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Melaka Chetti

Sara Frederica Santa Maria

Hugo C. Cardoso

Magin Mario Balthazaar

Stefanie Shamila Pillai

Mahendran Pillay

Nadarajan Mudalier

Shagina Bhalan

Nironjini Pillay

from the September 2021 issue

“Psychedelic,” “Profound,” “a Feminist Classic”: Magda Cârneci’s “FEM” Challenges Definitions

Reviewed by Jozefina Komporaly

Blurring genre boundaries, Cârneci's debut novel brings to life a mesmerizing landscape of female desire and frustration. As the fragmented yet captivating narrative examines the twin subjects of love and loss, readers are confronted with the ultimate feminist agenda of a woman’s right to choose, together with the numerous hurdles and dilemmas associated with it

Magda Cârneci’s FEM was first published in Romanian a decade ago (Cartea Românească, 2011) and reissued by Polirom in its popular “Top 10+” series in 2014. The novel was nominated for the annual award of the Romanian Writers’ Union, the Augustin Frăţilă Award, and for prestigious awards given by Radio România Cultural and the cultural weekly Observator cultural. Its first foreign translation, by Florica Courriol, was published in 2018 by Non Lieu in Paris, followed by Sean Cotter’s hot-off-the-press English version for Deep Vellum in 2021. In the short time since its publication, this English version has garnered well-deserved attention and praise, and in addition to receiving several high-profile reviews, it was Asymptote’s Book Club selection for June 2021.   

To date, this book is Cârneci’s only foray into the realm of full-length literary fiction, and what a debut it has been! It has received numerous accolades by major literary figures, Mircea Cărtărescu calling it “a protest novel” and Deborah Levy highlighting its “profound, mysterious” and emotionally gripping nature. Fiona Sampson reminds readers of the book’s “sensual yet also intellectually and politically charged” content and hails it as a work “that can change lives.” Literary critics have been equally generous. Alta Ifland’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books establishes a parallel with the work of Clarice Lispector, and there has been a notable tendency to welcome the book into the international feminist canon. Adina Diniţoiu points out the novel’s “initiatory” qualities, while Marius Mihet draws attention to its potential as a “psychedelic novel about the essences of femininity.”  

Cârneci is best known for her award-winning poetry. She is a member of the influential eighties generation in Romanian culture that includes internationally towering figures such as Mircea Cărtărescu and Matei Visniec.1 In fact, Cârneci is among the very few women writers on the male-dominated scene of contemporary Romanian literature. Romanian society has been and continues to be a predominantly patriarchal society, in which women’s roles are still likely to be defined along traditional gender lines. The work of important feminist scholars and activists such as Mihaela Miroiu, Maria Bucur, and Laura Grunberg has done a great to deal to challenge this status quo, and Cârneci joins them in this endeavour by deploying a literary, rather than overtly political, challenge. Her contribution is additionally significant seeing that she simultaneously subverts the formal purity of literary genres, introducing a fusion between poetry and prose that was seldom seen at the time and has since been taken up and practiced by several younger women authors.  

FEM is a work rooted in what Stefan Borbely calls “cruel and bewildering honesty,” written in a truly experimental format that blurs the boundaries between literary genres. In FEM, Cârneci adopts a lyrical tone and the perspective of a young female narrator, who tells the story of her life to a man she is on the cusp of leaving. She calls herself “a kind of Scheherazade” whose storytelling is captivating yet fragmented and modular, in keeping with the novel’s elegant postmodern style. Even though the story follows a chronological timeline from childhood to adulthood, the narration gains dreamlike and visionary qualities, juxtaposing details of mundane incidents with descriptions of life-changing events.

As a novel about the female experience par excellence, FEM addresses key aspects of becoming a woman, such as the protagonist’s first period and her indecision about having a child. These passages constitute pioneering discussions of such topics in Romanian literature, and rightly situate Cârneci’s prose among global feminist classics. Just as importantly, however, the novel is about intimacy and that unique relationship with another human being that is simultaneously sexual, sensual, loving, disappointing, and ultimately unbearable. As FEM’s highly stylized and meandering prose examines the twin subjects of love and loss, readers are confronted with the ultimate feminist agenda of a woman’s right to choose, together with the numerous hurdles and dilemmas associated with it. Sean Cotter’s elegant translation meaningfully punctuates this internal tension and brings to life a mesmerizing landscape of female desire and frustration.  

The novel fluctuates between passages in which the protagonist addresses her male partner and her reminiscences about her life, mainly in the first person and occasionally in third person narrative. Sections directly addressed to this man frame the book, thus positioning the protagonist as a modern-day mythical storyteller whose incursions into the past serve the poignant purpose of explaining the present and paving the way for her eventual decision to move on. Ultimately, this contemporary Scheherazade is bracing up not only to leave a particular partner but also to liberate herself from the shackles of a life lived on someone else’s terms, with a view to carve an alternate path for herself and start anew:

Darling, I needed to liberate my brain from these visions, to leave them behind, solidified. To leave them like the shells of odd, exotic snails, on the impersonal beach of memory detached from myself. To leave them behind like testimonies, like concrete proofs, on the yellow sand, fine and damp, on the shores of this deep world, this giant aquarium full of turbulent water, from which somehow, I do not know how, I might escape, might extract myself for a moment. I could toss myself onto the shore, onto the other side, to suffocate myself in the new air, in the too-pure ether, to feel like I might lose consciousness. To believe I have died. And then to find, I do not know how, that I escaped this shell for a moment, that I can rise, I can breathe again, I can fly. With another understanding, with another state of being. 

Cârneci’s work deserves wider international attention on the strength of this passage alone, and I can only hope that this beautifully crafted publication is just the beginning.


1. In June 2021, a discussion involving these three major figures was hosted by Miriam Balanescu as part of the Romanian Cultural Institute in London’s series of literary events “The 1980s’ Generation and the Republic of Literature” and is available here. A video of Cârneci reading from Sean Cotter’s translation of FEM as part of the Romania Rocks Festival in October 2020 can be viewed here.


Nurul Huda Hamzah

from the September 2021 issue

PEN International Celebrates 100 Years

PEN International, with 155 centers in more than 100 countries, celebrates its centennial this year with writers around the world who share a commitment to freedom of expression, to literature and the written word, and to each other. Its younger cousin Words Without Borders, launched in 2003, has translated into English and published over 2700 writers from 140 countries, translated from 126 languages.

Both organizations were founded in the wake of cataclysmic global events. PEN emerged in 1921 after the slaughter of World War I. Its founders included Catherine Amy Dawson Scott; PEN International’s first president, John Galsworthy; and other writers who acted on a simple notion—that if writers from different nations could meet and know each other, perhaps the nationalism that spawned the war could be reduced, and friendship among men and women of ideas could have a beneficial effect on their societies (and could also be fun).

PEN Clubs quickly emerged in Europe and North America and soon after in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Australia. The mission expanded from simply a social club into one of the first human rights organizations of the twentieth century. PEN members today not only gather for literary events in their home countries and internationally but also defend writers and the freedom to write worldwide. United by a charter that asserts literature knows no frontiers and should be shared freely, PEN also acts to protect languages and translation, to assist writers in exile, and to expand the space for writers in developing areas of the world. Galsworthy hoped PEN could become a “League of Nations for Men and Women of Letters.” Today PEN is the only literary organization with consultative status at the United Nations.

In 2003, soon after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Words Without Borders launched with a mission to translate literature from around the globe into English so that ideas could be shared and cultural understanding expanded. The Words Without Borders archive leads the field with the most literature translated into English, which it makes available for school classrooms through WWB Campus.

PEN and Words Without Borders, through their missions, members, and fellow writers, share a love for language, literature, and a connection to the world. Both celebrate the universal and the specific, the global and the local, with storytelling as the connecting membrane. Writers, readers, and citizens get to know each other through one another’s fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction, for stories evoke the empathy that binds us together as a planet.

Words Without Borders is dedicating part of this edition of its monthly magazine to the celebration of PEN International’s centenary. WWB has translated and is publishing here three works from three different regions of the world by writers who have a connection to both organizations.

Kettly Mars, president of PEN Haiti, notes, “Being part of the PEN family is a privilege, especially in these extremely troubled times in Latin America and the Caribbean. Speech is in danger, human dignity is in danger. The solidarity that connects us is essential for the struggle of writers, journalists, bloggers, and artists around the world who speak and testify for the voiceless.” She adds, “I found Words Without Borders a wonderful space for exchanging and connecting words. Our fellow (wo)man is within reach of words. The diversity of voices that the organization promotes opens the world’s literature to the world, in all its diversity, complexity, and beauty.”

Kettly Mars shares here an excerpt from her novel I Am Alive, translated from French by Nathan Dize. After the major earthquake in Haiti and the outbreak of cholera, an upper-class Haitian family must accept the return of their schizophrenic oldest son from an institution where he has been living for the past forty years. The shock, the silence, the buried emotions all must be faced by family members who in turn narrate the story, some in first person, others in close third. This excerpt focuses on Alexandre’s return home. The closely narrated family story speaks to the heartache felt by so many Haitians in the wake of the earthquake.

Turkish writer Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu had to leave Turkey because of her outspoken writing. A feminist activist, Nazlı founded the #MeToo movement within the Turkish publishing community. Her controversial gender and political stands resulted in threats, and she moved first to Georgia and then to Germany and now lives on a Writers-in-Exile scholarship from German PEN for 2021–2023. 

“In 2020, WWB published an excerpt from my novel, Elfiye, and my life forever changed,” she says. “Mina Hamedi of Janklow & Nesbit Associates reached out and became my agent. Simultaneously, the incredible translator I began working with for the excerpt, Ralph Hubbell, agreed to translate the entirety of my novel. Now, thanks to a partnership between WWB and PEN, yet another excerpt from Elfiye will be published soon. Not only have WWB and PEN supported me throughout this last year, but their efforts have also led to new, lifelong friendships in my life.”

Elfiye depicts the life of the lesbian title character from her teen years, when her outraged family arranges an exorcism, to her relationships in adulthood. In the excerpt here, "Tribades," translated from Turkish by Ralph Hubbell, Elfiye reencounters a former lover who has transitioned to male.

Mohammed (Med) Magani, who for a period lived in exile, has served as president of PEN Algeria and has also served two terms on PEN International’s board. He says, "Undeniably, owing to its long-standing commitment to publish world literature in translation, Words Without Borders shares with PEN International the same and ineradicable principle in defense of the double mission to protect freedom of expression and to create a world community of writers in all circumstances. Persecuted writers have found a keen sense of solidarity in PEN International that feeds on the deep-seated conviction to freeing stifled voices. As a writer in exile, with the help of PEN International, I enlarged my vision and experience of writing beyond national and local boundaries in conflicted times. Inasmuch as Words Without Borders offered me and other writers the precious opportunity to have our works translated and published in English, it multiplied the voices of literature in translation by spreading the words of the freedom of expression and of the right to creative freedom.”

Med’s “Treasures,” translated from French by Edward Gauvin, is an excerpt from his novel Un Étrange Chagrin. In the section featured here, a young bridegroom suddenly cancels his wedding just a few days before it is to take place, challenging the bride’s family position and the bride-to-be’s sense of herself and her own identity in society.

All three stories, set in different locations with different histories, explore the tender and troubled pathways of the heart as characters fall in and out of love and are bound to, then separated from, family. Intensely personal, the stories also reflect the social mores and anxieties of the societies in which the characters live.

© 2021 by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. All rights reserved.

Published as part of PEN International’s centenary celebrations, PEN International: An Illustrated History is available now from PEN and from the publisher, Interlink Books

Read more from the September 2021 issue
from the September 2021 issue

From I Am Alive

A wealthy Haitian family is thrown into chaos by an unexpected return in this excerpt from Kettly Mars's novel.

Grégoire knew that Alexandre would be coming home to live with them soon. He had a knack for this sort of thing. He had a knack for a lot of things, for as long as he could remember. He could've put money on it. But he never was a betting man. Everyone in the family trusted Grégoire’s intuition. Maybe the others thought about it too, sometimes––about Alexandre’s return––but in general, they spoke very little about Alexandre. Yet the idea of his return floated around in Grégoire’s head for a few months. So, in moments like these, he rationalized: “Under what improbable circumstances could Alexandre come home? For what unthinkable reason would he leave the Institution? How could they imagine the possibility of their brother’s presence in their midst?” This perspective was quite simply impossible. Alexandre had suffered from schizophrenia since adolescence and had lived inside the four walls of a psychiatric institution for more than forty years. What did they know about his life, about the voices that took away his reason and his speech, about the specters who, day after day, sealed his lips shut? How did he live in his own silent realm, on the very margins of life? What did he know about the wars throughout the world, about a Black man ascending to the rank of president of the United States of America, about the death of Michael Jackson? Did he know the name of the Pope in Rome, about gay marriage, about the internet and cell phones? He lived and breathed in the same city as they did, but their worlds had been separated for ages. The family no longer knew Alexandre, lost for so long in his illness. Forty years was hardly the same as forty days. There had been travels, studies, vacations, encounters, loves, marriages and divorces, births and deaths. There had been a whole life, a bundle of large and small moments that they hadn’t shared with Alexandre. The story of Alexandre was stuck in that golden afternoon, in that bizarrely tender moment when he left the shocked household with two nurses, stupefied by a shot of tranquilizer. Alexandre was an illness, an inconsolable regret, a tender but bitter memory, a veil not to be lifted. They preferred not to think about him nor speak of him. It was a way of avoiding the possibility of the impossible.


A fault line, to that point unknown to the island's geologists, ruptured on a Tuesday in January. January, that lovely time of the year, when the nights are cool and the stars appear like flecks of glass blown across the night sky. The houses on the Bernier family's property held up. No one died in their courtyard, thank God. The family could still communicate over the internet, and in the evening, the news exchanged hands between parents and friends in the rest of the world. But what of Alexandre? Grégoire tried without success to call the Institution. All of the telephone lines were blocked. Just like the city streets were blocked by monstrous traffic jams. The Institution called the following evening. Yes––everything was OK. The building had experienced a few jolts, but for the most part it managed to hold together––Alexandre had a few cuts and scrapes––a bookshelf had fallen––but nothing serious had happened. The head nurse spoke but Grégoire heard only a discordant echo, a subliminal message, the beginning of another story. The head nurse had nothing else to add, everything was fine. Grégoire sighed, but he couldn't tell whether it was a sigh of relief or of doubt.


The months went by. One October day, the media spoke of a few confirmed cases of cholera in the Artibonite River Valley, the river that runs through it and nourishes the fields and rice paddies of the Central Plateau like a flow of milk. The Artibonite isn’t just down the road. But the epidemic traveled quickly. And a few weeks later, when Grégoire saw the Institution's number appear on the screen of his cellphone, he felt that another earthquake was about to shake up their lives. The Institution only called once a month, on the last day of the month, to give brief updates on Alexandre. Always the same. He was in good health, he was generally fine apart from his cholesterol levels, which tended to be slightly elevated. It was the beginning of December. The Institution never called at the beginning of the month. Never. Grégoire listened to the words on the other end of the line, and he understood the meaning of every single word the medical director told him. This time the message was crystal clear, but he couldn't find meaning in what was said. Wracked with emotions, his brain refused to register the information he received. A slight tremor overtook his body, from head to toe, and tiny drops of sweat glistened on his forehead. At the end of the conversation he took a few minutes to steady his hands, then he called Marylène and Gabrielle, his two sisters, telling them to meet him at their mother Éliane's house that very afternoon. It was better to tell the old woman the news in person; with her heart condition, they had to be careful. He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and sponged his brow. Despite the shock of the news, Grégoire felt strangely relieved. The catastrophe had befallen him; he needn't wait for it any longer.


Forty-eight hours. They only had forty-eight hours to pick Alexandre up from the Institution. To bring him home forever. That much was clear, especially since there were no other private mental institutions in the capital, and the outdated public institutions were simply not an option. Given the current state of affairs in the country, one had to get creative and rely on solidarity in order to satisfy everyone's most basic needs. This new, unique, unexpected test required them to pool their energy and give their unadulterated attention to an emergency that touched them so profoundly. The medical director left no sense of doubt––the Institution was closing permanently. One of the boarders was sick with cholera and the Institution didn't have the means to handle a full-fledged outbreak within its walls; they had neither the space nor the personnel necessary to manage a quarantine. To make matters even worse, the medical director informed everyone that the earthquake had cracked the foundation of the old house, according to the recent evaluation performed by the specialized Hashimoto firm. For three months, the continuous aftershocks had weakened the structure and the residents were no longer safe. Soon, the Institution would need to be torn down. All of the boarders needed to leave and return to their families. Grégoire couldn't help but think spitefully that the aging medical director had finally found his golden opportunity to retire.

A few hundred yards from the Institution, the family could hear the muffled hum of the car engines and motorcycles that perpetually clogged the streets. Jackhammers and backhoes rumbled as well. In the refuge of Fleur-de-Chêne, it was hard to imagine all of those crumbling houses waiting to be destroyed, the mix of humans and machines. It was hard to imagine the many lives clustered together under tents in every nook and cranny of the city capable of accommodating makeshift shelters for displaced persons––people who would continue living like this for quite some time.

Livia finished serving coffee and was in no hurry to leave. She felt the intensity of the moment, the weight of the silences between each sentence. Something serious had happened to the Bernier family. She was sure of it. She had been with them through rough times like when one of Madame Gabrielle's twins was in a car accident, the kidnapping of Grégoire's second wife, Madame Béatrice, and even the death of Monsieur Francis, the head of the family, last year. But this time the reverberations came to the family in a different way. The danger had no name, not yet. The tiny metal spoons clanked against the insides of the hot china. They all drank their coffee, even Éliane, in spite of her blood pressure. They sat in the garden conversing in short and lively phrases, their tense little exchanges collided with one another. They looked at one another with disbelief lurking in their eyes. They still hadn't surmounted the invisible wall that stood before them. They evaluated it mentally. They skirted the issue at hand, superficially addressing it, asking each other about it, evoking it. They were at a loss. The day was the same as any other, a cool and bright December afternoon where the first breezes of the precocious evening caused the thick foliage of the old oaks to tremble in the courtyard. Grégoire was speaking, repeating the medical director's words as he ran his hands through his unkempt, graying hair. He cleared his throat before each sentence, as if he was trying to expel a cold. He did that when he was nervous. Marylène and Gabrielle listened to him attentively, glancing from time to time at the closed expression on Éliane's face. Sophia could not avert her eyes from Marylène's stare, all the while thinking that Grégoire really needed to go to the barber. Jules robotically smoothed the sharp crease in his black pants.


The old woman was shaken to the depths of her soul. At eighty-six years old, Éliane had to stand up and confront her own private nightmare. Her chest rose with greater effort than usual and her lips were stiff, a sign of great anxiety for her. Luckily her children were there, all around her. They were just as shaken, but they were present and attentive. Her children, who had not been children for quite some time. She glanced at Grégoire's graying temples, his protruding belly, his ever-escaping shirttails. She saw Sophia, Grégoire’s impeccably coiffed third wife, and the stretch marks in her cleavage, her straight lower body and generous upper body, with luscious lips, a nose with flared nostrils, and eyebrows that met in the middle. She observed Marylène's closely-cropped white hair, her eyes fringed with heavy lashes, her strong nose, her thick, stubborn, curled lips, her face without makeup. She didn’t look like anyone in the family except perhaps Irène, one of Francis's spinster aunts who died at the age of one hundred, lucid. With age, Marylène had gradually lost her feminine traits, her appearance mattered to her less and less, and she wore work clothes stained with paint practically all the time. It was quite possible that she did this on purpose to annoy everyone else. Old Éliane’s gaze lingered on Gabrielle's wild mane, the mass of hair she was so proud of, and on her square fingernails––her perfect manicure à la française. Marylène and Gabrielle were like night and day, two sisters as dissimilar as two sisters could ever be. And she saw Jules, the radiologist son-in-law, athletic and elegant with his ponytail held up by a rubber band, trying his best to not appear jealous of his beloved wife, Gabrielle, eighteen years his junior. Nearly old, them too, thought the old woman. But Éliane remained the mother, the one who always acted first, the one who always had the ideas, the one who found the solutions. She grappled with her emotions. She faced her fears. She went to battle. They had to pick up Alexandre, her son wandering in the twists and turns of madness, her son who had once threatened her with a butcher's knife, her son whom she had lost for more than forty years, her son of so much love and so much pain.


Leaning over him, she watches him sleep. Grégoire brought him back about an hour ago. The car ride was physically difficult for Alexandre, who constantly pulled at the seat belt Grégoire had buckled for him. The spectacle of crumbled houses and people huddled under tents in the streets made his skin crawl. Too many people in the street, too many stares that wouldn’t let go of him––eyes that begged from inside broken walls. Alexandre brought with him just one little suitcase and a feeling of confusion accentuated by a supplementary dose of medication before his departure from the Institution. Just after settling into the little house, he stretched out on the bed in his room and, without even taking off his shoes, immediately fell into a deep sleep. He didn’t seem interested in his surroundings, the house that smelled of fresh paint, the black and white pebbles that paved the ground outside the front door. He barely looked at Ecclésiaste, the employee who would be at his service from now on and who, himself, seemed quite shaken. He did not notice any of that. He just sought out his bed as though it was an abyss he could sink into. Éliane's heart beats wildly, her legs are weak, she holds a tight grip on her cane to keep her balance. Forty-two years, three months, and eighteen days was the length of his absence. And he came back one year, to the very day, after Francis died. My God, what message are you sending me? Alexandre has thinning gray hair like his father’s, a little bit of a gut, and skinny arms and legs. He doesn’t look like he’s in good health; his skin is pale. His lips droop to the side of his mouth where he’s missing a tooth. He was the only one who called her Éliane. A fantasy or a privilege that would not have been acceptable from the other children. When he said “Éliane,” he touched her where her wrists and knees weakened, where her heart melted. He reestablished the right to love her without measure, and that didn’t involve anyone else. Not even his father. He is almost an old man in her eyes, a body exhausted by illness, a body that never knew maturity and fulfillment––a fresh fruit that has faded. She is the mother of an old man. Does he still know who she is? Will he even recognize her after all this time? Should she be afraid of him even though Dr. Durand-Franjeune says that he no longer has violent outbursts, that the years and years of medication have broken the inner workings of his illness and filled in the cracks of his being? This makes her tremble. Does he remember the little boy who ran after her in the shimmering light of the oaks? Éliane felt the weight of old age on her shoulders like a heap of lead.

Even though Éliane will soon exit the room, Alexandre opens his eyes and looks all around him. He runs his hands over his face once, twice, three times, as if he could somehow change the scenery, and return to the Institution, to the life from which he had just been torn. He just went through an ordeal, the scale of which was overwhelming. He's feeling an emotion beyond fear, worse than a threat to his life. All the voices in his head go wild. A feeling of pure panic, like the one he tried to escape by running incessantly around the concrete pillar of the living room of the Institution. But here it was, the pillar was deep in the abyss, he saw it there and it must have weighed tons. He could never bring it back and replant it in the middle of his life. He doesn’t recognize the colors around him—they are too fresh, too lively. He’s somewhere else. He’s lost. The stench of the wet paint smacks him in the face, the odor is like a wall he's run into. Where are the others? Where are Joseph and Miss Laurette and Maria? Where are his friends, Gogo and Samuel? He hears the birds singing and fluttering in the trees outside and thinks about the cookies in his pocket. That is, if birds haven't stolen them from him. He'll have to kill the birds, all of them. This is not the Institution, and his legs feel the need to run and jump over the walls, but his legs feel weighed down, heavy. A herd of voices gallops through his head, causing him pain. He sees a woman with white hair leaning over him, looking at him intensely; he smells her perfume, he can hear her beating heart. The old woman can no longer leave. She is stunned and cannot run away, her knees are about to give. Alexandre sees her in the bright light that passes through the glass slats in the little window above his bed. The galloping stops for an instant, just an instant. He looks at her for a few seconds, for what feels like an eternity, and says, “Éliane?”

From I Am Alive. Translated by Nathan H. Dize. Forthcoming, with a foreword by Kaiama L. Glover, in Fall 2022 from the University of Virginia Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Read more from the September 2021 issue
from the September 2021 issue


In this excerpt from a novel by Algeria's Mohamed Magani, folk tales foreshadow a family's sorrow.

In the middle of an interior facade sunken in abiding shadow hung a water-swollen goatskin lashed to an iron rod. It wept lazy droplets into a broad, flat-edged metal saucer. Safe from prying eyes, stray cats and dogs, birds, rats, parched snakes and scorpions came by turns to slake their thirst at this ganglion that with the start of high summer became an unstinting wellspring through the attentions of Sefwane’s father, who saw to it daily that all God’s creatures, whether locals or just passing through by, drank their fill. Never, said Sefwane, had a member of his family been bitten or stung. His father died, mourned by his mule, which refused its fodder and passed away shortly thereafter. Sefwane swore he’d seen tears fall from the animal’s eyes.

One month before his daughter was to wed, Sefwane, who never spoke of things that had been, shared this scrap of the past with her. The memory had suddenly risen up from the depths of his own tender childhood years.

The daughter was touched by her grandfather’s humanity. Sefwane continued to rattle off memories from his childhood, noticing that they soothed her, procured her moments of respite from the apprehensions and uncertainties of her imminent new life. Having exhausted his personal memories, he moved on to tales and legends heard from grandparents, parents, grownups from the greater family. The days flew by; but a dozen and his daughter would be wed; she was showing signs of anxiety. Sefwane thought then of all those contemporary fables picked up here and here, at a café among friends or strangers who claimed to have heard them from the horse’s mouth. Subjects of frequent discussion, familiar at the end of the blood-soaked ‘90s, such contemporary stories, would-be fairy tales, spread through society like a final balm on the wounds of a dark decade. He began with the following fable:


In a hamlet perched on a plateau, a man and a woman lived in poverty. A thatch-roofed hut with walls of mud provided their only shelter, and a donkey their only keep. The man used the animal to transport goods and earn money. All they had in the world was this means of subsistence. One evening in April, three men armed to the teeth came, kicked in his door, and ordered him outside. He rushed to obey, falling before them with fear in his belly and panic in his eye. He knew nothing good could come, night or day, of such unexpected guests, who left slaughter, terror, and misery in their wake. But he was soon reassured: they wished him no harm and required no payment of any kind. They simply wanted his donkey. He surrendered it to them, along with the saddlebags, into which his visitors stuffed six big black plastic bags and then vanished into the darkness that now covered the land. Mute with fear, and without the slightest hint of curiosity, the man hastened to hide himself away in his hut. Once he had told his wife what happened, she asked him many questions about what was in the bags. The only description the man could supply was of their size and the strings that tied them tight. He never saw the three men again; they had disappeared for good. But the next day, the donkey found its way home in the hours before dawn, wandering through an untended wheatfield amid a riot of spring wildflowers, still laden with saddlebags and plastic bags alike as its owner looked on, dumbfounded.

