In a work that takes the form of a diary and a novel, Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero contemplates failure and procrastination to ultimately affirm writing as an act of freedom.
The publication of Mario Levrero’s (1940-2004) The Luminous Novel in English, in Annie McDermott’s beautiful translation, is a true literary event. Although Levrero has enjoyed cult status for some time in Uruguay and Argentina, his work is just beginning to get the recognition it deserves elsewhere. Published posthumously in 2005, The Luminous Novel is his masterpiece: an almost unclassifiable work, halfway between fiction and autobiography, in which we follow the author struggling (and failing) to write a book called “The Luminous Novel.” Fashioning himself as a sort of new Bartleby (Bartleby Lavalleja was one of his early literary pseudonyms), Levrero infinitely postpones the writing of this novel, but, as a good “scrivener,” he then records his fruitless attempts, so that not-writing becomes something to write about at length.
The Luminous Novel is a book whose importance could be compared to that of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and one hopes this release could spark an editorial phenomenon similar to what followed the publication of Natasha Wimmer’s translation of Bolaño’s novel in 2007, almost thirty years after the so-called Latin American Boom captivated the English-speaking world. But unlike Bolaño, García Márquez, Vargas-Llosa, or Fuentes, Levrero is an author who fits only awkwardly in the Western canon or a certain imaginary of “Latin America.” Ángel Rama, the great Uruguayan critic, included him in the “rare writers” club. Rama’s raros, a designation meaning at the same time rare and odd, describes an Uruguayan literary trend that began with the publications of the Uruguay-born French poet Comte de Lautréamont. Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror, with its artistic rejection of bourgeois values and emphasis on the morbid, the macabre, and spiritual eroticism, would become a model for Surrealism and the avant-garde. For Rama, a similar eccentricity can be traced in a “minority trend” within the national literature that included authors like Felisberto Hernández and Armonía Somers, whose works moved away from the laws of causality, made use of the dreamlike and the strange, avoided the utopian perspective on national realities, and experimented with the space of the subjective and subconscious as ways of approaching reality.
All of these aspects can be traced throughout Levrero’s vast oeuvre (twelve novels and six collections of short stories, not to mention diaries, comics, and essays), but in Levrero the characterization of the “rare” should not be limited exclusively to recognizing its off-center position within a literary tradition. In fact, he himself mocked the label in a self-interview. His work experiments with diverse genres and themes, including science fiction, fantasy, the crime novel, autobiography, psychoanalysis, and parapsychology. His influences range from cinema and popular culture to authors such as Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett. Levrero’s “rarity” has more to do with a peculiar way of approaching literary and creative phenomena, that is, with his capacity for an obsessive observation of reality that seeks to make the strange emerge from everyday life. It is there that he places the unique spiritual experience of creation.
For Levrero, the contemplation of quotidian images and their subsequent registration in writing reveals secret meanings that emanate from his subconscious and that he can later connect with an intimate and true reality. This aspect is especially evident in the final stage of his work, to which The Luminous Novel belongs.
Levrero received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000 to finish a novel whose planned title was “The Luminous Novel.” He had begun working on it in 1984 and, after a fifteen-year period during which he abandoned and resumed the project several times, he managed to come up with the five initial chapters later published in the novel. The Guggenheim Fellowship promised the necessary financial relief for him to finally focus on and finish The Luminous Novel. Instead, Levrero delivered a massive, 400 page-long diary, which he titled “Prologue: Diary of the Grant.” It covered about a year of entries in which the author documented his daily life as well as his “failure” to write his novel. This text precedes the unfinished “Luminous Novel,” which is just over 100 pages. Both elements are included in The Luminous Novel as we know it.
Levrero’s experiments with the diary form date from 1986, when he started writing Diario de un canalla (Diary of a Scoundrel). First published in an anthology in 1992 and then again in 2014—together with the posthumous publication of Burdeos 1972: A Diary, written in 2003, about his memories of living in Bordeaux for a few months following a love affair—Diario de un canalla is closely related to The Luminous Novel. In the former’s first entry, dated December 3, 1986, Levrero recalls that the aim of the novel, written as he was about to undergo a dreaded gallbladder operation, was “to rescue some passages of my life, with the secret idea of exorcising the fear of death and the fear of pain.” In the same diary, the author tries to investigate the reasons for the abandonment of his novel and recognizes diaristic writing as a form of “self-construction,” with which he tries to “rescue pieces” of himself, and thus confirms an abiding truth of his approach to his art: “I don’t want to talk about style or structure: this is not a novel, dammit! My very life is at stake.”
This strong affirmation underlies Levrero’s later diaristic work, where writing will also be a form of recovery and vital commitment, as seen in Empty Words (1996) (also magnificently translated by Annie McDermott for And Other Stories and published in 2019). Empty Words is based on a kind of handwriting therapy that consisted of performing calligraphy exercises under the idea that, by improving penmanship, personality can be restored and character affirmed. What begins as an exercise in embellishment of the letter moves towards a reflection on artistic creation.
The Luminous Novel is part of the same journey of self-knowledge, therapy, and literary exercise as the previous books, but, above all, it is a renewed reflection on artistic creation as a form of spiritual experience in the contemporary world.
