or not, it’s included in the calculations nonetheless. Then you can either choose between trying to get along with €300 less each month or take out a student loan and take on debt. So far I have chosen to take on debt, because we wouldn’t have been able to manage without that €300 each month. I have dutifully gone into debt, while feeling like a failure, because no matter what I do, I’ve so often had to stand at that glass cubicle inside Social Services and submit my application for income support.
When you’ve always worked for a low wage, getting a higher wage is a challenge. You can try to find a job that will last for many years and maybe, eventually, get a raise based on your experience. You can try to continue your education alongside your daily toil, but in truth there are few who have the energy or who want to. My mother did. She had the energy, and she wanted to. She took her local nursing exam shortly after she turned fifty. I wish I could say that things got better for her after the exam. But it’s not true. She’s still struggling, and earning a salary that, only with scrimping and scrounging, will stretch to the next paycheck. Her income is still too low for her to have any savings.
“Kopparberg Road 20” © Mathias Rosenlund. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.
Adrian Perera reflects on the stereotyped expectations faced by immigrant poets.
Interview. Time: 15:42
The journalist says she gets it.
“I have a friend from Africa.
I want you to know,
I get it.”
I crawl inside myself,
past my sweaty pits
and hear myself say
I’m not accusing her
What’s in a name? she asks,
with her blonde hair,
and blue-eyed gaze,
her memories of summer cottages,
rhyming clues for Christmas gifts and debates over Finland’s
“What’s in a name?”
we ought to take my mother’s name
and pave the way for the future.
To show the name belongs
on book covers
and voting ballots.
And not just on the sign above an ethnic restaurant.
Easy for her to say, my mother says.
“She doesn’t bear the burden of the name like you do.
For her, the name is a sign of goodness,
a silk ribbon that leaves no trace
when she removes it.”
I say change is always painful,
someone has to be the first.
Then it’ll have to be someone else, she says.
Can’t the name be one of my virtues? I ask.
You’ll just be their monkey.
I have no words for how I love my mother
because everything turns to anger.
All I see are her mistakes,
All I hear is her shame
because she can’t be
what I need
and all I can feel is sorrow
because I am never
what she needs
so I say nothing.
My friend leans against the boat and asks
how my mother is doing.
I say I don’t know,
we don’t talk that much.
She just wants to give me advice
The water is like a window over the seaweed.
A breeze tugs at our shirts,
carries the odor of tar.
My friend says moms are moms
“but your mom has always been
It’s not her fault,
she comes from another culture.
She doesn’t know any better.”
I read poems,
describe a family being crushed by its own baggage.
A publisher says I fill a niche.
“We want to make sure nobody mistakes you
for Athena Farrokhzad.”
She says that many of the poems are good,
but certain ones are
typical immigrant poems.
“You can cut those.
There are, after all, two poets in Sweden
and one in Denmark
writing about those things.”
I ask what people are writing about today,
what is considered new?
“People write about all kinds of things!
the Winter War,
From White Monkey. © Adrian Perera. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Christian Gullette. All rights reserved.
With Sara Nelson
I saw him on the subway. He was sitting across the aisle, a man my age, West African, dressed in clothes that reminded me of glossy paper—they were made of a stiff, waxed fabric so white it was incandescent in the vibrating darkness of the subway car. He was talking to the friend sitting next to him, his cap pulled low over his brow. He just came from the mosque, he said. He went there every so often to help with vacuuming and stuff.
It was a few years into the new millennium. I was in Stockholm for a job and had met up with a buddy afterward. We’d played PlayStation all night and now I was on my way to the place where I was staying. The lights seemed to tumble through the tunnel. I felt the way I always did during this time of my life, a time marked by death—my best friend had passed away from cancer and others in my circles had died from overdoses or in police cells. Life felt terribly depopulated. Neutron-bomb lights were tumbling in the emptiness outside the car and they seemed to be x-raying the people around me, like I could see the skeletons underneath their skin. But when my eyes landed on the guy talking about vacuuming a mosque I couldn’t stop staring. It was like he came from a planet that still had meaning.
I wanted to cross over to his side.
Swap bodies or something. Lives.
