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from the July 2018 issue

After Midnight

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.

Read more from the July 2018 issue

Translating Gender Fluidity in Clara Ng’s “Meteors”

First Read—From “Camouflage”

The City and the Writer: In San Juan with Ricardo Alberto Maldonado

Erín Moure

Lupe Gómez

Literary Journeys: Living Through Art in the Wake of Disaster

International Literary Women & Organizations that Balance for Better

Lina Meruane

from the March 2019 issue

Interiors and Interpretations: New Writing from Indonesia

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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue

March 2019

from the March 2019 issue

The Prayer of the Flame that Sparked the Forest Fire

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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue

The Biography of a Newborn Baby

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.”

“The slut!”

“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?”

“A baby!”

“A baby?”

“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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue


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 saidAl 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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue


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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue

The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta, Part II

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.

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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue

Who Dreams of Us?: New Swedish-Language Writing

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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue

From “Aednan”

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

blood drained 
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
forest way
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 
my grave

One stone each summer

you carry home
to the winterland
Nila and you


Mother you caress
that scar on my
brother’s forehead
as though it were a
whisper from me


Because I once
threw a wooden log 
at him

that hit right there

Nila when I fell


You continued
to treat me
the same

as though I
hadn’t changed


The same old
slow smile
while my head quietly
wanted to roll back
into place

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
my gaze
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
to you:

There will be rain
there will be rain


Dápmotjávri. Aslat’s grave. Karesuando Cemetery.
Fall–Winter 1920

That fall
the Lapp Bailiff came


The ruling language
ran over us

Swedish words
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

half-nomads who
followed after livestock


Bread so tough it 
made your teeth fall out
baked by our women


In the midst of the breeding grounds
he appeared
with the darkening sky

To hold forth
among our
cows in heat


He had a message
from the three 
countries’ men

Swedes Norwegians
and Finns

Far away from 
the reindeer’s world several
families had been selected

We had to start forcing
our herds to graze on
strange lands

We were to be driven
from the forests mountains
and lakes

Migration paths and songs
had to be stifled
stricken from memory


The herd’s memory

the reindeer calves’ legs
that always
led us home


Now they would be born 
on other lands

Now each step
homeward in autumn
was a departure from
our lives


My brother and the others

said farewell to the trails
and hillsides


Never again would
we sit on the island’s slope
where the ocean smoothed
the stones

where Aslat once
had learned to walk

With this my stomach 
tied itself in dark knots


While winter 
as ever
whitened on

from all the colors
around us


And we tried
to scare off wolves
we traveled fast through
frozen forests


Then I was again
at home in the winterland

Watching twilight
dwindle gray between
gray farms


In the birch forest
across the ice
was a group of cots

With pillars of smoke
rising beyond 
the graveyard
where you were waiting


the graveyard walls

by Aslat’s grave

I took your hand

you had an
infected wound above
your eyebrow


Silent you placed 
the last stone
from the coast

on his grave


Nila’s fingers
had to be held
like jerking

And the familiar
waves spoke 
to me 

of a freedom
in the sea


I said that I 
hated the reindeer

but needed them


We have to leave 
Aslan again

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 
is remembered

But you promised me

that his head was resting
safely in his grave


The dead
were not allowed to be 


And the bells
tolled beyond
the forest


We were called 
to a church weekend

One last time
we would
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

clothing strewn
across the floor


Me thinking 
it was because of my
bad teeth

that the traveling doctor had come


With hard tools
he measured me

learned men
in every nook

With razor-sharp
scratching pens

they went
through me


I could tell that the
short one
was taking shape 
on their papers

Using royal ink
to draw
the racial animal


The shackles
of our obedience

my home-sewn belt


My breasts hung
their distaste blazed


I saw how they
wrinkled their
slender noses

all the while


My friend beside me
was quick to help me
on with my kolt

Then she quietly translated
their questions
about what we did 
when menstruating


Over the doctor’s shoulder
the minister


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
and my
dark eyes


Outside the barn
my friend’s daughters
shivering waiting 
for their treatment


And my poor Nila
was fished out

from where I don’t know

A camera was pointed
at his
upset face

until he just
sank through the floor


I watched them trample 
with heavy boots

Tall chairs
were dragged out and they
sat down on him


I noticed how big 
he’d gotten
not a child anymore

there he stood lost
and mute among their 
bare hands
touching him


He should come 
with us to the institution
said the doctor

and finally
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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue


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

or stop. 

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 

with her.

Instead of words, hands. 

Instead of hands, the back of the hands.

The darkness is ours, and the word. The word that runs along

her throat. 

“Interludium,” from Kärleken och hatet, © Mara Lee. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue

Event Horizon

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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue

From “Wretchedness”

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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue

Kopparberg Road 20

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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue

From “White Monkey”

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
of anything.




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
official languages.

“What’s in a name?”

She says
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,
of virtue,
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.

She says,
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,
broken thoughts
and language.  

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
about life.

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 archipelago,
the Winter War,
and alcoholism.”

From White Monkey. © Adrian Perera. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Christian Gullette. All rights reserved.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue


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.

Left behind.

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.

An interruption.

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.

Remember us. 





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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
from the March 2019 issue

From “Twenty-Five Thousand Miles of Nerves”

Spoken Word poet Nino Mick skewers the absurdity of bureaucracy in matters of gender and identity. 

First visit.


I'm here because I want to be left alone


Gender Survey:


In order to proceed, I need access to
your body i.e. brain
your life i.e. sex life
your medical history
your stories


Second visit.



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



Third visit.