In The Luminous Novel, Levrero’s inaction takes on pathological and addictive traits, which he refuses to remedy, despite his deteriorating health. He goes to sleep in the wee hours, after having spent the day experimenting with Visual Basic and playing cards on the computer; he eats little and only thanks to a generous friend who delivers him food; he is late to Yoga classes and resists leaving his house as he prepares literary workshops; he puts off therapy and spends much of his days perfecting a yogurt-making technique; he evokes failed love affairs, interprets his dreams, watches pornography, and procrastinates until dawn, when he finally puts pen to paper. His diary entries, recorded in the twilight hours, his sleep disturbances, and his inability to get off the internet are expressions of a daily and repetitive failure: the Sisyphean punishment to which life subjects him. On the other hand, this lack of discipline also reveals traits of authenticity, since life and writing “without form” is a struggle against adaptation: an expression of rebellion against demands for order in life or for rigid adherence to the conventions of literary genres. This honest and genuine acceptance of defeat is not without humor, and at the same time it is a result of deep self-reflection and spiritual searching.
The writing of Levrero’s diary begins with the desire to transform the mundane everyday into a “spiritual and luminous” experience. Usually regarded as a marginal genre, the diary is transformed into a full-fledged literary work through the enunciation of its author’s failure to write. Through Levrero’s description of his own search for it, the elusive text becomes a tangible and concrete literary sign, making the diary the only possible work, the central work. If addiction was a way of “escaping reality,” diary writing reestablishes connection as it becomes an exploration of a relationship with the world. Levrero’s reaction to his own helplessness is not tragic, but comical and cynical. It is a complete acceptance of failure as a possibility of life. Hence the hilarious little letters addressed to “Mr. Guggenheim,” where he writes ironically about the misuse of the funds of the grant. By thumbing his nose at one of professional writing’s most coveted prizes, Levrero mocks the institutionalization of the figure of the writer and, contrary to expectations, does not write the promised novel, but simply vindicates the experience of writing as an act of freedom, a spiritual act.
The distance between the five chapters of the novel written more than fifteen years earlier and the diary entries from the year 2000 is insurmountable. The writer has been transformed and is unable to return to that original inspiration. However, the diary as a lengthy prologue prepares us for “The Luminous Novel,” a captivating part of the book, where spiritual experiences are expressed in such simple details as watching a dog, an encounter with a pigeon, the evocation of lost loves, sexual encounters, or the conception of life as a journey in which our different selves simultaneously ride trains to various and uncertain destinations. Finally, the last chapter, “First Communion,” which appears as an independent piece, is one of the most powerful stories in the book. It narrates, by way of closing, the story of the author’s own spiritual communion and his encounter with God in adulthood. Here, the artist indulges in a religious experience that can only be compared to the mystery of the creative act, full of intensity and transience, and, in his case, not exempt from irony and ambiguity.
Both “Prologue: Diary of the Grant” and “The Luminous Novel” are deliberately unfinished. This condition honors one of Levrero’s beliefs about literature: “The only thing that matters is style.” Faced with this idea, which diminishes the value of any organically structured plot, all that matters is the voice of the writer, which comes, as Roland Barthes remarked in Writing Degree Zero, from an articulation between the flesh and the world. This points us to the originality and importance of Levrero’s diary, which is an exercise in style, or rather, a true literary work. That unique voice, his style, is faithfully maintained in Annie MacDermott’s translation.
When we read Mario Levrero in English, we continue to hear his comic, intelligent, cynical, and endearing voice. We feel that we are engaged in dialogue with him. We are unafraid of being alone, or of experiencing our own failure.
© 2021 by Isaura Contreras. All rights reserved.
The year Pablo Escobar was killed was the year I realized I would become a writer. Escobar was, of course, the head of the drug cartel whose war against the Colombian state had shaped my teenage years, beginning with the murder of a minister of justice in 1984—I was eleven then—and continuing during the following decade with a kind of terrorism that we had never known before: bombing, for instance, a shopping mall on Mother’s Day, a commercial airplane with more than a hundred passengers, and even the well-protected building that housed the national intelligence agency. Escobar wanted to pressure the government into rejecting extradition laws that would have sent drug dealers to American jails; he dreamed of negotiations such as the ones that had ended with amnesty laws for guerrilla members in the previous years. His best strategy, he thought, was generalized fear. The extent of his determination is evident in an undercover recording of his voice taped while he was in hiding.
“We have to create real fucking chaos so they’ll call us to peace talks,” he says. “If we take it to the politicians, burn down their houses and make a real bloody civil war, then they’ll have to call us to peace talks and our problems will be fixed.”
Like most Colombians, I had several close encounters with “chaos” during those years. One of them has a special meaning for me, so much so that I have given it narrative form in a novel called The Shape of the Ruins. On January 30, 1993, I was walking toward a place that had become for me a retreat, a refuge of sorts. The building occupied a whole block in downtown Bogotá; it was built like a warehouse, with brick walls and no windows, and its three stories held dozens of small cubicles where, it seemed to me, you could find a secondhand copy of every book ever published in the Spanish-speaking world. As a disenchanted law student, slowly coming to terms with the place that fiction had taken up in my life, I used to flee the classroom at the slightest opportunity—between, shall we say, Administrative Law and Equity and Trusts—and spend some time browsing, often losing track of time and missing Equity and Trusts, and collecting cheap editions of Latin American fiction like a man gathering tinned food for a long period of isolation.
That day I had one title in mind: Último round, two volumes of miscellanea by Julio Cortázar, an Argentinian writer whose novel Hopscotch I had read the previous year with feelings of jealousy and frustration. Hopscotch followed the lives and conversations of a group of friends and lovers in Paris, and its world of books and jazz and existential doubts could not have felt more seductive for the young man I was, because it was conspicuously not my own world of senseless violence, of constant threat, of TV ads that offered unreasonable rewards for information leading to the capture of a mafia lord, or asked Colombian parents, in block capitals, white on black, this ominous question:
DO YOU KNOW
WHERE YOUR CHILDREN
ARE RIGHT NOW?