These types of things would happen to me in my twenties. Brief eruptions of meaning. Islam wasn’t entirely foreign to me. My old man had become a Muslim when I was a child, and every now and then I’d open the Quran he’d given me and find something that spoke to me. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say these passages touched something in me that was prelinguistic, a part of me that determined what a word might point to. I was particularly drawn to certain archaic images that I associated with events from my own life—a heavy rainfall devastating a garden, a star rising, hoofs stirring up dust against the sky. And that cosmology, which described our universe as a ring lost in the desert, and that desert as another ring lost in a larger desert, and on and on, to me became an illustration of quantum physics and string theory’s conception of the universe as encompassing eleven or twenty-six or even more hidden dimensions rolled up inside the ones we can apprehend, and their description of the universe as a multi-dimensional torus form or a rose.
I rested my forehead against the window of the subway car. I looked out into the emptiness. Had I been created? Did I own myself? What did names like “God," “paradise,” and “eternal” mean? I sensed that the religious language held what I had first heard in poetry: a whisper that said eternity was at play in the everyday, like when I was younger and would lie in the grass looking at contrails, or when I’d been in love, or done a jump shot on the basketball court and for a moment we’d all been hanging in the light, weightless, before death . . . or like when I would wake up from a dream, sweaty and feeling that I’d touched another dimension of existence, that I’d left the Underworld, staggered to the door, and collapsed in bed.
Writing is a post-traumatic symptom: we’re born screaming, surprised to exist, and everything that follows is the search for a sign that can hold the scream of birth.
The road to Alhambra winds under heavy cactus leaves and dry trees that rattle like snake skins. The morning air, fragrant with lavender and dusty clay, still holds some of the night’s coolness. A woman scans our tickets and hands us earpieces that will allow us to hear the English-speaking guide. Next, we are channeled toward the interior of the palace with a stream of other tourists.
Inside, the palace walls are built from a stone that looks like plaster. Teeming Arabic inscriptions and stylized plants have been cut from the walls and the ceilings. It must have taken months of careful work to complete a surface the size of an open hand; the design gives the impression that this is a place where minerals and organic life meld. Even the tall arches have been covered in writing and whirling shapes. To me they look like pages in an open book. It is as if Alhambra is a long letter, suffused with astonishing care. I linger under the white arches. The voice of the tour guide crackles in my headphones, hurrying us along; there are other groups behind us and we have to keep going to the Hall of the Ambassadors, the Queen’s dressing room, the Sultan’s private prayer room . . . We enter a courtyard where twelve stone lions hold up a fountain: a gift to the Sultan from Jewish masons. It is as though the stone is floating, melting, dripping upward, weightless. The water is calcifying. In the Middle Ages, a poet from Granada described Alhambra as a place where the living and the dead, the floating and the solid, turn into each other. A dream. A letter from another universe.
Around the birth of this century, at a demonstration against police violence during the 2001 EU summit in Gothenburg, I was in a sundry group of activists who were shouting a familiar phrase: No justice, no peace. Politically, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced peace. Only conflicts, speed, friction. My understanding of myself was forged in a postcolonial, capitalist environment of violence, in places where what body you had fully determined the conditions of your life. Its vulnerability as it walked across the city square, abandoned among the abandoned, violent and afraid among the violent and afraid.
No justice, no peace.
After the terrorist attack in Stockholm in the spring of 2017, I felt a deep need to participate as a Muslim in the dirgelike performance taking place in the media. I wanted to contribute to the columns and articles expressing shock, worry, and assurance immediately after the attack. I did; I wrote about Stockholm, but the text did not focus on the conflicts between center and periphery, black and white, rich and poor, city and suburb. Instead, I wrote about the line that separates those who in that moment had their humanity questioned and who knew they risked being subjected to additional terror laws, from everyone else—people for whom this particular moment in history was like any other. Yet another moment in politics which, to borrow from the French author Édouard Louis, actualized for them “a way of thinking about oneself, a way of seeing the world, building one’s identity. For us, it was about life and death.”
