Our annual January archive issue this year comes at a moment of urgency: in two weeks, the US’s first Black vice president, Kamala Harris, will be sworn in, after four years of divisive politics in which racism figured heavily. Less than a year after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led to renewed Black Lives Matter protests and a reckoning across American society, literary publishers—including this magazine—are seeking to address the deficit of Black writers published each year.
The magnitude of the hole is clear, but data that might inform solutions is scattered and, sometimes, nonexistent—another indication, perhaps, of just how steep the climb out will be. A few quick examples, though, can be quite illustrative: in the New York Times “Globetrotting” list for 2020, only twelve of 224 titles listed there are from Africa; nine are in translation, but almost all of those are from French, and of the four writers from sub-Saharan Africa, only one identifies as Black. While the Times list may not make any pretense of comprehensiveness, this one is nonetheless revealing of US publishing’s priorities. Last month, Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek wrote of their efforts to quantify the number of Black writers published in the US between 1950 and 2018, finding that ninety-five percent of English-language books published in the period were authored by white writers. It’s tempting to guess at what data would have looked like if they had drilled down to translated work. Literary agent Marie Dutton Brown, interviewed for the Times piece, remarks that “Black life and Black culture are rediscovered every ten to fifteen years.” Imagine the impact on Black writing in translation.
Part of the problem stems from larger issues within our industry: corporate (or corporate-minded) publishers looking for the next Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, wittingly or unwittingly narrowing from the get-go what Black writing ought to read like. In an article published last year in the Times Literary Supplement, Colin Grant details some of the problems that have plagued Anglophone literary publishing when it comes to publishing Black writers: differing literary standards for works by white writers and Black writers, and a rush to publish more Black writers that betrays greater concern with avoiding mention alongside the #publishingsowhite hashtag than with developing the careers of Black writers (or as one of our columnists later this month will argue, Black translators). Complicating the scenario further, the barriers faced by Black writers hoping to have their work internationalized can begin before translation is even a consideration, as scholar and activist Franciane Conceição Silva writes in her essay (translated by Bruna Dantas Lobato) for this magazine in 2018.
This is not, of course, to overlook the good work being done—and being done well before we finally began the current reckoning with our shortcomings—by some independent publishers.
There is, as the title of this essay suggests, a secondary problem when it comes to Black literature in translation, which pertains to expectations placed on writers of color, as translator and scholar Corine Tachtiris notes in her recent interview with Project Plume. “Anti-racist translation should actively disrupt racism, whether that’s discursive racism, structural, economic, linguistic racism, and so on. That might be by translating into a racialized English that challenges the White mainstream norm, or by selecting texts that undermine racist stereotypes of other cultures, especially racist formulations that are meant to come off as positive.”
As the writers in our opinion series publishing later this month note, there are solutions where there’s will. PEN Translation Prize finalist Aaron Robertson proposes new ways in which publishers might work to support Black writers and translators, and also charts a path for translators of color to organize. Sandra Tamele, a WWB contributor and founder of Maputo-based Editora Trinta Zero Nove, discusses why she founded a press in Mozambique with the aim of publishing writers there in English translation. Writing of the translation history of Octavia Butler and of her own work, Évelyne Trouillot advocates not only for the more frequent publication of Black writers in translation but also a change in the way this is done.
At Words Without Borders, we have begun to evaluate our own myopia when it’s come to better publishing and promoting Black writers. The danger of the single narrative, a double risk when publishing writers who are Black and write in a language other than English, is pervasive, and we’ll be working with outside advisors to assess and help guide our efforts. As we work to address our own shortcomings through sustainable, structural initiatives aimed at lasting change, we are taking inspiration in the work of Black writers in our archive whose work is testament to the multiplicity of Black life as it confronts structural racism (and its effects) throughout the globe.
In making our selection for this issue, we wished to highlight writing that confronted the various guises and modi operandi of racism. What those active in the struggle for change understand is that it's not just the institutions that buttress racism that must be dismantled but the ideas underpinning them. The essays, stories, and poems this month shed light on the corners where these ideas lurk, which, as we discover in the work of Igiaba Scego and Ricardo Aleixo, pervade the quotidian if only we bother to look. But the Black experience, as activists have urged this year, should not be reduced only to misfortune and struggle. Failure to acknowledge Black joy (also an act of resistance) is but another form of undercutting anti-racist work. Naomi Jackson reminds us of some of the forms this can take in her paean to pan-Africanism via Salvador, Brazil. While selections of any sort fail to adequately capture the whole picture, the writers here harness the strength of literature as, by its very attention to nuance, a form of resistance.
The first of those is Ricardo Aleixo, who combines text and performance in work that explores poetry as both visual and social expression. In this issue, we’re revisiting Dan Hanrahan’s translations of three poems by Aleixo, adding a video performance by Aleixo of his poem “My Man”—a repudiation of the impositions made upon Black identity—especially for this issue.
Like Aleixo’s, the work of Lima Barreto confronts racism head-on. As critic Felipe Botelho Corrêa notes in this 2018 essay, Barreto, a late contemporary of Machado de Assis, expertly diagnosed the disconnect between the realities faced by most of Brazilian society and the European-inspired forms of Brazilian literature at the turn of the century. Taking the opposite tack in “Black Teeth and Blue Hair,” his 1922 short story published in English translation for the first time in our December 2018 issue, Barreto warns that “ignorance is a kind of blindness.” Barreto embraced literature as a means to social change and a clamor for racial justice. When the story’s narrator is mugged, he loses more than his pocket money. Barreto’s is a tale that provokes readers to distrust initial impressions.
Igiaba Scego, meanwhile, in an essay for our April 2016 issue, looks at the persistence of Mussolini-era racism in the form of a popular song. Scego’s essay foreshadowed the proliferation of texts in the US throughout 2020 that reckoned with the surreptitious pervasiveness of racist attitudes in popular childhood songs. “But do people who sing it really know what it means?” Scego asks in her examination of Renato Micheli’s "Faccetta nera."
If the work of other writers in this issue center race and racial consciousness, Germano Almeida’s “A Form of African Identity” traces the deleterious effects of colonialism in impeding solidarities between Cabo Verdeans and other African nations while also writing against the monolithic Africa of the Western imagination. “We led our lives in the serene assurance of being Cabo Verdeans, with the harmless contributing circumstance of also being Portuguese, when this tranquility was abruptly overturned in the 1960s and 70s by the shattering revelation that Cabo Verde was also Africa, in the deepest sense,” Almeida writes. Almeida uses his pen to draw the contours of an identity that allows Cabo Verdeans both their idiosyncrasies and their kinship to other African nations.
Johannes Anyuru, meanwhile, meditates on race, history, and Islam, in Sweden and across Europe, on a journey to the Alhambra. This route begins, perhaps unexpectedly, on the Stockholm metro, where, Anyuru writes, “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.” Tracing his own conversion to Islam, Anyuru later reflects, “If I speak of peace now [ . . . ] 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.” Anyuru’s assertion reminds us: despite calls to the contrary, calls to achieve anti-racist through the elision of difference in fact achieve the opposite.
Magali Nirina Marson’s “Abandoning Myself,” in which a young victim relates the neglect, poverty, and abuse of a life for which she was never destined, reveals the nefarious dalliance between racism, colonialism, and misogyny. The choices left the Malagasy narrator, and her mother, after her French father returns to France, are an indictment of a society.
In “Coloureds,” graphic artists the Trantraal Brothers set their sights on the pipeline fueling persistent social ills. Caught in a milieu of addiction and domestic abuse, children in one township in South Africa find themselves facing poverty, hunger, evangelism, and life-or-death decisions. Availing themselves of the unflinching honesty that is inherent to children, the Trantraal Brothers look at the ways in which the family and social spheres conspire to perpetuate inequality.
Colonialism and Christianity in Nigeria are at the heart of Akinwumi Isola’s story about religious and linguistic identity, targeting the social structures of racism from another vantage point. Selected by 1986 Nobel winner Wole Soyinka for WWB’s The World through the Eyes of Writers anthology, Isola’s “The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English),” takes raucous aim at the hapless evangelizing of a white man whose mission is upended as he spends the bulk of his time attempting to remedy the grammatical confusion he’s wrought in course of his proselytizing.
Impatiently recounting his own “bullshit story,” the Ivorian narrator of an excerpt from Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah Is Not Obliged, armed with the Petit Robert and a slew of other French-language dictionaries, sketches the contours of his “fucked-up life” with cheeky defiance. In this romp through French and pidgin idioms, the narrator zeroes in on the cultural assumptions—often nonsensical to other cultures and, occasionally, even in their original contexts—that underlie our everyday speech and, thus, our attitudes. The pathway leading to “the easy money working as a civil servant in some fucked-up, crooked republic” is closed off to our narrator, whose only form of redress is a foul-mouthed elucidation of the structures keeping him in his place.
In a 2016 essay, New York-based writer Naomi Jackson, author of The Star Side of Bird Hill, takes us along her own intellectual and cultural journey from the Caribbean to West Africa to South Africa, and eventually to Brazil—itself the country, as Jackson notes, with the second-largest Black population in the world after Nigeria. “Given my love for Black people and fascination with our stories, Brazil’s paramount importance in the historical trans-Atlantic slave trade and its contemporary role as a cultural and economic leader on the world stage, it was inevitable that my travels would lead me there,” Jackson writes. From her time in the city of Salvador, she returns more certain than ever of the need for an “evolving dialogue that broadens definitions of global Blackness.”
We hope this issue might serve as both a reminder and a beginning: a reminder of this evolving dialogue's plurality, and one we must acknowledge; the work has only begun.
© 2020 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
There is a legend about a Persian traveler who comes to an Afghan village in search of a good poet. First, he visits the shopkeeper who tells him he is a poet but that the farmer is a better one; then the farmer sends the visitor to the tailor, assuring him that he is really the best poet in the village. And on it goes. Poetry, memoir, fables, proverbs, and stories sit at the heart of Afghanistan, a nation founded by a poet, Ahmad Shah Abdali (also known as Ahmad Shah Durrani), and the birthplace of Rumi.
In modern Afghanistan, years of chronic instability and internal displacement have created a challenging environment for writers of all kinds. Twenty different flags have flown over the country since the beginning of the twentieth century. Changes in rulers, monarchs, emirs, and presidents, as well as revolution, Soviet invasion, and Taliban rule, have led to clashing political ideologies and the imposition of widespread restrictions not only on everyday life but on freedom of speech and expression, particularly for women.
Although there are twenty-two publishers in Kabul alone, Afghanistan has minimal infrastructure for local literary translators and editors, and there is little translation of literary work between language communities and ethnic groups. The majority of Afghan writers who have appeared in English translation are men; most live outside the country, as do the few Afghan women who have carved out lives as writers elsewhere.
What about those writers who cannot leave home, whose imaginative worlds draw on the immediate experience of their day-to-day life? In post-Taliban Afghanistan, the literacy rate of women is still disproportionately low and those who want to write struggle to find support. Yet many of these women sense that it is here, in Afghanistan, with all its insecurity and political volatility, that ideas and themes can flourish. A nation’s upheaval cannot be understood without women's perspectives.
Over the past few years, various one-off projects have encouraged these writers, and some women have featured in anthologies of contemporary writing from Afghanistan. However, it is hard to establish initiatives in what is still a challenging working environment. As a result, the voices of emerging women writers stay unheard.
The four writers featured here come via Untold, a UK-based development program offering writers in areas of conflict and postconflict a space in which to speak for themselves. Untold’s current project, Write Afghanistan, was prompted by a conversation with scriptwriters on Afghanistan’s long-running radio soap opera New Home, New Life. One or two had self-published stories on social media, under pseudonyms for safety’s sake, and only in Dari.
So last year, with support from the British Council, Untold put out a countrywide open call asking for short pieces of fiction from women. We were told to expect about thirty submissions. In fact, more than one hundred and twenty women writers from across Afghanistan sent in stories written in both Dari and Pashto. The stories were sent from internet cafes or home computers; some were written by hand. They explored subjects from the domestic sphere to women’s social and political rights, employing narrative techniques including reportage, folk tales, fables, and allegory. And most were clearly inspired by personal experience.
The bulk of the writers lived in metropolitan areas, including three of those featured here, but a significant number came from more remote, volatile provinces. Some women had never shared their work beyond their households. Maryam Mahjube was inspired by the open call to write two new stories, but it was her sister who actually sent them in, because the author felt she was too inexperienced for her work to be taken seriously. She had had no experience of editing or sharing her work, had never before even rewritten anything, and had not been able to attend any of the rare writers' meetings in the capital.
A team of readers from the Afghan literary community in the UK and Untold’s project manager, Will Forrester, drew up a longlist of twenty writers selected for their strong, original voices and stories with the potential to be developed for a local and a global readership. Budget restrictions meant selecting just ten from this list, in order to work with the writers one on one. Of those ten, four have been selected to appear here. An experienced editor in Sri Lanka, Sunila Galappatti, and Dari and Pashto translators in the UK worked with each writer on her story via WhatsApp; sensitivity to the writer’s safety was of paramount concern.
All four writers mentioned the difficulty of finding the peace and space required to concentrate on writing. Finding the space to write is but one challenge; the war-scarred country feels permanently on edge, locked down long before the pandemic. This atmosphere is conveyed in Sharifa Pasun’s "The Decision," and Maryam Mahjube’s "Turn This Air Conditioner On, Sir," where just leaving the house can be a matter of life or death.
Freshta Ghani had to flee across the border to Tajikistan recently after the radio station where she worked was threatened by the Taliban. She’s been using a pen name since she first began writing secretly at school. Her story, “Daughter Number Eight,” translated from Pashto, reflects her family’s traditional values and the devastating costs of expectations not met. Batool Heydari addresses another tradition in her tale of a man presumed martyred who returns to a painful domestic surprise.
Even in Kabul, opportunities for women to connect with other writers, and to discuss and, eventually, publish work, remain limited. One of Untold’s aims is to help establish a local support framework for women writers and build the capacity of local fiction editors and translators. Write Afghanistan’s remote editorial process continues with the support of the Bagri Foundation. Meanwhile, Batool Heydari now leads a weekly WhatsApp session for the ten writers to share ideas and challenge each other to develop their work.
Maryam Mahjube says she has found a sense of belonging from writing that has eased her isolation. “Among all this, we still carry on with our lives, we pass our days, we read, we dance, we buy books, we write poetry, we write stories, we see friends and family. Stories are like a mirror we hold up to ourselves.”
© 2020 by Lucy Hannah. All rights reserved.
Tragedy strikes a newsroom in Kabul as a journalist scrambles for safety in Sharifa Pasun’s short story set during the Soviet-Afghan War.
She opened the wardrobe, took out her skirt and suit jacket, and shut the doors. After getting dressed, she looked at herself in the three-piece mirror, brushed her hair, and looked again. She admired herself, she thought she looked really good. Her long hair touched her shoulders, shining as the afternoon sun caught it through the window.
There was a pen on the dressing table, which she put in her handbag. She looked at her watch, it was five in the afternoon. Hearing the car horn, she opened the window and looked down from her second floor apartment. The gray car was waiting near the stairs of the building. The driver looked up and, on seeing her, stopped pressing the horn. Sanga slung her handbag over her shoulder quickly and left the room. She called to her mother from the corridor: “Mom, I am going now, bye! The car is waiting for me outside.”
Her mother rushed into the corridor. Her sleeves were rolled up, with a knife in her hand and tears in her eyes from the onion she had been cutting.
Sanga turned back and begged her mother: “Mom, please look after Ghamai, I don’t want him to hear us, he is busy riding his bike on the balcony.”
She left and quickly went down the stairs. Her mother watched, praying for her safety until the minute Sanga got in the car and shut the door.
Sanga reached the National Radio and TV headquarters, where she worked in the evenings. During the day, she was a student at Kabul University.
She went straight to the makeup room on the left side of the building, at the end of the corridor on the first floor. The makeup lady, Maryam, was in the room. She was tall, with curly hair she had dyed brown. Her glasses were pushed to the top of her head and their string hung down behind her neck. She was standing at the middle mirror, busy removing curlers from another newsreader’s hair.
Sanga stood in front of the sink and washed her face with warm water, then, looking in the mirror, dried it with a paper napkin. Maryam asked the seven o’clock newsreader, whose hair she was doing: “Should I do your makeup or do you want to put it on yourself?”
She answered: “You will be busy with Sanga’s hair now, there isn’t much time left, I will do my own makeup.”
Sanga sat down beside the seven o’clock newsreader and Maryam stood over her. She touched Sanga’s soft hair, looked at her clothes, and said: “It is good you are wearing modest clothes.”
Sanga didn’t like this comment. She wanted to say that she always wore suitable and modest clothes. At this moment, they heard a loud explosion from a nearby rocket. They all got very scared and their eyes opened wide in shock. The seven o’clock newsreader could barely speak. She whispered: “Sounds like it landed very close.”
Maryam, the makeup lady, said: “God save us, I hope it is not a continuous attack.”
Sanga looked at Maryam and said: “If you finish my makeup and hair quickly you will be able to go home soon. I will be here until eight thirty or nine o’clock.”
It was 1985. The opposition was busy fighting the Afghan army, firing rockets and targeting government buildings and institutions. People used to call them blind rockets because only one in a hundred would hit the target.
Sanga’s heart was beating hard and fast. She hadn’t kissed her two-year-old son goodbye, because when she did, Ghamai would cry and insist on going with her. She couldn’t take him to work, so she usually left the house without letting him know.
Maryam said angrily: “What kind of country is this? They can’t let us live peacefully––how can we work and live in this kind of situation?”
It was twenty past six in the evening now. The telephone rang; it was a telephone on a wire, as they all were in offices at that time. Maryam picked up and, after listening, told the seven o’clock news reader to go to the newsroom. She said: “They say the news is very important and there is a lot of it. You need to go now.”
Then, too, radio and TV were important institutions. This newsroom produced news about the leader, his cabinet ministers, and their work, as well as the victories of the army, which was fighting the opposition. At the end of the broadcast, there was some international news too. At that time, there was only one TV channel across the county that broadcast live news in Kabul city.
The newsreader quickly took her pen out of her handbag, looked at herself in the mirror again, put on another layer of red lip liner, and left in a hurry. As she closed the door, another rocket struck. The makeup lady was panicking: “This is definitely a continuous attack; more rockets will land.”
Sanga was worried that Maryam might leave without finishing her makeup. The female newsreaders would always have their hair and makeup done before appearing on TV. Maryam took the metal comb, separated Sanga’s hair in small parts, and curled them all up. She plugged in the hair-drying hood while Sanga sat calmly underneath it, the warm breeze blowing through her hair.
The seven o’clock newsreader opened the door of the makeup room and came in to take her handbag. She had finished her work and a car was waiting to take her home. Maryam quickly said: “I want to go with you. We live in the same direction.
Sanga was left alone. She looked out of the makeup room window and it was dark now. She didn’t like being alone. She left the makeup room and went to the newsroom. At the top, there was the editor’s desk. He usually stayed beyond his eight-hour shift. This was an important office and everyone––from the editor to reporters, producers, and even the helping staff––had overtime pay.
As Sanga entered the newsroom, she greeted her colleagues and went straight to sit behind the long desk right in the middle of the room. One of her colleagues told her that not all her notes were ready but some copies were, so she could read through those. Sanga got busy, marking the script as she practiced reading. At that moment, there was another whistling sound followed by a huge explosion. This time the rocket had hit the technology building, newly built, just behind the National Radio & TV building. The explosion was so powerful that it broke the windows of the newsroom.
It was the end of autumn but the weather was cold; a sharp breeze blew into the newsroom. Someone opened the door and said in a worried voice: “All of you go to the lower floor. It is possible that more rockets will strike! Hurry, we all need to go downstairs now.”
Everyone started panicking and left their chairs, most of the staff took their pens and papers with them and started leaving the newsroom. Sanga left her notes on the table, she was very scared. One person came close to her and whispered in her ear: “Don’t get scared, everything will be fine.”
Sanga responded: “I have seen many rockets, they land every day. I am not scared of rockets, I am scared of God.”
Sanga had no sooner finished her sentence than another rocket landed, striking the front of the nearby admin building. If you looked down from the newsroom window you could see the building’s rooftop. A piece of shrapnel hit the chair where Sanga was sitting a few seconds ago. She had only just reached the door of the newsroom.
Everyone had left by now. Sanga went quickly to the corridor, took a deep breath, and ran down the stairs, nearly falling. It was now five minutes to eight o’clock. Sanga had to go to the live studio.
Before entering the studio, she took her shoes off and wore the special sandals which were kept in a metal cupboard. The people in charge of the studios didn’t want anyone bringing in dust that could harm the machines. Sanga had left her notes behind in the newsroom and was empty-handed. She went inside the studio, feeling the warmth of the studio lights as she sat down. The editor brought news copies and gave them to Sanga. It was time for the eight o’clock news. As Sanga was taking up the copies, she saw her face on the monitor in front of her and heard the signature tune of the news show going live. After that, she started reading the news bulletin, finishing it all on time. The studios were soundproof; no sound from explosions could enter from outside.
Sanga waited in front of the Radio & TV building in her makeup and styled hair. Other staff were also leaving the building in groups, there were big and small cars waiting to take them home. Everyone looked worried, many workers were lowering their heads as they walked toward the cars, as if walking that way would save them from the rockets.
One of the drivers told Sanga to get in the car quickly. Sanga got in and the driver sped toward the 3rd Macrorayan, those residential blocks built by the Russians in the 1950s and 60s. Before the car had reached the first roundabout, a rocket landed in front of those blocks. Sanga could hear the screams of men, women, and children. There was panic and chaos around her; her heart started beating fast. She decided that if this time she reached home safely, she would quit the presenting job.
She had decided to quit a few times before but whenever she thought it through, she would decide that a life without working would be hard. That thought seemed as bad as death to her.
Before they reached the second roundabout, another rocket landed near them. It went past the car and landed on the edge of the roundabout. The driver and Sanga both ducked. Scared and panicking, the driver nearly lost control of the car. After a stopping briefly, he started driving again.
Now the car had entered her part of the Macrorayan area. Along the way, they could hear the wounded people screaming and calling for help, but there was no one who could run out to help them.
Sanga finally reached her home. It was nine o’clock at night now, she went quickly up to her apartment and knocked forcefully on the door, but it wasn’t locked. Her mother had been standing behind the door for some time, waiting for her return. As she opened the door for Sanga, her eyes welled with tears, which she tried not to let flow.
Sanga went into her room, followed by her mother. She went close to Ghamai’s bed; he was fast asleep. She kissed him gently, touched his hair, and then sat on her bed, taking a deep breath. Her mother now had a smile on her face. Sanga asked her: “Mother, was Ghamai scared by the rockets?”
“No, he was sleeping, he didn’t even move in his bed,” she said.
“I was worried that a rocket might have landed near our block.”
As her mother listened carefully, Sanga told her that wherever she went today the rockets followed her: “I saw it with my own eyes. I had just got up off that chair and hadn’t even reached the newsroom door when the rocket landed and its shrapnel hit that same chair. It was just a matter of a few seconds. I got up and, when I looked back, the chair was all broken and destroyed.”
Her mother screamed with fear.
Sanga’s mother couldn’t stop crying anymore. Her voice echoing all over the room, she went up to her daughter, hugged her and then kissed her. Sanga felt calm in her arms. Her mother wiped her tears with the edge of her scarf. She went out of the room and, after a few seconds, brought back a glass of lemon juice. As Sanga drank the juice, she felt as if she was regaining her energy. Her mother left the room, telling her to rest.
It was eleven o’clock, the dogs could be heard barking far away, the roads were busy with ambulances. The rockets couldn’t be heard anymore. Sanga knew that the opposition had run out of rockets. She felt that they must be tired like her. She was thinking that they would be sleeping now and getting ready to launch fresh attacks tomorrow, but no one knew where the next attack would be and when it would happen.
Sanga held her head tightly between her hands. Her mind was full of news, loud explosions, and ambulance sirens. She pulled the duvet over Ghamai so he wouldn’t get cold.
She opened the wardrobe next to her bed and looked at her clothes––it seemed as though she was choosing her outfit. She took some clothes out and hung them on the door. She closed the curtains so the room couldn’t be seen from outside. She turned on the TV and a song by Mahwash was on. Before it ended the power went out.
Sanga got up and drew back the curtains. Moonlight brightened the room. She switched off the TV and lay down on her bed, but she couldn’t sleep. Ghamai’s beautiful face was shining in the moonlight, he looked like an angel child when it is asleep.
I saw Sanga the next day. She got out of the gray car in front of the National Radio & TV headquarters. She was wearing a khaki jacket with a black skirt, carrying a few books and her handbag. She adjusted her handbag on her shoulder, took her sunglasses off, and placed them on her head. Before entering the building, she looked around at the damage from the day before. She observed the scene carefully and calmly, and then went inside.
“The Decision” © 2020 by Sharifa Pasun. Translation © 2020 by Zarghuna Kargar. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.
Presumed dead, a man returns from war to find that his wife and daughter have moved on with their lives in this short story by Batool Heydari.
He called, but nobody answered. He tried the number again and again. He then kept calling the whole day, but all he could hear was the sound of the phone ringing. He could not remember the last time she stayed out of the house for this long. He speculated. Maybe Khurshid is ill. Maybe something has caused her to stop her answering the phone.