A friend of mine, a reader older than me and thus more knowledgeable, had told me that Último round included a particular essay about what he called, rather pompously, the art of the short story. “You can’t write short stories if you haven’t read ‘On the Short Story and Its Environs,’” he announced. So there I was, hunting for that magical book in the place I knew best. But before visiting my windowless warehouse, I decided to try my luck at a nearby stationery shop that used also to have a small selection of books and had often surprised me with unexpected treasures; reaching the shop window, however, seeing that the place had been invaded by small, noisy children and nervous mothers buying supplies for the beginning of the school year, I decided to walk on. I had turned the corner and was approaching the entrance to my warehouse when the bomb went off. In the news, late that night, I learned that the attack had probably targeted the Chamber of Commerce, that it had left twenty-five dead, and that among the victims were a couple and their two children, seven and four years old, who had been buying stationery for the new school term.
The narrator of The Shape of the Ruins remembers these words, attributed to Napoleon: “To understand the man, you have to understand what was happening in the world when he was twenty.” I was twenty years and thirty days old when that bomb went off in downtown Bogotá, leaving me to face the uncomfortable fact that, with a small adjustment of time or place, I could have been one of the dead. A friend of mine used to say that if a book matters to us, we may not recall the exact details of its plot or its characters, but we will always remember what we were doing when we read it; conversely, I’ve always thought that fiction readers, when remembering an important event, tend to recall, almost involuntarily, the book they were reading at the time. The day of the bombing I was reading Seven Nights, a series of lectures on literature by Jorge Luis Borges. In my copy I underlined these words: “There is no chance. . . . What we call chance is our ignorance of the complex machinery of causality.” But I don’t think I had the bomb in mind when I chose them.
I finished my Borges in February and I read Aura, by Carlos Fuentes, in March. I read The Alexandria Quartet between April and May and The Unbearable Lightness of Being in June. Because I’ve always written down the date I finish on the last page of every book I read, I can state for a fact that I was twenty years and seven months when I read Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, in Julio Cortázar’s translation; I was twenty years and nine months old when I read Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, and twenty years and eleven months when, just weeks after Pablo Escobar was gunned down on the rooftops of Medellín, I finished Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, reading the last lines aloud as if they were a prayer susceptible to being answered. Ellmann is talking about Joyce’s two areas of interest, his family and his writing. “These passions never dwindled,” he says. “The intensity of the first gave his work its sympathy and humanity; the intensity of the second raised his life to dignity and high dedication.”
To return to Napoleon’s dictum: that was my world—the world of my twentieth year. On one side, the unpredictable violence that shaped our lives in the theater of an irregular war; on the other, the invisible revolutions that involved only me, as I began to accept that this, the possibility of a life spent reading and writing fiction, was replacing every other ambition I’d once had.
Over the years, I’ve slowly come to the realization that the two phenomena did not occur in separate universes. The novels I read in those days were, it seems to me now, a kind of antidote against the degradation of my society. While terrorism transformed individual lives in devious ways, including the lives of those who did not experience it in the flesh but felt its indirect consequences, the novels I was reading, although incapable of solving anything, seemed to respond with a certain private order to the public chaos. They preserved a certain notion of the human—indeed, the humane—amid actors and circumstances that seemed bent on reducing, even obliterating it. A novel was a place of silence where I could rest from the deafening noise surrounding us all; a place where I could live for a sustained time in the company of a consciousness more penetrating than my own; a promise of a richer, fuller life.
As terrorism forced us to live indoors, where risks were reduced, a feeling that I can only call claustrophobia began contaminating my days. The fictions I read alleviated that sense of oppression, mainly by pointing at the common human factors between myself and all those men and women dealing—in faraway places and in their own languages—with preoccupations I could understand. I looked for fictions that could speak to me across cultural contrasts; I’m not exaggerating when I say that I felt myself better understood by Stephen Dedalus than by the newspapers I read every day. When today I discuss the internationality of fiction, I’m really remembering this: its mysterious ability to read me, to interpret me, across time and space.
This, I believe, is fiction’s claim to being an international art form: its ability to liberate us from our frustratingly limited perspectives on life. The fictions I read lived in conversation with other fictions: García Márquez introduced me to Virginia Woolf, and Vargas Llosa introduced me to Flaubert. With each one of those new acquaintances, my sense of reality seemed to enlarge. In a book of interviews—which, according to the last page, I read in December 1993—Adolfo Bioy Casares is asked whether to write is, in a certain way, to stop living. He answers:
It seems to me that the opposite is true. I dare to give the advice to write, because writing is adding a room to the house of life. There is life and there is thinking about life, which is another way of going through it intensely.
But there were other, more complex emotions. A novel was also a place of solitude where I could recover from the hostility, the sheer anger of my city; a place of quiet nonconformity and careful rebellion, a rejection of the flawed world outside, a silent protest that was not altogether free of resentment. In García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, Simón Bolívar has this to say about what I was feeling, perhaps unfairly: “Every Colombian is an enemy country.” The violence outside invaded and contaminated our private lives. I’ve written a short story about this—it’s called “The Boys” and appears in my collection Songs for the Flames—in which middle-class teenagers meet to fight for fun, unable to recognize or understand the deep pleasure they take in making somebody else cry or bleed. This is the degradation I was talking about. We were all broken, each one of us, living in a broken society. In a mysterious way, the activity of reading fiction, even if it never quite mended those fractures, opened a space that I could use to better cope with them.
