Just shy of two years since the city of New York was laid low by the COVID-19 pandemic, the December issue of Words Without Borders brings together work from five writers—all of them working in Spanish—that explores this multifaceted city.
That such writing exists should come as a surprise to no one. A long tradition exists of writers from Spain and Latin America who have come and stayed in this city, and documented their experience in the only language they knew—or the one they elected. García Lorca wrote Poeta en Nueva York, a series of poems that still talk to us today about the views of a gay European man, fascinated by the energy coming from these streets. José Martí wrote a series of nonfiction pieces that, after being published for the most important newspapers across the Americas, helped readers–from Buenos Aires and Caracas to Havana and Mexico City–to understand the magnitude of the American experiment.
What has changed for Spanish-language writing in New York in the time since Martí, and later Lorca, wrote here? Today there is a more or less established route for these writers to present and to publish their work. Until the pandemic hit, in a basement in SoHo, in a small bookstore in Queens, in a few small gardens in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, in the Bronx, on a community radio station on Staten Island, poets, writers, essayists–many of them students–met weekly, or daily, to share their work. They organized events, they met and listened to writers who had come to New York from cities big and small across Latin America and Spain. There were several reasons, including the creation of the MFA Program in Creative Writing in Spanish at New York University and a new wave of immigrants and students, enticed by scholarships and more active recruitment efforts from institutions like the Cervantes Institute and the City University of New York. Javier Molea, a librarian and activist, has also played a big role, especially during his time working for McNally Jackson, when he successfully transformed the basement of the bookstore into a hub, a place where many writers, from across the Hispanophone world or else coming from other cities in this country, knew they could come to give readings from their books.
Most of these writers were or are students, and still live on the margins. They may get a salary as part-time adjuncts, or may work for tips (in restaurants, clubs, coffee shops, like anyone else). They share rooms with other students, and from there they write: sometimes about their dreams, sometimes about the choice to stay here. Most of them are still straddling two worlds, a foot in each one.
Today, a young writer working in Spanish arrives in New York City to find no shortage of role models. Since around the beginning of this decade, they can find a series of novels, poems, a more or less constant flows of stories centered on this city, such as those written by such figures as Lina Meruane, María Negroni, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Fernanda Trías, Eduardo Lago, Marta Ana Diz, or Valeria Luiselli. And there are magazines publishing that work like ViceVersa, Los Bárbaros or Temporales. In addition, there are local independent publishing houses of various sizes doing the same. Since 2019 there is even an International Book Fair in Spanish, FILNYC, organized by the Mexican Studies Institute and Instituto Cervantes.
Now, there is a feeling of a collective pursuit; a burgeoning group of writers, publishers, and festival curators are working to create something permanent.
There are reasons for this. Glotopolitical reasons, as José del Valle would say, from his podium as a scholar at The Graduate Center, CUNY. There are writing programs, magnets attracting the best writers from the Spanish-speaking world, like NYU and City College CUNY. And technology plays no small role; now there are faster, cheaper, and easier ways to publish—online or by print on demand.
Ultimately, this phenomenon is about people who came to the city and found it to their liking. Immigrants who decided to call this place home, and who happen to be accomplished writers.
Michel Nieva, who recently appeared in Granta’s latest issue of Best of Spanish-Language Novelists, hails from Argentina. In the short story “War of the Species,” he follows a Harlem resident who, thrown into unemployment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, discovers a gruesome competition between two of the city’s most persistent scavengers.
Mario Michelena, who lives in Brooklyn and published his first novel in 2015 in Peru, looks at warfare of a different variety. The story featured here—“No One Really Knows Why People Shout”—comes to us from his second book, to be released in English translation by Chatos Inhumanos, a small New York-based publishing house, in early 2022. Michelena has been an interpreter for boxing fights on HBO, and currently works full time as an interpreter in the Brooklyn courts. Some of his courtroom experiences were the basis for his novel Las esquinas redondeadas, and they are behind the story published in this issue.
Sara Cordón, an NYU graduate, CUNY PhD candidate, and winner of the very prestigious Cosecha Eñe Prize in 2017, belongs to a group of writers who answered the call of a New York-based MFA program. She was working for a writing program in Madrid when she got the opportunity to apply to NYU. It was in this city that she wrote her debut novel, Para español Pulse Dos (For Spanish, Press Two), a critical success published by Penguin Random House and now being translated into English by Robin Myers. The novel is about becoming a student in New York, about the dreams of writers who arrive here for the first time, about American academia, the illusion of fame, and the farces common to both. The story in this issue, “The Common Good,” is also about being a student, more specifically a young girl from Madrid who always viewed New York through the lens of her favorite film, Walter Hill’s 1979 action thriller The Warriors. Now, thanks to a sensitive translation by Robin Myers, this story is available to readers in English.
Álvaro Baquero-Pecino is another example of the connection between the world of academia and the world of writers. He is a professor at College of Staten Island, while working on the side on short stories and publishing some of his work in Los bárbaros, including “Statistics,” a tale of New York City in numbers that resulted from a workshop with Lina Meruane, which appears here.
Our issue closes with a piece by Naief Yehya, a writer who was born in the 1960s but has been living in New York for a very long time. He has always been a huge presence in the writing scene in Mexico, mixing creative writing with essays on technoculture and twenty-first-century pornography. In his story “Plans and Commitments,” translated by Samantha Ortega, a middle-aged Brooklyn man faces an awkward situation after a cam girl calls his bluff.
As biographer, translator, and editor Esther Allen notes in an interview for this month’s issue, the distorted historical record that erases the longstanding presence and contribution of those for whom Spanish is a first language has dangerous repercussions locally and nationally. The contributions to this month’s issue re-stake a longstanding claim to the city of New York and are an effective antidote to monolingual and monolithic portraits of this pulsing metropolis.
© 2021 Ulises Gonzales. All rights reserved.
In this story by Michel Nieva, pandemic-era Harlem brings our protagonist back to 2001 protests in Buenos Aires's Plaza de Mayo, a movement whose size has perhaps only ever been rivaled in recent US history by the Black Lives Matter movement.
It was shortly after I’d moved to Harlem, during that first pandemic summer, that I first learned about the war of the species. I’d lost my job, and with all the borders closed I’d ended up stranded in New York. In jest I was telling Nelson that, while the restrictions may have meant I couldn’t go back to Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires had come back to me. But the Buenos Aires that circumstances had placed before me was a city in its most nightmarish form, a spectral Buenos Aires circa 2001 that was so formative to my early adolescence, and which exemplified the period of our greatest economic, social and political crisis, when we went through five presidents in a single month, as the country declared bankruptcy and levels of extreme poverty exceeded fifty percent. I went to school in the afternoon session and was always getting mugged at knifepoint on the walk back home from the metro station. In light of this, I’d made a habit of always wearing my shabbiest clothes, or rather the only ones that were left in my wardrobe, beat-up Topper sneakers full of holes and an enormous, old army jacket I had inherited from an uncle. Because my school was just a few blocks from the Plaza de Mayo, where the anti-government protests were taking place, the police would take one look at my sneakers and stop me every time, asking me for my documents despite the sheer improbability that a twelve-year-old might be leading protests. I remember classes being suspended at least twice a week because of gunshots on the Plaza de Mayo, and the narrow streets of Montserrat, today plagued with banks and luxury hotels, were then a ghetto of squats, unabashed drug dealing, and homeless people. I remember my mother giving me my pocket money in LECOP and patacones, emergency bonds the government had distributed to make up for the shortage of cash; not only was it rare to find a place that accepted them, but those that did refused to give change, so that you had to use each patacón in one go, and not allow a hasty purchase (buying a five-patacón sandwich with a patacón worth ten, for example) to eat away at the few valuable notes you had. In short, it was a period of terrible scarcity, there were shortages of everything everywhere, but I was twelve and I was happy. And suddenly, a part of that distorted memory came back to me in 2020 New York. When I first arrived in Manhattan, I held the unshakeable belief that its skyscrapers and marquees were indestructible and that nothing could stop the flow of people and capital through them. The place was brimming over with wealth and it was inconceivable that the majestic scenery of its high-end neighborhoods and iconic avenues might be disrupted for any reason. And then suddenly the pandemic descended upon us, the rich fled upstate, and the ghostly streets were traversed only by roaring ambulances, joined subsequently by the boiling pot of the Black Lives Matter protests. Supermarkets were stripped of the most basic supplies as if in wartime and the luxury shops on Fifth Avenue were boarded up to deter looters. I was living in Harlem and had lost my job due to the closure of the perfumery where I worked. My home was a room in a boarding house which almost everyone else had abandoned, and the massive protests on 125th Street and Saint Nicholas Ave. were the only time I felt any sense of community or refuge from loneliness during that terrible time, which was precisely when the Buenos Aires I had left behind, and could not go back to because the borders were closed, was suddenly reincarnated in this unforeseen historical moment of a New York that, though unrecognizable to itself, was ominously recognizable in the Buenos Aires of 2001. In the early evenings I would visit the only liquor store still open in the neighborhood, where Nelson, a Mendoza native who had lived undocumented in the city for thirty years, could be found behind the counter. He was the only person with whom I spoke face-to-face during those lonely and unsettling days. I calculated that the money I was saving on monthly metro passes was equivalent to six bottles of bourbon (the cheapest and most effective alcohol, since each bottle was equivalent to four bottles of wine—my drink of choice, but one that in this context was beyond my means), though I quickly lost my grasp of mathematics and began drinking a bottle a day, which meant that I began visiting Nelson daily, and after purchasing my daily dose we’d always stop and chat for a while. As I was saying, I was telling him about the way Buenos Aires was being reincarnated in New York when he simply changed the subject, like he hadn’t been listening to a word I was saying:
“Shall we go bet a few pesos on the rats vs. raccoon bout?”