The contents of these plastic bags proved, for the man and the woman, a source of profound stupefaction mingled with joy and fear. Bundles of a thousand dinars cascaded from the upended bags. The man and the woman had the presence of mind to bury the spoils in a hole inside their shabby hut, and soon forgot all about the source of their windfall. Now that safety had returned to their lives, those lives turned upside down. They built a big house and bought the surrounding land. As for the donkey, it was treated to a luxurious barn equipped with such amenities as heating and air conditioning. After all, it had slaved away for them as both ox and donkey.

All the fairy tales of the civil war, with or without the contribution of a donkey, prominently featured the spontaneous enrichment of simple folk after a series of singular events. Armed men would show up at someone’s house—usually someone retiring, honest, and unassuming—pass on trash bags full of jewels and banknotes, the gains of extortion and plunder in God’s name, and order that someone to keep the bags until they returned on a day yet to be determined. Many times, the bags’ owners never returned from the war, slain or fallen in an ambush or a skirmish with security forces. The safekeepers never saw them again. They kept quiet about the spoils in their possession, resorting to them when the just exercise of their patience seemed to them to have reached its reasonable limit. Beneficiaries of manna fallen from heaven, they went on to enjoy the affluent lives made possible by the money and jewels.

Rumor named them. Sefwane cited these names to his daughter, and she was surprised to hear among them those of three families she knew—families of friends, even—but at the same time, she was indignant to discover that these families owed their fortunes to men with bags and ropes, men who were, moreover, true believers with lethal convictions about the uncrossable line between good and evil. Her father nodded. She told him she was happy to belong to a family that led a comfortable life free of suspicion of theft or dishonesty. Sefwane nodded again, his face awash in utter agreement. He did not neglect to reassure his daughter about her immediate future: she was about to join an honorable family, safe from want, well-to-do long before the advent of the civil war and its fables. Her future held exhilarating possibilities.

His daughter Yesma could dream of everything a girl of eighteen springs might dream of. Mainly, a husband just one year older, accommodating and open to her plans for the future. With his approval, she had chosen the school of life first, and would be free to resume her studies in biology whenever she wished. One subject impassioned her above all else: the preservation of the Saharan bee, a species threatened by the introduction of the Tunisian bee into its natural habitat. Astonishing creature, the Saharan bee! They could travel up to six miles in search of red date trees whereas Tunisian bees had a range of barely two. Yesma, a jujube tree unto herself, would need no easy money; in her future awaited no laden donkey, bearer of a treasure from the civil war’s most wondrous fairy tale. Her father approved of her resolve and told her the very last from the series of fables of troubled times, the one that brought them to an end, stripped them of all wonder, and called down the intervention of powers far greater than man. The wife of a wealthy informer who had gone underground due to his faith and then resurfaced filthy rich, a convert to commercialism tinged with religion, asked her husband to reserve a Turkish bath for just the two of them. Money opens all doors, and closes them too. Once they were naked in the steam room, she asked him for two hundred dinars, to be handed over at once. Obviously, he could not comply, and told her he didn’t have his jacket at hand. His wife insistently demanded the sum from her flabbergasted husband. Finally she said, “When Judgment Day comes, this is how you will appear before God. You will have nothing on you, nothing.” With these words, Sefwane concluded the tales of the cycle of terror and wealth joined by a reminder of divine justice. He had then turned that day to an album of family photos and begun to leaf through it with Yesma by his side. From one snapshot to the next, they noticed details amusing and unusual, recalling their context, and then Yesma’s finger came to rest on a photo in which she appeared, a faint smile floating on her face. Pensive yet serene, her penetrating gaze was fixed on a point beyond the camera’s lens, some imperceptible thing. She tapped the photo and said, “When I am dead, this is the photo of me I want you to keep.”

He had no time to react, or even grasp the meaning of his daughter’s words. Yesma’s two faithful friends had just arrived, at the same hour as the previous evening, and the evenings before that, since the school year started. They had begun studying biology and were no doubt reporting to Yesma the salient facts of their new experience as students. Sefwane would hear the three young women laughing, and no one in the house dared disturb them or interfere with their time together except to bring them fruit and cakes. As he carefully pried the photo of his daughter loose from the album, he noted, that night, a rare silence from her room. It lasted for a good forty-five minutes. His ear barely made out the murmur of hushed voices. At last, the two visitors reappeared and headed for the exit, silent and serious, in something of a hurry to leave. Yesma remained in her room. Sefwane fell in step behind her two friends. He had pocketed the photo and intended to have it enlarged and framed so he could find a fitting place for it in the living room or hang it in the hallway. He would also have it shrunk to a wallet-sized print he could carry around with him. 

He came back from the photographer’s to find Yesma hadn’t left her room. He knocked on the door and heard his daughter almost scream: I want to be alone! Uncertain, he waited outside the door until his wife waved him over to join her in the kitchen. She didn’t understand, she told him. Yesma refused to see anyone. And that must certainly have had something to do with the visit from her two friends. Nor would she let her two brothers into her room. Sefwane gathered his family for a summit: under no circumstances was his daughter to be disturbed. It was just under a week till the ceremony, and no word could be allowed to leak out about abnormal behavior from a girl about to be married.

Two days later, his daughter’s friends returned, spent less than half an hour in her room, then took their leave with the same haste, their faces suffused with a somber gravity. Yesma persisted in her isolation as if overcome by a sudden desire to dissociate herself from her own family. She avoided all contact and would not open her door to anyone, refusing to eat or change clothes. With the certainty of the marriage up in the air and incomprehension increasing, anxiety crept through the household, obliterating all signs, expressions, and indications of preparations for an imminent celebration. A palpable unease set in among the occupants and neighbors come to help them and share in their joy. The two friends came back one last time. The girls disappeared behind closed doors even longer than ever before.  Shortly after they left, Sefwane came home, his daughter’s gift-wrapped portrait under one arm and a smaller photo of her in his wallet. His wife stopped him short in his rush to show Yesma the framed photo. She steered him to their bedroom, shut the door behind them, and brought him up to date on the latest developments concerning Yesma’s marriage. Her face wan with pain, she did her best to speak calmly. His legs cut right out from under him, Sefwane dropped to the bed, on the verge of passing out. He took his head in his hands, as if to howl.

“The wedding will not take place—not in a week, or ever,” his wife said. The pronouncement of catastrophe, true or false, came from her daughter’s close friends. Yesma’s former husband-to-be had made the irrevocable resolution not to get married, without giving any explanation. He had first announced the news to their two mutual friends, the biology students who often visited Yesma. Tasked with conveying his decision, they had first tried to change his mind, make him aware of the pain she would suffer, her and her family. The last three times they’d been to see him, they’d been messengers involved in a situation already settled to one party, so utterly did the young man dismiss all possibility of going back on his decision. Sefwane recovered his wits and then calmly went over the facts as if to convince someone else, an incredulous onlooker. His wife repeated what his daughter’s friends had said. She had intercepted them when they came out of the room and begged them to tell her why Yesma had locked herself away and would not speak to anyone but them. They had the hardest time in the world revealing the brutal truth to her—the cancellation of the marriage—without being able to explain.

The parents left their bedroom and headed straight for their daughter’s. They found her sitting on the floor, curled up in the corner to the left of the door. Her face exuded despair. She was a shadow of herself, the light gone out of her eyes. She was a ghost of herself, in a loose white dressing gown that hung from her like a shroud. Sefwane and his wife helped her to her feet and laid her down on the bed. “We know,” he said. Yesma burst into sobs. “Every time a door closes,” her mother said. “You can go back to your studies. You have all the time in the world to get married.” “It’s too late for this year,” Yesma said. “More than a trimester has already gone by.” Her two brothers came running and learned at once of the unhappy reversal that had just befallen the family. Sefwane wanted to know if anything, a quarrel, some event, a misunderstanding, a mistake, had set the fiancés against each other. “Nothing, nothing at all,” his daughter maintained. A heavy silence immured all present in embarrassment; they wished to speak of their distress, their grief. The father forced himself to remain quiet, although he was tempted to voice his doubts as to the cancellation of the marriage since the boy’s family had announced nothing of the sort.

The next day, in the hour after breakfast, he received confirmation of the boy’s unthinkable about-face from his father, who called him on the telephone and melted into a thousand apologies and pleas: he didn’t know what his son was thinking, to have become fiercely hostile to the idea of marriage overnight. He then asked after the fate reserved for the groom’s dowry and launched straight into insisting on the jewels being returned. Sefwane hung up that very instant and let out an oath; he no longer wanted anything to do with that man or his family. The jewels will pay for the humiliation we have suffered, he thought. Pleas to recover the jewels and take back the dowry ran smack into Sefwane’s disdain and inflexibility but above all those of his wife. He had trouble accepting the other father’s powerlessness to influence his son and force him to wed. A “respectable family,” the former future husband readying to take the reins of his father’s business. Sefwane’s daughter and their son had been seeing each other since high school; everyone knew about their discreet relationship and considered them already husband and wife. This breakup on the eve of marriage, even were it their son’s doing, could not have come from him alone without injunction or consent from the head of the family, or at his instigation.

The why of the cancellation had yet to be determined. Sefwane went over the criticism the boy’s father might have had of him. The two men knew and liked each other, had coffee together now and then, discussing business and supporting each other when needed, in one way or another. The union of the two families grew clearer, stronger, with their every encounter. When asked to intervene, Sefwane had activated his network of acquaintances. When called upon to give his opinion and arbitrate, he had always sided with his friend without failing to enumerate his wrongdoings in private. What of his family, then? What fault could be found with them? Sefwane opened up to his wife, who told him to forget the whole thing and think of his children’s future. He could not bring himself to accept the facts and locked himself up at home, brooding over the dire fate that had struck his family. When he was not with his daughter, trying to cheer her up, he spent most of his time in his room, pretending to be engrossed in the pile of newspapers one son or another had brought him.

Leaning over the pages, he remembered that he had once taught drawing in elementary school, felt pleasure in guiding those little hands. It hadn’t been so long ago. He recalled his colleagues: some of them had given up teaching when the village school had gone up in smoke. Others had stuck to it and conducted class in impromptu shacks. He appreciated their company in a small town that communicated so little with the outside world, deprived of meeting places apart from two cafés. They had confided their dreams to one another, his own consisting of sliding into pigeon keeping, raising messenger birds atop the mountain that overlooked the village. Within his family, his daughter Yesma had a soft spot for Saharan bees. Two decades earlier, he had nurtured the ambition of ushering his village out of isolation with pigeons. Deep down in their hearts, father and daughter alike had kept the hope alive of serving a cause without asking anything in return.

In an initial display of social withdrawal, Sefwane spent his days cloistered at home. The humiliation, silence from family members, the prying eyes of neighbors come to ask after them—these formed a conspiracy that forced him to shut himself away. It permeated the air and water in the house. In the evening, he stepped out for an hour or two into a capital city where the absence of nightlife was perfectly suited to his soul tormented by his daughter’s misfortune. Seeing to his affairs came to a brusque halt: he no longer had the heart to host festivities in the banquet hall he owned. After a dozen or so difficult days, he informed his family of his next trip to his home village. A simple inspection of the first house they had had as a family, where Yesma and their first boy had been born. He also planned to do a few small repairs as needed, make it look less like a place that had been abandoned, keep rust from devouring the locks. The night before he left, he spoke day and night with Yesma, doing his utmost to convince her to come with him. For a long time she remained undecided, then announced her desire to stay in Algiers and think about other life paths. Sefwane took these words as evidence of a positive attitude and refrained from insisting further. 

Setting to work as soon as he arrived, he tackled housekeeping by dusting and cleaning all surfaces, horizontal and vertical, with soapy water, rags, a broom, and a sponge. Next he polished all the furniture until it shone. At four in the afternoon, he sat down in an armchair and beheld the fruit of his labors over the last three hours, what he’d accomplished in one fell swoop. The house was only a single story—so much the better, thought Sefwane. He wouldn’t have had the strength to go on had there been another floor, as was the case with most of the new houses in this village and beyond: they all had upper levels and garages pressed into service as places of business. His house would lose neither its traditional charm nor the features his family had known. He plugged in the TV and allowed himself a little nap; for years now, a barely visible screen and murmuring sound had exerted a restful influence upon him. He waited until night had fallen to go out and wondered when he would be able to shed this recent habit. On previous trips back, it had been his custom to meet up with a circle of childhood friends—teachers, municipal and postal employees—after cleaning the house from top to bottom. This time, crippling indecision led him to delay seeing them.

Darkness smoothed the final pallor of day. Sefwane avoided familiar streets and walked, the despondency he’d left behind in Algiers dominating his thoughts. But how else could it be?  The issue of the canceled marriage sprang forth from walls and ceiling. That was how it would be for a while to come, he feared; his daughter’s ordeal had tarnished the splendid prospects she had quite innocently believed in. Something in Sefwane rebelled: “Yesma is young, less than twenty springs! All she has to do is move to a new neighborhood in Algiers and she’ll find her footing again. Every family member has to pitch in: together, they’ll create joy and the desire for happiness around her. The total eclipse of hope in her life was but a passing thing. She would gain confidence, and time would play its part as a great healer.” For a moment his chest swelled with a surge of hope, and he began to hum as he walked down the deserted street. “S'hab el baroud,” a celebratory song that loudspeakers played in wedding venues, that his daughter and her friends had danced to when they took part in the festivities. The song dwindled as he neared a grocery, no doubt the only one still open. Sefwane wanted cheese and some yogurt. To his great surprise, he ran into an old acquaintance inside. The two men emerged from the store rattling off memories from youth and young manhood as they walked. Then his friend from the village informed him of the arrival of a stranger of a certain age who had been discreetly asking questions about him two weeks or so ago. Sefwane showed outward surprise, surmising his identity right away: the father of his daughter’s ex-fiancé, or else his envoy, sent with a specific task.

The would-be in-laws owed it to themselves to conduct a prenuptial investigation of his hometown, birthplace of himself and his parents, a classic approach aimed at avoiding any unpleasant surprises and ensuring the good reputation of the other party in the new joining of families. Sefwane, however, had eschewed this preliminary step, for his first and final impression of his son-in-law’s father had sufficed to forge a favorable opinion. The second thing he had been told that night in the village where he was born plunged him into restive perplexity, like a troubled and unsettled slumber.

According to the former acquaintance he’d run into at the grocery, a second wave of fables from the civil war, less fecund in wonder, had spread after the stranger’s appearance. Rumor had it that beneficiaries of manna fallen from the sky who refused to return the spoils were paying with their lives. There were three such in the village already, and all awaited the next. In Sefwane’s case, people wondered where he had gotten the money to open up a banquet hall in Algiers. Sefwane reiterated the unimpeachable source of his funds without going into details well-known to friends, neighbors, and everyone, he thought. The revelations broke off; the man he’d met at the grocery checked his watch and took his leave, in a hurry to return home. Sefwane continued on his way, convinced he wouldn’t run into anyone else he knew because everyone tended to head home early. As in the capital, towns and villages across the land had a sort of self-imposed mental curfew, and only when such a barrier was crossed would the page indeed be turned on the dark decade. He pushed on to the edge of the village while, as it had been doing for years, an artificial fog formed and spread, born of dust from the many aggregate quarries along the vast dorsal flank of the mountain, so very close by.

All around him, the shapes of things became fluid, unreal, uncertain. Sefwane reached the final buildings, well beyond the former public dump dug into a deep crater, once a reservoir of quenching water for humans and animals. He returned to the very spot where, in the shadow of a wall one night in the year 2000, he had glimpsed a dark mass advancing behind a moving shadow. He saw the scene again now like something from a film noir. The absolute secret enclosed in the final, impenetrable folds of his existence had just been born.

From Un Etrange Chagrin. © 2021 by Mohamed Magani. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.

Read more from the September 2021 issue
from the September 2021 issue


Former lovers meet unexpectedly and confront the truth of their breakup in this excerprt from Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu's novel Elfiye.

As Elfiye opened the door she turned her head slowly to tell the one behind her how much of a mess the house was. “Sorry, hon,” she muttered once they were inside, and closed the door. They stepped right into the living room, since the apartment didn’t have a hallway, and her guest went to the window to open the curtains. He turned to Elfiye: “What a lovely walnut tree!” he said. Elfiye had already taken her jacket off and gone into the kitchen. “Ah, yes,” she said. “You have no idea the kind of fight I put up to keep the people in this building from having that tree cut down. Apparently, it blocks the view. It would be a sin to cut down a beautiful tree like that.” She took a deep breath and asked: “What are we drinking?”

They sat across from one another in two dark green velvet armchairs, staring wistfully, wine glasses in hand. Elfiye raised hers: “To you, then. We drink to Emir!” she said. He smiled. Elfiye knew that smile; the wry grin of someone who’s finally won after suffering a string of defeats. As the smile faded from Emir’s face, they fell silent for a time; the mutual anxiety of two friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. Eventually, Emir said, “I’ve been keeping up with your poetry. You’re pretty good.”

Elfiye stared at her glass. Emir continued: “But you were always good,” he said, “You always shined. I always believed in your talent. And you haven’t disappointed.”

Elfiye lifted her eyes from her glass and looked at the person across from her. How long had it been, fifteen years? Twelve? Or was it sixteen? The way he looked at her, his attitude and air, it was just the same. He’d gained some weight. But that’s normal, she thought. His voice is just a little deeper. It warmed her to realize that his facial expressions hadn’t changed. She stood up, replenished the wine glasses, and sat back down across from her guest. She lifted her glass again. “Once more to Emir!” she said. Now he smiled fully. “That’s right,” she said. “Emir deserves two of these!”

A few hours earlier, well before the afternoon changed to evening, Elfiye had been walking along the coast road in Yeniköy. The strong Bosphorus wind had disheveled her hair, her nose turned red because she’d been walking so fast, and she was thirsty. As the road veered inland, she noticed a small café up ahead with a green iron-framed storefront window and the word gelato written across it in small gilt lettering. She rushed toward the café and, handing her change over the top of the ice cream display, asked, “Can I get a water?” A silhouette stirred inside the darkness and stood there looking at Elfiye before extending a bottle of water to her. Taking it, Elfiye said, “Thank you,” then left her change on the counter and turned away. “Enjoy,” a voice said, and she spun back around at the sound of it. Her heart had jumped into her throat, and for a minute she stood there scanning her memory; she knew that voice, it was unforgettable. Its owner plunged back into the darkness and came out of a door somewhere behind the store, and when he stood in front of Elfiye she realized who it was.

“It’s been a while,” she said softly.

“Yeah,” he said. “It wasn’t exactly a pleasant breakup.”

She saw that he was still embarrassed and felt sorry for him. Without a second thought, she put her hand on his arm and asked when he was getting off work. Did he want to go somewhere to sit and talk? Her friend disappeared around the back of the café, then a few minutes later rejoined her. They didn’t talk until the taxi pulled up to her home.

Now, in her apartment, Elfiye knew she somehow had to broach the subject but she was afraid of offending him, so she asked about his mother and his siblings, and if there was any news about what their old mutual friends had been up to. Then she talked for a long time about her own life and explained her situation at the university. By the time the conversation turned to politics they realized they’d finished a bottle of wine, and they wound their way around the things they should have been discussing by talking instead about Turkey and the July 15 coup. 



Untwisting the corkscrew from the cork of a new bottle of wine, Emir scowled. “Does this country do anything right?” he said, sticking the cork back. “You can cultivate a beautiful flower, dedicate your whole life to it, and the first night that flower blooms the state shows up and stomps on it. They’ll crush it just like they’ve crushed us.”

Taking the glass from Emir, Elfiye got up the nerve to break her silence. “I am so sorry for not being there for you when things got really difficult.” 

Emir opened the window. The fresh Bosphorus air filled the room, urging her on a little more. “I know, it was all so ridiculous,” she said. “But I was a child. I mean, I had to be. I don’t know if the fact that I was only twenty-three changes anything, but I did my best at the time. Still, I shouldn’t have just left you all alone like that.” She went over to the window and stood beside her guest. She lit two cigarettes and gave him one.

“It took me years to figure out where I fit into things. To be able to look at everything from a distance, to forget what I’d gone through. And while I was paying the price for my sins—you remember that’s what my mother called it, a sin—I hung you out to dry. I abandoned you. I didn’t see that there was someone else inside you. I was clueless. You did this on your own, and for how many years?” She brought her cigarette to her lips and pulled it away. “What I want to say to you is that there are things I’ve collected over the years but none of them hold any meaning anymore. I always used to imagine that if we came across each other one day I’d turn my head and walk right past you. That’s how angry I was. What I’d imagined has come true, but I can’t be angry because I feel guilty about deserting you.” Elfiye took a deep breath and fell silent.

Emir sat back down in the armchair: “Slow down,” he said to Elfiye. “First of all, I also needed almost ten years to understand all this. I’m talking about the ten years after we broke up. You aren’t responsible there. Expecting you to understand me would have been a huge mistake because I was having trouble just understanding myself. These are long processes. Long and hard. In that respect, I wasn’t expecting anything from you at all. This was my issue.”

“Expecting or not, I needed to stay your friend somehow and be there for you.”

“I don’t think that sort of thing should be an obligation,” Emir said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you nitpick over a slight, not when it took me ten years just to prepare for the questions psychiatric services would ask me when I started an application.”

“I guess I just think that there needs to be a collective network of hope and support for these things, rather than an individual one. I mean, whether it’s this person or that, we have to support them, you know?”

“Whatever you do in Turkey, you do it alone. You really think that if you’d been there for me that would have made any difference? Wearing what the state wants you to wear is no one’s business but your own. Here, you don’t have anyone. Here, you’ll always be alone.”

Elfiye crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and sat on the floor with her back against Emir’s chair. It would be easier to talk to him that way, without looking at him. “So, it needs to be shattered, right? Changed? That isolation?”

“Look, darling,” Emir said, and when he said darling he became the lover that Elfiye remembered. “We’ve more or less always had the Other. Had. Physically, mentally, economically, socially, pick your category. We’ve always had the Other and we always will. You know how society defines the other—I mean the criteria it puts in place in order for someone to be declared the other. You’re dealing with this stuff too. With a no-win situation like that, is your war going to be with society or yourself? Who are you up against? And which comes first? What are we trying to defeat and who are we going to shout our victory cry at? It’s called breaking free from society, declaring yourself before they declare you the other. And it’s not just about going against society, but against your family and your friends . . . . But not standing up to them. I mean your attitude and demeanor, the anxiety of proving something . . . . On that point, you’re all alone. Even if you’ve got the world’s most beautiful woman on your arm. This isn’t just a social challenge, it’s a revolt against the established order.”

“This,” Elfiye said. “It’s a reconstruction of the world as you know it. Using nothing but your body.”

When people come together after all the years that separated them, are they hoping for the ability to embrace, to feel, to—perhaps—make love, to look each other in the eyes just as before? For Elfiye and Emir, that was it. After ten years without any contact, what they missed were the hugs they’d shared on the French balcony and the pleasure of reliving a tiny aspect of those embraces and experiencing that nostalgia—the sense that something that was good then can still be good now, while the bad things of the past aren’t bad anymore because it’s difficult to recollect them. Elfiye grabbed the arm of the chair she was leaning against, picked herself up from the floor, and buried her face in Emir’s chest. Beneath the hand that caressed her arched back she became the Elfiye on the French balcony again; in the excitement of fondling another woman, in the anxiety of being shamed and in the comfort of sheltering in one who knows her as she is. Her hands are still so small, Elfiye thought.

“If it doesn’t hurt you or make you uncomfortable, there’s something I want to ask,” Elfiye said. “And please, if you don’t want to answer, know that I won’t ever feel bad about it. But why did you choose the name Emir?”

The hands stroking her hair suddenly stopped; then, as they began to move again toward her neck, she heard Emir’s voice: “Ever since I was born, my mother would say that if I was born a boy she’d have named me Murat. But I’m not Murat. Right when I started my hormone treatment I met this woman at work; she was like a mentor to me, she’d teach me how to do my job but talk to me too. You remember that I continued at Starbucks after we broke up, right? She was a manager there. She saw how I was struggling to get myself out of a body that wasn’t my own. For two years she allowed me to run between hospitals, hormone treatments, and psychiatrists, I mean she took care of me. One day she said something like, ‘If there’s anything you need, give the command and relax, it’ll be granted.’ And I did relax. Someone had seen me, they saw me fighting; they saw that I was never Pelin, and that I was pushing back against the state so I could become the person I wanted to be. That’s why. Emir means command. But hey, it also sounds nice on my lips—Emir. I’m Emir, that’s me.”

Elfiye straightened herself up from off the floor. She took Emir’s face in her hands. “I love you so much,” she said. She no longer felt embarrassed to be in front of him; after breaking up they’d declared two separate wars. Which one had been harder? Can you even compare pain? Elfiye wondered.

“This is nothing more than a quest for a body that’s different from a male’s, and then turning into just that,” Elfiye said. “Looking at you, I’d always see more than a lesbian or a woman. The masculinity, the butchness, the macho attitude—like that possessive grip you had when we’d be walking down the street—it was too much for me. Even if I didn’t know what I wanted, I sort of knew what I didn’t want. I asked myself what kind of woman do you want to love, and I told you honestly. I want to love a woman like myself, I’d said. Maybe I didn’t, or I didn’t know what I was, but I was sure that I didn’t want to put up with masculinity anymore. You were like my solstice, because you recreated me as something else.”

Putting up with masculinity. From the moment she’d left her mother’s womb, masculinity was the chisel that had formed Elfiye. She couldn’t decide if being able to make sense of one’s own existence in a given gender was a blessing or a curse. Everywhere she looked, the traces of masculinity were there: school, the workplace, the cinema . . . the street. Society. The state. Even if she didn’t go out to socialize, and locked herself up and lived in seclusion, she still couldn’t escape masculinity. You had to read nothing, watch nothing, or for that matter just sit in the dark. Sometimes she thought this toxin might even be seeping through the walls. The things she felt and saw, what she was constantly fighting against, went so much deeper than phrases like don’t wear this, or don’t go there, or don’t look at other people. The fundamental issue that had shaped Elfiye’s choices, as she picked out her clothes, ate her food, drank her drinks and danced, was the inability to challenge things, like the presence of a button on a jacket, or the subtext in certain everyday conversations, or the shampoo ads on the billboards, or the pronouns one used without a second thought, the inability to question how they came to be and what purpose they served. Even though she was more than ready to make love to a woman, this was why she didn’t want masculinity to corrupt the intimacy of the act, its caresses and kisses. She imagined a fresh birth, a free birth where, at the very moment that she wriggled free from flesh and bone and met the air for the first time, the doctor wouldn’t pull her from the womb and identify baby Elfiye with the words, “Looks like it’s a girl!” A birth of her own accord, with only what her body required, that was fair, sincere, bloodless.

If there’s anything you need, give the command, relax, and it’ll be given to you. Elfiye wasn’t going to tell him about the command that she had been given about herself.

“If that’s the case,” Emir said, “then why did you leave me?”

“I thought that breaking up with you wouldn’t be like breaking up with a man. Men tend to drink, or they’ll insult you in order to hide their insecurities, or sometimes they threaten you. Even the most honorable ones can’t be mature about it and they’d generally try to take advantage of my self-confidence. But the moment I told you I wasn’t happy, you turned into one of them. Don’t you remember? If you ever come around with someone else, you said and made a fist, it won’t be good. I got scared.”

