Translated and edited by Quan Manh Ha and Joseph Babcock, "Other Moons" brings together twenty stories from different authors dealing with the lingering effects of what the Vietnamese call "the American War." It is a rare opportunity to discover a variety of esteemed writers coming from all three main geographic regions of the country.
This new anthology of Vietnamese short stories, published by Columbia University Press, unites twenty diverse voices from contemporary Vietnamese literature on the topic of the American military action in the country. While the war officially ended in 1975, Other Moons' narratives demonstrate its enduring consequences in Vietnamese life and thinking. Published in English translation for the first time, these works offer a fresh perspective on the conflict that took place between 1945-75. Throughout, the war is referred to as ‘the American War,’ the terminology most commonly used in Vietnam. Only the perspective of the war’s victors, the Vietnamese communists, is represented. The volume’s editors and translators, Quan Manh Ha and Joseph Babcock, make their reasoning clear: that alternative narratives from those who supported the former South Vietnamese government and American intervention are already available in English translations of diasporic literature. Additionally, Vietnam’s tightly regulated censorship and publication practice greatly affects the literature that is available for translation. This is therefore a rare opportunity to discover such a variety of esteemed Vietnamese writers, chosen for their quality as well as their diversity, coming from all three main geographic regions of the country.
Ha and Babcock provide an enriching context for the stories in their introduction. They selected authors to represent a variety of personal and professional backgrounds—some are well-known, full-time writers, while others make time to write outside of their day jobs. But central to all the works in the collection is the contributors’ rejection of a “socialist realism” approach to literature, which dominated artistic expression between 1945–90 and produced heavily politicized writing that contained Stalinist and Maoist propaganda. In contrast, the new generation of writers in this anthology address the theme of war through a very different approach; they condemn it, rather than glorifying it. Moreover, the subjects of their stories are common people and the war is recounted through everyone’s lives—those who leave and those who are left behind.
The mention of the war’s aftermath in the book’s title points to a crucial feature of the collection: the rupture of communities, the difficulties of reintegrating, and the continual search for closure are stronger themes throughout the stories than the actual lived realities of fighting. In Truong Van Ngoe’s “Brother, When Will You Come Home?” Quan travels for the third time, along with his relatives and a colleague, to search for the remains of his brother Binh, a soldier in company C3 who had died in the conflict. The chances of success in finding his body become increasingly small and Quan turns to a psychic for help. These searches continue to take place in Vietnam until today, almost half a century after the war officially ended, with over 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers still missing. Quan’s relentless pursuit, as well as his eventual willingness to turn towards the spiritual, reveals how the impact of the war goes far beyond a physical recovery for the country.
The emotional suffering and the atrocities of war are often conveyed through its collision with the domestic. An important theme of these stories, for example, is the mourning for love that was made impossible, as even the most personal projects are suddenly disturbed and upended by violence. Nguyen Minh Chau’s “Crescent Moon in the Woods,” a canonical story that is taught in Vietnamese high schools, tells of the doomed love between Nguyet and Lam. They have never met but Lam’s sister, who knows them both and believes that they would be a wonderful match, has promised to introduce them. They suffer and patiently await their meeting, which finally comes fleetingly . . . before it is gone again.
The perspectives of the female authors (five out of the twenty), as well as the female characters that leave to fight, are an especially interesting part of the anthology. Such women return to their communities and must face the trauma of the aftermath of war, in addition to the conflict it creates with their domestic duty. In Nguyen Trong Luan’s “The Corporal,” Xuan returns to her village after many years spent fighting for the North Vietnamese Army in the highlands and must immediately turn her thoughts to marriage. As the daughter of a poor peasant, Xuan has little autonomy. She enters an unhappy arranged marriage and lives the rest of her life in poverty. Military victory has no bearing on her future, which is instead still determined by a patriarchal postwar society. Suong Nguyet Minh’s “The Chau River Pier” recounts the female soldier May’s return to her village, having lost her leg in battle. Her injury isolates her from her previously imagined life of marriage and motherhood, while her return coincides with her former fiancé’s wedding to another woman. But it is not only the women who leave that face such disruption; the women who remain must contend with suspicions of marital infidelity. In “War” by Thai Ba Tan and “Ms. Thoai” by Hanh Le, wives’ loyalty is thrown into question by their husbands. In each case, the women are presented as innocent, with their infidelity caused by events beyond their control—in “Ms. Thoai,” a rape, and in “War,” an unexplained pregnancy that is described as immaculate. Yet their husbands’ suspicion of infidelity causes immense, irreversible suffering for both of them and the absence of trust or forgiveness defines the rest of their lives.
Forgiveness and reconciliation—within families, among Vietnamese, and with foreign enemies—lie at the heart of many of these stories. “An American Service Hamlet” by Nguyen Thi Thu Tran was inspired by her own experiences growing up among American soldiers stationed in the South. The story portrays the women who were hired to do laundry or to work as maids in the American offices. When the young girl Bach oversees an American soldier, Smith, crying on the breast of his girlfriend, Miss Trung, she is fascinated by this display of sorrow and tenderness. She later saves him from cruel torture by a group of drunken Vietnamese men. Her kindness, empathy, and admiration for Smith and Miss Trung’s love show her belief that “in difficult situations people were still capable of showing some kind of natural kindness toward one another” and offers a tone of mutual understanding. In other instances in the anthology, forgiveness comes only with hindsight. In both “Louse Crab Season” by Mai Tien Nghi and “Ms. Thoai,” forgiveness is expressed too late to save the characters from misunderstanding and its painful consequences. The control of irony in revealing such regret only to the reader seems to drive home the advantage of hindsight and advocates reconciliation. As the narrator of “War” says,
There were new challenges in peace time that didn’t necessarily require extraordinary endurance or sacrifice, but required something bigger, something more complicated and subtle: compassion and forgiveness.
Of all the writers included in this anthology, the most well-known in the English-speaking world is certainly Bao Ninh, whose novel The Sorrow of War has been widely translated and won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1994. His short story “White Clouds Flying” succinctly shows the disorientation of experiencing the persistent sorrow of war in the present day. The brevity of the story’s one scene, which takes place in an airplane as it crosses the seventeenth parallel air zone, makes it unique among the others in the collection, which tend towards longer narratives that recount stories of the past. Ninh’s story describes the short exchanges between an elderly female passenger and an airline stewardess, narrated through the voice of an observing male passenger. Inside the enclosed, compressed cabin, the elderly woman constructs a traditional shrine in order to cope with the pain resurfacing as she travels to see (for the first time) the place where her son died. Her pain and her traditions persist and highlight the disparity between her life in the country and modern society. In just a few pages, Ninh conveys the significant trauma that these generations are made to confront while the world seemingly moves on and modernizes, and with such sparse, exact prose, he reveals himself to be a master of the unsaid.
Other Moons is a necessary work that succeeds in enlarging the perspective of English-speaking audiences through diverse, well-chosen Vietnamese voices. The stories read fluently, and Ha and Babcock clearly explain any difficulties encountered in translating from the Vietnamese. For example, this is evident in the more complex Vietnamese system of relationship-dependent pronouns, which indicate age and the nature of the relationship between speakers. The decision to not translate these too literally avoids an unnatural formality in the English. A particularly beautiful translation difficulty that they describe is the expression "ve que," meaning literally "to return to one's hometown." They explain the cultural weight of "que," not quite achieved with the English "hometown" as it is also synonymous with the countryside, conveying a return to a way of living, not merely a geographical place. The introductions they provide for each story elucidate such subtleties and offer a rich cultural and linguistic context for English readers. Not only are the translations in Other Moons skilled and considered, they demonstrate the tremendous importance of translation in portraying the complexities of a conflict, its traumas, and its people.
In "Grieving," a collection of essays spanning over a decade, the talented author attempts to explain how her nation succumbed to a project that uses its citizens as "cannon fodder in exchange for maximum profit."
In the early 1980s, Mexico was bailed out of a foreign debt crisis by the IMF and the World Bank so that it could continue paying back interest on loans from US banks. The condition for this financial relief was a set of sweeping structural adjustments which, under the banner of neoliberalism, created the perfect storm of conditions that, in the decades to come, would facilitate the rise of the modern Mexican cartels, and consequently, the border crisis with the US.
In Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country (tr. Sarah Booker), author and 2020 MacArthur Fellowship winner Cristina Rivera Garza, known primarily for works of fiction like No One Will See Me Cry (tr. Andrew Hurley) and The Taiga Syndrome (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana), traces the connections between these defining events in a series of essays written over the last sixteen years. Ranging from investigative journalism to art criticism, this collection takes steady aim at both the Mexican state and the narco cartels, but its ultimate target is neoliberalism, which Rivera Garza sees as the philosophy uniting the two entities. In the essay “I Won’t Let Anyone Say Those Are the Best Years of Your Life,” the author describes both the Mexican cartels and the new, structurally reconfigured Mexico as a “neoliberal regime that used [Mexico’s youth] as cannon fodder in exchange for maximum profit.” She settles upon the phrase, “estado sin entrañas,” which Sarah Booker renders into English as the “visceraless state,” to describe the predicament. While the eponymous essay appears early on in the collection, her most lucid description of this expression comes in her essay about the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the last (and best) in the collection: “[The visceraless state is] a state for which bodies are not a matter of care but merely extraction.”
As macabre as this assessment might sound, these essays are not devoid of hope—they are replete with the stories of individuals, often women, who have tried to either fill or make sense of the state’s absence. “Elvira Arellano and That Which Blood, Tradition, and Community Unite” traces the efforts of Arellano who, after being deported from the US, founds an organization in Tijuana that provides shelter and assistance to recently deported women while they establish a life in Mexico. “On 2501 Migrants by Alejandro Santiago” is an essay about an art project which could be described as a kind of border-inspired reinterpretation of Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army. Originally featured in the streets of Oaxaca City, Santiago’s hometown, 2501 Migrants features as many human-sized sculptures, meant to represent the migrants who have left the city. I am often wary of creative reviews of single books or art installations in thematic essay collections—so often they read as thinly disguised filler content—but Rivera Garza manages to leap the nebulous chasm between review and essay, and it ends up being one of the strongest pieces in the collection. In the failed war on drugs, the border crisis, and all the violence that has accompanied them, there is still beauty somehow. There is no lack of data in these essays for inquiring minds, but these moments of beauty and determination inevitably outlast the figures and make for some of the collection’s most poignant moments.
A significant portion of the collection is about how immigration and the failed war on drugs have impacted women—about femicide and the mothers it leaves daughterless—but some of the collection’s smaller, anecdotal essays about women have the most staying power. “The Neo-Camelias” is a fascinating look at the complicated role of women in cartels and how that position has evolved over time. In “Nonfiction,” Rivera Garza retells the story of a taxi driver she knows who, after taking a sex worker to a hotel, learns that she has been killed that very evening. Incredibly, not long after learning of the murder, he realizes that his current passenger, also a sex worker, is the woman’s younger sister.
Given the period of time in which these essays were written, readers might note how Rivera Garza’s style changes throughout the collection. Her 2004 essay “Mourning,” for example, which explores mourning and the Other through the work of Judith Butler, adopts a more academic style. It’s a logical thematic fit, but I enjoyed the essay more for what it revealed about the evolution of Rivera Garza’s voice throughout the collection than the content proper. In some of the collection’s other more recent essays, Garza seems to move away from an academic register, opting instead for the taut, economical prose characteristic of her novella The Taiga Syndrome. Among the essays added to the original 2011 collection (and subsequent second edition, published in 2015), I would have loved to read Rivera Garza’s take on how Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist, fits into this larger pattern of visceralessness. AMLO initially refused to take COVID-19 seriously, and though his politics differ, he is often at odds with democratic institutions in a way that is similar to Trump and Bolsonaro.
It’s also worth noting that two of the added essays, “I Won’t Let Anyone Say Those Are the Best Years of Your Life” and “On Our Toes” were originally written by Rivera Garza in English. The rest of the collection was originally written in Spanish and translated by Sarah Booker, who also worked on the author’s novel The Iliac Crest. She does a marvelous job capturing the subtleties of Rivera Garza’s voice: In “On 2501 Migrants by Alejandro Santiago,” for example, Booker capably translates one of Rivera Garza’s thornier sentences—“Fantasmagóricos y aterradores a la vez, frágiles como el material que los compone, pero ciertos en el aire que los envuelve y sólidos en el espacio que ocupan, los migrantes de Santiago cruzan sobre todo una frontera: la muy delgada y quebradiza línea de lo que con frecuencia se denomina como realidad”—as “Simultaneously fantastic and terrifying, as fragile as the material they’re made of, yet solid in the space they occupy and the air that surrounds them, Santiago’s migrants cross one border above all: the thin, brittle line we often call reality.” Seamlessly done.
Precious few are essay collections in translation, and of those precious few, many consist of fiction writers compiling their stray odds and ends for a dependable base of readers. Thoughtfully curated and aptly translated, Grieving is not just for completists of Rivera Garza’s obra; in less than 200 pages, it is both evocative and informative. With this collection, Rivera Garza obliges readers to take her work as an essayist just as seriously as the short novels and novellas that have made her name.
As I write, the West Coast of the US is ravaged by wildfires; the Gulf Coast, still recovering from Hurricane Laura, braces for Hurricane Sally’s potential destruction; an enormous chunk of Greenland’s icecap has broken free; the Northern Hemisphere has sweated through the hottest summer on record—and that’s just today. Temperatures swing between extremes, violent weather becomes the norm. In this daunting context, we present a double issue of writing on environmental issues.
Global warming manifests in obvious ways—milder winters, shrinking glaciers, extreme weather; but, like the wildfire smoke that has drifted as far east as New York, the evidence travels and transforms as it reaches new territories and settings. And because humankind’s stewardship of the earth involves so many elements, the pieces gathered here and in next month’s issue address varied facets within the greater category of environmental crisis.
Icelandic writer and environmental activist Andri Snær Magnason began writing his nonfiction narrative On Time and Water after a climate change specialist told him, “people relate to stories, not data.” In “Farewell to the White Giants,” translated by Lytton Smith, Magnason blends family history, scientific fact, and traditional tales in a eulogy to his country’s vanishing glaciers. He imagines future generations looking at photographs of glaciers with wonder, trying “to understand what we were thinking.”
From the thawing north we turn to the parched Spain of Ariadna Castellarnau’s “Water Man,” translated by Adrian Nathan West. The title character travels with his sullen teenage daughter to rescue a dusty village from drought. Her father, who has “the gift of making water well from the earth,” insists the resistant young woman has inherited his talent; when the villagers demand impossible results, he commands her to step in, to devastating effect.
Thailand’s Duanwad Pimwana presents the all-too-possible consequences of the world’s cavalier attitude toward accumulation and disposability. In her “All Trash on the Eastern Side,” translated by Mui Poopoksakul, the world itself has become one big trash heap, with the population gradually subsumed by garbage. In this horrifying terrain, the narrator searches for both food and the fabled Land Without Trash, a magical place of animals, trees, and, most remarkably, no garbage. When he meets a determined woman with her own goals, his search takes a fateful turn.
Readers will recall graphic artist Francisco de la Mora’s “Joe,” from our February 2017 issue, in which the title character, a polar bear, travels from the Arctic to the United Nations to plead for more attention to his shrinking land. In “Liberty and Hope,” translated by Nina Perrotta, de la Mora finds two icons—the Statue of Liberty and Rio’s Christ the Redeemer—making their ways through desolation and destruction to a mournful rendezvous. They ask the question on all our minds: is this the end, or just the beginning?
And climate writer Amy Brady considers the power of fiction in communicating environmental decay. While journalists may be constrained by the need for objectivity, Brady notes, “fiction writers have the freedom to explore the pathos of climate change.” Here she echoes the scientist who prompted Magnason: people may not respond to data, but information presented in narratives can move readers to act. The writers in this issue are staking our collective hopes on it.
© 2020 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
Father wants to teach me to conjure water with his staff, like he does. This is his gift, and he wants it to be mine. Every morning, the same thing. The scene is reiterated on the slope in front of the house: “Take the staff,” he tells me, “trust me, it doesn’t bite, now lift it and stroke the earth, don’t think about water, if you think of what you want to achieve, the thing will slip away from you.” But the thing always gets away from me. We’ve been doing this as long as I can remember. Once, I made a worm peek out. Father stepped on it and killed it with his shoe. “The worm doesn’t count,” he said.
I’ll tell it straight: in this parched terrain, Father is the Water Man. That’s what they call him. The Water Man. Father has the gift of making water well from the earth. It’s very easy, very simple. If you saw it with your own eyes, you’d understand right away. His miracle is this: they call him, he goes there, he beats the ground with his staff. He says: Rise! And the water rises, I don’t really know from where. What matters is it does come out and spills across this soil, which is hardly ever touched by rain: dead earth, earth so devastated by drought that if you dig in it deep enough to plant your seeds, all you’ll find down there is a black and worm-eaten crust. Father is the Water Man, and he wants me to learn his calling. He doesn’t say it’s a gift or a miracle, he says calling. Learn our calling for once, girl! As if it were that easy.
But it isn’t, not at all, not for me, at least. Look at me. Let’s be reasonable. I’m eighteen years old and an indifferent blonde, it was easier for me to be born this way, with this hair the color of dry barley, than with another, brighter, prettier color, like the old gold of the pages of the Bible or the leprous white of the withered fields. My body is slender, and I have bad posture. I walk hunched over. When I remember, I try to imitate Father’s majestic stride, precise and measured, but I soon return to my original position, as if I were a puppet and someone had let go of the string that held me erect. Father no, Father is tall and imposing. His head is the summit of a mist-capped mountain and his body the rocky cliffside rising toward the summit. That’s why I’m telling you it’s impossible for me to ever develop that gift and carry Father’s staff with dignity. Maybe it’s not the rod Moses used to turn the Nile to blood or separate the waters of the Red Sea, but it is a lovely staff: not just some stick he picked up around the way, but a real proper staff, sturdy and at the same time smooth from so much handling. I sewed him a leather sheath myself so he could carry it around. I worked my fingers to the bone to make it.
When Father isn’t teaching me, he takes me with him. Tonight, he’s woken me up, and he says, “We’re going.” They just called him. It’s a desperate plea: in a village––it doesn’t matter which––the wells have dried up, and the swamp is little more than a mud flat full of agonizing fishes. I barely have time to pack provisions for the road. Father is rushing me. In the car, he passes me the staff. “Hold that,” he tells me. I fall back to sleep, and when I awaken, dawn is breaking over a landscape as still as a cat lying in the sun. “You slept a long time,” Father tells me. It must be true, because I have the feeling I am far from home. The lack of water is so evident here that I wonder if even Father can do anything about it. If the people who called are still alive when we get there. If they aren’t already ghosts.
“See?” Father says to me, pointing to the expanses on the other side of the windshield. “Every day is worse.”
“What did it used to be like?” I ask him. I like him to tell me. For his voice to reveal for me this paradise lost.
“There’s no point in remembering. You’d be better off focusing on not ruining it.”
Father’s not in the mood. He looks straight ahead while he drives, as if trying to find some reference point amid the exasperating aridity.
“What?” I ask. “What shouldn’t I ruin?”
“The earth, honey. The earth.”
“The drought’s not my fault.”
“But you refuse to learn the calling of water; you’re set on ignoring what God expects from you.”
I get bold and I say to him: “You mean what you expect from me.”
For the first time during this whole journey, he looks at me. There is no contempt in his eyes. If anything, he is observing me, looking me over with the tender affection a creator reserves for his crippled creation.
“Get it through your head: God and me, we’re the same person.”
Father never told me how he got his gift. He tells me now and then about when the drought began, about when we lost Mama and he went to the mountain and screamed and screamed and screamed. He never goes into what or who he was screaming at or what happened when he was on the mountain. He doesn’t say which mountain he climbed, but there’s none around here, around here there’s nothing but flatlands. All he says is: hard times demand hard men. Never: hard times demand hard women. That’s why I often ask myself if I might not have been a bad deal for Father, since I’m not a hard man but rather a woman who isn’t hard.
“Do you believe in me, Father?” I ask him.
“Do I believe in you? Of course, honey. You’re like a walnut, I don’t know if what’s inside the shell is going to turn out to be good or bad, but you should know I haven’t lost faith.”
Father’s car is ancient, so it’s no surprise when it leaves us stranded in the middle of a deserted road. Father opens the hood, and the motor is smoking. I stay standing there beside him, the staff in my hand. Father’s long gray hair floats around his head like a pale, weary aura, blown up by the suffocating air. On the other side of the road is a path leading to a house in ruins, surrounded by a fence that was once covered in ivy, where strips of leaves now hang.
Father looks up from the hood. His face is burnt from the heat.
“Go over there and ask for help,” he says, pointing at the house.
“There? There’s no one there. Not a soul.”
“Go. But give me the staff, first.”
I hand it back to him. I notice the palm of my hand is red from how tightly I’ve been grasping it. No one seems to be living at the house, just as I told Father. I call at the door once, twice, three times, and I’m about to go back and tell him See? I was right, but a man comes out and asks what I want, what it is I’m looking for. I tell him and he looks me up and down, like so, taking my measure the way he must do with a cow or calf, I suppose, any animal you can quarter and sell in pieces. He decides to pass, and utters his verdict wearily: “Get out.”
Father furtively approaches the house to see if I’m doing my job correctly. When he sees him, the man’s expression changes: his eyes glimmer with greed.
“Is it him?” he asks me, as though Father were something intangible and incapable of speaking on his own. “Is it really him?”
“Of course it’s me,” Father says.
Father’s name gets around. Thirst has made him famous: he’s a king in rags of a dusty realm of which he is both founding member and last descendant because his gift, I can promise you, will die with him.
The man’s mood brightens. If he had a tail, he’d wag it in joy. He says he knows a thing or two about engines and he can maybe help us. But he’ll need a little time to fix the car. Father answers that we don’t have time. The man insists: if that’s how it is, he’ll take us in his truck wherever we need and he’ll bring us back afterward. All he asks in exchange is a little favor: “I’d like a little water for myself.”
At first Father is silent, offended. He doesn’t like wasting his gift. But since we don’t have any other options, he gives in, and starts looking for the place, feeling the soil with the tip of his staff, tentatively, like a blind man.
“What’s he doing?” the man asks.
I tell him to be quiet. Father goes on looking, and this perplexes me, because he never takes this long. I think he’s delaying just to raise the man’s ire. Eventually he finds the right spot and stops.
“What now?” the man asks.
Father strikes the ground with his staff, at the same time shouting: “Rise!”
This part, I have to tell you, is always the most disappointing. He strikes it like it was nothing, without magic or some song and dance, even, when he’s tired, reluctantly, and the response always takes a little while to come. More than a few people lose their faith by this time and break down and go pale, the children sigh, deceived. People have even jeered us. Father says it’s these moments of uncertainty where a soul shows you what they’re made of: scrap metal for the incredulous and gold for those who have faith. But whatever Father says, the part I like is when the water starts to well. I can’t explain it to you. I can’t explain to you the wonder of water flowing abundantly from the soil, right there where Father has struck the staff, growing, spiraling, and then spilling in a generous torrent that splashes, soaks, drags away with it all the parched filth: a precious, ephemeral Lethe that everyone eventually bathes in, forgetting their grief, like the man is doing right now, only I don’t like him, because he’s pulled out from god knows where countless plastic jugs and is filling them up with boundless greed, and at a certain point, as if he didn’t have enough, he asks Father, raising his voice to be heard over the sound of the water: “Can she do it, too?”