It appeared, Nelson added, that the rats had all gone crazy because of the quarantine and the sudden disappearance of trash on the streets. They couldn’t understand why their food source had suddenly disappeared and they had begun eating their own young. Nelson explained that they had soon split into two groups: the cannibals, who ate the children of their rivals, and the ones who’d joined up with the raccoons that had swarmed the city to kill the other rats. However, it seemed that the raccoons, unlike the rats, had benefited from the disappearance of humans, since it had allowed them to return from the forests of the north and take definitive control of the deserted streets. At the same time, the rats, knee-deep in their own civil war, were exposed, opening up a via regia that allowed the raccoons to take over sewers and hiding places. The result was that the raccoons ended up betraying their rat allies and engaging them in a bloody war of the species that could be appreciated in all its ugliness in any one of the city’s green spaces.
And, Nelson continued, a Puerto Rican friend of his had not passed up the opportunity to monetize a spectacle that could be witnessed in broad daylight in any New York park, and so had set up a betting ring in which people could put money on either the rats or the raccoons. They gathered every day at around six p.m. in Inwood Hill Park, and the minimum bet was ten dollars.
I didn’t really understand what it was all about, but I was so lonely and desperate that the very idea of being around people excited me, and I agreed to come along.
We brought a bottle of bourbon with us—on Nelson’s tab this time—and entered the park on the hill side, facing the river on 207th Street, which is like entering a small forest and makes you forget you’re in a city. The ground is earth covered by a bed of leaves, and a thick tangle of pine branches forms a kind of mysterious, enchanted tunnel. We walked for a few minutes up a steep path until suddenly, guided by the sound of whispers (no one was shouting because of the illicit nature of the activity), we found them. Some twenty or thirty people were huddled together in a circle, and some bloodcurdling shrieks were emanating from within. We slipped in among the crowd where we saw a swarm of frenzied rats balancing on a larger figure, about three feet in height, which I recognized once it started moving its arms and waist around: sure enough, it was a raccoon, but it was pulsating so violently that it resembled something else, some sort of cybernetic beast that had been created to kill.
I hadn’t quite taken in the situation when a man looked at me and asked, in perfect Spanish:
“Rat or raccoon?”
And so, completely unaware that this was the kind of sacred moment when you pledge your undying allegiance to a team, through thick and thin, I stated my choice:
I gave him ten dollars and let myself get carried away by the spectacle.
With their yellowy incisors, the rats gnawed away at the head and chest of the raccoon which, curiously, was standing upright on two legs like a biped. It slashed them across the middle with its long, sharp claws, leaving their guts hanging in the air, before tossing their disembowelled corpses into the gloomy woods. But the rats were so great in number that they fought back. One managed to bite off the raccoon’s ear, hungrily swallowing it like some prized delicacy. Meanwhile, an uncontrollable flow of blood, black as magma, erupted from the wound and covered the poor animal’s face. But the raccoon used its paw to wipe it off and squeezed the head of the rat, which was still gnawing on the toughest bits of auricular cartilage, with such force and violence that it exploded with a moist crunch of bones and brain. At this point, the crowd watching the spectacle could no longer contain their elation and, brandishing their betting slips in their hands, let out rallying cries which differed depending on the animal they’d put their money on, in a cacophony of languages from which I could only make out Spanish:
Quickly, though, I learned that rat is bera in Hausa and chuot in Vietnamese and krisa in Russian and yordan in Arabic and panya in Swahili and exu in Yoruba. We were a random assortment of immigrants in Harlem, most of us people who’d lost their jobs and had nowhere to return to even if we could or wanted to and with nothing else to do but bet the few notes we had left on the interspecies war that had so violently broken out in the city’s parks.
Which is what we were doing when, abruptly, some deafening sirens boomed out and people started to flee in terror. The curfew that had been decreed to repress the BLM protests had begun, and the gamblers ran off in every direction. Nelson shouted at me:
“Run, boludo, the cops are coming!”
But the fight still wasn’t over and I just had to know who would win, and the raccoon, with a furious, desperate energy, swiped the three or four rats who were still gnawing away at the top of its head with the aim of perforating its cranium and tore them to pieces, one by one. Its head was caked in half-dried, sticky blood and mud, and it let out a chilling roar, a kind of war cry that scared away the only rat that was still standing, surrounded by a pool of exploded rodents that resembled flesh magnolias recently come into bloom.
The raccoon had triumphed.
I took out my now worthless ten-dollar slip and turned around, but Nelson had gone. The sirens were getting louder and I fled down a pronounced slope towards the river, groping about among the rocks in the darkness. I kept going until the noise of the sirens slowly began to fade and the nearby lampposts guided me towards a part of Inwood Hill Park where there had once been a café (now boarded up) and where at every hour of the day there always used to be people playing sports or sitting and chatting on the grass or the benches or taking photos in the direction of the Hudson. But now its new conquerors, the raccoons, had eliminated any trace of that former obstacle. There were hundreds or maybe thousands of them, and they stalked the place like ghosts, suspicious and silent. I walked calmly, relieved at having escaped the patrol cars when suddenly three raccoons, who had already noticed my presence, came menacingly toward me. One of them growled, baring its long, sharp teeth in my direction. It looked at me and its glowing eyes made the pit of my stomach flutter, because all of a sudden I understood something that I couldn’t explain but which I fully understood deep in my guts, and it was that from now on we would all be hooked on the war of the species. We would bet and sometimes we would win, but the compulsion to play, whether we lost or won, would consume every last drop of energy—in our bodies and our minds—that we had left. It was the unmistakeable scent of a war waged according to the law of the mighty, and we had no alternative but to submit to its undisputed rule.
And from now on, everything would be either rat or raccoon.
“La guerra inter-especie” © Michel Nieva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Rahul Bery. All rights reserved.
In this work of microfiction, Álvaro Baquero-Pecino constructs a humorous portrait of New York in very real numbers: security cameras, steps to climb the Empire State Building, and so much more.
Three hundred eighty-one meters, 102 floors, and 6,500 windows. We know that more than 2.5 million people visit the Empire State Building each year. An average of eighty-seven couples get engaged atop its observatory every month. It’s estimated that the dimensions of an engagement ring are directly proportional to the unhappiness of the couple. Three out of ten women between the ages of twenty-four and thirty who are visiting New York for a weekend affirm that size does matter. It’s known that the building has 1,576 steps, and that the elevators are almost never out of order. It takes seven minutes and thirty-four seconds to walk from the lobby to the subway station. The newly betrothed can walk past 214 people between Fifth and Seventh avenues. The city’s subway is considered the dirtiest in this world, and those of other parallel universes. Recently, the number of complaints about its rat infestation rose to 24,186. On a bad night, a train car on the red line takes more than half an hour to appear, and no fewer than twenty-one minutes to traverse the eleven stations to the southern tip of Manhattan. On occasion, the noise from the rails reaches 106 decibels. More than 18,000 NYPD security cameras take pictures of passersby everyday. The new station at Whitehall is equipped with five escalators and twenty-eight granite benches. The Staten Island ferry transports more than 66,000 people a day. In the winter, the wind frequently exceeds 43.5 miles per hour, the wind chill dips to thirteen degrees below zero, and the fog during nocturnal crossings can occult all ninety-three meters of Lady Liberty. Nine people have fallen into the water under mysterious circumstances since the beginning of the year. Three out of ten women between the ages of twenty-four and thirty who are visiting New York for a weekend never learned to swim. It’s estimated that in the Hudson River, the weight of an engagement ring is inversely proportional to the likelihood of being saved.
"Statistics" © Álvaro Baquero-Pecino. Translation © 2021 by Sarah Pollack. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
Words Without Borders talks to translators and scholars Esther Allen and Ulises Gonzales about the December 2021 issue of the magazine, the state of Spanish-language writing in and about New York, and the challenges and opportunities New York offers writers working in Spanish.
WWB: This month's issue of Words Without Borders brings together writers working in Spanish but living in New York to give us a different perspective on the city, from the vantage point of those who speak, live, and write in New York's second-most spoken language. While New York is known for the diversity of its residents, when it comes to literary matters, English is perhaps still the language most associated with the city in the popular imagination. There have been notable breakthrough exceptions, works written in other languages about the city that come to exercise an important role in US literary culture—there's Lorca's Poet in New York, of course, and German writer Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries (first published in German between 1970 and 1983, but not translated into English until 2018).
Esther, we would be remiss not to include in that group a writer whose work you have brought into English, the Cuban journalist and poet José Martí, who wrote dispatches from New York between 1880 and 1895—tackling now-iconic landmarks such as St. Patrick's Cathedral and Coney Island. It's interesting to consider the extent to which writing in Spanish has long been part of the New York literary tradition, and, consequently, to think of this month's issue of WWB as merely the latest iteration in this trend. Is it fair to think of Martí as one of the originators of this tradition? If not with him, where does this tradition begin?
ESTHER ALLEN (EA): There’s a tiny cemetery on W. 11th Street in Greenwich Village, not far from where I live, where people were buried between 1805 and 1829. It belongs to congregation Shearith Israel, still very active today, and founded by a group of twenty-three Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin who were fleeing the Inquisition in Brazil after the Portuguese expanded the institution to its colonies t. They were reluctantly allowed by Peter Stuyvesant to settle in New Amsterdam in 1655. Well before that, the first non-Native American person to live on the island of Manhattan was Juan Rodriguez, a black man from Santo Domingo, who lived among the Lenape in 1613-1614; since 2013, a stretch of Broadway in Upper Manhattan has borne his name.
In other words, Spanish has been a language of what’s now New York City since the very first arrival of non-Native Americans on these shores. When José Martí first visited New York in 1875, he found a city with a thriving Spanish-speaking community, Spanish-language bookstores, and a Spanish-language press that had at least a fifty-year history behind it: exiled Cuban priest Felix Varela founded a Spanish language newspaper called El Habanero, believed to be New York’s first, when he arrived in 1824.
For quite a while now, New York has been in the top two or three US cities in terms of its Latinx population, with a community of about 4.8 million in the greater, multistate NYC area. Yet even a recent work like the Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, published in 2010, barely alludes to the long history of Spanish and Latinx writing in the city—Francisco de Miranda, Martí, Cirilo Villaverde, García Lorca, Felipe Alfau, Julia de Burgos, and on and on. The same invisibility distorts school curricula, non-Hispanic film and TV shows, and the way things are framed by the non-Hispanic news media. The consequences for everyone are terrible. When non-Hispanics are never taught the long history of Spanish-speaking communities in the United States it’s all too easy for a grotesque demagogue to depict such communities as a threat—and we’ve all just witnessed that.