Twenty-eight years have passed since then. I have published a little under 3,000 pages of novels and short stories; also, two books of literary essays and hundreds of reviews that strive to understand what fiction is, what it does. I have changed in these twenty-eight years, and the books I love have changed, and my relationship with fiction has changed too. In one obviously important way, my twenty-year-old self was (quite unconsciously, truth be told) using fiction to deal with a hostile reality; today I consciously use fiction to investigate that reality, whose hostility has also changed but never disappeared. Rather than protecting myself from it, I use the novels I read, but also those I write, to go toward it—toward its areas of darkness, its uncharted territories—and try to come back with some kind of illumination, or, to use a humbler word, information. We may as well call it the news. I have forgotten where I encountered for the first time those lines of William Carlos Williams that many writers before me have brought to court to speak as witnesses in defense of literature:
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
With a few exceptions like Spanish and English—my language and yours—most of Europe refers to long works of prose fiction with a word derived from romanice, which in medieval Latin means “natural language” or “common tongue,” as opposed to written Latin, the language of scholars and elites. This little etymological insight pleases me, I must confess, because it reflects the democratic impulse that to me is inseparable from the genre: this genre born, in its modern incarnation, when an anonymous Spanish writer thought that the life of a poor outcast, a pícaro called Lazarillo de Tormes, was worthy of our curiosity and our sustained attention. But our beautiful word novel, coming from the Italian or the Old French for “news,” feels to me deeply satisfying. With its suggestion of messengers reaching us from undiscovered countries—yes, areas of darkness and uncharted territories—with the implicit embracing of everyday reality, the reality one would see in the papers, the novel carries the promise of bringing us something that concerns us and concerns many men.
What this something is, the nature of this news, has always been difficult to define. It is obviously not the kind of information we look for in journalism or history, precious as that is; it is not quantifiable information, or information that can be confirmed empirically. Fiction, James Wood writes, is “a ceaseless experiment with uncollectible data,” and many of the misunderstandings surrounding it arise from the expectation that the data contained there are, in fact, collectible. Of course, any attentive reader will close Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler knowing more than before about casinos, and they will probably learn with Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense many a thing they didn’t know about chess. But if that’s all they get, or all they were after in the first place, to say that they would be missing the point is perhaps an understatement. Borges called one of his great short stories “an ethic for immortals,” but I expect few readers will approach it with the intention of applying its lessons in the future.
The novel we call historical has often been the victim of this kind of misunderstanding. Of course, every reader of Wolf Hall will learn a great deal about the court of Henry VIII, and I can only be glad they do, just as every reader of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World will gather interesting facts about the War of Canudos in nineteenth-century Brazil. But I dare say both Vargas Llosa and Hilary Mantel pursue a double goal in their fiction: to be as accurate as history, yes, but also to tell us something that history doesn’t. Great nonfiction, of which I have consumed plenty, seems to me irreplaceable as a source of a certain kind of information. What would be the point of using fiction to give readers more of the same? The novel’s sole raison d’être, says the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch, is to say what only the novel can say. And what is true about the past, as explored in the best works of the historical genre, is true of the present as well. The news we receive from the novels of Javier Marías or Ali Smith is not to be found anywhere else. Carlos Fuentes used to ask, “What is imagination but the transformation of experience into knowledge?” Yes: fiction is knowledge. Admittedly, it is an ambiguous and ironic kind of knowledge, but one without which our understanding of the world would be incomplete, fragmentary, or even severely flawed.
This is what fiction has to offer. But the real question is: What do we want from fiction?
This question has taken on a new meaning for me in the last few months, as we grapple with the uncertainties of the pandemic. I caught the virus at the end of February 2020, so early in the game that the tests in my country were not able to diagnose it correctly; for a few months, after overcoming a severe pneumonia and recovering with no serious consequences, I was convinced I’d had a different virus, although every new symptom confirmed by the media turned out to have been present in my case. Today, the uncertainty that I felt back then has yielded to our general uncertainty, the collective difficulty of knowing just how all this should be dealt with. It seems to me when I look out of my digital windows (through which virtually no place in the world escapes our gaze) that the pandemic has deadened our ability to imagine others—their anxiety, their pain, their fear—and exhausted our strategies to deal with our own fear, our own pain, our own anxiety.
In these moments, hundreds or maybe thousands of us have reached for Albert Camus’s The Plague, or Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, or even García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. What I find stubbornly fascinating about this attitude is the fact that there is something religious in it (believers looking for answers in a Book) and at the same time deeply practical and almost materialistic: novels as “interpreters of maladies,” if I may borrow for a second Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful title; or, to put it differently, fiction as a vade mecum. Those words, as you will know, mean “Go with me.” That’s what I ask of the best fictions: that they walk with me, interpreting the world as we move forward, telling me the news.
© 2021 by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Reprinted by permission of Litfest. All rights reserved. The Lancaster International Fiction Lecture is a joint venture between Litfest (Lancaster Literature Festival) and the Departments of Languages & Cultures and English Literature & Creative Writing at Lancaster University.
The languages featured in this issue take us back more than five hundred years, when the monsoon winds brought traders from the Arabian Peninsula, China, and India to the Malay Archipelago. Language contact between different Asian communities who sailed across the seas to trade, and the arrival of first the Portuguese and Spanish, and later the Dutch and British, in Asia resulted in the development of hybrid communities, out of which arose new contact languages, often referred to as creoles. Spanning across four countries and boasting influences from various linguistic traditions, the contact languages represented in this issue are Zamboangueño Chavacano in the Philippines, and three Portuguese-based creoles, Sri Lanka Portuguese, Melaka Portuguese (also known as Papiá Cristang), and Patuá (also referred to as Macau Creole Portuguese and Makista). Also featured is a lesser-known Malay-based vernacular, Chetti Malay (Malay Chetti Creole), spoken in Malaysia. Based on their dwindling number of speakers and a lack of intergenerational transmission, Sri Lanka Portuguese and Melaka Portuguese are classified as endangered, while Chetti Malay, and especially Patuá, which has fewer than fifty speakers left, are critically endangered. This special issue aims to provide a space for the voices of these contact languages to be heard, offering readers a glimpse into the world of these mainly minority communities as they share their thoughts and stories in their original languages, which appear alongside the translated versions of their writings.