Gender Survey:
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

Fourth visit


I cancel


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
rape cultures
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

The Publisher


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
to leave

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.

Read more from the March 2019 issue

Catherine Anyango Grünewald

An Elemental Man

from the February 2019 issue

Narrative Missteps, Unconvincing Characters Plague Lina Wolff’s “The Polyglot Lovers”

Reviewed by Lily Meyer

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. 

Lucílio Manjate

An Interview with Réka Mán-Várhegyi

An Interview with Yalçın Tosun

An Interview with Évelyne Trouillot

Suleiman Al-Mamari

Badriya Al-Badri

Jokha Alharithi

Abdul Aziz Al-Omairi

Reem Al-Laawati

Aisha Al-Saifi

Radwa El Barouni

Zaynab Dia

Rawad Wehbe

Ghayde Ghraowi

Mbate Pedro

Hélder Faife

Sandra Tamele

Rogério Manjate

First Read—From “The White Book”

Catalina Mena

Against Valentine’s Day: 7 International Love Stories for the Antiromantic in You

The Translator’s Bookshelf

Words Without Borders Receives National Endowment for the Arts Grant

The Watchlist: February 2019

The City and the Writer: In San Juan with Frances Negrón-Muntaner

Alia Trabucco Zerán

Eduardo Plaza

We’re Hiring: Digital Marketing & Communications Manager

Best of the B-Sides: Death by Fixation

February 2019

from the February 2019 issue

Conflicting Stories: Our Graphic Issue

Welcome to our thirteenth graphic novel issue, and to our annual celebration of this endlessly expressive genre. The graphic form is consistently urgent, addressing social and political issues with an immediacy that draws readers into lives and settings far from our own. Reflecting our current combative era, the pieces here depict conflicts both personal and political. In settings ranging from the teeming streets of São Paulo to the hermetic lair of a publisher, and with characters ranging from impoverished Korean peasants to Tunisian college students, these works reflect a striking range of existential challenges shaping lives across the globe.   

In GrassSouth Korea’s Keum Suk Gendry-Kim records the harsh life of a Korean girl forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War. Our excerpt details the fatal decision during the Japanese occupation that sets Ok-sun’s fate in motion. Lured by the promise of the education she longs for, Ok-sun happily accepts her impoverished parents’ decision to send her to another family. Her “adoptive parents,” however, turn out to have grimmer plans, and the only schooling she receives comes in the form of the unthinkable. In the section here we see her depleted mother’s dilemma—if one’s child can have a better life elsewhere, is it better to give her up?—and her desperate justification: “Isn’t it a good thing she won’t starve?” Neither Ok-sun nor her sorrowful parents anticipate the brutal results. Gendry-Kim has published several graphic novels, as well as illustrated books for children; her work focuses on the lives of the marginalized.

Hélène Aldeguer’s After the Spring transports us to Tunisia in 2013, as two college students grapple with political instability, unemployment, and disillusionment. Two years after the Arab Spring, the young women witness a violent throwback to the spark that led to the uprising. Aldeguer’s characters struggle with the divisions within Tunisia, and with their own ambitions in the context of their homeland’s upheaval. When the traumatized Cheyma cries, “He was only twenty-seven! Barely older than we are,” she implicitly challenges her own political stance. And when Meriem pulls her headscarf back on before stepping onto her balcony, while Cheyma remains bareheaded, we sense the possibility of yet another clash. Known for her work on political and social topics and foreign affairs, Aldeguer won the Prix de la Fondation Raymond Leblanc for Après le printemps: une jeunesse tunisienne, from which this excerpt comes.

Families are also torn apart in Didier Kassaï’s “City of Fear,” from the author’s two volumes of reportage chronicling the conflict raging in the Central African Republic. Since François Bozizé's government fell to the Séléka rebels in 2013, the country has been ravaged by battles between the predominantly Muslim rebels and their majority-Christian opponents. The excerpt here documents the atrocities committed by the bloodthirsty rebels: “Those who cooperate come out unscathed. Those who fight back, don’t.” Our first writer from the Central African Republic, Kassaï divides his time between his graphic documentaries and work for aid agencies disseminating crucial information to the largely illiterate public. With “City of Fear,” he joins our other graphic depiction of civil war in Africa, "A Whim of the Gods," Hippolyte and Patrick de Saint-Exupéry’s portrayal of Rwandan carnage. 

On the lighter side, we’re delighted to present the English-language debut of the Czech team of Vojtěch Mašek and Džian Baban with “Scenes from Schlechtfreund.” In a series of identical meetings, an elderly publisher, head of the house that bears his name, rejects the tepid proposals of a timid short story writer. The writer invokes Chekhov; unmoved, the publisher counters with Kafka and a startling proposal of his own. Mašek and Baban’s earlier collaborations have snared multiple Czech comics prizes, including the most important, the Muriel; just a few days ago Mašek added another for his collaboration on Svatá Barbora (Saint Barbara). 

And Brazil’s André Diniz confesses his ambivalence about a longterm relationship. Given his laments (“She’s beautiful, then she’s hideous. I love her, and I hate her”), you might assume he’s conflicted about a romantic partner, but his mixed emotions are directed to his decidedly unsentimental adoptive city of São Paulo. Diniz, who hails from Rio, catalogs the things he likes (“the people, the urban culture, Republica Square . . .”), then turns around and snipes, “Though I could never explain why I liked them, because they epitomize everything I hate.”  Diniz, a Brazilian now living in Lisbon, is the author of Morro da Favela (Picture a Favela), a portrait of Rio and the Morro da Providência published in Brazil, France, England, Portugal, and Poland.