“Back then, I didn’t really know you, and I’m sorry for everything. Elfiye, I didn’t know either. To be a man, I had to be dominant. Otherwise I couldn’t have survived, like I was trying to will the pink color of my ID card to change . . . ”

Elfiye stood up. She took Emir’s hand and pulled him to his feet. She hugged him tightly.

“None of that is important anymore,” she said. “You fought for this name, and you did it alone.”

“So did you,” Emir said. “I’ve never seen anyone who was such a woman’s woman.”

Elfiye’s eyes brimmed with tears, which she wiped with the back of her hand. Me too, she thought. I fought for this name, and I did it alone.


From Elfiye. © 2021 by Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Ralph Hubbell. All rights reserved.           

Read more from the September 2021 issue

Francis C. Macansantos

A Long Way from Douala

Lauri García Dueñas

Announcing the Winners of the 2021 Poems in Translation Contest

Shirmoney Rhode

Nashville Blaauw


Around the World with Queer Kid Lit and YA: 13 Books to Read Now


Annie M. G. Schmidt

from the September 2021 issue

The Slow Burn of Inner Chaos: Six Works in Translation from Malaysia

Wild, worldly, polyglot. Three words that capture the spirit of Malaysia’s cultural landscape. Malaysia is a country where at least four languages predominate—Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil—alongside a plethora of regional dialects, indigenous languages, and creole languages. 

This cultural and linguistic plurality has been the historical reality of Malaysia long before it became a nation. The complex diversity of the Malay Peninsula has been evident since at least the fifteenth century, when the Sultanate of Malacca became one of the most thriving entrepôts in Asia, drawing merchants, scholars, and envoys from neighboring kingdoms and distant empires. Successive waves of migration from all over the Malay Archipelago, China, South Asia, and the Arab world have added yet more layers to the inextricable diversity of Malaysian society. On the island of Borneo, the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak are home to more than a hundred indigenous tribes and sub-ethnic groups, each with their own language or distinct dialect.   

The Malay language itself is a living testament to the heterogeneity of its origins. The vast compendium of loanwords in Malay from Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Tamil, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and English reveal lines of connection through maritime trade routes, culture and religion, imperialism and colonialism, migration and globalization. 

Political attempts to organize and control the organic chaos of Malaysian society—particularly the widespread social engineering that followed the racial riots of May 1969—imposed reductive categories of race, religion, and language that persist to this day. The imagined community, as defined by the nation-state and perpetuated by its institutions, is a feeble reflection of the intrinsic plurality and ever-evolving complexity of Malaysian cultural life. Such political preoccupations with the construction of a “national identity” have inevitably shaped the course of Malaysian literature. While the emphasis of Malay as the national language was crucial for postcolonial nation building, the centrifugal messaging of prioritized and relegated languages created a hierarchy of importance that reinforced notions of self and other, venturing beyond language given the nexus between the former and ethnicity in the country. 

In a few instances, the elevation of the Malay language resulted in deliberate erasure of regional languages. In the name of national language and cultural assimilation, in the late 1970s a corpus of works in Iban and other languages from the Bornean state of Sarawak were reportedly buried by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Institute of Language and Literature), the government body tasked with the development and regulation of Malay. Oral literature is a literary heritage of many groups within the Malaysian polity, especially indigenous communities. Whether this heritage is passed down and flourishes from generation to generation depends on political will and support for its continued existence.

Malay literature flourished in the 1970s and ‘80s, much of it under the auspices of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. This period saw the emergence of many writers who tested the boundaries of literary form and content. In the decades that followed, however, state bureaucratization and institutionalization increasingly alienated the younger generation of writers, many of whom have sought independent channels to publish their works. This has led to the burgeoning of an “indie” Malay literature scene since 2010, which remains vibrant today. 

For all its envisioning as a language for all Malaysians, after more than half a century Malay literature is still widely considered to be written by and for Malays. A commanding presence in the public, educational, and state-funded cultural arena has not yet translated to a role in literature which transcends ethnicity. The dearth of translation between local languages in Malaysia further exacerbates insularity among literary circles and readers. 

Malaysian-Chinese literary production, known as Mahua literature, often reveals an underlying crisis of belonging in the Malaysian-Chinese experience. Celebrated beyond national borders, notably in Taiwan where many of them have settled, Mahua writers have long perceived themselves as marginalized by the politics of race and language in Malaysia. 

Malaysian-Tamil literature, by contrast, is less well known outside its immediate circles. Scholars note that several important anthologies of short stories have been published, but without serious translation efforts, these works are not accessible to most Malaysian readers.

Traditional print media has been a vital space to nurture and publish writers in different languages. Newspapers such as Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian (Malay), Sin Chew Jit Poh and Nanyang Siang Pau (Chinese), Tamil Nesan and Tamil Murasu (Tamil), and Daily Express, New Sabah Times (now defunct), and Utusan Borneo (Kadazandusun) regularly publish short stories and poems by writers from their respective communities. 

If writing, like other art forms, is considered a way of conversing with life itself, being a writer in Malaysia affords little material payoff to even sustain life. Writing is almost never the sole source of income for writers. Writers are respected and celebrated in the mainstream, statist realm and fervent independent circles alike; however, they are seldom considered public intellectuals, save for the National Laureates who themselves are selected only from among writers who write in the national language, which in effect means they have all been Malay. 

The view on culture in society can be telling in contemplating present quandaries. The overseeing government ministry for culture in Malaysia is the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture. Culture’s place has been side by side with tourism, invariably as an adjunct to it. Culture is often perceived in the framework of performative showcases to generate tourism revenue, instead of endemic pillars to cultivating contemporary society. 

One of the great tasks, then, for writers and translators in Malaysia is to challenge the categories we are expected to fit into (but never quite do), deconstruct the deep conditioning of identity politics, and forge connections across the lines that divide our fragmented society. The following conversation addresses exactly this challenge in compiling the September 2021 issue of Words Without Borders.

* * *

Adriana: What a time to be showcasing Malaysian literature, right Pauline? For one, September is the month the country was formed fifty-eight years ago.

Pauline: And when we formulated our theme, “The Slow Burn of Inner Chaos,” the country wasn’t yet wildly thrashing in the ravages of the pandemic . . .

A: Where the people’s suffering is made all the worse by the cruel callousness of the power wielders.

P: Precisely. But while our theme has been thrown into sharper relief by the current situation, it was always pertinent. The convergence of pandemic and political crisis has intensified a latent condition that has haunted Malaysian life for a long time. 

A: The sense of slipping slowly into chaos is an everyday reality here. And for two generally socially aware, albeit privileged, Malaysians to say this, it has to be more than just unfettered navel gazing, no?

P: Life in Malaysia is enriching, infuriating, and full of inner contradictions. The great diversity of our people is something to be celebrated, while the social-political realities we inhabit are often marked by fragmentation and antipathy. Our collective and individual selves bear silent wounds—not so much fault lines of outright conflict, but almost imperceptible fractures that crack a little deeper each day, until we find ourselves overcome by a kind of paralysis. Our desperate attempts to break through the numbness can lead to instances of madness, violence, or amok. 

A: We’re more than the travel industry’s “Malaysia Truly Asia” for sure. From the outside, observers might think the divisions in our society are clear and immutable. However, as these works showcase, the sepia can co-exist with the sinister, the demons we fight might not be the commonly-assumed, and life is a balancing act between mundane realities and radical subversion.

P: In the six works in translation we have gathered here, one senses a seething anguish that gnaws away from inside. The slow burn of inner chaos is especially evident in the works of fiction by Fatimah Busu, Ho Sok Fong, Alis Padasian, and M. Navin. It’s interesting to see how this indefinable turmoil manifests across fiction in three languages, and across generations of Malaysian writers. The story by Fatimah Busu that we have included here is a fascinating portrayal of some of the inner contradictions of Malay society. Written in 1977, it explores desire and sexuality, the impulses of individual freedom, predatory male behavior, and the inability to escape traditional social mores. Busu herself is considered a somewhat controversial figure in mainstream literary circles, for her strong views and acute portrayal of social realities and problems, particularly those faced by Malay women outside the urban centers.

A: We conceptualized our theme as a way to reframe the idea of Malaysia as a cheery land of multiculturalism—which can become listless and even oppressive in its demarcation of celebrated from relegated cultures—and to assert the complexity of our society that often makes life here verge toward chaos. With this in mind, I wonder what are the demons that bedevil us? The macabre, even grotesque, scenes in Fatimah Busu and Alis Padasian’s works make me think about our theme. Are the unfortunate newborn and the red-eyed monster simply metaphors? To an extent yes, of Pat’s whirlwind romance and presumed abandonment by her lover, and Bubin’s family’s travails, as people also abandoned, this time by a father. And how about the notion of children bearing the brunt of their parents’ shortcomings? Pat leaves her baby at the mercy of the roving monkeys, unable to care for it (due to shame? financial inability?), while Sulitah’s plans to return to work are scuppered when she becomes pregnant with her third child. Do children force parents to sacrifice their dreams, or do they become the pallbearers of these broken dreams and neglect? The theme of intergenerational trauma resounds.

P: There is certainly an underlying feeling of inherited trauma here, and of the past stalking the present. M. Navin’s story conjures the notorious figure of Mona Fandey, a singer turned "witch doctor” who was involved in one of the most high profile and gruesome murders of the 1990s. Malaysian readers of a certain generation won’t be able to read that story without being haunted by her presence. This sense of crime lurking in the background is also palpable in Ho Sok Fong’s story. Yet, as the works here reveal, nothing is black and white in Malaysia. While we at times feel besieged by dark and ominous forces, life here is also saturated with playfulness and sensuality—elemental characteristics that find expression in the two poems featured here. “Poem in June” by T. Alias Taib encapsulates so well the sensibility of nakal (naughtiness) that is an intrinsic part of the Malay cultural genius: “. . . isn’t dirt the realm of your love?” I think, too, of Jack Malik’s poem that reaches into the earth to reinvigorate body and spirit: “here, where roots spring. uprooting. Blood-blossoms.”

A: Yes! I find sensuality and love integral to the Malay language. But there’s no shaking away this sense of slow degeneration, of writers using haunting specters which actually stand in for material hardship, which becomes especially pertinent given the times. Can you hear the crushing of people’s hopes, dreams, and guarantees of where their next meal will come from? I wish there were more certainty that literature speaks truth to power and can be a force for dismantling.

P: The complex problems of race, class, and gender are palpable in our literature. But what I find fascinating, too, is how the protagonists in our stories are never simply victims. Even in seemingly hopeless situations, we find ways to respond through everyday forms of resistance. In a society where dominant narratives are shaped by ideological forces, writing itself can be an act of resistance. In a wild cultural landscape that has been subjected to decades of imposed categories of identity and language, literary translation subverts ossified structures of “national literature” while affirming our intrinsic plurality and untamable semangat (life force). 

A: And this collection of six works, translated from Malay, Chinese, and Tamil, is emblematic of this plurality.

P: And in so doing, these works reveal the underlying tensions and lurking disquiet of Malaysian life, and offer insight into how Malaysian writers make sense of the chaos.

© 2021 Pauline Fan and Adriana Nordin Manan. All rights reserved.

Read more from the September 2021 issue

September 2021

from the September 2021 issue

“Last Summer in the City,” Gianfranco Calligarich’s Ode to a Long-Gone Lifestyle, Hits a False Note

Reviewed by Allison Grimaldi-Donahue

Set in a deserted Rome during a hot and melancholy August, this 1973 novel now touted as a classic rehashes a familiar theme within Italian literature and film: a country and art of malaise. At turns beautiful and frustrating, it ultimately feels like a pastiche of the works it attempts to keep company with.

Last Summer in the City, a novel first published in 1973 by Gianfranco Calligarich and translated from the Italian for the first time by Howard Curtis, is a meditation on a certain kind of life that perhaps can only be lived in a city like Rome, as Calligarich writes, a city that is “not so much a city as a wild beast hidden in some secret part of you. There can be no half measures with her, either she’s the love of your life or you have to leave her, because that’s what the tender beast demands, to be loved.” Calligarich recounts the story of Leo Gazzara, a young man on the cusp of thirty, who moves from Milan to Rome under the pretense of working as a journalist. It is immediately clear he is seeking something else. He has a troubled relationship with his family, his father in particular, and can’t ever manage to return home, not even for a short visit. He sees himself as different, a wanderer. Gazzara latches on to the more jet-set types around him, borrows their homes, their cars, their wine, their women, and leads a life of languor and indirection, seeking pleasure but never really accepting it as his own. As is mentioned at various times in the novel, he contents himself with others’ “leftovers.” Gazzara is listless, always hoping for and finding an adventure; but there is the overwhelming feeling of disappointment after the party is over much like in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Antonioni’s La Notte.

Last Summer in the City gives us an abandoned Rome, a city deserted and hot, in which its overgrowth is left to flourish and take over. These depictions of the Eternal City in August are strikingly accurate and visceral. (I can confirm this as I am writing  from an empty piazza in Testaccio where everyone has left for the sea or the mountains and the wind is my only companion.) Calligarich gives us this version of the city beautifully, and Howard Curtis, the translator, brings this vision into English with great care and elegance. Gazzaro gives us this description of his last summer in the city:

And then came August, the black month. Under an oppressive sun, the city was deserted, the streets empty, the echoing cobbled squares covered in a layer of burning dust. Water was running low and the fountains were crumbling, showing all the signs of old age, with the cracks plastered over and tufts of yellowish grass sticking out. Cats hid in the shade of cars and only toward sunset did people start coming out of their homes to gather around the watermelon stands, waiting for the wind. According to the newspapers, it was the hottest summer in the past ten years.

A beautiful and true description of the lost feeling one has in the vast empty urban landscape. And this empty city reflects Gazzara’s relationship with those around him—friends as lonely and as lost as he is, wealthy artists with little integrity; Arianna, the woman he falls in love with but can never actually make the effort to love. He comments:

I thought about when I’d said good-bye to my father and when I’d said good-bye to Sant’Elia, and I thought about how all these farewells had changed my life. But it’s always like that, we are what we are not because of the people we’ve met but because of those we’ve left.

Gazzara is in a state of depression and indifference, he goes where the wind takes him, even when he might rather do something else. At turns the protagonist recalls a combination of a grown-up Holden Caulfield on holiday, filled with self-entitled suffering, and Ernest Hemingway himself in A Moveable Feast, day drinking and carousing—and this is where my feelings about the novel begin to feel muddled and even angry. André Aciman has written a generous introduction to the novel  in which he compares it to other works that explore the decadence of Rome, mid- to late twentieth-century bourgeois life, and Italian culture; however, Last Summer in the City lacks the psychological development of Natalia Ginzburg’s characters, the self-awareness and irony of Alberto Moravia’s novels, and it certainly has none of the grotesque self-reflection found in the work of Paolo Sorrentino. Rather, Calligarich’s novel reads like an ode to a long-gone lifestyle (which was thankfully already on its way out when this novel was first published) and the translation reinforces this motif with Hemingwayesque short, terse sentences and Americanisms in speech:

She shrugged, left me high and dry, and walked into a store. I realized I would never love another woman in my entire life. I followed her in. […] We went through six or seven stores before she decided on a red dress with one hell of a price tag.

Anyone looking to feel transported linguistically in some way towards Italian—its high drama and flourishes—is likely to be disappointed by this work. Perhaps this is owing to the fact that the Italian original was heavily influenced, like much mid-twentiethcentury Italian fiction, by American prose style, or even imitation. Either way, the American sounds coming from the characters were disorienting and off-key.

The novel does reveal some particularities about the city of Rome—its moods, its welcome embrace, its timelessness and thus its indifference to its inhabitants. It also reveals certain class structures and relationships between Italians and the foreigners who pass time in the city. These observations are extremely vivid and on point and fifty years later still ring true:

We started strolling amid the market stalls. The market was bright and alive with cries—only the statue of Giordano Bruno was grim and silent, but he had his reasons. When we got to Ponte Sisto, Graziano didn’t want to cross the river because it would take him closer to his wife, who like all American women in search of local color was in Trastevere.

The possibility of running into someone you’d rather not see in a big city always remains a worry, an odd claustrophobic characteristic of cosmopolitan life. And Trastevere still remains the spot for Americans and other “expats” in Rome to discover “local color,” a passage in particular that made me laugh. The city is alive, a character, and signifies as such in myriad ways throughout the novel.

But all of the qualities of the city also come with its people and the relationships developed there within. I’m not by any means saying every novel needs to include the social dynamics of its time; however, we see nothing of the domestic terrorism happening in Italy in the 1970s, no interest in the political struggle, and certainly not even a hint of the feminisms developing at the time. Literature should add to the richness of our understanding of the world; literature in translation serves double duty on this account—and therefore it can doubly falter as well. In this novel we see a reduced and repeated theme within Italian literature and film: a country and art of malaise.

When so little fiction is translated, and then published by major houses, readers might ask: why this book? It touts itself as a classic, but in fact even its memorable passages feel somewhat derivative, like pastiches of the classics it attempts to keep company with. Translation is an inherently political undertaking, opening readers and writers to different versions of the world we share. This book had its pleasurable moments; however, in a culture where we are now attempting to make space for less heard voices, where the most privileged are being asked to keep quiet so more voices can be heard, we must also pay close attention to the works we translate and define as classics, or else we risk repeating and reinscribing worn-out or mistaken cultural norms and limiting our visions of both literature and the future.


© Allison Grimaldi-Donohue. All rights reserved.

from the September 2021 issue

Dark as a Boy

In this story from Ho Fok Song’s 2012 story collection Maze Carpet (published in Chinese by Aquarius), race, class, violence, and family drama loom large.


A tiny car pulled off the expressway, made a big slow turn, and crawled up the slope to where we were sitting. A man got out with a folder tucked under his arm.

“Are your mom and dad in?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Saw Ai.

He said he was from a human rights group. He said he could help us. Saw Ai yelled for her mom, while I sat on an empty oil drum and studied him. He was maybe thirty-something, with the palest skin and eyes so big they almost popped out of their sockets. 

I was not going to talk to a stranger, but this stranger kept asking me questions. “What’s your name? Are you two sisters? No? Then you must be neighbors? Classmates?”

It was annoying. I didn’t even want to look at him anymore; his goldfish eyes creeped me out. They didn’t get any smaller when he smiled, as if they had been surgically fixed like that. I went back to flicking through a fashion magazine and Saw Ai’s dad came rushing out to take the visitor inside, leaving me and Saw Ai alone in the yard, staring down the slope.

The slope was covered in weeds and the wire netting hadn’t gone up yet, so anyone could just roll down to the expressway and lie there in the scrub alongside it, listening to car wheels zip past their fingers. 

We usually hung around outside in the evenings. It was too hot indoors and Saw Ai didn’t want me to see her big sister, who was usually lying on the sofa. Her mom never asked if I wanted something to eat. There was never any food in the house for her to offer; no cookies, no cake. Though Saw Ai did always bring me ice water from the fridge.

There was a huge billboard advertising cars down by the road, lit up in dazzling neon. Real cars inched along the bottom of the slope like glowworms. Amid the lights and engine noise, Saw Ai talked enthusiastically about her plans for the future.

“I’m going to be a model in Paris, England, and America.”

She lay back on the bench, shook off her shoes, and pointed her toes, showing off the pretty curve of her calves. She had long hair, long legs, big eyes. It was just a shame she was so dark, like a Malay or an Indian.

“You don’t even know the Western alphabet.”


“Top models have to speak English. You have to go to university, and ideally take art and dance classes.” 

That was what the magazines said.

It was a sore point for Saw Ai. She was failing every subject. She said that sooner or later she was going to pack up her schoolbooks with all the old posters and magazines and go to trade them in.

The old posters and magazines in Saw Ai’s house fascinated me. Her family had all kinds of old papers that no one else’s family wanted and I was always making her take them out to show me. 

We continued sitting outside, glasses of ice water on the ground beside us. I took a sip now and then as I worked through my magazine.

“This skirt is really classy.”

My fingers stroked the glossy pages, lingering over the photos of clothes. I told Saw Ai one of my own plans: I’d carry on my parents’ profession, but I wasn’t going to stick around and do it in our town. I was going to move to a big city and be a fashion designer. 

When Saw Ai’s sister burst out of the house, I still had half my ice water left. I snatched up the glass to stop her kicking it over. Saw Ai’s mom stood by the front door, yelling, “It’s just water! What’s the point of stealing that? You come back here!”

They had found a stash of moldy sweets and bread by the sister’s bed. Now she was throwing a tantrum, lumbering down the front steps in search of her food, which wasn’t even edible anymore. Saw Ai’s dad grabbed her and hauled her back inside, while the goldfish man watched from the doorway. Saw Ai rolled off the bench and stood up, curling her shoulders like an angry cat, glaring at him. 

He smiled weakly but she didn’t smile back. Her sister went back inside, crying. I could hear her saying, “I hate you all!”

Saw Ai’s dad said goodbye to the goldfish man at the bottom of the steps. 

We stayed out in the dark for ages, keeping very quiet, a thin layer of water still left in our glasses. I couldn’t drink anymore.

There was no wire netting yet to separate us from the expressway, and even if there had been, it wouldn’t have changed how the night sounded—car horns, motorbikes, the squeal of brakes, the noises crisscrossing like waves. The sister’s crying got louder, as if her finger had been bitten by a rat, until they must have been able to hear her from streets away. A few nearby houses still had lights on, including mine. I could even see my mom, peering out through a gap in the curtains.

It was time for me to go home, but Saw Ai didn’t want me to leave. At least, not until her mom opened the door and screamed, I’m not sure whether to me or to Saw Ai, “What the hell are you up to out there? You want one of them to rape you too?”

* * *

Pretty much everyone knew Saw Ai’s family had problems. They were waiting for her to feel like talking about it. Of course they could guess, speculating about the kinds of things that might be going on behind closed doors, and the secrets she wouldn’t, or maybe couldn’t, tell. But no one could ask her and, anyway, exams were always more important. We had nine classes every day, were busy taking notes, busy doing calculus, busy busy busy.

In the break between classes, Saw Ai rushed through her homework. She put my finished map underneath her paper and traced over its faint outline to draw another map of Africa. Then she divided it into lots of little sections, making some of them desert, some of them bushland, some of them savannah with a few scattered trees.

Her hand was shaky, so her coastline wobbled.

I offered her a cookie and she immediately grabbed it, then another, cramming them into her mouth while she worked. She probably hadn’t had breakfast; her sister had probably cleaned out the kitchen. We had two minutes left before the bell for the next class, but Saw Ai was still methodically filling in her grasslands with blades of grass.

The geography teacher entered the classroom and we all smelled his stinking cigarette breath. He called us up one at a time to stand next to him and watch him correct our work. If he found even one mistake, he would make the girl in question squat halfway down and then brush his fingers lightly back and forth across the back of her neck, until the tickling became unbearable.

When it was Saw Ai’s turn, I could hardly look. Her Europe page was empty. So were the pages for India, South America, North America. All she had managed was Africa. Her class notes were so scattered that they weren’t even full sentences; in some classes, she had only jotted down a couple of lines. We were in high school now, where all the textbooks used the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet. Saw Ai’s Malay and English were terrible, and she never understood what the teachers were saying.

“I don’t believe it! Boys are bad enough, but you’re even worse. You want me to treat you like a boy, is that it? Shall I punish you like one too?”

His finger hovered over the place where her neck joined her shoulders, making her squirm. She was in a half-squat, clearly suffering. This was his worst punishment for girls, it happened every time: he tickled us until we had to laugh, when what we really wanted was to cry.

At that age, I still believed the things my mom told me, and when I upset her she told me scary things. If I came home after ten at night, she said, “I’ll marry you off to a Malay!” Saw Ai’s mum called Malays “o’soso ghosts” because she said they were dark and creepy. I half agreed. The geography teacher was an example. We were almost sure he was a pervert, but he insisted his method was better than whipping us. Weren’t they not supposed to touch us? We were fourteen now, after all.

“Do you understand what I’m saying? Huh? Why don’t you answer? What’s going on in your brain?”

He flipped through Saw Ai’s notes, listing all her mistakes, while the rest of us sat in silence. It was such a bad day. We were in the classroom at the end of the ground-floor hallway, so there was no chance of someone passing by inside, and the neatly-planted bushes outside the window were suffocatingly thick.

Luckily the boys were still out there.

The boys weren’t tickled as a punishment; they were made to stand. They were standing in the bushes with their textbooks over their heads to keep off the sun, which made them look like the little men with graduate caps on Boshi brand ink pots. 

One gross boy waved until he had my attention, then hugged his arms around his chest and mouthed, “I love you, I love you.” 

I propped up my geography textbook so that it covered my face. He was such an idiot that it made me want to laugh. Then I heard the teacher say to Saw Ai, “Your sister was in 3E, you’re in 2E, both bottom of the class. Isn’t your dad ashamed? Your sister dropped out and you don’t feel like studying either, is that it?”

Saw Ai spun around and marched out of the room, notebook in hand, heading into the bushes with the boys. They started yelling, and the gross one who’d just been saying he loved me had a change of heart and whistled at Saw Ai instead.

* * *

“Saw Ai, don’t be stupid. What are you doing?”

Saw Ai emptied the textbooks in her schoolbag onto an old newspaper, then piled a stack of newspapers on top, until her history, Chinese language, and math books were completely buried. The next day, the day after that, the day after the day after that, more and more newspapers and magazines would come to join the pile, covering Saw Ai’s books until no one would know they were there.

“You want to end up like your mom, selling ice water until you get married?”

“Whatever, I’m not school material.” 

Saw Ai nestled into another stack of papers, behind a big pile of wood. Her sister was inside and poked her head over the windowsill to watch us, her hair so messy that she looked like a hedgehog. 

“Give me food, give me, give me,” she said. 

She had a long scar on her face, running across her fat cheeks like the Nile. 

“‘Shut up!” Saw Ai yelled back, struggling to drag an old wooden bed frame over to the window, to block her sister’s face. As soon as she got it there, her sister found a gap in the wood and continued to stare at us with her huge eyes. We walked off to the other side of the house, where there were more newspapers and piles of wood, along with sacks of lime, a gas barrel, and a pair of mud-caked trousers.

I felt sick. I remembered the day her sister was found.

She had been stripped naked and thrown into the gutter, her whole face covered in blood. A lot of people were gathered around her but most of them were just looking: she didn’t even have a sheet of newspaper over her. Life was very stressful that month. My mom had to escort me to school, and every day the newspapers and TV channels ran all kinds of rape and murder stories. The most famous one was about a female architect from America, who was burned to death in a sewer pipe by the side of the expressway, not so far from our house. The police were all out looking for the culprit. Saw Ai’s sister’s case was mentioned in a tiny square at the bottom of the local paper, but there was no photo and she wasn’t named. My cousin said it was a shame. “I heard she was pretty,” she said. “I want to see how pretty she was.”

Saw Ai’s sister kept banging on the window frame in protest.

“Just ignore her,” said Saw Ai.