Life and death: I’d never before felt as acutely how life is at stake in writing. I wrote that despite it all, negotiations to bring forth diversity were underway in Stockholm. If nowhere else, they were ongoing in the subway’s echoing tile sluices, those portals to other worlds, where I had once listened to a young man talking about how he sometimes helped clean a different universe. I wrote that there are nights when the concrete floors and columns of these subway stations seem weightless, and that when I walk across the geometric black-and-white stone pattern of Sergels Torg, I sometimes feel like I have enormous wings coming out of my back. I wanted to create a reverent text that held unconditional respect for every single dead body that had been carried from the site of the attack on Drottninggatan. If for no other reason, this is what I wanted because it was what I had demanded of others when I wrote about the oil wars, the racist terrorist murders in Sweden, torture camps around the world, and anti-blackness. Later, I couldn’t help but wonder about the shift that the text nevertheless entailed. I called upon a language beyond the body’s hierarchies, a language where time is not a straight line and where hope and grace are political concepts as meaningful as ethnicity, class, or sex. I wrote as a Muslim, and in so doing I discovered that a Muslim voice is wholly different from a black man’s voice, wholly different from a working-class voice. I wrote about peace. I began to wonder if that night in Madrid years earlier, when I recited the declaration of faith for the first time, had been the biggest aesthetic event of my life.
It was during those years that I wrote the poetry collection Städerna inuti Hall (The Cities inside Hall). Weeks could pass by without me seeing anyone but the Iraqi man who owned the corner store where I bought cigarettes and food. I studied political theory and existentialist manifestos. Geopolitical changes mixed with private catastrophes and created a landscape dominated by violence. I'd look through the window and see ash swirling; money, locks, shadows crouched under a sky that satellites and bombers had emptied of vertigo and meaning. Existence was made up only of things that were visible, and all that was visible had already been bought and devoured by capitalism. Even falling snow came to remind me of plastic, toilet paper, hospital waste. Civilization belonged to those who’d conquered it, those who in so doing had themselves been categorically destroyed.
I was sitting on a worn carpet in a mosque, bracketed by bookshelves full of books in Arabic. I was crying. Crying for all those who were gone, and for myself, who was still there, left behind in time. Someone put an arm around my shoulders. I’d been pushed toward that mosque by my entire life. By writing—that is, by abandoning and being abandoned—by standing wordless at graves, by loving and losing, by efforts to cut through to the core of the words, to solve their riddles, and by always, throughout everything, hearing the whisper that comes out of poetry and which is all of this emptiness that turns around and says:
“I am not empty. I am open.”
I recited a few words in a foreign language. Ashadu ’an lā ilāha illā-llāh. The walls and the objects around me shook.
Everything acquired a different density and mass.
Wa ašhadu anna muhammadan rasūlu-llāh.
I made a fist and opened my hand again in front of me. It moved in directions that had not existed before.
Impossible to describe.
Not empty. Open.
And like love, despite it all.
The love that is always already gone.
When I walked out into the street the trees were murmuring with wind from other stars. Something that preceded words—something that preceded “something,” “had,” and “happened”—something had happened.
Now, many years later, I can see how this had a lot to do with writing. That it had a lot to do with the question of truth. With the possibility of love, despite it all. That word, love, which recurs, might be all I can write about it without betraying myself. And when I write the word “love” I mean the love that knocks us to the ground and makes the body shake, only to lift us, helpless, up into the night, at once joyful and unhappy since through it, we see that we’ve found a path to our destiny.
It seeks us when we seek it.
Mamma. You’re asleep as I write this. Drops of blood slowly crawl through the plastic tubes that sprout from your body. From the hallway I hear the low clatter of the nurses’ shoes. In here the only sound is the rustle of your sheets when you turn in your sleep.
It’s me, Mamma. It’s Sara.
I wish you would stop looking at the clock on the wall of your room each time you wake up. You open your eyes and glance at Mickey Mouse laughing from the clock face. You note that a few more hours have passed but you’re still alive. I hear it in your voice when you ask for more morphine in a strained whisper. I press the red button to call the nurse.
Look at me, Mamma.
Look away from the clock.
You fall asleep again.
A fly is buzzing in the white curtains.
The clock is ticking.
I have the taste of death on my tongue during these sleepy days. It’s like the thin layer of soap that covers the red-patterned linoleum floor after the cleaner has been through.