We wish our experience of conflict could be restricted to what we find in books. But if you’d like a break from more familiar battles, do take a look at the ones we’re presenting here. We think they provide singular insight into the lives and minds of others. And we hope you’ll have no argument with that.

© 2019 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

Read more from the February 2019 issue
from the February 2019 issue

The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta

In this first installment of Sang Young Park's novella, a filmmaker enlists to earn money for an independent film and finds himself caught up in an even more personal project. Read the second installment here

Listen to Sang Young Park read "The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta" in the original Korean.


It started off as another quiet, boring day. I sat in the rundown office of a queer film production company in the Jongno district, going around the usual illegal downloading sites and typing in “desiring sleeping muscle boy” in search windows.

Posting no. 701045 on your company website is in violation of the copyright of the work Desiring the Sleeping Muscle Boy. Please take measures to delete this posting immediately.

I was in charge of this movie, if it could really be called a movie; it really was just a video of a couple of muscled young guys having sex. The working title had been closer to the film’s true point—Eating Out the Sleeping Muscle Boy—but the Korea Media Rating Board had nixed it. The boy-next-door aw-shucks hotness of the two stars made it a big hit on the file-sharing platforms popular with gays. I sat there day after day in the moldy smell of that Jongno office, clicking “REPORT THIS POST” on files infringing on our copyright. To think I almost killed myself graduating from film school for this, I used to think once upon a time. But I was on the other side of thirty before I knew it, with only sheer gratitude for having a job that paid a regular salary.

3 p.m., an unexpected call from Mija.

Mija has a big voice and a forthright personality (like me), so naturally we both fought a lot in college before ending up friends. She produced what was both my graduation project and first full-length feature. When the film was finished, she declared that I was an asshole and she wasn’t going to take it anymore and abandoned me to work for a multiplex franchise, rising quickly through the ranks to mid-level manager in record time thanks to her bulldozer personality. Mija was one of my drinking buddies and one of my last few real connections in the film industry. She laid down her concerns in her usual prevaricating yet rapid-fire delivery.

Her company’s multiplex branch in the city of P— just outside of Seoul wasn’t doing well, so they were doing a retrospective on a film director I’ll call K. This K hadn’t been feted much during his lifetime, but his innovative cinematography and modernist characterization were being posthumously lauded by the critics. They were going to show K’s most famous work Lovers that day, followed by a Q&A with hipster film director Daniel Oh. The moderator they had hired had pulled out four hours before the event, and Mija said the first replacement that came to mind was her most artistic and least busy friend, me.

You’ll be saving my life if you come.

Forget it. I’m a nobody.

What are you talking about? You’re a film director. A film festival finalist.

A finalist six years ago. I hadn’t been a “film director” since that first and last feature-length film of mine had disappeared from the face of the earth. She must’ve been desperate.

Don’t be an idiot, Mija. I can’t. I’ve never even seen a movie by K.

You can see the stupid film when you’re here. I’ll give you your questions. You just have to bullshit through it like you always do when you’re on stage.

You know how much I hate Director Oh. I won’t go.

I know you hate him. But that’s why I’m on my knees right now. Please.

When I was making my film, it was Mija who had filled out the mountain of paperwork that allowed me to get funding from the Korean Film Council. It was also Mija who had submitted my movie to every independent film festival in the country. Mija, sensing my hesitation, went for the kill.

I’ll give you free movie ticket exchange coupons. Twenty of them!


Fine. Thirty free coupons. I’ll even invite you to the after-party. And bring some friends. This retrospective is turning out to be a disaster.


Like all the other major redevelopment projects in Korea, P— City was antiseptic and free of pedestrians. Wangsha waved his hand as I walked down the straight line of a street towards him and the multiplex. Wangsha was the only friend who had accepted my sudden movie invitation. Like always, he wore tight tracksuit pants and a muscle shirt. He must’ve come from Pilates. A year ago, he declared his intention to become a flight attendant and quit his job at the National Agricultural Co-op. He has been unemployed since. He took classes in flight attendant preparation and foreign languages and applied to every foreign carrier but failed to secure a spot, perhaps because of his relatively advanced age, which would be mid-thirties. Now he was addicted to Pilates and basically lived in a Pilates center, which was nearby P—. His face looked gaunter than when I saw him last. He even had a beard. Quite a departure from the well-groomed Wangsha I’d been used to.

Thanks for coming. What’s up with your face? You look exhausted.

Yeah. I’m trying out for Qatar Airways so I’m losing weight. They like the lean and sharp look there.

Wangsha looked at his watch and grabbed my hand. We were late. We ran into the theater.

Despite Mija’s fears, the theater was packed. Mija whispered to me that fans of a male idol singer rumored to be sleeping with hipster director Oh had bought out the seats in bulk. We walked towards our seats up front. Director Oh, the star of today’s Q&A, was already standing there. We were meeting each other for the first time since the Diversity Film Festival five or six years back. Our entries had been neck-and-neck until the end where Oh’s film won. His film was released by a major distributor and adored by critics. Oh went on to make a mainstream tearjerker exploiting the story of social minorities and it bombed most satisfyingly. I thought I would never hear from him again until he changed his name to Daniel Oh and resurfaced as a social media star, remaking his image as an artsy hipster by posting sentimental pictures about nothing and Tweets blathering on about nothing. Unlike the neat, shiny profile pic he used on his accounts, Oh looked much older and drained compared to six years ago. 

He nodded in greeting. Long time no see, Director Park.