Saw Ai was sitting on a fruit box now, looking furious, arms crossed. I peeled strips of wood off the box, thinking that if I peeled off long enough strips then maybe I could twist them into a rope like people used to do in the olden days. The narrow road up the slope was covered in muddy footprints and tracks from bike wheels. The air smelled like car exhaust. We could hear the metallic shriek of the welding yard in the distance, mixed with the rap of a spoon against a metal window bar, both sounds cutting sharply across the dull roar of the traffic.  

“Aren’t you being a bit mean?”

“She’s not hungry. You don’t know how many things she’s eaten. And when she doesn’t find any, she gets violent!”

Her sister started swearing at us, using really filthy words about my mom and dad. My arms were breaking out in little bumps from mosquito bites. It was quite a lot to take. I started to think of really sad things, for example that one day maybe I wouldn’t be able to come round and see Saw Ai anymore. Saw Ai’s brains were like cotton fluff—she didn’t know why rain came from the sky, or why at the North Pole and South Pole it was night for half a year and day for the other half. But neither of us could understand why a person would suddenly become so greedy. Saw Ai’s dad had to store their food in places where her sister couldn’t find it. They had attached an extension cable and moved the fridge into the woodshed on the other side of the house.

“Maybe one day she’ll eat so much her stomach explodes,” I said.

“Great, then we can stop spending money on doctors,” said Saw Ai, closing her eyes.

Sunlight fell on her eyelids, casting the shadow of her lashes onto her cheeks.


* * *

Saw Ai locked the door bolt in place and jumped down the front steps with the key chain dangling from her hand, shaking it in a rhythm, like one of the bells that count the beat in folk dances. Rays of sun broke through the clouds, landing in a bright halo on her hair. Her skin was dark and shiny with sweat, like the skin of the boys at school who had to stand in the sun every day. She had successfully locked her sister inside the house; the grownups were out, so she had to deal with the fat-pig ox-woman all by herself.

“What do you think I’ll be when I grow up?”

“Nothing,” I said, trying to scare her. “You’ll have to be a prostitute.”

That’s what my mom said to me: that if I didn’t study I’d have to sell my ass. It’s what all the grownups said.

Saw Ai went into the woodshed and took a bottle of water out of the fridge. She drank a big gulp, then passed it to me. We worked together to stack up wooden crates, pushing them over toward the window, which we opened to let the breeze in. The traffic on the expressway provided fuzzy ambient noise. Light bored in through cracks in the wood and the holes left by nails, making a kind of starry stage backdrop. An old calendar was pasted onto the zinc wall opposite, the bodies of the featured female celebrities distorted by ripples in the sheeting. Saw Ai did a sexy catwalk across the fruit crates; my job was to raise the curtain. Her family’s washing hung from a nylon clothesline across the room and provided a ready-made curtain for us, a curtain that came in all the colors of the rainbow, in every shape and size.

I was the host, reading out quotes from the fashion magazines: “Here comes our new line for autumn! Stand out from the crowd, create a new you . . . Pair this tasseled shawl in coffee-colored wool with a long linen slit skirt for a romantic, bohemian look.”

Saw Ai narrowed her eyes and sashayed across the stage. When she waved, her spread fingers looked ready to shoot beams of light, and I clapped loudly. It was amazing. The messy junk transformed into our rapt audience. We were no longer in a moldy shed with a year-round leak, we were at some big European fashion show whose name we couldn’t pronounce. I picked up a newspaper and folded it into pleats, then started to play it like an accordion. Each time the curtain went back, we skipped to a different season, or jetted across the Atlantic Ocean to stroll the streets of New York.

Saw Ai was in heaven. She said she was definitely going to be a model. She started to dance. We were both wearing vest tops and jean shorts. Saw Ai shook her long, shapely legs, showing me how I ought to dance on Saturday nights, and I laughed until I could hardly breathe.

She spun around and around. If the boys from our class had appeared at the window to gawp at us and yell stuff, we wouldn’t even have cared. What could they have said? “Darlings, you can really shake it!” or “Hey, darling, over here! Don’t ignore me, you’re breaking my heart!” 

No boys appeared, but the goldfish man did. The gross goldfish man came and ruined our fun. He stood behind the woodshed window watching us, laughing so hard it looked like his eyes were really going to pop out of his head. He clapped and said, “Bravo, bravo!”

We didn’t feel like dancing after that. He scared us. I felt like I was seeing a ghost. We watched dumbly as he went round and opened the shed door; we’d forgotten to lock it. We started to scream. I called him a pervert, and Saw Ai was so high-pitched she could have shaken the roof off.

He stood there looking upset. His face was very red and his hands were clenched.

“Who do you think I am? You think I’m a bad guy?”

He dodged the water bottle I threw at him. When he turned back to face us, he seemed really angry.

“Are there no adults here? This is no good at all. It’s dangerous. I need to have words with your dad, leaving two girls at home by themselves is incredibly risky. Listen to me: when there’s no adult around, you cannot play here. This is not a safe place.”

What were we supposed to do? We weren’t supposed to trust strangers, but he wasn’t exactly a stranger. He had a big hard-backed folder under his arm and when we ran out of the shed we knocked it to the ground. The papers inside scattered like leaves. He chased around behind us but it was no use, the wind blew them away. Still, after a couple more steps he caught up with me.

I kicked him as hard as I could. All of a sudden I wasn’t fourteen anymore, old enough to be dating; I was a ten-year-old, or maybe an even younger child—a seven-year-old who bit people.

“Listen to me, you can’t carry on like this forever. Let me in to have a little chat with your big sister. There have been so many victims, many many many, you need to stick together, stand up, have the courage to speak out.”

A few photos fluttered past my chest, then fell into the mud.

“They were all innocent girls and none of the cases have been solved. The victims are dead, so they can’t help us catch the bad guys. And we can’t let the bad guys get away with it, can we?”

He talked faster and faster and his eyes were all red, as if his puffy goldfish eye sockets were going to spurt tears at any moment. Maybe his sadness was real, but I was so scared I was screaming for my life.

He climbed frantically into his car and then was gone, off like a startled animal.

I wasn’t being brave at all, but Saw Ai’s sister was a living example of how things could go wrong. I didn’t believe a word of the goldfish man’s stupid speech. Maybe he just wanted to listen to us scream. 

We didn’t like him, but his photos were thrilling. In one, a policeman was pulling a totally naked woman out of a freezer. The woman’s hands were tied behind her back. Each picture was like a comic strip, showing us crime scenes in different settings, from different angles. In one photo, a bruised purple face hung crookedly from its neck, facing us, and we had the feeling that this woman wasn’t a person anymore, just frozen flesh and bones. The back of the door and all the walls were splattered with blood, and a group of policemen was there investigating. Unless they weren’t; unless he just invited them there to pretend they were.

We couldn’t figure out who he was. Did he just want to be our friend? Or was he some weirdo who wanted to scare us? His dropped folder was full of papers, but we couldn’t understand them because they were in English and covered in confusing diagrams. We got down on our knees and tried to collect all the photos instead.

The wind was strong that day and blew the photos so far that we had to go down into the bushes at the bottom of the slope to find them. 


© Ho Sok Fong. Translation © 2021 by Natascha Bruce. All rights reserved.

Read more from the September 2021 issue
from the September 2021 issue

Mona Fandey’s Cassette, or Gray Feather

In this fictional story from poet M. Navin, an antiques dealer faces a personal and professional dilemma when presented with a lost recording by real-life pop singer and assassin Mona Fandey.

“What do you have?” I said.

After scanning around him, the man pulled a cassette out of his green cloth bag. He put it back discreetly.

I already had an RCA cassette on me, a total flop when they hit the market. Probably 1958. I also had a zero value Philips from 1962. I waved him away.

In any case, I don’t purchase from random vendors. I’m just not that experienced, unlike Dad. It’s still through agents for me. Interested parties call ahead and figure out the specifics. But the man looked old, and I kept the window open out of respect, if nothing else.

“This is a rare one. Nothing else like it on the market,” he said.

He wore a songkok—he must have come from Friday prayers. His stringy silver beard accentuated his narrow features. I asked him to wait for a bit, then brought out an EMI LP with Malay songs on it.

“Saloma,” he said, excited. “I’m such a big fan. But this cassette is more valuable.”

I’ve seen many like him these past five years. This was a business where you stripped other people’s dreams to paint your own, if it brought customers. The man wasn’t going away, I knew that much. I invited him in. He took my hands in both of his in salam, and introduced himself as “Ismail.”

Meenakshi gave a panicked shriek as he made his way in.

“A gray parrot,” said Ismail.

“My father’s,” I said. 

“You find plenty of these in Africa. A very intelligent bird,” he said. “I used to come here when Maniram was still well known. Is he still around?” he scanned the antiques in the living room.

I was annoyed he knew Dad, but didn’t show it. “He died some years ago,” I said.

“He was older than me.” The man showed neither surprise nor sadness. Perhaps death is nothing more than one more bit of news after a certain age.

“I don’t see many things that were here in your father’s time. There used to be these Japanese army swords from World War II, neatly arranged by the main entrance.” The man kept looking around. “Over here, he kept a six-hundred-year-old cannonball, in a basket. It was very dusty, and rusted. He thought cleaning it would decrease its value, so it remained caked with earth.”

“I’ve sold most of them. Some were rented out to exhibitions but never found their way back. It seemed a better use for them than decaying here, so I let it be,” I said. It was tiring to explain myself. I usually napped after lunch and suffered headaches at night if I didn’t.

“How do your customers find you, if the place is closed up?” he asked.

“Oh, this is just home now. I don’t let anyone in anymore. Who can I trade with, in a place like this, the Jerantut hinterland? In years past, my father had foreign tourists as customers, those that came to Taman Negara. After he passed away, they stopped coming. The house is up for sale, too. Just a few more months,” I said. 

“It’s a nice house,” he said, staring at the roof. “Your father loved houses with wooden pillars. He bought the land on this hill to build a house for that very reason. The doors of this house were always open then, as if it were a gallery. It brought in a nice breeze.”

I didn’t reply. I usually don’t like anyone who carries on about Dad, but since this man seemed intent on rambling and raving like most decrepit old geezers, I kept my composure. 

“Are you planning on permanently closing shop?” he asked.

“Not really. I’m thinking of selling the popular items online. Besides, I have another job.”  I didn’t tell him I was a web designer. It’s not like he’d understand. I began to stare at his green bag, hoping he’d take the hint and come to the point.

“Could I get some water?” he asked. He was turning over an antique iron in his hands when I brought him his water. I didn’t like any of this. That’s why I kept everyone out. 

“I’ve sold that. They’re coming for it tomorrow,” I said, taking it out of his hands and handing him the water instead.

“For how much?” he said.

“I’ve six of these. I agreed on a hundred each,” I said.

He frowned at the answer. “They’re not all the same. The ones with the rooster symbols are special, they’d be worth more. They’re unique to Malaysia.”

I started to get annoyed with my agents, but once again kept my thoughts to myself. “So what’s this cassette you’ve brought?” I asked pointedly.

“I’ll tell you.” He now went up to the old tiffin carriers arranged in a corner. “These were from your father’s time. They should be worth a lot today,” he said.

“Two thousand ringgit,” I said.

“No, they’d be as much as ten thousand,” he replied.

“Now you’re just making things up. That’s pretty much the market price.”

“That might be true. But do you see those pink flowers on those four-tier carriers?”


“Peonies. Though they look like roses. The Chinese will pay far more for the peonies.”

I was really losing my patience now. Dad would spout the same nonsense, had for thirty-five years. In interviews on television, in newspapers. With a big smile. Even when Mom had cancer, even when we couldn’t afford her treatment. Keep them, he said, till their time. The added value of time was a tenet of the business. 

The man stared at me with an odd look. “If something has artistry, isn’t it priceless?” he asked. So. He was a good businessman after all. 

“Do you remember Mona?” he asked. “Mona Fandey,” he continued, when I didn’t immediately answer.

“You mean the bomoh?”

“Is that all you know?”

“She was also a murderer.”

“She was a singer too.”

“That’s right. She began that way in the eighties, didn’t she,” I said.

“With Diana.

So that’s what it was. I checked my watch—it was nearing three. I’d promised to meet a friend at Maaran Temple at five. Driving out and back in the dark jungle was dangerous. Now that too without an afternoon’s rest. And apparently there were elephants about.

“You can get her songs online now. Even if you gave me that for free I couldn’t sell it,” I said, walking to the door, signaling this was over.

“Calm down, this isn’t Diana,” he said. “Shall we sit down?” He pulled up a chair uninvited. “Nice and sturdy,” he said. “This must be a Haji Sufian. The architect who built Kuala Kangsar's palace without nails. Built this with the leftover wood. He was a genius.” He sat down. Cornered, I joined him on a metal chair nearby.

He sat quietly for a while. I thought he might be praying until he looked up.

“I came to see you as I believe you won’t tell anyone else,” he said. Up close, his eyes had a milky glaze. Probably cataracts.


“You know about her case?”

“Yes, who doesn’t. I was a boy then. People in the village said she’d killed a state assemblyman. She cut the corpse into eighteen pieces and buried them around her house, yes? It gives me the creeps to think of the way she smiled on the way to court. Every time.”

“Why were you scared of her smile?”

“Who would smile like that after such a thing? It was the same smile as the day she was arrested. She beheaded Mazlan with a single swing of the ax.”

“That’s right. And before she did that, she asked him to lie down on the floor and imagine himself being showered with gold.” 

“Such cruelty. Apparently she was plucking flowers from her garden just before the murder.”

“You’ve a great memory. I was a photographer with Utama at the time.”

“Oh, you’re a photographer? Weren’t there Sony Mavicas already by then?”

“Those came to us late. Our offices only had SLRs. Still, other dailies didn’t even have those.”

“I have one of those models. Actually I prefer selling old tech. Most profitable these days.”

“I took the photos with those. The ax, the long parangs, the sharp knives. This was no rush job. Mona and her husband had really seen to the details. The right and left hand had been chopped off at the exact same point. The right to three pieces, the left to two. Same with the legs. The head had been split open. I captured them all, one by one.”

“Hadn’t they decayed?”

“A little. I then got permission to take photos of her bomoh sorcery wares. A police officer came in with me. The house was really big. I took as many as possible. That was when . . .” He stopped. He was working up a sweat. I switched on the fan and went to open the door.

“That's alright, we're fine here in the dark,” he said.

“Nobody was allowed into Mona’s room, the police had to complete their investigation. But I went in when my guy wasn’t looking. Everything in the room screamed that she was a singer.”

“Well, nobody could deny that, really,” I replied. “Ku Nyanyikan Lagu Ini was pretty much on loop on the radio as she was being sentencing to be hanged.”

“I’m glad you like Malay songs,” he said and took off his songkok. He looked quite different without it. The top of his balding head was smooth, with some dark spots. He was still sweating. I offered him some water again. 

“No, I’d rather finish the story. In those brief moments, I searched the whole room. Given that the police were going to investigate, I tied a piece of cloth to my hand, to cover my prints. I saw a pretty glass box. Hard to open without leaving prints. Inside, there was a smaller wooden box. I put that in my pocket and returned downstairs.”

“Didn’t the police suspect anything?”

“I was a photographer at a big national daily then. And these were massive headlines. Nobody questioned anything. I decided on the headline images. I could’ve done anything with the photos, and it wouldn't have mattered.”

“What was in the box?”

“Before her first album, Mona sang a bunch of songs that were never released. She’d compiled those songs into an album.” 

He looked me straight in the eyes as he said this.

“This tape is that album.”

I began to run the numbers in my head. Such a thing could fetch a good price on the black market. Didn’t matter who the buyer or sellers were. It would be as easy as a wire transfer. I hid my greed and let him speak.

“There was a letter with the tape,” he said.

“To whom?”

“I don’t know. But you know, the man arrested with her, Affendi, was her third husband.”

“What do you mean? Was she having an affair . . . ?”

“I don’t know. But it’s my sense she was writing to someone she trusted. Sometimes I’ve wondered if she wrote it to a stranger. But the letter itself speaks of someone she’d trusted her whole life.”

“What did it say?” I hoped I wasn’t betraying my curiosity. There were special rates for things that came with letters. Sometimes handwriting can quadruple rates. An old mangled football once sold for thousands because of a famous ex-goalkeeper’s signature.

“I’ve memorized every word. I must’ve read it a thousand times. She says she wrote the lyrics herself and had sung the songs with genuine feeling. She’d wanted them to be her first album but had gone with Diana due to prevailing tastes. She also wrote that she would die soon, and that she wanted the songs released as an album after her death, in case there were still fans out there.”

I saw the fear in his eyes.

“She already knew she was going to die. She committed the crime knowing it would be a hanging sentence,” I said.

“Maybe she knew her future.”

“Have you heard the songs?”

“No. I lived with work colleagues at the time. I was afraid my secret would be found out if I played it. I was afraid of arrest. Her songs were always on the radio. The public knew her voice. Plus, I was just too scared to listen.”

“I can’t believe you’ve never listened to them all these years!” He had to be lying. I watched Ismail with renewed keenness. Inventing stories to jack up the price—a common trick.

“I didn’t even bring the cassette to my room. I surrendered my camera to the office and immediately went to my mother’s house in the village. I hid the cassette in a cupboard. I only kept the letter in my shirt pocket. I read it and reread it. It was always with me.”

“Where’s the letter now? Can I see it? Her signature might be worth something,” I said.

“No. The letter robbed me of my peace. I used to read it even in the middle of the night, anxious I’d forgotten a line. Worried I’d missed some hidden meaning. I’d read every word again and again, several times a day. So over time, it tore, with a hole in the middle. One day, overcome with anxiety, I burned it. That’s when I realized I actually already know everything in it. Yes, now the letter is in me.”

Yes, this was bullshit.

“It was a really great letter. I’d never read anything so genuine, so heartfelt. I’d get a thousand letters from readers at the office, about my photographs. I read them, but none of them stuck with me. But Mona’s letter was beautiful. Perhaps she had studied calligraphy. The missive had roman letters written in an Arabic form on an unlined sheet. Surrounded by musical notes. I didn’t get it at first. The words were separated, as if torn apart. She’d written ‘Mian Ki Thodi’ in small letters at the end, and when I realized that was a Hindustani raga I even tried singing the letter accordingly.”

“So now you’re a musicologist?”

“No. But seeing that many Malays like Hindustani music, I thought it might be the case with her. I researched that raga just so I could perhaps understand the letter more. Get it out of my system that way. But no, too late, memorizing the letter through the raga only made it a part of me.”

I wasn’t sleepy anymore. The letter would’ve gone fast on Thor. I rued the loss of a few thousand ringgit.

“I tried copying the letter down, again and again. You won’t believe it, but words, entire lines, came to me easily. She was quite the bomoh—perhaps this was her revenge. I kept reciting the letter to myself. It went from poem to song in me, always resonating from within. I thought it might spill over to others when I spoke to them, and began avoiding people. I didn’t like my job anymore. I eventually quit and began farming in my old village.”

“And what about the cassette?”

“I was too scared to listen to it, after all that happened with the letter. After her hanging in 2001, I totally lost it. I felt her soul was waiting for the cassette.”

“Does that mean you’ve never once heard the songs on tape?” I asked.

“Not once.”

I leaned back and closed my eyes, thinking.

“You’ve burned the letter that says this is Mona’s album. How do you intend to prove these are her songs?”

“I took it from her house, her actual room.”

“But how am I to believe that? Why should I?”

He stayed silent. “You have a point,” he said. His eyes were red. “You may not believe it, but it’s the truth. I have no other reason to come and tell you such crazy things about myself. My story is the real price of this thing,” he said in a steely voice.

“So you’re here only to sell it, yes?”

“Yes. My daughter is getting married. I don’t want to keep it anymore. My son-in-law is a high-ranking police official—the wedding needs to be grand. And then, maybe, I could also have some peace.”

“I can’t offer much. We’d have to check its condition. And if it is really Mona on there.”

“It’s her, all right. Songs she hadn’t sung anywhere else. I’m sure they’re the real deal. But I have no idea how to do these things. That’s when I thought of your father. I’d met him before, for a newspaper interview. I spent a couple of nights here, interviewing him. You were still a boy then. Your father was interested in music. That’s why I came this far.”

“He was gullible like that. He’d have given you any price you asked. Then he’d babble at the parrot when there was no money left for food.” My words may have sounded harsh, but there was no other way to speak of Dad.

“What is your offer then? I have to get back,” he said.

I calculated again. I’d first need a music expert to determine sound quality. Past that, we were talking millions. The Malay music industry would snap it up. The competition would drive the price higher. People made up all sorts of things for a payout these days.

“Five hundred ringgit at the most. And after checking audio quality,” I said.

“That’s grand theft,” said Ismail. His breathing quickened, he was clearly enraged. Nothing I could do about that though.

“This is my life’s treasure. You’ll never find anything like it. You’re spouting nonsense. You’re trying to cheat me.”

I took out the Saloma LP that he liked. “Can you guess why this didn’t sell?” I asked. As he frowned, I pointed to the middle of the disc.

“I bought this for two thousand ringgit. But the information in the middle here is typed, not handwritten. So it’s only worth two hundred ringgit. The previous editions of this LP had handwritten details in the middle—they are now worth more than five thousand. We can’t buy something without knowing its actual value.”

Tears began to form at edge of Ismail's eyes. “But there is only one of this,” he said.

“And how do we know that? We need to check if there have been other recordings or copies of this. The selling price can only be determined after a thorough vetting process.”

“Then I’ll wait till you finish your process. After it’s all verified, give me a cut from your sale,” he said.

“And who knows how many years that might take. Besides, I’m moving to Kuala Lumpur. If you’re not satisfied, feel free to find another buyer,” I said.

He wouldn’t leave, I knew. He’d made the mistake of telling me his secret. He’d been a journalist—surely he knew our crimes always catch up with us. First, removing evidence from a crime scene. And a cassette, at that. Who knows, it could’ve helped her case all those years ago. The letter could have revealed further suspects. I held a man’s guilt in my confidence. I glanced at my watch and feigned surprise.

Ismail sat very still, eyes downcast. I could see his hand trembling slightly, nerves maybe. The sight of him that way gave me great joy. Significant profits awaited. I can tell stories too. More logical ones that increase value. During her heyday, whenever Mona smiled, the public became frightened and curious. A smile free of regret. Nobody knew the reason behind it. What if the songs on the cassette could provide an answer? The public would go wild. The story around the thing—as Ismail clearly demonstrated—mattered more than the thing itself. 

“Alright. I’ll take your offer.” Ismail’s voice was gruff. 

“That’s great. Let’s get to that after we’ve heard the songs,” I said. I brought in an old tape recorder, still in workable condition.

“Let’s not. I’ll give you my address. If the sound quality isn’t satisfactory, you can come to my place and I’ll return the money.”

“I’m a businessman, not a postman,” I said. Bad audio quality would decrease my offer.

“No, I don’t want to hear her voice. The letter brought me enough grief. I’m scared,” he said. He seemed it, too, with his quivering voice. A bit much.

“Nothing is going to happen. I’m right here. Perhaps you were a little traumatized seeing a murdered corpse up close, sir,” I said to calm him down. 

“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” he said. “Look, you don’t have to give me the money now. If you like it you let me know, I’ll come back later and get it myself.”

“Absolutely not. If something happened to the cassette later it would seem as if I tampered with it on purpose. No. We’re listening to it now, together.”

I put the cassette in the tape recorder and pressed play.

It played, nothing more than a hiss at the start. Ismail sat with his face away from the player. Since there was no sound I pressed fast-forward, then let go and pressed play again. There was still only a hiss, then complete silence. I decided to play the other side, and went to eject the tape—but by then Ismail had grabbed my hand. He squeezed very hard.

Meenakshi began to squawk. The sound was awful. She wouldn’t stop, squawking with ever greater urgency. She began to lose control, crashing into the walls of her cage. I turned to Ismail—his eyes were locked on the cassette in my hands. His grip on my wrist was far stronger than I anticipated, and I struggled to free myself. Ismail’s eyes were damp. His grip became hot, searing into me. Meenakshi began to molt in her frenzy. She started to headbutt the cage. She tried to bend the metal rods with her beak.

In a rush of pure will, I freed myself from Ismail’s grasp. I stopped the cassette player, then shook Ismail. He came to, as if out of some dream, blinking. The bird had collapsed with exhaustion.

“Did you hear it?” he asked.

This time I finally lost it. “Hear what?” I said.

“Her singing!” he said.

I’d had it. “You stupid old man! Do you take me for a fool?” I screamed. My hands found his collar.

If he’d at least been honest about his need for cash at the beginning, I might have helped. But nobody takes me for a ride.

“You didn’t hear it? Did you really not hear anything?” he said, panic in his voice.

“Enough! Stop this nonsense.” I was quite ready to slap him, and stopped only when I remembered he was my father’s age. Ismail recoiled.

“Get out!” I pushed him toward the door.

“Are you sure you didn’t hear it? Your parrot freaked out. Parrots know music, you know. Your parrot heard it. How could you miss it?”

As he stepped toward me I made to hit him again. I took out the cassette and flung it at him. 

“Damn you. The bird freaked out because you freaked me out. Fucking idiot!”

“Oh don’t say that. I’m in dire straits. Give me four hundred ringgit at least. You're supposed to give me a fair price. At least give me something and take this cassette.” The man was pleading, like a common beggar. Cassette hand outstretched.

I shut the door on him mid-sentence. A perfectly good afternoon, completely wasted. I had a good mind to go outside and just strangle him. 

I turned to my birdcage. Meenakshi looked haggard. Her beak was bloodstained. Some of her nails had come loose. The floor beneath her was full of shed gray feathers. Feeling sorry for her, I tried cradling her to me, worried at how comatose she appeared.

In a flash, Meenakshi opened her eyes. She glared up at me, long and hard. When she began screeching I froze in place—the sound was shrill and sinister. Nothing like what I’d ever heard from her. She spread her wings and grew monstrous. I tried placing her back in her cage but she pecked at my fingers till I had to let go. She then flew straight toward the main door of the house and crashed against it. I ran to open the door and let her out.

Ismail was still standing outside. Circling above him, a thousand parrots, flying in enormous formation. I couldn’t begin to fathom where they’d come from. I observed Ismail closely. His mouth moved continuously, I could even glimpse his gums. His feet tapped out a soft beat. His right arm was up above his head, urging the birds forward. His eyes were closed, his eyebrows arched. His nostrils and throat flared open and shut without pause.

Ismail was singing.

But I couldn’t make out the sound. 

The birds still spun around him, in the thousands. The sky grew dark with them. Their screeching drowned out all else. My injured Meenakshi slowly began to flap her wounded wings skyward and eventually joined her brethren above. I watched it all, paralyzed, voiceless.

© M. Navin. Translation © 2021 by Sreedhevi Iyer. All rights reserved.

Read more from the September 2021 issue
from the September 2021 issue

Sinarut 1994

“Ma, did you come into my room last night?” asked Bubin. Sulitah was busy preparing breakfast. The question went unanswered. She was stirring rice noodles swiftly in the wok. Bubin groaned inwardly and let out a small sigh. He couldn’t sleep all night. His thoughts were in a complete tangle. He was frightened that the creature would come and mess with him. He didn’t dare step out of his room. He spent the night in a cold sweat. At the crack of dawn, he finally dozed off, but only for a short spell. Since Bubin’s room faced the kitchen, any activity there early in the morning would wake him up. Today, it was the sound of sizzling hot oil that interrupted his slumber.