Someone finally answered at around nine in the evening. He could not breathe when he heard her say “hello.”
When he was a student in Kabul, and engaged to Alia, he would call her and wait silently for her to initiate the conversation. He had wanted to hear her heartbeat. He would repeat this routine, call but never speak first. Alia had learnt this, and so instead of saying “hello,” she would giggle and ask, “Suleiman, is that you?”
The woman on the phone did not giggle. She asked tauntingly if he had stomach cramps that were stopping him from talking. Tears dried in his eyes. He could not remember Alia answering so harshly.
He remembered that they had a regular ghost caller for some time. They would call, but then keep silent. Suleiman swore at them on a few occasions, but it had proven futile and he failed to break the silence. Alia was of the opinion that no profanity must ever be spoken, even if the caller called a hundred times and uttered nothing.
This time, she had not cursed. She had said “Do you have stomach cramps?” When the call disconnected, he redialled the number. His hands were not shaking this time. He was pressing the numbers hard.
The woman on the phone said “hello” loudly. After taking a deep breath, he asked,
“Is Alia there?”
He realised that the woman could not have been Alia. She stretched the word hello, said it loudly, and Alia never did either.
He sighed in relief when the woman said,
“No, you have dialled the wrong number.”
But as soon as he put the phone down, he asked himself if this could be true. No––there was no way he had dialled the wrong number. He felt confident in this. He rang again and, this time, spoke with the woman articulately. He introduced himself as a distant relation of Alia’s who had come from one of the provinces to speak with her about something important.
When the woman felt comfortable, and decided it was not a nuisance call, she explained that they had bought the house from a family three years earlier. He asked the name of the family and the woman replied:
“Akbari. Zargham Akbari.”
Leaving no doubt, she confirmed further,
She could not have known that the caller at the other end of the phone was about to faint. She continued talking to “Alia’s distant relative,” explaining that she did not know exactly where the family lived, but that she knew that they lived in Chawk-e Gul-ha, a posh neighborhood.
Suleiman swallowed his saliva and asked the woman if she was certain that Engineer Akbari’s wife’s name was Alia. The woman confirmed, laughing, and mentioned Alia’s older daughter, Khurshid.
“A wonderful girl,” she said. “I wanted her to be my daughter-in-law, but fate disagreed. She was going to university, and my son did not want a wife who went to university.”
Suleiman started to sweat profusely when he heard the woman sigh and say, “What has the world come to? The daughters of the martyred are going to university...”
He could not understand. He asked, with difficulty, “The martyr’s daughter? What martyr?”
The woman, who was enjoying having found someone to speak to, continued, “What kind of family member are you if you are unaware of this, dear brother?” she said.
He tried to find an explanation, but the woman interrupted before he needed to: “I don’t know much. Her neighbors said that she is a martyr’s daughter. That her mother lost her husband and, two years later, married one of her husband’s comrades, an architect. God has now graced her with another child. When we bought the house, she had just given birth. A beautiful boy called Suleiman.”
He could not breathe. He murmured, “Suleiman.” Then he disconnected the call.
Flabbergasted, he stared at the photo in his hand. He could not believe that his wife had remarried. That little Khurshid was a university student. That he was thought to have been martyred. That his friend, Zargham, was now Alia’s husband. That they named their son after him. He felt a pain in his throat and pressed his lips together.
The next day, he got out of bed and opened the window. It had been six years since he was captured. He picked up the water jug and drank from it directly. Water spilling on his chest as he gulped. He poured the remainder on his head before going back to bed. He wished he had held his tongue back then—that he had never spoken to Zargham about his wife, never described her to him. He ran his fingers through his greying hair. He was pleased he hadn’t visited the house yet––all the neighbours would have recognized him. He closed his eyes, a lump in his throat. He then stood and stared at the phone. He dialled the number again and the same screeching woman answered.
“Why did you hang up, brother?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she continued, “I called Ms Sabri, one of the Akbaris’ old neighbors, to tell her that their relative had called. She didn’t know where exactly they were living. Just that they live in Chawk Gulha, as I told you. But she did say that Alia goes to the martyrs’ graveyard, the unnamed martyrs’ graveyard on the hill, on Fridays.”
“An old lady used to live with them. Do you know what happened—” The woman interrupted: “Are you talking about Bi Bi Jaan? She was ill when I was their neighbour. She could not speak. The neighbours used to say she had suffered a stroke when she learnt of her son’s martyrdom. The poor lady passed away a year later.”
The woman hung up once she was done talking. Suleiman leaned on an object near him and started crying loudly.
It was morning when he opened his eyes.
On Thursday he went to the city for a walk. He went to all the places he had visited with Alia and Khurshid. To relive the good old memories, he sat where they had sat as a family.
In the evening, he went to have his beard shaved. He felt ticklish when the barber ran clippers over the twisted hair on his neck. He remembered Alia telling him after their engagement that she did not want him to shave his beard, because a woman’s beauty lies in her long hair and a man’s beauty and masculinity lies in his beard and mustache. He saw a sparkle in Alia’s eyes when he grew a beard for the first time. She would compliment him, telling him that the beard suited him and that he looked like an angel.
He remembered Alia painting. She was working on a painting of angels in those days; they were all men with long hair. His reminders to Alia that there are also female angels fell on deaf ears. When the painting was complete, she wrapped it and gave it to him as a gift.
Suleiman’s beard was now shaven. All that was left was his mustache. He touched it. When the barber asked repeatedly if he should shave the mustache too, Suleiman looked up and asked, “Do you think a mustache suits me?” The barber removed the cape, tapped him on his back and said, “A man without a mustache is not a real man.” Suleiman laughed, and got up from the chair to look at the mirror. He could not recognize himself.
He left early the next morning for the cemetery. The security office was closed. A few hours had passed. He was now lying under a willow tree with his small bag under his head, gazing at the branches hanging down. He had searched widely to find this tree.
And now he had no choice but to look for the unnamed martyrs’ graveyard himself. Despite searching extensively, he could not find his name, and so he waited for the office to open.
When the attendant arrived, Suleiman gave him the name and surname. The attendant said that they had wanted to allocate this Suleiman a plot for burial in the martyrs’ area, but that his daughter had refused, insisting that he be listed as missing. So he had no headstone. “She comes here every Friday––alone or with her mother. They come here first and then they visit the graves of other martyrs. She comes to my office, too. She asks if anyone has inquired about her father. She always asks this question. There is no shortage of families who are anxious about the news of their missing loved ones, so, for their comfort, we give them the bones of something, dressed as the remains of a soldier who has been missing for years.”
Suleiman’s hands were cold, and he was breathless. He closed his eyes and thanked the man, before leaving to find his own grave, or perhaps himself. A cold breeze swept between the thick willow leaves. He found his way back to its hanging branches.
He sat there, hugging his legs close to his chest, with his chin resting on his kneecaps. The sun had risen to remove the morning shadows over the graves. The smell of rain, the smoke from the burning wild rue seed, and the occasional sound of prayer engulfed the air. People were slowly gathering around him. He remembered the day they had brought Khurshid home from the hospital. Bi Bi Jaan had looked dejected when she learned it was a baby girl. Suleiman, however, was overjoyed. He pressed her to his chest and asked Alia what she had named her. Alia just shook her head. He then kissed the baby girl on the face and said, “I will give her a name myself. She will be her father’s Khurshid, her father’s sun.”
When Khurshid grew up, they would read poems so loudly that Alia would be forced to tell them off. They would hold hands and walk around the pool surrounded by vases in the garden. “Khurshid Khanum, rise and shine. Say hello to your dad, Khurshid Khanum,” Suleiman would sing.
He stood still where he was standing. He felt his heartbeat slow down. He could not believe his eyes. It was her––Alia, Suleiman’s own Alia. He could not swallow. He kept blinking in disbelief. Then, he collected himself. “You finally came,” he thought. It was Alia, accompanied by a girl her size, wearing a headscarf and smiling. She was walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Alia. “It is them. It must be them, Alia and her father’s Khurshid Khanum,” he said to himself.
He hid behind the tree trunk, holding the bag to his face to avoid being recognized. “She has grown into a lady,” he told himself.
Khurshid took something out of her bag––a packet of dates. Her hair was visible under her green headscarf. She was offering the votive dates to the passersby. She bore an uncanny resemblance to Alia. She reminded him of her mother when they had first met.
Khurshid stopped suddenly as if someone had called her name. A man and a small boy were approaching her. Alia took the little boy from the man’s arms. Zargham had grown older, into a man, as he would say. His hair had turned gray.
Suleiman was heartbroken and panting. Alia followed the man. Khurshid left, too. Suleiman felt as if he was disintegrating. He fell to the ground. He buried his face in the soft soil under the willow tree and cried loudly. He filled his fists with soil and screamed. He wanted to stop breathing there and then. He wanted his heart to stop pumping blood through his veins. A flood of tears was washing his eyes, rolling down his clean-shaven, wrinkled face. He knelt, lifted his head, and hit it against the ground, over and over. He could not lose them.
His knees were wet from his tears. Alia had left. Zargham and the little boy were gone. Someone who looked like Alia seemed to be walking toward the attendant’s office. The wind was blowing her skirt. How fast she was walking. It must be Khurshid. She must have a question for the attendant––the same old question.
Suleiman stood right there. He picked up his bag, clenched his fists, and headed toward the attendant’s room. His steps were slow and his legs shaky. He felt as if he was dragging them behind him. Khurshid was standing. The man in the office was on the phone. Khurshid had not yet asked the question. Suleiman was still standing there, wondering whether he could lose her or not. Tears had washed his entire face. He could not lose Khurshid, and did not want to. He walked fast and steadily now, edging closer to the girl. He was right behind her, breathing slowly. The attendant ended his call and looked up. The girl asked the attendant, “Excuse me, uncle, has anyone come to ask about my father’s grave?” As he began to answer the girl, his gaze remained fixed on Suleiman.
“Khurshid Khanum, Rise and Shine” © 2020 by Batool Heydari. Translation © 2020 by Parwana Fayyaz. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.
A young man makes his way to work in Kabul, preoccupied with the thought of his own death, in this story by Maryam Mahjube.
Sir, please turn the air conditioner on.
If he says this out loud, everyone around him will scold him. Or they will ridicule him about how cold the weather is at this time of year, happy that space is tight in the car and they have to sit close to one another. As the number of vehicles grows and traffic gets worse, his sweat increases and a warmth spreads from behind his neck and over his whole body. When a bigger truck, full of bricks, stops beside their car, his body clenches. If that truck is full of gas and petrol, he grips the handle on the roof tighter and turns his face to the person sitting next to him, but without any smile that might at least offset his fear, his anger, and his distress. So no one will fight or make a scene, so they will not ask what they have done wrong to deserve such a look. He pretends that he wants to look at the shops or vehicles on their side. As he warms up, his cologne permeates the packed space inside the car and mixes with the smells of smoke and petrol and dust.
There is no escaping from this crowdedness. When he looks beyond the window to his left, there is a loaded trailer. To his right, there is a person sitting, and another person after that. When he looks past them, through the window, the vehicles are also full of people and are moving slowly, slowly, one after another. Beyond them, there are grocery stores whose insides are full of rice and oil and whose outsides are surrounded by crates of yellow and red apples, pomegranates, and oranges. Their color spreading warmth. The smoke of kebabs slowly wafts upwards from a restaurant and disperses. On the floor above it is a café. Its sign darkened by the smoke.
Slowly the Silo comes into view. The Silo building is so tall that it covers the silhouette of the mountains.
There are two things no one has seen—the Silo painted any other color than yellow and white and the daily arrival or departure of its bread-makers. Although Hamed has been taking this route for the past eighteen years, he has never met or seen a single person who works there. Upset by this, he breathes deeply. The pavement is full of people. People with flesh and skin and veins and blood. People full of joy and sadness and wishes and God.
Oof, people—bags full of blood with green veins and black hair. And the eyes that are black and white, green and white, a few blue and white. People full of sorrow and depression. And with the hearts that are blackened by the world. And hearts full of hope and joy from a few pieces of paper and thanking God that life is still good.
Outside the vehicle, steam comes out of the mouths of men and young children selling souvenirs in the streets. Thanks to the cold weather, it is as if everyone in the city is smoking a cigarette. This is the crowd who might at this moment or a few moments later explode with Hamed. With their veins full of blood and their skulls full of brains and nerves, they might disappear. Then he remembers the piece of cheese he left in the fridge for tomorrow morning.
Will it stay there until tomorrow morning and forevermore? Tomorrow morning will not come. Tomorrow morning—when I would have eaten that piece of cheese with sweet tea—will never come.
For these twenty-eight days he has gone to the office and come back. In two days, he will get his pay. Two days from today. Hamed speculates. For no reason at all, in utter stupidity and ignorance, on this road, inside this vehicle, his veins full of blood, would have been torn apart. In two days’ time, his pay will be transferred to the bank.
He checks one pocket, then the other, but there is no handkerchief. He puts his hand inside the pocket of his jacket and then pulls out a light turquoise colored handkerchief––on one corner of which a pear is embroidered in pink––and cleans the sweat from his forehead and neck. The handkerchief smells of cologne, the one he bought for three thousand Afghanis from Gulbahar Centre. Its bottle is really small but still full of cologne, like the people who are full of blood and wishes. It is too much—it isn’t only the thought of death and being unexpectedly broken into pieces. What if, after this, his son becomes a gum seller or an addict, or if his daughter has to beg in this country, where …
Oh God, I seek refuge in you, but all these orphans and beggars haven’t fallen from the sky. They have been left behind. Left behind by people—half of whose blood seeped into the ground in the street while water washed the other half away—buried, unwashed, as martyrs in the most crowded graveyard.
The sky is blue and clear and there is a gentle breeze. It is one of those days when the winter sun is gorgeous, and you don’t want to even think of death. The alley near the school is crowded for a winter’s day. Little and big girls, with their white chadors and colored jackets that cover half the blackness of their shirts, crowd around the man selling candy floss. Those who had eaten it first had pink colored lips and tongues. The memory of childhood turns to water in people’s hearts, just like that sweet pink cotton wool in their mouths. Mothers take the hands of their small boys and pull them into the school. The car now stops at the school lane. As the north wind blows onto Hamed’s body and dries his sweat, his phone rings:
“Hello Hamed, are you OK?”
“Hello yes, I got here fine!”
“There’s been an explosion on Pul-e Charkhi Road. I called to check on you. Thankfully, you have got there.”
“Pul-e Charkhi was not on my way, but thanks.”
He says goodbye and goes into the school, his secretary Kaka Kheir Mamad runs toward him:
“Good morning, Mr. Headmaster. Come, someone has been bothering me. He has been waiting for you since early morning. Mr. Headmaster, these girls want to transfer to another school. Their father has brought papers.”
Hamed doesn’t consider it necessary to ask: “Are they not content with their studies or teacher?”
Hamed knows that in government schools, one doesn’t ask these kinds of questions. It is completely against pride and honour in these hallowed places. It is only the private schools which put themselves at the feet of their students. He himself understands that no one makes their journey to school longer because of the quality of their studies. It’s possible that their father, like others from this area, has migrated to another place.
He looks at the document. Yes! Rabia Balkhi––so they have moved to Karteh-e Seh or Karteh-e Char. He is now curious whether they got the house with a mortgage or if they rented. He can’t imagine that these girls’ father, with his shabby appearance, bought a house.
Kaka Kheir Mamad brings tea and chocolate from the day before, which one of the students had brought as his graduation sweet. Hamed recalls that its wrapper was red and inside was chocolate mixed with nuts. It is now lunch time. The smell of fried onions rushes in with every opening and closing of the door of his office. A sense of hunger makes Hamed’s mouth watery and at last he asks his secretary, “Kaka Kheir Mamad, what are we having for lunch?” And Kaka Kheir Mamad answers: “What do the poor have for lunch, Mr. Headmaster, potato curry.” Headmaster Hamed approves the transfer documents and hands it back to Kaka Kheir Mamad. When Kaka Kheir Mamad goes away, he is alone. It was during his tea break that suddenly he felt crowded and restless again. Today his heart and mind won’t rest on anything. The tea doesn’t taste the same as normal. Why? It is as if demons are chasing him and even though now they are hidden from him, Hamed can sense them. As he remembers his sister’s call, fear runs through his heart and body––why did his sister call him so randomly and ask how he was when she knew that the explosion wasn’t on his route? Her asking how he was gives him a bad feeling. What if today, on the way back, he gets caught up in a suicide attack and that is the last time that his sister heard his voice? Don’t let it be that his sister has sensed that his death will come soon. He feels intensely low and his whole being is tangled up like a knot. He swallows, takes a deep breath. If he was a smoker, he would definitely smoke a cigarette.
He prays to God for strength, as he gets up from behind the table, and walks himself to the yard. The sun is high in the sky, warm and gentle. Hamed sits on a bench. The air is fresh and worth breathing. He moves bits of gravel around with his feet and doesn’t notice at all that he is playing with the little stones. Yes, his heart and his whole attention are on the other side of the city, with the people who died today. Who are they to him and had they known that they would die today?
Had someone informed them:
Hello, this morning at eight twenty-three you will die and afterwards explained that next to you is a vehicle full of explosives, we still don’t know what kind of explosives but we know it will explode––it will suddenly burst into flames and you will be consumed by the flames. The people would have said if it will catch fire, let it catch fire, we will die anyway, your information is not that useful. It would have been better if you had said today the weather will be cloudy or whether it would rain or not at eight twenty-three. Death is certain and we are not afraid of it, but we do fear that our children will be orphans.
Hamed raises his head and looks around him at the dry, leafless trees and the empty courtyard of the school. It is a space he has seen over and over again for many years, but it has never seen him so remorseful. He gets up and looks at his watch, it shows it is ten past two in the afternoon. Every day, he goes home from school at two thirty, so why does he want to go now? What game is he caught in? Who wants to ensnare him? Or is it a mysterious good force prompting him to leave at this hour? Should he go or not? Afterwards, they will say:
Hamed left school at two thirty every day, on the day he died he left at ten past two, damn it!
“Turn This Air Conditioner On, Sir” © 2020 by Maryam Mahjube. Translation © 2020 by Parwana Fayyaz. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.
Societal expectations weigh down on a mother returning from the hospital after having her eighth daughter in this story by Freshta Ghani.
It is past early afternoon. The evening call to prayer is still to come. I am hungry, but I am fasting. My legs are weak, my hands are shaking. There is a kind of silence in the kitchen, but the sound of the pressure cooker, which has just started, is breaking it, getting louder and more powerful. The pressure cooker has increased my fear too. I look at the clock: seventeen minutes past five in the evening. I turn the heat down under the meat. There is a big bunch of spinach waiting to be cleaned, cut, and cooked for the guests. The kitchen is very messy, and it is making me feel suffocated. I open the bunch of spinach, clean it leaf by leaf, and use the big knife to start cutting it up. Sometimes, it is easy to take all my anger out on the vegetables, cutting them up vigorously. This is what I do. I haven’t even finished cutting up the spinach before I start worrying about the rice; I have to soak some now so that it cooks better later.
Goodness me. I can’t work properly today. I don’t know the best way to do all this. I’m panicking a lot. My heart is pounding uncontrollably. I can’t even leave the pot full of rice. I have to get dinner ready quickly. I can smell the meat—it smells cooked enough. Oh, I so feel like eating it. When the fast breaks I will definitely be eating some meat. May God accept my fast and bless me with a son this time. What else would I ask for? Oh, and it’s so good that I cooked the okra and eggplant last night. This makes my life easier now. Two dishes are ready. They will just need warming up later.
I can hear loud voices from the next room. My mother-in-law and sisters-in-law are laughing and talking loudly. What are they talking about? I wonder. God knows where Sharifa and Nazanin are. God, I am now eight months pregnant and I haven’t gone for a single check-up. I feel that this one might be a son, but I am scared that something might happen to me. I hear a very sweet voice. Who might this person be? Oh, it is my third daughter, Basmeena. She has got the salad plates ready for me. Oh, I love her tiny hands. She melts my heart with these little things she does to help me.
Cooking the spinach and meat is easy and quick. I finish making both. But how will I manage lifting the pot of rice on my own? I am feeling a bit helpless, tired. Last time, when auntie Makai was here, she saw me lifting a bucket full of water and told me off. This pot is even bigger.
The mullah has now called for the evening prayer. Maybe someone will come out of that room and help me with this pot of rice. Until then, I will break my fast. I haven’t finished my first bite when my eldest sister-in-law comes in and says: “Well done, you! The guests haven’t even arrived yet and you have started licking the pot like a hungry cat!”
My first bite is now stuck in my throat. It won’t go down, due to my fear. I move the plate away—I don’t feel like eating after this. I am standing quietly, saying nothing, though I have a lot to say. My mother always says not to be rude to my in-laws. She says you have to just endure everything. OK. My sister-in-law leaves the kitchen and my tears start flowing again like a river.
I wash a big pot and put it on the stove. I increase the heat. My life is like the boiling water in this pot, the happiness evaporating from it like the steam. My rice is soft now. I look out the window, but there is no one who can help me to lift it down. OK then. I will just lift it. Nothing is going to happen to me.
As I lift it, I feel a sharp pain in my back. The water has started flowing between my legs. With difficulty I sieve the rice, add oil and spices, put the pot back on low heat on the stove. My legs have slowly started losing their strength and the pain in my back and stomach is increasing. I feel like screaming. I slide to the floor, in too much pain to carry on with my chores. Now the kitchen door opens, and my youngest brother-in-law, Hashmat, asks: “Is the food ready? The guests have arrived.”
As he enters the kitchen he sees me. I can hear him saying, “Sister-in-law, what has happened?” He splashes water over my face, looks at me carefully, and then runs out of the kitchen. A few seconds later, my mother-in-law and eldest sister-in-law are standing over my head.
My mother in-law says: “You are a drama queen. A fake. If you couldn’t cook then you should have asked us to. If you die, what will I tell our relatives and the village?” My vision blurs. Hashmat gets angry with his mother and sisters, but I can’t hear what they are saying. I feel like I might die. The last thing I remember is the black of the car seats.
Today is my third day in the hospital. I am breathing in the smells around me. One of my hands is connected to the drip. A white sheet is coving my body. A nurse comes in and tells off the women—those women in labor whose babies haven’t yet arrived. If the women scream in pain, the nurses tell them off. There is pain in each woman’s eyes. One is beside me, breastfeeding her newborn baby. I look at the baby and remember my own. I call the nurse and ask, “Where is my baby?”
The nurse, who is wearing pink lipstick, stands over my head. She takes out my file, looks at me very carefully, and leaves without saying anything. After half an hour she is back, and I ask her the same question again.
“Your baby is weak and is in an incubator,” she says. “The doctors will tell you.”
I quickly ask her: “Is it a boy or a girl?”
The nurse thinks for a second, then says: “I don’t know. When the doctor comes, ask her.”
My heart is beating fast. I really hope that this time I have given birth to a boy. God must have listened to my prayers this time, but, if it is a girl, what will I do? My life will be hell. My heart beats faster and harder. I wish that my wish comes true. I really want a boy this time. God help me, if this baby is a boy I will distribute something good among the poor in your name. I will fast and visit shrines in your name.
I ask the lady beside me what the time is. It is eleven, and I still haven’t seen my baby. There is no sign of the doctor. I look at my hand. It is all bruised. How could this have happened? Maybe, in the last three days when I have been unwell, I have had many injections.
An older man and an older woman have entered the room. Maybe they are hospital workers. Oh, no. They are not hospital staff. They have brought food to the woman next to me. There is noise from all the women, but she is screaming the loudest. She is eating at my brain.
The doctor has entered the room. She is very angry about the man—is saying, in a loud voice, “Haven’t I told you not to let male visitors in here? Don’t you understand?” The doctor is fuming. Her face is turning red with anger, and I am not sure how to ask her about my baby. I haven’t even started talking when she leaves the room. Now she starts shouting at the woman who let the visitors in.
Oh, what should I do? There is a smell of kebab in the room, and I am so hungry. Two more hospital workers have entered and they are distributing plates of rice, beans, and a banana to all the patients. The woman beside me leans in and gives me a bite. I tell her that I don’t want it, but she insists. I am hungry, but nothing is going to go down my throat. If this time I haven’t given birth to a son, my life will be turned to poison. I am thinking deeply. I put the dishes to one side and fall asleep.
I wake to the cry of a baby. In the room, there is one baby that is particularly unsettled. The lady has two kids—a one-year-old, maybe one and a half, and a newborn. It is the older baby that is crying. I tell her that she should have left the older one at home, and she says that they brought him yesterday because he was even more unsettled when apart from her. I smile at her, and tell her, “God bless him.”
The day has passed into night. I know nothing about my baby. I am not allowed to go anywhere apart from the bathroom. The doctors are telling me I should be resting, but how can a mother rest when she’s separated from her baby? What kind of justice is this?
In the morning, a young doctor enters the room. She looks very fresh. She is wearing a light blue scarf—she looks good. “Is the baby better today?” I ask her. “How is it? Is it a son or a daughter? The nurse says my baby is weak and is being kept in an incubator?”