No kidding. Haven’t seen you in a while. I heard I was talking to “Daniel” so I thought the Q&A was with some idol kid. No idea it was you. (Of course I knew it was him.) It’s a fake name, right? Or should I say pseudonym?

A fortuneteller told me my name was getting in the way of my success. I changed it to something more auspicious.

The fortuneteller named him Daniel? Did this fortuneteller study the Four Pillars of Fortunetelling in New Jersey or something? Everyone in the film world knew he had a chip on his shoulder about his old-fashioned real name. What a joke. His bullshitting hasn’t changed at all. Mija told us the movie was about to start and practically pushed us into our seats. Oh surreptitiously glanced at all the people staring at him and sat down in the middle of the front row and crossed his legs. Wangsha and I ran away to a couple of corner seats at the very back.

I whispered to Wangsha, That asshole is the “fake fag” I told you about.

Wangsha raised an eyebrow. The movie began.


The actors’ faces shone on the dim black-and-white screen. Wangsha looked as if he were totally immersed in the film as he craned his neck in the seat next to mine. His posture was usually perfect, so it was weird seeing him in such an awkward position. Nothing much happened half an hour into the movie. One meaningless line followed another. Was this the “modernism” critics liked to blabber on about? So fucking boring. I had no idea what questions I was supposed to ask about this thing. I should’ve just said no and done overtime at work. But it was too late. I kept nodding off like a sick chicken. Wangsha jabbed my side with his elbow.

You’re snoring.

I slunk in my seat and leaned on his shoulder. Wangsha sighed and leaned back so I could lay my head down on him more comfortably. Wangsha used to lend me his shoulder and thigh often because I suffered from insomnia. There was a hint of Chanel Bleu. It was his current favorite scent. I was the one who nicknamed him “King Chanel”—Wangsha for short—because even in our unit in the military, he always put on Chanel perfume. Was that really ten years ago? We never would’ve thought back then that we’d have this relationship in our thirties. The characters in the film were spooning in a dark attic room. A tiny beam of light leaked through the beams of the shoddily made roof. The actress covered her eyes with her hand. Light dropped on her fingertips. I stretched my hand toward the screen and looked at my short fingernails. Wangsha raised his hand and gripped it tight.

This scene, this touch, was something I knew all too well.


We were lying in our barracks made of shipping containers, at the Zaytun Division in Iraq.

We were in the same night watch shift and had returned to the barracks in the morning, drunk on alcohol we’d hidden. We were the only ones there. We had embraced each other as soon as we entered, kissed, lay down on the bedding, and intertwined our fingers together. The black paper stuck on the windows slightly fluttered with every pass of the electric fan, and tiny slivers of light seeped through cracks in the windowsill. Through the light I could see Wangsha’s wet lips, his narrow nose that expelled deep breaths, the droplets of sweat on his eyebrows, and my face reflected in his eyes. It was quiet as anything in the desert that morning except for the sound of our breathing filling the barracks. Through barely open eyelids, we stared at each other’s faces as we came at the same time. We spooned on the narrow bed and caught our breath. A tiny shaft of light from the windowsill pierced my eyes. I raised a hand to block it. Wangsha grasped my hand. We lay there for a while, hand in hand.

Wangsha had been the first to let go.

This isn’t what I wanted.

When I heard him say this, I realized that this was very much what I had wanted. I thought, This is what I had wanted to do. This is what I had wanted all along, what I had hoped for so badly. Always, from the beginning. Always.


I went to Iraq to make a queer film the likes of which the world had never seen. 

The independent film scene was swept up in a queer film wave when I was in college. I watched every queer flick that opened in Korea out of my natural-born duty as a queer, but I was disappointed each time. The films were melodramatic or transparently political, and far from the realities of real gay men (in other words, from myself). It was almost enough to make me homophobic.

I decided to use my disgust as creative energy to become something completely different. I was going to make a 100 percent pure queer movie that did not flaunt my queerness like a medal or consume it through the objectification of melodrama. What really lit the flame of my ambition was the young Spanish director EL, who wrote his first full-length feature script at nineteen, produced the film by twenty-three, and thrillingly debuted at Cannes the next year. I was a twenty-two-year-old undergrad and dazzled by the magic of his success story. Determined to be the EL of the East, I decided to take a leave of absence from school and make a film that would stun the world and get me into Cannes. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t come up with a script that would turn this world around; I only managed to turn my stomach. Like so many failed film students before me, I ended up running away into my military conscription duties instead, vowing that I’d return someday as the hot new thing debuting at Cannes.

I jumped to volunteer for Iraq as soon as the deployment option was announced around the end of my year as private first-class. I needed the money. A six-month tour would come with twelve million won in cash. I thought I could easily film two short films on that, or even—with a little help—one full-length feature. Blinded by hope, I applied for the selection process without telling anyone (I didn’t want to jinx it) and got in.

We were trained at Gwangju in Gyeonggi Province for a month before deployment. “Zaytun,” the name of the deployment division, meant “olive,” a symbol of peace and renewal. I was to become a guard for the base or work in village reconstruction projects, contributing to said peace and renewal. But I had a feeling that it was going to be more of a glorified labor camp, and it didn’t take too long to prove me right.

My posting at the Zaytun Division was a unit that painted murals.

Like everything else in the military, it all happened because of a random comment by an officer. A colonel took one look at the large bomb-shelter wall surrounding the Zaytun Base grounds and said, “That wall looks a little empty.” His words threw the entire division into a frenzy. Our platoon leader ordered any serviceman who had majored in art to paint a mural. There was a base-wide effort to secure soldiers with visual art backgrounds among the new arrivals. This turned out only three out of the 200 soldiers, which prompted a widening of parameters to include any arts major, bringing the unit headcount to a grand total of five.