WWB: Ulises, since 2014, you have run Los Bárbaros, a Spanish-language literary magazine based here in New York. You have an impressive list of collaborators, among them, Juan Villoro and Fernanda Trías, the most recent winner of the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize. How did the publication come to be, and what are its aims?
ULISES GONZALES (UG): To tell you the truth I was a little surprised that no one had beat us to the idea. When I started taking classes at the CUNY Graduate Center, I met a few writers from Latin America and Spain who were there as students. In a literary theory course, we were talking about contributions to the field by Jorge Luis Borges, Henriquez Ureña, and Alfonso Reyes. Apparently, these three guys were somehow upset to be considered—because they were born in Latin American countries—“peripheral” to literary studies. (They were so much at the forefront of such studies!) A professor of mine, Oswaldo Zavala, mentioned then that in languages and literature studies in US univrsities, for the last few decades at least, Spanish has commanded center stage. He summarized the situation by referring to the Cavafy poem, with its line “The barbarians are coming today.”
The whole idea came to me after that class. I hatched a plan: to publish writers with stories or poems about New York. Our covers were going to be illustrated by artists I knew from my years as a graphic artist in Peru, and the publication was going to have a shape and size inspired by Poetry magazine: those little booklets that I collect and love. The same month I started asking writers around the city for collaborations, and I was lucky: we got texts from Lina Meruane; Fernanda Trias (whom I met at a reading at McNally Jackson and always considered brilliant); Juan Villoro, who was a professor of mine at Princeton; Antonio Muñoz Molina, who was a professor at NYU at the time; and from some of my classmates at the Graduate Center: the poets Almudena Vidorreta, Lena Retamoso, Soledad Marambio, Fátima Vélez, and the prose writers Alexis Iparrraguirre, Mayte López, Sara Cordón, and Mariana Graciano. At that time, McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo had a small print-on-demand machine, and that’s where we printed the first issues. The covers were illustrated by an exceptional artist, Manuel Gómez Burns, who hails from Arequipa, Peru (my mother’s “homeland”—Arequipeños believe they are a cut above other Peruvians).
We organized readings at McNally, and I loved the small gatherings so much that we published three issues that first year. I slowed down because writer Álvaro Baquero-Pecino, who had experience publishing a literary magazine in southern Spain, convinced me that two issues per year was enough. At a certain point in time, I thought about the possibility of accepting any kind of good creative writing, not just that about New York. However, Adrián Izquierdo, now a scholar and translator at CUNY, convinced me that writing “about New York” was a perfect niche, one that differentiated this publication from many other literary journals.
My goal has always been simple: to keep going. And to keep growing. We don’t have any sponsorships; however we were fortunate to find good partners along the way. In 2017, Punto de Vista Editores, a publishing house in Madrid, got interested, and now they print and distribute Los Bárbaros throughout Spain and the rest of Europe; Aleph, a publishing house based in Peru, allows us to print and distribute Los Bárbaros throughout Latin America. We were able to organize readings in Guadalajara, Mexico City, Lima, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Barcelona, and Berlin. For the coming double issue “Poeta en Nueva York” (encompassing issue nos. 18 and 19), our friend the Spanish scholar Felipe Diez put together a fascinating tribute to García Lorca’s work for the theater. Our Spring 2022 issue will be “Substances” (with writing on alcohol and other drugs), and for next fall, we’ll publish an issue entitled “Ruidos,” focusing on stories about music.
WWB: Another question for the both of you is about the shifting "centers" of Spanish-language—and particularly Latin American—letters in the Northern Hemisphere, more specifically, the (dueling or complementary, depending on your view) roles played by the cities of Paris and New York. More or less contemporary to Martí is Ruben Darío, the Nicaraguan poet and father of Modernismo who both lived in Paris as ambassador for his country and later visited New York for a few months in 1914 and 1915. In the middle of the twentieth century, there are figures like Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas-Llosa, and Pablo Neruda who stayed for various lengths of time in Paris. More recently, we can think of some of the Latin American writers working today who call New York home: Valeria Luiselli, Álvaro Enrigue, Pola Oloixarac, and now the Los Bárbaros writers who we can read this month in WWB. I wonder if the two of you can talk about the relationship of these two cities to Spanish-language writing from Latin America—do they represent two influences, two refuges, or something else entirely for these writers?
EA: It’s an interesting time to contrast Paris and New York, in this sense. Anne Hidalgo, who was born in Spain and grew up bilingual in France, speaking Spanish at home and French in school, has been mayor of Paris for the better part of a decade and is now running for president of France. How long will it be until New York City has a Latina mayor, daughter of immigrants from a Spanish-speaking country? When you see the kind of wild hatred directed by certain sectors at the brilliant young member of Congress from Queens, Alexandria Ocasio-Córtez, it’s hard to imagine us having a Latina mayor for quite some time to come.
It’s one thing to spend a while in New York as a writer from Latin America or Spain, and another thing entirely to grow up here as part of the city’s Latinx community. I’m no expert in the demographics of Paris but I’m fairly confident its population isn’t almost 30 percent Hispanic, as New York’s is. Admittedly, most writing in Spanish in New York, and in Los Bárbaros, is done by people raised and educated elsewhere, who then came to New York—like the writers you mention. But perhaps it’s the existence of the strong—and oppressed—Latinx community that, in part, drew them here. For Spanish writers Eduardo Lago and Antonio Muñoz Molina, bolstering the Latinx literary community in New York has been a major part of their time in New York: Lago translated Junot Díaz’s Drown into Spanish, and both offered lots of support to Latinx writers during their stints as directors of the Instituto Cervantes here. And for Valeria Luiselli, whose most recent book was written in English, the problems facing Spanish-speaking immigrants and residents of the US have been a very compelling subject matter. While many Latinx writers work in English, there is a longstanding tradition of writers born or raised in this country who work in Spanish. I can mention, for example, Eduardo Halfon, who came to the US at age ten and is perfectly fluent in English but chooses to write in Spanish. He’s not really an NYC writer, but did live here for a semester as Harman Writer-in-Residence, the program I now direct at Baruch College. I also run Baruch's Minor in Spanish-English translation. This spring, Ulises, whom I met in a class I taught years ago at the Graduate Center, came to my literary translation seminar to talk about Los Bárbaros, and several of the pieces included in this issue were translated by students in that course. I also have to give a shoutout to Ashley Candelario, who helped bring this issue together; she's a star former student who went on to internships at the New York Review of Books and WWB itself, and now works at Harper Collins.
UG: Bob Dylan finishes his song Talkin’ to New York with the line “So long, New York.” Dylan’s line, in a particular tone of voice, after an exciting/disappointing journey, kind of summarizes the feeling most people have about this city. It is a wild experience. Some people get tired of the hustle, and they leave. From the millions who arrive, just a few decide to call it home, to continue struggling, dealing with the unique problems NYC has. However, any “wild experience” is a good source for art. Some may attribute to this kind of experience an “energy”: a mix of ambition, patience, and grit. Maybe that’s similar to how Paris felt, during most of the twentieth Century, when artists got there, from all corners of the world, to complain about Parisians (who were also brusque and mean). Living in New York City is always a formative experience.
And the scholarships offered by NYU, CUNY, Columbia, and other colleges are certainly opportunities, not for everyone but for many writers who are accepted every year by the PhD and MFA Programs of colleges around the city. For example, I happened to meet a brilliant classmate from Venezuela –one who could put in the same sentence Foucault, Derrida, and “ La Tigresa del Oriente” –who told me that before getting the scholarship for CUNY he was making a living by plucking the feathers from slaughtered chickens at his aunt’s spot inside Caracas’s Mayorista market. The scholarship was salvation. Exactly what he needed in order to escape and flourish.
WWB: Turning our focus even further toward New York. Are there conclusions or generalizations we can draw about the role the city has played in Spanish-language writing from Latin America over time? In what ways does the city appear in the work of those writers who have lived here: Is it mostly as subject matter? Is the city more of a base, nothing else? And how have political events—US relations to countries of Latin America or globalization, for example—altered this relationship?
EA: One of my all-time top New York City novels is Francisco Goldman’s The Ordinary Seaman, which is based on an actual event. It tells the story of a group of Central American seamen marooned on a broken-down freighter that is moored in the middle of New York harbor within sight of the Statue of Liberty. Part Robinson Crusoe, part Moby-Dick, it’s written in English but orchestrates multiple national and regional varieties of Spanish with astonishing virtuosity. Goldman is somehow able to depict, in English, mutual linguistic incomprehension between, for example, a Central American sailor and a Mexican manicurist who meet in Brooklyn and are speaking to each other in Spanish.
This is one of the things New York’s Latinx community offers writers: it can be a place of encounter between Spanish-speaking people of many backgrounds and nationalities. In the case of Martí, for example, life in New York consolidates his ideas about Latin American solidarity and the need for unity among Latin American countries as a counterbalance to the burgeoning imperial power of the United States. In New York, he’s a first-hand witness to that growing power, and he also has first-hand experience of how much Latin Americans of many countries that formed the New York City community of his day have in common with each other, when thrown together in the non-Latin American city that New York was then, when the community was still quite small. (I would never describe New York as a non-Latin American city today—now, like Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio, and a number of other US cities, New York emphatically is, among other things, a Latin American city.)
And also, let’s keep in mind that one of the masterpieces of Latin American literature—Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés, the greatest Cuban novel of the nineteenth century—was written largely in New York, while Villaverde lived here in exile, but takes place entirely in Cuba. A book need not depict New York in order to have been shaped by it.
UG: I remember myself, as a teenager, swearing to friends I would never live in the U.S. (I grew up listening to socialist uncles who taught me about the injustices of imperialism). However, I always told my friends I would make an exception for New York. Because it was a unique place. A city for immigrants, adventurers, and Americans who understood the importance of sustaining a literary culture. Of course, at the time, I knew little about New York’s role at the center of international capitalism, until I read the Alexander Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow, or about all the racism within the city until I read The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro’s magnificent work on Robert Moses.