You wake up again, your eyes drawn to the clock face. You look repulsed. I ask what you dreamed.
“I was lying under a thick sheet of ice,” you say. “Just lying there, staring up into the ice-blue darkness.”
As I walk under Alhambra’s white arches, so like a long letter, I think of Miles Davis. He is said to have handed out the score to a new piece of music while instructing his confused fellow musicians to play what was not on the page. Some of his greatness, of course, lay in how he moved inside the zone where silence turns to sound in particular ways. The whining, gloomy cries of his trumpet existed not just at the edge of the music, but, also at the edge of the sound itself. Religion can be said to be about “playing what isn’t there,” though in relation to the body: being a Muslim is a specific way of not being this hair, not being these nails, these teeth, this brain—a way of not being all this which is going to be sucked down the wells of oblivion.
In a conversation with Sara I once said: “I am not my body, but I am also not not my body. I am the unique way in which I experience being more than my body.”
Islam is to look at your hand, make a tight fist, and then open it, thinking: one day it will detach itself and fly away from me like a bird: my body does not belong to me.
Islam is to be waiting to travel through one’s death.
I think about Miles Davis’s whining, gloomily triumphant trumpet. “Play what isn’t there”: the body will return also from the black hole of death, and it is central to Islam’s rituals. It must be washed in specific ways; it must prostrate itself and lay its head on the ground several times a day; it travels across the world to circle Kaaba. Islam is neither the body’s transcendence nor its opposite, but a different imagination of the concepts of body, I, soul, life, death. This might be why I experience Islam’s physicality as untranslatable: how the body seems to exist inside an iridescent soap bubble during Ramadan, how arms and legs go numb and fill with moonglow during the long night prayers or in the Sufi meditation. How obvious it is, when you wash a dead body in a freezing morgue, that the body is a type of clay vehicle, empty for now.
We are a problem.
We don’t belong here, in this totality. We carry shards of a different whole, a different order, which, in its own way, has gone missing. The five daily prayers disrupt the capitalist measurement of time as either labor or leisure, and during one month we refrain from food and sexual intercourse—the double roots of consumption—for as long as the sun is up.
I am not a cloud of floating whispers.
I am a core of silence surrounded by a deafening roar.
“I have my own stories,” Sara wrote in one of the dense, meteoric fragments she sent as part of one of our long, winding conversations. “They don’t belong to anyone else. It is I who am elsewhere.”
We are not an origin—on the contrary, we know that family ties will neither save nor condemn us. Abu Jahl, the prophet’s uncle, was condemned to the fire. And our future lies neither in becoming one with the tower that rises around us, nor necessarily in becoming that tower’s undertaker. As opposed to “a white person” or “a worker,” for example, the name “a Muslim” does not signify a body situated in a specific place in the order of capitalism (or colonialism, capitalism’s conjoined twin). Instead, it speaks of a being whose innermost core has been touched by a specific love, and who through this love has been transformed into something that partly, in an impossible way, exists outside of capitalism.
So I was not writing about weightless concrete and an open city because I had suddenly found myself in a new place, but because I, ever since that evening in Madrid, have vibrated: I am not here, but nor am I there.
We are not our bodies.
We are not not our bodies.
We are not a minority.
The people around us are fanning themselves with the tourism brochures. The relentless midday heat has swept away what was left of the night. In the sharp sun the walls, with their intricate shadows, look permeable, like what makes up a beehive.
We enter Alhambra’s biggest room: the Hall of the Ambassadors, which was also called the Hall of the Names, since every diplomat who was granted audience with the Sultan had his name written on the wall. My daughter is sitting on my shoulders. In my ear, the guide’s voice crackles:
“All that we know about Alhambra, we know because the people who lived here wrote the history of the place on the walls.”
I can sometimes tell from the look in my friends’ eyes that they think I’ve lost it when I talk about Islam, about this crumbling castle that rises from the desert of globalization. Like I’m making my home in a ruin. They might not be wrong about that—according to Islam’s historiography we are currently leaving the era of the prophets, moving toward ever longer shadows. The atheists will at some point find themselves alone in a long night of oblivion. There was a shooting at a mosque in Québec City, Canada, in 2017. Six people died. In London several Muslims, most of them women in hijab, have had acid thrown in their faces. The news photos make the survivors in their transparent plastic masks look like visitors from another dimension or cosmos.