The troop’s first project took four full days. I’m calling it a project now, but we were basically thrown five colors and told to finish a mural that covered the entire wall in five days. The three visual arts majors talked it over and it took only half a minute to decide on a landscape that would appeal to taste-challenged middle-aged Korean men like our colonel. C was a western painting major and he drew the underlying sketch. A, an industrial design major, decided the color, and animation major C colored in the mural. Me and a tall soldier, who was older than us by a year, were in charge of mixing the paints into new colors. We learned then that five colors were all you needed to create almost every color in the world. We came up with what was clearly a rushed homage to Bob Ross. But our strategy seemed to have worked as the colonel seemed pleased enough. In fact, he was so impressed with our initiative that he decided to make us into a permanent unit. The purpose of the Zaytun Division was to help in reconstruction efforts in the cities of Iraq devastated by the war, and murals were a good way to showcase such efforts. That’s how our mural-painting subdivision became an offshoot of the guards.

All of the mural painters were privates, and everyone was twenty-two years old except the older one. The art-school privates, like most twenty-two-year-old heterosexual males, went on and on about their totally boring lives. I was completely uninterested in their freshman sexual hijinks, but I had to get along with them whether I liked them or not. So I talked about my own short but sweet sexual exploits, albeit with the genders switched out. While we worked on forcing this artificial camaraderie, the tall and older private kept his mouth firmly shut. His shoulders were wide and his body taut with slim muscles, his face slightly menacing with his slightly protruding brow; he looked more like a physical education or martial arts student than an arts student. His age also made us careful around him. He had the rare family name of Wang. I couldn’t help asking him about it.

Hey Wang-hyoung, are you Chinese?

Yup. I’m Korean-Chinese.


No. I wouldn’t be here if I were.

There were other odd things about him, aside from that sense of humor, and the one that stood out for me was his scent. He was obsessed with being clean. He always showered as soon as he got back to the barracks. In the shower he washed his underwear with the same citrus-scented body wash he used on his body, as if he hated to give off any body odor whatsoever. If that wasn’t enough, he sprayed every corner of his naked body with deodorant, in the grave manner of a funeral director dispensing an arduous but necessary ritual. Once when he went to spin his washing in the spin dryer, I took a peek at his metal perfume bottle shaped like a water bottle. CHANEL ALLURE HOMME SPORT. I had no idea Chanel made men’s stuff. Seeing how even his deodorant was Chanel, I figured he was a big Chanel fan. I christened him “Wang Chanel” and let it be known throughout the subdivision.

I didn’t expect to become that close to Wangsha at first. I was a little intimidated by his height, his wide shoulders, and his abnormally long limbs. Plus I was a bit attracted to him. I tried not to let it show, but sexual tension, like food in a warm meal tray nearing the end of a meal, tends to give off more smell with time. I tried to keep it concealed and kept my distance from him as much as possible, but I still caught myself staring at him, and there were times our eyes met and I quickly looked away. Wangsha was also a bit cold and distant with me. Of course, he was like that with everyone.

Our duties primarily consisted of going around the reconstructed schools of Erbil and painting murals on their walls. The citizens of Erbil seemed to have positive impressions of the Zaytun Division. Like the American GIs during the Korean War, we carried provisions with us to give to children. The kids came running out before our cars were even parked. We had about fifteen Special Forces personnel protecting us as we painted. Interaction with the children was loosely regulated. Because of the wall of heavily armed Special Forces guys between them and us, we basically had to toss our provisions for the kids on the other side to catch. Wangsha, always expressionless when he was with us, would greet the children with the biggest smile, so big you could see, like, thirty of his teeth. I couldn’t help staring at his smile. Wangsha, despite how it pissed off the Special Forces guys, couldn’t help saying hello to the kids and asking their names in English, and sometimes he would squeeze their hands or pat their heads when our guards weren’t looking. It made me wonder if he had a kid in Korea. The kids recognized him as an ally and followed him around as we worked. He liked to teach them Korean pop songs. He had brought an MP3 player from Korea, from which flowed songs by Deuce, Turbo, So Chan Hui, and Chae Jung An. And from that unspeakably dry desert came forth the singing of Wangsha and the children. Sometimes, Wangsha would get so into it that he danced for them. He was a virtual K-pop encyclopedia and knew the lyrics and choreography to every song. I have never seen anyone love music and dancing more than Wangsha, and I doubt I ever will. If Confucius is right in saying that real success means knowing how to really enjoy something, Wangsha should’ve been a star. I didn’t know then that liking something was one thing and being good at it was another. And that becoming successful at it was yet another thing.

Wangsha played with the children while the other subdivision members waited for the paint to dry, engaging in their usual blather. C, the western painting major, said he was going to drop out of art school and open an Italian restaurant. He exposed his rather overblown ambition to become rich, saying he wanted to grow the restaurant into a chain. B wanted to study in the US and become an animator for Pixar. I wasn’t crazy enough to tell them about my dream to film a queer movie and enter Cannes, so I made up something about using the deployment money for college tuition.

News of the Erbil mural-painting soldiers spread like wildfire. A whole lot of schools put in mural requests, and what started out as two murals a week got out of hand. We still had to do our original guard duties within the regulation three-shift cycle, so all our spare time was spent going into town for the murals. None of us slept more than four hours a night. We were only given about four days per mural and soon it was impossible to come up with a new picture every time. We decided to create a set of characters that we could draw quickly no matter when and where. The fight started when we were trying to choose the characters. B had chosen a Pokémon character and Wangsha said it was plagiarism, that we were better off coming up with new, Korean-style characters. C, the western painting major, agreed with Wangsha. B and I argued that Pokémon characters were easy to copy from and the Iraqi kids loved them, so what was the big deal? Wangsha complained that there was no point in doing any of this mural painting if we weren’t going to express originality. I started grumbling.