“No, I didn’t. Why do you ask?” Sulitah finally answered. His initial suspicion proved to be right. He was getting goosebumps all over his whole body, and it was not just because of the morning chill. Bubin felt nauseated. But he decided not to say a word about it. He didn’t wish to burden his mother with a problem that could be completely imaginary, for all he knew.

“Can you fix the window?” It was Sulitah’s turn to ask a question.

Her hands moved nimbly to shift several items on the table to make space for the large bowl of fried rice noodles she had cooked. Bubin nodded.

“But I need to buy two hinges and figure out the lock,” he said quietly.

In his mind, two red eyes stared back from behind the window screen.

“I’ll go to Ah Voon’s later at noon. Maybe they have them in stock.”

“Mom, let’s buy a TV. We could ask Dad for the money.”

And he remembered the long outstretched hand reaching for his neck last night. He tried to suppress the fear and anxiety that began to form a knot in his chest. He scooped his noodles into his mouth slowly. He knew that his request to buy a television was inconsiderate since moving here had been expensive.

But a television was what he needed to distract his mind from thinking too much about what he had gone through the past two nights.

“I will try. I cannot promise when, but I’ll find a way. You must be feeling lonely without a TV. Poor you.”

Bubin nodded. Sulitah went back to work. Tidying up and arranging this and that. There were so many plates and bowls to organize but proper storage was limited.

After breakfast, Bubin scoured underneath their stilt house to look for plywood and planks that could be used to fix the window. The morning sky appeared dark and heavy. The ground was still wet from the pouring rain the previous night which only stopped at dawn. Thankfully, the communal cleaning work that he joined the other day produced helpful results. Rainwater no longer flooded the lawn in front of their house. Bubin had to keep diverting his mind from thinking too much about the pair of eyes and long arms that he saw last night. Even though the terrors he experienced before were only nightmares, he was very certain that what he saw in Rubi’s bedroom was real.

The red eyes behind the window.

Long outstretched arms reaching for his neck.

If he were to tell Sulitah about that incident, she would surely be worried sick about her four children. The last thing he wanted to do was to move back to Matan to an old nightmare. He would rather be visited by the red-eyed ghost every night.

It was almost noon when Bubin finally decided to confide in his sister.  He spoke to Rubi about the previous night’s events in a low voice to avoid being overheard by Ozet. Sulitah had since left to buy food and necessities at Ah Voon Mini Market. The sundry shop was only one kilometer from their home. She took Robert with her.

Yet Rubi said that she hadn’t noticed anything at all, not even when Sulitah woke her up asking her to sleep in the living room. Maybe it’s because she was too tired looking after Robert all day long, on top of helping out at the food stall and keeping an eye on Ozet.

“Don’t tell Mama,” Bubin cautioned.

“It’s probably nothing, Bubin. Maybe it’s just you getting used to this place,” Rubi said, trying to set her brother’s mind at ease.

“I hope so,” he said. He was a little disappointed with Rubi’s response. She did not seem to believe him. Deep inside, he knew the terror was not over. That was only the beginning. There would be more to come. After Rubi had left, Bubin let out a weary sigh.


* * *

Sulitah reached home carrying not just the goods Bubin had asked her to buy, but also two bits of good news. She bumped into an old friend who had just opened a restaurant in town. Her friend knew about Sulitah’s cooking skills and had offered her a job as the head chef at his restaurant.

“He’s offering me three hundred and eighty per month. But I’ve already told him I can only work during school holidays. Once confirmed, he’ll give four hundred to begin with, then after three months he will raise it to four hundred and fifty. I can start in two or three days.”

“That’s great, Mama. Wonderful news! The thing at the market will only begin next year, right?” said Rubi, referring to another planned venture of Sulitah’s, as a partner in a food stall.

Her school friend Latipah, who’d been running the business for ten years, asked Sulitah recently if she would like to be her partner. She’d replace Latipah’s sister who would be moving to Kota Marudu. However, according to the deal they had agreed upon, the partnership would only become effective early the following year. In the meantime, while it was still school holidays, Latipah occasionally asked Sulitah to come over to help as and when needed, when her sister was busy with moving arrangements. Rubi was also promised an allowance of twenty ringgit a month, since she was the only one who could be relied on to babysit Ozet and Robert while Sulitah was at work.

“If you’re interested, Bubin, Ah Voon is also looking for a part-time worker,” Sulitah said. More good news.

“How much per month?” Bubin asked as he hammered nails into four planks to make a window frame.

“It depends on how much work you do, he said. At least eighty, at most one hundred and fifty.”

“Oh. That’s not much. The place where Engtai is working, they give him one hundred and sixty.”

“You can work whichever you want. But Ah Voon’s is nearer to our home. You can just walk there.”

Bubin did not answer. He needed to keep his focus on his work because the raindrops were beginning to fall from the sky. Drops fell on his arm and shattered like transparent beads. He quietly agreed to work at Ah Voon Mini Market during the school holiday. It’ll help us buy the TV sooner, he thought.


* * *

It was nearly dusk when the windowpane was fully installed in Rubi’s bedroom. Even that took some nagging from Sulitah before Bubin got the job done. He was distracted all day, his mind occupied by the dark figure with red eyes. Each time the image appeared in his mind, he lay down until his mind cleared and he felt calmer.

“Don’t be lazy, Bubin. How are you going to finish the job if you’re resting so much? At this rate, the window’s going to remain broken for yet another night,” Sulitah nagged her son.

Bubin had been procrastinating since noon, and she had had enough. As a parent, it wasn’t her intention to bark orders at her children to work around the house. But she wanted them to grow up to be self-reliant adults. Without the need to depend on others for help.

She was always grateful to be blessed with children who listened to her and didn’t make a fuss, as she was practically a single mother. Struggling to raise four children with only a single pair of hands. Her eldest daughter, Rubi, would be taking her SPM examination next year. Her plan was to nudge Rubi to further her education in the sixth form. She could also apply to a nursing program or teaching institute. Sulitah wasn’t very worried because she knew as well as others had for some time that Rubi was a bright student, with great potential for success.

There was only one thing Sulitah was hoping for. That her husband, Simon, who worked in Sandakan would support Rubi’s education financially. That was why she refrained from making other requests. Although the money he sent her at the end of each month could only cover half of their monthly expenses, she didn’t want to complain. She was patiently waiting to see the fruits that her endurance would bear.

Bubin would be in form three, and also taking an important examination. Sulitah didn’t expect Bubin to pass his exams with flying colors, it would be enough for her to see him put in the effort to get a reasonable result. Bubin’s academic achievement bordered on moderate, but he was very talented when it came to working with wood. He had built so many things all by himself. He was too young to take over his father’s roles, but had shown his mature side.

Her third child, Rolbina Rozette, was entering standard three. She was still young and could not grasp the complexity of life yet. Sulitah’s life had changed ever since she was pregnant with her fourth child, Ozet. Her dreams for the perfect family and the perfect career had faded away slowly due to lost time and marital problems. She never blamed Ozet. It never crossed her mind that Ozet could have brought bad luck to the family. On the contrary, it was her that she loved the most. Ozet’s cheerful disposition brought a ray of sunshine to their family.

Her last child, Rolbine Robert, was born almost two years ago, and she hoped he could salvage her worsening marital situation. Perhaps Simon’s heart would soften because of the baby, she had thought. Maybe he would change and treat her and their children more fairly. But she was wrong. That was why she wanted Rubi to succeed in life. So that her daughter would not have to make so many sacrifices just to pine for her love to be returned by someone who would never appreciate all the sacrifices she made. So that she would be happy in the future. Don’t be like Mama, she thought quietly. Tears fell. She did not know what she had done wrong, to be condemned to a life filled with false hopes.


* * *

“Mama’s been crying,” whispered Rubi. Bubin nodded and continued with his hammering. As a boy who did not fully comprehend women’s emotions, he wasn’t sure how to respond. He knew why Sulitah cried, but he loathed talking about it. Why couldn’t Mama just leave Father? We’ve been living on our own anyway, he thought. He shook his head and tightened his grip on the hammer.

“So, I’m saying, it would be good if you just accept Mama’s suggestion. Go and work at Ah Voon’s. Let’s make things better for her. Poor Mama,” Rubi said.

Bubin chose to remain silent. He purposely directed his energy toward his woodworking. So much so that the veins on his arms bulged. Tung–tang–tung–tang. The sound of the hammer hitting the nail filled the space. Rubi stood next to him, refusing to budge. Once Bubin installed the window shutter, he immediately tested it to make sure that it fit, and that the latch he had screwed on worked.

“There you go. Your window is all fixed,” he said.

“Why don’t you sleep here for two nights? If you confirm there’s no ghost, then I’ll sleep here.”

“Chicken!” Bubin retorted.

Rubi wanted to make a sarcastic comeback, but she had to dash out. Robert’s cries were far more urgent than responding to Bubin’s teasing. Little did she know that Bubin had already made up his mind not to accept her offer. He wanted to try sleeping in the living room that night. He couldn’t bear the weight of his fear in the dark of night. Even so, he had planned to put Sulitah’s Bible under his pillow. The Bible was the only spiritual item in the house. He hoped this action could put a stop to the strange incidents that had been terrorizing him.

* * *

Bubin woke up with a start and realized that the lights that he had purposely left on had been switched off. In the dark, his hands groped for the Bible underneath his pillow. It was still there. Slowly, he rose from the bed and headed toward the door. He switched the light back on and was overcome with relief when he observed nothing amiss in the room. Everything was in its place, just as it had been before he went to sleep. Bubin sat on the bed facing the window with its new shutters. Then he turned toward the wall facing Sulitah’s bedroom.


What was that sound? Who was that? His heart raced. He could not move. He sat still. The scratching sound on the wall followed by a few knocks made the hairs on his arms and neck stand on end. Determined to fight back, he worked up his courage to knock on the wall. As he expected, whoever or whatever was on the other side knocked back! Bubin then heard soft laughter and whispers. The sounds persisted until he lost his patience. Bubin stood up abruptly and strode out of the room. That darned Rubi! He exploded with anger. It must be Rubi who was mocking him from the next room! He pushed Sulitah’s door but it was locked. So he knocked on the door repeatedly until it opened a crack. He could see a figure moving inside the room.

Suddenly, buckets of rain started to fall on the house. It was as though a hail of rice grains was being poured onto the zinc roof. Then the roof gave way and the water flooded over him. He was drenched! Bubin jerked awake. The light in the room was still on. He raised both his hands. They were dry. What a crazy nightmare.

© Alis Padasian. Translation © 2021 by Siti Malini Mat. All rights reserved.

Read more from the September 2021 issue
from the September 2021 issue

Monsoon Fable

Jack Malik evokes a monsoon-soaked landscape in this short prose poem.

Words Without Borders · Poet Jack Malik Reads "Monsoon Fable"

Listen to Jack Malik read "Monsoon Fable" in the original Malay

gray nets. sand clots. bottles as litanies, adrift. drowned voices. here silence is apparent-most. the answer arrives in a spectrum-guised shard. coral-corpse eavesdrop. seven seas heave foam, beckoning home. wind departs. raving nira waves. vacant sea. sugar-hued shores consecrate at daybreak. sembah guru. healing waters. freshwater. rose water, thousand-bloom. customs of old. enter relief. revived as riddles. skies entwine in shadow-play. frog cries saturate. life inundates. crane stares blacken. death curdles. ancestral winds whirl, titih-churned. source and cause converge. silvered horizon weighs heavy in gestation. kolae boat lulls, silenced. here, where roots spring. uprooting. blood-blossoms. slithering flooding surging forth. glint-shaped. eternal, on the surface. the ephemeral elongates, in essence.


© Jack Malik. Translation © 2021 Thira Mohamad. All rights reserved.

Read more from the September 2021 issue
from the September 2021 issue

The Lovers of Muharram

With this short story from 1977, Fatimah Busu, a writer known to this day for her acute portrayals of the contradictions of Malaysian society, became known for unconventional boldness in her portrayal of female desire and reckless love. 

The Angel of Paradise stands at the crest of Mount Sinai. The Angel of Paradise wears a robe of satin, in a shimmering dove gray. The Angel of Paradise holds a shiny black staff, hewn out of wood from a tree of heaven. 

And the sun of the last dusk of the month of Zulhijah casts its yellow-red-gold rays over the green grass and the large rocks and the small white, pale blue, and pink daisies and over the leaves of the tree of heaven, finally falling on the Angel of Paradise’s robe and on his hair that cascades in brown curls until grazing his shoulders.

A gentle cool breeze is blowing. And the leaves of the tree of heaven quiver and surge with life as they rustle, sighing to one another, and some sway and turn upside down. A lustrous glow emanates, reflecting the sunlight that scatters on the leaves of the tree of heaven, pale green and velvety. 

At this moment, two pristine leaves appear on the tree of heaven, unmarked by any inscription. 

The Angel of Paradise is startled. The Angel of Paradise takes his staff and walks toward the tree of heaven. Tok-tok, tok-tok, the tip of his staff clatters against the rocks that cradle the crest of Mount Sinai.

It seems as if these two leaves of the tree of heaven have sprouted only moments ago. Or could it have been an oversight, since these two leaves are concealed by dense foliage? Should these two leaves be left as they are until dawn arrives on the first morning of the month of Muharram? 

The Angel of Paradise turns to face west. The flaming red-gold rays of the evening sun saturate the sky above the desert, unfurled in its ochre vastness. He sees the panorama of the sprawling city all the way to the gray-blue sea. And the walls of the city have turned parchment yellow in the dusk. Ships glide, their funnels churning black smoke into the evening air. He sees the pinnacles of skyscrapers strewn against the boundlessness of the galaxy. He sees the network of telegraph wires. He sees the labyrinth of bridges and roads. He sees countless vehicles crisscrossing in all directions. He sees people moving like swarms of ants. He sees everything. He sees all.

Along a road somewhere outside a city in the west, there is a wanderer. His stride is determined and he looks straight ahead. And along a road somewhere outside a city in the east, there is a wanderer. Her steps are steady, her gaze fixed firmly before her. 

Does each wanderer sense the existence of the other? Where is the end of each of their journeys? Do they intend to keep wandering until the end of the last night of the month of Zulhijah?

The Angel of Paradise spirits toward the wanderer outside the walls of the city in the west. 

“Where are you going, sir?”

“I’m searching for something.”

“What are you in search of?”

“A companion.”

“A companion for what?”

“For the life in this world and maybe the next.”

Then the Angel of Paradise leaves the wanderer outside the city in the west and again spirits toward the wanderer outside the city in the east.

“Where are you going, Miss?”

“I’ll find out when I get there.”

“How long will you wander?”

“I’ll find out when I get there.”

“Don’t you want to stop somewhere to rest?”

“I’ll find out when I get there.”

“Doesn’t this kind of wandering only bring disquiet?”

“I’ll find out when I get there.”

The Angel of Paradise breaks a twig from the tree of heaven that dangles close to his brow. Milky white sap oozes from the twig’s stump, dripping onto the green grass and the large rocks scattered below the tree of heaven. 

The Angel of Paradise dips the snapped-off end of the twig into the beads of sap on the stone. The Angel inscribes the first Arab letter sin, followed by the letter ya, then the letters dal and nun, and then zal, until the letters form the complete name of the wanderer outside the city in the west.  

Again the Angel of Paradise dips the twig of the tree of heaven into the beads of sap and inscribes another letter below the name of the wanderer outside the city in the west, starting with the letter pa, then the letter alif, then the letter ta, until the letters form the complete name of the wanderer outside the city in the east. 

The Angel of Paradise carefully regards the letters inscribed on the leaves of the tree of heaven. These two leaves are now engraved with the names of the two wanderers he had earlier spirited upon.

The Angel of Paradise smiles. He is pleased with the result of his work. The other leaves of the tree of heaven rustle gently in the twilight breeze. And the sun of the last dusk of the month of Zulhijah sinks into the desert horizon in the west and the western sky billows into wondrous variegated clouds.


The Wanderer from the West

I am on my way to the small town of Sindalaya, southwest of the city. And I hope I can return before nightfall. 

As I pass through the small town of Langsala, I remember that there are no cigarettes left in my tobacco case. On a lone journey like this, one of course needs something that can help the senses focus on the road and the meandering vehicles all around. 

I stop my car at the roadside, right in front of a row of shops in the town of Langsala. And now I am about to cross the street to one of the shops.

I see her standing by a pushcart vendor selling peeled fruits. Her blouse is black. Her sand-colored sarong is patterned with a pair of brown eagle wings. A black belt, two inches wide. A pair of black sandals, partially concealed by the hem of her sarong. She wears a plastic ivory-colored pearl on a red plastic arm-cuff. And a red bag with long straps hangs from her shoulder. 

From a distance, I caress her arms and shoulders with my gaze. How smooth and bare in the overcast late afternoon. And I stroke her hair. Thick black hair, ending in curls, cascading to the left and right of her chest and flowing down her back. 

She’s tall and a little plump, her body is formed as if by the dexterous hands of a sculptor. 

As she moves on to another fruit vendor, I want to grasp her arm. I go into a shop and buy cigarettes, then I smoke a stick and continue watching her.  

Now she is buying a papaya and talking to the fruit seller. I approach her from behind. 

“May I ask you something?”

“Yes? Oh, what . . . ?”

“What a large papaya you are buying . . .”

“Ah, ya . . .”

She takes the papaya which she has placed in a plastic bag, holding it with both arms together with a tin of powdered milk.

“Your husband didn’t come with you?”

“Husband? Me? Oh . . . ha . . . ha . . .”

“Do you have a husband?”

“Who needs a husband when one can get by just fine on her own?”

“Is that so? May I ask . . .”


“Where are you going after this?”

“To buy something for dinner.”


“Over there, at that little restaurant.”

“Why don’t you eat with me at that restaurant?”

“Thanks, but I’m afraid I won’t make it back before Maghrib prayers are over.”

“Are you so pious?”

“No. Just fulfilling my obligations to God.”

“I’m Syed Nazri . . . just call me N if you like.”

“Nice to meet you . . .”

“Such soft hands . . .”

“Nature has its ways.”

 “There’s a car that wants to get past. You better move yours out of the way.”

“I don’t have a right to do that. Those who come first go first. Those who come later leave later. Why should someone else always yield?”

“Alright . . . you win. Oh, is this right here your photo?”


“Where was it taken?”

“On the island of Langkawi.”

“And this sentence: In a crowded world, I only have myself. What does it mean?”

“You don’t understand it?”

“Is it true that you are all alone in this world? Father, mother, siblings?”

“My father is deceased. My mother lives alone in the village. I have three older sisters in the village too.”

“You are the youngest?”


“Will you go out with me tomorrow?”

“Where do you want to take me?”

“For a meal, for a walk, to gaze at the sea . . .”

“Where should I wait?”

“Here. I’ll come at half-past seven in the evening. Surely you would have done your Maghrib prayers by then.”

“Alright. I think I’ll go home now . . .”


The Wanderer from the East

Shall I describe the loneliness of being deserted by a lover like the loneliness of a shore suddenly deserted by the waves? Or the desolation of a mountain suddenly stripped of all its vegetation, until not a single green leaf or blade of grass remains? 

Until now, I do not know where Abdullah is. Abdullah has really disappeared. Abdullah no longer calls to ask me out for lunch. Abdullah no longer takes me out every Saturday night. Abdullah no longer brings me to the beach every Sunday to watch the waves.

And Abdullah no longer cares how I feel. Abdullah might as well be dead. How tormenting it is, Abdullah’s sudden absence. I’m bewildered. Unhinged. I hardly know what to do anymore. 

God, how grateful I would be if You could let me encounter Abdullah again on the pavement of a five-foot way, or a crossroad, or at the edge of any public space!

Now I have come to the small town of Langsala, without any specific intention of buying anything. I want Abdullah to catch sight of me in a public space. 

Only now I remember that there’s no milk powder left at home. And there is no fruit in the fridge. So I might as well buy some fruit, now that I’ve strayed into Langsala. 

As I bargain over a papaya, the sky grows overcast. The evening sun has vanished behind the peaks of the Bukit Bendera range. And I still harbor the hope that Abdullah will suddenly appear before the rain.

Someone is coming. Not Abdullah. A sturdy man. Honey-dark skin. Fine curly hair. A thick mustache. He has a slight belly and stands a few inches taller than me. He wears a long-sleeved shirt with thin stripes—yellow, light green, pale red—in the style of Come September. And dark gray trousers.

Who is he? I feel that I have seen him somewhere. Have I met him before? When? Where? An off-campus student? A police officer? Or what is he?

Now he asks me some trivial questions. And now he is walking on my right, accompanying me to my car. A whiff of cologne drifts over from his body now and then, carried by the dusk breeze. I can hear the click-clacking of his shoes, his steady footfall against the gravel street in the town of Langsala. 

And now he enters the car to sit beside me. I hear him chuckle three times. And I see him grin a few times. His voice is somewhat rough, hoarse, its tone full of teasing. 

He says my car isn’t quite right here and there. He says my car is no good. It will need to be replaced after two or three years of use. Its metal rusts easily. Its engine was assembled locally. They put in a compact engine that’s difficult to repair if any of its parts malfunction.

“I’m thrilled by your ass,” he blurts out. “I’m captivated!”

“You’re crazy!”

“Yes, that’s right! If I had looked at your face first, I surely wouldn’t be this crazy. Perhaps I wouldn’t even have come to talk to you . . .”

I ask God whether this man is a devil or an ordinary, cruel human being. I’m shocked that he behaves so strangely. I’m appalled at the sight of him.

I’m hurt by the way he talks to me. Deeply offended. I bury my rage, to take revenge on him tomorrow night. In God’s name, I will strike back at him with all my wrath for every word he uttered. What a pig he is! What an ape!

I did not come to Langsala to meet him. I came to look for Abdullah. Or I came in search of a little peace, and something to fill my vacant heart.

He takes my right hand and kisses it for a few moments. In his eyes I see a glint of lust, caught in the light from the restaurant across the street. I feel a soft heat on the back of my right hand.

Night arrives with a lingering drizzle. And I feel uneasy and disgraced and guilty for having met him.

Who is he? An off-campus student? A police officer? A devil? A djinn? Why did God put such a cruel man in my path? Was it he who sent his spirit two days ago as the yellow butterfly with white and blue-gray dots that perched on my shoulder, to bewitch me?


The Trees

We are the trees thrusting skyward in this botanical garden. We are the ones who watch the sun return every evening to its sanctuary beyond the mountain peaks. We are the ones who see the sun at daybreak rising above the face of the eastern sea. 

And we are the ones who witness lovers exchanging vows. And we are the ones who hear the promises of love. And we are the ones who taste the scent of love’s flesh in the flowers that we scatter.

Now we watch the last sun of the month of Zulhijah disappear behind the mountains. As the damp night wind rustles our leaves and branches and tendrils, we move and rub against each other in the secret solitude of the hushed night. And darkness enshrouds our existence in the color of night. 

Among the cars resting in our shade along the roadside, something is new tonight. Perhaps it is a renewal that will arrive with the month of Muharram?

Two people are walking. Holding hands. There are whispers, words unheard. Words of seduction, flirtatious and playful. They pause beneath our branches.

“I’m so glad I met you. I’ve always admired beautiful women, but I never imagined I would be with one of them.”

“The other day you said my face wouldn’t earn a score. How can I walk beside you without showing my face?”

“You don't have any faults . . .”

“Why did you bring me here?” 

“Have you never been?”

“Never at night like this.”

“I want to tell you a secret.”


“The other evening, I did not gaze at you from head to toe.”


“I looked at you from the tip of your toes to the ends of your hair. I did not see shadows. I looked straight into you.”

“And what happened then?”

“I immediately loved what I saw . . . I felt I had found what I’ve been looking for. When I look back on my past, I’m filled with regret. I’ve never received love or affection from anyone. Once, when I lay in a hospital for a week not a single woman came to visit and bring me flowers . . . if I fell ill again, would you come to visit me?”

“Of course I would. As long as you don’t die when you see my face.”

“Ah, don’t tease. Tell me you love me.”

“So fast? We just met a few nights ago . . . love and affection must be cultivated, they don’t just explode like a balloon.”

“They can. Love can explode in our hearts like a balloon.”

“That’s just fantasy.”

 “No. My love for you has exploded like a balloon . . . I want to make you my wife . . . will you accept?”

“Hold on. Don’t rush things. I don’t even know you . . . you could be a drug dealer, or a thief, who knows. I don’t want to marry someone I don’t know. Besides, I don’t like anything about you yet.”

“You don’t even like one thing about me?”

“Your shirt, I guess. I like your shirt.”

“How nice of you . . . you seem to be having your revenge . . .”

“Glad you feel that way. Who are you really?”

“Oh, God . . . . this is my deepest secret of all . . .”

“So you are a drug dealer . . .”

“For God’s sake, don’t show such contempt. Here’s my identity card…”

“It’s dark, how am I supposed to see . . .”

“Hold on, I’ll light a match . . . there, look . . . you see?”

“Oh, so you are . . .?”

And we, the trees, witness the two bodies sway and fall to the earth and into eternal ecstasy, nestled among our roots. And we hear the dry leaves that cover the earth crackle at the touch of each hair and finger. And our roots shudder for a moment beneath the woman’s sultry breath. And we scatter small flowers to cover her bare breasts.

And now we know of the Angel of Paradise’s wiles. He is no doubt sound asleep now upon his heavenly divan.


Blown in Off the Street

I am standing on my balcony looking out on the mountain range in the west. The sun is hidden. But I can see it casting beams of light from the mountain into the evening sky, as clouds form in resplendent, breathtaking tones. 

That’s when I see her coming, walking into our yard from the main street. She’s wearing a dark gray sarong and a sleeveless black halter top,and she’s carrying a navy blue umbrella. The evening light strikes her bare arms.

“Hey! Pat . . . am I dreaming? It’s been ages since you visited. Come up, come up.”

I run down from the balcony and stand before her. I see her eyes are bloodshot and dewy, and her face is sullen.

“How are you?”

“More or less how I look. I’m well . . . fine . . . and you? Are you ill? Come upstairs first . . .”

Pat sits with her legs dangling from a yellow plastic chair on the balcony facing the mountains. She looks as if she is dreaming of a former happiness.

“Is your family not at home?”

“Abah is in the back room, resting. Mak is out with my younger siblings . . . My brother is playing badminton at the club. Why, Pat?”

Pat is still gazing into the distance, toward something near the peak of the mountain. I cannot tell what she is looking at because I don’t see anything in particular at the top of the mountain, except a formless grayish blue.


A few months ago, Pat had come to this same balcony wearing a red sleeveless blouse, a white sarong skirt, and a white scarf fluttering from her neck.

I still remember Pat running toward me like a young kijang deer and wrapping me in an embrace. I remember Pat’s cheeks were flushed with a joy that she could not conceal, brimming from her heart.

“Ti,” Pat said, “I’m happy. I’m overjoyed. He truly loves me.”

“Oh, wow, congratulations, Pat. You've finally met someone you love, and who loves you . . . that’s really great. How do you know he truly loves you?”