And Father answers, “No, she’s sterile.”
We’ve tried everything. When I was a girl, Father sometimes kept me whole days without eating so my body wouldn’t get distracted with digesting, so I wouldn’t doze off like a lizard. Other times he fed me with animal protein.
He’d raid the chicken coop and feed me freshly laid eggs and chickens he himself killed and slaughtered and then stewed, seeing if that way, the thing I’m missing, that I don’t have, would grow: the guts to impose my will on the earth and get water from places that don’t have it. He left me out hours in the sun, whole nights under the moon, unsheltered. “Take the staff,” “Raise the staff.” But neither moon nor sun rained blessings down on me. I was the same as always: useless for Father’s purposes.
There were lots of signs of my lack of talent, my ineptitude for the extraordinary: I was a fragile baby, whiny and sickly. As I grew, I failed to show the least bit of beauty or intelligence. Take the staff, raise the staff, bring the staff and I’ll show you one more time. We never celebrated Christmas, and for my birthday I received one dead rose covered in thorns. “Learn to make water and you’ll have lush roses of your own,” those were Father’s words of congratulation. When I turned thirteen, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I ran away from home. Where we’re from is almost a wasteland, but in the east, life is better; the desert hasn’t yet made it that far. And so I headed east, not knowing how far away it was. I walked a whole day, drinking Father’s water, which I carried in a canteen. A few cars passed, but I didn’t bother to try and stop them. Night came, and I was surprised to find myself in the middle of a bare plain, with no house and no lights, and so I sat there by the side of the road and waited for day to come. By morning, I knew I had made a mistake: I was almost out of water and surrounded by a wasteland. Lost in the heat, which followed me like a noxious scent, I held out a few hours before I fainted.
I woke up in my bed. Father was seated next to me, studying me with sorrowful frustration.
“My precious fugitive, what did I do to you to make you run away from me like that?”
I didn’t know what to tell him. I hated disappointing him, and at the same time, I was happy he had found me. Or maybe it was other way around: I was happy I had disappointed him and hated that he’d found me. Sometimes it’s hard for me to figure these things out.
“Nothing, Father,” I said. “My curiosity got the better of me.”
“What good’s your curiosity though if it just brings us both problems? Look, you burned your skin,” he said softly.
That night Father made a little river for me to relieve my burns. When its water caressed me, I gave up, for a time, any thought of going away.
The man has kept his promise of taking us to the village and that is where we are going. Father is sleeping, lying down in the backseat. He’s snoring. I turn around to look at him and I see his face is pale, bluish, the way it always is after he uses his gift. The man is driving fast. We are barreling forward as if someone were chasing us down this empty, orphan road, this thread from a torn tapestry. The car climbs a small hill and, when it reaches the summit, I see the vast horizons of these oneiric barrens, parched as I am, I suppose.
I don’t mind Father calling me sterile because I’m incapable of making water, but I’m angry about what he did in front of the man. I’ve never had secrets. Father is the one with all the secrets, and he’s made sure of keeping them for the two of us. But now the man has my secret and he thinks he knows me. He can size me up in a glance and throw me out like a maggoty piece of fruit. “She’s no good,” he’ll say. He can air his thoughts about me, actually I think he’s about to, but then he changes his mind and puts a hand on my knee, which is another way of airing his thoughts to me. He leaves it there a few moments, then moves it up my thigh. His hand is hot and doughy. It sits there for a time, then it slowly starts moving again in the direction of my groin. Father is still snoring. I’d like him to open his eyes and see what’s happening. If he told him, “She doesn’t belong to you,” the man would stop. But Father doesn’t say anything, and I’m the one who has to do something. So the man squeezes me between his fingers, smells me, and then discards me.
When we reach the village, I realize something isn’t right. There are more than two hundred people gathered in the square, but I don’t see any bottles or buckets or anything that would suggest their yearning to receive the miracle. Just faces in despair, bulging, breathless eyes.
We get out of the car. The man struts beside Father, his thumbs in his pants pockets, arms akimbo like the wings of a peacock. It hurts where he touched me, and I wonder if Father’s water will cleanse me. But that’s not my biggest worry, worse is the feeling of menace I notice in the air. No one is talking. No greetings, and that’s strange, because wherever he goes, people greet Father with enthusiasm: they crowd around to touch him, and he opens a path with his staff, august as though he were wearing a purple cape and crown and bearing a scepter. But none of that happens here. The villagers, crowded in one corner of the square, observe us with mistrust, and it even seems we’ve shown up here against their will. Someone coughs, a baby cries. Behind them, the crowded façades of the houses swell with heat. You’d think they were about to collapse and bury those assembled and the rubble would ascend to heaven in a great jumble of whitewash and bone dust.
Finally a woman breaks ranks and comes forward.
“We’ve been waiting,” she says.
The heat makes the silence expand until her words sound minute. The woman’s voice is barely audible.
“Well, here I am,” Father responds.
“People have died here,” the woman says.
Father isn’t one for losing time with empty chatter. So he gets to work, feeling the terrain with his staff, just as he did at the man’s house not long before. It’s pleasant to watch him. He moves with determination, obedient to an inner rhythm.
“It’s not here,” the woman says.
Father stops searching.
“It’s not here.”
“I’m the one who says where it is.”
“Well, I’m telling you, this isn’t where we want you doing it.”
Then something happens.
From the back of the square, where the villagers are gathered, the first sounds of cacophonous music rise up, the ceremonial funereal notes from what might be a hymn. Three cornet players and two drummers are standing at the head of the group, and the mass of them, immobile up till then, sets in motion. It’s a strange scene we’re party to. Chilling, to tell the truth. The procession advances in lockstep, a pilgrimage running from one end of the square to the other, and when it reaches our side, I notice, beneath the racket of the music, a second current, a murmur of overlapping whispers, as though the villagers were praying or casting spells.
The multitude pushes us and we are obliged to walk with them. The man hurries to remove two more jugs from the trunk of the car. His greed sickens me, but before I can say anything, the procession is at my heels and I have to walk.
Father and I are in the lead, a little in front of the man, who has stayed with the musicians. They drive us out of the village, pushing us toward the plateau. Three times I turn around, and three times I realize there’s no escape. The villagers are a compact, articulate mass it is impossible to elude. Seen up close, their faces are pale paper masks with a stiff rictus painted on. Even the children who hold their mother’s hands have that hollow but determined, martial expression.
We reach the village swamp. The music stops abruptly.
“The swamp,” the woman says. “That’s what we had you come here for. We want you to fill it.”
“Impossible,” Father answers.
The woman looks at him irritated, and a sigh of horror rises to the lips of all present. I ask myself who she is. She gives off an air of importance, and her voice rings with authority, though not so much as Father’s.
“What do you mean? Fill the swamp.”
Father shakes his head. It’s too big. He can’t fill the swamp alone, he says.
“So what kind of power is it you have, if I may ask?”
“I can give you water.”
“We don’t want a little water. We want you to fill up the swamp.”
“We want you to fill up the swamp,” one of the villagers shouts, and immediately this anthem is repeated and magnified into an explosion of threats and insults. The man joins into the chorus, too, banging on the two jugs as if they were two cymbals. “We want you to fill the swamp! We want you to fill the swamp!”
Father looks at me eloquently. With that I understand what it is he expects from me. This is the final test, the moment of revelation and truth. I’d like to say a few words, defend myself, shirk my task, but it is as if someone is holding me there. My mouth fills up with air. It’s too late.
“She’ll do it,” Father says, imposing his voice over the cries. “My daughter will fill the swamp.”
I should flee. Maybe the villagers will let me go, since Father is the target of their rage, not I, but my legs don’t respond. How could I just leave him? And where would I go? Everything stands in the way of my will; nothing can escape Father’s great ambition. Take the staff. Raise the staff. He’s already decided my fate. He looks back at the mob and betrays me three times: “My daughter, my daughter, my daughter,” he repeats.
The man grasps the two jugs as if they were extensions of his hands and points at us accusingly.
“He’s lying. The girl’s no good, she’s useless.”
“She can do it if she wants,” Father hisses.
The villagers fall silent and turn their attention to me. Father hands me the staff. I can see his figure blurry, an effect of the tension of the spectacle. “You’ll do it, right?” he asks me. “I’ll do it,” I respond, though I have no idea how to and even less why I am saying yes, accepting this fate that might mean my end. I feel a bit dizzy and want to raise my hand and ask their pardon before leaving the scene. Then I see the face of the man, his mockery, his scorn, how he sticks his tongue out and licks his lips savoring my failure in advance, and then I see Father’s face, without a drop of pity for me, and I think with terror that this day could last forever and that if it does, I will never be free of them. I will never be free of Him.
Sweat swells in my armpits and slips down my ribs while I clasp the staff. I try not to look at the swamp, at its insistent emptiness.
Don’t think of the water.
I close my eyes and, in the darkness within me, concentrate on something that lies in the depths of my being. I believe it’s there. Somewhere. Up to now, I’ve been too scared, and I’ve ignored it, but I think it’s time for us to meet. And so I call to it. First it seems it’s sleeping, but then I feel it quiver and wake up slowly, delicate fingers tickling my stomach, like a greeting or a nod between two old reunited friends. It’s dark, and it’s been waiting for me a long time.
I’ve just awakened it.
The air changes around me, I can sense a slight change in the atmosphere.
I remain still and wait.
Finally, the soil we are walking on begins to tremble, like the approach of a thousand armies, though we all know in truth the noise is coming from within the earth. The people shout, and some start to run: no one will make it far. I believe it’s rising already, and I must tell you that when it does, it may have a form distinct from the one we are hoping for. It may be red, like the bloody Nile, or black, black water clotted with rage. Or perhaps it will be something else, not water, who knows. Father’s voice asks me: “What did you do, you fool?” I open my eyes to see his panic, his profound rancor framed against a violet backdrop, a backdrop of disaster, and I feel neither grief nor satisfaction. Only peace.
© Ariadna Castellarnau. By arrangement with Editorial Planeta. Translation © 2020 by Adrian Nathan West. All rights reserved.
In the future, glaciers will be an alien phenomenon, rare as a Bengal tiger. Having lived in the time of the white giants will become swaddled in a fairytale glow, like having stroked a dragon or handled the eggs of the great auk. Glaciers will certainly be found in the Arctic, Greenland, and Antarctica for a few thousand more years, but probably not in the Alps and the Andes; they will disappear in most parts of the Himalayas and Iceland. People will ask, how were glaciers described at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
I was not as familiar with glaciers as my grandparents were. I had seen them from afar and gone up to Snæfellsjökull in winter but winter glaciers are nothing like summer glaciers and outlet glaciers are quite different from an ice sheet or a minor glacier.
And so we planned to cross Skeidarárjökull, where it heads south from Vatnajökull, one of its major valley glaciers. It was the end of July 2012; all the winter snow had melted and all the cracks and shapes in the ice were as clear as they would get. This was actually our second assault on the glacier. A few years earlier we had headed up there in pouring rain and pitched our tents on a low gravel bed. When we woke up in the morning, pools and springs had formed under the campsite. It was almost as if someone had struck the ground with a magic wand, causing water to well up out of little bulging eyes; people woke drenched in deep puddles and so we turned back home.
Now the plan was to camp at the edge of the glacier, fairly high up, and cross the glacier in one long day trip, a total of about twenty-five kilometers. Then we would camp on a green terrace, one of the most beautiful campsites in the country, and make another long day trip into Skaftafell National Park.
We woke up in crappy weather; the tent was shaking in the wind. It was warm down inside our sleeping bags but shiveringly cold once we crawled out of them. We packed up quickly and set off in spite of the poor visibility. At the edge of the glacier we ran into some hikers who had crossed the glacier during the night. These were a French father and son and the father’s friend; they were cold and dazed, almost in shock after the night’s hardships. They had lost their way and come across a crevasse that could not be traversed; it led them astray so that they ended up too low down, where they got into a maze of deadly deep crevasses. And so they went back and forth blindly in the fog and rain and darkness. Ten hours of walking became twenty hours. They feared for their lives and pitched their tent as soon as they stepped off the ice, bone-tired and relieved they had reached safety.
We ourselves tramped though slushy mud at the glacier’s edge, where glacier meets land. We tried to avoid the quicksand that forms when melting glacier ice seeps water into the sediment. The glacier was black with sand for the first part of our journey and on the ice we could make out strange objects, flat stones on thin ice pillars, like works of art made by aliens. The weather was slowly clearing, until we started to see before us an endless breadth of tussocks, as though innumerable white turtle shells stretched out as far as the eye could see.
We saw that in the middle of the mountain slope on each side of the glacier was a light stripe that marked its surface level as it had been just a few years ago. In many places high up in the cirques, we could discern so-called dead ice, floes still hanging there in the rock after the surface had subsided. It tests every sense of one’s brain to imagine a glacier’s surface thirty meters above one’s height, the height of a ten-story building, extending it in the mind, as though it’s a vaulted ceiling over the entire expanse, reaching one edge of the glacier to the other and a whole kilometer out onto the sand.
Our path continued and now it was as if each of the tussocks were individual scales, with the outlet glacier the tail of a white dragon. We came upon something that resembled a black sand pyramid and then more pyramids gradually appeared until we entered an entire forest of black pyramids in the middle of the glacier. The evaporation from the sand cones emitted fog veils; little streams trickled between them, creating a micro-landscape, almost like a bonsai landscape, little mountains and little rivers and little towns, and we were mesmerized by the shapes and the beauty. Between the pyramids, streams ran like little waterslides. It was tempting to take a ride but if we followed them, we’d end up in a glacial hole. These gullets were white holes that became blue holes and black holes that extended as much as three hundred meters down to the bottom; it was vital to take special care around them. The thought of losing one’s footing and disappearing down into a hole was the stuff of nightmares. The only parallel my mind could conjure was the sandpit in Star Wars where the gigantic, wormlike Sarlacc lived.
In the book Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, astronauts float behind a mysterious planet and try to figure out its nature. They hypothesize that the planet has some kind of self-awareness beyond what the human mind can comprehend. On the surface of the planet is a kind of ocean of yellow foam that takes on familiar shapes the astronauts try to interpret and understand. They wonder if the planet is sending them messages.
I tried to interpret the glacier’s shapes, the pyramid forest opening out into a streak on the surface that resembled a two-lane highway. In the middle of the “road” was a black line as if to mark the lanes. The surface was smooth and level; one could have driven at seventy miles an hour as far as the eye could see. I involuntarily looked both ways as I walked across the “road” and wondered if the glacier was giving me a signal. Maybe it was telling me that somewhere between the pyramids and the motorways something had gone wrong.
I lay down on the cold ice and put my ear to a narrow crevasse that seemed a whole eternity deep though only a few inches wide. The ice in the wound was as clear as crystal. I looked at the veins and bubbles in the body of the glacier, which created a strange three-dimensional feeling. I heard how the water gushed far down in the quivering space like a dark bass, water dancing somewhere deep down at the bottom, like a giant xylophone, a rock harp, an ice harp. The glacier’s swan song.
Now that the glacier is changing faster than ever before, I feel within myself a paradox. My being on the glacier comes from advances and technologies, the production and mass extraction of Earth’s resources. By the time humans were able to cross glaciers, to count the nesting places of crocodiles, and to study the song of the humpback whales, we’d grown so strong and expanded so far that what we were finally able to measure and understand had already started disappearing.
In documentaries, melting glaciers are a dramatic spectacle: gigantic ice chunks crash and rumble as they calve into the sea. But a dying glacier is actually no more dramatic than the normal changes of the spring season. Ice melts in the heat and the sun, forming streams that frolic and splash. In fact, a dying glacier is more a sad, frail sight, disappearing quietly. You could call the situation “silent spring,” had Rachel Carson not already used that phrase to title her book on how insecticides affect nature. And after spring will come summer. The long global summer.
The place names on Vatnajökull store memories of the changing environment. Breidamerkursandur, meaning “wide forest sand,” recalls a forest there before it became a black sand desert. Under the sand, we can find the thick stumps of three-thousand-year-old birch trees from a time when the local Nordic climate was warmer or as warm as it has become today. The wide forest turned into a wide desert after the advance of glaciers in the Little Ice Age. The self-sowing birch is beginning to breed itself once more. Breidamerkursandur will probably become a wide forest once again. On Skeidarársandur’s endless stretch of black sand, the largest self-contained birch forest in Iceland is beginning to form. Could you really call the largest forest in Iceland skeidarársandur, “boat river sand”? The forest would be named after a vanished glacial river, after black sand deep under the forest floor.
Ice, gravel, and sand emerge from under the glacier, a new land that has been frozen for hundreds of years; at the glacier’s edge you have to tread carefully on the ground. It’s as if the land is neither ice nor water nor sand but all three at once. The transformation has an intermediate step: chaos, as in the prophetic poem “Völuspá,” about the beginning of creation:
The sun knew not
where her hall stood,
the moon knew not
how mighty it was
the stars knew not
Chaos is not confined to the glacier’s edge. No one knows how the land will lie when our way of life has caused the world’s glaciers to become water, our coastlines to become sea, and our arable fields to become deserts.
When I turn ninety, I will show my thirty-year-old grandchild pictures of Skeidarárjökull on a projector screen. They’ll see a glacier that three generations of my family had the opportunity to get to know before it vanished. When I take a photo of a glacier, it’s like I’m recording and preserving an old woman singing an ancient lullaby. After a thousand years, people will peer at the pictures like rare, ancient manuscripts and try to understand what we were thinking.
© 2020 by Andri Snær Magnason. English translation © 2020 by Lytton Smith. First published in Great Britain in 2020 by Profile Books Ltd. Forthcoming 2021 from Open Letter Books. By arrangement with Open Letter Books. All rights reserved.
My mother and father disappeared amid the trash. My siblings and relatives, too, one by one. I have nobody. Trash is everywhere around me: the ground, the hollows, the hills are all trash. It doesn’t matter where I look, or how far, I see nothing but an unending series of overlapping mountains, trash upon trash. Trees have been flattened, homes have collapsed, rivers have been buried under piles of trash. Everything is gone; everything is trash. I look down at myself: I’m filthy and I stink. Soon enough, I will have taken my final breath, and I will become another piece of trash. When we humans must exist among heaps and heaps of garbage all the time, we’re bound to turn into garbage before long.
I don’t want to live this way, but I have no choice. I can’t remember when I last saw the surface of the earth. I do have one image burnished in my mind, a memory from twenty years ago, when I was a seven-year-old boy: I was being led by the hand, strolling down a street—I still see the scene clearly and reminisce about it all the time—the street was wide open, empty, running as far as the eye can see. I shook my hand free to run ahead of everyone. A breeze swept over from the mountains; it felt cool, refreshing. Not a single piece of trash was in sight. I yearn for that street, and I would trade my life for a chance to take a walk there again, filling my lungs with that air, even for a measly ten minutes. The street really existed, but the longer I languish among these dumps, the more I lose faith in my memory, like perhaps I only dreamed it up.
Each day, I wander, not only to scavenge for bits of anything edible but also in hopes of one day making it beyond all of this garbage and finding the Land Without Trash, a place said to have a human settlement, to be home to living animals and trees—according to a story that has been around since my parents still were. People we used to come across often told of the land. Some of them believed in its existence, some didn’t, but everyone strained to imagine what a clean, trashless land might be like. How was it possible for people to live without littering? How did they dispose of their garbage? And where did they hide it?
I trudge over a mountain of trash, not having run into a soul for nearly a month. A part of me is convinced that people have been subsumed in the piles of refuse, just as my parents and the rest of my family have been, but another part of me harbors a secret hope that the other trash dwellers are fighting their way to the Land Without Trash. Perhaps they have found it and, naturally, have stayed. I’m fearful for myself and full of regret: Last time, I encountered two men heading south—they believed the Land Without Trash likely lay in that direction—but I was bound east, remembering how my mother had said the Land Without Trash was situated thereabouts. The two men and I exchanged only a few words before parting ways. Several days later, it dawned on me that it had been a mistake not to join those two men. The realization left me weak and dejected, my loneliness feeling like a stab in the heart.
Though I continue heading east, I care about nothing more than the chance to meet someone, anyone. Given the opportunity this time, I would ask to follow them on their journey, regardless of where they were going. Since my clue was no better than anyone else’s, what difference does it make which way we travel? I cannot tolerate the solitude any longer. Being all alone in the middle of this ocean of waste is beyond unbearable—and not because I want to have a friend to chat with or a travel companion I can lean on. This abject loneliness—it comes from my being haunted by the view. It doesn’t matter whether I look ahead or behind, left or right, the picture I see is all the same. And it doesn’t matter how far I walk in a day, the scene never alters—it’s as though I were moving in circles. This panorama of garbage is playing mind games with me, making me question whether I’m hallucinating. I’m suffering greatly. I try to remind myself I’m moving forward, making strides. I have a destination, and I’ve already covered a great deal of distance. My body motion ought to be able to attest to the reality that the view around me is shifting all the time. I’m walking. I’m still conscious of my own movement, of my freedom. I’m not locked up in a cage, not confined to an area, no one is prohibiting me from doing whatever it is I want to do. At least I’m not forced to be cooped up in a small space, like, say, if I had to lower myself into a coffin and lie there. Then the view would really remain unchanged forever and ever. It already counts for something that I can still move around freely. I’m walking, the view is shifting, even if it shifts only to remain the same. But I know it’s shifting. Sometimes I close my eyes, sometimes open them. The view is shifting, I know that . . . oh, how lonely it is. What I would give to run into another living creature.
Ultimately, it is on my route east, half a month later, that I spot a fellow human being. Standing on a hilltop looking down at what is shaped like a deep pit, I see a person moving around at its bottom. I’m beyond ecstatic. I feel as if I only had one opportunity left in this life to encounter another human being again, and that opportunity has really arrived. Immediately, I scurry down. Until I see the person up close or hear his or her voice, I won’t be able to tell if it’s a man or a woman. In this squalid, putrid world, men and women have become difficult to distinguish. Everyone I meet is in the same sorry state—clothes so filthy their colors are obscured, hair long and matted, cheeks hollowed, body emaciated and rundown.
“Hello!” I wave to the person. “Hello!”
The person looks up at me, waving back, also excited.
“Hello!” The voice I hear reveals the person to be a woman, but she is so scrawny there’s no hint of womanliness left about her.
“Are you alone? Where are you headed? Are you searching for the clean land? Have you turned up anything to eat at all?” the woman jabbers away. She still looks quite vivacious and strong, despite being downright skeletal.
“Mostly, I eat worms,” I tell her and smile, embarrassed.
“Same here. I forage for worms, too.” She laughs loudly. “Are you in a hurry? Stay and chat a while. I haven’t had anyone to talk to for two months now. It’s been really lonely. I’ve been talking to myself like a crazy person.”