Why the hell are we talking about originality? None of us came to Iraq to do art.

What do you think art is? This is art. We’re communicating something to the Iraqi children. Movie people like you don’t get it, movies aren’t a pure art form.

Uh, excuse you? And what kind of pure and exalted art did you do before coming here?

Modern dance.

Modern dance? Did you crawl on the floor and say you’re a dog? Wear black clothes and say you’re a black dot? Take a dump on stage? I bet you’re famous for that shit, literally. For “communicating something” and “real art.”

Wangsha threw a punch at my face. I grabbed his collar and our bodies were soon entangled on the floor. The other soldiers in our unit pulled us apart. The argument, complete with hand-to-hand combat, came to an end as we decided on a shitty compromise that everybody hated, of mixing original characters and Pokémons.

The barracks were unpleasant for a while. But whatever. We were too busy and didn’t have enough sleep. We didn’t have the wherewithal to care about awkward feelings. We got a new duty schedule a few days later and Wangsha and I were put in the same night-watch rotation. We had to dress in full gear and walk nine kilometers relying only on each other. We weren’t gnashing our teeth at each other or anything, but I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, either.

That night, Wangsha and I walked the length of the bomb-shelter wall, weighed down by our gear. I was thinking of how standing night watch with a ghost would be less awkward when I caught the faint scent of something. A strong citrus smell. The desert is relentless with its sandstorms and little tornadoes, so we always wore a mask up to our eyes and a military-issue handkerchief over that. And the smell cut through that double-armor. How much perfume do you have to douse yourself with? It was biological warfare. I grumbled, Ah, perfume. I wasn’t saying it to Wangsha but Wangsha lowered his mask and spoke.

Sorry. I think my body stinks.

I told him he was surely the least stinky person on the face of the earth. Wangsha thanked me. I hadn’t meant it as a compliment.

But why Chanel? I didn’t even know they had perfume for men. Is Chanel a big deal?

It’s just Chanel. I like it. You know what it is just by the name. It could never be anything else.

Spraying on Chanel doesn’t make you Chanel, I wanted to say, but didn’t. I suddenly had a feeling. He might be on our side. There are lots of heterosexuals obsessed with perfume but there was something gay about the point he just made. Plus, he was a modern dance major. Just when I was sunk in this prejudice-dripping gay fantasy, a sandstorm began to blow. I turned my head to the opposite direction and closed my eyes. The wind died down. I put down my gun, took off the handkerchief, and shook it twice. It rained sand. Wangsha spat out the sand in his mouth on the ground. Then, he spoke.

Do you know what’s funny?

This better be actually funny. What?

I did perform as a black dot. At the Berlin Tanzolymp.

That’s so Korean of you.

Fuck you. And why did you drop the polite form and stop calling me “hyoung”?

Because I outrank you by fifteen days?


I’ll call you hyoung if you want.

Forget it. Just call me what you call me.

Wangsha the Chanel Fanatic it is.

Wangsha smiled half-assedly. When he did so, his cheekbones looked fit to burst. Adorable. I asked what made his geriatric ass volunteer for the Zaytun Division and he said he wanted to experience something new. That all he did before the military was practice dancing fourteen hours a day and enter every international dance competition he could. I got the feeling he’d had a lot more experience than most (poorer) twenty-somethings but didn’t say so. I asked him something else.

But why modern dance? It’s not the most popular thing to do.

Wangsha said he became an artist because of his father. His father had grown up poor and had a reverence for the arts typical of self-made men. He had not wanted his precious only son, born after seven years of marriage, to mortgage his entire life on material success. Wangsha received all kinds of arts education from the time he was young—music, art, golf, horseback-riding—but nothing took. Then, in middle school, he saw a modern dance performance that was like a call from God. He begged his father to let him take it and it opened a new door for him. His long limbs and excellent sense of rhythm were perfect for modern dance. Determined to become the Charles Wideman of the East, he practiced for fourteen hours every day. He did turn out to be talented because he got into an arts high school in Seoul despite having started late. But that’s when it all went wrong. His long limbs weren’t enough to take him to the next level, and by the time he learned this, there was only so much that his efforts could do for him; it was too late. And that wasn’t all. Wangsha had never wanted for anything growing up, his father being an executive at a chaebol conglomerate, but the astronomical lesson fees made him realize just how scary capitalism was. Like his fellow male upperclassmen in arts high school and art school, he worked hard to win an international arts competition that would exempt him from military conscription. Beginning in high school, he entered practically every international modern dance competition in the world but never got past the preliminary round. He started collecting perfume at airport duty-free shops and started spraying himself incessantly and brushing his teeth until his gums bled. He even became anorexic. After years of this, he ended up with a whole display case in his room full of perfume bottles. And right before he entered the military, he managed to make the finals of very prominent dance competitions in Greece and Germany. Determined to give it one last shot, he devoted even more time to practicing and lost more weight. But his work, “I Am Just a Small Dot in the World,” did not win. After all that time, money, and effort, he ended up as a conscript anyway.

I knew I wasn’t talented enough. I got as far as I did through sheer bloody-mindedness.

He sounded like he had experienced every hardship in the universe, and I did briefly think it was just the whining of a rich little boy who had no idea what it meant to fight for his survival. But I wasn’t so naïve as to not understand that everyone had their own unhappiness in life. I nodded and said something in consolation. Wangsha asked me why I got into film.