There is a huge difference, I believe, between the writing about New York of the eighteenth Century writers and today’s writers. Martí always described the city assuming he was a foreigner. A visitor. Most of the stories and poems I published in Los Bárbaros have New York as their settings naturally as Lima appears in the novels of Vargas Llosa, or the Caribbean towns in García Márquez’s stories. There are some poems where—I´m thinking about Marta Ana Diz, for example, a poet from Buenos Aires who studied with Borges and lived most of her life between the Upper East Side and the Bronx)—if someone is playing the piano and talking about the winter or the summer, things that might seem unique to the visitor, it feels natural and unremarkable to the New Yorker. That is where the poet lives. Her apartment. Her city. She just happens to write in Spanish. In all the initial works by Spanish-language New York writers there is some fascination for the first discoveries, and an understandable impulse to make comparisons to other cities. However, as many of these writers decide to stay, and they start using inches instead of centimeters and Fahrenheit instead of Celsius, the city somehow becomes an organic element of their experiences: their lives, the people they meet, the dreams they carry.
WWB: Ulises, thinking specifically about the writers who appear in this month's issue of WWB, the vast majority of them do so with work that first appeared in Los Bárbaros. Where do these writers fit in this larger panorama of Latin American writing in New York—or rather, New York writing by authors who are simultaneously New Yorkers and Latin American?
UG: I guess every case is different. It depends so much on the author’s decisions. Mario Michelena has lived more than twenty years in the U.S. His first novel is about characters who live in New York. Most of them are Hispanic characters who know the city very well. On the other hand, Daniel Alarcón, who moved to the US as a toddler, decided to write most of his stories about Peruvians. I have seen Alarcón in anthologies, next to Michelena, as a Peruvian writer. There you have two immigrant writers living in New York, both very talented, choosing different subjects for their stories. Sara Cordón came onscholarship to study at NYU, and she was still adjusting to the idea of staying when she wrote “El bien común.” You have a very different narrator in that story (two foreign students riding the “dangerous” subway system, thinking of New York as gang territory à la The Warriors) than in her first novel, Para español pulse dos (For Spanish, Press Two), where the main narrator moves around the city with confidence, capable of distancing herself from the events involving the main characters, all of them MFA students. Naief Yehya is from a slightly older generation. HIs writing career is still very much tied to his country of birth. However, in this story we are publishing in WWB, you feel the characters move around New York with ease. Yehya feels no need to emphasize the main character as a foreigner. He is a New Yorker. And that, I believe, is a decision. Many of the writers publishing in Los Bárbaros write from a position of the city their characters’ natural environment. New York is part of the routine of their lives, a place they know as any other resident does.
© 2021 Words Without Borders. All rights reserved.
In a New York courtroom, a legal interpreter with a failed family life of his own struggles to maintain neutrality in his boorish new client's inheritance dispute.
Civil and criminal courts are all about brawls, beheadings, hatred, theft, and beatings. Family courts, too, but there you might bear witness, at least in theory, to a hearing with a happy outcome, like a marriage or an adoption. It happens once in a blue moon. People bring balloons, have their pictures taken with the judge, and shed tears of joy instead of sadness. If Julio had time and wanted to lift his spirits, he would wander over to the family court section to see if he is lucky enough to catch one such event.
When he arrives, a hearing is already underway, so he sits in the first row behind the bar. Both parties are seated at dining room-sized rectangular tables facing the bench where the judge presides. At the table on the right, Julio identifies two people by their backs alone; the utterly miserable figure, without a doubt, is the negligent mother du jour; the other, flanked by two stacks of files, is a social worker wearing an austere bun on her head. On top of the table, in front of the mother, sits her shabby, garish pink purse. A woman in a suit, probably a representative of Child Protective Services, stands at the podium addressing the audience. In the few seconds that she’s been up there, she has weaponized the mic to badmouth both parents-in-charge almost in a single breath. The stepfather, with a bad shave and a slumped profile, looking high, sits by himself at the table on Julio’s left. All he seems to have brought with him is a Dunkin’ Donuts cup, in blatant contempt of the interdiction on eating or drinking in court. The dark-haired heads of their four kids, seated by age on a bench next to the bar, appear to be arranged in descending order on a scale of I-suffer-more-than-thou.
As the song goes, if it weren’t for bad luck I would have no luck at all.
Julio figures the hearing will stretch on, and that he has no choice but to approach the judge’s bench.
He stands up. As usual, he feels a pang of hesitance about drawing the judge’s attention: his cellphone might ring or the swing door might squeak when he pushes it. He holds the door steady with his hand to prevent any noise, crosses the bar, and greets the bailiff with a nod. Truth be told, any one of the half dozen couples whispering among themselves with their lawyers seated behind them, anyone in the public, the brats scurrying from bench to bench out of sheer boredom, or the babies in the carriages stationed in the main hallway, anyone could do something reckless and attract attention.
Julio approaches the bench from the side. One of the clerks turns to face him. The judge does not acknowledge him, still listening to the child welfare expert. Julio mouths at the clerk: Did you call me? and she, in turn, nods indicatively while mouthing back: interview room. He turns around, grateful on the inside.
A gesture from the clerk toward the other side of the courtroom would have meant going to the holding cells. In family court these are mostly empty or else hold homeless people, some random addicts, or penniless bad hombres skipping out on child support. The smell is not as foul as in the criminal court cells, but it still makes you wish you had one of those pine tree air fresheners for rearview mirrors to press against your face.
The interview room is a totally different story. It’s your average office, a vestibule where a fat clerk types. When Julio enters, he finds the defendant sitting idly at a conference table. His head is pitched forward at a rather odd angle, and when Julio looks into his eyes he realizes that the man is blind. The man’s lawyer is standing across the room, looking out the window and snapping his fingers. Though the lawyer is bald, there are what look like flecks of dandruff on his suit collar. Julio pulls up a chair to sit down, and the blind man reacts immediately:
“You the translator?”
His voice is tinged with a resonance Julio attributes to the blind.
“Yes,” Julio replies.
The lawyer turns around and starts to speak without greeting him. Julio realizes that he is clutching the back of a chair with both hands.
“How many times do I have to tell you, Señor Portillo? How many? Really.”
“. . .”
“Today’s your last chance, but I see you didn’t bring anything, yet again. You show up here empty-handed, looking for pity. But let me tell you this: you won’t find pity here, because pity was sent to jail for contempt of court. No more deadlines for you. I’ve told you a million times and a million different ways. If you don’t place any of your assets as collateral today . . . finito! Game over!”
“ . . .”
“One of your real estate properties, for example. Or a percentage of any property, anything will do . . . if not . . . finito! This judge has the patience of a fakir lying on a bed of sewing needles; no more delays for you. It’s over and done with. He’s been dealing with your case for three years now.”
Silence. The lawyer shakes his head and closes his eyes. Julio uses the pause to translate.
“Don’t you see that Diana is out there . . . ?” The lawyer hesitates. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“Sorry for what?” the blind man replies in Spanish without waiting for the translation. He sighs.
“Don’t you realize that Diana is out there, in the courtroom, and that she’s here to see what comes of all this because she’s worried about your future?”
“Diana!” the blind man blurts. “Bah! I should’ve done the DNA test on her, not the other one. My daughter, they say! A sorry excuse for a daughter! A bloodsucker, that’s what she is! Sucking the blood right out of my veins! Serpientes, all of them, Judas’s spawn!”
Julio twitches at this point.
“Serpientes straight from the belly of the Evil One! All they want is to take what little life is left of me! That’s all they all want. They all have a serpiente’s tongue, and you . . . !”
He points to the lawyer.
“You’re no different. And that goes for Diana, and Carmela—every last one of you ! They’re plotting against me! They worship at the altar of this gown-wearing Satanás to rob me of every penny I have. But I don’t care. Verdad y justicia have opened my eyes. Truth and justice, I see it all clearly!”
The fat court clerk pokes her head over the door when she hears him shouting.
“Doesn’t matter,” he continues. “Up in heaven there’ll be a reckoning. Right at the Heavenly Gates. Everyone, with the same faces that God, our Padre Eterno, gave each of us in this life.”
Julio uses the pause to translate the sermon into English the best he can, serpents, eternal fire, and all the other gems. He renders the Spanish sanguijuelas as bloodsuckers, but then immediately realizes that leeches would have been a better choice. The lawyer cracks a smile.
“Are you done, Mr. Portillo?”
The blind man shrugs.
“I won’t repeat myself for the millionth time. I’ve advised you to pledge some type of collateral to show goodwill to the judge. If you don’t, you will pay the price, Señor Portillo. Your disability is no excuse. Well, good luck to you,” he says.
Before Julio has time to react, the lawyer has already stormed past the clerk and shut the door.
All of a sudden, the room feels quiet, and the silence amplifies the murmur seeping through the courtroom wall, the distant ruckus of traffic coming from outside, the clerk’s typing, and even the blind man’s breathing. Julio stares at him for a moment, knowing that no one is watching him now. A stubborn jaw, deep crow’s feet, vacant blue irises contrasting with his dark skin. One of his earlobes is pierced, evidence of some earring he likely wore in the past. On the top of his head is a bald spot the size of a quarter, surrounded by curly white hair. His lips are moist, as though he were stewing on more insults.
* * *
Here you can always find somebody worse off than you: ashen diabetics en route to jail who turn even waxier when they realize no one knows when their next dialysis session will be; autistic people being restrained by two guards and minutes away from a straitjacket because their teddy bear or comfort blanket was seized during their arrest.
They once wheeled in a sickly guy with a freshly open tracheotomy hole. His first court hearing in street clothes, right after his arrest, wasn’t the worst of it all. Every two to three months he would show up to complain about his prison conditions. His orange jumpsuit hung looser with each appearance, and his face grew more emaciated. He carried a Kleenex to dab at the gap in his throat when he’d start coughing, as though he could possibly soak up all the mucus. He was probably suffering from cancer or some other terminal disease. His voice, which had been a faint whisper the day of his arrest, dwindled to a half whisper, and then to a quarter of that. To translate for him, Julio had to bring his ear very close to the sick man’s mouth just to hear him. During his final appearances he couldn’t put together three whole phrases without being gripped by a coughing fit. The prison phone—how could Julio forget—was his biggest complaint: he kept asking for a voice synthesizer to be installed so he could talk to his family back home. He didn't have a single soul to visit him, not even the good old nuns.