Surrounded by bone-white writings on the walls in the Hall of the Ambassadors I suddenly experience a sense of calcification, like I’m walking through a petrified garden.
By the time construction began on Alhambra, the Catholics had already conquered the entire Iberian Peninsula, except Granada, where Jews and Muslims had taken refuge and lived in a type of memory of the world they had once populated. A final echo of Sepharad, of Al-Andalus. Alhambra was less the crown of the Andalusian world than it was its gravestone or death mask.
I think of the fight to preserve Kviberg’s market, a marketplace and community for immigrants in Gothenburg. At an organizing meeting, a friend stood up and said: “If these walls could talk, they’d tell our story.”
In Alhambra, in the fortress of writing, I understand that the most human phrase is not “remember me,” singular, but plural.
Writing is a gold disc moving up through the solar wind.
A burning car.
Mamma. Yesterday I sat on a roadblock and ate lemon sorbet while you limped around the parking lot outside your apartment. Sometimes you’re able to walk around the entire lot, sometimes you’re not. When you can’t do it you get sad. While I waited I looked up at the sky, where a jet plane was cutting diagonally across the blue. I wonder what we looked like from up there. I followed the trajectory of the plane until the sunlight was too sharp to look at. Squinting, I could follow the contrails, which looked like a half-erased line straight into the sun, drawn with a white chalk. You called for help and I lowered my eyes. I’d been so far away for a while.
I am the soul laid bare in the world. I am not of the West but I am in the West. I am nobody’s translation. I am not terror. I am not immobile here. I have my own stories. They belong to nobody else. It is I who am elsewhere.
Sometimes it happened that pieces of wood drifted ashore in the Azores, floating out of the seemingly endless ocean. This was in the late fifteenth century. The beginning of the Conquests. People began to intuit that there were shores beyond the horizon in the West. Those who believed in a round Earth assumed that those foreign lands were Indian.
Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs who were determined to banish Islam from the Iberian Peninsula, moved their armies south. The Muslim reign in Cordoba fell. Malaga fell.
Christopher Columbus was obsessed with finding an alternative trade route to India, as that would pull the rug out from underneath the Muslim empire, which still appeared to be at the center of the world, extending between East and West, between Europe and Asia, between here and there. He applied for support for an expedition, at first with the Portuguese king, who rebuffed his plans, and later in war-torn Spain, where Queen Isabella promised she would listen. She had one condition, however: the Iberian Peninsula had to be conquered and taken from the Muslims before she would meet with Columbus. An external expedition would only be possible if the interior of the nation had been purified.
Alhambra fell in early 1492. Columbus was called to the site. To the end of a world. Here. In this palace. I look up at the ceiling, a dome of cedar wood with stars made of a lighter wood organized in a geometric pattern. According to the guide this was the room where Columbus met with Isabella, where he finally got the funding he needed for his journey out West. Right here. It was here that the destiny of the world was sealed. In a petrified garden. In the Hall of the Ambassadors.
At night I smell the jasmine blossoms outside your window, Mamma. It cuts through the smell of illness in your bedroom. You’re home again. The two of us are lying on your bed, and you tell me you’ll always watch over me.
“You will always be my child, Sara.” I squeeze your hand to let you know I can hear you. You go quiet and then you fall asleep. I can hear the gaps inside your breaths. I’m lying on the bed, smelling the jasmine, and I look out into the darkness of the room. You don’t like waking up alone. You’ve become afraid of the dark. Your sleeping body is a shadow in the room. Tense and curled up in the white sheets, you look like a cocoon.
In Islam, we believe that the souls of the sleeping are drawn to God, like moths flying toward the light.
You wake up. I bathe you. I wash your hair. With my hand cupped, I protect your eyes from the sudsy water streaming over your face.
I am a becoming. I am not a failure of evolution. I am not the tolerance of anyone. I am not an image in somebody’s collection. I am a collection. My inheritance is counter-revolutions and paramilitary boldness. I am a longing. I am a citizen. I expand my language until it can hold others. I am sunk into a world inhabited by cassette loops and frequencies. There is no need for anybody to take my veil off. I am part of the cosmos. I am affect and I am in affect. I am a resource. I am a source. I am a perspective. I am situated. I have no interest in fleeing. I am not lost. I do not have amnesia.