“Me, too. Yesterday I was suddenly struck by the fear that I might be the only person left among these dumps. The whole time I was walking, I felt like I was trapped in a dream—nothing seemed real except for the trash. Eyes open or closed, I saw nothing but garbage. I have no one left. My parents, siblings, my whole extended family, all of them have been swallowed up in the trash. I’m keeping an eye on what’s going to happen to me, waiting for my own turn to come one day—a person turning into a piece of garbage, blown away into a heap with millions of other pieces of garbage. I don’t want to become garbage, but if I’d be the only one left in the middle of all this trash, I don’t know what would be worse.”
“Being alive trumps all else, always. As long as one’s alive, there’s still hope. You know, you shouldn’t drive yourself crazy with those dark thoughts. The more we let them get to us, the more fed up we’ll be with life, and eventually one day we’ll see ourselves as trash and want to throw ourselves away. Stay—wouldn’t it be better to keep each other company and try to find a way out of this together?” the woman lectures me earnestly, which makes her come off rather bookish. I have trouble even estimating her age. Based on the things she said, I’m led to believe she’s seen something of life. But there’s a youthful light in her eyes, like a girl’s.
“I meant that was the state I was in yesterday, but not anymore. I just wanted to have someone there to help bear witness to the fact that my life was really happening.”
The woman laughs out loud at what she apparently finds an odd remark, which means despite not having had any human contact for even longer, she hasn’t suffered through the same state and can’t empathize. I bring up the subject I’ve been intending to bring up from the start, which is to ask her if I could accompany her on her journey, because I don’t want to carry on alone any longer.
The woman hears me out, smiling, and then shakes her head. “I’m not going anywhere. Don’t you see? I live here.”
Her answer baffles me. I simply don’t understand. “What do you mean? Aren’t you on a search for the Land Without Trash like everybody else? Or do you not believe it exists?”
“I don’t know, maybe it exists. But I already have my own ambition.”
Still confounded, I fail to react altogether. For trash dwellers like ourselves, is there something else to dream of other than the Land Without Trash?
“What’s your ambition? . . . But anyway, you should try to get beyond the trash first. Staying here, you’d only be counting down to the day you die. Come with me—didn’t you tell me as long as one’s alive, there’s still hope?”
“Of course, there is. And I have more hope than anyone. Don’t you see what I’ve done here?” She turns and, with her eyes, gestures all the way around. My eyes follow hers, but I see nothing but trash. She’s quick to explain: “I’m building my own trash-free land right here. First, I have to haul the trash away. Do you see how large and how deep this pit is? One day, I’m going to reach the ground. I’m going to take away all the garbage, and I’m going to be left with the ground, all cleaned up. And if I keep moving the trash, the area is going to get bigger and bigger. When that day comes, I’m going to grow trees, I’m going to build a house, and I’m going to keep clearing away the trash and expand the area more and more. My land’s not going to have any trash. Do you get it now? I’m not going anywhere because there’s a trash-free land right here.”
Her words running through my head, I visualize along with amazement. This is such a beautiful dream. But it’s also daunting—could she realistically succeed? The amount of trash is staggering, endless. How long would it take? She might die before she gets a glimpse of the ground.
“Will you stay with me? If we do it together, it will be twice as fast.”
I want to stay with her, certainly, but the grandness of her aspiration launches my mind into a panic as I weigh the pros and cons of two different paths that could potentially lead me to a land without trash. Others are going the route of searching for it, but this woman wants to create one with her own hands. A clean colony is supposed to manifest itself in this expanse of trash stretching as far and wide as the eye can see? When? Looking at her small hands and feet, I feel discouraged. But the other alternative offers no guarantee whatsoever. The legend or story that has been passed down—who could vouch for its veracity? Everybody is struggling to locate that fabled land, invested in their search because of the desperate desire to break free from these dumps. The question I ought to put to myself is: Do I want to die here or cast my die out there? But here I’d have a friend. I might as well stay with this woman at least until someone else shows up. At that point, I can still change my mind.
She’s delighted I’m agreeing to stay, not only because she’s lonely and wants to have a companion, but also because my presence raises the prospect that her trash-free land might materialize sooner. I immediately begin to worry. I don’t want to hurt her feelings by admitting to her that I don’t share her hope in the matter, not in the least, and that being so, I’m disinclined to waste my energy hauling trash. But, not knowing how to turn her down, I don’t feel like I have a choice. I’ll probably have to help her until I find someone else to journey with.
“Two months ago, someone passed through this way. I begged her to stay and build a trash-free land together, but she didn’t believe I could make it happen. Back then, the pit was still puny. It’s a shame—if she saw it now, she might have made a different decision. Look how big and deep the pit is. With two of us, so twice the labor, we’re sure to uncover the ground soon. Down the line, maybe we’ll have lots and lot of people giving us a hand. Oh, I wish they’d just come! The sooner the better!”
She hands me a burlap sack, and we get to work right away. The pit is large and deep—it’s almost inconceivable it was born from the labor of such a slight woman. I go about collecting garbage and dropping it into the sack she gave me. The most strenuous part of the task is dragging the sack up to the edge of the pit. Just beyond it, the terrain begins to slope downward. My sack rolls bopping down all by itself, which helps spare a great deal of effort, until it loses momentum about twenty meters away from the top. As I open the sack to dump out the trash, a cry of protest comes at me from behind.
The tiny woman is standing with an enormous sack—how was she able to drag it up the pit? On top of that, she forbids me from pouring out the trash right here: I’m to haul it behind the next knoll and dispose of it there. Her sack rolls down after me, and she tows it uphill, even taking the lead. The way she moves, her strength appears nothing short of a miracle. I struggle to keep up, failing to comprehend why we have to go all the way behind that knoll when everywhere was a dump. On my second trip, I start to feel tired; on the third, I’m much slower than before. From my observation, the whole time the woman is tugging her sack along, her eyes are scanning for worms. I get to take a break when she calls me over to share a meal for the first time.
At dusk, the woman proudly shows off something, which leaves me flabbergasted once again: It’s a coffin sitting on the bank of the pit. It’s her bedroom, she says. The sight of it makes me uneasy. The interior of the box is lined with burlap, and there is a pillow that, though grubby, looks very appealing. The coffin’s lid is leaning on its side, and nearby, a straw mat lies unfurled, with a wooden chest atop, serving as a table. Inside the chest is a miscellany of objects she has managed to collect—this woman’s determination to set down roots here is exciting, contagious.
“Go on, before it gets dark. There’s another coffin over there. Tonight, you’re going to get to sleep in a clean bedroom.”
Together, we lug the other coffin over and park it near hers. For the first time, I won’t be sleeping on top of trash, but in a coffin one layer above. How wondrous it’s going to be. Once I get in and lie flat, the side walls block the trash from view completely. All I see is the sky, which is starting to spring twinkles of stars. Ah, the view has changed! I’ve truly escaped the trash. This casket might have had a previous occupant, but being in it right now, I feel clean . . . clean . . . I’ve nearly forgotten what it feels like. Even though the space proves awkward and cramped when I try to turn my body or even shift my limbs, I don’t mind. I realize now that even if my hands and feet were bound and I lost the liberty to walk around or do anything else, as long as I get to be some place clean, away from trash, I would willingly forsake and forgo all the freedom in the world. What use is it for us humans to cling to our freedom in the midst of all this trash? Once anything of value in this world has been discarded or has wound up in a pile of refuse, does it really count as something of value anymore? I shut my eyes and run my hand along the casket’s smooth wall. This coffin has given me a sanctuary all my own. I no longer have to be commingled with the trash—this thought alone moves me to tears.
I haul garbage, day in day out. Every day, the woman says: Today might be the day we see the ground. She is as hopeful as I am hopeless. But at last we hit upon the ground, actual solid earth. I can feel my heart pumping, I don’t know how to describe all the emotions rushing through me. The woman manically claws away more of the trash, mumbling away with elation and excitement. I’m ashamed to admit that in a given day she manages to make three more trips than I do. Now her dream is a pipe dream no more. I have never met anyone so full of hope and spirit as this woman. Though her flesh has been dwindling day by day, her strength has only improved. Today, we’ve uncovered the earth; the pit need not be dug deeper. Our hauls from here on out will be about expanding the area. It’s exactly as she envisioned it. Now I’m growing convinced there’s a land without trash right here, and it’s a place I must build for myself.
We toil away like mad so that each day we would see more of the earth. In the meantime, I’ve also started collecting objects of my own: I’ve got a plate, a candle, and a rusty pair of scissors. This last item is precious. I look for ways to polish off the rust, and, using a nail I found, try to sharpen it by rubbing the two objects together. The two of us are overjoyed to finally be able to cut our hair. We take turns snipping off each other’s locks, entirely getting rid of the clumped masses that have been weighing down our heads.
“It’s so light and comfortable!” The woman is thoroughly pleased with her crew cut. “I feel like a cadet!”
But I have to avert my eyes. With her hair shorn, her gaunt face has become even more prominent. That skull of a head—I don’t want to look at it. If it weren’t for her eyes, which are still full of life, anyone who gets a look at her would think she was already a corpse. I can’t speak to the state of my own appearance . . . It’s probably not much better. Without access to a mirror, the best we can do is look at each other. Regardless, one outcome was undeniably fantastic: Our haircuts made us cleaner.
I wish people would pass by because I’m eager to show off the area of the ground we’ve cleared, which has grown to be almost eighty square yards now. The dream of having a home to live in, of cultivating plants and raising animals on land that is clean and trashless is so close to coming true we could almost touch it with our fingertips. But alas, this is as far as we’ll come.
I’ve fallen ill, from the combination of hard labor and a dearth of food. The woman likewise. We are left lying helplessly in our coffins, praying someone would happen by. Even if they can’t save our lives, the woman hopes they would carry on our unfinished work. After lying still for two nights and a day, the woman pulls herself up and crawls out of her box. Her determination never ceases to amaze. She is going to look for something to eat, she says. I could still just about gather enough energy to crawl out, but I continue to lie idle because I know the effort is pointless. I have tramped over every inch of the surface in this vicinity, to the degree I recognize every single piece of trash. Any hope I had for food was lost over a half a month ago.
With the woman absent, I stay supine in my coffin, breathing feebly. In the moments when I’m alert, I listen, with hope, for her bright, upbeat voice. We shouldn’t be separated during a time like this. I should have stopped her from venturing out. By now she’s probably collapsed out there somewhere and stranded.
On the third morning after she went missing, I attempt to get up but find myself too weak to lift my body out of the coffin. I only manage as far as draping my arms and head over the edge—which turns out to be sufficient because the woman comes into view immediately. Since when has she been back? She’s been lying right next to my casket, on the mat. Hearing my voice, she opens her eyes. We are each happy to see the other’s face again.
“There’s a way where we won’t have to die,” I tell the woman. “My parents and the rest of my family, every one of them, no one had to die.”
“I realize that . . . No one I know from before has died. That’s why it’s tough going for us—with no worms left to eat.”
Both of us burst out laughing until we’re gasping for air. Afterward, we’re so drained by the exertion we’re forced to keep still for a long while.
Since the subject has been broached, I decide to ask her: “The time has come for us to really make a choice. Do you want to do like them?” The woman, contemplating, doesn’t answer. In truth, I know she made her choice long ago; otherwise our encounter here could never have happened . . . I myself have sworn off littering, having witnessed too many cautionary tales close to home. I can’t pinpoint when this punishment came into existence, but I do know it wasn’t very long ago. My family had had the habit of dropping their trash carelessly on the ground for ages, but it was only within the last two years that they metamorphosed into trash. My father was the first of them. He’d chucked a cigarette butt, and instantly he’d vanished before our eyes. My mother had been quick enough to catch the moment he transformed into another cigarette stub. She told anybody and everybody what happened. Those who didn’t believe her all wanted to test the story for themselves. It proved true. Without exception, anyone who littered turned into a piece of garbage. Later on, dumping trash became an easy way out for people who had lost hope.
Seeing that the woman isn’t about to reply, I answer for her: “You’re not going to throw trash on the ground, right? You’ve always maintained this beautiful optimism. You only pursue the toughest things, and you never give up. Surely, you’re not one to take the easy way out, am I right?”
The woman smiles. “It’s more that we owe a debt to the worms. We ought to save our bodies, to feed them for once.”
Both of us burst out laughing until we’re gasping for air. This time, the laughter costs us our lives.
“กองขยะด้านตะวันออก ทัศนียภาพไม่เปลี่ยนแปลง” © 2020 by Duanwad Pimwana. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.
In early June of 2020 the Yakutia region of Siberia hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the permafrost to melt and the dry soil beneath to burst into flames. Thick white smoke spread across the country’s green expanse, releasing more carbon emissions into the atmosphere than any other wildfire on Earth in the last two decades.
These fires are a clear sign that the planet is in crisis. It is particularly worrisome that the Arctic is warming at least two and a half times faster than anywhere else on Earth, because melting Arctic sea ice leads to rising seas—and eventually to the flooding of coastal cities and villages, home to tens of millions of people. And yet, despite these dire signs that something has gone terribly wrong, only 69% of Americans are worried about global warming. As for the rest of the world, a recent Pew poll reveals that a median of only 68% of those surveyed in twenty-six nations say that climate change is a threat.
Why do humans have such a hard time accepting the real and present danger of climate change? Much of the blame can be attributed to the fossil fuel industry, which has engaged in an enormous public disinformation campaign for decades. But human psychology also reveals some answers. Many people believe that the planet is inherently just and stable. Climate change poses an uncomfortable challenge to that idea. Others resist the discomfort that comes from having to give up short-term benefits, such as immediate profit, for the long-term advantages of stabilizing the biosphere. But perhaps even more pernicious is the human brain’s tendency to reject things that are psychologically distant (in time and space) from itself. This is a particular problem for people living in the relatively climate-stable United States. At the time of this writing, climate catastrophes are still more likely to happen in the Global South.
That’s why novels—especially those by authors from nations hardest hit by climate change—are invaluable. Through vibrant scenes and deeply moving character arcs, these stories, which are often called “climate fiction,” depict the worst of climate change through the eyes of protagonists experiencing the disasters firsthand. Consider Thai author Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain, which follows life in Thailand’s capital for over one hundred years. As climate change ravages the low-lying city, streets and buildings become inundated with sea water, changing forever what life in Bangkok looks like. Then there’s Indian author Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island. It follows its lead character Deen from India to Venice and then to Los Angeles, while drawing parallels between Bengali mythology and the strange sights of today’s climate-changed world, sights such as red-and-black wildfires raging toward an art museum, or dozens of dolphins spontaneously beaching themselves.
Climate-fiction writers like Sudbanthad and Ghosh achieve with their novels what so many news reports don’t: they capture the extraordinary happenings of our age, the “signs and wonders” wrought by a warming atmosphere, and connect them directly to humanity’s enormous carbon output. Indeed, these novels drive home the fact that global warming is caused by human activity and that our continued reliance on fossil fuels is not only irrational—it’s deadly.
Sudbanthad and Ghosh’s novels are realist in nature, meaning they take place mostly in the present (though Sudbanthad’s eventually takes readers to the near future) and depict climate change as it is happening now. By doing so, the novels encourage readers to imagine what our climate-changed world looks like. They help readers to see and feel—to truly grasp—the reality of climate change and the degree of havoc it wreaks everywhere and on all living things.
But not all climate novels are written in the realist mode. Climate fiction comes in a range of styles and modes, while still drawing connections between large, systemic phenomenon like climate change, capitalism, and war. Dystopian novels like UK author John Lanchester’s The Wall are particularly prevalent. Set in a future United Kingdom, it connects postapocalyptic climate change to conflict by showing how dwindling resources result in a rise of nationalism. Omar El Akkad’s American War is also dystopian. Its protagonist becomes radicalized after a climate-fueled war breaks out in the United States.
Dystopia isn’t all that climate fiction has to offer, however. Oil on Water by Nigerian author Helon Habila is a climate-themed thriller, involving two men who traverse the environmentally devastated Nigerian delta to hunt for a British oil executive’s kidnapped wife. Fantasy and science fiction writers have also used their talents to address the crisis. In Tentacle, Dominican author Rita Indiana tells the tale of a young transman’s fantastical journey. With the help of a magical anemone, he travels back in time and witnesses how colonialism and an over-reliance on technology have led to the destruction of oceans—and of humanity. He seeks to change the arc of history before it’s too late. Rajat Chaudhuri, who resides in Calcutta, India, explores a Ballardian near-future in Butterfly Effect, a novel about three diverse characters who seek to reveal the mysteries of Darkland, a nation-state that arose after catastrophic climate change wiped out much of what used to be Asia.
In recent years, climate fiction has expanded beyond novels to include short-story writers. Like novels, short stories invite readers to inhabit the minds and perspectives of characters living through catastrophe. Through their eyes, readers can witness loss and destruction. American writer Terese Svoboda, for example, explores Middle America in her short-story collection, Great American Desert. The stories follow the evolution of the Midwest from a place of fecundity to an uninhabitable wasteland. Svoboda, who is also a translator, once told me that her views on climate change evolved after translating some poetry by writers from the South Sudan, who view people as stewards of the earth: “Their work sees humans as the ants of God,” she said.
Indeed, climate-fiction novelists and short story writers certainly seem to be taking that perspective, but it presents a challenge specific to their genre: their antagonist—climate change—isn’t a typical villain. It can’t be stopped by a single hero with a bullet or magic wand. For many of these writers, then, their narrative arcs are rooted in collective action. Take Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, a sci-fi novel set in the titular year after more than fifty feet of sea-level rise. Half of New York City is submerged in water, but life there is much the same—it is still the capitalistic, financial epicenter of the world, and many people are suffering. But once the novel’s protagonists realize that other social structures are possible—structures rooted in eco-socialism and economic equality—they start to organize for real change.
Robinson’s novel is at base a hopeful story. Much of climate fiction is hopeful. But most works in this genre contain an emotional range that feels vital to the crisis at hand. Just as human beings are capable of feeling multiple emotions at once—hope as well as discouragement, courage as well as fear—the best of climate fiction allows for all of these feelings. Whereas many journalists still abide by the fundamental rule to be as objective as possible, fiction writers have the freedom to explore the pathos of climate change. And in doing so, allow readers to feel even their darkest feelings to achieve a sense of catharsis.
These are bold claims, certainly. So just how effective is climate fiction, really, at getting readers to take the crisis more seriously? According to Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College, the genre can function as a useful tool in nudging readers “in a slightly more progressive direction.” In a recent empirical study, the researcher surveyed more than 100 U.S.-based readers about their experience reading climate fiction. Many of them reported that stories about the crisis helped them to better imagine “potential climate futures,” meaning they could better visualize what climate change might bring if left unabated. Moreover, the study revealed that some readers of climate fiction were more likely to discuss climate change with friends and family members, even with those whom conversations about the subject had previously proven difficult.
The pieces in this issue may provoke such discussions. Andri Snær Magnason’s Of Time and Water, published to great acclaim in Iceland, surveys the ravages of climate change; the excerpt here, “Farewell to the White Giants,” addresses the shrinking of glaciers. Ariadna Castellarnau follows a rainmaker and his sullen daughter as they try to rescue a village from drought. Duanwad Pimwana reveals one possible result of cavalier attitudes toward accumulation and disposal. And Francisco de la Mora’s graphic fiction depicts the Statue of Liberty and Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer mourning their mutual losses.
Of course, fiction won’t change the world—we need real-life, collective action to do that. But if news reports alone could inspire such action, they would have done so long ago. No single means of communication can be solely effective, because climate change is such a “wicked” problem—it is truly planetary in scale. Therefore, we need not one but many pathways toward understanding the breadth and urgency of the challenge, so that more of us can begin taking necessary action toward change. For some, that path can be found through literature.
© 2020 by Amy Brady. All rights reserved.
"Birds in Flight, 1965" is one of four winning poems selected by David Tomas Martinez for the 2020 Words Without Borders—Academy of American Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Listen above to Bernard Capinpin read his translation of Enrique Villasis's "Birds in Flight, 1965"
Not as a multitude, but as one. Caught in the rush of an instant only to be contained
In an illusion of light once depicted in a holographic existence
And to give weight to the meaning of lightness. Here, he pointed
To the directions of his imprisonment. How the wings
Have too much dulled and to take wing must orchestrate
The shattering of mirrors: fragile, fine, acicular. The yellowing
Brightness is in the proximity to the light, like how one recognizes beneath
The lightbulb the chick nesting within an egg, as to trace how thick
Illusions go in the labyrinth of plurality. Now, no matter what,
They seem a bouquet of bougainvilla on the palms, dreaming to be set free.
This may be true of desire. One first keeps to heart
The simplest things one loved in childhood: the chase after
A kite broken loose, not minding the prickling thorns,
The mimosa’s curtsey to the sole. That is what freedom simply is.
Not playing patintero with shadows. Not captive to the multiplicity
Of false geometry. Almost brittle but original.
“Birds in Flight, 1965” © Enrique Villasis. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2020 by Bernard Capinpin. All rights reserved.
Mabanckou imbues his narrative with the qualities of a minor epic, placing his young protagonist at the heart of a frightening yet wry tale about politics and murder, family and loyalty, necessary lies and storytelling itself.
Alain Mabanckou’s new novel begins on a Saturday and ends the following Monday, a compressed timeline that suggests a story of limited scope. Told from the perspective of an adolescent boy who hopes to track down a missing family pet, this book brims with the kind of private longings and granular observations that are often associated with small, intimate works of fiction. And yet, in under 250 pages, Mabanckou imbues his narrative with the qualities of a minor epic, placing his young protagonist at the heart of a frightening yet wry tale about politics and murder, family and loyalty, necessary lies and storytelling itself.
Michel, our narrator, is an observant only child of thirteen or fourteen. He lives in Pointe-Noire, in the Republic of the Congo. As The Death of Comrade President opens, it’s March 19, 1977, and Michel is eager to remark on all that he sees, hears, and has been tasked to do in Voungou, his working-class neighborhood. He lives with his mother, Pauline, who sells fruit at a market, and his father, Roger, a staffer at a posh hotel, in a two-room house “made out of okumé boards, with a roof of corrugated iron and plywood windows.”
The family is running low on palm oil, peanut butter, red wine, and tobacco, so Michel’s been sent to a neighbor’s unpredictable shop. “There are no set prices; it depends on whether or not you know Ma Moubobi,” he explains. “That’s why the shop’s called Case by Case.” The day is off to an uneventful start, save for one difference: the normally talkative broadcasters heard on the Voice of the Congolese Revolution, the socialist government’s radio arm, have been replaced by ceaseless Soviet music.
Though his parents and teachers chide him for being an absent-minded “dreamer”—he has an artist’s worldview and has begun to write poetry, but he often drops coins when he’s sent to the market—Michel is a highly capable boy, and he completes his shopping run without incident. Now he’s ready to join his parents for a lunch of pork and plantains. At which point his world is upended by a series of distressing developments.
First, the Soviet music stops, and from Roger’s radio, the family hears a man’s voice, broadcasting from Brazzaville, the capital city. The nameless speaker announces the killing of “our dynamic leader of the Congolese Revolution, Comrade Marien Ngouabi.” According to the broadcaster, the murderers are a unit of rogues acting in concert with craven imperialists. The details of the dictatorial president’s assassination are vague, but no one doubts that the days ahead will be turbulent.