The doctor looks at me very carefully and says, “Thank your God that your baby is alive. The baby was so weak that we thought it wouldn’t keep breathing. What did you do that it came to this?”
I answered: “Doctor, my auntie said I should fast while pregnant. That maybe then I would give birth to a boy.”
She is angry. “You fast and then the blame goes to the doctors? We are blamed for mothers who die giving birth. How can these kinds of women stay alive? Who fasts during pregnancy?” She leaves the room. My heart is exploding: they need to tell me if I have a son or a daughter.
A few seconds pass before a nurse comes in and announces that those mothers whose babies are in incubators will have them by the evening. My hands and legs start shaking. I ask the woman beside me for the time every few minutes. I am eager to see my baby. I am so, so anxious to see my baby.
It is mealtime again. I don’t feel like eating. The lady next to me says, “Eat something. You will be breastfeeding your baby, you need your energy.” I force myself to eat a few bites before the older lady comes in to collect the plates.
The day passes with us women chatting to each other. I didn’t sleep at all last night. It is my fifth day here. Finally, the doctors bring the baby to me and say I can leave. My eldest brother-in-law and his wife have come. They ask me to go with them, and I ask them quickly, “Is my baby a boy or not?”
They are all looking down. No one says anything. I lose hope.
I take my baby and look under the blanket. My baby is a girl.
I start slowly walking out of the hospital with my in-laws. My heart is beating faster. My body is shaking. I don’t know if it is the fear, or if it is cold outside. I look at my daughter and say to myself: “What would have happened if you were a boy? I hope I die before we get home.”
As we arrive, I hear singing and music. At first, I think the neighbors are getting their son married. No—the sound is coming from our house. Oh, good, I think. My brother-in-law is getting married. This will be a good distraction, and perhaps they won’t tell me off for giving birth to another girl.
As I enter the yard, my youngest daughter runs toward me. Her face is unwashed, I hug her close to my chest, then clean her nose with the edge of my scarf. I asked her, “Marwa, what is happening at home?”
She is talking in her sweet young voice: “I don’t know, Mama. But everyone is wearing beautiful clothes. Look at my new yellow dress.” I am anxious to learn what is happening.
When I enter the room, the women greet me by tossing the traditional chocolates and other sweets over my head. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe they will welcome me like this knowing that I have given birth to a girl. Everyone is congratulating me. I have started to smile, for the first time in a while. I am saying thank you. I haven’t finished greeting everyone when one woman, standing on my left, says: “This is the first time I have seen a woman who is happy that her husband is taking a second wife.”
It feels like someone has poured boiling water over me. My legs feel weak, my throat is full of pain, and my eyes have dried out. I sit down in the middle of the room and let my baby girl slip from my hands. A woman who is sitting near me catches her quickly. The baby’s cry is eating my brain. I hate to hear it. I don’t even want to see my baby. I am silent, but my mood is changing.
There is a lot of noise from the women. A few of them have gathered around me. I am still in my own world. Maiwand enters the room, and I run toward him and spit in his face. He slaps me hard across mine. I fall down on the floor, and he leaves the room.
Nargis’s auntie tells her daughter, Palwasha, to give me a glass of warm milk, since I have just given birth. She helps me get up with great difficulty. The kitchen is a mess, and there are dishes everywhere. Palwasha puts a pot of milk on the stove, but then leaves in a hurry, the sound of music and singing coming from the next room. It is making its way right into my brain. I get angrier and angrier.
The milk is getting hot and foaming up.
I pour the full pot of boiling milk over my head. I fall to the floor. I am burning from head to toe.
A few women come into the kitchen. One of them runs toward me, lifts me up, and says with a sigh: “Poor woman. Her husband has married another woman.”
Another woman, who has a big voice, says: “Poor woman. Her luck is bad. This is her eighth baby, and it’s another girl.”
“Daughter Number Eight” © 2020 by Freshta Ghani. Translation © 2020 by Zarghuna Kargar. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.
Why is it so hard to find the work of Sudanese women in English translation? Yes, there is Leila Aboulela, who writes in English, but if asked about other female Sudanese writers, one would probably struggle to name them. Some might reason that there just aren’t many Sudanese women writing. This assumption has led to anthologies and online publications focused on Sudanese literature in which female-authored works make up less than thirty percent of their contents; more general anthologies include even fewer writers. This issue seeks to counter such assumptions.
The short story form has long been celebrated in Sudan, and yes, single stories by female authors, as well as a few entire collections, have made it into English. But where are the novels written by Sudanese women? Tayyeb Salih, Amir Tag Elsir, and Hammour Ziada are all feted authors of novels in their original Arabic and translated English versions. But when I spoke with journalists, academics, and friends, they were all hard pressed to find a novel by a Sudanese woman translated into English.
Zeinab Belail, one of Sudan’s preeminent writers, has been publishing literary works for over thirty years. Why have we never come across her work in English till today? Of the five writers featured in this issue, Rania Mamoun is the only one to have appeared in translation before. Is there some sort of double marginalization at play? Perhaps, for not only are they women, but also Sudanese, caught in a limbo at times of not being Arab nor African enough.
Rather than focusing primarily on who has made it into English, I felt it more pressing to investigate what is happening in the Sudanese publishing arena within the context of the greater Arab literary sphere. The conclusion? If one reads Arabic, yet can’t “see” the works of female Sudanese authors, can’t celebrate their works and engage with their powerful writing, it’s not because they aren’t there.
So what do we know about the world of Sudanese novels in Arabic? Nabil Ghali’s study ”A Bibliography of the Sudanese Novel” investigates the state of novels published in Arabic in Sudan from 1948 to 2015. This study finds that in this period, 476 novels were published, 314 of them between 2000 and 2015. Of those 476 novels, only forty-nine, by thirty-five writers, were authored by women. Compare this to, say, Amir Tag Elsir, who has published nineteen novels and is still writing. Furthermore, the years of 2014 and 2015 saw eleven novels authored by women published, nearly equaling the output of female authors in the fifty years between 1948 and 2000, which saw no more than fifteen women’s novels making it to market in Sudan. Enough number crunching; here is the takeaway: from 1948 to 2015, only ten percent of the novels published in Sudan were written by women. Ten percent.
Not all hope is lost, though. A more recent study analyzing the Arabophone Sudanese novels published in Sudan and outside of it, carried out by Dr. Atef Al Haj Saeed, states despite the December uprising being at the forefront of the population’s concerns, 2019 was a record year for the novel in Sudan, with twenty-eight published. An additional twenty novels were published outside Sudan (the lion’s share in Egypt), bringing the total to forty-eight. Of these, nine, or twenty percent, were written by women. And of these nine novels, over fifty percent were published outside of Sudan in countries such as Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Authors in this issue, some of whom still reside in Sudan, are among those who sought to publish their works outside of the country.
Amna al-Fadl, Ann El Safi, Rania Mamoun, Sara Al-Jack, and Zeinab Belail are all established writers with short story collections, poetry collections, and novels to their name. I interviewed them to hear the challenges they have faced getting published in Arabic, and the trickle-down effect this has on their work making it into translation. When Belail, lauded for her extensive body of work, showed an editor her first novel, Al-Aktiyar (The Choice, 1984), he responded, “This is too much . . . coming from a woman.” More than three decades into her career, Zeinab recounted, “writing about sex or religion is still forbidden for women. There are red lines that as a female writer you’re not even meant to approach. To do so brands you a heretic, a rogue, someone who has no appreciation for literature.” Compare this to Amir Tag Elsir’s novel Ebola ’76, which opens with a sexual encounter.
"There is a patriarchal mentality that prevails throughout Sudanese society, and an extremely high sensitivity toward what female authors are writing about, especially when it seemingly contradicts societal values,” shares Ann El Safi. Living outside of Sudan, El Safi recollects that, upon returning to Sudan to discuss her novel Falak al-Ghawaya (Orbit of Temptation, 2014), she was met with heavy criticism and even threatened. Her novel portrays an empowered female character who takes her life into her own hands, having her own affair after suspecting her husband’s infidelity. One critic even went so far as to demand she rewrite the book. You may argue that women’s writing is censored to some degree in all Arab countries, but when comparing these cases to those of female writers publishing in Lebanon or even the UAE, for instance—where Libyan Najwa Bin Shatwan’s latest novel, The Horse’s Hair, retells the sacrosanct story of creation and pummels the patriarchal customs of her country—the brick wall that Sudanese women writers are facing is that much higher, thicker, seemingly impenetrable. Bin Shatwan shared that getting her novel published in the UAE did raise some eyebrows in the industry there but wasn’t impossible thanks to the stalwart support of her male editor.
For those ten percent of Sudanese women who manage to break through and get their novels published, what happens next? “Literary critics tend to be males who prefer to celebrate male authors,” Belail declares. “No matter how distinguished a woman’s writing may be, works by women are rarely reviewed. Male critics simply do not appreciate the courage it takes for women to write in our society.” Courage, and determination. It goes without saying that if women’s works are repeatedly neglected, pushed aside whether in print or on radio or television, then Sudanese readers—let alone other Arab ones—are less likely to know about these books and pick them up.
The ripple effect is that editors in the English-speaking world (and undoubtedly in other language ecosystems as well) want to see translated reviews, numbers of books sold, and other evidence to show how the book did in its home country. If a Sudanese female author is unsupported by her own literary ecosystem, it is unlikely that her work will make it into any other language. A case in point is that between 2015 and 2017 alone, there were at least five novels by male Sudanese authors translated into English whereas to date there appears to not have been a single female-authored Sudanese novel translated into English and published. By contrast, in 2020, to cite one Arabophone example, there have already been three novels by Palestinian women translated into English published by both American and British houses.
Aside from issues that affect both male and female Sudanese authors—lack of marketing support, poor distribution of books, weak editing standards in houses, nonexistent financial support from governmental bodies, a dearth of training for publishers—what many of these writers are hoping for, at the very least, is summarized by Sara Al-Jack: “Sudanese women writers need to be seen as separate entities from their female characters so that we aren’t prosecuted for our characters’ actions and decisions.”
What may not be seen by Western audiences as provocative or controversial can be deemed as such by Sudanese society. In Amna al-Fadl’s novel Some of What Happened Between Us (translated by Katherine Van de Vate) the protagonist, Basma, is a journalist and activist based in Sudan. Starved for love, the protagonist embarks upon a passionate extramarital affair with a psychologist she meets at a workshop in a prison. Far from a mere romance, though, al-Fadl’s work is an indictment of the treatment of women in Sudan in which early marriage, genital mutilation, and domestic abuse feature. (As you may have suspected, it was published outside of Sudan.) The novel juxtaposes the modern and the traditional, moving through different times and places to tell Basma’s story in a deeply evocative yet economical style. Al-Fadl is a poet, and writes in lyrical language of great beauty, particularly when she is portraying her characters’ thoughts and emotions, as seen in the excerpt here, “Basma’s Dream.”
In “The Birth of the Spirit,” from The Mites by Sara Al-Jack, the Nile is more than an element in the setting; it is a central character, perhaps the central character. The river plays a pivotal role in the story, as it does in the history of Sudan, which Al-Jack is intent on retelling through a different lens in her work. It is Al-Jack’s inspired and imaginative reconstruction of such stories, and how she positions the Nile in the heart of the narrative of creation, that drew the translator Yasmine Zohdi to the particular scene presented in this issue, which effectively conveys the essence of this ambitious work.
Ann El Safi’s novel Like Spirit resists easy categorization. Its twenty-two vignettes weave in and out of a number of narrative threads, which meet and part in ways evocative of the shape of the long braid that forms one of its recurring physical motifs. The novel plays with ideas of reincarnation and doppelgängers, and explores themes of war, injustice, wasted potential, unrequited love, and the complex, interchangeably nourishing and destructive, relationship between humans and nature. ”Freedom of Flight,” the excerpt featured here, translated by Nariman Youssef, introduces the perspective of an unexpected character.
“Al-Nar Street,” from Zeinab Belail’s The Cactus (translated by Nesrin Amin), opens in a slum on the outskirts of the “Illuminated City.” The residents of the slum are migrants who settled there when the city shut them out by means of physical boundaries. A failed uprising leads to their expulsion from their already squalid homes, and they embark on a fantastic journey with the determination to rebuild their lives, aided by nothing less than demons and genies. The fantastic and supernatural thus blend and contrast with the stark realism of the life of the marginalized people. Belail explained that the novel is an ode to the Sudanese people, whose harsh conditions, much like those of cactus plants, only increase their resilience and fortitude.
Also exploring a marginalized section of Sudanese society is Rania Mamoun’s Son of the Sun (translated by Nesrin Amin), which takes place in Mamoun’s hometown of Wad Madani. Set up as two parallel narrative lines that converge toward the end, it follows two protagonists: the melancholy morgue-worker Karam, who lives withdrawn from society, and the uninhibited, sanguine Jamal, one of the so-called “shammasa,” the homeless “sons of the sun.” The novel traces the repeated and futile attempts of the shammasa to emerge from their hopeless situation, only to be brutally pushed back by society. Their world is contrasted to that of Karam, himself living on the margins of society, who feels more at ease dealing with the corpses in the morgue. In the excerpt here, “At the Coffee Shop,” Jamal observes a mundane morning turn suddenly violent.
As you dive into these poignant excerpts, savor the literature for its creativity, experimentation, and musicality … but just as important, remember what it took for these voices to reach you.
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All interviews were conducted by email in Arabic and have been translated into English. Special thanks to Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin for providing contact details for some of the authors and to Hamid Al Nazir for guiding me to available data on publishing in Sudan.
© 2020 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.
A routine day turns suddenly violent in this excerpt from Rania Mamoun’s novel Son of the Sun.
Listen to Rania Mamoun read "At the Coffee Shop" in the original Arabic.
The frenzied football fan banged on the table with a force that knocked the tea over. One glass shattered as it hit the ground. He shot up, angrily screaming at the man addressing him. He kicked the plastic chair; it fell over with its legs pointing to the sky. I looked at the shattered glass and, for a moment, couldn’t hear his angry voice anymore. Is our boss going to make me pay up for this glass? He told us a hundred times not to break any glasses. You break it, you buy it. Of course, he’ll say it’s my fault, that I should have cleared the table sooner . . .
I looked over and saw the enraged fan had slashed the other’s throat with a piece of broken glass. While I was brooding, he had bent over, picked up a shard of glass, and slit the throat of the man he was speaking to, sliced the artery right open! In that moment, one man lost his life. Oh God! Like that—just like that! In a blink of an eye, a man’s dead!
I was horrified. Looking over at Ibrahuma, I saw that he was too. I’d never seen anyone die in front of me before. Blood gushed from the man’s neck, it splattered on the customers’ clothes and on the killer, who had a frozen look in his eyes. People gathered around shouting: “Take him to the hospital!” “Save him!” “Help me pick him up!” “Call an ambulance!” “What have you done, man?” “Where’s the ambulance?” “Somebody call an ambulance!” “It’s all right, man, compose yourself, compose yourself.” “Shut up, he can’t hear you.” “Is he dead?” “No, no, he’s not dead.” “He’s dead you idiot, look, look, his eyes have lost their shine.” “Oh my God.”
The crowd grew. In minutes, a crowd of people gathered, each one of them eager to see the victim, to see how well they knew him. Everyone claimed they knew that the murderer would kill somebody someday. He was hot-tempered, red-hot, like burning coal, a fanatical supporter of his team, which happened to be losing that day.
Salem, our boss, roused us from our state of shock and confusion at what had happened. He yelled at us to bring in the cups, tables, and chairs.
“They’re going to attack the coffee shop next. Hurry up!”
We quickly started collecting cups and trays. This guy only cares about his money, even when someone had just been murdered right before his eyes. We passed through the crowd, trembling, moving cautiously and nervously, grabbing cups and bumping into each other. We picked up the fallen chairs and brought them into the restaurant, at times grabbing the same one and carrying it in together. We took all we could carry back into the coffee shop, then ran back out to bring in the tables. It wasn’t easy. Shorter people were standing on top of them so they wouldn’t miss out. We struggled, as there wasn’t much space for us to move the tables or lift them over our shoulders. The whole place was jam-packed, making what we had to do almost impossible.
Even after the ambulance had left with the body inside, and after the police had arrested the murderer and prepared a field sketch, the place was still teeming with people. Salem was agitated, screaming at Ibrahuma and me, barking out one order after another, leaving us tense and confused about what to do next. After some rushed hauling we were able to save many of the tables, if not all.
Some people sat at the remaining tables and started retelling the events over and over to those who kept coming in, and whoever heard the story passed it on. Everyone was talking, you couldn’t tell who was listening to whom! This one was telling the story, that one was analyzing it, someone else was sharing his observations, while another guy was reminded of a similar story he had heard or witnessed. The conversations drifted—soon enough they forgot all about the murderer and his victim. They started talking about violence, about how people have forgotten how to talk to one another, how they have become irritable and short-tempered and unable to handle criticism.
One of them, a slender man with a good head of hair and four different color pens sticking out of the pocket of his shabby white shirt, jumped on top of a rusty metal table and began talking to the crowd from his improvised pulpit:
“People, everything that’s happened here is the government’s fault! Yes, this government hasn’t left us a mattress to sleep on, it has made our lives intolerable, our work intolerable, we’re constantly tired and irritated, worn out as an old shoe! Brothers, if this government was just, our lives wouldn’t have been so miserable, we wouldn’t be killing one another, robbing one another and . . .”
This man must be high on something, I thought.
One of the people standing around shouted at him: “How is the government responsible?” Others answered back, their blood boiling: “What do you mean, how is the government’s responsible? If this killer had been content and carefree, if he wasn’t hungry, he wouldn’t have done what he did.” Another responded: “He committed this crime because he’s an angry and hot-tempered man. He’s nothing but a sore loser!” Another one butted in to say that it’s not the government’s fault but that the football players are to blame, playing like they’re drunk, unable to run or control the ball or score a goal.
Bragging, the man on the table said: “You see, it’s like I said, it’s all the government’s fault. If the government had taken an interest in sports these players would have been like the Brazilians. Even when they beat you, you come out happy because you’ve enjoyed the match. The score doesn’t matter.”
Another man hopped on the same table and said to him: “Hey man, what’s your beef with the government? It’s the coaches’ fault, they’re not doing their job properly and only care about their paycheck at the end of the month!”
“No, it’s not the coaches’ fault, it’s the government, the government, guys! You want to kill the elephant, you don’t stab its shadow! You’re cowards, scurrying off like mice to hide in your holes and leaving those running the government to walk all over this country like it’s their private property.”
“Who you calling coward? Who you calling mouse? Watch your tongue, man.”
“Cowards and mice, you’re all cowards, you’re all wimps! A cowardly people, cowards, cow—”
The words caught in his throat as he took a punch to the temple. A vicious brawl broke out between the two of them, right there, on the table. It collapsed under their weight and both men tumbled to the ground.
Hands shot out from all sides trying to separate them, and voices intermingled:
“Guys, calm down.”
“A difference of opinion shouldn’t come to this—cool it, guys!”
We looked on with great interest and excitement, eager to pick up anything that fell on the ground: a wallet, a pack of cigarettes, a pouch of snuff, or anything else that might be in their pockets and which we could use. Ibrahuma and I stood side by side, now at some distance from the coffee shop, watching, on the lookout for whatever this chaos would gift us. It might just be our lucky day.
From Ibn al-Shams. © Rania Mamoun. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Nesrin Amin. All rights reserved.
Ann El Safi presents a bird’s-eye view of violence and unrequited love.
Listen to Ann El Safi read "Freedom of Flight" in the original Arabic.
Your days are swallowed by the road, your feet yearn for freedom.
The smell of absence seeps into the carnage around me. She has left her bedroom window open. The wall it is set in stands in ruins. The clock across is still ticking, its glass cracked in three places. The ceiling is gone. Every corner of the room is ravaged. Her beautiful paintings are debris, a scatter of colors covering the orphan chair in the corner. The small clay figurines, which she used to make when she visited her grandmother, have been blown into dust that settles over everything that surrounded them.
The wooden door, carrying the marks of a great fire, lies flat in the middle of the room. Not much else remains of the home that was.
Not much of the garden either, where once the air was filled with the sounds of oud and reed pipe and drum and conversation.
Her photograph lies in a corner on the floor. I must wipe it to see her face, her adorable long braid, the smile that turns my little heart into an oasis humming for her love, the honey-colored eyes that have filled me with joy and with sorrow time and time again.
Her home is in the village at the top of the valley by the low hill where my family and I reside. This is my first visit since the last brutal attack, three months ago. Nobody knows who the raiders were or what they wanted. Nobody knows why those unarmed people were massacred––women, children, old men, and young people in the prime of life. Could anyone take pleasure in such lawlessness and brutality? How could such atrocious crimes go unpunished?
But what do I care about the crazy world of humans? It has always confounded me. The stories I used to hear from my parents and grandparents! War and destruction, then a truce, a peaceful spell, then war again, and on and on and on.
We have always fed on the best of what the road brings us. Young antelopes and deer. Nothing less excites our hunting instinct. My kind do not eat scraps. Wherever we go, we only catch the finest there is.
She is a woman I have watched for many years, and for as many years she has been unaware of me. She used to leave her window open from morning till night. I watched her grow up, become a mother, a widow, an orphan, a grandmother.
My favorite pastime after a long day of hunting was to stand atop a tree or the wall around her house and watch her. My heart tells me she lives still, even if she’s been gone for a long time.
I hear a herd of camels approaching on the road. Up in the sky there’s a decent number of falcons on one side and vultures on the other, all following the peaceful herd. Right now, I’m not in the mood for hunting.
I step carefully in the grass that covers the garden of her house and lift my head toward the rain clouds gathering in the west. The memory of her brings me comfort. Her life started one year after mine. She was widowed at twenty and cared for her daughter until the daughter married. She lost her parents at thirty, then her daughter moved to the city. She stayed in the house with a woman who helped her with the housework and kept her company. Though age only increased her beauty and poise—her charms seem to flow from an endless mysterious well—she refused to remarry.
There came a point in my life, a threshold between being and non-being. I was getting older, facing a choice only I could make: surrender to death, or cling to life and face the hardships of regenerating my body’s force. For her, I chose life.
My travels carry me twenty to thirty kilometers every day, within the village and around it, in search of her face. Going to the city is a reckless and dangerous thing to do, yet that too I have done. I only have my heart to guide me to her.
I don’t know how much longer I will be alive, but I have befriended the roads and hope that they take me to her. She doesn’t know that I’m looking for her, nor that I have watched her through the years of her life. Yet she is the reason I’m still holding on to mine.
I breathe absolute freedom on land and in the air. The freedom in my body, in my movements, in my thoughts; I express it however I wish and I fly with it however I wish. Still, inside that which beats in my chest lies a secret that shackles my life to a human woman. I, the fearless one, who is feared by all beasts and beings, am helpless before the very thought of her.
A female of the human race has made me feel like I was made for her alone. I know full well that she would not look twice at someone like me. My slender smooth feet, my red-and-orange rimmed eyes, and my soft coat of grey and white feathers, would fill her with nothing but amusement. In her beautiful eyes, I’m like any other falcon.
I don’t tire of waiting. Every day I comb the roads to her house, and the roads that lead into and out of the city. I decipher the clouds and the passing gusts of air. I ask when she will come and receive no answer.
Now I have decided. I will travel to search for her in every place. I will put my life in danger. Why should it matter? What good is there in my life if she might be in danger while I’m not there to help in any way I can?
My role among the nobles of my tribe requires no more than some brief hours at the end of the day. We meet to discuss issues of import to our council and—primarily—to the congregation who has entrusted us with its affairs. My point of view, as an elder, is accepted by opponents and claimants when they come to us to settle their disputes.
Every now and then I inspect my claws. They are as new, growing like they did in my youth.
I rise to the top of a cliff. The sun is scorching. I smell a carcass being devoured by the vultures behind the rock. I watch one of the entrances to the village. A grey dust cloud raised by a herd of sheep envelops the place, while a man, surrounded by five dogs, yells from behind them.
They all stop in the shade of the tree with the massive hollow trunk in which water is stored from the last rainy season. The villagers pour bucketfuls of water into it whenever they can, so there’s always enough to drink for them and their cattle.
Two hours pass. I feel faint and drowsy from the heat. I should return to my nest. A sudden noise snaps me awake. I hear the screams of children: “They have come! They have come to kill us!”
The killing and plundering and pillaging lasts for an hour of human time. Many lives are lost. Weapons pierce the bodies of unarmed victims with noise and fire and leave them lying in their own blood.
I look at my claws. They are merciful in comparison and have never pierced flesh except to fill my hunger. As the brutes start to leave, I know I will follow them out of this wretched village.
Moments ago, they were committing monstrosities and taking lives. Now they’re heading east. I follow them and within two and a half hours, their convoy arrives at its final destination: A green city. I expect them to be received in some way, celebrated or censured for the carnage they have inflicted on unguarded land.
To my disappointment, they just disperse in the roads of the city. I don’t understand if it’s evil or apathy that makes them seem like lambs in the city, more peaceable than the souls they have extinguished that afternoon!
By sunset I arrive at the city’s central square. It holds enough light to dispel the dark heart of the night sky.