Pioneer 10 stopped transmitting information to earth in January 2003, when its radio ran out of electricity. The space probe, launched in 1972 and carrying a gold disc with information about Earth and humans, was the first artificial object to reach a velocity high enough to leave the solar system. As I wander through Alhambra, my daughter on my shoulders, the sonar is somewhere beyond the orbit of the most distant asteroid, moving toward the place where the solar wind (a plasma wind of charged particles streaming from the sun) yields to the interstellar wind that blows through the darkness between the stars.
Carl Sagan, who designed the gold disc, which is also carried by the twin probe Pioneer 11, has expressed dissatisfaction that the two human figures etched on it look white. He intended for them to be “pan-racial.” In the first rendering, made by his wife Linda Salzman Sagan, the man had Afro hair.
The two figures are naked, though not primarily with the intention of illustrating human biology and the reproductive organs—these are only hinted at with a few discreet lines—but rather in yet another attempt to make them universally human, by not dressing them in the clothes of a specific culture. Still, when the images were published in the nineteen-seventies, the choice to render them in the nude led to condemnation from people who argued that it made the pictures obscene. That line of critique would probably not be levied by the Western public today, but it is easy to imagine it coming from other groups; Muslims in particular might not feel immediately represented by nude humans. On the whole, this illustrates the difficulty, impossibility even, of representing a “universal” human without being exclusionary in your supposition of what is natural and what, so to speak, is the blank surface on which to write one symbol or another.
There are constant short-circuits between Islam and the secular post-Christian language that dominates contemporary Europe. Right-wing populists and terrorist sects in Islam’s periphery use these glitches to paint their enemies as monsters and lunatics. The short-circuits are not political in the first instance, but, rather, concern what precedes politics: our ideas of who we are and what is meaningful for beings like us. That afternoon in Madrid when I sat crying before a group of strangers and recited the declaration of faith, what changed was not primarily the ideas I had about how to live my life, but rather the “I” that had these ideas. The shiny disc on which my identity was written broke in two and when the pieces were joined again the disc looked new. In a moment that was almost inaccessible even to myself, things changed. The ways in which I was my body and the ways in which I was not my body were transformed. And which, out of all the amorphous events floating between matter and consciousness, constituted my “I,” was transformed, and what this “I” could experience and perform was transformed.
“I am a source. I am a perspective. I am situated.”
I am not I.
You are not you.
I am the bloody embodiment of articulation’s difficulty. I am mute in some languages, but not silent. I try to dream beyond the constant wars of information, media control, and surveillance orchestrated by the powers that be. I am not democracy’s failure.
The snow blows up from the ground, whirls around me. Standing in front of the mosque I lift my face to heaven. You’ve been gone for three months now, Mamma. The snow looks like white dust shaken from a big gray sheet. Your absence was so sudden and is so totalizing. I feel hazy, like a TV channel without programming.
A person who desires Islam and begins to engage with Islam’s practices will realize that what distinguishes a Muslim from a non-Muslim is not an inaccessible experience of living at the bottom of an oppressive society, but a real difference, a difference that has to do with a different conceptualization of death and life. If you recite the declaration of faith and begin to pray the daily prayers, fast during Ramadan, and take on the other practices, you become a Muslim.
To write as a Muslim, then, is a new way of standing at the shores of Troy, because in these circumstances it only takes a few words to teleport a person straight through the walls in either direction. Or, rather: it only takes a few words to turn the world inside out, so that the inside becomes the outside, and the outside the inside.
Blindness is not a privilege.
Per the phrase inscribed all over Alhambra: there is no victor but Allah.
James Baldwin: “I am not the victim here. I know one thing from another.”