These slow-paced, foreboding initial episodes lay the foundation for Mabanckou’s construction of a story that deals as much with headline-grabbing events from Congo’s recent history as with the corresponding distortions that appear in political discourse and news reports. It’s the kind of mordant work that Mabanckou, who was born in the Republic of the Congo and teaches literature at UCLA, has been doing for some time. His novel Black Moses—also set in the Republic of the Congo in the 1970s—was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Today, he’s in the prime of an estimable career, the author of numerous novels, poetry collections, and works of nonfiction. (In a memoir, The Lights of Pointe-Noire, Mabanckou writes about his parents Pauline and Roger; they appear to have inspired aspects of his depiction of Michel’s parents, who have the same names.) The Death of Comrade President draws on these various strands of Mabanckou’s work to provide the reader with a captivating and sophisticated portrait of the country in a time of crisis.
As Michel and his parents sit in astonished silence, the family dog, Mboua Mabé, seems to realize that something’s wrong. He “stops eating, stares at the radio, pricks up his ears, turns around and dashes” off, Michel tells us. Mboua Mabé means “bad dog” in Lingala, one of several languages Michel’s family speaks, so perhaps he’s just making good on his name. Or maybe he senses that chaos is in the offing. Roger dislikes Mboua Mabé but gives him grudging credit for his intelligence; just a few pages earlier, he launches into a comic screed against the animal: “He won’t even guard the house! Look at him, he’s a hypocrite, an enemy of the Congolese Socialist Revolution!” Whatever the reason, the dog is on the run—and Michel is inconsolable. “I had promised to protect Mboua Mabé,” he says. He’ll spend much of the novel trying to sneak away to look for his canine friend.
That would be a hazardous mission, however. The autocrat’s murder triggers a predictable crackdown. Within hours, Michel’s neighborhood is filled with soldiers patrolling in military trucks; there’s a 7:00 p.m. curfew, and public gatherings are prohibited. Former president Alphonse Massamba-Débat, deposed by Ngouabi in a 1968 coup, is among a group of politicos who will be charged with—and summarily executed for—Ngouabi’s killing.
The dire situation gets worse when some well-connected relatives drop by with another piece of stunning news: Michel’s Uncle Luc, a Brazzaville-based military officer, has been killed in a post-assassination fit of violence. For hazy reasons, Luc was among those blamed for the president’s death, and his family isn’t safe. “So you’re telling me these wicked soldiers from Brazzaville are going to come to my house and murder me right in front of Michel, like they murdered my brother in front of his wife and children?” his mother asks. The visitors would like to assuage her fears, but they can’t guarantee she’ll be spared.
The novel’s middle and closing acts are increasingly tense, as Michel contends with the fallout from seismic political shifts, some of which have been set in motion by decisions made in European capitals decades before his birth. With his mother’s life in jeopardy, Mabanckou’s youthful narrator is drawn into a confrontation that will make him rethink his developing notions of state power and basic honesty. Meanwhile, Michel’s discussions with his parents, teachers, and others in the community provide the reader with at least a rudimentary understanding of his nation’s history.
The Republic of the Congo was colonized by the French in the 1880s and gained its independence nearly a century later. During the Cold War, the country affiliated itself with the Soviet Union and other socialist states. In the years since, Mabanckou suggests, the nation has often been profoundly misunderstood by Europeans and Americans. He drives home this latter point in a satirical set piece, in which a patronizing foreign journalist is heard on a French-language radio broadcast promoting his simplistic, tone-deaf reporting: “As discussed in detail in my book Night Falls over Africa, political assassinations on the dark continent have become a sinister tradition.”
Scenes like this serve a dual purpose, showcasing Mabanckou’s talent for subtle yet searing humor while encouraging his readers to push back against narratives informed by ignorance and misrepresentation.
Sardonic and perceptive, The Death of Comrade President is particularly sharp when depicting Michel’s political indoctrination, which takes place in school lessons about the glories—and garb—of socialist countries. In one scene, Michel hilariously pivots from the clothing worn in the USSR to the evils of imperialism: “Sometimes we even had to dress like their people. We’d be wearing coats, gloves, furs, and shoes under the midday sun, like Europeans do in the depths of winter, because the sun doesn’t always shine over there, which is why lots of countries in that continent went off to colonize hotter places, so they could go there on holiday with their wives, children, sick grandparents, not to mention cats and dogs.” In Helen Stevenson’s vibrant translation, Mabanckou’s narrator is at once wide-eyed and aggrieved, a wholly realized character.
Shortly after learning of the assassination, Michel recalls the many ways he and his fellow students were taught to revere Ngouabi, to revel in the details of his meetings with Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro, to start each school day by saying “nice things about Comrade Marien Ngouabi while standing by the national flag in the playground.” And yet, Michel “can’t get as upset as I should” over the president’s untimely death. He wonders if he should “rub chili in my eyes like widows do when they can’t squeeze out a tear for their husbands,” but fear stops him short. If his mother found out he did such a thing, there’d be even more trouble.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications.
Listen above to Chenxin Jiang read her translation of Yau Ching's "Trial Run"
as a door-nail
and gone to the world
air broke drop
nothing is certain but and taxes
mask knell grip
blow metal rattle
food for worms sticky end brown bread
or alive valiant to the la la la
wish I were yeah right you wish
“預習” © 2009 Yau Ching. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2020 by Chenxin Jiang. All rights reserved.
In Murgia's book, fascism is presented as a form of semantic sleight of hand whereby anything goes under the right terminology.
These days, there could be fierce competition over who could write the book on “how to be a fascist”—if we could agree on what a fascist is. Michela Murgia’s lapidary definition, depicted in a Forrest Gump caricature on the cover of the original Italian edition, is “fascist is as fascist does.” While historians have found fascism notoriously difficult to define, and there exist numerous volumes analyzing its historical roots, the myriad forms of its present resurgence warrant a closer look at what it means in reference to the political spectrum today, and how we might recognize its features not only in our governments but in ourselves.
Admirers of Murgia’s work in English may be surprised to see this political turn. Accabadora (2009; English translation by Silvester Mazzarella for Counterpoint Press in 2011), the only one of her many works to appear in English to date, is a beautiful, brutal family novel telling a story of traditional life in her native Sardinia. It focuses on an “accabadora” or “mercy killer,” and positioned Murgia as a worthy successor to the island-region’s early twentieth-century Nobel laureate, Grazia Deledda. Yet in Italy it is common for writers to be publicly active in politics, and Murgia’s activism has taken the form of other works of engaged nonfiction, television and news commentary, even once campaigning for political office. Her unflinching outspokenness on hot-button topics has made her a target for base vitriol from lowly trolls online and respected cultural figures in the media alike—unfortunately, a familiar situation for women in the public eye.
Her latest venture in this vein is the satirical pamphlet How to Be a Fascist, the product of a series of talks given throughout Italy and published originally in 2018. The book is divided into thematically oriented chapters outlining different features of fascism as they apply to the modern world. But Murgia isn’t simply providing an overview. Moving between first-person singular and plural throughout, the narrator takes on the persona of a fascist acolyte writing “against democracy,” an “irredeemably flawed system of government,” claiming that fascism is its best replacement—an idea already, instinctively, familiar to the masses. In her mordantly provocative account, fascism is not quite a political system or set of principles but rather a method: a way of rallying a public into blindly ceding their power, and most frighteningly, calling this state of things a democracy nonetheless: “By manipulating the tools of democracy, we can make an entire country fascist without ever mentioning the word fascism.”
Various political issues and talking points of the current moment are invoked: social media and the news, immigration and xenophobia, gender and feminism, and protest and police violence, which, while referring to the Italian context, are generic enough to fit most Western nations. Leveling the charge of “fascist” at anything and everything, from upholding homophobic ideas of the traditional family to propagating rape culture to mistrusting journalism to both-sidesism, could be seen as a weak point of the book. It does start to feel somewhat grab-bag, but Pier Paolo Pasolini’s statement, from one of the last interviews before his brutal murder, during the Italian “Years of Lead” (which bear some resemblance to our own time), is well taken: “I consider consumerism to be a Fascism worse than the classical one, because clerical Fascism didn’t really transform Italians, didn’t enter into them. It was a totalitarian state but not a totalizing one.” In other words, nominal fascism is not as significant as its more insidious forms, which pervade every aspect of life. The attributes that Murgia singles out and critiques are warning signs and indications of it.
Where Murgia’s insights shine brightest, though, is in her attention throughout the book to fascism as a phenomenon of language, which she calls “the most malleable cultural infrastructure we have.” Fascism is presented as a form of semantic sleight of hand whereby anything goes under the right terminology: one woman’s misogyny is another’s tradition, one citizen’s dictator is another patriot’s president—fascism as language game. In this sense, fascism is a method of spreading false consciousness, creating straw man enemies through rhetorical gestures that appeal to the folksy and common-sense sensibility of a supposedly suffering populace. Translator Alex Valente’s work in reconstructing an English-language network of referents is impressive, with inspired solutions like “gay agenda” for “ideologia gender” or “armchair activists” for “radical chic”—which may seem like radical departures to those unfamiliar with the source-language context, but in fact reflect an intimate knowledge of both sociopolitical contexts and a dexterous use of their buzzwords. And in what would otherwise read as a slightly awkward translation, we can hear all the echoes of bombastic, semi-sensical Trumpese: “If we can convince even a single person who believes in democracy every day, we can live again. And live greatly.”
While Murgia’s principal referents are Italy and Italians, one could easily apply the book to other national contexts. The English version ensures this by redacting most of the specific references to Italian culture that would not have immediate resonance elsewhere, from mentions of Antonio Gramsci and the partisan anthem “Bella Ciao” to Italy-specific holidays and the Italian constitution (see Valente’s illuminating exposition of his work, Translating Fascisms). Many readers, especially translators, might balk at gutting a source text’s identifying material: it is an Italian book. And yet the priority is clearly interpellating readers into reflecting on their own situation, not seeing political extremism as exotic or distant but as an imminent danger than must be acted upon. In a few instances, the satirical references have been adapted: for example, rather than claiming that Italians had no role in the orchestration of the Shoah, in the English-language version Murgia’s fascist narrator pines for the old days of empire and its role in civilizing the savages; or in a brilliant translational move, an elitist linguistic concern about the disappearing subjunctive in present-day Italian is recast as a preoccupation with correct usage of personal pronouns in English:
“Fascist language, if you think about it, is more democratic than political correctness, because it never makes anyone feel inferior, even though many supporters of democracy will feel superior to it anyway. Don’t take it personally, but rather thank them, at least to begin with. Every time one of them demands the use of refined idioms or diplomatic speech, maybe calling us unrefined or ignorant, they’ll be handing us the chance to show to the people that democracy is more concerned with filling their mouths with the right pronouns than with enough bread to eat. Let them do it: this is the only way for armchair activists to learn that there is no society in a world that prioritizes pronouns.”
The relatively staid Italian concern regarding the correct use of sophisticated grammar is here transformed into a much more ideologically charged issue, one that significantly departs from the original point but does so in keeping with the logic of the text and in order to make a stronger one. In translation terms, this is textbook “skopos theory”—where a text’s aim takes precedence over individual units of meaning—and it is put to noble use here.
There’s no denying that there are more rigorous analyses of fascism, but this book is not meant to be an introduction or a history—it is an indictment and a call to action. What the book lacks in precision, it makes up for in rhetorical flair, and in this sense, it successfully appeals to a general readership. The book’s concluding “Fascistometer” might seem gratuitous, like a parody of a teen magazine personality quiz, but it also provides a summary of the book in bullet-point and a way to check oneself or start a discussion with family and friends. By comparison, the “F Scale” from The Authoritarian Personality, developed by Theodor Adorno et al. in postwar California, is scarcely more scientific. In both instances, it is not a matter of whether we are fascist, but how much. Murgia’s manual, even sliding over the surface, translates fascism into a thoroughly contemporary phenomenon, where democracy is not a given, but a continuous struggle.
In this essay, Silvana Paternostro reflects on her time in Tokyo and the role of women in Japanese society.
When friends ask me about Tokyo, my answer takes them by surprise: I walked, mostly. I visited sites and had culinary experiences. I bathed in hot springs in the mountains of Nagano, where wild monkeys do the same. I stood close to a monk sounding the six o’clock bell by the five-story pagoda in the ancient city of Nara. But what I treasure most when I think of the four months I spent in Japan last fall are those endless and aimless walks I took Monday through Friday surrounded by Tokyo’s women.
I arrive on a rainy Saturday to a studio apartment in Azabu-juban, a bland expat neighborhood, to be with my partner, an English journalist on assignment. “This is a huge box here,” he says, giving me the tour of the small room. We both laugh. “And there’s a lovely temple right behind us. Their chanting services are quite beautiful.” But I’m not really a temple-goer or the class-taking type. I am in a place I know nothing about and without a project to keep me occupied. But that’s fine because the one thing I know for sure is that while here I am not interested in going around with my journalist antennae switched on, which is how I usually travel. I want to give them a rest.
Under the fog of jet lag, I absorb Tokyo that weekend, taking the first of the many walks I will come to take. A visit to the tatami-matted mansion of a former grand lord and to the garden of a bonsai master offer glimpses of a pre–World War II Japan ruled by an Emperor. I slurp soba noodles with walnut sauce in a trendy restaurant and walk through impeccably clean canal-lined streets, ducking in and out of the perfectly curated clothing shops of a more modern, fashion-fabulous Tokyo.
Four days after my arrival, still jet-lagged, I switch on the TV and learn that I’m here at a historic moment. Prince Naruhito, the firstborn son of Emperor Akihito, is ascending the Chrysanthemum Throne. Groggy, I watch monks in black robes pull back the purple curtains of a huge gilded birdcage to reveal the handsome emperor-to-be, soon to be sixty, wearing an ochre robe and brandishing a saber like Luke Skywalker’s, a strangely pitched black hat fastened beneath his chin with a white rubber band. He looks somewhat ridiculous, yet carries it all with incredible aplomb. Next to him, on an identical stage and in an identical cage, his wife of twenty-seven years appears less comfortable. Princess Masako, a Harvard-educated lady who gave up a promising career as a diplomat to assume her role as prince’s wife and Empress-to-be, wears a twelve-layered kimono, the most formal court garment, that is as beautiful as it must be heavy. She seems to be swallowed by sheaths of brightly colored silk.
Among the notables in the crowd, I recognize Prince Charles, the king and queen of Spain, and a roomful of other famous faces. They sit shoulder to shoulder like they haven’t done since the pandemic started: Fifteen kings, seven queens, four princesses, eleven princes, seventy presidents, and a hundred other dignitaries have come for the weekend ceremony, and they all wear the most extravagant jewels and flowered hairpieces, orders and medals pinned on uniforms, turbans, saris, and caftans. When I hear that the president of Panama and the foreign minister of Colombia are in attendance, too, I wonder why they’ve come all this way: it is because Japan is the world's third-largest economy? Or because this island’s ancient rituals are so rarefied that no one wants to miss the opportunity?
"Coded Field," an art installation at Zozo-ji Temple in November 2019. Credit: Silvana Paternostro.
I am immediately enchanted by the otherworldly fantasia of the world’s oldest monarchy. My ears perk up when the commentator’s mention a pregnant princess in attendance that gave up her title to marry a commoner. Who doesn’t love a rebel princess? I decide to follow the upcoming enthronement events of which there are a few remaining and wonder what it would be like to go from princess to average woman, like the ladies I start to notice on the streets every day as I begin my life as a flaneur in Tokyo.
It takes me a while to become a confident walker. I don’t understand the signs and it’s hard to ask for directions when you can’t communicate. As soon as I accept I will have to navigate a world of unknowns, I let go of trying to fit in. Feeling like a complete klutz, I confess, is quite liberating. Every day that I step out I feel disarticulated from the first interaction to the last, even if I do follow the outward form of practices: enter a temple (wash hands before clapping at the altar), going to a kabuki theater (bring bento box with food for intermission), visit clothes store (try on dresses with a facial covering on and this is pre-Covid 19); bathe at a hot spring (never dunk completely).
Before I begin my meandering walk, I flip through the Japan Times. Reading local papers is a hard-to-break reporting habit. But it’s also a way to keep up with the prince who will become emperor.
Next ceremony on the agenda: On November 14, Prince Naruhito will enter a huge white compound outside the Imperial Palace bearing the best of Japan’s rice (each grain is perfectly polished before its boiled), fish, and sake to offer to the mythical goddess believed to have been the creator of ancient Japan in the seventh century BC and the prince’s direct ancestor. Figuratively speaking, the prince will lay with Amaterasu’s spirit overnight, wearing an almost bridal-white robe asking for advice. Amaterasu, I learn, was not only goddess. She was also Empress.
My routine for each walk is quite simple. I choose a destination and walk to it without any hurry. On this day, I am going to the Meiji Shrine. According to Google Maps, it’s about three miles away. I first buy a coffee at the Natural Lawson convenience store under the Tokyo Tower, Japan’s white and orange Eiffel Tower look-alike and smile at the young cashier with pigtails—she reminds me of an unhappy girl working at a convenience store from a short story I once read. In the backstreets, I smile again at the elderly lady in her dirty apron I see every day selling daikon, cabbage, and clementines as if she were living in the countryside and not in a sophisticated urban neighborhood. She reminds me of the Cuban ladies who tend similarly simple vegetable stands outside some of the mansions crumbling down in Havana. I walk up the street past Olive’s Café. Olive is at least ninety and her café is probably the only coffee shop without Internet in all of Japan, but what her dingy establishment lacks in modernity she makes up for with her bright smile and pep.
In a matter of a few steps, I go from scenes out of prewar Japan to tableaus of the more homogenized globalization. I pass an English bakery offering pie-baking lessons, a Pilates studio, a shop that sells bagels and vegan matcha lattes, and a bauble shop where a handful of coiffed women sit around a table, immobile and downcast, like figures from Pompeii: maybe they’re at work painting porcelain, or beading necklaces, or any one of those time-passing activities I’ve always associated with women who lead traditional family lives. The reporter in me would have loved to talk to them.
It’s starting to drizzle as I wait for the pedestrian light to turn green at the corner of the Azabu metro station, next to the shrine that has a huge frog-spirit statue outside. I notice a trio of very young schoolgirls, around six or seven, wearing plaid skirts, square backpacks, and trilbies. Picture perfect—I point my phone at them. I realize they are on their own, and they realize I am taking a photo. They give me a stare of total disapproval and swiftly cover their faces with their umbrellas. Turning their backs on me, they scurry down the stairs inside the station. I’ve never seen such young girls this on it: so fierce, so graceful—and so independent.
A group of schoolgirls freely roaming the Tokyo streets near the Azabu metro station. Credit: Silvana Paternostro.
Whizzing by me are women on electric bikes packed with parcels and often a pair of children. I wonder if the princess turned commoner pedals around in one of these mama-charis as they are called.
As it turns out, the princess is not such a rebel. All Japanese princesses become commoners if they decide to marry. This is a Catch-22 situation still in place from when the US rewrote the country’s constitution following World War II. In an effort to take away the aristocracy’s control of the country, all princely families lost their titles and princesses could only keep their title if they marry a prince. But as there are no princes left in Japan, other than their immediate family, more than a dozen ladies have suffered the downgrade. There are now five single princesses, including Princess Toshi, Naruhito’s daughter, facing demotion. She will still be invited to imperial events but only as a guest, and she will never appear in any official family photos with her father, the Emperor. I start to ponder about the plight of the princesses but my thoughts are like the fleeting lady bikers—they come and then pass as I let them go.
It rains a lot in Tokyo, so when the mornings are warm and sunny, I take a Japanese author to read—right now I’m binging on Yukio Mishima—and sit in a nearby playground. I watch mothers run after their youngsters: when they fall; when they push each other and it turns into a messy fight; when they do a cartwheel or something extraordinary for the first time— they, of course, act the exact same way children do everywhere. I notice there are much fewer fathers than at New York City playgrounds. They are laboring away; they are the so-called salarymen that my boyfriend complains he has become when he returns from work every evening, or after salarymen outings to an izakaya bar with his colleagues. I join them sometimes, but I am the only partner invited. I think I can come because I am gaijin—not Japanese.
The gender gap in the labor force is so big that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came up with an attractive package known as “womenomics” as a way to bring women into Japan’s shrinking labor force. But there are so many women on the streets during working hours that all I can conclude is that women still do most of the childrearing and the cooking. I read that a young woman was harassed at a supermarket by an elderly man for buying ready-made potato salad. Women, he yelled, need to make it from scratch.
As everywhere else, the elderly generation would like things to remain as they are. This includes the tradition that husbands bring their widowed mothers to live with them. What is that like for the wives, the daughter-in-laws of the household, I wonder. I ask Marilyn, the first Japanese wife I meet, a thirty-something publicist for international brands in Japan. Except she is as nontraditional as they come. When my boyfriend and I meet her for a sushi extravaganza—her husband, a Norwegian artist, is a friend of a friend—she is an hour late. She cuts quite a figure with her fashionable clothes and red lipstick. Something about her is more New York than Tokyo—until she starts ordering the food and eating it, as only someone who grew up here knows how to do.
After all my long mute walks moving around a sea of anonymous women, it is a treat to finally speak to a woman in complete sentences and to hear her perspective on everything – from flea-market shopping (the best ones are in Kyoto) to parenting. Her husband's artist schedule is much more flexible than hers, so he is the one who drops off and picks him up their son from elementary school; the one who shows up whenever parental presence is required. Because of this, the Japanese husbands like to refer to him—only half-jokingly—as “the enemy.”
The sushi keeps coming and Marilyn continues to reject the traditional cultural matrix. When we mention that we spend most weekends soaking in thermal springs, and that Japan really has amongst the best, she scoffs. “Not for me,” she says. Watching women groom in public makes her cringe. This makes me like her more. She really takes the nontraditional boat.
A month into my arrival, I decide it’s time to experience Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest pedestrian scramble. I plan to get there by bus and get lost looking for the stop. I see two boys and a girl in their early teens skip by and I ask for directions. Their faces light up. They are enjoying using their school-taught English so much that they walk with me all the way there. They tell me how much they like roaming the streets, stopping for bubble tea before they go home for study time. I ask if they are good students, and both boys gesture to the girl and say, “She is the best in the class.”
They take me through narrow back alleyways and I wonder if they would get into trouble if their parents were to find out they are talking to a stranger they met on the street. Isn’t that a universal no-no? When we get to the stop, they ask me to take their picture, and make peace signs with their hands.
I ride next to a schoolgirl with long hair carrying an enormous white origami lily in her hand and wonder if Tokyo is as safe as it feels. When I ask Marilyn, she tells me that her son is never allowed to get on public transportation alone.
Touristy Shibuya is where the kawaii generation promenades. There are so many girlie concoctions: it’s a sea of chunky platform shoes, lacy ankle socks, mini-skirts, more pigtails, plaid everything, topped with glitter everywhere as they enter the dollar stores and the nail salons. At Tokyo Hands, a popular department store, I see two girls dressed in identically tight nurse outfits trying on identical wigs. In Harajuku, the trendy fashion district nearby, I follow a gaggle of girls, about the same age as the Emperor’s only daughter, into a vintage shop and watch their faces light up at the sight of American granny housedresses from the fifties. I see one of them pay for a pale yellow unfitted sack, a most unsexy garment, with such delight that I understand it as a complete act of freedom. Whenever I see photos of Princess Toshi and her unmarried female cousins—I found a fan site to follow—I wonder if they choose their own clothing. They seem to prefer pearl necklaces and traditional suits.