I look around me. To my right there’s an orderly park, in the middle of which stands an impressive towering building. I circle it. Its windows are shut. There’s a pond surrounded by tall trees and a lawn so neatly clipped it looks like the green surface of the water.
I know I can’t be safe in the cities of humans. I have to be mindful of where I walk or fly, and when. I spot a rabbit by one of the trees along the pond and quickly snatch it for nourishment before returning to the treetop, hoping that no human glimpsed me.
A few years ago, my mate ascended to heaven. My offspring inhabit worlds different to my own. I consider my beak and my claws and the air around me. Everything feels hollow. It is she who fills the universe with the spirit of beauty. Some may call me idealistic or delusional. But I find joy in the symbolism of her being, it fills me entirely, intoxicates my very existence.
A familiar perfume pulls me toward a group of people gathered in the park, with food and drink and talk of someone’s birthday. My poor aging heart—you have never quit dancing with the phantom of her. She is here. She is the one being celebrated. It’s close to midnight when the celebration ends and she enters the building accompanied by five people, one of whom I take to be her daughter. An hour passes. A window opens. It is her. My enchantress lies in her bed, talking to a boy of about ten who sits across from her. He kisses her forehead and goes out. She shuts the window.
I settle in a tall tree. I close my eyes and only open them in the morning, to find the humans going about their affairs, moving individually and in groups in every direction, some sitting around in laughter and conversation.
The one I take to be her daughter strolls out of the building in a rose-coloured dress, holding hands with the ten-year-old boy and a man of about her age. She resembles her mother, though her mother’s beauty is unmatched.
My enchantress opens the window. She looks out as she untangles her hair with her fingers. Then she sits in front of the mirror to comb, then braid it. With the magnificent braid draping over her left shoulder, she gets up and looks out of the window again. There is a man with her in the room. I hear his laughter and see her smile, then he comes to her. They kiss. He holds her like a precious doll. She is relaxed in his arms. Their bodies move closer to the window and, together, they close it.
The whistle of a distant train reaches me with the question: What am I doing here?
© Ann El Safi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Nariman Youssef. All rights reserved.
The residents of Al-Nar Street coexist with demons and djinns from a nearby swamp in this excerpt from Zeinab Belail’s novel The Cactus Plant.
Listen to Zeinab Belail read "Al-Nar Street" in the original Arabic.
Al-Nar Street is one of the longest streets that any of the city’s residents has ever set foot in. Long and winding, it starts in the east and ends in the west, as if rising and setting with the sun. On its banks are clay houses with small doors, small windows, and tight spaces. Their inhabitants therefore spend most of their time in the street, despite the sewage pumped into it. The houses extend along the street for around half a kilometer on each side. To the north, they are contained by the moringa trees, which keep the dust out of the Illuminated City with its high-rise buildings, paved roads, and lush gardens. And then there’s the large open space, wider than the row of houses, a space flooded by searchlights. Not even a mouse could cross it undetected.
To the south, the houses are contained by a deep canal leading away from the big river and to a place unknown to the residents. Perhaps it was originally dug to irrigate this land, but then someone changed their mind and it was abandoned, left dry, for the residents of the street to do their business and dispose of their waste. In the rainy season, it fills with water and debris. Goats drink from it and young boys learn to swim in it. Beyond this stream is a vast pit from which truck drivers obtain sand to sell for house construction. In autumn, these pits turn into swamps—a haven for mosquitoes. Scattered around this area are dense mesquite trees where stray dogs and cats seek refuge, as do young delinquents. At night these trees serve as a veil behind which some drink alcohol, thieves split their loot, and criminals fight, kill, and bury their victims in shallow graves. Often, police officers come here to dig up bodies, and the stench rises to the residents’ noses.
Women are forbidden from setting foot in the swamp, by day or by night. If a woman crosses the canal, if only to dispose of some garbage, everyone’s tongues would wag and stories would be spun about her. A powerful reason prevents the women from crossing the canal, where garbage, bricks, mud and animal carcasses have created a multitude of bridges. That reason is the demons who come in the shape of handsome men in clean clothes; they tempt women and then have their way with them. Everyone remembers the strange thing that Fathia bint Al-Khayyat gave birth to, and which Al-Hussain delivered them of in the non-place. And although men have forbidden their wives from crossing the canal, the demons have continued to come to the swamp, now bringing along their own women, to procreate in this filthy piece of land. The residents believe that the demons prefer filthy, squalid places. Every day, when the men cross the canal to the swamp for whatever reason, they find objects belonging to women—the djinns’ women of course—an earring, a bracelet, an item of clothing, or a shoe. They remain on guard, and tread carefully for fear that they may step on one of the demons’ offspring and be paralyzed.
The houses in Al-Nar street are attached. Neighbors can hear each other whisper. They exchange greetings, swear words, food, and buckets of water over the walls. Bathrooms are common property. A homeowner may walk into the bathroom only to find a neighbor using it, and there would be no embarrassment or anger. Water pipes are common property as well, and one child’s medicine is shared by all children. In fact, any person’s medicine may be used by anyone with similar symptoms.
Leafy neem trees line the street providing shade; children use them as playgrounds, men as their social clubs, and barbers as their salons. Some sections of the shaded cover have been taken over by the makers of woven anaqrib beds and banaber stools. Arguments are always breaking out between the carpenters and women who accuse them of reserving the good quality wood for the pretty women, or for women with whom they have other special arrangements.
Some tailors have also made use of the neem trees, but ladies’ tailors have separate shops to protect their customers from the prying eyes of the men passing by with sacks of coal. The spaces beneath some branches have turned into a market for cigarettes and snuff, while elsewhere they are used as workshops for mending tattered shoes. Wise men, sand readers, and palm readers have occupied spots in the shade, as have the sellers of roots—aphrodisiac roots, roots for incurable diseases, and roots that increase wealth. Some areas are reserved for the display of multicolored, decorated pottery. People come to Al-Nar Street from far and wide to buy things they cannot find anywhere else.
In the evening, women sell food along the length of the street, and men stand in circles around them to eat in the light of the kerosene lamp. The street heaves with the masses of people escaping from their stuffy, overcrowded houses. To an onlooker from above this extraordinary river looks like a mythical ship carrying people with unlit torches.
In the last third of the night, the whole street awakes. The head of the household starts by removing the branch supporting the external door, causing it to collapse. All men and boys over seven, and a few under seven, leave the house and greet one another as they meet on the street. With one hand holding up their jilbab to keep it from dragging in the mud, and the other clutching the misbaha beads, they head toward the mosque built by a benefactor they’ve never met. They feel their way in the dark, following the light of handheld flashlights and recognizing each other from their voices or the houses they were coming from. Everyone is muttering prayers, rushing along before it’s too late.
At the end of the second third of the night God descends from the seventh heaven, roaming the Earth and calling on his worshippers: “Is there anyone who is seeking my help so that I may help him? Is there anyone who was wronged so that I may restore his rights? Is there anyone who is invoking me so that I may respond to his invocation?” Then God returns to the seventh heaven and its boundless spaces. The worshippers’ voices cannot reach such lofty heights, and that is why they rush, in the hope that God will hear their prayers and answer them. In the meantime, while God is roaming the Earth, the women heat skillets, cook food, or milk sheep. They do not have the time to stop and listen to the call of God. They hurry toward the markets. The tea-selling women move swift as the wind. In only a few moments the men will come out of the mosque to buy tea from them. Some of these men have no milk at home, others have wives who are too busy preparing the goods to sell in the market, while yet others do not like to start the day with the sight of their wives: what with their messy hair and dirty, ragged gowns, or the sound of their angry, nagging voices, so unlike the well-groomed tea sellers who greet each customer with a special, bright morning smile. Men drink their tea with milk, with cinnamon, with clove, with mint, with sweet dumplings; tea that is unlike any other tea. It quenches their thirst and cures ailments only they know of. Accompanied by kind and gentle words, this tea is so very different from their wives’ tea, which always lacks flavor, no matter how perfect it is.
From Nabat Al-Sabbar. © Zeinab Belail. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Nesrin Amin. All rights reserved.
Spending the night at a women’s prison where she is covering a conference, a journalist wakes from an inexplicable dream in this excerpt from Amna al-Fadl’s novel Some of What Happened Between Us.
Basma switched off the tape recorder and fell into a deep sleep. But she soon awoke, terrified, and drew the curtains back from the window overlooking the prison courtyard. She could discern nothing in the pitch dark but the whistling of the winter winds and the trembling of her hands from the bitter cold. Without hesitation, she telephoned Mahasin, who had once told Basma that she was an expert in interpreting dreams, a talent she had inherited from her father.
Although Mahasin was now seventy, she was still strong and robust, and her familiar face inspired affection at first glance. She carried you off to other worlds with her endless tales of history, folk medicine, djinn, and men of religion such as Sufis and dervishes. Everyone adored Mahasin’s stories, parts of which were true and parts spun, perhaps, by her fertile imagination. Women often visited her to unburden their hearts of rancor, sadness, or even joy. They would depart happy, after sipping the coffee she presented with delightful ceremony in a rounded clay pot with a squat neck, encircled by tiny crimson cups on a circular metal tray. Overhead hung a smoky haze of the traditional incense that Mahasin specialized in making and selling in the neighborhood.
Mahasin had shadowed her father during his apprenticeship with a Sufi sage, during which, as she told the story, he developed a mastery of all the religious arts and sciences. She accompanied him to Sufi ceremonies for meditating upon God’s name and debating the finer points of doctrine until she became quite convinced of her gift for interpreting dreams and treating intractable diseases without resorting to modern medicines. Basma, however, continued to see Mahasin as the mother she’d lost at a young age, before her heart had had its fill of her boundless maternal love, her warm embrace, and the sage advice she imparted with a wisdom acquired early in her life. But Death, that killjoy, was waiting for her mother, with his scythe that never misses.
Basma told Mahasin about her recurring dream, the dream about a forest that she had been unable to shake off since she was ten. Although she had changed her sleeping position, her pillow, and even some of her bedtime rituals, the dream remained, filling her imagination whenever she fell into exhausted sleep.
She hovers overhead, aimless, surrendering herself to fate. She runs through the depths of a dense forest, her magenta dress sweeping like a peacock’s tail over the edges of the grass, the sound of pounding drums eclipsing her heartbeats, fearful of the savage wild beasts and the whining insects thirsting to bite anything succulent. She makes her way toward the source of the drumbeats; the mist parts to reveal the faces of men gathered around a pile of burning wood, practicing their strange rites, repeating their supplications with one voice in a steady rhythm. An old man with a long white beard leads her by the hand and seats her beside the fire, placing on her head a wreath of greenery decorated with rare flowers, before leaving. Everyone follows him, but she remains seated by the fire until the last piece of wood, and with it her dream, vanish, as morning breaks, increasing her confusion and astonishment at her strange visions.
As Mahasin fought off her drowsiness, Basma finished describing the dream. It came to her often, she said, and she had begun to fear its opaque meanings.
After a brief silence, Mahasin said: “Your dream portends good things, God willing, good things. The old man is your mother’s prayers for you; the wreath on your head represents a king, in name or in meaning; and the fire is something you’ve been hoping for, which will set you ablaze with happiness and joy; you will lie awake at night to guard it lest it disappear.”
As she listened to the interpretation of her persistent dream, Basma laughed sardonically. Although Mahasin was still earnestly deciphering the dream’s symbols, Basma interrupted her, saying: “I can believe the part about my mother’s prayers, since she spent most of her time praying for my happiness. How I’ve missed the sound of her entreaties to God in the dark of night, how I’ve missed hearing her speak my name, her voice full of love and life! If only I could fling myself into her arms as I used to; if only I could breathe in her scent––her special smell mingled with her perfume––and forget my father’s cruelty! He left me no choice but to wander through the path of despair and defeat; he deprived me of my appetite for life; he destroyed any sense of security I’d dreamed of, which might have let me build a relationship with a man.”
Just as her conversation with Mahasin ended, and before the screen of her phone faded, Basma cried out: “It’s Amir! Oh my God—Aunt Mahasin told me the wreath means a king, in name or in meaning, and his name is Amir—the prince!” She repeated the words over and over as she paced the room, so exhilarated that she nearly woke up Mariam.
Despite Mariam’s urging, Basma was the only workshop participant who had declined to stay in a hotel on the grounds that she did not wish to feel lonely. Her mother had given birth to her alone; she had grown up in the shadow of orphanhood after her death and during the subsequent years she’d spent abroad, immured in her home. She was weary of quiet and solitude and attracted by the hustle and bustle of the prison. That night, she felt her dream had become a reality, unobscured by mist, that not even violent winds could sweep away.
Basma threw herself on the bed and disappeared beneath the covers, murmuring over and over to herself—It’s Amir, Amir is the prince!—the smile on her lips anticipating the start of trysts by the sea.
From Ba’d alladhi dara baynana. © Amna Al Fadl. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Katherine Van de Vate. All rights reserved.
A young woman is captivated by a mysterious book about the history of the Nile as she searches for a disappeared friend in this excerpt from Sarah Al-Jack’s novel The Mites.
I flipped through a small booklet with a worn-out cover. The title was covered in the white marks of a corrector pen. Beneath it was a drawing of the Nile, from its source to where it drains into the Mediterranean. The first page was torn out; there was no author name, no mention of a publishing house or copyrights. The paper was dry and yellow, with just a little carelessness it could disintegrate into powder; a handful of dust. There was no dedication, no preface. The language was delicate and rich. I read it on the bus that I took to the dorms in Bahari, where I looked forward to resting after a long, exhausting workday filled with endless details.
Qayshun was flowing right beneath me when I opened the book, as the bus crossed the Blue Nile bridge.
The first page read:
He was flowing in peace, through God’s highest heaven, next to two other rivers in Paradise—Al-Kawthar and the Euphrates—when God first shaped Man. He watched as Iblis slithered through the dough, in through one opening and out through another, wondering what that creature was. Until God breathed His soul into it, and it became Adam. Then God asked Iblis to kneel before Adam: Iblis refused Him, and he refused Adam, so he was expelled from God’s mercy and was deemed cursed, which further deepened his resentment toward God’s new creation. And so Iblis stalked Adam, and he deceived him, and they were both forever banished from Paradise.
But before they were driven out, he was. And his was a violent descent; he slammed against the face of the Earth, horizontal and rigid, and he slept for a lifetime. When he woke from his slumber he tried to rise; he dragged his right leg, digging Qayshun––the Blue Nile, while the heel of his right foot created Lake Tana. He dragged his left leg and that was Gayjun––the White Nile, and where the heel of his left foot had been Lake Victoria came to be. His head: the Mediterranean; his arms the branches of Damietta and Rashid, his neck a third stream that slipped through the pages of history books, forgotten. He stood like a giant in splendor; he screamed for the first time, and down poured the rain.
He left fragments of his soul behind and he roamed the Earth, tilting his face toward the sun. To prepare their earthly exile for receiving Adam and Iblis, God put him there first, ruining his game with the Euphrates and Al-Kawthar. They stumbled and they fell, and he bore witness to it all.
I stepped off the bus, enthralled by the author’s language and his strange theory about the origins of the Nile. I didn’t go to the dorms as I had planned; my feet led me to the river.
As soon as Sareya arrived—with the cloud that surrounded her, whose colors changed with the time of day and the shade of the sun and its reflection on her legendary neck, guarded by the pendant with the blue bead—the Nile’s name changed, and it became the Spirit. The sounds of the river creatures began to fade as a strange language formed between her and the waves. She turned the book to face the water; the water held it in its memory. She placed her bookmark where she had stopped, closed the book, and placed it in her large handbag—“Aleppo’s Basket,” her mother had called it. Sareya remembered her coarse features, her delicate heart, and the corals of Port Sudan. She returned to the banks of the Spirit, she asked him about the author’s claim.
“Do you spring from the heavens?”
The sunset call to prayer rose from one of the mosques nearby, and she noticed for the first time that the sun was no longer there. And as soon as she posed her question to the Spirit, the moon shone, smiling down on the water’s surface, and the waves reveled in its light, as though answering her question: “Yes, he is one of the rivers of heaven.”
I entered the dorms, still captivated by the poetic language of the book. The supervisor wasn’t at the front desk; I was grateful I didn’t have to talk and interrupt my train of thought. From my pocket, I took out the keys to my room, swiftly unlocked the door, and walked in. I threw Aleppo’s Basket on the floor and plopped down right next to it. I looked up at the clock on the wall before me: the time for the sunset prayers had passed (they always say maghrib is like a swift visitor). Rushing to the bathroom, I washed and prepared for prayer. I read the chapter of Al-Fatiha, followed by Al-Kawthar––a river of Paradise, just like the Nile and the Euphrates. I finished praying, lay down on my prayer rug, opened Aleppo’s Basket, took out the book, and immersed myself.
Adam descended in the city of Sari. Iblis accompanied him, invisible to Adam but following him incessantly. Adam found himself in the midst of a barren desert, a scorching sun beating down on him. Eve wasn’t there, he’d forgotten her upon his fall from sky to Earth. Barefoot and naked but for a mulberry leaf, he wandered, until he encountered life.
What is life?
And He Taught Him All the Names
Life results at the intersection of two coordinates—a horizontal one: place; and a vertical one: time. It progresses with the movement that takes place within those coordinates, X and Y; happening across various internal points within this space. Several activities occur there, creating a rhythm that enables Adam and his children to perform a specific act for which they were made, a long time ago.
The summoning, the calling, the inspiration
aids them in finding a rhythm
an attempt to reach
the perfect tune
because complete harmony
—Where is this voice coming from?
—It is coming from the depths at the heart of this darkness.
—Where? I can’t see the place you’re pointing toward.
—It is there, to the South. Look at the source of the sound.
The voice comes from above, from where you came. She screamed; she was looking for you. The seven skies echoed her scream, as did the earth.
The pigeons wondered, the hoopoe asked: What is the purpose of this stranger’s visit to the earth? Qayshun and Gayjun filled with water after the giant stood up and screamed and the rain poured down. The sun hid behind the clouds, in fear of that which was to happen and which they did not know. The moon was eclipsed and did not reappear, the earth shook and sent lava shooting out of its volcanoes, and there was nothing the creatures could do but wait.
Weightless neutrons floated, praising God in an unprecedented first. Adam felt his soul swimming through him, moving to the age of impurity. It was done to him, when God decided that he should fall. And fall he did, vertically, but then he landed horizontally, positioned like a cross; naked but for the mulberry leaf that covered his being.
—Where is this voice coming from?
—It is coming from the depths at the heart of this darkness.
—Where? I can’t see the place you’re pointing toward.
—It is there, to the South. Look at the source of the sound. Follow the voice; do what it commands. Plunge into the heart of the Spirit; you know him, he knows you well. Then leave him at the navel. You will forget him, he will forget you. Sail across Gayjun to the South. We bear no relation to you; follow your intuition; the calling, the summoning, the inspiration. Go deeper into the South, through the waves of Gayjun. You will find weeds tangled with serpents and snakes, swamps where lethal golden frogs croak. The crocodiles of the river will meet you with open jaws—do not fear; they are cleaning their teeth with the rays of the sun. They are ugly and forbidding; their backs scaly, their tails carrying the promise of death. Their teeth glint in the light of the sun that cleans them; arrows that pierce the heart of anyone who’s a stranger to the swamps. And you, you are definitely a stranger.
He wades through the swamp, the bones of the dead fish lying in the mud tear through the skin of his feet, stabbing at his flesh. The stabbed foot sticks to the mud, the earth clings to it, and finally, painfully sucks the thin, lodged bones out of him. He is waist-deep now; the insects of the swamp are feasting on his blood and there’s no way out. He is hindered by algae and rootless plants he can’t see, on this journey for which he knows no purpose. He keeps moving through Gayjun, southwards, against the current. In the forest, he is assaulted by the trees, their branches whipping him across the back. The monkeys toy with him; throwing ripe mangoes at his face. He walks and walks and trips on banana leaves and walks again. He walks for years; his nails are long, his hair unruly; his soul wilts, his body weakens. From pleasure to pain, from wealth to weariness. He continues on his way south, one wave handing him to the next.
Who is he?
Who will he be?
Where did he come from?
And how did he end up here?
© Sarah Al-Jack. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Yasmine Zohdi. All rights reserved.
Drawing on unpublished letters and journals, the Polish journalist always keeps an eye on revealing details in her new book "Ellis Island: A People's History," the result of extensive research into the manifold trajectories of those who set foot on a new continent and helped forge the modern US.
Here’s the key, take it. Read these words and travel back in time. This is what Polish writer and editor Małgorzata Szejnert has decided to offer her readers in Ellis Island: A People’s History: a miniature travel machine. Szjenert is a magician of the eye and of memory. From the opening page she leads the reader to the bank of an infinite river and points upstream, to the sources of the past: this patch of land, now called Ellis Island, is where the Lenni Lenape Indians once lived. In one phrase, she conveys how nature shaped their world: “The oysters here are large, and fat enough to choke on . . . when burying their dead—both humans and dogs—the Lenape seal the bodies up tight with these shells; they are indestructible.” Lenni Lenape means the True People. By 1630, Szjenert informs us, the True People no longer feel safe and sell the island to the Dutch West India Company.
In 1774, the island is acquired by Samuel Ellis, a wealthy fish merchant whose name remains linked to the island’s history. Years go by and the landscape is no longer the same; little by little everything is changing. By the mid-1880s, on neighboring Bedloe Island, works of a magnitude never before seen are being carried out. In Szjenert’s hands, even a construction site becomes a playground for original imagery. “You might be forgiven for thinking it conceals an elephant, raised on its hind legs and stretching its trunk into the air,” she writes. A magnificent copper statue will soon light the waters for ships entering New York’s Harbor. “Once freed from its cocoon, the elephant trunk turns out to be an arm raising a torch.”
Born in 1936, Szejnert is one of the leading chroniclers and editors in Poland, and was a mentor to the first generation of journalists working in the country after the fall of the Iron Curtain. She wrote about the rising tide of tensions in Poland in the 1970s and later became an active member of the opposition movement during the Solidarity period. To write this book, she drew on unpublished letters, journals, and manuscript—shared with her by Diana Pardue, director of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, and writer Barry Moreno—to create a vast canvas of the lives of those arriving in a new world. She also relied on the work of historian Witold Kula, who at the time of the German occupation was a volunteer teaching assistant at the Underground Free Polish University. He was able to ensure the safekeeping of an enormous collection of letters sent by Polish emigrants back to their families. Szejnert's broad experience as a journalist is palpable in the specificity of details, notes, and images she includes. Though the book describes the journeys (often hindered) taken by many different peoples across the Old World—Slovaks, Ukrainians, Italians, Lithuanians, Irish, Norwegians, and many more—the author keeps a keen eye on the connections to her native Poland, which at the turn of the nineteenth century was under Russian rule. The reader learns of the many letters confiscated by czarist censors, letters that could never reach the brother, the aunt, or the spouse who were meant to join their loved ones in the new country. Authorities wanted to stop the exodus by any means possible, and several ship tickets were never received. How many families were split apart? This implicit question recurs throughout the book.
Ellis Island opened for operation in 1892. From the late 1800s until the 1950s, it was the entry point for nearly twelve million people into the US. While describing the immigration station itself, Szejnert’s writing becomes a cane for the visually impaired. She sees the unseen, the neglected ordinary details that reveal the character of an individual. Through her portrayals of doctors, nurses, photographers, commissioners, interpreters, social workers, and others, the reader discovers how a luggage handler can determine a migrant’s country of origin just by looking at their bags. “Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians have the most tightly packed luggage . . . The suitcases of the English and French are in better condition than others’ and are the most modern. Greeks and Arabs have bundles large as mountains.”
For her exhaustive research, the author spent time in New York visiting archives at the library of the Immigration Museum—to this day, the librarians still remember her. Her book interweaves images of the past and present, how the urban landscape looks to her now, and how it must have looked to those who arrived to a new life after many days at sea, cramped on the third class deck, spent yet hopeful.
Szejnert is sensitive to nuance. She knows of the success stories of migrants such as Albert Einstein, Bob Hope, Annie Moore, or Joseph Pulitzer, but also wants to shed light on the many untold stories of people who tried to come to the US. Upon arrival, migrants were subjected to methodical physical and psychological examinations; signs of mental instability or of a contagious disease could mean deportation. There was the Kissing Gate, an area where those admitted met relatives; after a battery of procedures and check-ups, it was a moment of joyous relief. Then there were the Stairs of Separation, silent witness to dashed hopes and tearful faces. Built in gray marble, the stairs stood solid and ice cold. They were divided into three lines by barriers: the right led to the railroad ticket office; the left to the ferry to New York. Then there was the one in the middle: “Those who are sent on the middle route, between the barriers, are in deepest despair. Bereft and terrified. The middle line of stairs cuts them off from their families, their traveling companions, their hope for a new life.”
The author’s tone is that of someone who empathizes with the plight of migrants, someone who understands the implications of uprooting oneself. In 1981, martial law was introduced in Poland and Szejnert lost her job. The situation became untenable and she left for the US with her son. Though in the end she didn’t stay—she returned to Poland when the Iron Curtain fell—she knew firsthand how such an experience could mark an individual.