In the end, he never got a chance to say goodbye.
Or, at least he didn't say goodbye to Julio.
That meant that a blind Black dude, no matter how dire his situation, was not going to be dubbed the king of suffering in a place where madness and misery ran rampant. These were the thoughts swirling around Julio’s head. He was also thinking about “bloodsuckers” versus “leeches,” and about the fact that he would’ve liked to use “pearly gates” instead of “heaven’s gate” when the blind man started babbling about heaven. Not that it mattered; his lawyer had no interest in the translation of a speech he had already heard a thousand times. Julio would’ve liked to remember that other expression because it certainly sounded more sophisticated. The Pearly Gates. Oh thy lofty heaven cometh! Or something like that.
Just to show off.
As he routinely did every time he felt bored, he searched the first page of his notepad for a clear spot to draw. It was not a small pad like most interpreters carry, but regular-sized with a clipboard, like the one you get at the doctor’s office to fill out forms. That gave him plenty of space to doodle, and to jot down anything he needed to.
He stared blankly into the air for a couple of seconds before sketching the first thing that came to his mind. It was the head of a gorilla that vaguely resembled Donkey Kong. He started drawing in black ink, then used a red and a blue pen to bring out certain details. The gorilla wore a military gala suit that up to that point only consisted of the jacket collar, richly adorned, and a shoulder with an epaulet. Out of the epaulet emerged a muscular arm holding a marching band drumstick. Julio was drawing a circle for the head of the drum when the blind man tugged at his shirtsleeve.
“Disculpe, joven,” he said, “pensé que se me había ido.”
“No, I haven’t left, I’m still here.”
The man continued in Spanish, “Sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to run something by you because you get the meaning of words and all that stuff.”
Well, well, Julio thought to himself, it was legal counseling hour.
“Do you know what a woman and a hurricane have in common?”
“No, I don’t.”
“They both come at you strong and wild, and when they leave they take your house and your car with them.”
The blind man burst into shameless laughter. His voice was an affront to decency and good manners.
The fat clerk poked her head out again, but Julio did not say anything. He went back to drawing the drum, which he decided to decorate with tassels and ribbons, as he had seen in military parades. Thirty seconds later the blind man fired away.
“Disculpe, joven, I’m serious now, I promise. This is a language question,” he said. “You know how the word pollo is chicken in English, right?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then why doesn’t repollo—you know, cabbage—translate to re-chicken?”
This time he laughed so hard he sprayed Julio with saliva. Coincidentally, and not because of his guffawing, two bailiffs happened to open the door that led to the courtroom.
They poked their heads into the vestibule.
“Here,” Julio replied.
One of the two guards approached. “The judge wants him out,” he said. “They’re going to call his case soon.”
Then he turned to the blind man. “C’mon buddy.”
The guard tried to grab him by the elbow, but the blind man shook free. Instead of accepting his help to stand up, he planted both hands in his lap.
Others have been tasered for less than that, Julio thought.
The blind man placed something that looked like a pile of metal tent poles tied together on the table. He untied the knot and put together, piece by piece, a foldable walking stick. Once he was finished, he pushed his chair back, hoisted himself up with the help of the chair arm, and headed toward the door, sniffing around with the tip of his walking stick.
The same bailiff tried to help him again, grabbing for his elbow, but his gesture was met with outright harshness. Against better judgment, the bailiff responded:
“I’m not your buddy,” the blind man replied.
No one else tried to grab his arm again. They herded him over to the first row and had him sit down. Julio sat next to him, while his lawyer, who had seen them arrive in the courtroom, made his position quite clear by standing at a distance. There were far fewer family members and busybodies in the room now, but the four spectators seated behind the lawyer seemed to be new faces: they still had their coats on, and the two women in the group were clutching their purses with both hands, as though ready to leave. One of them—dark-skinned, young, and very pretty—looked like the blind man’s daughter. The four new faces stared intensely in the blind man’s direction.
Someone had left a window cracked, and the breeze rustled the corner of the American flag. Its companion, the New York flag, hung unperturbed on the other side of the bench. Julio was focused on finishing the gorilla he had started in the interview room. The drum was finished, and in the exact spot where the drumstick struck the head of the drum he drew an exploding text balloon around the onomatopoeia BAM! He was now concentrating on the ribbon running along the seam of the gorilla’s pants, and on the wrinkles fanning from one of the knees. The boot attached to the same leg and the ground where it stood were just two rough sketches.
The blind man addressed Julio from time to time. Complying with the basic codes of ethics of his profession, Julio limited himself to listening without voicing any opinions. He would utter a claro or ajá every few phrases so as not to disappoint his client, but he didn’t react to any of his arguments, unmoved by the man’s convoluted lines of reasoning.
“Do you think that this lawyer is working in my best interests?”
“I cannot provide any legal counsel.”
“No, of course, it’s not consejos. If that was the case, I’d hire you and not him, right? Finito. Se acabó. Right?”
“I don’t mean counsel. I mean a general impression from someone like you, who can really see and is unbiased. What do you think? Is he helping me out? Sí o no?”
“Well, he looks like a lawyer.”
“My daughter, my other daughter, the one who doesn’t cause me any trouble, she found him for me. Zimmerman, I think that’s his name—from Queens. Because I had another lawyer before him that she didn't like at all. And I told her, ‘OK.’ Jewish people love their coins, right? So chances are this guy does a better job. But I’m not so sure now. What do you think?”
“My previous lawyer was an Italian guy with a boxer’s name. I got the recommendation from some people I know because, you see, I’m not the type of man to be mixed up in lawsuits. So I said to myself: an Italian, he'll definitely fight for me. But it was the same thing. He didn’t call back, didn’t visit, and he always said it was because he couldn’t get one of those . . . uh . . .”
“Your job. What do you do?”
“An interpreter, you mean?”
“Right. He’d say that he couldn’t hire one, so we couldn't talk. That it was better for me to wait until we go to court. And I thought, maybe un abogado hispano would do better. At least I could speak in straight Spanish with a Hispanic lawyer, right? But Hispanics are all liars. And they drain your pockets, don’t you think? Do you have a business card?”
He went on and on like that.
Julio gleaned from the conversation that the guy had not been born blind and that what he lacked in eyesight he most certainly did not make up for in tact. In fact, he’d brag about all the ass he’d laid his hands on, and how he was never averse to enhancing his intimate encounters using his auditory and olfactory senses, in light of his condition. His case revolved around some joint property he’d had with a now deceased wife whose children—and at this point he’d cross himself repeatedly, kissing his thumb—had nothing to do with him. They weren’t his, unlike the other four or five he’d fathered with other women.
“A long life is always full of stories, don’t you think? Even if you leave them behind, in the past.”
Because this had all taken place way before he found our Señor Jesucristo and was born again. Praise his name!
“I think this thing with my eyesight was a sign. Cataracts clouded my eyes, sure, but they turned out to be the holy clouds of heaven!” he told Julio. “When I could see I was in darkness, you know? But now that I have no eyes, the divine light is right in front of my face. Amen.”
During the fifteen minutes or so that it took Julio to gather all that information about the blind man’s life, or rather to be bombarded with it, the courtroom had remained relatively quiet. Some people had stepped out to stretch their legs, while their lawyers checked their phones or glanced at the calendar pinned up by the entrance. Little brats were running up and down the hallway, and every now and then there was the sound of a child crying. A few mothers holding babies had also stepped out, perhaps to breastfeed or to change diapers.
The judge was leaving the bench, most likely to conduct some in-camera business, when he asked for the blind man to be brought in. The door leading to his chamber remained closed, and the only people in the courtroom, apart from the bailiffs, were the blind man’s lawyer, and his four relatives, all still wearing their coats, all clutching their belongings.
By now Julio was tired of sprucing up his gorilla. Since he’d run out of space, he killed time doodling around his previous notes on the page. That was a challenge he enjoyed. He had sketched, for instance, a dog peeing over the name of a former case—State vs. Armendáriz—and a marquee teeming with light bulbs around the name of a former defendant, as though he’d committed a Hollywood crime. He was now tinkering with a steaming witch’s cauldron around which he drew random words and numbers on the page.
All along Julio had been listening absentmindedly to the blind man, raising his eyes to the door from time to time so as not to be surprised by the judge’s entrance—court etiquette required everyone to rise when a judge entered the courtroom. How do people with ten kids keep their sanity when I, with a daughter I barely see, can’t get my life together? he thought.
Julio’s own family project had been tumbling downhill at a steady pace. Katie had been gradually moving his daughter farther and farther away from him—every year and a half, to be exact. New Jersey right after their separation, then Pennsylvania, and now Indiana. West Indiana, to make matters worse. Over the phone his daughter increasingly resorted to English, and he felt constantly disheartened at the tombstone-heavy pauses in their conversation when they had nothing to say. So, Julio resorted to stealing a syllable from his rival’s name every time he had to pronounce it.
At first, he insisted on calling him Douglas to avoid giving the impression that, because of his accent, he was insulting him by calling him Doug. But whenever he heard Katie talk about “Doug this” and “Doug that” nonstop, he tried to mimic her. But her muffled giggles meant that he was failing, that he was pronouncing it “dog” indeed. One day, about two months earlier, he made the mistake of giving Katie a call after a few too many drinks.
He slurred in Spanish, “And what's the dog up to?”
“You know, mounting me doggie style, and making me take it like a bitch.”
She must have had her repartee ready for months, waiting for the right moment. Even if her Spanish was almost flawless, she had a hard time pronouncing the double rr of perra—bitch—producing a fruity confusion with pera, meaning pear. Her gaffe might have even been endearing to anyone else but him.
“Is he there?”
“Why? You wanna come?”
“His manly musk is here. And his gun is on the nightstand.”
It was obvious that she had been practicing.
“Sue her. That’s sexual harassment,” his friend Hector would advise him whenever they talked about it. “If you go see her in person she’ll probably open the door wearing a wig and a garter belt.”
“And a pocket knife hidden in the garters,” Julio added.