In the fifteenth century, Bazaar Malay, a form of pidgin-derived Malay, was the lingua franca among traders and locals in the Malay Archipelago, including in Melaka (located about 150 kilometers south of the current-day capital city, Kuala Lumpur). A particularly bustling port city, Melaka was the birthplace of two of the contact languages featured here: Chetti Malay, a Malay-based contact language spoken by the Melaka Chetti, who are said to be descendants of intermarriages between South Indian Hindu traders and local women; and Melaka Portuguese, which traces its roots to the arrival of the Portuguese in Melaka in the sixteenth century. The resulting unions between the Portuguese and the locals led to the development of the Melaka Portuguese-Eurasian community. Other than the Portuguese, from which most of its vocabulary is derived, Melaka Portuguese displays influences from Malay in terms of its grammatical structure, and also contains words from Malay, Dutch, and Indian (e.g., Hindi, Konkani, and Tamil) and Chinese (e.g., Hakka and Hokkien) languages as well as English.
To the west, the Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka from 1505 to 1648 gave rise to another Portuguese creole, Sri Lanka Portuguese, which was used by the Burghers, i.e., those of Portuguese and even Dutch ancestry, and by the Afro-Sri Lankan community (also known as the Kaffirs1). Today, it is mainly spoken by around three thousand Portuguese Burghers in a few locations in Sri Lanka. As the Portuguese moved to East Asia, yet another Portuguese creole, called Patuá, developed. More specifically, Patuá arose when Melaka Portuguese speakers settled in Macau, and it is indeed very similar to Melaka Portuguese, showing the connections between these and other locations along the Portuguese route. Patuá also displays influences from Malay, Cantonese, and English, while Sri Lanka Portuguese is influenced by Tamil and Sinhala. The final language in this issue, Zamboangueño Chavacano, however, differs significantly from the others: it is the only Spanish-based contact language featured, and its status is stable, with about 300,000 speakers and a tradition of language education, literacy, and literature.
This issue includes poems in Chetti Malay, Sri Lanka Portuguese, Patuá, and Zamboangueño Chavacano, and a folktale in Melaka Portuguese. The four verses in Chetti Malay by four members of that language community—Nironjini Pillay, Shagina Bhalan, Nadarajan Mudalier, and Mahendran Pillay—are in the style of a traditional Malay poem known as the pantun, with its typical a-b-a-b rhyme scheme. The tradition of the pantun among the Melaka Chetti distinguishes them from other Malaysians of Indian origin, as this form of cultural expression is particularly associated with the Malay communities of Southeast Asia. In their oral form, these poems require linguistic creativity and dexterity as verse after verse is traded between speakers. The Melaka Portuguese, in fact, had a similar form of these singing duels, the mata cantiga (literally “to kill with a song”), while a related exchange of pantun, also known as the Dondang Sayang, is still performed by another hybrid community, the Baba Nyonyas in Melaka.
This particular pantun comprises four verses that describe the origins and cultural heritage of the Melaka Chetti people, with a special focus on their traditional attire. As is typical in a pantun, the first two lines in each verse present a figurative suggestion of the more direct message contained in the final two lines. The translation of the poem attempts to retain the rhyme and rhythm of the pantun while maintaining the overall meaning of each verse.
The two Sri Lanka Portuguese poems included here, written by Magin Mario Balthazaar, a Sri Lanka Portuguese Burgher, also reflect the cultural heritage of the author’s community. Translated by Hugo C. Cardoso, “Minha ámoor nóóna” (“My Beloved Lady”) and “Tééra nósa viida” (“The Land of our Lives”) reflect the importance of music and dance in the Portuguese Burgher community as it celebrates love and life.
“Macau nôs-sa téra” (“Macau, Our Homeland”) is a poem in Patuá by lawyer and playwright H. Miguel de Senna Fernandes. The poem is an expression of love for one’s homeland, a theme that is shared by Balthazaar’s “Tééra nósa viida” and can also be found in Melaka Portuguese literature; it can perhaps be related to the need to identify with a place, to find a sense of belonging among mixed minority groups and their diasporic communities, who over the last five hundred years have lost or are losing their language and possibly parts of their culture. This language loss has taken place gradually, as more dominant languages replace a community’s home language, as speakers become more fluent in these dominant languages, and as they culturally assimilate with people outside their communities through, for example, intermarriage and migration.
The tone shifts in two poems by the late Francis C. Macansantos, a poet and writer who wrote in Zamboangueño Chavacano and English. Born in Cotabato City in the Philippines, Macansantos grew up in Zamboanga City and lived in Baguio City from 1981 until his death in July 2017. His works have won several awards, including the National Book Award for Poetry in English in 2017 for Snail Fever. In both of the poems that appear here, “Ojos del marijada” (“Eyes of the Wave”) and “Ñor Marcos (Un Soliloquia)” (“Mr. Marcos—(A Soliloquy)”), the sea plays a key role, as does a sense of succumbing to one's fate.