And perhaps that’s also why she empathizes with the discrimination that the Chinese faced, and with the dreadful conditions many Jews in the Russian Empire had to endure. She describes how John B. Weber, Ellis Island’s first commissioner, traveled to Russia to understand why so many people were emigrating to America. What he encounters leaves him devastated: “…a hospital where he investigates and confirms what he can hardly believe: that Pasteur’s life-saving rabies vaccine is forbidden to Jews, because they are Jews.” Weber is indefatigable. He travels, he interviews people. He wants to understand and record what he sees. “It is inhumane of us to push these people back into the pit from which they have crawled. When we do this we should extinguish the torch of the Goddess of Liberty.” It makes the reader wonder to what extent today’s US immigration authorities care to understand why people ever want to leave their lands.
In Sean Gasper Bye's translation, Szejnert's prose enters the ear like a wave of silken murmurs. Syntax, idiomatic expressions, word choice––nothing is left uncared for in the hands of Bye, tailor of sentences. He was the literature and humanities curator of the Polish Cultural Institute New York, and his own mother's family sailed over from Poland and Slovakia at the beginning of the twentieth century. He received a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship for the translation of this book.
In the pages of Ellis Island, we learn not only of the evolution and tightening of the US immigration laws, but also gain glimpses into millions of lives passing through its gate. Szejnert has created a portal through which the reader can hear the voices of those who set foot on the new continent and helped forge the modern US, as well as those who could not make it but deserve to be remembered nonetheless.
Via a forceful monologue, Diop's novel creates a tale of revenge with biblical overtones as it looks at the relatively little-known story of Senegalese riflemen fighting in the French army in the First World War.
David Diop’s new novel, At Night All Blood is Black (tr. Anna Moschovakis), combines a war story with allegory and myth. In under 150 pages, the book engages biblical tropes as it takes readers to the bloody trenches of World War I through the troubled account of a Senegalese soldier fighting in the French army. The result is a warning against war and its savage consequences. The book delves into the brutal details of WWI and colonial domination, invoking canonical texts against a world that is anarchic, violent, and surreal.
Diop was born in Paris and raised in Senegal. He lives in France and serves as head of the arts, languages, and literature department at the University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour, where his specialties include eighteenth-century French literature and the study of European representations of Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
At Night All Blood is Black is narrated by Alfa Ndiaye, who has enlisted in the French army in WWI to fight as a Chocolat, as recruits from the African colonies were called, alongside white French soldiers. His “more-than-brother,” Mademba Diop, joins him, and is mortally wounded during battle.
As Mademba lies with his guts spilling out “like a sheep that has been ritually dismembered after the sacrifice,” he implores Alfa to slit his throat and end the pain. Three times Mademba asks, and three times Alfa refuses. This reference to Jesus’ imprecation during the Last Supper that Peter would thrice deny him, makes what follows only more ironic.
Alfa carries Mademba’s dead body back over the battlefield, horrified with himself for having chosen to honor the laws of his ancestors, which prohibit mercy killing. He judges his failure to act as an abandonment for which he must redeem himself.
Using language that conflates spirituality and sexuality with grisly battle imagery, Alfa’s story descends into a hellscape. As Alfa returns to his comrades, the trench looks to him as “the slightly parted lips of an immense woman’s sex. A woman, open, offering herself to war, to the bombshells, and to us, the soldiers.”
Mademba Diop shares the author’s family name. By making this choice, author David Diop hovers over the text, binding the two “more-than-brothers,” adding freight to Mademba’s death and its repercussions for Alfa. Mademba’s name is a nod to parenté à plaisanterie (kinship jokes), a custom in parts of Central and West Africa in which certain ethnicities or regional groups engage in playful teasing and taunting between families to tighten kinship bonds.
To atone for failing Mademba, Alfa begins hurling himself at the enemy, slicing the back of his opponent’s knees with a machete, dragging him into no-man’s-land, and waiting for him to awaken. Alfa looks into his blue eyes, where he sees not just panic but the view the enemy has been taught to have of Africans—an image of death, savagery, rape, and cannibalism. Alfa then disembowels him, watching his blue eyes dim. In his words, he “cleanly” and “humanely” slits the enemies’ throat. This language connotes the opposite of what he is doing; he cloaks his ongoing murders as a mission of morality and justice. “At night all blood is black,” he remarks.
For each of his victims, Alfa brings back a hand as booty. Initially, his trenchmates proclaim him a hero, but after he delivers his fourth hand, they begin to fear him. The Chocolat soldiers whisper that Alfa is a dëmm, “a devourer of souls,” and the white soldiers agree. Alfa sees rumor chasing him “like a little slut.” He calls rumor “a shameless woman with her legs spread, her ass in the air.” As Alfa becomes increasingly violent, his metaphors of sexual violence become more frequent. The stereotypes he sees in the enemy’s eyes transform to action, which he narrates with the imprimatur of righteous indignation. Readers are forced to grapple with Alfa’s motives for revenge, to ask why Alfa acts as he does. In his furious reversal of right and wrong, Alfa demands an accounting of colonial oppression and its fallout.
Alfa is a madman, but so too the world is mad. He takes readers on a vertiginous tour of war and home, swinging between reporting that feels at once accurate and delusional. His verbal tic, “God’s truth,” asserts credibility for an unreliable narrator who is far from credible.
The incredible lies not in the actions Alfa describes, gruesome though they are, but in Alfa’s chilling interpretations. We meet his psychiatrist, presumably supplied by French judicial authorities to test his sanity. He provides a dizzying and uncomfortable account of his first sexual experience and describes his own crimes—including rape—with dispassion.
According to Alfa, “each thing is a double,” a theme that is a through line of the book, beyond his relationship with his “more-than-brother” Mademba. Alfa’s mother, the only daughter of an itinerant herder and Alfa’s father’s fourth and final wife, is “a source of joy and then of pain.” She comes to love his father as her opposite: “He was as old as an immutable landscape, she was young like the changing sky.” When Alfa is nine, his father urges her to go in search of her lost family. “We never abandon those who gave us life,” she tells Alfa, then abandons him.
As the book comes to a close, an omniscient figure makes a set of grave pronouncements:
This language, invoking Alpha and Omega, resonates with the protagonist’s name and recalls the Book of Revelation.
At Night All Blood is Black is translated with economy and sensitivity by poet and translator Anna Moschovakis, who is particularly successful at rendering Alfa’s feelings of foreign-ness into English. She declines to translate words such as “Toubab,” a Wolof word used in Senegal and elsewhere to designate a white person of European descent.
In the end, translation itself becomes a subject:
What and who is being translated, and by whom? Is it the man society deems mad, who may in fact speak the truth? Is it the way in which the African views the white man? Or, most important, how the white man translates the African into a monolithic image of brutality, an image that begets violence and lasting damage? Diop’s novel poses these questions, with the stark implication that the white man’s destruction runs so deep that it destroys not only whole societies but also humanity itself.
Our November 2020 issue, the second part of our double issue of writing on the climate crisis that began last month, coincides with an inauspicious date: as of November 4, 2020, Donald Trump has made official the United States’ breach of its commitment to the landmark 2015 Paris accord on climate change, the second time in two decades that the US agreed to and then failed to honor its commitments to an international climate pact.
The protagonist of this month’s work is, by and large, the natural world in its multitudes: the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, still the deadliest in history; a mother whale and the dead calf born to her on Puget Sound, which she carried for seventeen days; torrential rains flooding Luanda; an imposing elephant stirring the sands along the Ganges; and the mangrove forests of Bahia, Brazil. Yet something else binds this month’s work together: the symbiosis, sometimes tacit, sometimes not, of mankind and the planet.
Photographer Eliseu Cavalcante’s photo essay, from his ongoing series Ser Manguezal/Man-Grove, takes us to the mangrove forests of Belmonte, in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia. Inspired by Brazilian writer and geographer Josué de Castro’s 1967 work Of Crabs and Men, which envisions men as crabs learning to navigate the mangrove, Cavalcante’s striking images evoke this vital habitat and throw into relief the interdependence of man and mangrove. Through Cavalcante’s work, we are reminded in no uncertain terms that climate destruction spells our own doom.
Fiction by Ondjaki, translated here by Stephen Henighan, gives us a farcical view of urban catastrophe provoked by human folly. In “The Sky’s Seams Burst,” excerpted from Ondjaki’s 2004 novel Quantas madrugadas tem a noite (How many dawns has the night), we recognize the frequently absurd search for alternate explanations that might exculpate us from any responsibility in climate disaster. In the drenched Angolan capital, Luanda, Ondjaki portrays a society hell-bent on capitalizing even on its own demise, its craven businessmen looking to turn suffering to profit as neighborhood after neighborhood succumbs to the floodwaters. The only thing to save us from this tragic picture is the writer’s wry account of human irrationality.
Transporting us from urban rivers to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington state, Isabel Zapata, translated by Robin Myers, depicts the intertwined destinies of a mother orca, her dead calf, and the pilot of an empty plane that is rapidly losing fuel and altitude, reminding us of the ways in which “we all move, unknowingly, at every moment, toward our destruction.” Zapata’s verses memorialize two 2018 events that drew international attention—a mother orca’s seventeen-day, thousand-mile odyssey carrying her dead calf through off the Pacific Northwest coast and Horizon Air employee Richard Russell’s theft of a passenger jet used to ride to his death—events which, as a result of air traffic control recordings, became forever linked. Before bringing the plane down on Ketron Island, the pilot expresses his dying wish: to catch a glimpse of the whale faithfully carrying her dead child.
The same majesty that awes Zapata’s doomed pilot likewise strikes Yu Jian in his poem “Elephant,” translated by Xin Xu. Jian composes an elegy to “a defeated god, approaching the dusk of time” as it marches across Asia to its death. Chased toward an untimely end, this “robed king” glimpses a pack of lions for whom the elephant’s final journey seems a dire portent, the twin fates of these mighty beasts a reminder that even the most powerful cannot elude their demise.
If Zapata and Jian offer us the certainty of the end, Markéta Pilátová evokes the agony of a conclusion whose hour is unknown. In an excerpt from her novel Tsunami Blues—rendered into English by Sára Foitová—Pilátová reminds us of the fragility of life in a world ravaged by ever more frequent climate disasters. When news of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia arrives in Prague, a young musician’s instructor and her grandmother wait tensely by the phone for the call confirming that she has survived the deadly waves.
The writing here serves as a stark and unequivocal warning of the human cost of environmental destruction. As it emphasizes human dependence on the Earth’s various biomes, it makes explicit the inadequacy of terms like climate change and environmental crisis: this fight is not just for our forests and oceans, comes the increasingly urgent warning—it is for our common survival.
© Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
Human and natural tragedy intersect in Isabel Zapata's poem about the Richard Russell Horizon Air incident and mother orca Tahlequah's thousand-mile journey with her dead calf.
© Isabel Zapata. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Robin Myers. All rights reserved.
Eliseu Cavalcante's Being Mangrove/Ser Manguezal series was inspired by Josué de Castro's book Of Men and Crabs from 1967. De Castro was a Brazilian geographer, physician, writer, and activist against world hunger. In his book, men are envisioned as crabs, learning to walk in the mangroves. A common theme across the work of Cavalcante, who has also photographed the indigenous and river communities of the Amazon, is the symbiotic relationship between natural habitats and the communities that inhabit them. "Humans seemed to blend in with the mangrove, and it was easy to imagine them transforming into the mangrove roots, the crabs, and the mud," Cavalcante said of Being Mangrove.
In September 2020, Brazil's environmental minister rescinded protections for mangrove habitats, ending conservation efforts that stretch back to 1577, when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony. Brazil's more than 8,000 square miles of mangrove correspond to nearly ten percent of mangrove habitats worldwide. This ongoing series of photographs takes a look at those who depend on the mangrove ecosystem to survive, and the delicate relationship between humans and this particular ecosystem. Cavalcante has expressed his desire that his photographs at once draw attention to the arduous work of crab hunters and emphasize the crucial need to preserve mangrove forests. The photos below were taken in the mangrove forests of Belmonte, Bahia, a state in the Brazilian Northeast.
© Eliseu Cavalcante. By arrangement with the photographer. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from his novel Quantas madrugadas tem a noite (How many dawns has the night), Ondjaki gives us a farcical view of urban catastrophe provoked by human folly.
Then lemme take a step back to fill you in on the whole business: we started with the tick because now I know it came from the tick, but nobody knew at the time, you get my drift? Take it easy, there’s no confusion, there’s a whole bunch of different confusions: first, the dead man had two ladies; second, there was that kerfuffle over the widows of the state, the revenues for veterans, doesn’t that ring a bell? That was in the weeks when the downpours came, don’t you see? Then take it easy, I’m going to duly situate you.
It was during that rainstorm that nobody understood, they were even sayin it was ’cause of the death of that dude Savimbi, who was a witch doctor, and that now all that rain was ’cause of him dying like that without saying farewell, killed dead all of a sudden, you see them sorcerers need a whole bunch of farewell ceremonies, it’s not just point an AK-47, pull the trigger, and bingo! And the rains were there to confirm it––Angola soaked, I remember it well, they were days from another world…In Luanda, bro? Even the goddess Kianda, no stranger to the waters, was stuck!
Buddy: the world’s sewer? End of the river’s course where the rain takes its vengeance? Rain was no longer rain! We even earned the respect of our Mozambican brothers, the real experts in flooding. The sky’s seams had burst and the seamstress-angel had checked out—and here we were, sitting out the aquatic consequences: more catastrophe, less catastrophe, who even wants to hear about it? Internationally we stand out for war and famine, the only rain that interests anyone in coming here to suffer is the petroleum-diamantine rain, you get it, right? other kinds of rains––of mud of fat mosquitoes that kill kids of fever in the pre-dawn hours, or else a rain of sudden smiles or the cracking of asphalt never to be repaired, or rain dampening the tents and roof tiles of people from the provinces displaced by our big fat and fattening war—those are rains better suited to poor people and nobody came here so his eyes would be pained by having to look at that: to go out on a whim was already to go for a swim, to take a drive was to sail the seas, to live was just to suffer. It’s our people themselves who give me a pain in the heart: to laugh is to laugh, an eternal act of the lips, and not just laughing to oneself but to others as well, to take aim at life and leave a stain. Now it looks like I’m going to have to tell you this: here it’s life that's adopted, as though it were a little girl with rheumy eyes that you search and find gentleness—you like her, and slowly you get used to her. Here life resembles a little stepdaughter we take into our home, a girl fleeing the war… So I’m losing my way, buddy? I’m adrift on my sodden memories of those days? It’s because you weren't there: here we treat suffering well! It stops mistreating us and an Angolan gets nervous: the rain, a near catastrophe? We took it in stride, smiles, new business dealings came in with the tide, now you can learn to swim in an asphalt pool, your ex-street, the ex-trajectory of dusty feet. Without the slightest doubt, it was a lot of rain, only that: there are lots of us here, too. Is there new strength in unity? Dear fellow: it’s in suffering that a people’s smile becomes one––a single faceless mouth laughing in misfortune’s face, mollifying it. Are you joking? Why misfortune, social flooding?––it’s almost always a question of looking, how you look at it. Don’t look so shocked, hey, get this: for you the baobab can be an ugly-withered little tree. But! And if I can lend you broader vistas: an old-robust tree, often pretty when it shows off the setting sun.
Even when he’s behind schedule—you thought it'd be any different?—Burkina doesn’t give breakfast a miss even where peaceful waters flow, I mean the waters aren’t as peaceful as they usually are, but even so he goes to the porch, calls the kid WWK (Walk With Kare) to eat breakfast together and sit watching the rain falling from the skies.
the whole tap! am i right, Uncle Burkina?
the kid asked, Burkina just nodded his head, the milk slowly streaming from his mouth, that stomach thing he’s got, a special milk the guy drank till he felt not more pain from the nervousness brought on by life’s daily routine.
Dear fellow, it was no longer funny to talk about catastrophe and excess water, I’ll put you in the picture: two districts of Lobito, one in Huambo and one in Moxico, had already disappeared; in Boavista, folks everywhere were bathing daily, not of their own accord or some sudden desire for corporeal cleanliness, but because that was the only way to round off their day, their assigned duty of standing out in the rain, eyeing the sky with open, damp eyes, inquiring of God, for those who had a God, when it all was going to end, then nothing at all, no sign of letting up, not the slightest crack to let rays of sunlight in, not a fig-leaf of hope for a dry spell—just water.
There was no longer any charm in interviewing nor in photographing nor in filming, as here charm, too, had died of drowning, kids in the street and street kids still guffawed now and then, their means of getting around their neighborhood was a wooden boat, an inflatable tire from an Ural or Ifa truck, oh man, Soviet technology!, many died of drowning from never having learned to swim over the asphalt, which was no longer visible. International television coverage, are you kidding?, they were reporting the facts, comparing us with Chinese rainstorms with the difference that here we had neither rice nor helicopters to offer a lifeline, and one guy they picked up walking through the rain during the hours prior to the worst thundershower they wanted to interview, he just stood there, like he was defying the heavens, right in front of a church that was even open and receiving people but he didn’t want to go in
but why aren’t you going into the church, sir?
the reporter of foreign misery asked him
I’m not a believer!
the dude, taking it easy
but at least don’t stay out in the rain, get inside the church
the reporter almost forced him, while he stood there damply, raindrops on his lips and drooling spittle, plain-as-plain by the look in his eyes that he had no patience left, when he responded
oh comrade . . . just leave me in peace, for fuck’s sake . . . I’m going straight into the church, to kneel down in there and all, being a believer why wouldn’t I?
From Maianga on down, down to downtown, the traffic still flowed like always, though only jeeps could get through fine, but watch out, it was getting dangerous there, invisible potholes, even Rua António Barroso had swallowed two cars, vanished just like that, according to the testimony of those in the know among the audience lining building windows, who saw one car go, and another bigger one that tried to get through right after, disappear as well, not just disappear from sight, into the lower waters, but disappear like a crane came the next day and found the pothole empty, some people said.
Kianda’s tentacles reach all the way up here
others put forward the theory that the two cars had been ripped off overnight, I dunno.
Burkina’s minivan, its reinforced shock absorbers and suspension sparing him from the jolt at each curve or pothole, was still in working order, and with the delay of having overslept due to recollections of the night before, he sent Sete to hook up the police siren and had nothing to write in the blank on the form that the policemen would see, because he didn’t have either the Honourable Lady Judge or a dead man on board, so he just wrote the famous initials PUN (Prostitutes’ Union—National), but, with the luck of those who rush when they’re late, a cop perched right there on Mutamba, skinny with hunger, like a bald, rain-soaked version of the dwarf Pintainho in the cartoons, orders the guys to stop and stands there, saying hum . . . hum, chewing his lips, eyeing the makeshift siren and trying to read in the box on the slate. And then
good morning, comrades… Pleeze present your personal identification and registration documents for the car
Sete started to pull out the documents while he dismantled the siren, and everybody gave up their documents; then the dwarf asked permission to enter the van, because if he didn’t, everybody’s documents were gonna get soaked.
Excerpt from Quantas madrugadas tem a noite © Ondjaki. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Stephen Henighan. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from her novel Tsunami Blues, Markéta Pilátová traces the reverberations of the December 2004 tsunami in Indonesia back to the Czech Republic.
Music for the old lady
Small Town Moravia, December 26, 2004
His memories, his “pictures from the tropics,” included these kinds of images, too. This was how they ran from hurricanes, back in Cuba such a long time ago, or from surreal, torrential rains that would flush away most of the reason for accumulating any possessions whatsoever. Lázaro turned on the news. A man in a suit jacket and a light green tie was mournfully informing the nation that a huge tsunami had ravaged Thailand, and that the list of missing persons included Czech tourists. Lázaro gulped. He called Jitka and they both watched the wave incredulously as it swept across the screen, stared at the ruins of luxury hotels, gray beaches strewn with broken palm trees. “But that’s where Karla went, how is she doing?” Jitka asked nonsensically, as if Lázaro had just received a cable or text message straight from the Czech embassy.
“How the hell should I know?” he snapped. Then he got up from the armchair and moved to the phone.
“Good evening, am I speaking to Mrs. Klimentová? This is Lázaro Milo. I’m Karla’s teacher at the conservatory,” he opened primly.
“Hello, Mr. Milo,” Karla’s grandmother said just as stiffly. “You’re probably calling about the tsunami?” the retired pharmacist continued.
“Yes, have you heard from them?” asked Lázaro in a hushed voice.
“No, not yet, but I hope they’re . . . they’re alright. Karla especially, she always gets so sunburnt,” Mrs. Klimentová jabbered incoherently into the phone.
“Sunburnt?” Lázaro repeated, astonished.
“Her skin is so sensitive, you know, with all those freckles.”
“Right, those freckles.” Lázaro realized the old lady was in shock.
“Should I . . . should I come over?” he asked after a moment of uneasy silence, during which neither of them let go of the receiver. Karla had told Lázaro that Mrs. Klimentová was a widow and lived alone. An old-school church choir singer. Pedantic, anxious, and immensely proud of Karla’s musical gift. The only one in the whole family. He pictured the quiet old third-floor apartment on Kovářská Street, not far from the square. In it, a petite lady with a purple hairdo reminiscent of cotton candy sat in a chair, waiting for any kind of news.
“I’ll be there in a bit, wait for me, please, don’t go anywhere, Mrs. Klimentová, OK? Just stay in, it’s freezing cold out, and the embassy might call any minute,” Lázaro urged her, feeling like a reasonable son.
“Jitka, listen, I’ll run over to old Mrs. Klimentová, she hasn’t heard anything yet and I’m worried about her, about them, I’m just worried,” he explained to his wife.
“Should I come with you?” Jitka offered.
“No, I’d rather you didn’t,” Lázaro answered quickly. He wasn’t even sure why exactly he didn’t want Jitka to come.
He was in the hallway, putting on his shoes, when she asked, “What are you taking the trumpet for?” and stared in amazement at the black case covered with years’ worth of stickers.
“I’m not sure,” he admitted; he’d grabbed the instrument without thinking about it but now realized that the gesture calmed him down, so he kept the case in his hand. He pressed an affectionate kiss onto the back of Jitka’s hand, his lips so similar to Karla Klimentová’s. She ran her fingers through his thinning, grizzled curls and inhaled his scent—something between dandelion honey, which Lázaro put in his tea by the pound, and Halls menthol cough drops, to which he’d developed a strong addiction. He claimed they kept his throat from drying out when he played.
He walked, his pace quick, from Slovan, a prefab housing development he and Jitka had been living in for nearly fifteen years, up a slight hill, crossing deserted, frosty intersections, and small lumps of squashed snow creaked under his shoes. He headed for the city center and through the arcades on Kovářská, past a bulletin board that was always full of city hall announcements and death notices.
He rang an old doorbell and discovered, to his chagrin, that this grandchild of the olden days was actually attached to a speaker. “Who is it?” asked Mrs. Klimentová’s voice, twisted and crackling like a tomcat’s fur.
“Lázaro Milo,” he crackled back into the machine.
“I’ll be right down,” said Mrs. Klimentová. She put on a vest lined with rabbit fur and held on to the frosty railing as she slowly descended the stone staircase from the third floor.
Together, they walked through the long corridor and panted their way up the stairs. She with her aching knees and asthma, and he, forty pounds overweight. Then the old lady invited Lázaro into the hallway, with its red poppy wallpaper. “Come, come on in, don’t just stand in the hall,” she nudged him, and now it was her turn to stare in surprise at the case in his hand.
“Are you going to play somewhere?” she asked.
“No, I’m not even sure why I brought the trumpet with me,” Lázaro shrugged and put the case down on the shoe cabinet.
“Would you like something to drink? Do you drink tea or coffee?” she led him into the living room, where she sat him down on an abraded old green leather sofa.
“It’s Swedish, my husband and I bought it on an installment plan, it was the first thing we got for this apartment, I’ve had it for thirty years and I’m never throwing it away!” she told Lázaro decisively, as if he were a cruel social worker who didn’t want to allow her to take the old sofa set to the retirement home.
“I’ll take tea, if you don’t mind, and if you have a bit of honey, that would be extremely excellent,” Lázaro answered; even after so many years, he still hadn’t quite absorbed the fact that Czech scoffs at those excessive Hispanic superlatives.
“Of course, of course, you like dandelion honey, don’t you,” the old lady recalled.
“I do, but how did you know that?” Lázaro was surprised.
“Karla told me,” said Mrs. Klimentová, then stopped suddenly and after a moment made a few nervous steps back toward the sofa. They didn’t speak. Then she asked, “Should I turn on the TV?”
“There won’t be anything new anyway, I think they’ll just repeat the evening news, but turn it on if you want,” Lázaro shuffled in his seat and hoped Mrs. Klimentová would say no.
“No, I’d rather not,” she said.
“I’ll go get the tea, make yourself comfortable, you must be frozen after the walk,” she said in a concerned voice and finally went off to the kitchen.