Because of insomnia.

What does that have to do with film?

Nothing much. I couldn’t sleep at night, so I watched a lot of boring movies. I still couldn’t sleep, so I tried writing scripts that were even more boring than those art films and softcore porn. And now I don’t know how to do anything else.

You snore really well for an insomniac.

Iraq cured me. Maybe I was Iraqi in a former life.


We walked the desert without talking. At a much closer distance than before. I kept a half-step behind him. No matter how heavy our gear, his back was always ramrod-straight, his neck long and poised. The back of his head, half-covered by his cap, was perfectly round like a well-kept funeral mound. My eyes were fixed on it as we walked.

The sun began to rise. We finished our shift and went into the barracks together. Unlike the bright outdoors, the barracks were black as night. They’d stuck black paper on the windows so the night watch could sleep. We woke the next shift and went to the container next door for showers. The barracks were empty by the time we got back. We sat in our respective beds in our underwear, enjoying the air-conditioning and massaging our heavy legs. I prevented my eyes from sliding to Wangsha’s crotch by turning my head away. Wangsha spoke in an emotionless voice.

Actually, today’s the day my dad died.

I didn’t know he had passed. When?

I don’t know whether he’s alive or not. He went missing five years ago. We reported him missing today so today is the day he’s declared legally dead.

What happened?

He went to Saudi Arabia five years ago for a power plant project. It was supposed to be a six-month thing but it kept getting extended. Then we got a call. He’d disappeared. He left all his things in his apartment. His passport and everything. Everyone thinks he was kidnapped or had an accident. But I don’t think so. I think he’s in hiding.


I just got a feeling. He was going to get fired once he came back. The power plant business was good for a time. Then not so good. The whole Saudi Arabia post was really a step down. He was a pretty proud guy, so he would’ve chosen to disappear over being fired. That’s the kind of man he was. Proud, obsessed with honor. A middle-aged man who would rather run away than look pitiful. He also had this romantic notion or other about freedom. Like some men his age have. Pushing his only son into the arts was part of it. He kept telling me to live freely. But he confined me in the arts. That’s pretty sad. I don’t know enough about his life to tell you why he wanted freedom so much.

He had an affair with a Middle Eastern woman. That’s the only answer.

I hope that’s the case.

Sorry. Bad joke.

No, I really hope so. I hope he’s alive somewhere. After he disappeared, I looked into his bank account and found there was nothing there. I probably spent all of it on my dancing. And he probably got rid of some of it himself.

I see. Is that why you’re in Iraq?

Not really. It’s not like he disappeared here.


That bastard. I wonder if he’s really dead?

Wangsha stared at nothing as if he were waiting for a pot to boil. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. Wangsha’s eyes teared up. Unconsciously, I reached out to his bed and rubbed the tears away.

You OK?

Wangsha looked at me askance.


I coughed, embarrassed. Wangsha placed a hand on my shoulder.

Normally I want to kick the shit out of you. But you’re cute now and then.

My heart began to thud. Afraid he’d feel it through my shoulder, I maneuvered out of his grasp. Wangsha came and sat right next to me. He whispered, Could you keep a secret? I’ve liked you all this time. I’ve never felt like this before. Was he going to say some yaoi shit like that? I flushed, thinking of the possibilities. I kept my voice steady. What?

You wanna get drunk?

Wangsha left me behind to go to his locker as I briefly stopped breathing from disappointment. He brought back a liter-sized plastic bottle. Bulk soju, used in homemade wine-making.

I stole it from the last supply run.

I promised to keep it a secret, saying, Isn’t this enough for five people? I was still disappointed, but I wasn’t going to say no to my first taste of alcohol in three months, so I said,Wang-hyoung, I love you! in a very heterosexual way and hugged him. We grabbed those Pringles and Gosomi crackers that we never ran out of in the barracks and began to drink.

Drinking after three months of sobriety was fantastic. So fantastic that I drank enough to forget how fantastic it was. Wangsha, too. His face was red and had a stupid grin. He looked genuinely happy, and therefore, cute. The soju in the once full bottle began to dwindle. I kept feeling that I would burst into tears if I laughed too hard. Never had I felt my emotions shift by the second before. I wasn’t the only one who was really drunk. Wangsha, almost gone, hugged me. I hugged him back, hard. I don’t know who started to kiss whom.

© Sang Young Park. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.

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from the January 2019 issue

In “HELL,” Alasdair Gray Creates a Celtic, Wind-lashed Translation of Dante’s “Inferno”

Reviewed by Jamie Mackay

By fusing a dialect-laden verse with knowledge and respect for Dante’s original, the Scottish writer and illustrator has built a bridge across borders and nations.

Since the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri finished his Divina Commedia, in 1320, more than one hundred different translations of his work have been published in English, over a dozen in this decade alone. The selection currently available caters to various tastes and purposes. Allen Mandelbaum’s blank-verse effort, studied in thousands of classrooms and universities around the world, remains the canonical go-to and has been recognized as such by Italy’s literary establishment. Then there is Robert Pinsky’s Inferno, more lyrical, though arguably less faithful. It remains one of the most popular among international readers. Beyond these quite different tomes, however, new interpretations continue to pop up every couple of years, often with the proclaimed intention of making this masterpiece “more accessible.” Mary Jo Bang has adapted the Inferno admirably, in a jazzy and virtuosic free-verse. Similarly, Clive James has produced a vigorous, slang-inflected edition of the same text, the first and better-known section of Dante’s tripartite work, also composed of the cantos of Purgatory and Paradise. The J. G. Nichols edition is comparatively archaic, though none the worse for it, and has been praised for communicating the essential rhythm of the poems like never before. And this is to name just three of the most high-profile recent examples. The question, then, is unavoidable: do we really need yet another attempt? 