So if I speak of peace now, in the belly of capitalism, in this mill, I speak of preserving difference. I am not talking about peace because I want to bring harmony to the conflict that has made me who I am, but because I want to preserve the person I am. I am talking about the whisper, about the secret, about the fairytale’s door to the invisible. I am talking about the scent of another universe that wafts through the air as the call to prayer echoes through the mosque, about that which is not written, about a beauty that can be desired but not consumed. Lastly, and above all, I am talking about my siblings, who carry this way of being into a blackening future under the sinking skies of growing right-wing populism and the security state. I am talking about the communal care for a world, about the women who teach a new generation to recite the Quran, about the industrial spaces turned into mosques by those who came before us. About collection cups and associations and membership meetings. About the young people who vacuum the carpets at night.
I am talking about Alhambra.
Excerpt from the essay “Alhambra.” First published in Glänta. © Johannes Anyuru. Italicized sections © Sara Nelson. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2019 by Kira Josefsson. All rights reserved.
Spoken Word poet Nino Mick skewers the absurdity of bureaucracy in matters of gender and identity.
I'm here because I want to be left alone
In order to proceed, I need access to
your body i.e. brain
your life i.e. sex life
your medical history
Have I completed a gender survey so I can cope with being a poet
or am I a poet in order to cope with the gender survey
so used to narrating myself
in exchange for fees and care
The glossy floors and the large window
upon arrival I leave
my name and agency at the reception
I want to talk about my complex and people want to describe me as respectable
to line up the words on the table in front of the psychologist
so we can look at them and pretend we’re equal
A gatekeeper may deny access
a sword can burn against the throat
can still be called angel
fear’s throbbing anatomy
the throat artery's defiant disposition
highlights a sample of beautiful truths
the same obedience as usual
the same hands folded in my lap
Describe your social situation
Saw a snake in the woods today
winding across the gravel on its stomach
as if it didn’t hurt
and every obstacle it met on the way
it slid right around
Imagine if my body could help me like that
I have reconstructed everything
the boy the girl and the autistic one
documented the fatigue and depression
With the diagnosis as a veil a shield I slid through the corridors.
In the middle of puberty, I escaped sexuality
got out of girl parties and boyhood problems
got out of punishment and ostracism
stopped learning from the group
how women apply makeup to put on a face
The group of girls I tried to belong to
didn’t work out and lost interest
the punishments ricocheted against the mirrors
newly awakened, I cut myself on the shards
without a clear direction or sender
So the girl was kept intact
floated across the school yard, slid through
high school corridors
mostly without a scratch
Women were formed there
I understand now, as protection and strategy
formed groups there
dancing in a circle around activist tote bags
they became women
I did not become a body
It needs a more structured wholeness
I want to reside in the hard and permanent
so I construct a suite of poems and a man to live inside
I want to be pinned down securely
to be normalized and become part of the dictionary
assigned a home
Scenes flow together
public libraries and pride festivals
small town train stations
press photo and description max 50 words
Twenty-five thousand miles of nerves
I choose the reddest one
pull it out through my throat and set it on stage
my life is three minutes long
they say perfect ten
I'm trying to boil
down to my essence
become a concentrate
of my own existence
then it's called politics
Tried to throw out my inner baby Jesus with the bath water
but it held firm inside the lines, screaming and screaming
of course I want nothing more than to fish for Christian Democrats
lure with a little hook of poetry
this body is so useful as bait
People came to me to confess
their heteronormative sins, I said
here, eat my body
I am a worm
and you will be fished up
you will be saved
you will be good
but why do I long for heaven
when I like it best in the flower’s moist soil
Tjugofemtusen kilometer nervtrådar © Nino Mick. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Christian Gullette. All rights reserved.
A new novel by the Swedish author reads like a caricature of sexism in the literary world that ends up being as sexist as its misogynous protagonist.
Lina Wolff’s novel The Polyglot Lovers, translated by Saskia Vogel, is a warning to those who write by hand, and to those who write villains. The book won the 2016 August Prize, one of Sweden's main literary accolades, and received a PEN Translates Award from English PEN. Its plot hinges around a manuscript by Max Lamas, an aging novelist and old-school literary sexist who believes he’s written the perfect multilingual book. Unfortunately, his sole manuscript has vanished, and to the narrator’s clear delight, it’s not coming back.