Lázaro sat on the sofa, its old Swedish springs were pressing into his Cuban behind. A painting hung on the wall above the sofa; Karla had told him she liked to look at it while playing. “I like to watch that wacko greyhound of Grandma’s,” she used to say. Only now did Lázaro understand what exactly she meant. A rectangular tempera painting showed an exaggeratedly long greyhound standing on spidery legs, leaning against some sort of brown footstool and looking into an unknowable distance. Lázaro, too, glimpsed the indifferent beauty in the animal’s calm stance and empty expression, the beauty that allows one to pitch in and do his bit, add a log to the stack, a feather to the down pile for the great comforter of art—a place you can lounge about in when the world is all askew. Which, right now, it was. Lázaro stared pleadingly at the elegant, impassive greyhound, longing to find in his eyes at least a shadow of the skinny girl with a trumpet. But the greyhound’s eyes showed him nothing.
“Here’s your tea,” said the old lady and poured some delicious-smelling tea in a Tesco mug.
“I have at least twenty of these. It’s like a hobby, you know. I fill out those promotional flyers and send in the correct answers and from time to time they draw my name and send me a mug. Everyone laughs at me for this, but I love getting packages in the mail . . . I guess that’s why I do it. Pretty tacky, aren’t they?” Mrs. Klimentová gave a half-smile and her tinted hair shone in the light cast by a small pink crystal-laden lamp.
“No, why?” Lázaro protested earnestly.
“They are, but they’re my honest, hard-won mugs,” she laughed.
“This is where Karla plays?” said Lázaro.
“Yes, she doesn’t disturb anyone here. The walls are thick and I’m the only one on this floor, there’s just some empty office space next door,” explained Mrs. Klimentová eagerly, all the while studying Lázaro. His brown forehead, slim-fingered hands, two deep furrows over the bridge of his nose.
“Do you believe in God, Mr. Lázaro?” she called him by his name this time.
“No, unfortunately not,” he answered after hesitating for a moment. “And you?” he looked at a small silver locket with a Madonna on her neck.
“I do, fortunately,” she smiled comfortingly, as if to say, You will get there . . . just be patient . . . faith will land on your shoulder like a dove.
They kept looking at each other, and if someone were to say the night was still young, they would have been right. The night awaiting them was shamelessly full of strength, just as the tsunami had been a few hours ago. Lázaro didn’t know if he did or didn’t want to talk to this curiously uptight yet kind woman. He probably came to distract her a bit, but now he’s not sure why he’s really sitting here. Maybe he wasn’t worried about Karla’s grandmother, maybe he was worried about his own nightmares. Because tonight, they threatened to unfold their wings, beating strongly until they took flight over the ocean. And like everyone, he nourished them and from time to time brushed against their wings like against a sore tooth.
“May I ask—what are you thinking about now?” the old lady asked.
“I was thinking about Cuba,” Lázaro answered obediently.
“Do you miss home?” she continued her inquiry, and he finally understood why he’d come here. Why he’d entered this old living room, why he was staring at the wacko greyhound on a blue background and a silver Madonna on an unknown woman’s neck.
“I don’t miss it, because I fled. I fled and I ended up in this town where nothing reminds me of Cuba. Nothing at all. Do you understand?” The words started flowing out of him and Jiřina Klimentová listened. She knew Lázaro from Karla’s stories, and at the same time knew practically nothing about him. It was the same for him. She felt close, because Karla talked about her occasionally, but he’d never seen her in person. This wasn’t a confession of any kind. He wasn’t talking to Mrs. Klimentová, only to himself. He rehearsed his own personal myth out loud, the way he’d pieced it together into a linear, sometimes cyclical, but always unbearable memory.
Jiřina Klimentová watched him just like the greyhound in the painting—perhaps they’d painted it after her. She was listening to her granddaughter’s teacher Lázaro Milo in her room next door to an empty office. She was waiting for news, any kind of news, and listening to him. On this young, monstrously powerful night filled with a wave that had been woken by ancient suboceanic tremors that Jiřina Klimentová knew nothing about. Still, she was sure that the red-hot magma spilling in the ocean was flooding and sealing her own quiet existence on Kovářská Street, too. On this night, the Cuban trumpeter and Moravian pharmacist could tell each other anything.
“It all happened a very long time ago,” Lázaro started.
“Go on, we have time, lots of it . . . we have until the morning, you’ll stay the night, won’t you?” she asked, and he was glad she did. The idea of spending many hours on the green sofa was soothing.
“I’ll just have to call my wife so she doesn’t worry, but yes, I’ll stay . . . gladly,” he added.
“It might have to do with the wave, it’s as if something very old shifted inside me, something I’d wanted to push out completely. Please don’t take it badly, it might sound wrong for me to say this, but I feel like I’ve experienced something similar to what you’re going through now,” he said.
“What do you mean?” she furrowed her brows.
“I mean the situation where you’re waiting for news, where you don’t know whether someone you care about terribly is alive or not,” he explained softly.
“Oh, and you, so you also waited for this kind of news, after some disaster back in Cuba, a long time ago?” It seemed that he had her full attention now. They were in the same boat, a steamboat in the middle of a large river that flows into a warm, tropical sea.
“I’m still waiting,” Lázaro said, and it sounded like an echo in a small tree hollow out of which a brown owl had flown, years ago, and sat down on the hot white sand.
Jiřina Klimentová didn’t ask anything else that evening. They were silent. All of a sudden, Lázaro didn’t feel like talking anymore. She realized it and didn’t press him with more questions. She just said: “How about you play something?” And while she rummaged around in the adjacent room, where Karla had her sheet music stored in a small wooden cabinet, Lázaro called Jitka to tell her he would be staying with the old lady overnight.
“Sure, but don’t try anything funny, alright?” she ventured to joke, but Lázaro just mumbled tiredly and said he’d be home in the morning. He took the trumpet from the hallway and sat back down on the living room sofa. Jiřina brought some sheet music and Lázaro started reading it. “I hate silence,” the old lady sighed. “I need to have the radio on, I listen to concerts on the classical music station, or I turn on the TV so I hear someone talking, even if not to me, so that I’m not so alone here. I guess it’s primitive, but that’s one of the reasons I always liked it when Karla was playing.”
“What are these? What is this music?” he started suddenly.
“It’s Karla’s, I think she wrote these, but I’m not sure, you know how secretive she is, never tells me what she’s doing, whether she’s practicing or playing her own pieces. But she was composing, I know that for sure,” Mrs. Klimentová explained. Lázaro looked back at the music. It was all blues pieces. Full of repetitive harmonic loops, both major and minor keys, they were blues for the trumpet, for Karla’s trumpet and her style of playing—brusque, furious, full of hoarse stops, the best blues Lázaro had heard in years. No perfect structure or elaborate form. Like when Muddy Waters first stuck a cable to his battered guitar and shoved it in an amplifier. There was this primal feel of something old and newly discovered, something that surfaced once every thousand years before slowly sinking back into the depths of the collective unconscious. We all know something like this music has been here a million times already, but no one remembers exactly where they’d heard it. But they are sure that they had once, that it’d come to them half-asleep for a midnight quickie. Naked, pleasurable music, growling with delight, wandering in dreams, with her hair down and knees uncovered, arching her hips, forever sad, asking for all our sins, sins she wanted to redeem.
This music did not push any boundaries. But it was clear it did not intend to, either. It was essentially old-fashioned music. Clinging to tradition, hanging onto its skirts, but still, and this really surprised Lázaro, it made him want to sit down in a corner somewhere, hum along with the notes and sway in their rhythm.
“These are blues pieces,” he explained.
“Yes, she did tell me she wanted to compose sad things,” Mrs. Jiřina shook her head in disapproval. “I never really understood why, she’s such a young girl!” she shook her head vigorously again, as if arguing with Karla.
“Maybe young girls do like to think about death most of all . . . and love, of course,” Lázaro said philosophically. Then he reached for the cough drops in his pocket and offered Jiřina one, too. “No, thanks, but please, play now, I can’t wait . . .”
So Lázaro put the music up on the stand that Jiřina had prepared for him and he played. Right in front of Jiřina Klimentová’s eyes, he became a statue, like those lining the streets of a small town under a blanket of snow. His silhouette was mirrored in the window, lit by a streetlamp. The image contained all of the keepsake junk from Jiřina’s entire life, reflecting in the muted gleam of Lázaro’s trumpet. Karla’s sheet music fell, one page after another, onto the green carpet; its color matched the scratched leather of the sofa. Jiřina saw the veins on her husband’s forearms again, saw him and the neighbor carrying the heavy piece of furniture into the room. She heard their muffled curses mixing with the wailing trumpet. Lázaro was standing and his arms were caressing Karla’s music. Finally, Jiřina felt like crying. The shock that was yet to come had long ago passed her by.
© Markéta Pilátová. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Sára Foitová. All rights reserved.
Yu Jian composes an elegy to a majestic elephant as it marches across Asia.
Rising above the land, it precedes the grayness of Asia.
A robed king, boundless and lost, stands at the edge of Xishuangbanna and Laos.
It’s the jungle’s shield. The Creator bestows its symbolism,
endowing it with a face of grief, hiding diamonds behind its blue eyelids;
imitating crescent moons to shape its tusks, keeping palm-leaf manuscripts secret in its wrinkles.
Huge webbed-toes, heavy as lead stamp blocks, inspect the territory of its ancestors.
Its long trunk like irrefutable evidence is dawdling left and right.
Traversing the jungle, it rouses a pride of lions lurking deep by the river.
O, it is a defeated god, approaching the dusk of time.
The eternal fog cracks, its tonnage disintegrates, and recedes.
It lowers its big ears, eroding step by step in darkness,
as it turns into countless grains of sand along the Ganges.
"Daxiang (大象)” © Yu Jian. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Xin Xu. All rights reserved.
Translated and edited by Quan Manh Ha and Joseph Babcock, "Other Moons" brings together twenty stories from different authors dealing with the lingering effects of what the Vietnamese call "the American War." It is a rare opportunity to discover a variety of esteemed writers coming from all three main geographic regions of the country.
This new anthology of Vietnamese short stories, published by Columbia University Press, unites twenty diverse voices from contemporary Vietnamese literature on the topic of the American military action in the country. While the war officially ended in 1975, Other Moons' narratives demonstrate its enduring consequences in Vietnamese life and thinking. Published in English translation for the first time, these works offer a fresh perspective on the conflict that took place between 1945-75. Throughout, the war is referred to as ‘the American War,’ the terminology most commonly used in Vietnam. Only the perspective of the war’s victors, the Vietnamese communists, is represented. The volume’s editors and translators, Quan Manh Ha and Joseph Babcock, make their reasoning clear: that alternative narratives from those who supported the former South Vietnamese government and American intervention are already available in English translations of diasporic literature. Additionally, Vietnam’s tightly regulated censorship and publication practice greatly affects the literature that is available for translation. This is therefore a rare opportunity to discover such a variety of esteemed Vietnamese writers, chosen for their quality as well as their diversity, coming from all three main geographic regions of the country.
Ha and Babcock provide an enriching context for the stories in their introduction. They selected authors to represent a variety of personal and professional backgrounds—some are well-known, full-time writers, while others make time to write outside of their day jobs. But central to all the works in the collection is the contributors’ rejection of a “socialist realism” approach to literature, which dominated artistic expression between 1945–90 and produced heavily politicized writing that contained Stalinist and Maoist propaganda. In contrast, the new generation of writers in this anthology address the theme of war through a very different approach; they condemn it, rather than glorifying it. Moreover, the subjects of their stories are common people and the war is recounted through everyone’s lives—those who leave and those who are left behind.
The mention of the war’s aftermath in the book’s title points to a crucial feature of the collection: the rupture of communities, the difficulties of reintegrating, and the continual search for closure are stronger themes throughout the stories than the actual lived realities of fighting. In Truong Van Ngoe’s “Brother, When Will You Come Home?” Quan travels for the third time, along with his relatives and a colleague, to search for the remains of his brother Binh, a soldier in company C3 who had died in the conflict. The chances of success in finding his body become increasingly small and Quan turns to a psychic for help. These searches continue to take place in Vietnam until today, almost half a century after the war officially ended, with over 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers still missing. Quan’s relentless pursuit, as well as his eventual willingness to turn towards the spiritual, reveals how the impact of the war goes far beyond a physical recovery for the country.
The emotional suffering and the atrocities of war are often conveyed through its collision with the domestic. An important theme of these stories, for example, is the mourning for love that was made impossible, as even the most personal projects are suddenly disturbed and upended by violence. Nguyen Minh Chau’s “Crescent Moon in the Woods,” a canonical story that is taught in Vietnamese high schools, tells of the doomed love between Nguyet and Lam. They have never met but Lam’s sister, who knows them both and believes that they would be a wonderful match, has promised to introduce them. They suffer and patiently await their meeting, which finally comes fleetingly . . . before it is gone again.
The perspectives of the female authors (five out of the twenty), as well as the female characters that leave to fight, are an especially interesting part of the anthology. Such women return to their communities and must face the trauma of the aftermath of war, in addition to the conflict it creates with their domestic duty. In Nguyen Trong Luan’s “The Corporal,” Xuan returns to her village after many years spent fighting for the North Vietnamese Army in the highlands and must immediately turn her thoughts to marriage. As the daughter of a poor peasant, Xuan has little autonomy. She enters an unhappy arranged marriage and lives the rest of her life in poverty. Military victory has no bearing on her future, which is instead still determined by a patriarchal postwar society. Suong Nguyet Minh’s “The Chau River Pier” recounts the female soldier May’s return to her village, having lost her leg in battle. Her injury isolates her from her previously imagined life of marriage and motherhood, while her return coincides with her former fiancé’s wedding to another woman. But it is not only the women who leave that face such disruption; the women who remain must contend with suspicions of marital infidelity. In “War” by Thai Ba Tan and “Ms. Thoai” by Hanh Le, wives’ loyalty is thrown into question by their husbands. In each case, the women are presented as innocent, with their infidelity caused by events beyond their control—in “Ms. Thoai,” a rape, and in “War,” an unexplained pregnancy that is described as immaculate. Yet their husbands’ suspicion of infidelity causes immense, irreversible suffering for both of them and the absence of trust or forgiveness defines the rest of their lives.
Forgiveness and reconciliation—within families, among Vietnamese, and with foreign enemies—lie at the heart of many of these stories. “An American Service Hamlet” by Nguyen Thi Thu Tran was inspired by her own experiences growing up among American soldiers stationed in the South. The story portrays the women who were hired to do laundry or to work as maids in the American offices. When the young girl Bach oversees an American soldier, Smith, crying on the breast of his girlfriend, Miss Trung, she is fascinated by this display of sorrow and tenderness. She later saves him from cruel torture by a group of drunken Vietnamese men. Her kindness, empathy, and admiration for Smith and Miss Trung’s love show her belief that “in difficult situations people were still capable of showing some kind of natural kindness toward one another” and offers a tone of mutual understanding. In other instances in the anthology, forgiveness comes only with hindsight. In both “Louse Crab Season” by Mai Tien Nghi and “Ms. Thoai,” forgiveness is expressed too late to save the characters from misunderstanding and its painful consequences. The control of irony in revealing such regret only to the reader seems to drive home the advantage of hindsight and advocates reconciliation. As the narrator of “War” says,
There were new challenges in peace time that didn’t necessarily require extraordinary endurance or sacrifice, but required something bigger, something more complicated and subtle: compassion and forgiveness.
Of all the writers included in this anthology, the most well-known in the English-speaking world is certainly Bao Ninh, whose novel The Sorrow of War has been widely translated and won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1994. His short story “White Clouds Flying” succinctly shows the disorientation of experiencing the persistent sorrow of war in the present day. The brevity of the story’s one scene, which takes place in an airplane as it crosses the seventeenth parallel air zone, makes it unique among the others in the collection, which tend towards longer narratives that recount stories of the past. Ninh’s story describes the short exchanges between an elderly female passenger and an airline stewardess, narrated through the voice of an observing male passenger. Inside the enclosed, compressed cabin, the elderly woman constructs a traditional shrine in order to cope with the pain resurfacing as she travels to see (for the first time) the place where her son died. Her pain and her traditions persist and highlight the disparity between her life in the country and modern society. In just a few pages, Ninh conveys the significant trauma that these generations are made to confront while the world seemingly moves on and modernizes, and with such sparse, exact prose, he reveals himself to be a master of the unsaid.
Other Moons is a necessary work that succeeds in enlarging the perspective of English-speaking audiences through diverse, well-chosen Vietnamese voices. The stories read fluently, and Ha and Babcock clearly explain any difficulties encountered in translating from the Vietnamese. For example, this is evident in the more complex Vietnamese system of relationship-dependent pronouns, which indicate age and the nature of the relationship between speakers. The decision to not translate these too literally avoids an unnatural formality in the English. A particularly beautiful translation difficulty that they describe is the expression "ve que," meaning literally "to return to one's hometown." They explain the cultural weight of "que," not quite achieved with the English "hometown" as it is also synonymous with the countryside, conveying a return to a way of living, not merely a geographical place. The introductions they provide for each story elucidate such subtleties and offer a rich cultural and linguistic context for English readers. Not only are the translations in Other Moons skilled and considered, they demonstrate the tremendous importance of translation in portraying the complexities of a conflict, its traumas, and its people.
In "Grieving," a collection of essays spanning over a decade, the talented author attempts to explain how her nation succumbed to a project that uses its citizens as "cannon fodder in exchange for maximum profit."
In the early 1980s, Mexico was bailed out of a foreign debt crisis by the IMF and the World Bank so that it could continue paying back interest on loans from US banks. The condition for this financial relief was a set of sweeping structural adjustments which, under the banner of neoliberalism, created the perfect storm of conditions that, in the decades to come, would facilitate the rise of the modern Mexican cartels, and consequently, the border crisis with the US.
In Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country (tr. Sarah Booker), author and 2020 MacArthur Fellowship winner Cristina Rivera Garza, known primarily for works of fiction like No One Will See Me Cry (tr. Andrew Hurley) and The Taiga Syndrome (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana), traces the connections between these defining events in a series of essays written over the last sixteen years. Ranging from investigative journalism to art criticism, this collection takes steady aim at both the Mexican state and the narco cartels, but its ultimate target is neoliberalism, which Rivera Garza sees as the philosophy uniting the two entities. In the essay “I Won’t Let Anyone Say Those Are the Best Years of Your Life,” the author describes both the Mexican cartels and the new, structurally reconfigured Mexico as a “neoliberal regime that used [Mexico’s youth] as cannon fodder in exchange for maximum profit.” She settles upon the phrase, “estado sin entrañas,” which Sarah Booker renders into English as the “visceraless state,” to describe the predicament. While the eponymous essay appears early on in the collection, her most lucid description of this expression comes in her essay about the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the last (and best) in the collection: “[The visceraless state is] a state for which bodies are not a matter of care but merely extraction.”
As macabre as this assessment might sound, these essays are not devoid of hope—they are replete with the stories of individuals, often women, who have tried to either fill or make sense of the state’s absence. “Elvira Arellano and That Which Blood, Tradition, and Community Unite” traces the efforts of Arellano who, after being deported from the US, founds an organization in Tijuana that provides shelter and assistance to recently deported women while they establish a life in Mexico. “On 2501 Migrants by Alejandro Santiago” is an essay about an art project which could be described as a kind of border-inspired reinterpretation of Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army. Originally featured in the streets of Oaxaca City, Santiago’s hometown, 2501 Migrants features as many human-sized sculptures, meant to represent the migrants who have left the city. I am often wary of creative reviews of single books or art installations in thematic essay collections—so often they read as thinly disguised filler content—but Rivera Garza manages to leap the nebulous chasm between review and essay, and it ends up being one of the strongest pieces in the collection. In the failed war on drugs, the border crisis, and all the violence that has accompanied them, there is still beauty somehow. There is no lack of data in these essays for inquiring minds, but these moments of beauty and determination inevitably outlast the figures and make for some of the collection’s most poignant moments.
A significant portion of the collection is about how immigration and the failed war on drugs have impacted women—about femicide and the mothers it leaves daughterless—but some of the collection’s smaller, anecdotal essays about women have the most staying power. “The Neo-Camelias” is a fascinating look at the complicated role of women in cartels and how that position has evolved over time. In “Nonfiction,” Rivera Garza retells the story of a taxi driver she knows who, after taking a sex worker to a hotel, learns that she has been killed that very evening. Incredibly, not long after learning of the murder, he realizes that his current passenger, also a sex worker, is the woman’s younger sister.
Given the period of time in which these essays were written, readers might note how Rivera Garza’s style changes throughout the collection. Her 2004 essay “Mourning,” for example, which explores mourning and the Other through the work of Judith Butler, adopts a more academic style. It’s a logical thematic fit, but I enjoyed the essay more for what it revealed about the evolution of Rivera Garza’s voice throughout the collection than the content proper. In some of the collection’s other more recent essays, Garza seems to move away from an academic register, opting instead for the taut, economical prose characteristic of her novella The Taiga Syndrome. Among the essays added to the original 2011 collection (and subsequent second edition, published in 2015), I would have loved to read Rivera Garza’s take on how Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist, fits into this larger pattern of visceralessness. AMLO initially refused to take COVID-19 seriously, and though his politics differ, he is often at odds with democratic institutions in a way that is similar to Trump and Bolsonaro.
It’s also worth noting that two of the added essays, “I Won’t Let Anyone Say Those Are the Best Years of Your Life” and “On Our Toes” were originally written by Rivera Garza in English. The rest of the collection was originally written in Spanish and translated by Sarah Booker, who also worked on the author’s novel The Iliac Crest. She does a marvelous job capturing the subtleties of Rivera Garza’s voice: In “On 2501 Migrants by Alejandro Santiago,” for example, Booker capably translates one of Rivera Garza’s thornier sentences—“Fantasmagóricos y aterradores a la vez, frágiles como el material que los compone, pero ciertos en el aire que los envuelve y sólidos en el espacio que ocupan, los migrantes de Santiago cruzan sobre todo una frontera: la muy delgada y quebradiza línea de lo que con frecuencia se denomina como realidad”—as “Simultaneously fantastic and terrifying, as fragile as the material they’re made of, yet solid in the space they occupy and the air that surrounds them, Santiago’s migrants cross one border above all: the thin, brittle line we often call reality.” Seamlessly done.
Precious few are essay collections in translation, and of those precious few, many consist of fiction writers compiling their stray odds and ends for a dependable base of readers. Thoughtfully curated and aptly translated, Grieving is not just for completists of Rivera Garza’s obra; in less than 200 pages, it is both evocative and informative. With this collection, Rivera Garza obliges readers to take her work as an essayist just as seriously as the short novels and novellas that have made her name.
As I write, the West Coast of the US is ravaged by wildfires; the Gulf Coast, still recovering from Hurricane Laura, braces for Hurricane Sally’s potential destruction; an enormous chunk of Greenland’s icecap has broken free; the Northern Hemisphere has sweated through the hottest summer on record—and that’s just today. Temperatures swing between extremes, violent weather becomes the norm. In this daunting context, we present a double issue of writing on environmental issues.
Global warming manifests in obvious ways—milder winters, shrinking glaciers, extreme weather; but, like the wildfire smoke that has drifted as far east as New York, the evidence travels and transforms as it reaches new territories and settings. And because humankind’s stewardship of the earth involves so many elements, the pieces gathered here and in next month’s issue address varied facets within the greater category of environmental crisis.
Icelandic writer and environmental activist Andri Snær Magnason began writing his nonfiction narrative On Time and Water after a climate change specialist told him, “people relate to stories, not data.” In “Farewell to the White Giants,” translated by Lytton Smith, Magnason blends family history, scientific fact, and traditional tales in a eulogy to his country’s vanishing glaciers. He imagines future generations looking at photographs of glaciers with wonder, trying “to understand what we were thinking.”
From the thawing north we turn to the parched Spain of Ariadna Castellarnau’s “Water Man,” translated by Adrian Nathan West. The title character travels with his sullen teenage daughter to rescue a dusty village from drought. Her father, who has “the gift of making water well from the earth,” insists the resistant young woman has inherited his talent; when the villagers demand impossible results, he commands her to step in, to devastating effect.
Thailand’s Duanwad Pimwana presents the all-too-possible consequences of the world’s cavalier attitude toward accumulation and disposability. In her “All Trash on the Eastern Side,” translated by Mui Poopoksakul, the world itself has become one big trash heap, with the population gradually subsumed by garbage. In this horrifying terrain, the narrator searches for both food and the fabled Land Without Trash, a magical place of animals, trees, and, most remarkably, no garbage. When he meets a determined woman with her own goals, his search takes a fateful turn.
Readers will recall graphic artist Francisco de la Mora’s “Joe,” from our February 2017 issue, in which the title character, a polar bear, travels from the Arctic to the United Nations to plead for more attention to his shrinking land. In “Liberty and Hope,” translated by Nina Perrotta, de la Mora finds two icons—the Statue of Liberty and Rio’s Christ the Redeemer—making their ways through desolation and destruction to a mournful rendezvous. They ask the question on all our minds: is this the end, or just the beginning?
And climate writer Amy Brady considers the power of fiction in communicating environmental decay. While journalists may be constrained by the need for objectivity, Brady notes, “fiction writers have the freedom to explore the pathos of climate change.” Here she echoes the scientist who prompted Magnason: people may not respond to data, but information presented in narratives can move readers to act. The writers in this issue are staking our collective hopes on it.
© 2020 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
A father and daughter’s strained relationship comes to a head in a world devastated by drought in Spanish writer Ariadna Castellarnau’s dystopian short story.