The final piece in this issue is a folk story told in Melaka Portuguese. “Diabu kum Tripa” (“The Gut Demons”) is translated here by Sara Frederica Santa Maria, who teaches Melaka Portuguese to children at the Portuguese Settlement (and to both children and adults online since the COVID-19 pandemic began). The Portuguese Settlement (Kampung Portugis in Malay) was established in the early 1930s by the coast of Melaka. The approximately twenty-seven-acre village is about fifteen minutes away from the city center and has a population of about a thousand people. The Melaka Portuguese refer to the Settlement as Padri sa Chang, which literally means “The Priests’ Land,” as the land for the village was obtained through the efforts of two Catholic priests, Father Alvaro Martin Coroado and Father Jules Pierre François.
In “Diabu kum Tripa,” Sara brings into English a story she heard many times as a young girl, which is a rather gory tale of six pregnant women who become bodiless demons. It was not uncommon for such frightening stories to be passed from one generation to another as a form of advice to prevent children and young people from going out late in the evening.
You will notice that the original Melaka Portuguese text of “Diabu kum Tripa” has similarities to Sri Lanka Portuguese and Patuá. This is not just because Portuguese is their main lexifier—it also relates to their historical development as the Portuguese traveled through South, Southeast, and East Asia. Along the way, the contact languages that developed were already likely to be a mixed variety, which then continued to evolve through further contact with local languages, peoples, and cultures. Five hundred years on, these three Portuguese-based languages, as well as Chetti Malay, are at risk of disappearing and, like Patuá (and Tugu Portuguese in Indonesia), may only be heard in performances in the future; Zamboangueño Chavacano is the only one of the contact languages featured here that continues to be used and learned widely. The writings in this issue, then, are a rarity, and we are pleased to present them in both their original languages and in English translation, so readers may first “hear” the authors’ own voices and then begin to grasp them through translation.
For speakers of endangered languages, creative writing can be an opportunity to express themselves on subjects personal, traditional, and contemporary, using the nuances and melodies of their languages. The work they produce often speaks to their histories, traditions, and values, and gives readers a sense of what is important to them, whether it be love, family, or maintaining cultural traditions (themes found in many of the works presented in this issue). However, as Macansantos’s poems show, these writings can also be a powerful expression of the human condition, particularly that of the poor and marginalized. In addition, for multilingual writers such as those represented in this issue, choosing to write in their heritage languages can be seen as an expression of agency, an active choice to communicate in a nondominant language rather than, for example, an official or national language (e.g., Malay, Filipino, Portuguese, or Chinese), or an international language like English. Thus, providing a space for minority and endangered languages to be published and read in their original form, rather than just in a translated version, connotes respect for these languages, their writers, and their communities, and helps to document their use for future generations.
1. Note: This term is not offensive in the Sri Lankan context.↩
© 2021 Stefanie Shamila Pillai. All rights reserved.
In this traditional folktale passed down orally from one generation to the next, pregnant women turn into demons.
Sara Frederica Santa Maria reads "The Gut Demons" in the original Melaka Portuguese.
Long ago, deep in the jungle, there lived six pregnant women. Every day they would go hunting for food. This activity exhausted them, as their bellies grew bigger and heavier by the day. One day, they gathered to speak about their troubles. One of them suggested that they consult a sorceress. They were told that the sorceress could help them, but they could only meet with her on Thursday nights. They discussed the matter for many hours and then decided to visit her.
The very next Thursday night, the women went to see the sorceress. After listening to their troubles, the sorceress replied in an ominous tone: “If you want my help, you must listen very carefully to what I say. When you go in search of food, you must do so at night, and you must only go with your head and intestines.
"You must leave at midnight and be back home by three in the morning. If you aren’t, you will become gut demons for eternity. The only way to return to your human form will be to drink the blood of pregnant women.” The six women took in the sorceress’s words. From that night onward, they would go looking for food in the darkness of the night, leaving their bodies behind. Fearing the curse, they returned home by three in the morning without fail.
The women continued their nightly hunting rituals until one night, when a young hunter spotted them in their bodiless form. All he saw were floating heads attached to trailing intestines. Uncowed, he followed them to their house and witnessed their transformation. The next night, he returned to the house and watched as they left their bodies behind. Waiting patiently until they set out to hunt, he crept into their house. Next, he repositioned the pregnant women’s bodies so that they would have trouble finding them. When they returned, they could not fit into the bodies that were placed where they had left them. Each of them frantically flew in all directions in search of the right body, but to no avail. The clock struck three, and from that moment on they were forced to remain gut demons.
You may say you have never come across these demons. Legend has it they were all captured by mighty sorcerers many, many years ago . . . or do they still lurk nearby, watching you in the dark?
Translation © 2021 by Sara Frederica Santa Maria. All rights reserved.
In this self-translation, the late Filipino poet Francis C. Macansantos masks the dark side of the ocean with deceptively seductive language.
Listen to Dr. Sonia Macansantos Alensub read Francis C. Macansantos's "Ojos del marijada" in the original Zamboangueño Chavacano.
Stop looking for the wave’s eyes.
With its whole body it gazes at you,
Eyes of blue-green watch you,
Dimpled smiles hidden in water.
Laughter of clouds at its crest
Doing a little dance before hurtling down,
Crashing against your chest because it knows you,
Pulling you out to sea, summoning you
To a home where you lived long ago.
"Ojos del marijada" © Francis C. Macansantos. Translation © Francis C. Macansantos. By arrangement with the estate of Francis C. Macansantos. All rights reserved.
A dying man contemplates his poverty and the heavens in this self-translation by the late Filipino poet Francis C. Macansantos.
Listen to Dr. Sonia Macansantos Alensub read Francis C. Macansantos's "Ñor Marcos" in the original Zamboangueño Chavacano.
Mr. Marcos, a junk dealer, was found dead at dawn, still seated on a bench overlooking the sea at the Zamboanga wharf.