Later that week, I sit for lunch at the Nezu Museum, a mansion with a small private collection and a glass restaurant overlooking its perfect garden. I’m surrounded by ladies who dress more like the imperial family, some are wearing impeccable kimonos. I wonder when and how those provocative girls from Shibuya—so playful and imaginative—turn into the sober and discreet women donning prim dresses who sit next to me on this crisp fall afternoon.
Lunching ladies at the Nezu Museum. Credit: Silvana Paternostro.
One lady to my right admires the garden. I study her as secretively as possible. She sports a beautiful pearl brooch on her jacket lapel. I cannot tell if she is a happy or unhappy woman. She is poised and contained and I wonder if she is overwhelmed by tradition or not. Does she feel like Empress-to-be Masako, Princess Toshi’s mother, who has admitted that she finds her imperial life difficult and has even suffered from depression? Without a conversation, this is speculation and what I do see is her enjoying the vista while she savors a dessert. I see satisfaction in this simple act. I see elegance, awareness of the moment: relishing each spoonful, the crisp day, a beautiful camellia.
I have a completely different lunch with Shirley, a successful and vivacious Chinese woman in her mid-thirties, an executive at a European multinational here. She kisses me hello even if it’s the first time we meet. She is forthcoming with information and she looks me in the eye. Am I noticing this because we are in Japan and women here do not speak and gesture like this?
I ask her if she feels disadvantaged at work for not being Japanese and she waves my question away. Companies don’t take Japanese women seriously, she tells me. They know that most women quit soon after getting married. The obligation of keeping a house and raising children is too much to manage. Shirley, who is single and says she is not attracted to Japanese men, likes to party in Roppongi, a district favored by expats and foreigners. She is struck by the many Japanese women that show up. “Here,” she says,“that’s what Tinder is for, to marry a foreigner.”
There he is again, Emperor-to-be Naruhito. This time, at the Ise shrine outside of Tokyo where the legendary Amaterasu is enshrined. I see him sliding his feet, slow in his wooden platform sandals, and wonder how his Western-educated mind straddles tradition and modernity so dramatically. “Naruhito informs sun goddess that all ceremonies now completed,” reads the headline in the Asahi Shimbun.
From now on, his daily job is to pray for balance and harmony, to ask the hundreds of Shinto spirits for good fortune, to preside over annual rituals like the blessing of rice paddies, fisheries, and mulberry farms. He will be there for hard times, of which Japan has too many: tsunamis, typhoons, earthquakes devastate often.
As I set out for my walk, I mull over the dichotomy. Emperor Naruhito will be again paying his respects to a foundational woman-goddess-empress and yet his only child will not be able to succeed him. There is a movement to bring back female succession and polls show that eighty-six percent of the population agrees with it. Will he also pray so that those politicians who support such a move make it law? Does he think about the fate of his daughter as a modern father or as a traditional emperor?
I keep on walking as the weather gets colder. In December, Tokyo turns into a Christmas bazaar and I watch the women shop for wreaths, nativity scenes, tabi socks and tenugui towels embossed with santas, reindeers, and elves. In mid-January, news about the Wuhan virus arrives, and the ladies and I take to the streets with masks on: me, for the first time in my life; they, well accustomed to them. Japan, like most of Asia, has much more mask-wearing experience. I take my cues on how to take them off and put them back again from them.
The Hirauchi Kaichuu Onsen, or undersea spa. It is inundated by sea water during high tides. Credit: John Paul Rathbone.
It’s February when we fly to Yakushima, an island known for its ancient cedar forest—the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Princess Mononoke, a strong lady to boot—and its thermal baths, where we will soak in an onsen overlooking a foaming ocean. In a few days, it’s back to the West, I think, as I remove all of my clothes, close the locker, and wrap the elastic cord with the key on my wrist.
I enter the steamy pool as the sun is setting. I join a dozen women, already sitting there, still as stones, all in total comfort in their nakedness and I notice how relaxed I am. At first, I found walking around with the women of Tokyo, something of an internal struggle. All my old buttons were pushed, thinking I had to use this trip to rail about the situation of women here as I have in Latin America. But now, sitting in bubbling water, I simply float. I feel for the first time I am doing the same thing they are doing. We are all enjoying a moment, that’s all. It is the women of Japan that have made my trip special. They are the ones who have kept me company, kept me curious, and have taught me how to float calmly in hot water.
© 2020 by Silvana Paternostro. All rights reserved.
"Pegasus Autopsy" is one of four winning poems selected by David Tomas Martinez for the 2020 Words Without Borders—Academy of American Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Listen above to Bryan Mendoza read his translation of Julio Pazos Barrera's "Pegasus Autopsy"
It’s a spacious chamber.
A light that refracts the distant woodland.
Over the table lies
the body and the wings
like sails of a shipwreck.
They’ve stitched together the carnage
with no other motive
than something comparable to mercy.
Soon the volunteers will arrive
and they'll take the body,
including the wings
to the landfill.
“Disección del cadáver de Pegaso” © Julio Pazos Barrera. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2020 by Bryan Mendoza. All rights reserved.
How does one bring back to life the eroded fragments of authors we know next to nothing about? Gathering six lesser known figures of the Greek lyrical tradition, this anthology puts together translations in which a sense of loss goes hand in hand with the attempt to let these ancient poets sing again.
They still sing to us, the ancient poets do. Despite our ever-increasing distance from those first songs, the music remains; it can still be heard, if one is properly attuned for its reception. Part of the ongoing persistence of the classical tradition has to do with each generation’s need for their own version of that music. For every age that coalesces into a clearly defined aesthetic ideology—whether it’s labeled Romantic, Modernist or Postmodernist—we receive an iteration of the ancients that the historical moment demands. Alexander Pope’s Odyssey belongs to the eighteenth century in the same way that Ezra Pound’s first Canto belongs to the early twentieth. And while it is still too soon to say what our current moment will be called by future historians, we are still, thankfully, producing new versions of the old tales: Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey (W. W. Norton 2017) comes to mind, as does Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI of the Aeneid (published posthumously by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in 2016), and, of course, Anne Carson’s continued process of translating—really rewriting—what feels like the entirety of the Greek classical tradition. The old songs are always being made new.
Stone-Garland, published by Milkweed Editions, is a beautiful and understated addition to the aforementioned works of literary translation. The collection, translations of “six poets from the Greek lyric tradition” by prolific poet and prose writer Dan Beachy-Quick, is described by its translator as a kind of “country graveyard overgrown by wildflowers and long grasses no mower could think to cull back.” Beachy-Quick’s translations lean into the elegiac possibilities of these poems and poets. It is not a coincidence that the introduction to the anthology begins by evoking Orpheus, “the poet who took his lyre and walked down into death.” And is that not what every anthology, in a sense, is? A graveyard of sorts, but one in which the voices of the dead eerily resonate? A site through which we can commune with the dead?
This feels especially true when translating poets whom we know, biographically speaking, very little about, whose lives and literary reputations exist almost entirely due to a few lyrical fragments. The tradition of the elegy as evoked here does not simply mean loss without a sense of restoration; for every translation of an ancient voice is, in some ways, a rebirth of that voice, if only in passing. The possibilities for historical and literary reconstruction are made that much more apparent.
In his lyrical introduction, Beachy-Quick reminds us of the etymological origins of the word anthology, derived from the Greek Anthos, meaning blooms or flowers: “Your hands should smell of the flowers you’re gathering when you read an anthology. The collection of poems is a kind of bouquet loosely bound, a flower-logic, a petal-theory, a blossom-word.” Following the form of the “sepulchral epigrams” of the foundational Palatine Anthology, a collection of poetic fragments from a number of classical poets, Beachy-Quick supplies us with brief yet crystalline glimpses into the lives and works of his six poets—Simonides, Anacreon/Anacreonata, Archilochus, Theognis, Alcman, and Callimachus. We learn about Simonides, for example, that “[h]e considered paintings poems that stay quiet, and poems paintings that speak”; of Anacreon we are told that he did not write hymns to gods “but to boys . . . ‘Because they are my gods.’” And of Alcman there are rumors that he learned to write poetry by “listening to the nightingales sing by the waters of the Eurotas; partridges, he says, taught him his poems,” and that he died, “according to Aristotle, of too much moisture in the body.” These brief and poetic biographies, mostly constructed of rumors and gossip and innuendo passed down through thousands of years, are all we have to go on; but they are enough to give us a sense of who these writers are, or at least who they are to Beachy-Quick.
There is much to admire in these translations, especially when there remains more than a few fragmentary lines and an entire poem comes into existence. Poems such as “Fragment” by Simonides and “Love’s Chore” by Anacreon are works worth discovering and reading carefully. Beachy-Quick has done a commendable job of making these poets sound all his own; or, as he phrases it in his introduction: “I have a mouth so that I can sing another’s song.”
“Field-Song” by Anachreon is a great example of one such profoundly powerful translation. The poem begins as an apostrophe to a “blessed” cicada:
when from the high bent-branch arch of trees
you have drunk your pure little dew,
how like a king, like an arrow-string, you sing.
You are one who is all things,
in the far fields you are as all you see,
great as the woods that bear the nut-bearing trees.
As with many great lyrics, what resonates here is Beachy-Quick’s attention to the tiny, creaturely details of the cicada’s hidden life. Details resonate and grow in significance as they are all brought together within the field of the poem itself. The poem, rather wonderfully and unexpectedly, in Beachy-Quick’s hands, takes on a Keatsian—and yes, elegiac—turn toward the end, clearly evoking the English Romantic’s “Ode to a Nightingale”:
Old age does not wear you away,
wise one, earth-born, song-lover—
with no suffering, without spilling blood,
you are so near, so like, the gods.
Keats’s lines from his “Ode” are:
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown . . .
I do not raise the ghost of Keats here to diminish the translation but rather to praise the translator’s ability to weave together these disparate but related traditions and voices. Influence can be a source of anxiety (following Harold Bloom) or a source of ecstasy (Johnathan Lethem’s rewriting of Bloom’s theory); Beachy-Quick, having also authored an insightful study of Keats titled A Brighter World than Bright (University of Iowa Press 2013), revels in the sonic potentialities of all of these voices being brought together in order to give us something entirely new: an Anachreon channeled through the voice of Keats and then through the language of the translator. The knotty and dense threads of literary influence are oftentimes impossible to untie; our voices are really composites of every other voice that we have heard and have considered worth remembering. These poems make such associations clear.
Of all the poets in the collection, it is Theognis, to my ear, who comes most to life on the page. He is a poet of “that unbroachable chasm between what life should be and what it is, a dissonance which speaks humble and true across the centuries, and makes [him] most human.” The poem “Sepulchral Lines by the Author,” here reproduced in its entirety, is paradigmatic of this poet’s ruefulness:
I don’t lust after a royal couch to sleep on
when I’m dead, just that some good thing
may come to me living. A thick carpet
of thorns spread out as bedsheets is fine
for the dead; for that strange guest, the bitterly
hard is as soft as the soft-ploughed field.
What is comfort to the dead when there is still so much to be done for the living? Death is that much more inconceivable for the simple fact that it means a kind of succor and peace impossible to find in life. Again, the elegiac possibilities of the lyric are brought to the foreground. In a number of other fragments, Theognis pines after his lost fortunes and his beloved, Cyrnus. Loss comes in all forms—material, emotional, spiritual . As he writes in another fragment, “sickness’s slow / weight gathers; old age suddenly stands up inside you.” But the songs, if only for a few moments, can fool us into thinking we are young again, alive again. The muses can, as Alcman claims, “fill up [our] heart[s] like— / like wine fills up a cup with desire / for a new song.” We grow old, as do our voices; we die; the best we can hope for is that the songs we sing will be picked up by others, turned into new forms, given new life, and that, for a moment, something of us might live again.
This year, we partnered with the Academy of American Poets to bring you the second edition of the Poems-in-Translation Contest. We received 935 poems from 448 poets from 87 countries translated from 58 languages. The four winning poems will be published in Words Without Borders and the Academy of American Poets’s “Poem-a-Day” throughout September and into October. 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 October 7 at 8 p.m. ET.
A Note from Contest Judge David Tomas Martinez
The 2020 Words Without Borders and Academy of American Poetry translation contest was a delight to adjudicate. It was an Hunahpúan effort to choose only four poems from this extraordinarily strong pool of poems. However, four poems particularly resonated with me and ultimately made a decision attainable. My choices are “Birds In Flight, 1965” from Tagalog/Philippines, “Learning Late Letters” from Vietnamese/Vietnam, “Pegasus Autopsy” from Ecuador/Spanish, and “Trial Run” from Chinese/China.
The winning poems and their date of publication are:
Judge's citation: “'Learning Late Letters' blends and disforms sampled lyrics from Vietnamese-French writer Linda Lê and Vietnamese-Vietnamese writer Trần Dần. The juxtaposition of the former gaining recognition while writing outside Vietnam and the latter’s largely posthumously praised writing from within Vietnam, created for me a triangulated experience of diaspora, particularly with the poet’s own voice indecipherably connected to the two already melded voices. What is literature but us writing with our ancestors? And is not history but an adoption of ancestral perceptions? This epistolary poem eruditely juggles historical and literary complexities while also maintaining an exquisitely bedecked language. And like culture, it cyclically tumbles ideas about the frequency of the number 36, about death, about speaking, over and over changing them as we experience each line."
“Pegasus Autopsy” by Julio Pazos Barrera, translated from Ecuadorian Spanish by Bryan Mendoza—September 19, 2020
Judge's citation: “'Pegasus Autopsy' is a clinical precision of a poem. The wonder hum of fluorescent light fixtures can be felt in each sparce line. In this wholly modern poem, myth perishes in the cathedral of modern science, the hospital. The only simile is an anachronistic mode of travel, sailing, where it too, perishes after having suffered a shipwreck. Everywhere here the old falls to the new. This poem is as tragic as it is beautiful, and every word feels purposeful. In the culmination of the poem, after the lifeless body of Pegasus has been inspected, drained of any usefulness to the modern, utilitarian obsessed world, its wings, the physical symbol of its transcendence, are to be aggregated into a landfill, the modern monument to mystery, which is to say it is “including the wings” with our other secrets. Knowledge and beauty are commodified. Accessing and ultimately discarding is the process of this world’s growth to this poem. Show me the lie."
Judge's citation: “‘Trial Run’ is a brilliant poem. Despite the “puzzle” of the poem, it can be returned to again and again. In the white space of the poem resides our fears about mortality, playing out the mind’s tireless effort to occlude temporality. It is a shroud of absence. The poem slightly adjusts and comments, culminating with a playfulness that calls back the title, Trial Run, which in itself comments on life. If sleeping really is the practice for eternity, maybe death is the sad championship of the living. We train to die. In this poem, just add death.”
“Birds in Flight, 1965” by Enrique Villasis, translated from Filipino by Bernard Capinpin—October 3, 2020
Judge's citation: “‘Birds In Flight, 1965’ enters readers in a moment of time that emblemizes a natural phenomenon, that of birds flying together, as metaphor for not exactly transcendence (it’s more disseminated than an epiphanic acme), but as the Post-Modern expression of cohesive simultaneity. Meaning, the speaker experiences via the birds flying separately yet concordantly an immanence and a transcendence, a growth and a regression, a lightness and a density, an innocence and a wisdom. This aspect of the poem is quite Blakean, in its truest sense of camaraderie, as in Yin-Yang, not focusing on differences but on intersectionality, which is so beautifully expressed through the chick nesting in a translucent eggshell or the sole (soul’s) curtsy to the mimosa.”
"Learning Late Letters" is one of four winning poems selected by David Tomas Martinez for the 2020 Words Without Borders—Academy of Americans Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Click above to listen to poet Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên read the English translation of "Learning Late Letters"
The dead don't let us go, I say to my friend Sirius, putting my father's letters in a drawer. It is the plight of Mezentius that I endure, attached to a dead man, hand in hand, mouth in mouth, in a sad embrace. The letters stopped arriving from the country of my childhood. The man who wrote them died a solitary death and was buried at the edge of a stream. But he is there, his skin touches my skin, my breath gives life to his lips. He is there, I say to Sirius, when I speak to you, when I eat, when I sleep, when I take a walk. It seems to me that I am dead, whereas my father, the dead man who refuses to leave me in peace, overflows with life. He possesses me, sucks my blood, gnaws my bones, feeds on my thoughts.1
In the last letter, the dying man taught me a lesson of 36 deadly tricks. He called them the 36 documentations of secret agencies, 36 spells of horror, 36 faces of vanity, 36 tactics of being deadly, 36 stratagems of dying. All night long, I chant his weird song over and over like a crazy heart. Dripping drops of time, the tune flies far from the propaganda of a human life. When Sirius asks why I keep murmuring the lines, I say, It helps me learn my fathertongue, glide into my childhood siesta, melt into my red hot girdle of earth. The letters of the dead burn me, urge me to speak to them, speak them, have them speak me, even in my sleep. Every dream is a chamber where the language drills, like vital winds, hum me anew, blowing me closer to the waters where my father lies. Every night he still sleeptalks his fatal rhythm through my broken tongue.
All translations are by the poem’s assembler.
“Chant Chữ Chết” © Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2020 by Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên. All rights reserved.
Click the "English-Vietnamese" link at the top of the page to listen to Nhã Thuyên read Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên's winning poem in the original Vietnamese
The title of this issue is "Who Writes Peru: Asian Peruvian Writers.” A more precise subtitle, however, would have been "Nikkei and Tusán Peruvian Writers,” because “Asian Peruvian” as an organizing principle simply doesn’t make much sense in the home contexts of these seven writers. The term trips off my (North) American tongue because I am used to identifying myself as “Asian American.” In the US, the political movements of the 1960s led to the construction of a pan-Asian identity that has since been incorporated into the foundations of how race is discussed in this country, but the same is not true everywhere.
In Peru—where I recently spent seven months learning about Chinese Peruvian identity and literature—though “chino/a” is often used to refer to anyone with “Asian”-looking facial features, it is also true that the country’s Chinese and Japanese diasporic communities, with their disparate histories (both stretching back to the 1800s), share little sense of common identity. In other words, the totalizing sweep of “chino/a” is that of an external gaze; it does not reflect how all Nikkeis (the term used globally to refer to diasporic Japanese) and Tusan(e)s (the Peruvian Spanish term derived from a Chinese phrase meaning “local-born”) would choose to identify themselves.
Similarly, this issue’s agglomerative “Asian Peruvian” focus was born of an external gaze—in this case, mine. I think of Rodrigo Hasbún (in Sophie Hughes’s translation) on Carlos Yushimito: “As nearsighted writers, we also know that the constant disjuncture between what we can see and what is just beyond our sight has a great influence on our gaze and sensibility. [. . .] To read is, in a way, to share the myopia of the person we are reading.” (Yushimito, another Peruvian writer who could have fit into this issue, appeared in Words Without Borders’ last issue on Peruvian writers.)
In this issue are short stories, poems, a novel excerpt, and a crónica by writers Augusto Higa Oshiro, Doris Moromisato, Julia Wong Kcomt, Julio Villanueva Chang, Siu Kam Wen, Sui-Yun, and Tilsa Otta, in translations by Jacob Steinberg, Julie Hempel, Margaret Wright, Nicolás Medina Mora, and me. Though “Asian Peruvian” is not necessarily the label these writers would have chosen for themselves, this is not to say they don’t share a community. On the contrary—they read and inspire each other. When I met Augusto Higa Oshiro, he noted that his story “Okinawa existe,” from his collection of the same name, came into existence after he read “El tramo final,” the Siu Kam Wen story whose translation is featured in this issue. He also mentioned having just finished reading Julia Wong Kcomt’s latest novel. Wong Kcomt, in turn, dedicated her poem “El gallo rojo” (here, “The Red Rooster”) to José Watanabe, the late Peruvian Nikkei poet who, though he is not in this issue, is an icon of Peruvian letters. Wong Kcomt has also been co-interviewed by Julio Villanueva Chang for Presencia Oriental, a YouTube channel by actor and writer Nilton Maa. And the first time I met Villanueva Chang was when a friend and I happened upon him in a bookstore, as he was on his way to a reading by Tilsa Otta. These writers share a community not because they’re of Asian descent, but because they are writers, and Peruvian, based for the most part in Lima, where they run into each other at book launches and birthday parties.
Their themes, as you will see, are diverse. Some of them have often called upon their Chinese or Japanese roots; others have alighted upon the topic only a few times, if at all, with a delicate touch. Higa Oshiro, for example, didn’t start writing Japanese or Nikkei characters until he spent a period as a factory worker in Japan during Peru’s tumultuous 1990s. When he returned to Peru, he wrote a book about the experience, and Nikkei characters became more visible in his fiction. Some have had their claim to the Spanish language publicly questioned, as Siu Kam Wen did when he published his first novel and the press surmised that “Siu Kam Wen” must be a pen name—could an immigrant who had arrived in Peru in adolescence really write the way Siu does? Others have asked the question of themselves: like Wong Kcomt, who speaks, in an interview, of “a time in my life when I thought I couldn’t even write good Spanish. It felt like an effort. My father didn’t speak the language well, though it’s also true my mother was a grammar fanatic.” Yet others, perhaps, have never confronted such doubts.
One common thread is these writers’ willingness to complicate the idea of “home”—not just in writing, but also with their physical selves. Most of them have lived significant periods outside of Peru: in Germany, Japan, Macau, Mexico, the US. For a few, constant cross-border movement has remained a hallmark of their lives. Siu, for one, never obtained Peruvian citizenship and has lived in Hawaii for the past thirty-five years.
Within this issue, destabilized notions of “home” appear in Higa Oshiro’s “Corazón sencillo”/“Simple Heart,” whose very premise is of foreign provenance—the story was inspired, the author says, by both Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Sennin” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Un cœur simple.” And traces of different “homes” can be seen in the presence of Lima and its sprawling districts in poems by Moromisato and Wong Kcomt. Metropolitan Lima is not the city where either writer grew up, nor the city where their parents grew up, but it is now home—or a home. At the same time, Chambala and Chepén, where the two writers were born, also leave their marks on their bodies of work. In the case of Sui-Yun, when we were discussing “A Eva, mi madre eterna” (“To Eve, My Eternal Mother”), she says she wrote it freshly returned to Peru after a decade in Germany, where “even though I had all the commodities, I was living a life that wasn’t mine, because I’m not German; I’m Chinese in the tropical rainforest.” (Sui-Yun was born and raised in the Amazon city of Iquitos.)
May—the month in which I’m writing this—is Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month in the US. Discussions continue over whom the umbrella of “Asian” includes and excludes, implicitly and explicitly, even as the term, which encompasses a majority of the world’s population, begins to groan under the weight of its load. Similarly, I would like to press more on the other half of the term “Asian American.” Who gets to be American is a question that, in many ways, first became legally contentious with the arrival of waves of people from the Philippines, India, Korea, Japan, and China in the US; the answer was shaped by laws like the Page Act of 1875 and cases like United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. During the Second World War, 1,800 Peruvian Nikkeis arrived on US shores. Packed up and shipped here to be incarcerated in internment camps, they came not to enjoy the privileges of American life, but to share in its undeserved burdens. And now, in these vertiginous last few years, much has happened to make me question what it means to be American.