“We’ve already discussed our wedding. We’ve discussed how many children we want.”

“Ho ho! How many did you say you want?”

“I want them all, girls, boys, half a dozen, a dozen, it doesn’t matter . . . but he only wants two sons. He says if we have two children and they are both girls, he wants us to stop there. He would rather adopt.”

“Oh, I’m getting goosebumps just listening to you, Pat!”

“Ah, you don’t know . . . it gets even more intense . . .”

“Tell me!”

“He always holds and kisses me in front of his friends . . . he doesn’t care anymore, if he feels like kissing . . . he keeps telling his friends to ask me if I love him . . .”

“Eeek, the hair on my neck is standing . . .”

“You know what he did last night?”

“Hah, what?”

“Four of his friends were sitting with us at the park looking out at the sea. He took off my shoes and put my feet on his lap. I was so embarrassed. People passing by looked at us and giggled. I got up and walked barefoot toward the sand. Do you know what he did? He followed me and carried my shoes the whole way . . . he’s really crazy, like a monkey who's found an egg and isn't sure what to do with it.”

“I am happy for you . . . look after his heart. This time I hope it lasts till the end of time!”

“I hope so too. He always says he won’t forget me till the end of time. He always asks me to tell him I love him . . . asks me to think of him . . . oh, I feel so glorious now, I feel that God has given him to me as a new year's gift . . .”


But now Pat’s cheeks are no longer flushed. Her lips are clamped, quivering as if hiding a terrible secret. I hear Pat sigh three or four times, still gazing at the mountains in the west that are fading fast in the evening light. 

“Pat . . . why?”

“You want to be burdened with this secret?”

“In the name of Allah . . . I will keep it to myself alone. What is it?”

“Look at my belly . . . Do you see anything?”

“No, it looks normal . . . just a little . . .”

“I am carrying his child . . . almost five months now . . .”

Subhanallah! Astaghfirullah! When will you marry?”

“What point is there to marrying . . . it’s not as if you don’t know, I’ve been living at his house . . . he says a marriage certificate is just a piece of paper . . . a receipt for the purchase of a woman . . .”

“But what about his child, then? Don’t you know that such a sin will be borne by the child down to seven generations? What if your child is a girl . . . when she’s old enough to marry, what will others say when she takes a wali raja because she has no male guardian related by blood?”

“I’ll try harder . . . has your mother ever mentioned anything about a concoction to abort a pregnancy? Or have you heard of anything?”

“No. They don’t discuss that around me. You yourself know that they treat me like a child, because I’m not yet married.”

“I don’t know . . . I have to find a way . . .”

“I once read that some women eat unripe pineapple, some drink the water of the celaka root, visit a traditional midwife . . .”

“I’ve tried everything.”

“Isn’t he helping you?”

“He wants the child.”

“Then get married and quick!”

“How can we? I’m not a Syarifah, not a descendant of Syeds. He is a descendant of Syeds. His parents have already said they don’t like me. He certainly won’t throw away his parents because of me.”

“Oh, God . . . Can I go see him now or tomorrow, before you get any more pregnant?”

“See him?”

“Yes . . .”

“You . . . you know where he is now?”


“I don’t know. He hasn’t been home for a month. He said he has some things to settle in KL. Not so much as a letter… no news… I asked his friends, none of them know anything.”

Ya Rabbi . . . Do you think he has left you?”

“I think so . . . the only clothes he left are the ones he doesn’t wear . . .”

“How are you going to hide your belly at work later?”

“I have already given notice of resignation at the end of this month . . .”

Ya Rabbilalamin . . . how are you going to live?”

“I am applying for a job at a firm . . .”

“What if you don’t get it?”

“I’ll sell my body . . .”

“If you won’t be ashamed for yourself, for your mother or your family, at least be ashamed for me . . .”

“Hahahaha . . . I’m just joking.”

“What about your rent?”

“He paid this month’s rent already . . . next month I’ll leave.”

“Where will you stay?”

“I don’t know . . .”

“I’m afraid, Pat . . . afraid to listen to your story.”

“It’s good if you are afraid. I am far too bold. I feel lighter now after talking to you. Tomorrow or the day after, I’ll come by again, if you aren’t ashamed to be seen with me . . .”

“Come, Pat, come. I feel awful for your predicament . . .”

Pat leaves. Her silhouette disappears at the street’s curve into the twilight. I see the mountain peaks in the west looming in the darkness like a sleeping demon. 



On this terrible morning, everything is relentless—a downpour from a sky heavy with gray clouds, soaked leaves and water dripping everywhere, branches and twigs now refreshed with rain. 

The young monkeys of the troop are nowhere to be seen. Who knows where the infants are taking shelter: under some branch or at the base of some tree. Who knows which roots cradle the offspring, which hollow. The lingering quiet is broken by a long screech, kreeeeeiiiiiiih, in the middle of the jungle toward the top of the hill.

Again, the long-drawn-out screeching. Once. Twice. Three times . . . and all the young ones emerge, bounding in the direction of the sound. From all corners they tumble out, chattering boisterously. The branches shake with the commotion, sending raindrops scattering onto the leaves. 

“Who is causing such unrest?” 

“Is it the troop from the other side coming to attack us again?”

Now all the young ones have gathered, paying no attention to the rain and the drops of water on their backs. The offspring do not care that their fur is soaked. Their black tails dangle close below their abdomens.

Now everyone is jumping at the top of the hill, toward a grove of large trees. 

The male chief reaches the branch of a seraya tree and tells us all to stop. We all stop. The young ones are all drenched.

“Uu! Uu! Uuuuuu!” the male chief cries out, his muzzle pointing ahead. And he shakes the tree with both hands a few times, furrowing his brow and widening his eyes.

And we see it. All the infants come close to gather on the rain-soaked branches. 

A young woman is tossing in the earth by the gnarled roots of a meranti tree. Her arms are flailing, her legs twitching. Her clothes are soaked through. The dry leaves beneath her are smeared with red fluid. Between her thighs, a little creature is moving and shrieking incessantly.

Now the woman slowly gets up. She wipes herself with a cloth stained with red patches. Then she wraps the restless little creature in the cloth. She stands up and tries to walk, staggering while clutching the giant roots. She doesn’t look at us. Her face is almost covered by her thick black dripping-wet hair.

She doesn’t turn around. Slowly she clambers down the rocky chasm, grasping at twigs and roots. Then she vanishes.

We bound forward. The branches shudder and raindrops scatter onto the leaves.

“Uuuu! Uuuuuu! Uuuuuu! Kreeeeiiiiiikkkkk.”

The male chief climbs down to the soil by the roots of the meranti tree, where the little creature lies. The male chief tears open the swaddling cloth, rummaging with both his hands. The female chief runs over and snatches the cloth, tearing it to pieces. Shreds of cloth are now strewn over the leaves here and there.

The cry of the strange restless creature is shrill. The female chief kisses the face of the little creature. The male chief pulls at one of its arms. Their offspring arrive. Each of them pointing with their muzzles, dangling from the branches, and crunching dry leaves underfoot. 

Now all of them reach out to touch the strange shrieking creature. More and more young ones gather around. Some pull at its eyelids. Some squeeze its nose, others pinch its ears. Some tug at its hair. Others pull at its fingers and toes. Some pull the cord that runs from its navel and is attached to a mushy object flung upon the dry leaves. 

Suddenly a young one bites the cord from its navel until it ruptures. The strange creature gives out a long, deafening cry. Another young one bites at its fingers and chews them off. Another bites at its toes and chews them off too. More young ones come and sink their teeth in.

Now the strange creature releases a scream to curdle the blood, as it flails the stumps of its hands and feet. Another young one digs at its eye and plucks it out. The little creature stops shrieking and is silent.


Two Teardrops

We see the Angel of Paradise amble to the crest of Mount Sinai. He stands beneath the tree of heaven and tilts his head, observing all the leaves rustling in the wind of this overcast evening. 

“Be still, all you leaves of the tree of heaven . . . remain pristine and untouched . . . . I shall no longer inscribe the names of the children of Adam upon your skin.”

We see two teardrops fall from the eyes of the Angel of Paradise, roll down his cheeks, then finally fall upon the large rocks scattered at his feet, and the rocks shatter into tiny stones.


© Fatimah Busu. Translation © 2021 by Pauline Fan. All rights reserved.

Read more from the September 2021 issue
from the September 2021 issue

Poem in June

In this reverie, modernist poet T. Alias Taib writes verses to an imaginary lover.

Words Without Borders · Eddin Khoo reads T. Alias Taib's "Poem in June"

Listen to Eddin Khoo reads T. Alias Taib's "Poem in June" in the original Malay


my girl
       my mustache and beard still kept dirty for you
my sweet
       isn’t dirt the realm of your love? 
the grass
       flutters thrashed by a green moss wind
       billows like a fish forced to its death
the cape
        does not pulse, the boats are gazing
the heart
        does not beat, on its branch solitude dangles


the sky
        flowing sadness delivered from space
         slipping and sliding towards the thighs
a field
         stretches, a pilgrim shuffles in despair


her face
         the furrows of an unshaven plank 
her restlessness
          the disquiet of a raging wind
          the sun falling on the folds of my eyes dazzling
           fences the surroundings, your voice rasping


© T. Alias Taib. Translation © 2021 by Eddin Khoo. All rights reserved.

Read more from the September 2021 issue

Malay and Dusun

Fatimah Busu

Chang Yoong Chia

M. Navin

The Watchlist: August 2021

my great-grandmother had the health of a cosmonaut

Maria Tselovatova

Two Poems

J. Bret Maney

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Afghan Author D

Afghan Author C

Afghan Author B

Afghan Author A

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Izidora Angel

from the July/August 2021 issue

Dear B.

Siti Malini Mat

Alis Padasian

Sreedhevi Iyer

Pauline Fan

from the July/August 2021 issue

Marina Jarre’s Stunning Memoir, “Distant Fathers,” Maps Its Author’s Peripatetic Search for Herself

Reviewed by Hannah Weber

“I’m Latvian, but I speak German and I don’t understand who Jesus Christ is,” wrote Jarre, who was born in Latvia to an Italian mother and a Latvian Jewish father, was sent as a child to live in a Francophone community in northern Italy, and later settled in Turin. Her memoir is a multilingual interior monologue which feels like the truest representation of memory (a flood of narratives, images, and dreams outside of time) and shows a woman fumbling for her identity while never feeling wholly at home anywhere.

It may be cliché to say that a book transports you to another world, but in a period hemmed in by lockdowns and travel restrictions, Marina Jarre’s memoir Distant Fathers (I padri lontani) stands out, among other reasons, simply for covering so much geographical, linguistic, and temporal ground. Jarre was born in Latvia in 1925 to an Italian mother and a Latvian Jewish father. After her parents’ divorce in 1935, she and her younger sister Sisi were sent to live with her maternal grandmother in a community of Francophone Protestants in the north of Italy. She never saw her father again. He and the rest of his family were killed by the Nazis only a few years later in 1941.

Distant Fathers begins in Turin, the city where Jarre spent her adult life grappling with ideas of culture, displacement, language, and belonging. All of these elements are rooted in her peripatetic coming-of-age story. She is told she is Latvian and a Christian, but maintains a lifelong “unease” with this identity, remarking “I’m Latvian, but I speak German and I don’t understand who Jesus Christ is.”

The narration alternates between past and present, composing an autobiography that feels like the truest representation of memory: a flood of narratives, images, and dreams outside of time, presented precisely like how one might talk to oneself. Jarre is keen to show how we carry all of the memories and impressions of adolescence into adulthood, and that these memories can seep through at any opportune moment. The book is divided into three parts, though the barriers between them are permeable and fluid. The first part covers her childhood in Riga. The second depicts her adolescence in a new country and a new language, moving from Riga to the small community of Torre Pellice, and from German to French. The third section follows her attempts to consolidate her identity as a woman, daughter, mother, wife, and writer, as well as someone who has never felt wholly at home in the place she lives.

The title Distant Fathers is, in a way, misleading. Jarre’s most meaningful encounters are with the women in her life; she takes long, penetrating looks at her relationships to her mother, grandmother, and sister Sisi, and later with herself as a mother. Jarre’s father is barely present even in her early years, disappearing for long hours and leaving her mother to work and raise the children alone. When he does spend time with Jarre and Sisi, it is painfully strained:

“While I play warily with my dolls in a room that’s been turned upside down [. . .] my father eats jellied calves’ feet, sitting in his bathrobe at the dining room table, I feel that I pity him.”

This pity, and regret for her long silences with him, are profoundly adult feelings already “festering” in Jarre even before her tenth birthday. With her mother, she slips back into a child’s world: she keeps a mental tally of fictitious “points” of approval she has scored; she relishes being ill and taken care of. During the divorce proceedings, she must tell the judge whom she would like to live with. Choosing her mother allows her to return to the business of being a child:

“I’ve already done enough by choosing her [. . .]. I would like to be left in peace now with my dolls, my babies; I’d like to water the flowers, then go out at sunset and smell the summer fragrance of the hay far beyond the stony confines of the city.”

Even as her mother ages, Jarre notes: “I continued to court her, to challenge her to the intimacy that would have confirmed her affection.”

While Distant Fathers has drawn comparisons to Annie Ernaux’s memoirs and Nabakov’s Speak, Memory, Jarre’s voice is singular. Ann Goldstein, the celebrated translator of works by Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi, broadens the scope of the reader’s interactions with Jarre’s multilingual interior monologue. Lengthier passages of French or German are left in the original language and supported by a footnote translation, while some words—“Sehnsucht,” “drôle”—are left to speak for themselves. Others still are silently merged into the English translation. The translation eloquently conjures up Jarre’s world: words appear in myriad languages, sometimes displaced from their original contexts, but always saying something about the memory they’re attached to.

Later, moments of her writing life emerge; she writes her first timid poetry as a teenager, and puts the finishing touches on her first book, The Mad Tram Driver, while pregnant with her fourth child. Her style is thick and dense—it closes in on the reader, a method that itself requires close reading. Goldstein also notes in her introduction that Jarre’s “sudden changes of pace and tone and abrupt shifts in subject . . . always circle back, creating a kind of tightly controlled stream of consciousness.” She is in turns corporeal and emotional, capricious and deadly serious. Her gaze gives equal weight to the poetic,

“the sound of the piano and the held breath of the winter wind when it’s about to hurl itself, whirling, across the snowy plain [. . .]”

and the unpleasant,

“I feel like throwing up, maybe because of the smell of hot chocolate, maybe because I saw a hair wrapped around the child’s big toe.”

The intimacy of these encounters with memory comes in part from Jarre’s frankness about her memory’s fallibility. She describes elaborate incidents from early childhood, only to admit that her sister remembers them differently. Often, it is the smallest details that differ: Sisi licks sugar, not cream as Jarre remembers, from the top of a box of candied pineapple. She also knows that some memories must first be excavated, uncovered in an adolescent diary or in an object inherited from her mother after her death, dusted off and re-examined.

As a writer, she is also keenly aware of her childhood propensity to lie. When her father presses her on whether her mother has been talking to a “professor with a Spanish surname,” she admits that she has seen them conversing in the garden but also makes up that “something sparkling” passed between them. This ring never existed, except as a representation of a concept she couldn’t quite understand—romantic love.

Lying is an indication of what the mind can do alone, particularly as Jarre felt detached and awkward in her childhood body. The comparison between the life of the mind and the life of the body arises over and over. Her sister Sisi represents the life of the body: she is unselfconscious and beautiful. While Sisi learns to swim with the other children, Jarre lies in bed with a fever. Jarre is “the last of all to learn” how to ride a bicycle and coolly remarks, “I always remain inside myself; all I know is how to walk.” Years later, when her husband teaches her to swim, she discovers it as a “baptism into the life of the body”—a body that has been so disconnected from her cerebral life. When she hears about a young boy hanged by the Nazis, she remarks with awe that the tears came not from “books or fantasies” but from her body, “which was aware of itself for the first time.”

It is evident, if not always reflected on, how the traumas of war and displacement encouraged such a deep and relentless internal monologue. It is remarkable how a life so full—of people and language and stories—seems written from a well of loneliness. Perhaps this is the effect of a backward-looking lens, Jarre’s “liturgical nostalgia for a return to the immense luminous beach of childhood.” But it also stems from the historical events unfolding around at the peripheries. Jarre is more interested in what happens in her head than explaining the calamities of the war. She discovers her distant father’s death long after the fact, and does not fully engage with it until much later in a 2004 memoir, Ritorno in Lettonia (Return to Latvia).

When asked about her return to Latvia in a 2011 interview, Jarre admits, “I don’t know how to talk about it. Writing gives me the distance that words don’t allow.” In Distant Fathers, writing serves precisely this function—an archeologist’s view of her own mind, content to dwell on the tension between memory and melancholia. She invites us to excavate memories alongside her and examine every fear, embarrassment, and loss. This stunning autobiography is both a love letter to a flawed and vanished childhood and a map of a woman’s inner topography as she fumbles toward identity. Never before translated into English, Jarre is a wonderful new discovery. Readers will be excited by the wealth of her archive, eagerly awaiting translation.

The Interrogation

The Watchlist: July 2021

from the July/August 2021 issue

“A Scream That Can No Longer Be Held In”: Translating Rahma Nur’s “Linguistic Threads”

Linguistic threads. IV lines and blood cells. Oppressive silencing. There is a viscerality that emerges when sitting with Rahma Nur’s poem “Fili Linguistici.” In describing her experience as a member of a diaspora living in Italy—the loss of language, the persistent reminder of being other and outsider—Nur juggles the passive and active contestations of how language marks the body and how it shapes one’s experience with loss. Despite being a poem about silencing, "Fili Linguistici," with its staccato rhythm, almost demands to be read out loud.

In an April 2021 essay for Words Without Borders, Jhumpa Lahiri wrote, “The responsibility of translation is as grave and as precarious as that of a surgeon who is trained to transplant organs, or to redirect the blood flow to our hearts.” As translators from Italian, we each found ourselves doing just that when we chose to separately work on rendering Nur’s poem into English for the Bologna Book Fair Plus Poetry Slam. Untangling Nur’s words, uprooting their form and intention, and gently arranging them in English, we each sought to maintain the same care as she did while facilitating an introduction of the poem into the Anglophone world. Nur describes her writing as a scream that can no longer be held in, and in this poem, you can see and hear the inner voice that emerges when pain, rage, and sadness are too much to bear.

“Fili Linguistici” directly engages with questions that should be familiar to many people existing in diaspora—the inherent hybridity of an identity formed not only through loss and separation, but through acquisition and a claiming. In the poem, Nur addresses how people are connected yet divided by language. Published by Formafluens in the fall of 2020, the poem resonated with each of us. As you read our different versions of the poem, we hope that these notes guide you and address questions related to our choices.

“Linguistic Threads” begins by taking the reader through the experience of gathering language and its connection with the land. Nur writes:

In quel passo che allunghi
tra la terra che ti ha visto nascere
e il suolo che ti ha accolto

We each grappled with these beginning lines in different ways. Inspired by the corporeal nature of the piece, and uncertain of just how “welcoming” the suolo/ground actually was, Alta translated these first lines as “As you make headway/between the land where you were born/and the ground that took you in.” Comparatively, Candice and Barbara decided to mirror the subjectivity of the language in Italian, as the second line indicates that the terra, or the land, is also an active subject. As such, Candice translated the lines as “In the step that you take/ Between the land that watched over your birth / And the soil that received you.” While Barbara selected “witness your birth” and mirrored how the verb accogliere in Italian is meant to be positive rather than neutral, hence “the soil that welcomed you.”

From the start, one can tell the different paths each translator chose. For Barbara, the guiding principle undergirding each choice was allowing the reader to encounter the narrator’s feeling of undergoing a transformation. There is a deep-rooted passivity to the narrator’s experience of diaspora and loss that emerges almost immediately in the poem. Candice sought to have the reader get a glimpse into how actions that other you become a regular part of your life. The piece grapples with how language is used to mark, even attack, one’s body, and the exhausting compromises one must make for survival. Alta’s guiding principle, beyond aiming to maintain what she interpreted as the poem’s highly embodied nature, was to respect its words’ many ambiguities—whereby ostensible compliments are really insults, and other subtle shifts in meaning occur.

Nur invites the reader to consider the seemingly intrinsic connection between language and the body, specifically how, and even why, we think of language as something that can course or run through your blood. This coupling between the body and language becomes a site of questioning assumptions. We each translated the lines below differently.

che non permette congetture
ma giudizi perentori

“Congetture” became presumptions, speculation, and conjecture. While we each agreed that “giudizi perentori” represents a judgment, we qualified the activeness of the judgment, as snap, a final call, and absolute.

Each of us considered the othering of the questions and exclamations in Italian and Somali.

1hadaad soomaali tahay maxaad somali ugu hadlin?
come parli bene l’italiano!

Alta immediately noticed that the footnote at the beginning invites readers of the original to read the Italian before reading the line in Somali, and chose instead to invite the reader to absorb the line in Somali by placing the footnote at the end of the line, putting English second. Aware of how the piece speaks to language’s capacity to other, Candice decided not to translate the lines in Italian and Somali and leave them as is, and unitalicized. This helps the reader visualize how interrogations such as this become part of one’s everyday, when language is used to erase how and where someone belongs. For Barbara, leaving the Somali in its original form and translating the Italian into English felt like an appropriate mirroring of Nur’s choices. However, there was an intentional decision not to italicize either phrase in an attempt, in some ways, to demonstrate the innate presence of multilingualism in diasporic experiences.

In the second stanza, Nur describes the contradictions and paradoxes of language. Romantic images come to mind, like music, art, food, and nourishment. Language is also a weapon of oppression. Nur writes:

Dicono che le parole sono musica
dicono che le parole sono cibo
dicono che le parole sono arte
ma non dicono che le parole creano confusione

Alta flexed the poetic structure a little, saying that words “cause / confusion / disorder / discomfort / distance / trouble…”. Recalling texts like Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman and Plantation Memories by Grada Kilomba, Barbara and Candice considered how language is used to erase, to muzzle. The choice for silence and muzzling was meant to illustrate the varying degrees of control on the mouth. Again, these choices indicate how language is something that is done to the narrator, who passively experiences these actions.

Nur continues by contrasting the complexities of adopting language. One language is tied to your blood, your biological mother, while another is adopted, your stepmother. The narrator navigates the concurrent experiences of multilingualism and the loss of language:

che la lingua materna
può diventare matrigna
e quella matrigna diventare materna
che non sono intercambiabili, non sempre
e che si può trascorrere una vita intera
senza parlarne una benché
altre due o tre siano dentro te.
La lingua materna cura
ma può far ammalare
se non la parli bene
e ti leghi a quella matrigna
come una fonte che ti nutre.

Recognizing the violence in the original, Alta sought to demonstrate the contradictions of how language is used by parroting the trope hinted at in the original: that a stepmother is wicked whereas a birth mother is gentle. Communicating in one language to belong to a specific place, even if it’s an adoptive one, becomes the spring to slake your thirst. The decision to select thirst is also tied to the corporeality of the poem, of how we perceive language as connected to the body. For Candice, the lines between maternal and stepmother tongues were messy, and she noticed how the narrator did not seek to completely untangle them for the reader. As such, the stepmother tongue becomes motherly, as there is always a compromise to make when people use language to mark your body, despite your multilingualism and belonging to multiple communities. Inspired by M. NourbeSe Philip’s “Discourse on the Logic of Language,”  Barbara sought to establish the poetics of the original, hence the repetition of mother tongue and stepmother tongue. While colonialism may not be the lens through which Nur describes her own personal story, Italian is the colonizer language of countries like Somalia and Eritrea, thus one can find similar themes between NourbeSe Philip’s and Nur's poems.

Nur closes the poem with further images of how the body becomes a vessel of languages, and there is still a connecting thread between the narrator and other members of the diaspora.

Alta described the diaspora that actively shuttles the narrator, carrying them along across distances, to other places where languages of the diaspora are spoken.  Candice interpreted the last section as an ode to code switching, as language can get you through the real and imagined gates of a community. Barbara and Alta translated the last line as rendered mute, to demonstrate the weight of the loss of language. For all three of us, we wanted to honor how muteness is a passive experience for the narrator. Each of us drafted our own translation, so the unveiling of the three different versions was a surprise to us all—we then spoke with Nur to get her feedback. Our relationships with her shaped our decisions and what you see on the page.


© 2021 by Candice Whitney, Alta Price, and Barbara Ofosu-Somuah. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July/August 2021 issue
from the July/August 2021 issue

Linguistic Threads, translated by Alta L. Price

Afro-Italian poet Rahma Nur describes her experience as a member of a diaspora living in Italy, noting how language marks the body and how it shapes one's sense of loss.

Words Without Borders · Rahma Nur Reads "Fili Linguistici" ("Linguistic Threads")


As you make headway
between the land where you were born
and the ground that took you in
a thread stretches to connect them
like an IV.
It feeds you words and sentences
prepositions and long periods
you can’t parse them
so you just let them flow in
between the red cells coursing through your veins
under your smooth, dark epidermis
which discourages presumptions
yet endures snap judgments:
Hadaad soomaali tahay maxaad somali ugu hadlin?1
You speak such fluent Italian!
Both here and there
muteness calls the shots
the only sure answer
is a non-answer.

They say words are music
they say words are food
they say words are art
but they don’t say words cause confusion
that words leave you speechless
facing other words
they don’t tell you words are language
that there are lots of languages
that not everyone has one
that your mother tongue
can become your stepmother tongue
and your wicked stepmother language
can become your gentle maternal language
and that they aren’t always interchangeable
and that you can spend an entire lifetime
without speaking one, even though
you have another two or three inside.
A mother tongue can be healing
but it can also make you sick
if you don’t speak it well
so you go with your stepmother tongue
as a spring to slake your thirst.

As the diaspora
shuttles you from one country to another
you choose a tone that can convey
that gets you through the gaps
both real and imagined
a code
that opens doors
and in this vacuum you’re living in
others are born and grow up
and the distance between siblings widens
just one connecting thread is left
it isn’t Somali, Dutch, Swedish,
it’s hands, skin, eyes,
your whole body
that fills the void
between one country and another.
It’s this external casing
that tacitly answers the questions,
that speaks for you,
because your mouth is rendered mute
by too many invading tongues.

1. If you're Somali, why don't you speak Somali?

"Fili linguistici" first published in Formafluens vol. 2, no. 1, January–April 2020 (pages 17–18). © 2020 by Rahma Nur. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Alta L. Price. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July/August 2021 issue
from the July/August 2021 issue

Linguistic Threads, translated by Candice Whitney

Afro-Italian poet Rahma Nur describes her experience as a member of a diaspora living in Italy, noting how language marks the body and how it shapes one's sense of loss.

Words Without Borders · Rahma Nur Reads "Fili Linguistici" ("Linguistic Threads")


In the step that you take
Between the land that watched over your birth
And the soil that received you
There's a thread that connects them
Like an IV.
It feeds you words and phrases
Clauses and long sentences
You can't analyze them
And you let them flow into you
Between the red blood cells that run through your veins
In your epidermis, dark and smooth
That doesn't allow for speculation
But a final judgment call:
hadaad soomaali tahay maxaad somali ugu hadlin?1
Come parli bene l'italiano!2
Here and there
Muteness takes over
The only sure response
Is a nonresponse.