It’s true that Katie would send him emails—and every so often snail mail—containing explicit and crude clippings about erectile dysfunction, penis enlargement, syphilis, and other humiliating articles she found. She acted like a teenage boy obsessed with his dick, a telltale sign of her inability to get over their breakup any better than he had.
Hector was right, of course, but for Julio, her boisterous cues meant nothing. Your ex can’t forget you—big deal. He was convinced he would die exactly where he was: old, fat, and deaf, while his ex-wife shared her life with someone else in Indiana.
Things had fallen apart because of his two-week betrayal four years earlier. A meaningless fling, after succumbing to the animal scent of some passing bitch. And now all this anguish and suffering as a result. Sitting by his side, the blind man continued to detail his colorful biography in a monotone mumble. Women, drugs, perdition, and then la salvación in the end. Julio’s mind bounced back and forth like a space satellite seeking a signal that was scrambled. He hated the man, seeing him so full of himself. He thought about drawing him stark naked, tied to a bedpost, and subdued by a dominatrix in leather cracking a whip over his head.
But he didn’t because at that precise moment the door to the small office behind the bench opened, and the court clerk patted the doorframe twice to draw their attention.
Julio sprang out of his chair. The blind man seemed to relish remaining seated when the judge and his assistants entered the room. For a split second Julio’s first impulse was to offer his arm to help him get up, but then he realized the man had not even considered shutting his mouth, only lowering his voice as he blathered about his life.
I’m not your buddy either, Julio thought.
The hearing was over quickly. The judge headed for his chambers and the blind man to a cell for thirty days. For a family court case that could have been solved with a bit of collateral to end like this was a rarity, but it was obvious that the blind man had pushed the judge’s patience to the limit. Contempt of court, time to teach him a lesson, he needs to show some respect . . . these were the reasons cited repeatedly by the judge. His lawyer displayed great professional integrity trying to keep him afloat despite everything. But his client had kept hacking at the hull of his own boat with a hatchet, and no vessel on earth could endure such hard blows. He constantly asked for the floor—in spite of his lawyer’s exasperation—and launched into the furious rants they were all too familiar with, questioning everything from the authenticity of the property deeds to the validity of the DNA test results.
Julio had to translate his venomous speech, sadly aware all the while that because he was interpreting in real time he would only remember a handful of the blind man’s pearls. There were more than enough to fill a month’s worth of bar talk, had he had friends to share them with. When the blind man relinquished the mic and the judge refuted his claims one by one, he started fuming and shaking his head convulsively. He was clenching his fists so aggressively that one of the bailiffs—legs spread, hands gloved, wielding a thick belt so loaded with gadgets that it sounded like a baby rattle—advanced a few steps just in case.
Once the judge vanished with his retinue of assistants carrying all his paperwork, the tallest of the bailiffs took the blind man by the elbow and escorted him back to the front row of the gallery. Then another bailiff approached the bench, before coming back with a stack of forms. When he handed the stack to his partner—a burly, albino-looking man with bland facial features resembling a snowman—he unhooked a walkie-talkie from his shoulder.
“I need a one-thirty-eight to Judge Gleeson’s courtroom for a body going down.”
“Copy,” a voice buzzing with static replied.
“Body has a disability. No wheelchair. No English, also.”
“Saravia’s out to lunch.”
“No worries. How long?”
After a few more exchanges, the bailiff ended the conversation. He pointed at Julio.
“You’re coming down with us.”
New regulations required it, but Julio still felt a bit intimidated. The lawyer had stayed nearby out of sheer pity, and the next question from the bailiff was for him:
“You’re taking possession of his belongings, right?”
The lawyer shook his head, and then the bailiff asked the blind man, “Buddy, do you have any relatives in the courtroom?”
“Yes,” said the lawyer.
“No,” said the blind man.
The Snowman did not move. He continued filling out the form, replying that they’d carry out the inventory in the basement and hold the belongings for safekeeping until discharge, whatever that meant.
The blind man didn’t say a thing, but he stirred a bit, the most articulate gesture he could muster, when his lawyer put a hand on his shoulder. Julio, standing next to him, looked at the blind man the same way Donald Duck eyeballed his nephews when they were too quiet.
He’s cooking something up, he thought. No doubt about it.
As soon as the bailiff was done with the customary questions and was about to leave, the blind man, as though he could see, sprang back to life. He had a rather unusual request.
“Necesito una biblia,” he demanded.
Julio translated what he’d said, and the bailiff replied that he could not take anything down to the basement with him.
“Diana or Carmela can bring you a Bible when they visit,” his lawyer added.
“I don’t want those two to visit me,” he cried out in one breath, then added, “I don’t want to take a Bible with me to the basement; I want it right now because I need to do something with my lawyer, Mr. Zimmerman, right now.”
Julio translated, and the lawyer stood there dumbfounded.
The second bailiff—a small-framed, dark-haired man, the perfect comic match for his gigantic albino-looking partner turned to the first, “Should I?”
The Snowman nodded, and the little man came back with the Bible used to swear in witnesses. Julio passed it to the blind man, who measured the weight of the sacred book with his hands and felt reassured, if reassurance was something that he ever needed.
“Señor Zimmerman,” he said with his loud voice, “since you are my lawyer, please stand in front of me, and look into my face one last time. And you, Señor Translator, stand here, too.”
It’d been a while since Julio had caught a glimpse of the blind man’s daughter, but he could see her clearly from where he was standing now. She was following the scene attentively, her lips trembling and her cheeks wet. Big, beautiful eyes. She must have been fifteen years Julio’s junior; he felt a sudden and strong temptation to cross over to the opposite side of the courtroom.
“Señor Zimmerman,” said the blind man, “give me your hand. Yes, like that. Place it on the sacred book.”
The lawyer, who was almost certainly Jewish, wore a smile of disbelief.
“Repeat after me: I swear on the sacred word of God that I will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
“Mr. Portillo, your family doesn’t pay me enough for this charade. What do you want?”
“You see everything in dollar signs, don’t you?”
“What do you want?”
“I know how Diana pays you. I know too well that she’s been using the slit between her legs as a cash register. If that makes you happy, that’s fine. Women are all the same.”
Julio blushed when he had to translate this. The woman kept staring at them with the same intensity. The lawyer withdrew his hand from the Bible, and stepped back.
“You still owe me two payments, Mr. Portillo, and I guarantee you that I’ll be getting all my money. Every last penny. Because I’ve done my job well. I have put all my energy into your case. But you wanted to go down with your ship, and you just got that. That’s your problem.”
He started to turn away.
“You see everything in dollar signs, don’t you?” the blind man shouted as the lawyer walked away. “But I wanted to talk about the only important thing here. I wanted to talk about justice! But no, usted no quiere hablar de eso, ¿no?! ¡No quiere hablar de justicia!”
The lawyer was now leaving the courtroom, and he wrapped his right arm around the daughter’s shoulders. The three other likely relatives followed close behind. Julio could not help but wonder if the woman really was sleeping with the lawyer, and he felt disgust when he realized that he’d just sided with the blind man.
As he waited for the platoon to escort the blind man away, Julio thought about the myth that artists are always sleeping with loads of women. But he was never showered with amorous propositions back when he worked as an illustrator in his native country – not boring work by any means since he had even illustrated the sleeve cover for an LP, when LP covers were still a thing. His luck turned somewhat when he moved to the United States but still, Katie was the first woman he ever bedded on a regular basis. All this probably explained why he now found himself doing something he rarely did, and which could hardly have been a good idea: drawing erotic figures on his notepad.
He couldn’t even remember how it started.
There were three women comfortably perched in the middle of the page before him, positioned diagonally above the gorilla playing the drum. The gorilla was now complete, save for a leg, and the women were only half-drawn. Their efforts to squeeze into the empty space on the page were an indication that Julio had only started drawing them over the last few minutes, along with some of the other creatures. His previous notes on the pad traversed their bodies like tattoos.
One woman had a mop of hair that was entangled with a Corinthian-style vine decorating the names of two lawyers. Another one lay down on her back on one of the lines of the pad. One of her arms dangled languidly; her silhouette exposed the towering profile of a monumental breast. Her hair was a blurry and undefined mass. The third woman lay on her back, with her two ample buttocks rising toward the eyes of her beholder. Her open legs, ending in a pair of implausibly skinny stilettos, formed the sides of an isosceles triangle; the base of the triangle consisted of the word “abuse” trapped between her ankles, drawn with a penmanship that simulated melted wax bathed in dreary shadows. The composition was an imitation of the stickers that bikers glued on their gas tanks.
When Julio looked back at his sketch he wondered, for the millionth time, what the heck he was doing. He chose to believe that his drawings and the blind man’s logorrhea did not spring forth from the same fount. He sat up immediately.
“¿Ya nos vamos?” the blind man asked.
“No, we’re not leaving yet.”
“Will you let me know when we do?”
“The system is very quick to convict but very slow to punish,” the blind man concluded philosophically.
Julio pulled his thin notepad out from under the clip, turned the page over, and squeezed it back in to keep it out of sight. He then turned the clipboard over, pressed it against his lap to make sure the page was safely concealed, and looked around to see if the coast was clear. In their respective positions, the tiny and the tall bailiffs guarding the bench looked like permanent fixtures. There was a third bailiff standing next to the courtroom entrance. The blind man was silent now. He limited himself to gesturing with his chin from time to time, like a figurehead at the bow of a ship, and to letting out raspy guttural coughs that, had he been out walking in the streets, would probably have indicated he was about to spit.
Julio was wondering how else to kill time, but in that precise instant his cell phone vibrated. He looked at the screen and saw that it was Hector.
He moved toward the door.
“Hello?” he answered in a hushed voice.
Hector sounded very distraught. There was some kind of accident involving his car.
“Hold on, hold on,” said Julio, moving the cell phone away from his ear.
“I'm outside if they need me,” he whispered to the bailiff as he pushed the swing door and walked out into the hallway.
When he came back into the courtroom, his phone still hot from everything Hector had said, the blind man was no longer where he had left him. He was now by the door leading to the cells, handcuffed and surrounded by six uniformed guards. A couple of kids were looking at the scene as if it were a movie set, and the few civilians accompanying them were also watching the group.