Once, as Julia Wong Kcomt and I sat talking at her dining table, I used the term “las Américas” to refer to North, Central, and South America. I was trying to be sensitive to the fact that in Spanish, “americano/a” does not mean American, from the United States; it means American, of the American continent(s). She grinned and said, “Only you guys say that.” “What,” I said nervously. “Las Américas?” “Yes,” she said. “We just say ‘América.’”
Who gets to be American? Who decides where to draw the line between in and out, whether Nikkei and Tusán belong in one category, how América is split (if at all) and why? Who decides—and for whom, on whose behalf? “Asian American” can only be imperfectly analogized to describe lives experienced in other places. Nevertheless, I’d like to push at the term’s outer bounds, to make space for more continental conversations. Maybe then, “Asian American”—and the understanding, the seeing gaze-to-gaze, at which the use of such terms is aimed—could be imperfect in a fuller, richer way.
With thanks to Fulbright Peru and to the scholars who have written about literary production by Peruvians of Chinese and Japanese descent: Daisy Saravia, Debbie Lee-DiStefano, Humberto Rodríguez Pastor, Ignacio López-Calvo, Joel Anicama, Michelle Har Kim, Rodrigo Campos, and others.
© 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Peruvian author Augusto Higa Oshiro, a selfless man gives himself entirely to his work.
One sunny May afternoon, a little man arrived in the city, and not just the city, but an office on the third floor of the Ministry of Education, in search of an official, a distant relation of his family, who would help him and get him work, was what he’d been told back home. Attired in his best clothes—a white shirt, clean pants, patent leather shoes, and a northerner’s straw hat—he waited in the secretary’s office. The next morning, he appeared in the same office and, in the same tranquil manner, after a long preamble, left his letter of recommendation, and still they didn’t respond. For several months, the little man, stubborn, impassive, arrived with the employees, went up to the third floor, stationed himself in front of the boss’s office, and stood immobile against the wall, the secretary never bothering to receive him.
And even after they told him No infinite times and stopped him from going past the staircase, the little man remained faithful to his obsessive daily passion. He sat on the cold steps, unperturbed, his quiet eyes fixed on the entrance to observe the throngs of noisy clerks, elevator operators, and teachers. Time went by. One lost, languid afternoon, a driver sent him to buy cigarettes so genially that he diligently fulfilled the request. From then on, the canny office boys gave him their own tasks: sweeping, cleaning, delivering messages.
Seeing how hardworking and humble the little man was, his embarrassed eyes incapable of complaint, the head of the Staff Administration division, third floor, ordered that he be received as a porter’s apprentice. The little man promised to fulfill his duties, and to prove it, that day, unasked, he waxed the floor from wall to wall and meticulously shook out the curtains over the big windows. All the same, the fifty employees laughed at the poor man, who was so dense instructions had to be shouted at him three times; they kept an eye on him to make sure he didn’t make mistakes, and were unable to give him delicate tasks, since he received only a weekly tip, which ended up in the hands of his protectors, some countrymen of his who had him staying in the attic of a tenement house in Breña, and called him Cousin Berto.
Indeed, Cousin Berto got up at five in the morning, made breakfast for the whole clan (some twenty people), did the wash, swept the patio, cleaned the corral, fed the animals, and bought bread at the market. At the sound of the seven o’clock bells from the adjacent church, he hurried out in the same unchanging maroon sweater, cargo pants, and big crude shoes, and soon got lost in the damp, strange streets. His expression alarmed and his feet naive, he sidestepped cars, wound his way through Breña’s baroque streets, got lost on Alfonso Ugarte beneath the ashen sky, walked in the direction of Plaza San Martín, smiled at the people in doorways, bade farewell to the poster advertisements, and, without even realizing it, found himself in Parque Universitario, next to the Ministry of Education in the middle of Avenida Abancay.
He greeted the doormen, went up to the third floor, opened the little service room, changed his clothes, and began the day shaking out dust, tidying the offices of the director, the middle managers, and the lower-ranked employees, always with a perfect sense for bureaucracy’s hierarchy. During the ten o’clock slump he put himself, eyes apathetic and impersonal, at the orders of the head porter to carry out simpler assignments: taking messages to other floors, bringing materials from Supplies, picking up attendance registers, running errands for the secretaries, preparing coffee for the officials, assisting visitors, standing next to the elevator to monitor the unknown faces.
Such splendid willingness and commitment to the work brought him unexpected fame, and his name, Heriberto Vargas, began to echo across the floors. What meekness! The director of Primary Education wanted him on his staff, since he liked working with sturdy, obedient cholos. Arts Education sent him tantalizing offers, and Storage requested his services for hours at a time, such that on the third floor there was no choice but to hire him as permanent staff after two years of unrelenting misery. Upon learning the news, Berto cried like a child; he shut himself in his service closet, and grateful tears welled from his heart: he felt that the hand of God was rewarding his exertions. Meanwhile, in the corner, the bubbling pot of potatoes on a small stove brought him back to the inalterable reality of his daily sustenance.
With a fixed salary on the lowest rung of the ladder, Heriberto Vargas was able to free himself from his relatives in Breña, but not before ceding two months’ wages as a gesture of gratitude, despite the discriminatory treatment he’d received from the first day. Such that when he left, he felt very sorry, his eyes going damp; he dreamed of green-eared doves, and he couldn’t get used to his new quarters on Jirón Azángaro, that rambling old house with quincha walls, whose roof a distant relative and countryman had outfitted with a number of precarious rooms. In the middle of this Sunday sadness, when the sky was dark and the streets bustled with people, he went into the Orphans’ Church and, losing himself in one corner, wept over his bitter misfortune.
What’s clear is that he didn’t go to the canteens in the neighborhood, or get together with his fellow provincials who lived nearby, or make friends on that block of Azángaro, or have a social life, perhaps because Berto was entering a melancholy period, and his obsession with the office grew sharply. He labored beyond the regular workday, arriving at seven in the morning, working holidays and weekends just to help his friends, that troop of porters, eccentric plumbers, and fussy office boys always gossiping in the bathrooms, criticizing everything, dodging the bosses, and doing a poor job.
Nobody knows why he went to such great lengths, nor why he accepted tasks from other floors, if he wasn’t going to be compensated for them and nobody asked it of him. Perhaps the spirit of service and the secret longing to master other territories and Offices compelled him to redouble his efforts and help his neighbors. Wherever he went, the floors would be left clean, the furniture gleaming, the curtains dusted, the desks perfectly straightened, the filing cabinets tidied, the machines in their places. Always efficient, exacting, insatiable, equipped with limitless patience, he didn’t allow himself a single inactive minute—he even forgot to eat—and when the clock struck eleven at night, he would go home, sweaty, exhausted, and quietly happy.
He hardly ever thought of himself, and the fifty employees on the third floor could not understand his absolute passivity, his ability to deliver without the slightest complaint. Berto absorbed rebukes, insults, acts of vengeance; they would break the toilets on purpose, smear the walls, throw paper everywhere, trip him, and the women would give him their household chores. Accustomed as he was to adversity, his capacity for accepting humiliation increased with every experience: he smiled distantly, his eyes withdrawn, his reactions delayed, body hunched into itself. During Carnavales, for example, there was no lack of colleagues to splash him with paint, and on Christmas and New Year’s, amid the festivities and drunkenness, his friends tried to throw him out the window.
Berto withstood all the jokes with the natural goodness of his heart, just as he withstood the weight of the years, the changes in bosses, directors, and ministers; his face remained pointed, the harsh color of brown sugar, he remained in the same position of humble, ambitionless porter. On some nights, in the calm solitude of the office, standing before an old mechanical calculator, he fulfilled his dearest wish: he fiddled with the keys, the numbers magically appearing on the paper strip, and turned one of the cranks, but when he tried to do sums, the machine let out a colorless sound and didn’t respond, coming to a halt, crouched there motionless, awaiting the knowing hand that understood how to wrench out its secret. The poor man would be sad, contenting himself with listening to the incomprehensible clicks of the billets, accepting that his natural fate was to be the Ministry’s little mule. He said so to his friends the drivers, mechanics, elevator operators, porters, typists.
In twelve years of work, the most important event was when he moved from the boarding house on Azángaro to a little room in an alley near Hospital Archbishop Loayza. Such that he was seen near La Aurora market, Plaza Unión, and Dos de Mayo, looking for cheap joints where he could drink linden water and talk with his fellow provincials, joke around with the conscripts—when he didn’t take the tram to Chorrillos, on rainy Sunday afternoons, and walk around and around, looking at the spread of the sea.
It was October of ’47 or the beginning of ’48 when he went to live in an alley in Malambito. In any case the neighborhood was hostile toward him; things had always been difficult for him, but this time they reached a breaking point, for the zambos and assimilated cholos kicked at his door, stole clothes and sheets, insulted him when they saw him: he was a serrano, and serranos were looked down on for their grimy skin. Berto didn’t want to respond to the affronts; indifferent, his consciousness absented, the half-smile gone missing, he preferred not to think about anything, much less desire anything, he even compelled himself to leave his house early and return late at night, spending the whole day absorbed in work at the office, completing his tasks.
Around that time, two curious encounters took place. Amid the torpor of eleven in the morning, one tranquil day, in that moment when the air wasn’t so much air, and the walls weren’t walls, he discovered the illuminated weight of the crowd in the courtyard of the Ministry of Education. It felt like a dream: he had experienced eleven in the morning infinite times, without ever noticing all of that expectant humanity. Unruly, they occupied the treasuries, scuffling so forcefully to get to the elevator, shouting at the window of the advocates’ office. A feeling of fragility.
On another occasion, one dizzy night, made sluggish by fatigue, he went down to the basement, needled by a mysterious voice that called him by name. He burrowed in among unusable containers, lost rooms, mysterious nooks, and, at the end of a tunnel, was discharged into an enormous storage space: piles of paper formed dark alleys; files, receipts, time sheets were heaped against the walls; the shelves were falling apart. Behind a mound of memos, at a long table, was an ancient bearded clerk with a checked tie and motionless eyes, making his way with tranquil innocence through the classification of hundreds of records.
Sweetly, unhurriedly, he went from one stack of records to another of requests, lighting up at the signatures of officials, the names of appellants, the contents of the documents, the accession numbers, the dates. Without saying a word, the two of them began to tidy; Berto swept, dusted, opened packages, built small paths among the useless leaf-piles of folders, while the bony old man, encased in his glossy suit, murmured about paradise, that kingdom where everyone knew how to read and write, there was no humiliation or shortage of work, and everyone ate twice a day.
Day had broken without Berto's realizing, and he was talking to himself, elated, praying, and almost by instinct he arrived at his service closet, found his sweater, sprawled across the chair, slept for a couple hours, and then, at seven in the morning, became the same Berto as always, the tireless little man of unassuming hands and silent step, incapable of complaint or tears, who, winter or summer, day or night, seemed to be on the third and fifth floors simultaneously, was seen in the most unexpected offices, and, according to some versions, walked through walls with ease and performed the miracle of eating not a single bite of food all day.
If someone came looking for him in the little service room, the first strange thing they noticed was the drawing at the front: Christ on the cross with seagull wings. It was colored with crude aniline ink, the cross surrounded by white clouds, the squinting eyes looking in no direction in particular, and near the floor a chorus of angels appeared to whisper among themselves. On the neighboring walls, from baseboard to ceiling, was a mix of almanacs, geometric designs, and photos of footballers, not a single blank space; centimeter by centimeter, chance and the passage of years had left behind a backdrop with no logic or balance, with no purpose other than dispelling the hours of boredom, hours of anguish, hours far from home.
Around 1951, fed up with being excluded from the alley, perhaps tired of his dream of turning into a bird and flying away, Berto, who was of indeterminate age, sought out the friendship of the children in the neighborhood; he appeared at odd hours to pass out candies, sweets, chocolates, and bonbons. A mob of wily children would follow him so happily, calling him Tío, pulling at his floppy sack, leaving him sobbing. A few months later, the housewives of Malambito stared, astonished, at the power cords; the patio looked better now, with new lightbulbs. On Sundays at five in the morning, Heriberto Vargas swept all the doorways, bought flowers, and cleaned the portrait of the Virgen del Carmen on the far wall.
And so the insults stopped and he won the respect of his neighbors, especially the women, whom he brought little packets of sugar, ounces of butter, and bags of sweet potatoes. He went to the parties he could make, they joked around with him, clapped him on the back, told him their woes; the drunks came up to ask for money, he soothed the unemployed, and when he arrived, exhausted, at his hovel, late at night, his only solace was being near his parrot, a bird whose multicolored chest would fluff out as soon as it saw him arrive.
He’d bought it one Sunday at the Mercado Central, captivated by the green of its feathers and the docility of its gaze, and from that first moment they loved each other and sought each other familiarly, such that Berto would tell it about his life, what had happened that day, his long meetings with the bony little old man in the basement of the Ministry, his fear of being alone, the destitution in the alley, and without realizing the sun was rising, he would fall asleep. As soon as he got up, early—he called the bird Hugo, curiously—he would stroke its neck, fix its unprincipled tail, parcel out its grains of choclo corn, change its water, and leave it in the room. At the office, he regretted being unable to give it his best hours, reproached himself for not being fond enough, and didn’t understand why every time he polished the banister of the stairs, he dreamed in silence of his parrot. He saw it cut out against the sky, wings spread, flying above the roofs, its bright colors shining: it was beautiful to see among the clouds, rising little by little, beak radiant, it completed the landscape as it straightened out its tail feathers and was lost to infinite space.
In moments of great weakness, he willfully put on the parrot’s mannerisms, and in front of his bosses, for example, he would move head-face-neck-body, just as the bird would have. When he felt lonely, unwittingly, in view of the other workers, he would walk around, wavering and balancing ridiculously, and for long hours, his gaze lost in space, nestled in a corner, he observed the concourse full of metal desks and endless typewriters; every year there were more employees, closets, administrative offices with their general managers and middle managers; the women increased in number; the young professionals even talked about politics; retirees lurked on different floors, and teachers from the provinces got lost in the elevators.
So then he closed his eyes, and sinking into atavism, fearful of doing nothing, he cleaned the director general’s carpet, dusted blinds, brought papers to the mimeograph, watched over the movement of the public, leaving the other floors’ irritating tasks for the evening, and, if there was time, went down to the inhospitable basement to converse with the ancient, hard-boned clerk with a livid gaze, who asked to work together for the rest of eternity, no going up to the world above. All the same, he arrived at Malambito sad, and if some tiresome neighbor didn’t stop him, he went into his room to play with his parrot, and, half-asleep, would tell it how he was no longer so quick at his job, there were a lot of people in the Ministry, he didn’t understand why things changed, the tasks multiplied, and he dreamed of flying, walking on air and going far away where no one knew him.
One afternoon, as he was carrying a television to General Storage, he suddenly lost consciousness, started bleeding, and they took him to the Medical Department, then transported him home, and he slept deeply; when he opened his eyes, his neighbors gathered around him, full of encouragements, as he got up, went to the cage, and stroked his crying parrot, which hadn’t eaten for three days.
He lost weight, becoming gaunt, burned with fever, and there were moments when his gaze became lost, he wouldn’t recognize anyone; between laughter and tears, wasted away, he would say he was flying like a parrot, when everyone could see he was lying on his old cot. There was no doubt about it, said the Ministry employees smiling, the cholo is crazy, he talks to himself, he wants to walk on air and breaks his head against the wall. It seemed impossible—a quiet person, unassuming, who’d spent over thirty years in the office, who worked fifteen or sixteen hours a day, sacrificing vacations, dedicated entirely to public service, reliable, honorable—that little man was crazy, he always had been, there was no other way. From floor to floor, elevator to elevator, in Regular Basic Education, the secretaries exclaimed: He’s soft in the head, Berto Vargas, we knew it. He received doctors’ visits, hospital check-ups, they did all the tests and confirmed, astonished, that he had no physical issues, except for mild anemia curable with proper nutrition.
The neighborhood kids of Malambito, we missed him, since Tío Berto no longer came at unexpected times, with his clenched smile, to give us loving candy, chocolate, cookies, or sweets. We would go visit him in his room and find him sitting on the bed with his parrot, looking tiny, skinny, wrinkled, as if the years weighed heavy all of a sudden, and tears always streaming, he would see us off with any old thing: an ancient jacket, a pot, a blanket, a worn suitcase. Nevertheless, thanks to the advice of friends, and the diligence of a distant cousin and a neighbor who made him special foods, he was able to recover after three months: the shine returned to his skin, he walked, if slowly, his temperature was normal, his appetite was good, and he looked to be in good spirits during conversations with the mechanics and elevator operators who came to say hello.
And so he returned once again to the office, but he could no longer be the porter he was before; his body was heavy, his reactions delayed and his movements slower, such that he could only run simple errands, bringing paperwork from one floor to another, assisting visitors at a desk, and collating records. He could no longer help his friends on the night shifts, nor did he go down to the basement to tell the bony old man about his dreams. When he got home as night fell, exhausted, his nerves frayed, he had the feeling that his body was made of glass, and putting his face close to the parrot, he said in a low voice: I’m a fragile mirror, I’m breaking into a million pieces, I can’t stand noise, I’m afraid I’m going to fall and crack like a vase. The bird paid him little mind, loosing a hoarse sound from its intestines, and, indifferent, moved its neck, gaze distant, perhaps it didn’t even realize Señor Berto was there.
After a while, lying in bed, he daydreamed that it was morning and, like always, he cleaned the Virgin’s altar, swept the patio of the alley, washed his face at the communal faucet, and left for work, following his tireless daily rhythm: he went over all the third-floor offices with his broom, he cleaned the filth off the bathrooms, he took care of commissions outside the Ministry, he fixed chairs, desk locks. Intensifying his efforts, he ascended to the upper floors, avidly cleaned the blinds, transferred packages, any flaw, the smallest detail, Berto Vargas could do it all, but he didn’t let anyone near him, they had to talk to him in low voices, he couldn’t abide noise, people brushing against him, curt conversations, since he could crack, break, explode into a million little pieces. The employees laughed, he was utterly crazy, he thought he was made of glass, incredible, you couldn’t look at him, light bothered him, what a fool serrano. One prankster of a driver threw rocks at him, and the poor porter screeched and cried on the floor, banging into the wall, and several people were needed to get control of him.
One Sunday morning, a group of us kids were playing in the patio of the alley when Señor Berto appeared with the parrot on his hand. Encased in an unassuming jacket, blue tie, and patent leather shoes, he looked calm, his skin restored and his eyes filled with peace. He stroked our heads, then his serene hands distributed cookies and candy, he smiled sweetly, waved goodbye with a handkerchief, and we watched as he ascended slowly into the sky, walked on air, and was lost to the distance.
“Corazón sencillo” © Augusto Higa Oshiro. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.
In two poems, Julia Wong Kcomt reflects on what it means to be a Peruvian with Tusán (Chinese) heritage.
The Red Rooster
To Wata, in memoriam
Like garlic bulbs
this whim of blouses
cut so masterfully.
The iron windows.
Paint staining my ovaries.
Sushi is now the language
of the people
and my mighty noodles
wait in a forgotten pot.
Papá told me to detest the Japanese
like everyone says to hate Chileans.
But with so much love,
I find no difference
between the cherry tree, the sakura, the lotus flower, and the olive bush:
In the Atacama, Jesus Christ sifts
through red grape seeds.
Peru dies, Wata,
and all I remember is what you said about my aunt:
“She was hot, your aunt Carmen,
she didn’t look Chinese.”
I smiled unoffended, because in Peru nobody
looks like anything.
There was a chifa restaurant.
You ate wonton soup
with your Chinese friends,
and as we searched for an emblem
to overcome the centimeter and a half of
difference in our eyelids,
a red rooster
loosed a sound louder than nothingness.
Our Peru is dying.
The rooster’s crow will return when the stone flies.
As winter comes to an end
her pauper’s waltz takes pity
on my notes and stave
From Callao, she doesn’t need
buses or expertise
she doesn’t walk, she flies
eats an avocado slice with me
And murmurs to protect myself from women
who write Life
as if in sand
And say I know neither verses
nor flesh pleasures
that I have bad taste in clothes
and can’t write Peru, or Spanish.
“El gallo rojo” and “Santa inevitable” © Julia Wong Kcomt. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.
Peruvian writer Julio Villanueva Chang profiles Lima’s oldest life drawing model in this short essay.
Rodolfo Muñoz del Río has spent the better part of his life in the nude. Butt-naked. For the past half-century, students at Lima’s Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes have gazed upon him not as a human being, but as a configuration of shadows and proportions: a drawing condemned to sit still for seven to twelve hours a day. A sixty-six-year-old drawing whose greatest feat has been a heroic attempt to do nothing: no blinking, no scratching—an effort to become indifferent to flies, to boredom, to the cold. But this spirit of poise and discretion has settled uneasily into the exhibitionism of his flesh. That’s because the living drawing is also an advertisement for himself: a body that brags of its powers of elasticity, a Narcissus angling for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. For Muñoz, life is a pose.
Perhaps the saddest event of his life was the theft of the best among the countless portraits that generations of art students have painted of him over fifty years. It was taken from his tiny room in Quinta Heeren, Barrios Altos, along with his full-body mirror, such that Muñoz can no longer gaze at his whole self. His only consolation is that now he doesn’t have to look at his feet, which he dislikes because they are too large for the slightness of a body sketched vertically. To his great relief, Francis Bacon wrote that “there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,” but the truth is that Muñoz del Río has also ceased to admire the pectorals, thighs, and shanks that back in the fifties won him third place in the Mr. Perú contest. In those days, he was a Hercules who saw himself in every movie.
In his spare time he wears clothes. He begins the morning as a doodle, a preliminary sketch that changes position every five minutes; then, after he stays put for three quarters of an hour, he becomes an anatomical study. The model lies like a just-fallen Adam, a man perpetually striving to get up. Some apprentices begin with his legs, others start with the head, others still with the navel, but all of them end up reproducing the platonic ideal of Muñoz. The Greeks perfected the nude so that men could feel godlike, but our mortal eyes cannot bear to gaze directly at divinity. The students look at Muñoz del Río with the oblique curiosity of passersby staring at a man who’s been hit by a car.
Time has yet to make a dent in the man who might be the world’s most senior model—and the same goes for shame. “Nature is naked the moment one reaches for it,” he says, almost as if reciting. “You pick a flower and it’s already naked.” Why would he go against nature? Clothes have identified human beings as homo sapiens since time immemorial—this is why nakedness is often seen as a sign of poverty or madness. But the nude is also an art form invented by the Greeks in the fifth century BC. For them, nakedness ceased to be shameful or ridiculous and became instead something of a religious cult. Rodolfo Muñoz del Río is the most Grecian of the descendants of the Incas, and yet his mother died under the impression that he was a professor at Bellas Artes.
Like every model, he clothes his truth: until a few years ago, his sisters believed that he taught drawing and painting. And while Muñoz del Río bared his anatomy in three hundred different poses, the guard at the school’s gate was trained to say: “Wait a minute, I’ll go fetch the professor,” thus buying the model brother enough time to dress like he was heading to the North Pole and come out to greet his relatives with open arms. “The only modesty I had left was with my family,” the model, fully dressed, admits today. The deceit lasted until his nephews saw his shameless appearance on the television program Ocurrió así, where he proudly came out as one of the world’s oldest art models. Not a stripper or a pornographer, but a professional in the service of the art-making masses.