They say that words are music
They say that words are nourishment
They say that words are art
But they don't say that words create
They separate
They torment
They muzzle
In front of other words
They don't tell you that words are language
That there are many languages
That not everyone owns them
That the mother tongue
Can become the stepmother
And the stepmother becomes motherly
That they are not interchangeable, not always
And that you can spend a whole life
Without speaking one even if
Another two or three languages are in you.
The mother tongue heals
But it can make you sick
If you don't speak it well
And if you connect yourself with the stepmother one
Like a spring that nurtures you.

When the diaspora
Takes you from one country to another
You choose a transactional language
That lets you get through the gates
Real and imagined
A code
That opens doors
And in the vacuum that you live in
Others are born and grow
And the distance between siblings expands
There remains a single connecting thread
It's not Somali, Dutch, or Swedish languages
But hands, skin, eyes
Your entire body
To fill that empty space
From one country to another.
It's the external covering
That tacitly answers questions,
That speaks for you,
Because your mouth is made mute
By all the languages that invaded it.


1. If you are Somali why don't you speak Somali?

2. Wow, you speak Italian so well!

“Fili linguistici” first published in Formafluens vol. 2, no. 1, January–April 2020 (pages 17–18). © Rahma Nur. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Candice Whitney. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July/August 2021 issue
from the July/August 2021 issue

Linguistic Threads, translated by Barbara Ofosu-Somuah

Afro-Italian poet Rahma Nur describes her experience as a member of a diaspora living in Italy, noting how language marks the body and how it shapes one's sense of loss.

Words Without Borders · Rahma Nur Reads "Fili Linguistici" ("Linguistic Threads")


In that step you take
between the land that witnessed your birth
and the soil that welcomed you
there is a thread that ties them together.
An IV line.
It nourishes you with words and prepositional phrases
and long periods
you can’t analyze them
and you allow them to flow in you
between the red blood cells that run through your veins
in your dark and smooth skin
that leaves no room for conjecture
but absolute judgments:
hadaad soomaali tahay maxaad somali ugu hadlin?
wow! you speak Italian so well!
either here or there
silence reigns supreme
and the only clear answer
is nothing at all.

They say words are music
they say words are food
they say words are art
they don’t say that words create
words distance
they torment
they silence {mute} {muzzle}
in the face of other words
they don’t tell you that words are language
that there are many languages
that not everyone has them
that a mother tongue
could become a stepmother tongue
and a stepmother tongue could become a mother tongue
that they are not interchangeable
not always
and that you could spend a lifetime
without speaking a single one although
another two or three are within you.
The mother tongue heals
but it can sicken
if you don't speak it well
and you bind yourself to that stepmother tongue
like a fountain that nourishes you.

When diaspora
takes you from one country to another
choose a language
which will carry you through passages
real and imagined
a code that opens doors
in this void in which you live
other people are born and they grow
and the distance between siblings expands
there remains a single thread that unites
it’s not Somali, Dutch, or Swedish,
but hands, skin, eyes,
your entire body
filling that void
from one country to another.
It is the outer shell
that tacitly responds to questions,
that speaks for you,
because your mouth is rendered mute
by the countless languages that have invaded it.

"Fili linguistici" first published in Formafluens vol. 2, no. 1, January–April 2020 (pages 17–18). © Rahma Nur. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Barbara Ofosu-Somuah. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July/August 2021 issue
from the May 2021 issue

Returning Home in Palestine: On Sahar Khalifeh’s “My First and Only Love”

Reviewed by Max Radwin

A new novel by the celebrated Palestinian writer travels back and forth in time, across decades, examining the way family, politics, and friendship in her homeland are shaped by violence and war.

Decades after being exiled by the colonial forces occupying her homeland, a woman returns to Palestine to repair her childhood home––and to confront a past filled with heartbreak and bloodshed. Her name is Nidal and, now in old age, she has spent her life running from the memories of the armed confrontations that roiled the region during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Many of Nidal’s memories have to do with Rabie, a boy she fell in love with at the start of the armed conflict. Torn between romance and the sense of duty young people feel, Rabie disappears into the fog of war, leaving Nidal with lifelong questions about what happened to him. Is he even alive?

Long-lost love is just the starting point for Sahar Khalifeh’s sixth novel, My First and Only Love, but don’t let the title deceive you, it’s so much more than that. The book travels back and forth in time, across decades, examining the way family, politics, and friendship are shaped by violence and war, and whether or not collective memory of such things is set in stone.

Khalifeh is one of the most respected Palestinian writers working today. Since her acclaimed debut Wild Thorns (1976), she has written eleven novels and won several prestigious literary accolades, such as the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. The life of Palestinians under occupation is a recurring theme in her work.

For this book, she doesn’t require you to be an expert on the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor does she try to educate you on the history. This approach has a way of bringing the humanity of the characters into focus.

“I find myself without a friend and without a home,” Nidal says, after reconstruction on her home begins. “I am alone, like a sword. Members of my family had left and I too left like many others. Who stayed behind? All that is left for me is this house, and that is why I returned. I want to make of this house––the family home, my first home and my last home––a gallery with pictures, paintings, and frames. In short, a museum.”

While Nidal seems ready to engage with her memories through the reconstruction of the house, she is also, simultaneously, reluctant to delve too deep. She has spent her life separating herself from the traumatic experiences of British patrols, cave hideouts, and “the screams of peasants.” There is a sense, for nearly the entire novel, that she believes she already knows everything she needs to know about these things, and how they impacted her family. This is very obviously a defense mechanism, which protects her from trauma and a lack of closure.

She is stubborn. If a museum is what she wants to make of her house, then it is not one whose artifacts she will readily engage with. Nidal is the most successful member of her family, having gone onto become a successful painter, with exhibitions for UNESCO in Paris. When troubling memories of Rabie get too close, she cuts off conversations or fixes her mind on painting. Who needs lost lovers, anyway?

The story’s feminist undertones belie the narrative’s time period and setting. A significant theme is whether or not a woman can find fulfillment without having children. Some of the strongest characters in the book are women, Nidal’s grandmother among them, who feel equally capable of having careers as they do of running households. It helps to ground the romantic plot lines, which could have easily turned melodramatic under the direction of a less capable writer.

For example, early in the novel, the plot seems to be headed for a traditional, almost sappy, romance storyline––Rabie is becoming increasingly involved in the fighting and Nidal is lost in thoughts of her “collapsing” love affair. But for every moment in which sobbing lovers hold hands in the forest, there is a scene that is so run-of-the-mill that the whole feels taken from real life. There are countless scenes of characters discussing the logistics of the conflict––obtaining food for troops, mapping out which cities to attack. These conversations are long and detailed, even tedious, but they help to remind us of the messiness inherent to the time. 

In one scene, an angry crowd forms around the mayor’s house, but it is not the kind that explodes into violence. Its members are strikingly articulate, sharing their concerns about the Jewish settlements that are encroaching on their land by picking up fence posts during the night and inching them closer toward the locals’ property. They discuss the different ways to stop the encroachment, the different sizes of their lots, the ins and outs of having to move. Yes, they are angry and the crowd becomes dangerous. But there is also an attention to the details of displacement that another story might have overlooked.

Thira Mohamad

Jack Malik

Eddin Khoo

T. Alias Taib

Ho Sok Fong

from the July/August 2021 issue

Afro-Italian Women in Translation: An Introduction

What is national literature and how is it defined? Often, when one thinks of a particular nation or language, they imagine a specific phenotype tied to a historical narrative. A cursory Google search of contemporary Italian women writers spits out lists of writers one should read, including Elena Ferrante, Giulia Caminito, Viola di Grado, and Donatella Di Pietrantonio, to name a few. These women, whose works have transcended linguistic and cultural borders through translation, are also who one might expect to embody “Italianness.” In doing so, and without knowledge of the shifting racial and cultural demographic of Italy, one would assume that whiteness is central to Italian identity. In fact, any attempt to find a more expansive list of Italian writers with diverse identities and backgrounds requires adding “postcolonial,” “migrant,” or “second generation” to the search bar.

In engaging with the Italian literary landscape, Italians who claim hyphenated identities, regardless of their personal sense of Italianness, are relegated to the margins. Yet Italy’s geographic location and history as a colonial power have placed it in a proximal relationship to Blackness. These histories, unreckoned with in many ways, mean that racialized experiences of Blackness in Italy are simultaneously at the forefront and invisible.

Even before the transnational Black Lives Matter movement, Black Italians have pushed Italy to confront its colonial past and engage with its present diversity. Among those leading the charge are Afro-Italian women writers whose work speaks to and amplifies both contemporary and historical experiences of Blackness within the Italian context. These writers, in fiction and nonfiction, attempt to expand the idea of what it is to be Italian.

In this issue, four writers from different generations—Igiaba Scego, Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, Marie Moïse, and Djarah Kan—enrich our understanding of what it means to exist in Italy as a member of the Black diaspora. Against the grain of right-wing, xenophobic rhetoric and policies in Italy, their writings challenge the idea of italianità as a synonym for whiteness.

In Aaron Robertson’s translated excerpt of La mia casa è dove sono, “My Home Is Where I Am,” author Igiaba Scego recalls growing up in the Italian education system as the Black daughter of an immigrant, as well as her experience navigating belonging among white classmates.

The protagonist of Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s novel Il comandante del fiume, translated by Hope Campbell Gustafson, learns of his degrees of separation from an attempted bombing in the London metro in this excerpt, “Bambi,” and compares himself to the bomber—another Black Roman boy, who’d been friends with his new friends, loved hip-hop, was Muslim, and wore white tank tops.

Djarah Kan’s written performance piece “Soumaila Sacko: Storia della vita di una pacchia”  (“Soumaila Sacko: Story of the Good Life”), translated by Candice Whitney, humanizes Soumaila Sacko, a Malian man murdered by the bullets of a white supremacist in Calabria, Italy, in 2018. Kan interrogates the racist and xenophobic gaze of a society that relies on the exploitation of Black people, leading to premature deaths.

Finally, in Barbara Ofosu-Somuah’s translation of an excerpt from “Abbiamo pianto un fiume di risate” (“We Cried a River of Laughter”), Marie Moïse explores how her family's experiences with various configurations of violence have rendered a breaking both through geography and psychology, which ultimately shape her process of hurting and healing. By addressing struggles related to class, gender, (in)visibility of borders, cultural belonging, and healing, these stories demonstrate that the experiences of African-descendant people in Italy are not monolithic.

As translators, each of us has established relationships with the writers we translate. It is important to recognize that as with every cultural shift, literature is a tangible way for people to push a cultural conversation in more expansive directions than have been allowed before. As translators we attempt to expand the transnational discourse around Blackness by showing how Black Italian women and their lived experiences are critical to the way we think about Blackness beyond borders.

Looking to the future, when we think of national literature, we must always ask: what stories are not being told? Which writers don’t have the space to even consider themselves as such, due to structures that prioritize one group over another? How can translation be a bridge to unconsidered stories across borders? We hope that this feature complicates the reader’s idea of national literature and encourages them to consider how we can center the stories of women in racialized bodies when seeking to understand places and experiences.


© 2021 by Candice Whitney, Barbara Ofosu-Somuah, Aaron Robertson, and Hope Campbell Gustafson. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July/August 2021 issue

July/August 2021

from the July/August 2021 issue

My Home Is Where I Am

Somali-Italian writer Igiaba Scego recalls her childhood experiences in the Italian educational system in this memoir.

Although I’m Somali-Italian, I was born and raised in Italy, and I’ve spent very little time in Somalia, mostly during the summers and then once for about a year and a half. I went to the Italian consulate’s school there. I had no idea what Somalia would be like at first. It might as well have been Mars or any other unfamiliar planet populated with little red men that moved in ranks like soldiers in a military parade. The truth about the Land of Punt, though, is more miraculous than these fictions. I’ve never seen so many free-roaming animals as are in my distant homeland. Grus, baboons, goats, camels, hawks, hens, cats, martens, termites, dik-diks. The most extraordinary aspect is the importance ascribed to stories. Storytelling is never wasted time. Stories teach, inspire dreams, help one grow and also become a child again. When evening fell at my aunt’s, stories were told about wild hyenas and ingenious women, brave men and magic tricks. Adults and children sat together listening to and recounting tales. The word itself occupied the seat of honor. We practiced using it wisely. 

My mother tongue blossomed amid this linguistic maelstrom, when before it had been hiding in a crevice in my throat. It had been embarrassed and afraid to emerge for years. Italian is the first language that I spoke, but the lullabies and songs I heard at home were sung in Somali, with an occasional Bravanese addition by my father. This made for a very confused child. What a lovely perplexity it was. I hopped like a cricket from one language to another and felt a thrill whenever I said things to my mother that the grocers didn’t understand. It was incredible.


This changed when I had to go to school, where they told me, “You’re not talking, it’s monkey babble. You don’t know anything. You’re all freaks, gorillas.” Recall that I was young. Gorillas, though splendid animals, frightened me because of their size. That’s not what I wanted to be. After checking that my black skin couldn’t be changed, now I had to deal with this. At least language was something I could work on. I was four or five years old, hardly an enlightened African woman proud of her own skin. I hadn’t read Malcolm X. I decided, then, to stop speaking Somali. I wanted to assimilate, to become one with the snow-white masses. Renouncing my mother tongue became my unorthodox way of saying, Love me

No one did.

Some Italian mothers today bemoan the presence of immigrants’ children in schools. They don’t want to make their own kids sit in the same classroom, thereby contaminating their offspring. If someone were to call them out as racist, they would deny it. “It’s not racist. But these kids limit how productive the school can be. We want the best for our children. We don’t need them turning into Zulus.” By best they mean white, obviously. White Italian mothers in the ‘80s said the exact same thing about me. Because I was Black, their logic went, I’d be a dumbass and have hair swarming with lice. One kid told me directly: “You have germs and diseases because you’re Black. My mom said not to play with you or else I’ll get really sick and die.”


My classmates’ parents were against me and thus so were my peers themselves. The bigger kids called me Kunta Kinte after the character from Alex Haley’s Roots. The series debuted in Italy on September 8, 1978, during primetime on Rai 2. This was the beginning of my academic life. It was easy for my classmates to associate me with what they’d seen on TV. All black skin was alike. It’s a shame these children didn’t get the message of the series. Kunta Kinte’s fight for freedom was his choice, as were his actions as a man warring against the barbarism of slavery. The kids and their parents never read past the story’s surface. All they saw was a Black man whipped until he bled by those who’d stripped his freedom. My color united me with Kunta Kinte. Instead of saying, “It’s great that your Black brother is a hero, we love him,” they said, “You look like Kunta Kinte, a grimy nigger, we’re gonna whip you. You were born to be a slave.” I was five. I cried when my mother came to pick me up. Why did I have to face such abuse? I’d seen the TV series, too. Getting whipped wasn’t what these people wanted. The actors’ faces clearly said as much.

I didn’t have many friends in kindergarten or elementary school. I usually holed myself away in a corner to eat the snack my mother had lovingly prepared for me. The poor woman didn’t know how to help me. It was hard for her to be in this strange land, too. Once she spied on me to see why I was crying every day, ceaselessly. She told me this when I was much older. She took position behind the school’s little wall to see whether I was playing with the other children. She saw me lonesome and companionless apart from everyone else. The only things people said to me were aspersions like “grimy nigger.” I felt so helpless when I saw you like that, Igiaba. Your mother felt like she had nothing to give you.


But Mama gave me everything. She began telling me stories about Somalia. Somali nomads believe that every story contains the solution to a problem. Mama’s stories aimed to show me that we did not arise from emptiness and that our foundation consisted of a country, its traditions, and its history. The ancient Romans and Gauls, Latin and the Greek agora—they existed not alone but alongside ancient Egypt and the incense harvesters of the Land of Punt, that is Somalia, and the Ashanti and Bambara kingdoms. Mama wanted me to be proud of my Blackness and the country we left because of an overwhelming force that pushed us out. She told me of our distant empires, our relationships with Egypt, India, Portugal, and Turkey. Her words carried the heavenly scent of incense and uunsi, for whose fragrances Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty led an expedition in Somalia. Mama’s stories freed me from my dread of being seen as a walking caricature. They made me human, gave birth to me once more.


Even my elementary school teacher did her part. Ms. Silvana Tramontozzi was a gorgeous woman with buoyant, vaporous white hair and old-fashioned tenacity. She and my mother didn’t initially hit it off. Mama was shy and spoke broken Italian. At gatherings with other parents she said as little as she could get away with and left when the small talk started. Having to face the parents who treated her like a circus freak because she wore a hijab wasn’t fun for her. Invariably, she looked wounded and worn when she came home from one of these meetings. It was partly my fault. I wasn’t an exemplary student when school first started. I knew many things: times tables of 9, the capital of the Ivory Coast, the tributaries of the River Po, Giovanni Pascoli’s poem “L’assiuolo,” and the last five presidents of the United States. I never let it show at school. I was quieter than a fish. Not a peep from me. I didn’t even respond to questions the teacher asked me directly. I feared the onslaught of insults too much. My thinking was that if I breathed so much as a word, I’d get pummeled. I let my mind wander during lessons, imagining an alternate universe in which my black skin and I made many friends. I was the picture of a girl with her head in the clouds. Sometimes I left my notebooks all over the classroom. My only dream was to escape the school that persecuted me. The teacher would say Marco was the best student, Vincenzo breezed by, Valeria excelled at math, Silvia was a careful reader, and me, well: “The poor thing always has her mind elsewhere.” This convinced the other parents that I was developmentally challenged, and so perhaps maybe all Blacks were. Mama asked me one day, “Igi, what’s going on with you? Why don’t you say anything when the teacher asks you something?” What could I say? I tried offering an explanation. “Because they hit me.” This was not entirely false. There were times, at recess, when someone would approach from behind and smack me on the butt, which hurt like hell. A couple of girls punched me once, in the head and eye. I told my mother I’d tripped. 

Mama complained to the teacher. She explained what a good, studious girl I was, and that I wasn’t speaking because I was scared. I don’t think my teacher had ever experienced a case like mine. She may have given it a bit of thought. Whatever the case, things soon changed substantially at school. The teacher called me to come see her and told me she had a drawer full of fantasy stories, but if I wanted to read them I had to promise that for every story, I had to say another word in class. I loved reading, so this was a drawer of goodies: tales of submarines, flying carpets, mythical gods, princesses with flaming crowns, knights on invisible steeds, kids who invented magical worlds, silly wizards, and fairies. I would do anything to get my hands on these stories. My only friends were in books. I promised the teacher I’d say whatever she wanted me to. Slowly, story after story, my tongue unfurled. I went from mute to voluble. The teacher encouraged me to speak about themes related to Somalia, what Somalis’ lives were like, our practices, the dramatic colors of our attire. My classmates were dumbfounded. I was a bigger hit than Mr. Rogers. I started making friends and earned a name for myself, thanks largely to a teacher who was understanding for the first time that words have an incredible power and whoever speaks (or writes) well is unlikely to ever be alone. My teacher also helped my mother. She played a kind of chaperone, giving her parental advice and finding her reliable friends among the other mothers. With a wave of a magic wand, we metamorphosed from circus sideshows into two human beings.

In a way, Ms. Tramontozzi had performed an ancient rite of cultural mediation. 

I’m not joking when I say my elementary teacher, the one with the buoyant white hair, saved my life.


© Igiaba Scego. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Aaron Robertson. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July/August 2021 issue
from the July/August 2021 issue

Soumaila Sacko: Story of the Good Life

The Malian immigrant Soumaila Sacko was murdered by the gunshots of a white supremacist in Calabria, Italy, on June 2, 2018. This piece was originally performed at a conference in Palermo days after Sacko's murder. Italy's prime minister at the time, Matteo Salvini, affiliated with the Lega Nord, was known for enacting far-right policies related to residency and citizenship, including restricting Italian borders and strengthening corrupt political relations with Libya to control the Mediterranean Sea. The title echoes Salvini's statement on the day of Sacko's murder: “Per i clandestini è finita la pacchia” (“For illegals, the party is over”). His rhetoric implied that people who migrated to Italy had it good, similar to Ronald Reagan referring to Black American women as "welfare queens'' during his first campaign for president of the United States in the mid-1970s.


Now that I’m dying, my face becomes everyone's. 

Now that I’m dying . . . first, I become a thief, then a victim of hate, then a thief again, then a hopeless nigger, a nigger without recourse.

But at the end of this sad, sad merry-go-round, that renewed stay permit absolves me of all of my sins. It will prevent me from being buried under the label Illegal Alien.

I can already hear their voices in my head. The voices of journalists and lawyers, those who reek of politics and wear starched black suits.

They’re so arrogant.

Their skin is white and pure. Their skin seems as if it doesn't have secrets. But it’s lying, it does have secrets! Just because it seems clean doesn't mean that it's not dirty, that it doesn't have a few secrets.

Don't trust appearances or what they say. I didn't trust them then and I don't trust them now. I see them handle my suffering violently and carelessly, as though it were burning embers, red with blood and unsettled rage, to be extinguished and drowned with water and salt, water from the sea.

Italy saves me. Italy sentences me.

Now that I’m dying, my face suddenly becomes everyone's. 

But I don't know you, or you, or even you. And I don’t know you and you, or even you. I don't know any of you. 

You, down there, demanding justice for me, pronouncing my name with the wrong accents and rhythm, your eyes are too calm to really picture me.

You simply can’t—white man over there—stand on my side. Because you’re alive, and I’m still dead.

Because we walk side by side, and you hope that maybe one day we can all look alike and be equals, but History has made us and divided us. 

Now that I am dying, something strange is happening around me. My face exists, it’s real. When I was alive, I worked so hard that I forgot how it felt to look in the mirror. Photos of my face are everywhere now. People use images of my face on social media and on the news to condemn and judge me. They do it to prove to themselves how poor and desperate I was. What a “migrant” I was.

I remember my small, narrow face a bit differently, though. Not as niggerly as everyone else now sees it, but thinner, more delicate, and invisible. 

I was so young, and they chose to use the worst photo of me, but that’s not really who I am. I'm not a person who goes out with messy hair or who has a face that looks like they’ve been sleep-deprived their entire life.

Those who feel pity looking at my stunned face should have seen me when I took to the streets with my brothers and we protested with the essential workers’ union. 

We were farmhands, so we raised our fists and went on strike, even if we were tired and aware of our feudal landowners' hatred in that valley of Gioia Tauro—where we were and still are slaves—we shouted that in this foreign country yes, we were workers, not pack animals ready to be slaughtered. 

We continued to shout:

That our work counts just as much as a white man's.

That a Black man has the right to a safe work environment, a welcoming home to rest his head, and fair living conditions in an impossible world. 

That we had to stop these new slave owners from combing these vast plantations with their short-barreled guns. 

We protested that we were men. I, Soumaila Sacko, was a man. Truly I tell you, this tough, arid land called Calabria, which humiliated and keeps humiliating me, is not what killed me. 

Because the skin that I leave on this land will become separated from my flesh and blood sooner or later. Time will make it happen, death already has. And then what? People will forget what it meant to mourn for a migrant who isn't rooted to any place—just as the word implies—and who hears his life described as an obscure, weightless cloud, empty and irrelevant. 

A migrant is like a cloud that's pushed by a wind that blows from afar. It gets stuck and lands, but never grows roots anywhere. 

So, I was not a migrant. None of us are.

I’d like you to stop calling us migrants from now on, because it's here in Italy we have ended up, on your shore. You don't see us, and when you do, you project your uncivilized, heart-of-darkness fantasies onto us.

But if you drink and breathe and sweat and love in a country that is no longer yours, then you are not a migrant. You are a man.

Different, maybe, but still a man. No longer a migrant.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow is already here. Other men and women will die just like me. Maybe in even worse ways.

And they, too, will leave behind nothing but their skin: marvelous, imperfect, thick, delicate, the color of the earth that we tilled and nurtured so that it would give us back the beauty of life.

We are farmhands, but the people who loved us, and were able to resist this assassin that is Europe, will breathe life into our skin. It won’t be our weak and broken flesh that gives us our lives back, but rather the deep, hot breath of those who believe justice exists, even for a Black man who walks on his own two feet.

A Black man who doesn’t crawl, but walks.

The nigger is dead. It's true. But maybe "he was stealing."

"He had a legal stay permit."

The motive? They speculate that it was "revenge for a theft."





First published in 2018 in the author’s blog, Kasava Call, and in La macchina sognante. © Djarah Kan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Candice Whitney. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July/August 2021 issue
from the July/August 2021 issue


In fiction inspired by true events, a Black teen in Rome learns some startling information about an attempted bombing in the London Tube.


As I was sitting in my usual catatonic state in front of the screen, a story on the news caught my attention. They were talking about a suicide bomber who’d attempted to set off a bomb in the London Underground. He’d made it himself, using a hair product with hydrogen peroxide and whole wheat flour specifically for roti, a round flatbread that Indians make. Thankfully the concoction didn’t come out right and in the end all the bomb did was make a lot of noise, like a huge corn kernel popping. I can almost see him, the bomber, loading up on bottles in an African beauty supply store, then playing the little chemist with the wrong formula!

After the failed explosion, the bomber escaped by jumping out a train window and then changed his clothes in the public restrooms. Didn’t he know there are cameras all over the Tube stations? The images showed this calm-looking guy in a white undershirt, trying to blend in with all the people.

After a few days of searching internationally they’d caught him right here in Rome—out of all the places he could’ve been—hidden in a relative’s house. The bomber had gotten himself some fake papers and had run to his poor brother, who’d been living in Italy for years and had a normal job. They said on the news that he was caught at night and showed the house, a nondescript apartment building in the suburbs. His brother was put in prison too, even though he had nothing to do with it, because just by hiding him he’d become an accomplice. I started buying the newspaper every day because of the bomber. The whole saga had made such an impression on me, I wanted to follow all of its developments.

His lawyer argued that he hadn’t intended to kill anyone, just to get attention. He was enraged about all the women and children dying in Iraq at the hands of the Americans and wanted, with the bomb, to express his protest. We all have moments when we’re mad at the world, but deciding to blow yourself up in the middle of a bunch of people is something entirely different, I’d say.

Nonetheless, at the thought of the bomber shouting out “Allahu Akbar” while the bomb misfired in his hands with a cloud of foam, I, to be honest, almost peed myself laughing. I still wouldn’t have wanted to be near him, of course. The newspapers all said more or less the same things and included the photo of him in his white undershirt along with the one of the apartment where they’d caught him. This was until an article came out that nearly gave me a heart attack.

The journalist had tracked down one of the bomber’s ex-girlfriends and interviewed her. The two of them, when they were about my age, had been part of the Flaminio crew. The bomber was nicknamed “Bambi” because of his big, black, fawnlike eyes and thick lashes. The girl had been so shocked to see his face on TV. According to her, besides being handsome, he was also extremely kind, which is why he had so much success with the ladies. They used to go to the discoteca on Saturday evenings, and like everybody else, Bambi loved hip-hop—he was a great dancer and dressed like a rappettaro, with sagging pants and jerseys from various basketball teams. His idols were African American rappers from the ghetto, but he wasn’t a violent guy. He kept his distance from the wrong crowd; if there were fights, which there often were, he was the peacemaker.