Julio tried to apologize when he reached them, but no one seemed to pay him any mind. The Snowman just said: “We’ve got the interpreter! Let’s get going!” and then pushed the door open. Julio tried to get closer to the blind man, but the guard at the rear of the convoy told him to follow behind.
Except for the brazen stench of confinement, the half dozen holding cells flanking the polished concrete floor of the corridor were empty. A heavy barred door blocked their march at the end of the hall, and the Snowman proceeded to type a code on a small wall panel. After a beep, he spoke on the intercom, needing confirmation before the door would unlock.
“Transporting a body downstairs. We need opening for . . .” he said, and then he read the printed numbers next to the door “. . . 532 . . . 9 . . . 7.”
“Opening. Stand back,” a voice replied, then a buzz, and a violent clack of the lock.
They repeated the same procedure at the next two doors, and Julio surmised that the entire routine was the access protocol to the most restricted area in the court building. The bailiffs did not have any keys on them, and entry was managed from a central operation room. He had never been comfortable being in situations where he’d be the only one wearing a suit; now even more so, as he was carrying a selection of his finest erotic art, all bearing his name.
After a third coded-access door they halted in front of an elevator with the same armored feel as the doors. One of the bailiffs typed a code into the corresponding panel, and asked for the elevator to be sent up. A few seconds later the call button lit up automatically without anyone touching it. They had to wait at a similarly secure elevator. One of the bailiffs, the one who had ordered to walk behind him, stepped close to Julio and tried to engage in small talk.
“You speak Spanish, don’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“Look, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask a Spanish-speaker for a long time.”
“You see, there’s this neighbor of mine,” he said, looking over his shoulder at Julio, “He lives next door . . . I think he’s from Mexico or something. Hor-hay, I’ve heard his wife call him—or actually yell at him—all day long, Hor-hay this and Hor-hay that. All in Spanish.”
“Well, every Saturday morning this Hor-hay blasts some kind of music at full volume with a beat that sounds something like ratatatan, tatata, tacatataran . . .”
When the bailiff whistled the rhythm, it certainly sounded familiar to Julio, but the name of it stopped short at the tip of his tongue. He felt more embarrassed than curious, as if the guard were challenging him with that question to make him look ridiculous. He was about to say something, but the clank of the opening doors interrupted him.
The bailiff remained silent for a few seconds. As soon as the elevator started moving, he insisted:
“Ok, listen carefully now. It’s something like this: ratatatan, tatata, ratatatan tatatara . . .”
The other five members of the platoon could hardly contain their laughter, including the tiny bailiff who had been in the courtroom with them. Julio felt like he was being watched and wished the blind man would say something, anything, to bail him out. He wondered if the bailiff subjected all the guests in his underground domain to the same display of musical know-how. Every time the man puffed up his cheeks, collective laughter ensued.
The doors opened directly into an office where a guard wearing a different uniform waited for them at a desk. Julio had never seen anyone in that uniform before, but given his rotten mood he guessed that it was a corrections officer. The guy stood up but did not shake hands with anyone. With a nod of the head, he asked for the handcuffs to be removed. Then suddenly, without giving the blind man any time to massage his wrists, he started to address him:
“Remove your belt,” he said.
After translating the instruction, Julio stepped forward to help the blind man out. He passed the belt to the corrections officer, who put it in a bag that he had numbered with a thick marker after checking the forms sent from the courtroom.
“Sit on that chair, and remove your shoes and socks.”
Julio had barely started to translate the order, stretching out a hand to guide him to the chair, when the tiny bailiff grabbed the blind man by the arm, and seated him by force. The whole situation felt like when you get transferred from your credit card’s customer service to a collection agency. Julio said nothing. He only managed to squat a little and translate for his client.
“They can keep it all,” the blind man replied.
When Julio raised his eyes he noticed that the tiny bailiff, who had remained rather calm in the courtroom, was carrying the poles of the foldable walking stick in the back pocket of his pants.
The blind man started to untie his shoes. His fingers betrayed no reaction but Julio nonetheless was moved by how the man felt around so thoroughly before doing anything. His dense and coarse white hair, and his shirt collar, were only ten inches away from Julio’s nose.
The singing bailiff was still gleefully singing his ratatatan, tatata, ratatatan tatatara . . . His baritone whistling permeated the office air. At that precise moment, as he imitated a high-pitched crescendo building toward the end of the melody, Julio realized it was a Mexican corrido.
He told him.
“A corrido?” he said, stumbling on the Spanish double r. “Well, well, I see.”
He did not seem too enthused about the topic of musical genres.
“Well,” he repeated, “the thing is, there’s always a section in the song where the singing stops, and only the instruments carry on, with something that sounds like an accordion. You know, like something Italian. And then, as soon as that happens, the so-called Hor-hay always shouts: Ayayayayayay!!!”
The distinctive grito of a Mexican charro singer yelling in absolute ecstasy resonated in the room. The blind man jumped, and the uniformed corrections officer turned his head.
“Give me the shoelaces,” the officer asked.
Julio handed them over, and the officer placed them in the numbered bag.
“Ok. You can get dressed again,” he said.
Julio translated the phrase and the blind man started to put his socks on. Julio moved closer, and when he noticed the man was moving his lips, he thought he must be praying. But as he looked more closely he wasn’t so sure. It sounded like he was muttering numbers. The blind man was counting.
“Ayayayayayay!!!” the bailiff shouted again.
Mexican corridos, Julio seemed to remember, were narrative musical ballads. The emotional catharsis would peak, for instance, the moment the hero agonized on the sweltering desert sand surrounded by a landscape crisscrossed by so many bullets that even the cacti bled. The cowards from the DEA or from Border Patrol would stare at the man with hyena smiles. Bad company and the corruption from the northern neighbor were to blame for everything. The hero’s aged mother, a pair of white braids hanging over her shoulders, would burst out crying when she read the news, her endless tears creating furrows in the letter she clutched in her hands. At that precise moment the vocalist would use the interlude to let his or her feelings run wild –Ayayayayayay!!! – before the background singers repeated the same moralizing chorus ad nauseam.
Julio pictured the singing bailiff—red-haired, freckle-faced, and skinny as a toothpick—in the Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City, with a sombrero and a big guitarra. The other guards would finally contain their laughter. The corrections officer, disregarding the singing bailiff, knelt down and raised the hems of the blind man’s pants to make sure he was not hiding anything. He stood up next to the singing bailiff but did not deign to look at him.
Julio translated, but the blind man shrugged his shoulders.
He kept moving his lips.
“Ok. Size ten,” said the corrections officer randomly.
“That’s exactly how my neighbor shouts every damn Saturday,” the bailiff continued with his riffing. “And I’ve wondered for a long time: Is he shouting out of pain or joy?”
“Alright, any tattoos or birthmarks? Any distinctive physical traits? Any surgical scars?” the corrections officer asked, returning to his desk with a pen in his hand.
Julio translated the questions.
The blind man answered yes, that he had one tattoo on his chest, two on the left arm, and an appendicitis scar.
“Let me see them.”
Three pairs of hands busied at his command. The blind man tried to grab the top button of his shirt. Julio, out of some reflex he had developed over the last hour, also reached out his own hands. But the bailiff who was closer to the blind man—also dark-haired but taller than his colleague—let out a hiss as if he wanted to scare a cat away.
“Pssss! Stand back!. Let me do that.”
He unbuttoned the blind man’s shirt from top to bottom. Then he grabbed the prisoner by his shoulders, and made him turn around to face the desk, where the corrections officer stood up a little to lift the hem of his shirt and jot down what he saw. The first tattoo was over his heart, a cobra with boobs and red lips. The corrections officer announced his description of the tattoos as he jotted down every word, either because it was legally required or because of a tic, and Julio felt vaguely ridiculous translating simultaneously to the blind man.
“Así es. Sí.”
For Julio, an old man with erotic tattoos was embarrassing. Once the officers were done with the first tattoo, they lifted the shirt from one side—leaving it to dangle from the opposite shoulder—and moved on to the ones on his left arm. Fortunately, these were religious. Julio noticed the flimsy, cotton-like wisps of hair on the man’s chest, the stretchmarks of old age, and his purplish nipples.
At least the blind man was keeping his mouth shut now. What in the world had he been counting before? The number of people he would take revenge on? The number of minutes left in his thirty-day sentence? In the adventure novel The Count of Montecristo, or maybe it was The Man in the Iron Mask, there is a masked prisoner who counted his steps the first time he was taken to his cell, already planning his future escape. And it was an island-prison, if Julio remembered correctly.
When they were done, the bailiff who had half-undressed the blind man told him: “You can put your shirt back on.”
The singing bailiff raised his charge again:
“What do you say then, since you speak Spanish? Tell me, is it a shout of pain or a shout of joy?”
“Frank, please,” the corrections officer stepped in. His expression indicated a fatal lack of a sense of humor.
Julio hesitated. He turned his gaze away from the singing bailiff, and turned around to continue translating for the blind man.
“Phone and address?”
Anticipating that the answer would require him to jot down numbers he didn’t want to forget, Julio stretched his arm to reach for his clipboard, which he’d left on a chair. He translated the question while he grabbed the pad. As soon as he turned it around and lowered his eyes, he noticed that something was different. The pad was where he’d left it, but instead of finding the first page folded back and pressed under the clip how he left it, there was a tear. The second page of the pad was now entirely visible.
When had he torn the page out? Had he? He put his hand in his pockets while the blind man started to talk.
“Two hundred seventeen Admiral Street, Perth Amboy,” he said in one breath.
Julio removed his hands from his pockets to write that down. He had not found anything in the pockets of his jacket, but he still had his pants left to search. He couldn’t tell if he didn’t want to face the fact that the page had flown away, or if he was still struggling to overcome his surprise, but while he tried to write the address down, his mind veered away, and he heard himself reply to the corrido music question:
“I don’t truly know. It can be either or, I suppose. Pain or joy. As a matter of fact . . .” he paused to ask again: “217 Admiral Street, Perth Amboy, right?”
“Sí, sí. Halmira estreet,” the blind man repeated. He passed the information down, and the corrections officer insisted, “Telephone?”
“The blind man understood the question in English and started to recite a sequence of numbers that Julio wrote down and translated.