Despite all that, Muñoz del Río insists that he isn’t in love with his body: “Those who are in love with it are the ones who draw my body more beautiful than it really is,” he parries with a toothless smile. And it’s true: as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz writes, portraits are nothing but colorful deceit. Faced with the body of a nude model, the artist’s instinct is to improve rather than to imitate. Artists are unbothered by the wrinkles, the flaccid flesh, and the tremulous figures of veteran models. This is especially true of portraits of Muñoz del Rio’s dignified maturity, which after fifty years have come to resemble a reverse Dorian Gray: The older the man grows, the younger he looks on the canvas. “Art completes what nature cannot bring to a finish,” says Aristotle. “The artist gives us knowledge of nature’s unrealized end.” Muñoz del Río, then, is a medium that allows us to know beauty without reserve—Narcissus’s down-and-out cousin.
The model gets ready to shed his modesty with the clothes he’ll leave on a chair. He has just finished an oil portrait session at Bellas Artes, and yet here he begins to undress in public again, as naturally as if he were peeling a fruit. At the Corriente Alterna Art Institute, where he works afternoons, there are no folding screens to hide behind nor bathrobes in which to emerge onstage—nor, for that matter, innocent glances. Every theatrical representation begins from the premise that there’s someone who wants to look at what someone else wants to show. The model gets rid of his shoes first, revealing his oversize feet. The pants fall next, followed by the shirt and the socks. Finally he takes off his underwear and reclines onto the black sheet that covers the platform, becoming an unmoving spectacle.
A student turns on the spotlight. Under it, Rodolfo Muñoz del Río begins to feel like the star of the drawing class. At first the only sound is the movement of charcoal over drawing paper, which turns the model into a sequence of scratches on a blank page. His pose resembles that of a man trying to get up. Nobody cares what’s going through his mind. In such moments he often remembers the chance events that transformed his life into a pose. When he was seven years old in Barrios Altos, he would often accompany his father to buy bread in the morning. On the way to get this childhood breakfast, he would pass the walls of the Santa Clara church, where he would see statues of naked, muscular men. He would say: “Dad, I have to be like that gentleman.” But then his father would disappoint him: “No, you have to study like your siblings.” Arriving home, the son would eat his bread like a statue.
Then, in 1947, a teenage Muñoz del Río saw an ad soliciting the services of a librarian on the door of the Escuela de Bellas Artes. His father had died seven years earlier—it was high time he find a job. Some people had formed a line in the school’s back courtyard, and it was there that the headmaster commanded: “Young lad, get undressed.” The line in question wasn’t for aspiring librarians, but for modeling candidates. That was the day Rodolfo Muñoz del Río, who had been a gymnast in Catholic school, first bared himself in public.
Ever since, the model has never stopped playing somebody else. His first character was a skinny clown; then, marching in a motionless parade, came the wizard Sabú, the historical Cahuide, and the impeccable painter Victor Humareda. He knows well that he isn’t just the oldest model—he’s also the best. His debt to childhood gymnastics is unpayable: younger models simply cannot hold his circus contortionist’s poses. His debt to Bellas Artes, where he studied for three years, saved him from the fate of a mere mannequin: students ask him for advice on their paintings of him. Muñoz del Río claims he isn’t single: he is married to art.
If the man has never dressed up as a woman, it's because nobody asked. “It wouldn’t be hard for me,” he says defiantly. His body can handle anything—and not just on paper. There’s even a sculpture to prove it: in El Ángel cemetery, an angel descended from heaven holds up the model’s bronze body. “They can’t wait to see me dead,” the model said with his half-smile when they asked him to pose for the mausoleum. “But I will never die, because all over the world there are paintings and sculptures of me.” Then someone turns off the spotlight and the drawing class is over. Rodolfo Muñoz del Río gets up from the black sheet with the elegance of one immortal, looks at his watch, and knows that his last pose will be the one death brings him.
Rodolfo Muñoz del Río continues to model at eighty-nine.
“La vida es una pose,” from Mariposas y murciélagos. © 1999 by Julio Villanueva Chang. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Nicolás Medina Mora. All rights reserved.
In this poem, Peruvian writer Doris Moromisato contemplates love and longing in a seaside neighborhood of Lima.
Here I say again that I don’t love you
while city mist loosens the sky
dampens my geraniums.
Grounded like a gull on the terrace
I recall the sermon at Benares
and agree: suffering
lives in me.
During the festival of San Pedro the fishermen
sling their offerings to the sea
my eyes fill with rowboats
and the sprawl of petals taken by the tide
shows me how small
I lower my forehead, not watching
the water that keeps me from your mouth.
I shut my eyes and sink
the boats that never bring me to you.
Everything is suffering, the great Sakya teaches me
and there is no one to beg
or ask forgiveness
for this love.
Here I say again that I don’t love you
that everything is fleeting
save this suffering.
Migrating gulls on the horizon.
Loose threads of water.
The city’s mist
on my hair.
“Aquí en Chorrillos” © Doris Moromisato. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Margaret Wright. All rights reserved.
A Chinese immigrant to Peru refuses to give up tradition in this short story by Siu Kam Wen.
When Lou1 Chen, loan shark and owner of a fleet of eighteen urban minibuses, managed to amass his first fifteen million, he had a luxurious mansion built in Monterrico and moved there with his Peruvian wife, their two sons, and his elderly mother. The two-story house measured 2,300 square feet and included a spacious front yard and a backyard with a pool. Two imposing German shepherds guarded the house against thieves from the rooftop, given that Monterrico was at that time a recently developed area and thus lacked adequate police surveillance. The household duties were performed by two housekeepers: Arminda, a hefty forty-something chola,2 who had been in charge of the kitchen at the old house, and Julia, the former’s niece, a blossoming young woman. A part-time gardener came every Saturday to cut the grass, trim the bushes, clean the pool, and court the girl, who had caught his eye.
Mercedes, Lou Chen’s wife, a robust mestiza who was talkative and generous at heart (although due to her irritable temperament she tended to make her husband’s life difficult), set about ordering new dresses made in honor of her move to the glittering new mansion. Every weekend, she drove downtown in her Fiat, returning each time with a new hairdo and smelling strongly of shampoo and hairspray. As for Juan Carlos, the firstborn son, always in style when it came to clothing, it did not take long for him to be seen strolling around with a new girlfriend. She was a plump, dark-skinned girl, the daughter of a lawyer who lived just a few yards from the mansion in a smaller and less ostentatious bungalow. The younger son, Francisco José, preferred to continue dating his girlfriend from before, a Nisei.3 He made a habit of borrowing his mother’s Fiat whenever it was available and picking up his girl in Lince, bringing her out to the mansion to swim in the pool on the weekends. Of course Lou Chen would not be left behind in a situation like this. Two weeks after moving to the new house, Lou Chen, who had begun to go gray in the last few years, appeared one morning, to the disbelief of many of his friends, without a single gray hair on his head. The elegant mansion, the luxurious swimming pool, and the certainty of being the envy of his neighbors must have exercised some psychological effect on the profiteer’s state of mind. Otherwise, how would one explain the dying of his hair or the recent attention to his wardrobe? His three-piece suits no longer looked as if they had been fashioned in the fifties; they were now more fitted, with bell-bottom trousers..
In a word, the occupants of the elegant new mansion were in harmony with their surroundings, or strove fervently to be so; the only exception was Ah-po,4 Lou Chen’s mother, who clashed like a dissonant note in the midst of such style and luxury. Apparently, she had not realized that there was a certain moral obligation (not written, but understood) that the owners or occupants of a new house (especially when dealing with a true mansion) would honor its appearance in kind. To not comply with such an obligation was tantamount to the unforgivable sin of blasphemy within the confines of a church; it resulted in desecration.
Ah-po had turned seventy-two the previous August. She was a short, thin elderly woman who wore her gray hair in the traditional way of the Hakka,5 up in a bun. Her dresses were old-fashioned, even when compared to those of other women her age. She preferred trousers to skirts. Her Chinese-style pants were narrow at the bottom and always looked two inches shorter than they should be, revealing part of her white cotton socks. These pants had been fashioned some ten years prior, before arthritis had impeded her use of her old German sewing machine. The old woman refused to wear any clothing she had not sewn herself, and since she had been physically unable to do so for some time, all of her dress clothes looked worn out and faded, though admirably clean. Years before, Lou Chen, somewhat embarrassed by the sad state of her clothing, had ordered the purchase of several dresses in the downtown department stores and given them to her on Mother’s Day, but Ah-po had never worn any of them. This refusal to wear any Western-style clothing caused her son more than a few headaches. He felt ridiculous each time he went out in public with his mother. The elderly woman’s appearance was at odds with the flashy Mustang in which she rode, with her daughter-in-law’s fur coats, and with her son’s recently acquired bourgeois air. It had the deplorable effect of reminding Lou Chen of his humble origins as an upstart and proclaiming said beginnings to the whole world.
A few months after moving to the new house, while the family ate in the spacious dining room illuminated by large picture windows, Ah-po announced to everyone’s surprise that she was going back to live in the “old house.”
Lou Chen raised his head from his plate, finding it hard to believe his ears. “What did you say, Ah-má6?”
“I said I’m going to move back to the old house,” answered the elderly woman.
“But what old house are you talking about?” continued Lou Chen, still perplexed. “Remember that we rented the apartment where we lived before to Lou Choy.”
Ah-po’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren listened to the conversation with curiosity, but did not understand a single word that was said, since the two spoke in Hakka.
“I am not talking about where we lived before,” explained Ah-po. “I want to go live with your brother Ah-Seng.”
“And can you tell me why you want to go live with Ah-Seng?” Lou Chen started to lose his patience. “Isn’t this house better than that big old adobe house where he lives like a rat?”
Lou Chen suddenly felt humiliated. “So,” he said to himself, with a tinge of bitterness, “in the end my brother is still the favorite son. My fortune has done me little good.”
His wife set her fork to the side and wiped her mouth with anapkin. “What’s going on with Ah-po?” she asked, intrigued.
“She wants to go live with Ah-Seng,” Lou Chen replied gruffly in his broken Spanish.
“And why does she want to go live there?” asked Mercedes. Lou Chen shrugged his shoulders in response. “Your brother lives alone and has no domestic help. Who will take care of her?”
“That is precisely what I’m thinking.” said Lou Chen “Try talking some sense into her, if you can.”
Lou Chen’s wife tried to change the old woman’s mind with a few isolated words that the latter somewhat understood. But Ah-po stubbornly stuck to her guns, shaking her head back and forth in response to all the arguments and pleas of her robust and loquacious daughter-in-law.
Mercedes finally surrendered.
“If she insists on going to live with your brother,” she said to her husband, “what can you do but let her leave? I really can’t see what that poor clod Ah-Seng has to offer her that we can’t. We women tend to be capricious when we are pregnant, but I never imagined that this could also happen to us when we reached a certain age.”
Lou Chen’s wife, who deep down was goodhearted, had truly not wanted to be sarcastic; but what else could she have thought of a decision that obviously made little sense?
Ah-seng, Lou Chen’s younger brother, lived in Rímac, in one of those big old adobe houses built some fifty or sixty years ago. The house was spacious, just one story, and with one lone window, which usually remained closed. The interior of the house was dark and humid,and if it were not for the typical skylights of that period, which in each of the rooms provided the only source of light and ventilation, the house would have felt like an enormous and depressing basement. Ah-po and her husband had lived in this house, the family’s first possession, for fifteen years. Upon her husband’s death, Ah-po went to live with her eldest son, who was at that time a humble shopkeeper and lived above his shop (located exactly five blocks away, close to what years later would be the entrance ramp to the Santa Rosa Bridge).
Ah-po’s younger son was a quiet individual who preferred to keep his mouth shut as long as there was no need to open it. He only did so on occasion, in order to smoke, eat, or drink, of course. Nonetheless, despite the fact that he was a gentle and mild-mannered man, at times he did strange things, actions that earned him the nickname Tin-Seng (Crazy Seng). Once, for example, Ah-Seng, who bought his groceries at the Baratillos Market, walked home with a freshly slaughtered chicken dangling from one of his hands and dripping blood the whole way.
Ah-Seng worked in the kitchen of the Tung Po chifa7—before it went out of business, that is—and lived completely alone until Ah-po returned to live with him.
The same afternoon that Ah-po moved out of her older son’s mansion and went to live with her younger son, the old woman ate lunch, took a nap, and then walked five blocks down to the Choys’ store to announce her return.
The Choys rented the small grocery and secondhand store from Lou Chen, who had worked there for a decade before discovering that there was much more money to be made in urban buses and, later, in moneylending. The Choy family included Don Victor Choy, his wife, and three daughters ranging in age from seven to thirteen. They lived crammed together in the living quarters behind the store until Lou Chen had the infamous Monterrico mansion built and vacated the apartment above the store. Don Victor then rented the second floor, and his wife and daughters finally had room to stretch out a bit.
The elderly woman entered the store at the precise moment that Don Victor raised his myopic eyes from the Chinese newspaper he was reading. At two in the afternoon, other shopkeepers less interested in reading set about killing the flies that landed on the sugary mouths of empty soda bottles.
Don Victor was a man of about fifty, with thinning hair. He was short in stature and wore thick metal-rimmed glasses, which gave his chubby face an intellectual air. He greeted Ah-po warmly and invited her to the living quarters in the back of the store.
“What brings you around here, Ah-po?” he asked, smiling, then called his wife to take his place in the store for a while.
“I just moved in with Ah-Seng,” responded Ah-po, not knowing exactly where to start.
Don Victor, who had attended the housewarming party at the mansion and had been dazzled at all that he saw, now looked at the old woman with curiosity.
“Why, Ah-po?" he said, surprised. “Is it possible that you didn’t like the new house?”
“Oh, no,” she answered, surprised. “How could I not like the house? But I haven’t been able to get used to it . . . the house is for youngsters . . . not for an old woman like me.”
“I still think it’s a marvelous place to live,” sighed Don Victor, thinking about how wonderful it would be at that moment to swim and float in the cool water of the pool, instead of sweating in his dustcoat.
In the rear quarters, the shopkeeper’s wife and her three daughters, who were on vacation, gave Ah-po a warm welcome. The three girls studied at the Sam Men, the Chinese school, and spoke fluent Cantonese, not because they were obligated to learn it in class, but rather because Don Victor was adamant that they receive a good Chinese education. He had strictly forbidden them from speaking any language other than Cantonese at home. As a result of such harsh discipline, the girls only spoke Spanish outside their father’s earshot, and of course only among themselves. Ah-po, with whom the girls conversed easily tended to compare them to her grandchildren, lamenting that they were not more alike; neither Juan Carlos nor Francisco José understood a lick of Cantonese or Hakka.
Don Victor responded, trying to be conciliatory, “You can’t expect otherwise from them; after all, their mother is a kuei8 and they resemble her more than their father.”
Ah-po shook her gray head in discouragement and sighed.
“It’s true,” she conceded. “But Ah-Men should have at least put them in the Sam Men, so they would not be completely ruined.”
Ah-Men was Lou Chen’s first name.
Ah-po stayed at Don Victor’s store until after six in the evening, until the bells rang at the San Francisco de Paula church. The bells always rang at that hour and reminded her that she had to go cook dinner for Ah-Seng and herself.
From that day on Ah-po took daily walks (five blocks there and another five back) with her somewhat deformed feet in order to spend the afternoon at Don Victor’s store. She had spent her time this way before moving to the mansion in Monterrico; back then she did not need to take such long walks, she had merely to descend the short stairway that connected the store with the second floor.
She usually stayed in the back of the store while Don Victor or his wife was out tending to customers. She would make herself comfortable on one of the three wooden stools, leaning back against the crates of soda. The shopkeeper’s wife, who was raised in the countryside like Ah-po, generally kept the conversation going. Both women would tell stories of the Japanese Occupation, when the lack of food forced many to resort to cannibalism. The young women, like Don Victor’s wife, who had been about sixteen at that time, would hide in rice fields and forests whenever the “carrotheads” (their name for members of the Japanese Imperial Army) came into the towns looking for food. It was rumored that the Japanese would take more than just pigs and eggs on such excursions. Don Victor would rarely involve himself in such conversations, since he had spent that period working in his older brother’s butcher shop in Pueblo Libre.
When the conversation wound down, or when she simply felt too tired to keep on talking, Ah-po would remain seated on her stool, watching Don Victor and his wife deftly serve their neighborhood customers. At times, when her hands would allow, she would help package the sugar in kilo and half-kilo bags and sporadically tend to minor sales.
Nevertheless, her most pleasant moments of the afternoon were spent with the girls, that is, when the latter were not watching television. The oldest of the girls, Teresa, was capable of maintaining a conversation in fluent Cantonese with any native speaker, and she had a way of pronouncing her words that made the dialect much more pleasant to the ear. She apparently had an innate talent in this respect; no one, not even Don Victor, had taught her to speak Cantonese in such a way.
“If I were not so old and poor,” Ah-po said once, referring to the girl, “I would have liked for her to be my goddaughter; she is so clever.”
Don Victor, who felt quite sorry for the elderly woman, quickly said,
“You are not so old yet, Ah-po, and speaking of money, you are not exactly poor either.” Ah-po shook her head with profound sadness.
“The one who has money is my son, not me,” she answered. “And when Ah-Men dies, everything . . . the house, the money . . . everything will end up in the hands of those two good-for-nothings my grandsons; they don’t know how to do anything but waste money.”
Seated on her stool or in the company of the girls, Ah-po was immensely happy. This awareness of elation was a new discovery for her. It is possible that she had felt happiness hundreds and hundreds of afternoons in the past, before they had moved to the mansion in Monterrico, but back then Ah-po was not conscious of it. Happiness is peculiar that way; we only realize we’ve felt it when it’s all over. Ah-po had needed to spend four months in Monterrico to understand that the mere act of sitting on those hard wooden stools or listening to the singsong voices of Victor’s daughters could bring her so much consolation.
The spring, summer, and fall passed, and one day in July Don Victor told Ah-po that he was going to sell the business and move to El Salvador, where he planned to set up a wholesale shop with one of his brothers-in-law. At that time many Chinese residents were emigrating to the United States, Australia, and Central America, or had returned to Hong Kong and Macau. The rumor was spreading that Peru was about to become a communist state. The Choys’ rash decision (they were about to face an uncertain future in a new and foreign country) was not an isolated case. Nonetheless, Don Victor’s announcement surprised the old woman, because up until that moment, neither the shopkeeper nor his wife had said a single word about their plans.
For a good while Ah-po did not know what to say. She suddenly felt even older than she was. When she was finally able to comment, her voice trembled.
“It’s a sensible decision,” she said. “Everyone is leaving these days. . . . I really don’t know why Ah-Men is not yet considering it, as he has more money than many of those who have already left. . . . When the communists come, they will take away everything. . . . I am happy that you can still get out while there is time.”
And one week later, two sen-haks9 arrived to discuss the details of transferring the business. They were two boastful middle-aged men with forced manners that indicated an extended stay in Hong Kong or Macau, where young recent emigrants from mainland China almost always ended up acquiring undesirable habits. The deal was closed quickly, although the price did not completely satisfy Don Victor. But he was in a hurry to hand over the business, and the new shopkeepers were paying cash. By the end of August the deal was closed, and the sen-haks appeared one morning, dressed in their impeccably starched and pressed white dustcoats, tending to Don Victor’s regular customers. They worked alone, they had no wives or children, and on their nights off they regularly visited the brothels of Callao.
Don Victor and his family had tickets to El Salvador on a Lan Chile flight. Ah-po wished them a heartfelt “good luck” and gave them various lengths of lightweight cloth, but Lou Chen, fearing that she might catch a serious cold, did not permit her to go to the airport to say her goodbyes.
Ah-po, who usually got up very early every morning (a custom she had cultivated since the time she was a peasant girl planting seedlings in the rice fields), began to lie in bed longer before getting up to prepare her breakfast. She always ate breakfast alone, since Ah-Seng worked the night shift and did not get back home until after ten o’clock. A deep depression had grabbed hold of the elderly woman, and every morning she had a harder time facing the silence and loneliness of the big old house. Yet even so, she preferred that old house to the sunny and comfortable mansion in Monterrico. At least in her younger son’s house she had things to keep her occupied. Preparing his meals, washing his clothes, and cleaning the house helped her to pass the time more easily, although such tasks also considerably aggravated her arthritis and required her to take anti-inflammatory medication with increasing frequency. Ah-po never learned more than two or three expressions in Spanish, given that she never had a need for more than that. Her case was different from that of many Chinese women who came here to join their husbands; these women generally became involved in their spouse’s business quite quickly and learned a respectable number of common expressions in order to serve their customers, even if they did mangle those expressions. In contrast, Ah-po’s late husband never owned his own business (he worked first as a cook and later as a linotypist for The Chinatown Voice), and thus she spent nearly twenty years in a Chinatown apartment without speaking to anyone but her compatriots.
As she aged, and especially as she moved out of the neighborhood, Ah-po gradually lost the few friends and acquaintances she had. In the end, she only talked with her two sons and a few families, like the Choys, who had happened to be their renters or neighbors. Ah-po and her grandsons never understood one another; the boys took after Mercedes more than Lou Chen and did not put much effort into understanding their grandmother, busy as they were with mundane tasks and leisure activities.
In early December, Lou Chen, who had come to take her to dinner at the mansion, found his mother extremely weakened, downcast, and aged, and asked her if she didn’t want to move back in with them.
“No, Ah-Men,” the elderly woman responded. “I am perfectly fine with your brother. And I’m not sick, if that is what you’re thinking.”
Lou Chen, who knew his mother well, did not insist.
Although Ah-po did not like the two sen-haks who were now her renters, the old woman preferred to do some of her shopping in their store, since, for obvious reasons, the sen-haks sold her provisions at cost.
One Saturday afternoon, Ah-po set out on her five-block walk, the one she was so accustomed to a few months before. She walked with a certain difficulty. Her purpose was to pick up a few bottles of milk, which in those days had all but disappeared from the market, and which the two sen-haks had promised to hold for her. It was a gray and windy afternoon, although in theory it was late spring. Many of the occupants of the side streets and the run-down apartment buildings along the avenue had brought chairs out of their homes and sat drinking bottle after bottle of beer as they chatted. It was obvious that those were not the only men who had taken to drinking beer that Saturday afternoon. All drinking aficionados did so on Friday and Saturday afternoons. The Volkswagen driver who caused the accident probably also belonged to that brotherhood of happy men, although no one could verify his blood alcohol level, nor did anyone have the opportunity to take note of his license plate number, since the cowardly driver sped away. Ah-po never made it to the other side of the intersection. She felt a horrible blow to her left arm and side and her fragile body was flung almost ten feet toward the middle of the avenue, as if it had been charged by a fighting bull. Sprawled out in the middle of the street, facing the sky, the old woman saw the blurred silhouette of the San Francisco de Paula bell tower. Ah-po understood that she was dying, and although she could not move a single muscle in her body, she mentally extended her arms toward the angels who descended from the heavens, as a sign of welcome and gratitude.
“El tramo final” © Siu Kam Wen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Julie Hempel. All rights reserved.