The narrator of The Polyglot Lovers dislikes Max Lamas, and intends the reader to dislike him, too. He’s cruel and almost hysterically sexist. He treats the women he encounters, both in life and in his fantasies, with a shifting mix of scorn, entitlement, and rage. He cheats on his wife, encourages a near stranger to commit suicide, and breaks his elderly lover’s heart. He lacks complexity, which seems to be intentional: his dream of finding “a very young polyglot lover with enormous, white, milk-scented breasts” is pure caricature. At no point does Wolff work to develop his character or to provoke empathy for what she calls his “bad man’s dishonest worldview.” Instead, she writes him as a buffoon to be loathed.
The problem with writing a novel about a sexist jerk, though, is the sheer amount of time the reader has to spend with that jerk. Wolff tries to offset this by splitting The Polyglot Lovers into thirds. Before we meet Wolff, we meet Ellinor, a masochistic woman in search of love. Her experiments with online dating lead her to a critic named Ruben, and to Lamas’s manuscript. The novel then cuts to Lamas, and finally to Lucrezia, the granddaughter of Lamas’s last lover. Ellinor and Lucrezia are more nuanced characters than Lamas, but they seem to have been placed in The Polyglot Lovers mainly to occupy space. Wolff never explores Ellinor’s attraction to violence, and Lucrezia has no agenda beyond telling her grandmother’s story. Ellinor’s narrative arc gets abandoned once it meets Lamas’s, and Lucrezia has no arc at all. As a result, their presence in The Polyglot Lovers reflects Lamas’s misogyny rather than undermining it. The man is the center; the women exist to prop him up.
This is one problem with The Polyglot Lovers. The other is its prose, which is stiff and uninspired. The sentences feel mechanical, the dialogue drags, and the characterization and description are flat and vague. When Ellinor meets Ruben’s estranged wife, for instance, she glances at her wedding ring and notes, “It looked expensive and fancy.” Looking out his window in Stockholm, Lamas informs us that “The sea was cold, the cliffs dark. On the street below our apartment people were sitting at outdoor tables, wrapped in blankets and holding cups.” This descriptive dullness cannot be laid at the translator’s feet. Expensive and fancy and holding cups may have been Vogel’s English word choices, but there is no possible reason to believe Wolff offered more detailed descriptions—a cushion-cut emerald, steaming mugs of coffee, whatever you like—and Vogel omitted them.
Vogel herself is an accomplished essayist, fiction writer, and translator. Her own prose is much smoother and more detailed than The Polyglot Lovers, as is her translation of Karolina Ramqvist’s The White City. Reading Vogel’s other work, in fact, raises a question sometimes discussed in translation reviewing and theory: Should a translator improve the original text?
The usual answer is no, or not while translating literary fiction. Like beauty, improvement is in the eye of the beholder. To my ear, Lucrezia’s mother saying “Those academics and their traits—a sweet, piercing scent of moldering onion coming from their armpits” is terrible dialogue. The syntax is unnatural, the two clauses mismatched. But maybe some readers disagree, or don’t mind, or would use the phrase “a sweet, piercing scent of moldering onion” themselves. Regardless, Wolff wrote the line, and so her translator has to reproduce it, not condense it to “God, those academics smell like onions.”
But what about the novel’s subtler missteps? What if Vogel could have reorganized and combined sentences to make the prose flow better, even if there was no way to improve its content? Without reading Swedish, there’s no way to know whether such a translation approach was possible. Nor do I know Vogel’s translation philosophy. If she’s loyal above all to the author or to the Swedish text, then she would have no call to nip and tuck the English prose. But if her loyalty is to the translation or the Anglophone reader, then maybe she should have found new ways to make The Polyglot Lovers sing. After all, Lamas dreams of “the intimacy that seamless communication could yield.” A slightly more activist translation approach might have yielded much greater intimacy.
There is no seamless communication to be found in The Polyglot Lovers, nor is there seamless communication between book and reader. The flat language and narrative structure make empathy with Ellinor and Lucrezia challenging and make it hard to dislike Lamas without disliking the novel itself. Though Wolff constructs him as a villain, she never strays far from his side. Her feminist critique gets lost. In its place, we first have Ellinor seeking abuse, then Lucrezia telling her grandmother’s story, which transforms into Lamas’s. The novel submits to the male ego. At minimum, it would have been nice to understand why.