Dawn till twilight
I’m on the lookout for empty containers
To sell to the Chinaman.
Tin cans and bottles,
My cart, low-slung like a sled,
Is like a table that glides down the street,
Starting as a void
That fills out at day’s end
With empty containers.
If I find nothing,
I cannot set plates on the table.
The day is an empty container
Filled with empty time.
What face can I present to those
Whose plates are full,
Whose time is full,
Whose lives are full?
A bigger void still
Is the sky
Where stars scatter, pell-mell,
And in daytime is space tinted blue.
Is what gives us patience.
Are they two sisters
Or two faces of being broke?
Here by the seashore,
The moon taunts, smiles,
“Come into my parlor, old man.”
Talk to my children, whore,
Jingle and shake your stars
In their faces.
Here I will wait for the sky
To open her chest.
Here we will face each other,
Void to void.
"Ñor Marcos (Un Soliloquia)" © Francis C. Macansantos. Translation © Francis C. Macansantos. By arrangement with the estate of Francis C. Macansantos. All rights reserved.
The origins and heritage of the Melaka Chetti people take center stage in this pantun, a traditional Malay poetic form.
Listen to K. Vimala Devi Rajah (d/o G. Kandasamy Rajah) read "Pantun" by Nironjini Pillay, Shagina Bhalan, Nadarajan Mudaliar, and Mahendran Pillay in the original Chetti Malay.
Traveling from India to Melaka,
Dealing in spices, cloth, and copper.
We are known as the Chetti of Melaka,
Guardians of tradition and culture.
Sporting shirts with bronze buttons we inspire,
Ornate fabric so expensive.
A symbol of culture is our attire,
Radiant, handsome, and majestic.
Curry simmering in a cast-iron pot,
A pot passed down through generations.
Dressed in kebaya with hair tied up in a knot,
Chetti women ready for celebrations.
Dressed in sarongs and white T-shirts,
And wooden clogs inherited from ancestors.
A shawl on the shoulder and headgear on point,
These are a Chetti man's treasures.
"Pantun" © Nironjini Pillay, Shagina Bhalan, Nadarajan Mudalier, and Mahendran Pillay. Translation © 2021 by Nurul Huda Hamzah and Stefanie Shamila Pillai. All rights reserved.
This poem praises the people, the land, and the culture of the Sri Lanka Portuguese Burgher community.
Listen to Magin Mario Balthazaar read "Tééra nósa viida" in the original Sri Lanka Portuguese.
The fish sing over here,
The fish sing.
If you go to the seashore
You will hear them.
The shrimp fishermen
Are catching crabs.
Let’s buy some fish
And live the good life.
What’s the name of our land?
It is Batticaloa.
How beautiful is it?
Is our land, Batticaloa!
1. A typical dance and musical tradition of the Sri Lanka Portuguese Burgher community.↩
2. A popular Sri Lankan musical style historically connected with the traditions of the Portuguese Burgher community.↩
3. A traditional Sri Lankan drum played with the hand.↩
"Tééra nósa viida" © Magin Mario Balthazaar. Translation © 2021 by Hugo C. Cardoso. All rights reserved.
Dancing figures prominently in this short love poem.
Listen to Magin Mario Balthazaar read "Minha ámoor nóóna" in the original Sri Lanka Portuguese.
My beloved lady, my sweet lady,
Come and sing so beautifully.
There will be no trouble, life will be good,
Come and dance the káfriinha.1
Beside the house,
On the nearby fence,
Hang your skirts and all to dry,
Then take them back inside.
Your face is like a rose blossom,
I quickly take your hand
And offer you a gold ring,
For your finger, my beloved lady.
When you and I are united,
Sitting cozily together,
I will give my life, I will give my heart
To you, my lady, without regret.
1. A typical dance and musical tradition of the Sri Lanka Portuguese Burgher community.↩
"Minha ámoor nóóna" © Magin Mario Balthazaar. Translation © 2021 by Hugo C. Cardoso. All rights reserved.
This laudatory poem in Patuá celebrates what makes Macau unique.
Listen to H. Miguel de Senna Fernades read "Macau nôs-sa téra" in the original Patuá.
Macau, our homeland
Humble, though of great nobility
A tiny land of a thousand wonders
A flower for anyone in grief
Macau, our homeland
In the world there is no other like you
Home of peace, of charity
A home for every soul
Macau, a holy name blessed by God
Macau, a sweet treasure that we keep
A land of dreams,
Oh, such a beauty!
Macau, our homeland
"Macau nôs-sa téra" © H. Miguel de Senna Fernandes. Translation © H. Miguel de Senna Fernandes. All rights reserved.
"Afroinsularity" is one of two winning poems selected by Airea D. Matthews for the 2021 Words Without Borders—Academy of American Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Listen above to Shook read their translation of Conceição Lima's "Afroinsularity"
They left the islands a legacy
of hybrid words and gloomy plantations,
rusted mills, breathless sterns,
sonorous aristocratic names, |
and the legend of a shipwreck on Sete Pedras.
They arrived here from the North,
by mandate or perhaps in the service of their king:
navigators and pirates, slavers, thieves, smugglers,
simple men, rebels and outlaws too, and Jewish infants
so tender they withered like burnt corn.
On their ships they brought compasses, trinkets, seeds,
experimental plants, atrocious sorrows,
a standard of stone pale as wheat,
and other dreamless, rootless cargos,
because the entire island was a port and a dead-end road.
All its hands were black pitchforks and hoes.
And there were living footprints in the fields slashed
like scars—each coffee bush now exhales a dead slave.