Father wants to teach me to conjure water with his staff, like he does. This is his gift, and he wants it to be mine. Every morning, the same thing. The scene is reiterated on the slope in front of the house: “Take the staff,” he tells me, “trust me, it doesn’t bite, now lift it and stroke the earth, don’t think about water, if you think of what you want to achieve, the thing will slip away from you.” But the thing always gets away from me. We’ve been doing this as long as I can remember. Once, I made a worm peek out. Father stepped on it and killed it with his shoe. “The worm doesn’t count,” he said.
I’ll tell it straight: in this parched terrain, Father is the Water Man. That’s what they call him. The Water Man. Father has the gift of making water well from the earth. It’s very easy, very simple. If you saw it with your own eyes, you’d understand right away. His miracle is this: they call him, he goes there, he beats the ground with his staff. He says: Rise! And the water rises, I don’t really know from where. What matters is it does come out and spills across this soil, which is hardly ever touched by rain: dead earth, earth so devastated by drought that if you dig in it deep enough to plant your seeds, all you’ll find down there is a black and worm-eaten crust. Father is the Water Man, and he wants me to learn his calling. He doesn’t say it’s a gift or a miracle, he says calling. Learn our calling for once, girl! As if it were that easy.
But it isn’t, not at all, not for me, at least. Look at me. Let’s be reasonable. I’m eighteen years old and an indifferent blonde, it was easier for me to be born this way, with this hair the color of dry barley, than with another, brighter, prettier color, like the old gold of the pages of the Bible or the leprous white of the withered fields. My body is slender, and I have bad posture. I walk hunched over. When I remember, I try to imitate Father’s majestic stride, precise and measured, but I soon return to my original position, as if I were a puppet and someone had let go of the string that held me erect. Father no, Father is tall and imposing. His head is the summit of a mist-capped mountain and his body the rocky cliffside rising toward the summit. That’s why I’m telling you it’s impossible for me to ever develop that gift and carry Father’s staff with dignity. Maybe it’s not the rod Moses used to turn the Nile to blood or separate the waters of the Red Sea, but it is a lovely staff: not just some stick he picked up around the way, but a real proper staff, sturdy and at the same time smooth from so much handling. I sewed him a leather sheath myself so he could carry it around. I worked my fingers to the bone to make it.
When Father isn’t teaching me, he takes me with him. Tonight, he’s woken me up, and he says, “We’re going.” They just called him. It’s a desperate plea: in a village––it doesn’t matter which––the wells have dried up, and the swamp is little more than a mud flat full of agonizing fishes. I barely have time to pack provisions for the road. Father is rushing me. In the car, he passes me the staff. “Hold that,” he tells me. I fall back to sleep, and when I awaken, dawn is breaking over a landscape as still as a cat lying in the sun. “You slept a long time,” Father tells me. It must be true, because I have the feeling I am far from home. The lack of water is so evident here that I wonder if even Father can do anything about it. If the people who called are still alive when we get there. If they aren’t already ghosts.
“See?” Father says to me, pointing to the expanses on the other side of the windshield. “Every day is worse.”
“What did it used to be like?” I ask him. I like him to tell me. For his voice to reveal for me this paradise lost.
“There’s no point in remembering. You’d be better off focusing on not ruining it.”
Father’s not in the mood. He looks straight ahead while he drives, as if trying to find some reference point amid the exasperating aridity.
“What?” I ask. “What shouldn’t I ruin?”
“The earth, honey. The earth.”
“The drought’s not my fault.”
“But you refuse to learn the calling of water; you’re set on ignoring what God expects from you.”
I get bold and I say to him: “You mean what you expect from me.”
For the first time during this whole journey, he looks at me. There is no contempt in his eyes. If anything, he is observing me, looking me over with the tender affection a creator reserves for his crippled creation.
“Get it through your head: God and me, we’re the same person.”
Father never told me how he got his gift. He tells me now and then about when the drought began, about when we lost Mama and he went to the mountain and screamed and screamed and screamed. He never goes into what or who he was screaming at or what happened when he was on the mountain. He doesn’t say which mountain he climbed, but there’s none around here, around here there’s nothing but flatlands. All he says is: hard times demand hard men. Never: hard times demand hard women. That’s why I often ask myself if I might not have been a bad deal for Father, since I’m not a hard man but rather a woman who isn’t hard.
“Do you believe in me, Father?” I ask him.
“Do I believe in you? Of course, honey. You’re like a walnut, I don’t know if what’s inside the shell is going to turn out to be good or bad, but you should know I haven’t lost faith.”
Father’s car is ancient, so it’s no surprise when it leaves us stranded in the middle of a deserted road. Father opens the hood, and the motor is smoking. I stay standing there beside him, the staff in my hand. Father’s long gray hair floats around his head like a pale, weary aura, blown up by the suffocating air. On the other side of the road is a path leading to a house in ruins, surrounded by a fence that was once covered in ivy, where strips of leaves now hang.
Father looks up from the hood. His face is burnt from the heat.
“Go over there and ask for help,” he says, pointing at the house.
“There? There’s no one there. Not a soul.”
“Go. But give me the staff, first.”
I hand it back to him. I notice the palm of my hand is red from how tightly I’ve been grasping it. No one seems to be living at the house, just as I told Father. I call at the door once, twice, three times, and I’m about to go back and tell him See? I was right, but a man comes out and asks what I want, what it is I’m looking for. I tell him and he looks me up and down, like so, taking my measure the way he must do with a cow or calf, I suppose, any animal you can quarter and sell in pieces. He decides to pass, and utters his verdict wearily: “Get out.”
Father furtively approaches the house to see if I’m doing my job correctly. When he sees him, the man’s expression changes: his eyes glimmer with greed.
“Is it him?” he asks me, as though Father were something intangible and incapable of speaking on his own. “Is it really him?”
“Of course it’s me,” Father says.
Father’s name gets around. Thirst has made him famous: he’s a king in rags of a dusty realm of which he is both founding member and last descendant because his gift, I can promise you, will die with him.
The man’s mood brightens. If he had a tail, he’d wag it in joy. He says he knows a thing or two about engines and he can maybe help us. But he’ll need a little time to fix the car. Father answers that we don’t have time. The man insists: if that’s how it is, he’ll take us in his truck wherever we need and he’ll bring us back afterward. All he asks in exchange is a little favor: “I’d like a little water for myself.”
At first Father is silent, offended. He doesn’t like wasting his gift. But since we don’t have any other options, he gives in, and starts looking for the place, feeling the soil with the tip of his staff, tentatively, like a blind man.
“What’s he doing?” the man asks.
I tell him to be quiet. Father goes on looking, and this perplexes me, because he never takes this long. I think he’s delaying just to raise the man’s ire. Eventually he finds the right spot and stops.
“What now?” the man asks.
Father strikes the ground with his staff, at the same time shouting: “Rise!”
This part, I have to tell you, is always the most disappointing. He strikes it like it was nothing, without magic or some song and dance, even, when he’s tired, reluctantly, and the response always takes a little while to come. More than a few people lose their faith by this time and break down and go pale, the children sigh, deceived. People have even jeered us. Father says it’s these moments of uncertainty where a soul shows you what they’re made of: scrap metal for the incredulous and gold for those who have faith. But whatever Father says, the part I like is when the water starts to well. I can’t explain it to you. I can’t explain to you the wonder of water flowing abundantly from the soil, right there where Father has struck the staff, growing, spiraling, and then spilling in a generous torrent that splashes, soaks, drags away with it all the parched filth: a precious, ephemeral Lethe that everyone eventually bathes in, forgetting their grief, like the man is doing right now, only I don’t like him, because he’s pulled out from god knows where countless plastic jugs and is filling them up with boundless greed, and at a certain point, as if he didn’t have enough, he asks Father, raising his voice to be heard over the sound of the water: “Can she do it, too?”
And Father answers, “No, she’s sterile.”
We’ve tried everything. When I was a girl, Father sometimes kept me whole days without eating so my body wouldn’t get distracted with digesting, so I wouldn’t doze off like a lizard. Other times he fed me with animal protein.
He’d raid the chicken coop and feed me freshly laid eggs and chickens he himself killed and slaughtered and then stewed, seeing if that way, the thing I’m missing, that I don’t have, would grow: the guts to impose my will on the earth and get water from places that don’t have it. He left me out hours in the sun, whole nights under the moon, unsheltered. “Take the staff,” “Raise the staff.” But neither moon nor sun rained blessings down on me. I was the same as always: useless for Father’s purposes.
There were lots of signs of my lack of talent, my ineptitude for the extraordinary: I was a fragile baby, whiny and sickly. As I grew, I failed to show the least bit of beauty or intelligence. Take the staff, raise the staff, bring the staff and I’ll show you one more time. We never celebrated Christmas, and for my birthday I received one dead rose covered in thorns. “Learn to make water and you’ll have lush roses of your own,” those were Father’s words of congratulation. When I turned thirteen, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I ran away from home. Where we’re from is almost a wasteland, but in the east, life is better; the desert hasn’t yet made it that far. And so I headed east, not knowing how far away it was. I walked a whole day, drinking Father’s water, which I carried in a canteen. A few cars passed, but I didn’t bother to try and stop them. Night came, and I was surprised to find myself in the middle of a bare plain, with no house and no lights, and so I sat there by the side of the road and waited for day to come. By morning, I knew I had made a mistake: I was almost out of water and surrounded by a wasteland. Lost in the heat, which followed me like a noxious scent, I held out a few hours before I fainted.
I woke up in my bed. Father was seated next to me, studying me with sorrowful frustration.
“My precious fugitive, what did I do to you to make you run away from me like that?”
I didn’t know what to tell him. I hated disappointing him, and at the same time, I was happy he had found me. Or maybe it was other way around: I was happy I had disappointed him and hated that he’d found me. Sometimes it’s hard for me to figure these things out.
“Nothing, Father,” I said. “My curiosity got the better of me.”
“What good’s your curiosity though if it just brings us both problems? Look, you burned your skin,” he said softly.
That night Father made a little river for me to relieve my burns. When its water caressed me, I gave up, for a time, any thought of going away.
The man has kept his promise of taking us to the village and that is where we are going. Father is sleeping, lying down in the backseat. He’s snoring. I turn around to look at him and I see his face is pale, bluish, the way it always is after he uses his gift. The man is driving fast. We are barreling forward as if someone were chasing us down this empty, orphan road, this thread from a torn tapestry. The car climbs a small hill and, when it reaches the summit, I see the vast horizons of these oneiric barrens, parched as I am, I suppose.
I don’t mind Father calling me sterile because I’m incapable of making water, but I’m angry about what he did in front of the man. I’ve never had secrets. Father is the one with all the secrets, and he’s made sure of keeping them for the two of us. But now the man has my secret and he thinks he knows me. He can size me up in a glance and throw me out like a maggoty piece of fruit. “She’s no good,” he’ll say. He can air his thoughts about me, actually I think he’s about to, but then he changes his mind and puts a hand on my knee, which is another way of airing his thoughts to me. He leaves it there a few moments, then moves it up my thigh. His hand is hot and doughy. It sits there for a time, then it slowly starts moving again in the direction of my groin. Father is still snoring. I’d like him to open his eyes and see what’s happening. If he told him, “She doesn’t belong to you,” the man would stop. But Father doesn’t say anything, and I’m the one who has to do something. So the man squeezes me between his fingers, smells me, and then discards me.
When we reach the village, I realize something isn’t right. There are more than two hundred people gathered in the square, but I don’t see any bottles or buckets or anything that would suggest their yearning to receive the miracle. Just faces in despair, bulging, breathless eyes.
We get out of the car. The man struts beside Father, his thumbs in his pants pockets, arms akimbo like the wings of a peacock. It hurts where he touched me, and I wonder if Father’s water will cleanse me. But that’s not my biggest worry, worse is the feeling of menace I notice in the air. No one is talking. No greetings, and that’s strange, because wherever he goes, people greet Father with enthusiasm: they crowd around to touch him, and he opens a path with his staff, august as though he were wearing a purple cape and crown and bearing a scepter. But none of that happens here. The villagers, crowded in one corner of the square, observe us with mistrust, and it even seems we’ve shown up here against their will. Someone coughs, a baby cries. Behind them, the crowded façades of the houses swell with heat. You’d think they were about to collapse and bury those assembled and the rubble would ascend to heaven in a great jumble of whitewash and bone dust.
Finally a woman breaks ranks and comes forward.
“We’ve been waiting,” she says.
The heat makes the silence expand until her words sound minute. The woman’s voice is barely audible.
“Well, here I am,” Father responds.
“People have died here,” the woman says.
Father isn’t one for losing time with empty chatter. So he gets to work, feeling the terrain with his staff, just as he did at the man’s house not long before. It’s pleasant to watch him. He moves with determination, obedient to an inner rhythm.
“It’s not here,” the woman says.
Father stops searching.
“It’s not here.”
“I’m the one who says where it is.”
“Well, I’m telling you, this isn’t where we want you doing it.”
Then something happens.
From the back of the square, where the villagers are gathered, the first sounds of cacophonous music rise up, the ceremonial funereal notes from what might be a hymn. Three cornet players and two drummers are standing at the head of the group, and the mass of them, immobile up till then, sets in motion. It’s a strange scene we’re party to. Chilling, to tell the truth. The procession advances in lockstep, a pilgrimage running from one end of the square to the other, and when it reaches our side, I notice, beneath the racket of the music, a second current, a murmur of overlapping whispers, as though the villagers were praying or casting spells.
The multitude pushes us and we are obliged to walk with them. The man hurries to remove two more jugs from the trunk of the car. His greed sickens me, but before I can say anything, the procession is at my heels and I have to walk.
Father and I are in the lead, a little in front of the man, who has stayed with the musicians. They drive us out of the village, pushing us toward the plateau. Three times I turn around, and three times I realize there’s no escape. The villagers are a compact, articulate mass it is impossible to elude. Seen up close, their faces are pale paper masks with a stiff rictus painted on. Even the children who hold their mother’s hands have that hollow but determined, martial expression.
We reach the village swamp. The music stops abruptly.
“The swamp,” the woman says. “That’s what we had you come here for. We want you to fill it.”
“Impossible,” Father answers.
The woman looks at him irritated, and a sigh of horror rises to the lips of all present. I ask myself who she is. She gives off an air of importance, and her voice rings with authority, though not so much as Father’s.
“What do you mean? Fill the swamp.”
Father shakes his head. It’s too big. He can’t fill the swamp alone, he says.
“So what kind of power is it you have, if I may ask?”
“I can give you water.”
“We don’t want a little water. We want you to fill up the swamp.”
“We want you to fill up the swamp,” one of the villagers shouts, and immediately this anthem is repeated and magnified into an explosion of threats and insults. The man joins into the chorus, too, banging on the two jugs as if they were two cymbals. “We want you to fill the swamp! We want you to fill the swamp!”
Father looks at me eloquently. With that I understand what it is he expects from me. This is the final test, the moment of revelation and truth. I’d like to say a few words, defend myself, shirk my task, but it is as if someone is holding me there. My mouth fills up with air. It’s too late.
“She’ll do it,” Father says, imposing his voice over the cries. “My daughter will fill the swamp.”
I should flee. Maybe the villagers will let me go, since Father is the target of their rage, not I, but my legs don’t respond. How could I just leave him? And where would I go? Everything stands in the way of my will; nothing can escape Father’s great ambition. Take the staff. Raise the staff. He’s already decided my fate. He looks back at the mob and betrays me three times: “My daughter, my daughter, my daughter,” he repeats.
The man grasps the two jugs as if they were extensions of his hands and points at us accusingly.
“He’s lying. The girl’s no good, she’s useless.”
“She can do it if she wants,” Father hisses.
The villagers fall silent and turn their attention to me. Father hands me the staff. I can see his figure blurry, an effect of the tension of the spectacle. “You’ll do it, right?” he asks me. “I’ll do it,” I respond, though I have no idea how to and even less why I am saying yes, accepting this fate that might mean my end. I feel a bit dizzy and want to raise my hand and ask their pardon before leaving the scene. Then I see the face of the man, his mockery, his scorn, how he sticks his tongue out and licks his lips savoring my failure in advance, and then I see Father’s face, without a drop of pity for me, and I think with terror that this day could last forever and that if it does, I will never be free of them. I will never be free of Him.
Sweat swells in my armpits and slips down my ribs while I clasp the staff. I try not to look at the swamp, at its insistent emptiness.
Don’t think of the water.
I close my eyes and, in the darkness within me, concentrate on something that lies in the depths of my being. I believe it’s there. Somewhere. Up to now, I’ve been too scared, and I’ve ignored it, but I think it’s time for us to meet. And so I call to it. First it seems it’s sleeping, but then I feel it quiver and wake up slowly, delicate fingers tickling my stomach, like a greeting or a nod between two old reunited friends. It’s dark, and it’s been waiting for me a long time.
I’ve just awakened it.
The air changes around me, I can sense a slight change in the atmosphere.
I remain still and wait.
Finally, the soil we are walking on begins to tremble, like the approach of a thousand armies, though we all know in truth the noise is coming from within the earth. The people shout, and some start to run: no one will make it far. I believe it’s rising already, and I must tell you that when it does, it may have a form distinct from the one we are hoping for. It may be red, like the bloody Nile, or black, black water clotted with rage. Or perhaps it will be something else, not water, who knows. Father’s voice asks me: “What did you do, you fool?” I open my eyes to see his panic, his profound rancor framed against a violet backdrop, a backdrop of disaster, and I feel neither grief nor satisfaction. Only peace.
© Ariadna Castellarnau. By arrangement with Editorial Planeta. Translation © 2020 by Adrian Nathan West. All rights reserved.
Andri Snær Magnason travels to the Snæfellsjökull glacier in Iceland and contemplates environmental responsibility, collective action, and hope in the face of global warming.
In the future, glaciers will be an alien phenomenon, rare as a Bengal tiger. Having lived in the time of the white giants will become swaddled in a fairytale glow, like having stroked a dragon or handled the eggs of the great auk. Glaciers will certainly be found in the Arctic, Greenland, and Antarctica for a few thousand more years, but probably not in the Alps and the Andes; they will disappear in most parts of the Himalayas and Iceland. People will ask, how were glaciers described at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
I was not as familiar with glaciers as my grandparents were. I had seen them from afar and gone up to Snæfellsjökull in winter but winter glaciers are nothing like summer glaciers and outlet glaciers are quite different from an ice sheet or a minor glacier.
And so we planned to cross Skeidarárjökull, where it heads south from Vatnajökull, one of its major valley glaciers. It was the end of July 2012; all the winter snow had melted and all the cracks and shapes in the ice were as clear as they would get. This was actually our second assault on the glacier. A few years earlier we had headed up there in pouring rain and pitched our tents on a low gravel bed. When we woke up in the morning, pools and springs had formed under the campsite. It was almost as if someone had struck the ground with a magic wand, causing water to well up out of little bulging eyes; people woke drenched in deep puddles and so we turned back home.
Now the plan was to camp at the edge of the glacier, fairly high up, and cross the glacier in one long day trip, a total of about twenty-five kilometers. Then we would camp on a green terrace, one of the most beautiful campsites in the country, and make another long day trip into Skaftafell National Park.
We woke up in crappy weather; the tent was shaking in the wind. It was warm down inside our sleeping bags but shiveringly cold once we crawled out of them. We packed up quickly and set off in spite of the poor visibility. At the edge of the glacier we ran into some hikers who had crossed the glacier during the night. These were a French father and son and the father’s friend; they were cold and dazed, almost in shock after the night’s hardships. They had lost their way and come across a crevasse that could not be traversed; it led them astray so that they ended up too low down, where they got into a maze of deadly deep crevasses. And so they went back and forth blindly in the fog and rain and darkness. Ten hours of walking became twenty hours. They feared for their lives and pitched their tent as soon as they stepped off the ice, bone-tired and relieved they had reached safety.
We ourselves tramped though slushy mud at the glacier’s edge, where glacier meets land. We tried to avoid the quicksand that forms when melting glacier ice seeps water into the sediment. The glacier was black with sand for the first part of our journey and on the ice we could make out strange objects, flat stones on thin ice pillars, like works of art made by aliens. The weather was slowly clearing, until we started to see before us an endless breadth of tussocks, as though innumerable white turtle shells stretched out as far as the eye could see.
We saw that in the middle of the mountain slope on each side of the glacier was a light stripe that marked its surface level as it had been just a few years ago. In many places high up in the cirques, we could discern so-called dead ice, floes still hanging there in the rock after the surface had subsided. It tests every sense of one’s brain to imagine a glacier’s surface thirty meters above one’s height, the height of a ten-story building, extending it in the mind, as though it’s a vaulted ceiling over the entire expanse, reaching one edge of the glacier to the other and a whole kilometer out onto the sand.
Our path continued and now it was as if each of the tussocks were individual scales, with the outlet glacier the tail of a white dragon. We came upon something that resembled a black sand pyramid and then more pyramids gradually appeared until we entered an entire forest of black pyramids in the middle of the glacier. The evaporation from the sand cones emitted fog veils; little streams trickled between them, creating a micro-landscape, almost like a bonsai landscape, little mountains and little rivers and little towns, and we were mesmerized by the shapes and the beauty. Between the pyramids, streams ran like little waterslides. It was tempting to take a ride but if we followed them, we’d end up in a glacial hole. These gullets were white holes that became blue holes and black holes that extended as much as three hundred meters down to the bottom; it was vital to take special care around them. The thought of losing one’s footing and disappearing down into a hole was the stuff of nightmares. The only parallel my mind could conjure was the sandpit in Star Wars where the gigantic, wormlike Sarlacc lived.
In the book Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, astronauts float behind a mysterious planet and try to figure out its nature. They hypothesize that the planet has some kind of self-awareness beyond what the human mind can comprehend. On the surface of the planet is a kind of ocean of yellow foam that takes on familiar shapes the astronauts try to interpret and understand. They wonder if the planet is sending them messages.
I tried to interpret the glacier’s shapes, the pyramid forest opening out into a streak on the surface that resembled a two-lane highway. In the middle of the “road” was a black line as if to mark the lanes. The surface was smooth and level; one could have driven at seventy miles an hour as far as the eye could see. I involuntarily looked both ways as I walked across the “road” and wondered if the glacier was giving me a signal. Maybe it was telling me that somewhere between the pyramids and the motorways something had gone wrong.
I lay down on the cold ice and put my ear to a narrow crevasse that seemed a whole eternity deep though only a few inches wide. The ice in the wound was as clear as crystal. I looked at the veins and bubbles in the body of the glacier, which created a strange three-dimensional feeling. I heard how the water gushed far down in the quivering space like a dark bass, water dancing somewhere deep down at the bottom, like a giant xylophone, a rock harp, an ice harp. The glacier’s swan song.
Now that the glacier is changing faster than ever before, I feel within myself a paradox. My being on the glacier comes from advances and technologies, the production and mass extraction of Earth’s resources. By the time humans were able to cross glaciers, to count the nesting places of crocodiles, and to study the song of the humpback whales, we’d grown so strong and expanded so far that what we were finally able to measure and understand had already started disappearing.
In documentaries, melting glaciers are a dramatic spectacle: gigantic ice chunks crash and rumble as they calve into the sea. But a dying glacier is actually no more dramatic than the normal changes of the spring season. Ice melts in the heat and the sun, forming streams that frolic and splash. In fact, a dying glacier is more a sad, frail sight, disappearing quietly. You could call the situation “silent spring,” had Rachel Carson not already used that phrase to title her book on how insecticides affect nature. And after spring will come summer. The long global summer.
The place names on Vatnajökull store memories of the changing environment. Breidamerkursandur, meaning “wide forest sand,” recalls a forest there before it became a black sand desert. Under the sand, we can find the thick stumps of three-thousand-year-old birch trees from a time when the local Nordic climate was warmer or as warm as it has become today. The wide forest turned into a wide desert after the advance of glaciers in the Little Ice Age. The self-sowing birch is beginning to breed itself once more. Breidamerkursandur will probably become a wide forest once again. On Skeidarársandur’s endless stretch of black sand, the largest self-contained birch forest in Iceland is beginning to form. Could you really call the largest forest in Iceland skeidarársandur, “boat river sand”? The forest would be named after a vanished glacial river, after black sand deep under the forest floor.
Ice, gravel, and sand emerge from under the glacier, a new land that has been frozen for hundreds of years; at the glacier’s edge you have to tread carefully on the ground. It’s as if the land is neither ice nor water nor sand but all three at once. The transformation has an intermediate step: chaos, as in the prophetic poem “Völuspá,” about the beginning of creation:
The sun knew not
where her hall stood,
the moon knew not
how mighty it was
the stars knew not
Chaos is not confined to the glacier’s edge. No one knows how the land will lie when our way of life has caused the world’s glaciers to become water, our coastlines to become sea, and our arable fields to become deserts.
When I turn ninety, I will show my thirty-year-old grandchild pictures of Skeidarárjökull on a projector screen. They’ll see a glacier that three generations of my family had the opportunity to get to know before it vanished. When I take a photo of a glacier, it’s like I’m recording and preserving an old woman singing an ancient lullaby. After a thousand years, people will peer at the pictures like rare, ancient manuscripts and try to understand what we were thinking.