For Alasdair Gray, the resounding response is “yes.” Despite all the noise, he argues in the introduction of his newly released translation of the Inferno, there remain new ways to play with Dante. The Divine Comedy, he writes, is a text “like the Bible,” with almost endless possible interpretations, and opportunities to pose new questions, and answers. It is a masterpiece to be revered, reread and, ultimately, rewritten. With the all-caps title of HELL, in place of the more customary utilization of the original Italian title, the eighty-three-year-old Scottish novelist makes his characteristically bold stamp on one of the world’s most beloved poems. 

It has been a long time coming. From his 1981 novel, Lanark, to his many short stories, Gray’s work has long borne the marks of Dante’s influence. His imaginative worlds, his mythological vision, the ease with which he traverses the fields of folklore and high art all are prominent qualities of his work that suggest an affinity with the Florentine writer. This can also be felt in regard to Gray’s work as an illustrator, which often uses techniques inspired by illuminated manuscripts and medieval woodcarvings to evoke sublime scenes, such as those depicted in his extraordinary murals at Glasgow’s Òran Mór auditorium. These two features combine in this new volume, where Gray’s dense but characteristically playful language is positioned neatly alongside sharp neoclassical etchings of Dante and his spirit guide Virgil. The result is dreamlike, fantastical, and entirely appropriate to the subject matter. 

Yet if Dante’s task in the fourteenth century was to fuse a sort of “everyday religiosity” with the then-new stylistics of courtly love poetry, Gray’s challenge today is almost the reverse. Instead of taking everyday superstitions of faith and ennobling them in a novel form, HELL is more concerned with reemphasizing the colloquialism and familiarity with which the Florentine public would have received the original text. This is something that’s too often lost in English translations of Dante’s work, which have a tendency to replace quite accessible meditations on faith, morality, and destiny with bloated, unapproachable metaphysics. Gray, who in addition to close-reading Dante has spent a lifetime mastering a flowing lyrical Scots, seems to have tasked himself with liberating the text from this unfortunate heritage. His success is evident from the opening lines:

In middle age I wholly lost my way, 

finding myself within an evil wood 

far from the right straight road we all should tread.


And what a wood! So densely tangled, dark,

jaggily thorned. So hard to press on through,

even the memory renews my dread. 

A neologism, a romantic caesura. This is immediately quite different from Mandelbaum’s scholarly approach, which in the equivalent translation maintains a more rigid and antiquated tenor with lines like “for I had lost the path that does not stray.” In fact, Gray has cut large sections entirely—he has even jokingly described the effort as “paraphrasing” —and there are, predictably, and fittingly given the author’s intentions, no footnotes. Instead, this “prosaic verse” pushes forward with an unabashed vernacular-laden vitality, designed to capture the spirit, and dark humor, of the original Italian. At one point, for example, our narrator refers to his spirit guide, Virgil, as a “dominie” (a Scots word for a schoolmaster), while his own procrastination is simply “blethering” (rambling). Phrases like these just cry out to be read aloud, preferably in a thick Glaswegian accent.  

There are a few original jokes as well, largely at the expense of the British ruling class. The Guelfs and Ghibellines, for example, are transfigured, a little clunkily, into Tories and Whigs, the UK’s eighteenth-century parliamentary groupings. Later, in a more pleasing and successful riff, Satan himself becomes “God’s prime minister.” There is quite enough political indignation, though, in Dante’s original narrative, and Gray is more successful where he strives to convey the poem’s more revolutionary cadences free from modish pretense: 

Within a city or a nation state

Great force or cunning can accumulate

Properties, making some cliques dominate


Until the angel with so many names—

Luck, chance, fate, fortune, mutability— 

Makes new cliques prosper, other cliques decay,


Whether by vice or virtue, who can say?

But those who trust, not virtue, but to luck

Have gone astray, aye, very far astray. 

For all his cuts and innovations, as passages like this show, Gray has stuck more closely to the medieval source than, say, Bang’s attempt. This is particularly evident in terms of tone and rhythm. Terza rima, the form that Dante invented to tell his narrative, is notoriously difficult to render in English on account of the relative glut of rhyming words in Italian. Previous translators have usually been forced to abandon it all together, or risk an almost sing-song style, plagued by alien and archaic words. In HELL, Gray finds an effective compromise. Where it feels natural he uses end rhyme, following Dante. Where it doesn’t, he settles for internal rhyme. Simple. But it’s a brave decision and, despite a subsequent over-reliance on end-stopped lines, he pulls it off with style. 

By fusing a dialect-laden verse with knowledge and respect for Dante’s original, Gray has, almost inadvertently, built a bridge across borders and nations. Yes, this is a strange, idiosyncratic, individual text, but it is at the same time an undeniably Scottish one. This is not an English, American, or Australian Dante, one that smells of campus libraries or open mic nights, but a Celtic, wind-lashed fantasy of medieval Italy. With humility, and great skill, Gray has shown that his own voice, and those of his compatriots, are as capable of participating in global, canonical storytelling as any other community, Anglophone or otherwise. HELL is a beautiful text, made even more remarkable by the political implications of Gray’s artistic accomplishment. It is also a timely reminder of the truth contained in Italo Calvino’s famous quip: “A classic book has never finished what it has to say.” 

© 2019 by Jamie Mackay. All rights reserved.

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