1. Lou: Cantonese term of endearment used among peers, similar to “brother” or “old man.”↩
2. Chola: In Peru, a mestiza or person of mixed European and indigenous parentage with an emphasis on the latter. For many years, this term carried a strong discriminatory, even racist, tone indicating an uncouth person. In recent years, the term has increasingly become a more positive one, identified with the less weighted term mestizo and national pride.↩
3. Nisei: A child of Japanese parents born abroad.↩
4. Ah-po: Grandmother.↩
5. Hakka: Literally, visitors. An ethnic group originating in northern China, which has since moved south but is not seen to belong in any southern province. The Hakka have been compared to the Roma and maintain their own dialect and customs.↩
6. Ah-má: Mother.↩
7. Chifa: Hispanicization of the Cantonese terms “chi” and “fan,” literally “eat” and “rice,” respectively. Together the term means to share a meal or “break bread” with someone. Common usage of the term indicates simply a Chinese restaurant in Peru.↩
8. Kuei: Literally: ghost. A slang term used by Cantonese speakers to refer to foreigners, particularly white foreigners.↩
9. Sén-hák: A very recent Chinese immigrant.↩
Peruvian writer Sui-Yun meditates on sin and sensual pleasure in four short poems.
To Eve, my eternal mother
To erase my sins
I have licked the tip of evil
I know Eve did the same
our longings ended up sucking
at the shafts of trees extracting
drop by drop the sap of the apple branch
To turn away from evil
I’ve crammed my jars full
of somber recollections
calling to the unknown silks
radiating from my body
To turn away from evil
I’ve added every letter of your body
to my body, tattooing myself whole.
Lima, May 30, 2000
On the roots of certain oaks
my blush grows, apple-flavored
and it’s my dream that lies languid
like an oyster in the chamber.
the sound of dawn
your hands seize the light
of the hills over your knees
covers my veins,
the tender tickle of the cranes
your seed is born
in the chaucos’ arid song
there where the slopes
delight the furrow
of your gaze.
Standing before the mirror
I join my tightrope
to the shine of my tactile
down goes my lightweight olive of a body
oleum sacrum specum miraculum
the soft rook penetrates
ejaculating my dreams
sunk behind mountains
in the moon’s emanations.
© Sui-Yun. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.
Cristy, the narrator of Tilsa Otta’s novel The Golden Children of Sexual Alchemy, experiences otherworldly orgasms with her partner: not only do they make her see God, they also give her visions of the future. Her curiosity about this “gift,” its purpose, and how it might properly be deployed prompt her to research the world of erotic spirituality. Here she offers notes from her fieldwork.
Frozen with One Foot in the Air
After leaving Cosmos, I make my way over to the Alchemist of Light Center for Alternative Therapies. I’d like information about courses on Suprasexuality. I hope I don’t run into Daemon.
“Did you come for the Feast of Venus?” Ámbar asks when she sees me.
“It’s Wednesday. Today is the sacred love meeting. It starts at six.”
“Ah, right . . . ”
I’d like to think coming today was a coincidence, not my subconscious—secretly drawn to this activity—deceiving me. Ámbar informs me that the Suprasexuality Workshop starts in August. It’s 5:20. I should go soon, before everyone arrives. I haven’t even finished the thought before a very beautiful girl comes into the apartment. A colorful shawl holds her hair in place, and big, shining hoop earrings dangle from her lobes. Her body is graceful and strong. I think it’s perfect, just like her smile. I’m taken aback even though I don’t like women.
“Hey, beautiful.” She comes up and affectionately hugs Ámbar, then turns to me just as I’m trying to sneak off for the exit. “And you? Are you joining us today?”
I freeze, one foot in the air.
I put my foot back down. She cocks her head to the side the way a puppy does, awaiting an excuse.
“I can’t. I have to work.”
She comes over, planting herself in front of me, then stares intently into my eyes for a very long second while caressing a lock of my hair.
“You’re so pretty! Please stay!” She grabs my hand, tugging on it like an insistent little girl.
“Sorry.” I free my hand with a tug. “I have to get back to work.”
“What’s your name?”
“Ámbar, tell Cristy she needs to stay.”
“Stay, Cristy!” Ámbar exclaims, also childlike.
Do they think this is a game? I don’t understand how they can take an orgiastic session so lightly and insist on my participation, like we know each other. It’s really quite presumptuous, unreal, absurd!
“Do you know Daemon?” this stranger asks in a confessional tone.
“Yeah, we’ve met,” I answer, not disguising my distaste for him.
She leans close and whispers, “He’s not coming today, if that’s why you don’t want to come.”
Wow. It seems like this Daemon is quite unpopular with the ladies. Just as I suspected, he’s one of those players who takes advantage of all the spiritually curious girls.
“I really can’t.”
“He’s not a bad person. He’s just too sexual and struggles to control himself.”
That’s not a valid excuse, I think. A high sex drive doesn’t justify harassing women, but I don’t want to get into an argument. I’d rather just go home. Still, I take my opportunity to gossip a little.
“Is he a seer?”
The girl laughs.
“Why do you say that?”
“I just don’t know how he found out what I was interested in. It felt like he was able to sense my exact worries.”
“Hmm . . . Did you take a slip of paper from the machine?”
“Ahh . . . ” She laughs, clearly enjoying herself. “Daemon is obsessed with that machine. He counts the slips of paper almost every day to check which ones are gone. For sure he just saw that the one you chose was missing, and when you came, he figured out you had taken it.”
I didn’t answer. It appears as though this community has advanced deductive reasoning skills. That’s probably what really happened. Daemon checked the machine the next day and saw that one mini-paper on the pineal gland was missing. OCD: 1, magic: 0.
“What’s your name?”
“Alexa, and I’d really love for you to come to one of our rituals. Please don’t think I’m just trying to sleep with you. We don’t encourage homosexuality anyway. I just feel like you’d really enjoy them.” Her expression after saying this is quite seductive.
Ámbar takes great pleasure in watching our conversation from her desk. With nothing left to add, I leave the building. I’m liking these people less and less; now it turns out they’re kind of homophobic.
Now, as I’m fucking Leo, esoteric ideas of the complementarity of opposites start to sound conservative, dominant, and exclusionary to me. Shiva and Shakti, the lingam and the yoni, the serpent and the lotus. I’m almost embarrassed I ever invoked that argument to bring Leo into my research. If the people from Cosmos heard me talk like this . . . with all the inclusive talk we have in our space. This time, I can’t orgasm because of all the thoughts in my head. Leo seems kind of annoyed, and he’s not wrong to be. He moves over to his side of the bed and falls asleep. I keep thinking about the mechanics of sexual magic: Is it really like an electronic system, powered by polar opposites? As a defender of LGBTQIA+ rights, I can’t wrap my head around the existence of a natural human gift that would exclude some.
3:00 a.m. Undoubtedly this counts as insomnia at this point . . . and it’s ’cause I’m trying to formulate energetic theorems based on other physiochemical principles. After all, I did take four semesters of chemical engineering in college. I feel the task I’ve taken up is quite relevant. At dawn, my mind’s turbulence suddenly clears up, and the sun powerfully illuminates a fascinating hypothesis I hadn’t considered: What if the combination of my sexual energy with the opposite (masculine) sexual energy yields the future as its byproduct? And with the union of my energy with a homologous (feminine) energy—what dimension would I then face? The past? If we adopt a Western binary approach, the polar opposite of the future is time past, but how could we know if the images of the past revealed to me during a homosexual orgasm had indeed really happened? Must I add playing detective with past historical events to my task of researching and understanding my current process? Or could those visions pertain to my own life? Could they be a flashback to my own past lives, my tenderest infancy, my days in my mother’s womb? Or could they be a flashback to her past? But . . . who is she? Who could she be? Should I already know? And what if I find out during sex with Leo? Could I have visions of “the other woman” while making love to Leo? Could Leo unknowingly introduce me to the person I’d cheat on him with? Fit for a telenovela. Though we aren’t so radical with monogamy, ever since our orgasms became supernatural, we’ve been taking better care of our energies. We don’t want something that should’ve stayed in an intimate terrain of utmost safety to happen in the presence of someone unworthy of miracles. I trust she will be worthy. I ought to tell Leo about her, but . . . when did I decide to sleep with a woman? Now that I think about it, it was at that exact moment, in the androgynous present.
Visions I’ve Recorded up to June 24, 2018
(fewer than a fourth of all the visions I’ve had in the five months, thirteen days I’ve been with Leo)
I’ve seen a gray elephant walking down a main road carrying three Hindu youths on its back.
I’ve seen a woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy dancing at a Zumba class. The whole wall was made of glass, so you could see her from the street.
I’ve seen a whale explode on a beach in New Zealand; it was covered in blood and guts, surrounded by curious crowds.
I’ve seen the prime minister of Israel step down over a corruption scandal.
I’ve seen a series on the life of Luis Miguel streaming on Netflix.
I’ve seen a newspaper article on a war fought with high-speed boats and, on the facing page, a chewing gum ad offering bicycles and a free flight to an island destination where people travel only by bicycle.
I’ve seen a man who’s going to buy a house visiting it for the first time, pointing out details that will require an investment to an agent, and jotting them down in a notebook.
I’ve seen my aunt María looking at photos from a distant journey, including one showing her with a Venezuelan missionary and a New World monkey in the gardens of Neuschwanstein Castle.
I’ve seen parts of a telenovela where a domestic worker decides to run for president, and during her campaign, she falls in love with her top adviser; their relationship risks ruining the election of the young woman who ultimately does become the president, but, tragically, she can’t marry her adviser as it’s against the law.
I’ve seen an ethereal being whose body wavered between black and metallic blue, then dissolved in a small lagoon on a mountain in the Peruvian Andes.
I’ve seen a huge caravan of very poor immigrants crossing Latin America.
I’ve seen Leo naked and perched atop a leafy tree.
I’ve seen a group of people (it looked like I was there, too) in a dark cave performing a strange ritual with shiny objects and sex toys.
I’ve seen the neighborhood wrapped in missing posters for Rubí, my neighbor Natalia’s puppy.
I’ve seen Daemon dying after being run over and dragged by a car on Angamos Avenue.
I’ve seen the construction of the first evangelical church on Mars executed by mini robots under human supervision.
I’ve seen myself choosing Ferrero Rocher, muesli, and strawberry toppings for a frozen yogurt.
I’ve seen an Italian neighborhood meeting—convened to discuss measures after a burglary in the building—turn into an orgy that ended in fisticuffs when they found the burglar, who was the one who instigated the orgy in the first place.
I’ve seen a pair of black leather pants hanging from the handle of a white door.
Something like a red sea coming down from the sky.
From Lxs niñxs de oro de la alquimia sexual. © 2020 by Tilsa Otta. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Jacob Steinberg. All rights reserved.
Tragedies become great business opportunities in this entertaining, if troubling, novel about a travel agency specializing in touristic excursions to disaster zones.
This is the third installment in WWB's new series Close-Up: An Experiment in Reviewing Translation, in which Lily Meyer and Mona Kareem review translated books with a focus on the translation itself. Read more about the series in this interview with Meyer and Kareem, or have a look at the previous installments in the series: Meyer's review of Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero, and Kareem's review of Minor Detail by Adania Shibli.
The Korean novelist Yun Ko-Eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated by Lizzie Buehler, packs intense moral reckoning into a slim literary thriller. It is at once a satire of late-stage capitalism gone berserk, an addition to the emergent eco-horror genre—Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy come to mind—and a straightforwardly frightening suspense story. Its creepiness, in other words, knows no bounds.
The Disaster Tourist opens at Jungle, a travel agency that has made a profitable business of “surveying disaster zones and molding them into travel destinations.” Jungle offers “thirty-three distinct categories [of crisis], including volcano eruptions, earthquakes, war, drought, typhoons, and tsunamis, with 152 available packages.” A thirtyish agency representative named Yona helps research and shape those packages. She’s good at her job—“skilled,” as she puts it, “at quantifying the unquantifiable”—and takes great pride in her work, voyeuristic and exploitative though it may be. From the novel’s first pages, Yun makes clear that Yona has no moral engagement whatsoever with her workplace. She is laser-focused on success, with no energy for personal or ethical considerations. When her supervisor, a creep named Kim, begins groping and harassing her, Yona is alarmed not “because her boss was sexually assaulting her [but because] Kim only targeted has-beens.”
Yona tries her best to ignore Kim’s behavior but finds herself increasingly marginalized at Jungle. To prove her worth, she accepts a dubious assignment: to go in secret on a floundering Jungle tour to a desert island called Mui, then report back on whether the company should still offer it. The trip swiftly and radically changes the novel’s power dynamics—including, crucially, the dynamic between Yona and the reader. At Jungle, Yun positions Yona as an object of simultaneous readerly pity and disgust. She is amoral but also abused; at times, she seems almost to suffer from workplace Stockholm syndrome. But on Mui, Yona is powerful. Mui’s economy relies on tourism, and the Jungle tour is one of its main revenue streams. If Yona decides the trip should be canceled, Mui is in trouble.
Yona understands this but seems not to care. Her only concern is properly reporting on the tour’s disappointments, which, from a readerly perspective, are mainly a product of Yona’s inurement to tragedy. The emotional arc of a disaster trip, per Yona, should go through “the following stages: shock → sympathy and compassion, and maybe discomfort → gratefulness for their own lives → a sense of responsibility and a feeling that they’d learned a lesson.” Her inability to get herself to feel even a flicker of shock or sadness while standing at the site of a historic massacre demonstrates how fully working at Jungle has hardened her. Yona has internalized Jungle’s conviction that human life is a commodity. No wonder, then, that when she gets trapped on Mui, she quickly accedes to participating in a disaster-faking scheme that, while it might benefit both tourism on Mui and Yona’s career, will cost hundreds of Mui’s residents their lives.
Yona’s amorality makes her a tough protagonist to inhabit—or, perhaps, a tough mirror to look in. Her failings are far from unique. Her perspective is unsettling precisely because her choices, while cleverly exaggerated and defamiliarized by The Disaster Tourist’s premise, are so common. Capitalism often asks workers to sacrifice their ethics for their jobs; tourism often exacerbates and profits from economic inequality; and observing tragedy from afar, as in the news, often deadens us to it. Yona has, perhaps, a purely capitalist worldview: she relates to herself and others as commodities. Yun deploys this perspective to perform a certain reductio ad absurdum of the phenomena above, demonstrating the inherent brutality of the free-market world as we know it. The result is distressing—but the mounting signs that the fake-disaster scheme is even more sinister than it seems are more than enough to keep readers moving, engaged both with Yona’s moral fate and with Mui’s survival.
Yun is not alone in grounding political critique in a suspenseful plot. Nor is she unusual—especially in the world of thrillers, literary and otherwise—in using a pared-back, low-detail prose style to keep readers hungry for clues. In Buehler’s translation, The Disaster Tourist has a notably flat affect, which both underscores Yona’s ethical and emotional disconnection and amplifies the reader-hunger phenomenon, effectively turning us into sleuths. The littlest descriptive slowdown or spike in emotion can herald an important plot point. It can also serve as a red herring, a device Yun uses sparingly enough to tantalize readers without losing our trust.
It may be worth pausing here to consider the fact that because I know no Korean, my reaction to The Disaster Tourist’s tone is quite different than it might be if I were looking at a novel translated from a language I speak, read, or have close cultural ties to. Tone, like much else, is both cultural and contextual, and my context is incomplete. Though I consciously endeavor to read contemporary Korean literature and am well-versed in the slice of Korean fiction translated into English, that slice is miniature. I don’t have the sample size to intelligently or ethically compare Yun’s tone to her peers’. Instead, I am receiving her writing in the context of the God-knows-how-many English-language novels I have read, which may seem like a fundamental misinterpretation or hazard but is in fact a precondition of reading translation. Contextual shifting is part of the translator’s job. Among Buehler’s obligations to Yun is to ensure that her novel is tonally effective in English, which means ensuring that an Anglophone reader can pick up on the cues and creepinesses that lurk beneath its surface—or, as happens often here, be temporarily tricked when Yun’s tone is at odds with her plot.
Tension between fact and affect is crucial to The Disaster Tourist’s success. Were the novel written or translated with higher drama, it might easily become absurdist, which would erase the chilling effect Jungle has had on Yona. It would also over-signal the plot. Imagine, for instance, the moment in which Yona realizes she is well and truly stranded on Mui: “It had only been a few hours [since she got lost], but it felt like days had passed. Standing at the end of the alley, Yona looked up at the sky. She couldn’t see the sun, and she felt a little nauseous.” Buehler’s word choice here is consciously simple: Yona looks rather than glares, and she feels a little nauseous rather than experiencing roiling nausea or wanting to puke. The syntax here is equally plain: three two-clause sentences, each broken by a comma. Buehler’s chosen sentence structure produces a dulling effect that leeches drama from the situation, deceptively presenting it as an inconvenience rather than the crisis it becomes.
Hiding and minimizing crisis are key strategies in The Disaster Tourist. Jungle’s business would be impossible were its clients and employees not able to shrink tragedies into points of interest; Yona’s continued employment at Jungle would be unbearable were she not to interpret sexual assault as a warped form of performance review. At the novel’s end, Yun suddenly blows every crisis back up to its proper scale—a correct thriller ending, but one that arrives too quickly and costs The Disaster Tourist some nuance. Still, there is immense resonance in its portrait of capitalism run completely amok. At one point, Yona has a small breakthrough in understanding, occasioned by the belief that “her life was worth more than three hundred dollars.” Would that she understood that Mui’s inhabitants’ lives are, too.
In this short piece, Milton Hatoum writes a letter from the future chronicling the COVID-19 pandemic in Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil.
I was twelve years old in April of the year 2020. At that time, drones did not yet deliver our food, nor was such a varied menu of pastilles on offer, each of which now holds the flavors, spices, and proteins one once found in a plate of food, and which leave us with the impression that we are eating as well as we ever have. Though it might be puzzling to both robots and people today, in the year 2090, many people still cooked at home in that year, peeling potatoes and fruits, slurping up the juices of their delicious mangoes, today reduced to a mere pink pill!
During the long quarantine that began in 2020, our family followed a strict routine. My father was courageous and rigid, but his bravery and sternness found themselves up against fear. At fifty-five years of age, he realized that courage and the awareness of fear are inseparable. At a certain point, he softened, and in his face—a father’s—I noted a meek sadness. He even discovered, to his secret delight, that he could do his job from home, and that many of the sixty-some trips he took each year were, if not useless, dispensable. And finally, my father began to talk to me that year, and this was one of the rare joys of my youth, put on hold.
Our forced solitude revealed sentiments and attitudes we once guarded behind seven locked doors. In her middle age, my mother rediscovered her matriarchal authority, and no one but my nonna dared contradict her. Together, the two women took the reins of the household, and woe to those who did not obey. My father would put on his mask and head out to the street to get crates of food, and he himself did the washing of food packages, fruits, vegetables. Down below, on limpid April mornings, he took fright at his own shadow, which he was certain had become infected.
All of you, fully adapted to the environment of the Seven Lunar Colonies, cannot fathom what it was to use a mask. Its use was required even when we went for a simple stroll. Schoolwork was done by computer, there was no such thing as microchips inside one’s brain, much less these arrogant robots the size an egg, who think they know it all and won’t stop until we do too.
Oh, how I miss the days of real professors! And of eggs! You better believe it, we actually had such things. I used to eat two or three a day; I’d learned to make them poached, to prepare thirteen different kinds of omelets, with vegetables or jerk meat, seasoned with rosemary or a few drops of cachaça.
This time of reclusion, fear, boredom was devastating for those who lost relatives and friends, and terrifying and grueling for medical workers on the front lines. And yet, hordes of barbarians draping themselves in the yellow and green of the flag heckled and abused these heroes. I say heroes: is risking your own life in the attempt to save thousands not a heroic gesture?
But the plague led us to a place of contemplation. We thought about ourselves and of others; we thought about the waste, the greed, the consumption of useless things; we thought about the cruelty, the recent tragedies, and the history of Brazil, also tragic.
As the pandemic dragged on, there were numerous predictions, optimistic and not so much, about our future. Everyone was right. The optimists because, a few years after this catastrophe, the economy of our planet began to grow. My father, an unwavering optimist, was a post-plague Pangloss. But the pessimists were right, too, because the wars never ceased, the surveillance and control wrought by our digital world eroded our liberties, unemployment and poverty grew. In Brazil, the crux of our problems remained unsolved: how is it that the economy grows but inequality persists? There’s an enigma for you, my dear lunar friends.
There were also ideological shifts and a blurring of lines. Many ultraliberals became merely liberal. Some on the left joined up with the social democrats. The unclassifiable figures parading as “centrists" found their swagger in the comfort of the symmetry permitted by their position, moving here to the right, there to the left: opportunistic hyenas, always striving for power. Keynesian economic theories were celebrated and applied across several countries; those of Hayek, ridiculed.
A mere twelve years old, how could I decide where to cast my lot? I woke up filled with optimism, but, as night fell, a melancholy came over me, and I would go speak with my nonna, who taught me Italian. In 1939, when she was still a child, she and her parents had migrated from Italy to Brazil. She was not a cynic, but she would often say that human solidarity always came too late, and the kingdoms of selfishness and indifference would triumph.
“Look at what’s happening to the Amazon and the Indigenous right in the middle of this pandemic,” she would protest. “We have learned nothing from the peoples of the forest! Just look at this third-rate Mussolini of ours, and his children . . . Una famiglia di facinorosi di estrema destra. You know the motto these mobsters live by? Eliminate the elderly, the poor, and the Indigenous!"
She was referring to the president of a republic in shambles. A decade later, this vile creature would become nothing more than a footnote in the history books. The cartoonists referred to him by a keen nickname: Captain Chloroquine. But this nickname and millions of tales of the pandemic were also forgotten. Thankfully for readers, writers once again took up their innermost anxieties, their skeletons, and their obsessions.
Moments of melancholy were not rare. Each time my grandmother read the news of the country of her birth, she would weep silently to herself. My mother, who had a passion for Italian art and literature, would console her: “Italy is eternal, Mamma.”
But I also remember a great many good things. The stars in the sky shone once again; the Moon (the irony will not escape you!) once again became a poetic metaphor; birds burst with frenetic joy during that long-off year in which I feasted on two novels: The End of Eternity and From the Earth to the Moon. I also read children’s tales from Julio Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Jorge Amado, and Graciliano Ramos. If someone from the Seven Stations of the Moon cares to read the work of these authors, you can activate the Aleph Library in your microchip.
Every night before bed, my mother would read from the Thousand and One Nights. This repertoire of magic and nightmares fascinated me; as I listened to the final fable, I was already take with Scheherazade, who survived because she knew how to tell stories. I dreamed of the East in the West, and vice-versa. I dreamed of these stories that transcended all borders, narratives that formed an imaginary universe.
In closing, a piece of advice from this old man: don’t bother coming here anytime soon. Continue your research there on the Seven Stations. Make the most of your “Bacchus among the Craters” festivities, where you celebrate the love of the cosmos. Drink your famed Bordeaux Lunaire, and see if you can’t send a few bottles to this old Dionysian. And if you can, use your holographic system to send moonstruck demonstrations of love and solidarity to us poor humans on this little planet of ours, for which a cure seems long in coming.
© 2020 by Milton Hatoum. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.