© 2020 by Andri Snær Magnason. English translation © 2020 by Lytton Smith. First published in Great Britain in 2020 by Profile Books Ltd. Forthcoming 2021 from Open Letter Books. By arrangement with Open Letter Books. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Thai novelist Duanwad Pimwana, a man searches for hope and companionship in a world of trash.
My mother and father disappeared amid the trash. My siblings and relatives, too, one by one. I have nobody. Trash is everywhere around me: the ground, the hollows, the hills are all trash. It doesn’t matter where I look, or how far, I see nothing but an unending series of overlapping mountains, trash upon trash. Trees have been flattened, homes have collapsed, rivers have been buried under piles of trash. Everything is gone; everything is trash. I look down at myself: I’m filthy and I stink. Soon enough, I will have taken my final breath, and I will become another piece of trash. When we humans must exist among heaps and heaps of garbage all the time, we’re bound to turn into garbage before long.
I don’t want to live this way, but I have no choice. I can’t remember when I last saw the surface of the earth. I do have one image burnished in my mind, a memory from twenty years ago, when I was a seven-year-old boy: I was being led by the hand, strolling down a street—I still see the scene clearly and reminisce about it all the time—the street was wide open, empty, running as far as the eye can see. I shook my hand free to run ahead of everyone. A breeze swept over from the mountains; it felt cool, refreshing. Not a single piece of trash was in sight. I yearn for that street, and I would trade my life for a chance to take a walk there again, filling my lungs with that air, even for a measly ten minutes. The street really existed, but the longer I languish among these dumps, the more I lose faith in my memory, like perhaps I only dreamed it up.
Each day, I wander, not only to scavenge for bits of anything edible but also in hopes of one day making it beyond all of this garbage and finding the Land Without Trash, a place said to have a human settlement, to be home to living animals and trees—according to a story that has been around since my parents still were. People we used to come across often told of the land. Some of them believed in its existence, some didn’t, but everyone strained to imagine what a clean, trashless land might be like. How was it possible for people to live without littering? How did they dispose of their garbage? And where did they hide it?
I trudge over a mountain of trash, not having run into a soul for nearly a month. A part of me is convinced that people have been subsumed in the piles of refuse, just as my parents and the rest of my family have been, but another part of me harbors a secret hope that the other trash dwellers are fighting their way to the Land Without Trash. Perhaps they have found it and, naturally, have stayed. I’m fearful for myself and full of regret: Last time, I encountered two men heading south—they believed the Land Without Trash likely lay in that direction—but I was bound east, remembering how my mother had said the Land Without Trash was situated thereabouts. The two men and I exchanged only a few words before parting ways. Several days later, it dawned on me that it had been a mistake not to join those two men. The realization left me weak and dejected, my loneliness feeling like a stab in the heart.
Though I continue heading east, I care about nothing more than the chance to meet someone, anyone. Given the opportunity this time, I would ask to follow them on their journey, regardless of where they were going. Since my clue was no better than anyone else’s, what difference does it make which way we travel? I cannot tolerate the solitude any longer. Being all alone in the middle of this ocean of waste is beyond unbearable—and not because I want to have a friend to chat with or a travel companion I can lean on. This abject loneliness—it comes from my being haunted by the view. It doesn’t matter whether I look ahead or behind, left or right, the picture I see is all the same. And it doesn’t matter how far I walk in a day, the scene never alters—it’s as though I were moving in circles. This panorama of garbage is playing mind games with me, making me question whether I’m hallucinating. I’m suffering greatly. I try to remind myself I’m moving forward, making strides. I have a destination, and I’ve already covered a great deal of distance. My body motion ought to be able to attest to the reality that the view around me is shifting all the time. I’m walking. I’m still conscious of my own movement, of my freedom. I’m not locked up in a cage, not confined to an area, no one is prohibiting me from doing whatever it is I want to do. At least I’m not forced to be cooped up in a small space, like, say, if I had to lower myself into a coffin and lie there. Then the view would really remain unchanged forever and ever. It already counts for something that I can still move around freely. I’m walking, the view is shifting, even if it shifts only to remain the same. But I know it’s shifting. Sometimes I close my eyes, sometimes open them. The view is shifting, I know that . . . oh, how lonely it is. What I would give to run into another living creature.
Ultimately, it is on my route east, half a month later, that I spot a fellow human being. Standing on a hilltop looking down at what is shaped like a deep pit, I see a person moving around at its bottom. I’m beyond ecstatic. I feel as if I only had one opportunity left in this life to encounter another human being again, and that opportunity has really arrived. Immediately, I scurry down. Until I see the person up close or hear his or her voice, I won’t be able to tell if it’s a man or a woman. In this squalid, putrid world, men and women have become difficult to distinguish. Everyone I meet is in the same sorry state—clothes so filthy their colors are obscured, hair long and matted, cheeks hollowed, body emaciated and rundown.
“Hello!” I wave to the person. “Hello!”
The person looks up at me, waving back, also excited.
“Hello!” The voice I hear reveals the person to be a woman, but she is so scrawny there’s no hint of womanliness left about her.
“Are you alone? Where are you headed? Are you searching for the clean land? Have you turned up anything to eat at all?” the woman jabbers away. She still looks quite vivacious and strong, despite being downright skeletal.
“Mostly, I eat worms,” I tell her and smile, embarrassed.
“Same here. I forage for worms, too.” She laughs loudly. “Are you in a hurry? Stay and chat a while. I haven’t had anyone to talk to for two months now. It’s been really lonely. I’ve been talking to myself like a crazy person.”
“Me, too. Yesterday I was suddenly struck by the fear that I might be the only person left among these dumps. The whole time I was walking, I felt like I was trapped in a dream—nothing seemed real except for the trash. Eyes open or closed, I saw nothing but garbage. I have no one left. My parents, siblings, my whole extended family, all of them have been swallowed up in the trash. I’m keeping an eye on what’s going to happen to me, waiting for my own turn to come one day—a person turning into a piece of garbage, blown away into a heap with millions of other pieces of garbage. I don’t want to become garbage, but if I’d be the only one left in the middle of all this trash, I don’t know what would be worse.”
“Being alive trumps all else, always. As long as one’s alive, there’s still hope. You know, you shouldn’t drive yourself crazy with those dark thoughts. The more we let them get to us, the more fed up we’ll be with life, and eventually one day we’ll see ourselves as trash and want to throw ourselves away. Stay—wouldn’t it be better to keep each other company and try to find a way out of this together?” the woman lectures me earnestly, which makes her come off rather bookish. I have trouble even estimating her age. Based on the things she said, I’m led to believe she’s seen something of life. But there’s a youthful light in her eyes, like a girl’s.
“I meant that was the state I was in yesterday, but not anymore. I just wanted to have someone there to help bear witness to the fact that my life was really happening.”
The woman laughs out loud at what she apparently finds an odd remark, which means despite not having had any human contact for even longer, she hasn’t suffered through the same state and can’t empathize. I bring up the subject I’ve been intending to bring up from the start, which is to ask her if I could accompany her on her journey, because I don’t want to carry on alone any longer.
The woman hears me out, smiling, and then shakes her head. “I’m not going anywhere. Don’t you see? I live here.”
Her answer baffles me. I simply don’t understand. “What do you mean? Aren’t you on a search for the Land Without Trash like everybody else? Or do you not believe it exists?”
“I don’t know, maybe it exists. But I already have my own ambition.”
Still confounded, I fail to react altogether. For trash dwellers like ourselves, is there something else to dream of other than the Land Without Trash?
“What’s your ambition? . . . But anyway, you should try to get beyond the trash first. Staying here, you’d only be counting down to the day you die. Come with me—didn’t you tell me as long as one’s alive, there’s still hope?”
“Of course, there is. And I have more hope than anyone. Don’t you see what I’ve done here?” She turns and, with her eyes, gestures all the way around. My eyes follow hers, but I see nothing but trash. She’s quick to explain: “I’m building my own trash-free land right here. First, I have to haul the trash away. Do you see how large and how deep this pit is? One day, I’m going to reach the ground. I’m going to take away all the garbage, and I’m going to be left with the ground, all cleaned up. And if I keep moving the trash, the area is going to get bigger and bigger. When that day comes, I’m going to grow trees, I’m going to build a house, and I’m going to keep clearing away the trash and expand the area more and more. My land’s not going to have any trash. Do you get it now? I’m not going anywhere because there’s a trash-free land right here.”
Her words running through my head, I visualize along with amazement. This is such a beautiful dream. But it’s also daunting—could she realistically succeed? The amount of trash is staggering, endless. How long would it take? She might die before she gets a glimpse of the ground.
“Will you stay with me? If we do it together, it will be twice as fast.”
I want to stay with her, certainly, but the grandness of her aspiration launches my mind into a panic as I weigh the pros and cons of two different paths that could potentially lead me to a land without trash. Others are going the route of searching for it, but this woman wants to create one with her own hands. A clean colony is supposed to manifest itself in this expanse of trash stretching as far and wide as the eye can see? When? Looking at her small hands and feet, I feel discouraged. But the other alternative offers no guarantee whatsoever. The legend or story that has been passed down—who could vouch for its veracity? Everybody is struggling to locate that fabled land, invested in their search because of the desperate desire to break free from these dumps. The question I ought to put to myself is: Do I want to die here or cast my die out there? But here I’d have a friend. I might as well stay with this woman at least until someone else shows up. At that point, I can still change my mind.
She’s delighted I’m agreeing to stay, not only because she’s lonely and wants to have a companion, but also because my presence raises the prospect that her trash-free land might materialize sooner. I immediately begin to worry. I don’t want to hurt her feelings by admitting to her that I don’t share her hope in the matter, not in the least, and that being so, I’m disinclined to waste my energy hauling trash. But, not knowing how to turn her down, I don’t feel like I have a choice. I’ll probably have to help her until I find someone else to journey with.
“Two months ago, someone passed through this way. I begged her to stay and build a trash-free land together, but she didn’t believe I could make it happen. Back then, the pit was still puny. It’s a shame—if she saw it now, she might have made a different decision. Look how big and deep the pit is. With two of us, so twice the labor, we’re sure to uncover the ground soon. Down the line, maybe we’ll have lots and lot of people giving us a hand. Oh, I wish they’d just come! The sooner the better!”
She hands me a burlap sack, and we get to work right away. The pit is large and deep—it’s almost inconceivable it was born from the labor of such a slight woman. I go about collecting garbage and dropping it into the sack she gave me. The most strenuous part of the task is dragging the sack up to the edge of the pit. Just beyond it, the terrain begins to slope downward. My sack rolls bopping down all by itself, which helps spare a great deal of effort, until it loses momentum about twenty meters away from the top. As I open the sack to dump out the trash, a cry of protest comes at me from behind.
The tiny woman is standing with an enormous sack—how was she able to drag it up the pit? On top of that, she forbids me from pouring out the trash right here: I’m to haul it behind the next knoll and dispose of it there. Her sack rolls down after me, and she tows it uphill, even taking the lead. The way she moves, her strength appears nothing short of a miracle. I struggle to keep up, failing to comprehend why we have to go all the way behind that knoll when everywhere was a dump. On my second trip, I start to feel tired; on the third, I’m much slower than before. From my observation, the whole time the woman is tugging her sack along, her eyes are scanning for worms. I get to take a break when she calls me over to share a meal for the first time.
At dusk, the woman proudly shows off something, which leaves me flabbergasted once again: It’s a coffin sitting on the bank of the pit. It’s her bedroom, she says. The sight of it makes me uneasy. The interior of the box is lined with burlap, and there is a pillow that, though grubby, looks very appealing. The coffin’s lid is leaning on its side, and nearby, a straw mat lies unfurled, with a wooden chest atop, serving as a table. Inside the chest is a miscellany of objects she has managed to collect—this woman’s determination to set down roots here is exciting, contagious.
“Go on, before it gets dark. There’s another coffin over there. Tonight, you’re going to get to sleep in a clean bedroom.”
Together, we lug the other coffin over and park it near hers. For the first time, I won’t be sleeping on top of trash, but in a coffin one layer above. How wondrous it’s going to be. Once I get in and lie flat, the side walls block the trash from view completely. All I see is the sky, which is starting to spring twinkles of stars. Ah, the view has changed! I’ve truly escaped the trash. This casket might have had a previous occupant, but being in it right now, I feel clean . . . clean . . . I’ve nearly forgotten what it feels like. Even though the space proves awkward and cramped when I try to turn my body or even shift my limbs, I don’t mind. I realize now that even if my hands and feet were bound and I lost the liberty to walk around or do anything else, as long as I get to be some place clean, away from trash, I would willingly forsake and forgo all the freedom in the world. What use is it for us humans to cling to our freedom in the midst of all this trash? Once anything of value in this world has been discarded or has wound up in a pile of refuse, does it really count as something of value anymore? I shut my eyes and run my hand along the casket’s smooth wall. This coffin has given me a sanctuary all my own. I no longer have to be commingled with the trash—this thought alone moves me to tears.
I haul garbage, day in day out. Every day, the woman says: Today might be the day we see the ground. She is as hopeful as I am hopeless. But at last we hit upon the ground, actual solid earth. I can feel my heart pumping, I don’t know how to describe all the emotions rushing through me. The woman manically claws away more of the trash, mumbling away with elation and excitement. I’m ashamed to admit that in a given day she manages to make three more trips than I do. Now her dream is a pipe dream no more. I have never met anyone so full of hope and spirit as this woman. Though her flesh has been dwindling day by day, her strength has only improved. Today, we’ve uncovered the earth; the pit need not be dug deeper. Our hauls from here on out will be about expanding the area. It’s exactly as she envisioned it. Now I’m growing convinced there’s a land without trash right here, and it’s a place I must build for myself.
We toil away like mad so that each day we would see more of the earth. In the meantime, I’ve also started collecting objects of my own: I’ve got a plate, a candle, and a rusty pair of scissors. This last item is precious. I look for ways to polish off the rust, and, using a nail I found, try to sharpen it by rubbing the two objects together. The two of us are overjoyed to finally be able to cut our hair. We take turns snipping off each other’s locks, entirely getting rid of the clumped masses that have been weighing down our heads.
“It’s so light and comfortable!” The woman is thoroughly pleased with her crew cut. “I feel like a cadet!”
But I have to avert my eyes. With her hair shorn, her gaunt face has become even more prominent. That skull of a head—I don’t want to look at it. If it weren’t for her eyes, which are still full of life, anyone who gets a look at her would think she was already a corpse. I can’t speak to the state of my own appearance . . . It’s probably not much better. Without access to a mirror, the best we can do is look at each other. Regardless, one outcome was undeniably fantastic: Our haircuts made us cleaner.
I wish people would pass by because I’m eager to show off the area of the ground we’ve cleared, which has grown to be almost eighty square yards now. The dream of having a home to live in, of cultivating plants and raising animals on land that is clean and trashless is so close to coming true we could almost touch it with our fingertips. But alas, this is as far as we’ll come.
I’ve fallen ill, from the combination of hard labor and a dearth of food. The woman likewise. We are left lying helplessly in our coffins, praying someone would happen by. Even if they can’t save our lives, the woman hopes they would carry on our unfinished work. After lying still for two nights and a day, the woman pulls herself up and crawls out of her box. Her determination never ceases to amaze. She is going to look for something to eat, she says. I could still just about gather enough energy to crawl out, but I continue to lie idle because I know the effort is pointless. I have tramped over every inch of the surface in this vicinity, to the degree I recognize every single piece of trash. Any hope I had for food was lost over a half a month ago.
With the woman absent, I stay supine in my coffin, breathing feebly. In the moments when I’m alert, I listen, with hope, for her bright, upbeat voice. We shouldn’t be separated during a time like this. I should have stopped her from venturing out. By now she’s probably collapsed out there somewhere and stranded.
On the third morning after she went missing, I attempt to get up but find myself too weak to lift my body out of the coffin. I only manage as far as draping my arms and head over the edge—which turns out to be sufficient because the woman comes into view immediately. Since when has she been back? She’s been lying right next to my casket, on the mat. Hearing my voice, she opens her eyes. We are each happy to see the other’s face again.
“There’s a way where we won’t have to die,” I tell the woman. “My parents and the rest of my family, every one of them, no one had to die.”
“I realize that . . . No one I know from before has died. That’s why it’s tough going for us—with no worms left to eat.”
Both of us burst out laughing until we’re gasping for air. Afterward, we’re so drained by the exertion we’re forced to keep still for a long while.
Since the subject has been broached, I decide to ask her: “The time has come for us to really make a choice. Do you want to do like them?” The woman, contemplating, doesn’t answer. In truth, I know she made her choice long ago; otherwise our encounter here could never have happened . . . I myself have sworn off littering, having witnessed too many cautionary tales close to home. I can’t pinpoint when this punishment came into existence, but I do know it wasn’t very long ago. My family had had the habit of dropping their trash carelessly on the ground for ages, but it was only within the last two years that they metamorphosed into trash. My father was the first of them. He’d chucked a cigarette butt, and instantly he’d vanished before our eyes. My mother had been quick enough to catch the moment he transformed into another cigarette stub. She told anybody and everybody what happened. Those who didn’t believe her all wanted to test the story for themselves. It proved true. Without exception, anyone who littered turned into a piece of garbage. Later on, dumping trash became an easy way out for people who had lost hope.
Seeing that the woman isn’t about to reply, I answer for her: “You’re not going to throw trash on the ground, right? You’ve always maintained this beautiful optimism. You only pursue the toughest things, and you never give up. Surely, you’re not one to take the easy way out, am I right?”
The woman smiles. “It’s more that we owe a debt to the worms. We ought to save our bodies, to feed them for once.”
Both of us burst out laughing until we’re gasping for air. This time, the laughter costs us our lives.
“กองขยะด้านตะวันออก ทัศนียภาพไม่เปลี่ยนแปลง” © 2020 by Duanwad Pimwana. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.
Environmental writer Amy Brady considers the role of literature in prompting action against climate change.
In early June of 2020 the Yakutia region of Siberia hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the permafrost to melt and the dry soil beneath to burst into flames. Thick white smoke spread across the country’s green expanse, releasing more carbon emissions into the atmosphere than any other wildfire on Earth in the last two decades.
These fires are a clear sign that the planet is in crisis. It is particularly worrisome that the Arctic is warming at least two and a half times faster than anywhere else on Earth, because melting Arctic sea ice leads to rising seas—and eventually to the flooding of coastal cities and villages, home to tens of millions of people. And yet, despite these dire signs that something has gone terribly wrong, only 69% of Americans are worried about global warming. As for the rest of the world, a recent Pew poll reveals that a median of only 68% of those surveyed in twenty-six nations say that climate change is a threat.
Why do humans have such a hard time accepting the real and present danger of climate change? Much of the blame can be attributed to the fossil fuel industry, which has engaged in an enormous public disinformation campaign for decades. But human psychology also reveals some answers. Many people believe that the planet is inherently just and stable. Climate change poses an uncomfortable challenge to that idea. Others resist the discomfort that comes from having to give up short-term benefits, such as immediate profit, for the long-term advantages of stabilizing the biosphere. But perhaps even more pernicious is the human brain’s tendency to reject things that are psychologically distant (in time and space) from itself. This is a particular problem for people living in the relatively climate-stable United States. At the time of this writing, climate catastrophes are still more likely to happen in the Global South.
That’s why novels—especially those by authors from nations hardest hit by climate change—are invaluable. Through vibrant scenes and deeply moving character arcs, these stories, which are often called “climate fiction,” depict the worst of climate change through the eyes of protagonists experiencing the disasters firsthand. Consider Thai author Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain, which follows life in Thailand’s capital for over one hundred years. As climate change ravages the low-lying city, streets and buildings become inundated with sea water, changing forever what life in Bangkok looks like. Then there’s Indian author Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island. It follows its lead character Deen from India to Venice and then to Los Angeles, while drawing parallels between Bengali mythology and the strange sights of today’s climate-changed world, sights such as red-and-black wildfires raging toward an art museum, or dozens of dolphins spontaneously beaching themselves.
Climate-fiction writers like Sudbanthad and Ghosh achieve with their novels what so many news reports don’t: they capture the extraordinary happenings of our age, the “signs and wonders” wrought by a warming atmosphere, and connect them directly to humanity’s enormous carbon output. Indeed, these novels drive home the fact that global warming is caused by human activity and that our continued reliance on fossil fuels is not only irrational—it’s deadly.
Sudbanthad and Ghosh’s novels are realist in nature, meaning they take place mostly in the present (though Sudbanthad’s eventually takes readers to the near future) and depict climate change as it is happening now. By doing so, the novels encourage readers to imagine what our climate-changed world looks like. They help readers to see and feel—to truly grasp—the reality of climate change and the degree of havoc it wreaks everywhere and on all living things.
But not all climate novels are written in the realist mode. Climate fiction comes in a range of styles and modes, while still drawing connections between large, systemic phenomenon like climate change, capitalism, and war. Dystopian novels like UK author John Lanchester’s The Wall are particularly prevalent. Set in a future United Kingdom, it connects postapocalyptic climate change to conflict by showing how dwindling resources result in a rise of nationalism. Omar El Akkad’s American War is also dystopian. Its protagonist becomes radicalized after a climate-fueled war breaks out in the United States.
Dystopia isn’t all that climate fiction has to offer, however. Oil on Water by Nigerian author Helon Habila is a climate-themed thriller, involving two men who traverse the environmentally devastated Nigerian delta to hunt for a British oil executive’s kidnapped wife. Fantasy and science fiction writers have also used their talents to address the crisis. In Tentacle, Dominican author Rita Indiana tells the tale of a young transman’s fantastical journey. With the help of a magical anemone, he travels back in time and witnesses how colonialism and an over-reliance on technology have led to the destruction of oceans—and of humanity. He seeks to change the arc of history before it’s too late. Rajat Chaudhuri, who resides in Calcutta, India, explores a Ballardian near-future in Butterfly Effect, a novel about three diverse characters who seek to reveal the mysteries of Darkland, a nation-state that arose after catastrophic climate change wiped out much of what used to be Asia.
In recent years, climate fiction has expanded beyond novels to include short-story writers. Like novels, short stories invite readers to inhabit the minds and perspectives of characters living through catastrophe. Through their eyes, readers can witness loss and destruction. American writer Terese Svoboda, for example, explores Middle America in her short-story collection, Great American Desert. The stories follow the evolution of the Midwest from a place of fecundity to an uninhabitable wasteland. Svoboda, who is also a translator, once told me that her views on climate change evolved after translating some poetry by writers from the South Sudan, who view people as stewards of the earth: “Their work sees humans as the ants of God,” she said.
Indeed, climate-fiction novelists and short story writers certainly seem to be taking that perspective, but it presents a challenge specific to their genre: their antagonist—climate change—isn’t a typical villain. It can’t be stopped by a single hero with a bullet or magic wand. For many of these writers, then, their narrative arcs are rooted in collective action. Take Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, a sci-fi novel set in the titular year after more than fifty feet of sea-level rise. Half of New York City is submerged in water, but life there is much the same—it is still the capitalistic, financial epicenter of the world, and many people are suffering. But once the novel’s protagonists realize that other social structures are possible—structures rooted in eco-socialism and economic equality—they start to organize for real change.
Robinson’s novel is at base a hopeful story. Much of climate fiction is hopeful. But most works in this genre contain an emotional range that feels vital to the crisis at hand. Just as human beings are capable of feeling multiple emotions at once—hope as well as discouragement, courage as well as fear—the best of climate fiction allows for all of these feelings. Whereas many journalists still abide by the fundamental rule to be as objective as possible, fiction writers have the freedom to explore the pathos of climate change. And in doing so, allow readers to feel even their darkest feelings to achieve a sense of catharsis.
These are bold claims, certainly. So just how effective is climate fiction, really, at getting readers to take the crisis more seriously? According to Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College, the genre can function as a useful tool in nudging readers “in a slightly more progressive direction.” In a recent empirical study, the researcher surveyed more than 100 U.S.-based readers about their experience reading climate fiction. Many of them reported that stories about the crisis helped them to better imagine “potential climate futures,” meaning they could better visualize what climate change might bring if left unabated. Moreover, the study revealed that some readers of climate fiction were more likely to discuss climate change with friends and family members, even with those whom conversations about the subject had previously proven difficult.
The pieces in this issue may provoke such discussions. Andri Snær Magnason’s Of Time and Water, published to great acclaim in Iceland, surveys the ravages of climate change; the excerpt here, “Farewell to the White Giants,” addresses the shrinking of glaciers. Ariadna Castellarnau follows a rainmaker and his sullen daughter as they try to rescue a village from drought. Duanwad Pimwana reveals one possible result of cavalier attitudes toward accumulation and disposal. And Francisco de la Mora’s graphic fiction depicts the Statue of Liberty and Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer mourning their mutual losses.
Of course, fiction won’t change the world—we need real-life, collective action to do that. But if news reports alone could inspire such action, they would have done so long ago. No single means of communication can be solely effective, because climate change is such a “wicked” problem—it is truly planetary in scale. Therefore, we need not one but many pathways toward understanding the breadth and urgency of the challenge, so that more of us can begin taking necessary action toward change. For some, that path can be found through literature.
© 2020 by Amy Brady. All rights reserved.