You could find good people in Piazzale Flaminio, like Bambi and his girlfriend, but also dangerous people—pushers and pickpockets. That’s why the police would often go there for a raid; who knows how many times they must’ve asked him for his papers.

He was Muslim but didn’t have any issues hanging out with people who weren’t. He didn’t eat pork, of course, but he didn’t consider alcohol a taboo. The times they had talked about faith he said he believed in Allah, that’s it—he wasn’t an extremist. He had left for London, like many other kids from the Horn of Africa, to seek political asylum. Mainly he’d wanted to be in a place where there was more going on; he only cared about having fun and finding more job opportunities. In Rome, he hadn’t been able to do anything very serious: he worked from time to time but didn’t have any real goals, and no one trusted him. That’s why he couldn’t make plans for the future.


Up until this article, no one had said the bomber had grown up in Rome, so you can imagine my reaction when I found out he used to hang around Piazzale Flaminio. I called Ghiorghis right away to ask if he knew him. Ghiorghis didn’t seem surprised to hear from me: “Where’ve you been, little brother?”

“Nowhere, I’ve had a ton of stuff to do,” I replied from my spot sprawled on the couch. I told him that the story about the bomber had really shaken me. When I asked if he’d known him, and said I thought he might have because they must’ve been around the same age, Ghiorghis said that if I wanted to talk about it we had to meet in person, because it was dangerous over the phone. He added that the people in his old crew would have a lot to say on the subject, too.

His concerns and tone of voice seemed a bit exaggerated to me, but from the little I knew of him, he came across as someone who smelled conspiracy everywhere—Ghiorghis is the type who lets himself be influenced by the movies and thinks those things happen in real life. We agreed to meet at Termini; he would come pick me up with his moped and then we’d go to Ex Snia, an occupied centro sociale, where his friends would be.


Ghiorghis drove with his helmet unfastened, and because he tilted his head to the right to talk to me, I worried that we’d suddenly find ourselves on the sidewalk and crash into a wall. But in the end, who knows how, he managed to keep us headed in the right direction.

He, too, had been surprised that they’d taken this long to report the news. “Bambi didn’t grow up in Africa or London as they’d like to have people believe, but in Rome, just like us.”

“What difference does it make, why don’t they just say it?” I asked while we passed Piazza Vittorio.

“To avoid responsibility—they don’t want anything to do with us, much less if we’re wanted as criminals.”

“What do you mean? We who?”

“Those of us who grew up here, children of Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali parents—from the ex-colonies, in other words. The Italians don’t even know we exist. Do you know how my mother ended up in Rome?”


“She was working as a maid for a Magneti Marelli executive down in Ethiopia. The guy had been there with his entire family for generations, I think. When Mengistu seized power, he kicked out all the Italians, so my mother accepted her employers’ offer and followed them to Italy.”

“Had you already been born?”

“No, I was born here in Rome. She sent me to Africa for the first few years and my grandma raised me, then when I was old enough she brought me back to Italy and sent me to boarding school.”

Ghiorghis’s phone began ringing. Given his already dangerous driving, I hoped he wouldn’t pick up, but he went ahead and stuck it between his helmet and ear.

“Hey, I’m on my way.”

“Careful! We’ll crash!” I yelled at him, so he cut the call short with “If I don’t hang up this kid will lose his shit.”

Then, because I was dying of curiosity, I asked: “So? Did you know Bambi or not?”

“Of course, we were in boarding school together.”

“In your opinion, why’d he do it?”

“Don’t know, probably because of religion, but what do I know? You’re Muslim too, right?”

“I’m circumcised and everything, and I’ve even tried to be religious, but I didn’t succeed.”

“Succeed?” Ghiorghis laughed. “Why, is religion is something you have to be successful at?”

“Well, yes, in the sense that I’d like to have principles, faith, something to believe in. The fact is that I’m not successful even when I make an effort. On the other hand, if the risk is becoming like the bomber, at this point it’s better to stay a heathen.”

“You know what? The truth is he was a wimp. When he was little he always said he missed his mommy, so the teachers were nicer to him. He got more attention and the best gifts—the most modern stereo, the fastest skates, the coolest sweatshirt—and only because he was handsome, that smart-ass.”

I wanted to tease Ghiorghis about his jealousy, about how bitter he was that Bambi got all the best gifts, but I couldn’t come up with a good line.

“Do you think he wanted to blow himself up and kill a ton of people or just stir up some trouble?”

“Both,” he replied. “If you think about it, deep down it’s the same principle: a search for attention.”

“Yes, but if the attempt succeeds, you die and kill a bunch of people along with you. How can someone even remotely think that’s the right thing to do?”

We’d gone a good distance down Via Prenestina in the meantime, and since our destination was on the left-hand side of the road, Ghiorghis did a big U-turn. I wasn’t expecting it and nearly slid off the back of his moped.

Ex Snia is an abandoned factory where they used to make rayon; it had been occupied and transformed into a centro sociale a dozen years earlier.

“They made parachutes here,” Ghiorghis said.


“Yes, and tents, uniforms, and backpacks for soldiers during the war.”

There’s a big park surrounding Snia, mostly off-limits, unfortunately.

Basically, Ghiorghis told me, a famous developer had wanted to build a shopping mall there and who knows what else but, while digging, the workers struck an aquifer with extremely pure water. “For a while the guy played dumb, he was afraid they’d revoke his permit. He had the water drawn out with pumps and emptied into the sewer. Until a storm made a mess of the whole thing, and that’s how this lake came to be.”

While talking, we’d gone deep enough into the pine grove to be able to admire the lake, through a metal fence.

“That’s an incredible story,” I told him. “But why is it closed off?”

“Well, the developer still won’t give up, even though the neighborhood and the centro sociale kids have been fighting for it to become a public park for years. Come on, let’s turn back. You see that small building? That’s where we’re going. I want you to meet some people.”


His Flaminio friends were all outside under a row of small trees. Libaan, seeing us approaching, ran up and hugged me. They were busy talking about other things, but an impatient Ghiorghis blurted out that they had to tell me about Bambi. This made everyone, including me, feel embarrassed. Because it bothered me how he’d put me on the spot, I said: “Would you quit using me to get attention?” But my remark rolled off his back, or maybe he just didn’t let his reaction show. Instead, it served to break the ice. One by one they all began to talk.

First was Libaan. He spoke about one of their friends who had just gotten out of prison, a guy who had a major alcohol problem and would get into trouble. Every now and again, they would lock him up. Anyway, they had met up recently for a coffee but ordered beer instead, and the friend told him that the night they’d caught Bambi, all the Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalis in the prison had been woken up. They’d lined them up, then walked the bomber by each of them. Everyone denied knowing him, and this friend did the same. He’d lied, of course, but then again Bambi had changed so much that he had struggled to recognize him.

Someone from the group interrupted to say that he had seen Bambi a couple times, when he’d come to Rome on vacation, and that Bambi had seemed fine to him. Someone else had seen him in London some years before, and already at that point he had seemed different. He was dating an Ethiopian Christian who he’d forced to convert and to wear the headscarf.


I thought that religion didn’t have anything to do with it. Because I had gotten angry many times but had never started making bombs in the name of Allah. For example, one day I was on the bus and had to get off at the next stop. I was up near the driver, so I asked him, “Would you open the door for me, please?” and the guy said, “How many times do I have to tell you people to exit through the rear door?”

I looked around, and since there was no one else nearby, I said: “Why use the plural when I’m the only one here? Why say tell ‘you people’? Who do you have to tell?” The driver got even angrier and refused to open the door. After a few long seconds, he got up and stood right in front of me. I was a head taller than him, but he thought he was a big deal, he was one of those guys who pumps iron.

I lost my cool and insulted him: “Fuckin’ beefcake!” And he yelled back: “Go home, beat it!” pointing toward the rear doors, and the people on the bus started grumbling: “Just get off the damn bus!”

They were talking to me and not the driver, who I’d simply asked to open in front. While getting off through the rear, I honestly thought that I would happily plant a bomb on that bus so they’d all be blown up—the driver and the people yelling at me.

Maybe the bomber had thought: I’d happily plant a bomb somewhere. And then he’d literally gone and done it. We say lots of things that we don’t do and that we’d never do. I don’t know if Bambi actually wanted to set off the bomb and kill a lot of people. Maybe it’s true that he just wanted to attract attention, so he mixed up the ingredients badly on purpose.


While I was all caught up in my thoughts, one of Ghiorghis’s friends—a tiny guy, short and with very light skin, so light he looked Arab—began talking. He was furious. He didn’t seem much older than the others, but his hair was all white.

Bambi had been his friend for a long time; they’d drunk, smoked, and talked together. “Who knows,” he said, “maybe one day he could’ve just shown up like old times: ‘Let’s have a cigarette. Drink a beer,’ and boom—blown us all up.” The guy was twitching a ton, he looked like a marionette: “Yes, he would’ve blown us all up, boom, just because some of us are Christian!”

I said in response: “But you were friends, religion has nothing to do with it, he never would’ve blown you up.” But the guy only got more agitated: “It’s his fault that they’re now more racist than ever.”

Then, while Ghiorghis stared at me with a baffled expression on his face, I asked: “Who’s more racist than ever?” and began unbuttoning my shirt because of the heat. Seeing the white tank top I was wearing underneath, everyone suddenly stopped talking. After a bit, Ghiorghis shook his head and said: “To tell you the truth, little brother, Bambi even looks like you.”


From Il comandante del fiume (66thand2nd, 2014). © 2014 by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah. Forthcoming from Indiana University Press as The River Commander, translated by Hope Campbell Gustafson. By arrangement with Indiana University Press. Translation © 2021 by Hope Campbell Gustafson. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July/August 2021 issue
from the July/August 2021 issue

We Cried a River of Laughter

Writer Marie Moïse describes her search for her roots and traces her family’s history of cross-Atlantic displacement.

I spent my youth seeking to recover my roots, which were severed by migration from one shore of the Atlantic to the other—from Haiti to Italy. I investigated, interrogated, and sought to understand. From the time of my birth, I have suffered a strange nostalgia for the pain of a journey I have never taken. It seems like my family’s psyches were divided in the course of that journey, with half their minds here and the other half there. And they brought as my gift the anxiety of nonexistence. It has never been possible to speak of this condition: there was never a language to give it voice, no framework to make sense of it. But here in Italy, at one time, everything had to be categorized, defined, restrained. Above all, nothing abnormal could freely roam. It was simply called “pathology”—madness, psychosis, delirium. This is how my family found itself confined once again, taken back to its island condition.

The Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, “The Black man cannot take pleasure in his insularity. For him, there is only one way out, and it leads to the white world.”


So here I am today, teaching science and pathology at a university where my students are shocked when I tell them that it has only been a few decades since pathology has denoted the knowledge of desires and passions. From the ancient Greek, pathos-logos. The study of passion concerns everything that moves us, and it excites us precisely because it can make us suffer. It is a study rooted in practice, in the body’s experience and its intrinsic relational existence. We have not abolished suffering. Instead, we have put an end to a form of society that sickens with a disease that imprisons. This illness is what people used to call normality.


Finally, we can now speak of the past. Now that I desire, now that passion gives meaning to my life, now that the cage of madness is destroyed, what happened can be told.



To the Root of the Absence of Roots

I was born in a family bleached by an unexpected split. I spoke my first words in the language that forced my father, his sisters, and my father’s father to forget theirs. I inherited only one noticeable trait of their foreignness, this unusual and unpronounceable surname: Moïse, with the two dots on the “i.” But for the rest, born to a biracial Haitian man and a white Italian woman, I was raised to be normal among the normals, unlike my father, grandfather, and aunties.

For an entire lifetime, I grew up without a past. My family preferred to silence it rather than to confine me to a Black past. Yet I inherited a surname with a slave origin. Moïse means Moses in French, and its etymological definition is “saved from the water.” It is one of those biblical names that slave owners gave to slaves transplanted to Haiti from Africa. With the rite of Catholic baptism, they erased the lives that those enslaved bodies had known before their deportation. The new name, in the colonizer’s language, marked the beginning of a new (non)existence in subhuman conditions.

Moïse. Saved from the waters. What more fitting name for a body that survived the torture of a forced transatlantic journey? Once they arrived in Italy, the Moïse family began to accept calling themselves by the Italian version—by also pronouncing the surname’s final “e.” The French pronunciation, in which the closing “e” is phonetically silenced, was reserved for family members who remained on the other side of the ocean.

Nevertheless, normality was my inheritance. And so, even though they Italianized my surname, every time I had to create a family tree at school, those severed roots came out. I saw in the strange expressions on the faces of those around me that I, after all, was not a normal person like them.

So, I began to wonder, and I began to ask many questions. Yet, I always received only a few brief answers. As if there were nothing to know, as if there were no words to respond to me, or that those words were too painful to utter.




On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake brought Haiti tumbling down upon itself. For the first time, I saw the country on television. Friends and family died in the ruins. For the first time, I heard Haiti being spoken about, albeit not directly. My father wrote newspaper articles; I cut them out. And my nostalgia for those severed roots that had gone missing, swallowed by the shaken earth, continued to grow.

From an early age, I spent a lot of time in books. Yet, there were no traces of Haiti in them. No book of geography or literature, much less philosophy, related the history of the island. It was my grandmother who told me that Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti on December 5, 1492, and found it so beautiful that he wanted to baptize it with the name Hispaniola, little Spain. I was taught to be proud of Christopher Columbus, a heritage entirely Italian, so I looked at Haiti at first through his eyes, and I saw it bright, full of water, flowers, and rainbows. I found only one short mention in a history book which referred to Haiti in passing as the first destination of the transatlantic slave trade.

The Moïse were saved twice from the water. First, they survived inhumane deportation by sea, which erased their history, obliterated their memory, criminalized their mother tongue, and extinguished their desire to live. Then they survived a second journey thanks to the distance that the ocean had placed between Europe, the land of salvation, and the Haiti of Duvalier. After having fought and risked their lives against that bloody dictatorship, the Moïse went underground to escape violence and torture. In 1965 they left the island of Haiti forever. And so, even the uprooting was done twice. Saved by the waters, but once again condemned to never set roots down into the land.

I sensed the need for those roots when the yearning for the journey began to sicken first my auntie, then my father, and then me. I needed to understand why.


The Failure

There is white normality, and then there is its opposite. But the opposite of normal is not merely abnormal. Normality defines who has the power to make you feel wrong, to sanction you as inferior, and to brand you a failure. Thus, the opposite of white normality is failure.

I was born white to those who failed to be white. I was born and raised with the implicit responsibility to cancel the mark, hide the unspeakable from which I originated, and break the chain of failure. I grew up in the anguish of having to disguise an original shame. I did not learn my father’s language, I had never seen his homeland, and I didn’t know my family’s story. I was white, yet normality was an affliction. Failure is a mark that is passed down from father to child from the colonial era. The colonized, the enslaved people, could not meet the full dignity of man, and because of this, my father could never entirely fulfill the role of father. In fact, the only possible version of a fatherhood is that of the head of household who imposes his authority on his wife and children. Since the time of slavery in Haiti, only the master of the enslaved, the white colonizer, could be a father. “Man” is an intrinsically white gender category.

The enslaved woman is the only biological parent legally recognized. The Black man has historically been Black because he is raté de père, a failure as father. My father was a father until I finished elementary school. Soon, he hurtled into oblivion. He stopped dedicating the weekends to his kids or giving money to my mother. He never had any money for us, and when we asked him for some, he disappeared. He would reappear months later and then disappear again.

His father had done the same thing. My dissident grandfather was more often imprisoned than at home with his family. My grandmother and her children had the task of encouraging him, of giving him the strength to resist, by greeting him from beneath his cell window. Once they arrived in Italy, they had only my grandmother’s salary. Grandfather found ways to squander it. In the end, soon after they divorced, he also disappeared.

My mother once told me that in Haiti “this is what they do,” and that my father had learned from his father. That in Haiti, it is mothers who are the heads of the household, who act as both father and the mother.

And so, caught in the anguish of normality, in the absence of the tools to understand and the words to say so, for years I called my father a failure in the hope that he would react and show me that he wasn’t. In my eyes, he was a weakling impassively watching the end of his relationship with his children, making no attempt to mend it. He let me call him a failure, he turned his back to me, and he left. Yet, the more my father failed, the more I agonized over inheriting his failure. And the more I found myself failing.


The Haitian Syndrome

I could not learn their language, I’m not Black like them, and I knew nothing about their past. Yet there is an illness that I suffer from, which is not whiteness. “It’s the curse of your Haitian family,” my mother once told me—a type of defective gene, she said, that I inherited from my Black side. I don’t know what happened inside of them when they abandoned Haiti. Perhaps my grandfather was already mad when, a second before illegally embarking for Europe, he raised a fist in salute to his homeland, for which he never stopped fighting. It is one of the few things that I found out about him from my father. The ignorance of children protected Auntie and Dad. Still, they only had the length of a transatlantic journey to become old enough to face this new world and all of its whiteness.

Once, in elementary school, during an Italian lesson, the teacher dictated to my father’s class the story of how the intelligent white man arrived in the land of the stupid Black man. And how the white man seized the bountiful land that the foolish Black man, who preferred to wallow in laziness and vice, did not care about. My father wrote down what the teacher said, word for word. He stopped speaking and eating. When my grandmother learned why, she confronted the school principal, who shrugged, “I’m sorry, we did not realize that the boy was Black.” I wonder if, from that moment, my father no longer found it simple to behave in a way that would ensure no one realized his Blackness—to permanently whiten himself and to stop being Black.

I didn’t even realize that my father and his sisters were not white. And I never met my grandfather. There was a single incident while I was drawing the faces of my family for a family tree, my grandmother told me that I needed a brown pencil to color my grandfather. The effect of that brown face on the paper depicting my ancestry made me realize that there was also Black blood in me. The one-drop rule: the historic racial law that makes you Black if you inherit even one drop of Black blood. With that drop of blood, I inherited an entire history of misfortune and madness.

I feel afflicted by a hereditary pathology—we are Haitians. The reasons for this madness are inside of us. Lazy, thieving liars, incapable of looking after ourselves, irresponsible, incapable of behaving like real men, cowards shirking our responsibilities, like all of our kind. And the blame is entirely and ultimately ours. The symptoms make it evident that the cause is endogenic: the Moïse are afflicted with the Haitian Syndrome—disease without a cure. And now I—the daughter of an irresponsible, lazy man, caught up in her whiteness—want to sever my roots having only just found them. I feel only shame. I would prefer to be the daughter of no one, to not have a father at all, than to have a failed father. The father that I would like is a real father—a white father.


My Marronage

Fatherless in the society of family men, I fed on rage and shame for a long time. I wanted to act violently and sabotage this society, but I was only able to sabotage myself. Still, my anger helped me not to feel the pain coming from the outside—an overpowering yet anesthetized pain of which I was the architect. Failure was the first, albeit painful, way of refusing to belong to a toxic society that compels you to win a contest with death in which the only expected outcome is your demise. In my own Haitian syndrome and in the way my family contracted it, I found the bacteria of an ancient resistance in a society that dictates a harmful and singular way of being healthy, becoming sick was the best way to resist. In failure, I found a way to repel from myself and from us any form of the injunction to normalcy. In yet another superhuman attempt to not collapse so as not to die, I finally chose to taste death. Never more so than in that hellish fall did I live with my whole self. I gave up everything, the competition, the anguish of failure, the hatred, and anger.

The white father is a huge lie. I will never have one, nor will any of you.

I decided to let everything go. To leave this poisonous and caustic Europe. I decided to escape.

Escape is only called a failure in the language of the master. In the language of the enslaved, to run away is to take the first step toward freedom. The story of the Haitian maroons has left its mark. “Marronage,” originating from the vocabulary of the indigenous Arawaks and Tainos, indicates the enslaveds’ escape from the plantation. Hidden in the mountains, runaway enslaved people formed genuine underground communities—spaces of deep and collective freedom, where they put together forces and strategy and shaped the counterattack. The battle of the Black Jacobins for their liberation had its beginnings in marronage.

I fled a land where I had no roots and once again crossed the waters of salvation. Using the money I had saved for years, today I am taking my father back to Haiti, and I am also returning. I emerge from a vicious circle of a defective madness and an imploding present and affirm with my marronage the possibility of my desires.


Often, after my crises, I told myself that I could do it, that I could take pride in my ability to endure. But it’s not true. I only see myself dying a little more each day as the little contact I knew how to maintain with the world outside my cage of madness shrinks. I swallow questions about who else I might be and I can’t answer myself. Then I wonder why I can’t answer myself and still can’t find an explanation. I am so consumed with the fear of failure that I have begun to kill myself a little bit each day. Just so I don’t admit that I have failed at living.


We left everything behind, and we disappeared. We laid down this unbearably empty legacy, and we stopped enduring.

Dad, let’s go. I’ll take you all the way there, but then I’ll lean on you. I want you to take me to see the house where you were a baby, the places where you played with your friends and your sisters. I would like to see with my own eyes where the aunts lived and for you to tell me a little bit about them. I want to see the school where Grandmother taught and the prison where they kept Grandfather. I want to see where the  dissidents held their underground meetings. I want to see the house where you hid before running away to Italy. I would like a close-up view of where Grandfather held you in his arms in that photo that Grandmother only recently showed me.

I want to see the hospital in Port-au-Prince where you were born. In fact, let’s begin this long walk from there. In Italy, you seemed so Black to me, here you appear so white to me . . .

We begin to walk, and we will only stop walking when it feels like we never left.

We walk and we walk until little by little, the reality around me takes form and color. Gradually, my father begins to speak. His memories color the landscape: the still green mountains of Kenscoff, the downhill runs with the dogs, dives in the Artibonite River, the mud and the light breaking through the waterfalls. Let’s walk, Dad, and everything you show me sets into motion: the four wheels of the tap-tap, the women at the market with the full baskets of fruits and poultry on their heads. More distant from us is also the long and profound economic, political, and environmental crisis. I know it, but only vaguely, from your eyes, and I can only see it in the distance. I frown and squint to focus on the horizon and see a mom with her newborn, despair on her face. She puts the newborn in the arms of a white woman, begs her to take care of the child, and disappears. And then again, a man was forcefully pulled out of a bus by two armed men. They shove him into the trunk of a car, and the scene vanishes a second later.

We walk onward, and while we feel the exhaustion of the journey in our lungs and our limping gait, unreal images of the life that we would have lived if we had remained here or had been born here take shape. And what if you grew up and became an adult in Haiti, Dad? What if you became a father here and, holding me, as a baby, in your arms, you had sung goodnight to me in Creole? I brought you here so that you could finally tell me. We walk for days, looking for traces of memories and reflecting on all the reasons they were erased. Almost as if it could return to the present to make an impact, every day, another small piece of this incredibly difficult story emerges. And already, it does make an impact. I feel you beside me like never before. You don’t look at me while you speak, you look ahead, but you talk to me.

In your fullest presence, I realize something for the first time: in your life, you have been my father for longer than you were your father’s son. We begin to slow down and speak in whispers. I don’t even know where my grandfather was buried. You never told me. I only know that you were eighteen years old. That he had already left the family and that he was found dead in France. Yet, no one really knows where nor why. It’s still hard to ask, but I brought you here for this.

We arrive in the center of the capital, in front of the presidential palace, which was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. It is still Sunken in on itself. Instead, after the quake, what has remained intact is the enormous statue that gives this square its name: le Marron Inconnu, the Unknown Maroon, erected in commemoration of the Haitian Revolution and the abolishment of slavery. Over eleven feet tall and eight feet wide. The statue’s right knee is on the ground, and its left leg is stretched behind him, a broken shackle on his ankle. His body arches upward and at the same time, with all of its magnitude, proudly occupies the ground underneath his feet. The half-naked body, marked by violence, immortalizes the gesture of the Black Jacobin who, putting a large conch to his lips, called for the revolt of the enslaved peoples in the name of freedom.

Dear Dad, although I don’t know where my grandfather was buried, I inherited more from him than anyone else in this unhinged family. So, now that we are here, I long for only one thing: to organize the most beautiful funeral for Grandfather for the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Here, underneath the statue of the Marron Inconnu.

So I raided my old life, delivering a special invitation to those who thought I had vanished forever. It went like this:


Dear Ones,

After months of silence, I decided to send you this short message to let you know that I am in Haiti with my father and that I would really like you to join me. Even if only for a day: the day of the funeral of my deceased grandfather, my father’s father. If you receive this invitation, it is because you are among the few people who knew, loved, and hated him, oras is much more likelybecause you know virtually nothing about him; only slightly less than I do. It has been years since I celebrated birthdays or other ceremonies. Yet I have a deep desire for this, and I would like for you, who have accompanied me for a lifetime in this troubling path, to be here.

I ask that you join me. To come to learn my roots, which I spent a lifetime missing, with me. I want you here as I celebrate the end and finally prepare for this farewell. If you receive this invitation, it is because you are one of the people who told me, “I am not like you,” and I suffered without knowing how to respond. On this day, I would like you there to celebrate what makes me different from you. And yet, if I am writing to you, it is because you live inside me. It is because you are part of my body, and to find the strength to leap into the future, I ask this body of mine, I ask you, to consider me starting from my passion for life, from my vital strength of desire.


It was an exhausting wait. In the square underneath the statue, my father and I awaited them one by one. Then the conch rang, and all our loved ones huddled around us—sisters, friends, cousins, professors, mothers, doctors, and colleagues. We were surrounded by intense connections from the past, the loves of my life, comrades in the struggle. First, all the people who knew my grandfather spoke: each story that flowed finally gave us back the sense of nostalgia, the toils and anxieties, the failed failures. Witness after witness, my roots absorbed the nourishment and, coiled around them, a new flower bloomed in the middle of my belly. It was the most intense celebration of my life. After several days of going deep into my family history, the Haitian syndrome began to dissolve. It gave way to an unrestrained passion for the life that I had. To this grandfather without a history, to the one who, for me, was just a brown face in marker on a notebook, I dedicate the struggle that I chose, or perhaps that I finally took on.

Goodbye, Grandfather. “Goodbye, Father,” my dad said. Or thank you. Thank you to all the Jacobins who came before you: cowards, traitors, fools, and failures. Long live you nameless fugitives, who lie nowhere because that conch still resounds inside me.


The Scream

The disease collapsed in a scream of deep rage, it was expelled from our nonexistent bodies, and it spat on its creators. That scream lasted for days, weeks, and then years. In the end, the last exhaled scream of rage began to trudge until it turned into a syncopated sound, more and more similar to roaring laughter.

We died from laughing, we were reborn from laughing, we laughed until we cried a river of laughter. And then again, the tears swelled with sorrow. We flooded the world with our suffering. Yet, finally, we let it drain away. The anger had breached the banks of that island of nonexistence. We released our pathology, shed our restraints. And we finally found the words to speak of our most passionate desires.


From “Abbiamo pianto un fiume di risate.” © Marie Moïse. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Barbara Ofosu-Somuah. All rights reserved.

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