And on the islands they were
bold: arrogant statues on street corners,
a hundred or so churches and chapels
for a thousand square kilometers,
and the insurgent syncretism of roadside Christmas shrines.
And there was the palatial cadence of the ússua,
the scent of garlic and zêtê dóchi
on the témpi and ubaga téla,
and in the calulu, bay leaves blended with palm oil
and the perfume of rosemary and of basil from the gardens on our family land.
And the specters melted into
the islander’s clocks—tools of empire
in a structure of ambiguous clarities
and secular condiments,
patron saints and toppled fortresses,
cheap wines and shared dawns.
At times I think of their pallid skeletons,
their hair putrid at the edge of the sea.
Here, in this fragment of Africa
where, facing the South,
a word rises high
like a painful flag.
© Conceição Lima. Translation © 2021 by Shook. All rights reserved.
This year, we partnered with the Academy of American Poets to bring you the third edition of the Poems-in-Translation Contest. We received 606 poems from 327 poets and 79 countries, translated from 61 languages. This year’s winners were selected by Pew Fellow and Yale Series of Younger Poets winner Airea D. Matthews.
The winning poems will be published in Words Without Borders and in POETS.org’s Poem-a-Day on Saturday, September 25, and Saturday, October 2. Published alongside the poems will be the original language texts and recordings of both the original poems and their English language translations. Check back throughout the month for interviews with the winners on the WWB Daily, and don't miss a virtual celebration with readings from the winners on September 27 at 7 p.m. ET.
The winning poems and their date of publication are:
Judge’s citation: “Though birthed on an altogether different continent in an altogether different country, ‘0' moves with the same lush rebellion and avant-garde flair as a poem in the twentieth-century infrarealist movement. Marked by a free, fluid, and layered aesthetic, readers leave this work with a sense of the author’s urgent integration of art and life. Though unrestrained by grammatical structure, this translation heightens craft by presenting the implicit and explicit—the personal and shared experience—as dually embedded.”
Judge's citation: “This prize-winning translation haunts. In the vein of a paracolonial text, the poem examines the specters of a racialized human commodity and its ecological aftermath. As if magic or conjure, ‘Afroinsularity’ launches with hints of ghosts and ends in a colony of haints. The reading of each deftly interpreted line thrusts the reader to beautifully confront the ways in which land holds the stories that history attempts to colonize, and how land will out the truth until the long-buried rest.”
Watch a recording of our Brooklyn Book Festival Event "World in Verse: A Multilingual Poetry Reading," a celebration of the winners of the 2021 Words Without Borders—Academy of American Poets Poems in Translation Contest
"0" is one of two winning poems selected by Airea D. Matthews for the 2021 Words Without Borders—Academy of American Poets Poems in Translation Contest. Don't miss Lauri García Dueñas and Olivia Lott on Monday, September 27 at the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Listen to Olivia Lott read her translation of Lauri García Dueñas's "0"
a cold zygote lives in my heart oblivion has your shadow you know how to count the stairs between us you know at what point i begin to boil they took the tops off the manholes on my street today i was the same as always today the woman you never see break into folds a porn star of feelings who wants to smash open a piñata the city lingers in its broken wires the men on the street are ghosts who wander around mine is an untimely escape i learn to reject your daily punishment the oppressor feeds on the pain of the defeated the defeated are going to rise up the boy dogs know about the howling but the girl dogs yell too nothing is absolute in the animal kingdom i have to get out of here the lack of movement is killing me i wasn’t born to be a sedentary figure collecting holes and blood i want to sleep surrounded by the streetlights on alameda central on a caribbean island i trace my enumeration in notebooks i make plans for what i want to write i’m naive and i want to devour the world with a bang man fleeing on a bicycle fleeting excuses for the same certainty delirium of you unwillingly over my flesh the victim’s face in your hand my victim face in your hand i want to snap the umbilical cord tying us together i’m tired of being half of your uncertainty the sisyphean madness of not repeating the course i’m going to throw stones i’m going to stone the old woman who found her way into my arteries trespasser i don’t want to keep on bleeding out my reborn i is going to break the chains of centenary torture i’m going to fight primeval fascism this time this time i’m going to breathe cry stockpile mutinous springs lacustrine landscapes maritime landscapes the neighbor has bedroom problems my issues are more complicated than a sheet with five corners how many people fit in a moldy relationship existence is god making a face i don’t like his jokes you have to put the body in writing the body in writing the body uproot thought the new man’s downfall you have to burn the old clothes turn thirty go on a trip kill time once and for all float naked with somebody in green fountains walk barefoot on pavement become beggars so as to stop the suffering to blow up the past present-day paradise dragged along by deluge come clean the kitchen pay the bills sleep with me to the rain looming over mexico city open your jaws for us make kids laugh dogs bark straightforward metaphors of us i lost the gas tap i lost all that we were don’t say memory to me let’s not say dying i’m hungry night is vengeance i say celestial noise and the sky over the city is crashing down
© Lauri García Dueñas. Translation © 2021 by Olivia Lott. All rights reserved.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
Jack Malik evokes a monsoon-soaked landscape in this short prose poem.
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.
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 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!”
“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?
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 . . .”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.
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.
In this reverie, modernist poet T. Alias Taib writes verses to an imaginary lover.
Listen to Eddin Khoo reads T. Alias Taib's "Poem in June" in the original Malay
my mustache and beard still kept dirty for you
isn’t dirt the realm of your love?
flutters thrashed by a green moss wind
billows like a fish forced to its death
does not pulse, the boats are gazing
does not beat, on its branch solitude dangles
flowing sadness delivered from space
slipping and sliding towards the thighs
stretches, a pilgrim shuffles in despair
the furrows of an unshaven plank
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.