“Very well, now take everything out of your pockets. Everything, don’t leave a thing.”
After he emptied his pockets, he asked him to turn them all inside out. While the blind man did as required, Julio also did the same, but he didn’t find anything. No crumpled ball of paper. His drumming gorilla, his pissing little dog, and his three naked women had vanished.
The blind man’s pockets, on the contrary, were a pit of all kinds of objects that Julio placed one by one on the corrections officer’s desk: a pen cap, a lighter, a crushed pack of Marlboro Lights, a key ring with only three keys. He also handed him a wallet with only a few bills and some useless business cards: income tax joints, and a botánica for all his folk medicine, candles, amulets, and mystical object needs. The chain of human hands ended at the desk of the corrections officer, who immediately recited what was handed to him, and proceeded to jot it down in the corresponding column before placing it in the numbered bag. At the last minute, as though he almost forgot, the tiny bailiff handed them the metal walking stick.
It began to unravel on the desk, and the corrections officer fumbled with it between his hands.
“How do I store this,” he asked into the air.
One of the other guards searched in his pockets until he found a rubber band, and the corrections officer squeezed the poles together and put the band around them before pushing it into the bag. Now especially, the walking stick looked like a bunch of white asparagus.
Telephone numbers. That’s what the blind man was probably reciting under his breath. The phone numbers that he didn’t want to forget in order to dial them from jail. Mi hermano, no sabes lo que me ha pasado, me metieron pa’ dentro—that’s how he’d start the conversation, telling his buddies that he was doing time now. Or maybe it was really numbers, doing the math to see if spending thirty days in prison was a better choice than sacrificing his savings. As if that kind of choice could ever be put into numbers, and by someone like him.
Julio knew that the missing notepad page—folded in four, probably drifting around like the many sheets from legal documents that would show up at home as bookmarks—was not going to materialize in the blind man’s inventory. His three naked women, his military-clad gorilla, what use were they to him? And at what point would he have put them in his pockets? He imagined him caressing the back of the page with his fingers, touching the tiny crests embossed into the paper by the pen’s point. And feeling the contours of the drawings, discovering the women with his fingers, fondling a plump buttock. But Julio didn’t press hard enough with the pen to form mountain ranges on the backside of the paper. Perhaps he would have, had he been blind, and grabbed the pen clumsily, his hand like a paw, and doodled his name on a page he couldn’t see.
It weighed on him now that the stolen sheet of paper was nowhere to be found. And that he was not going to find it. The corrections officer closed the bag, sealed it and said:
“Face against the wall.”
“Beg your pardon,” Julio blurted.
“Tell him to face the wall over there,” the guy explained.
Julio translated for the blind man, not for him to do anything but to let others do it for him. The big blond snowman bailiff was already guiding him by the shoulders. He started to face him toward the wall with his arms stretched out. He had him unfurl his fingers so he could lean on the wall with open palms, and he spread his legs open. Then, since he could not see the wall, the bailiff put a hand on his forehead to keep him from hitting his nose.
Julio stood next to him, translating the minimal instructions for the final search. It was the type of situation that anyone could understand, and in which anyone knew it was better not to resist.
A second bailiff approached the blind man and searched him meticulously from top to bottom.
“All clear,” he proclaimed.
Julio watched the corrections officer approach the adjacent cell, and open it with a key.
“Welcome to The Marriot,” he announced, taking a bow.
So the bastard did have a sense of humor after all! The snowman started to guide the blind man by his arm.
“I’m not sure,” Julio hesitated. “I suppose it can be either or, a shout of pain or a shout of joy. Depends on the song. Depends on the emotion you want to convey.”
He was not sure if the whistling bailiff was listening. He was also not sure why he was picking up the conversation, if it was even a conversation at all. He watched him squat, open a locker with a key, and place some folders inside.
“Buena suerte, caballero,” Julio said in the blind man’s direction.
“A usted,” he replied.
It was a custom of his, wishing his clients good luck when he finished with them, regardless of the outcome of their legal plights. Julio’s legs were trembling, and he suspected that he’d be facing another sleepless night. Alongside the blind man, his drawings were now new inhabitants of the dark, humid, and violent universe of prison. As a last-ditch effort, he rummaged once more in his pockets, including his jacket’s breast pocket, the one where classy gentlemen usually arrange a folded handkerchief, but he didn’t find anything there, either.
It was probably a natural habit for the blind man—stealing. He could hide things better than any sighted person. Once in his cell, he’d take the drawings out of their hiding place, and stick them on the wall with Scotch Tape, next to his bunk bed, like everyone else. The ubiquitous images of naked women. Maybe he was not blind after all, and it was all a farce. Maybe the theft of the missing page was the telltale evidence that he was faking it. Julio didn’t think he was condensing any particularly profound piece of wisdom when he simply said:
“In the end, no one really knows why people shout.”
“That’s for sure,” replied the tiny bailiff with a smile.
The heavy cell door closed, resounding all around them. The same bailiff who had been whistling his heart out clapped noisily and blurted: “Ok, guys, pizza time.”
He turned around to face Julio as though he was just now noticing his presence.
“Would you like me to take you back upstairs first?”
Julio managed to nod somehow, although his head felt as heavy as an anvil.
He’s the one. That’s the thief, he thought, as he let the man step out in front of him.
“No One Really Knows Why People Shout” © Mario Michelena. Translation © 2021 by Lindsay Griffiths and Adrián Izquierdo. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Sara Cordón, a new graduate from an elite institution and a new migrant starting his first job in the United States have a lot more in common than they think.
Let’s keep three things in mind:
First, The Warriors, a 1979 action film about New York street gangs that a young Mercedes used to check out from the video rental store every couple of weeks, minimum. Training her non-lazy eye on the screen as precisely as she could muster, she would channel all her pubescent psychic energy into the TV set until she could mumble the dialogues a beat before they started. “Now, Cyrus don't want anybody packed and he don't want anybody flexing any muscle. So, I gave him my word that the Warriors would uphold the truce,” a thug would say, and Mercedes would congratulate herself for having anticipated the phrase as she prepared her delivery of the next one, which she also liked: “Can you count, suckers? I say the future is ours . . . if you can count!”
Okay, good. That’s one thing. For another, there’s the New York City subway that Mercedes—now a thirty-something immigrant from small-town Spain—associates with the Gusano Loco, the “crazy worm” ride from her local childhood fair: discomfort, strange people, harsh noises, getting harangued by the latest drunk, clatter and clacking, slinky hip-swishing, the occasional puker, and, with few exceptions, the unease of visual isolation from the outside world.
Finally, and because we wouldn’t want her to feel left out, let’s keep Mercedes in mind as well.
Mercedes, who has finally secured a seat on the subway, looks at herself from the belly down, scrutinizing what’s visible, and regrets her outfit. Then she inspects herself chest-up in the window across from her, ignoring the kid who’s just amped up his music and is employing a handrail to do acrobatics and breakdance in the middle of the car. She’s engrossed in her own thoughts, her own troubles. She tugs at her hangnails, crosses her legs one way and then the other, nudges her glasses slightly higher on her nose. She could have stuffed her cap and gown into a bag and kept them hidden until she arrived. That way, she could have walked far more discreetly from her apartment in Brooklyn to the nearest subway stop, thus preventing not only strangers from shouting “Congrats” to her on the street but also an asshole tourist on the platform from trying to dislodge her cap with furtive jabs of his selfie stick. No, Mercedes has no idea why she so glibly donned this purple gown, much less this prismatic hat that her university has rented her for the daily sum of seventy dollars.
She looks—she really does look now, just for a moment—at the breakdancer, suspended upside down from the handrail as he contorts his body, working wonders with his hat as the world refracts topsy-turvy all around him. She looks at him, yes, but Mercedes has seen this show many times before and no longer finds it particularly impressive. Or maybe she’s so distracted that she looks without seeing. All she can think about is why it ever occurred to her to dress like this in public. Actually, she does know why. The chronotope “graduation” is to blame. Mercedes has used this word quite a lot—“chronotope,” that is—since she entered the American academy, though she sometimes misses the mark, register-wise. She also occasionally says “teleological,” “phallocentric,” and “incommensurable.” Mercedes blames her presence here—seated in a subway car as it conveys her in the direction of Uptown/The Bronx, both nervous and suffocated, both pride-swollen and ridiculous—on her film-heavy emotional education and the diploma-awarding ceremony organized by her university. Of course, The Warriors is very much present in the rushes of triumphant culmination she’s experiencing, with its visibly ominous gangs making their way across New York, taking it by storm, growing stronger as groups, as bands, as community. But so are Flash Dance, Rocky, The Neverending Story, and all the other eighties-style American films aimed at impressionable minors the world over. Movies that extolled the toils and the struggle of stereotypically downtrodden young people, “subaltern” being another addition to her academic vocabulary. Young people who, following an excess of cathartic perspiration, invariably attained poetic and much-deserved personal glory.
Speaking of glory, the breakdancer extends his hat to collect the bills with which the audience has applauded his pirouettes. Mercedes doesn’t clap because she’s focused on herself: at the end of her forty-minute ride, she’s going to join her classmates at Yankee Stadium, melt into the purple masses, and take her seat in the bleacher section reserved for PhD candidates in hispanic studies. She’ll listen to the speech delivered by some prominent intellectual, wave the pennant bearing the name of her university, unclasp the pins fixing her cap in place, and toss it into the air, despite the fact that it’s now prohibited to do so, because last year a guy in Cleveland lost an eye to the edge of a flying mortarboard. Glory. Pure and simple. Deserved—or so she feels—because she, too, has olive skin and frizzy hair, like Alex, the steelworker who dreamed of becoming a dancer in Flashdance. She, too, is an immigrant, like Rocky Balboa, Italian stallion. Like Bastian, moreover, she was bullied for being a little hick with a habit of seeking sanctuary in some classroom to read at her school in Alcázar de San Juan, province of Ciudad Real. Mercedes can’t help but feel that she comes from the dark side, from a certain state of social disadvantage, from all the pain implicit in the years she had to wear a patch over her non-lazy eye. Not to mention that she, too, comes from a country in crisis. In the narrative of triumph over adversity that she has concocted for herself, her gratification is justified because the honors she’s about to receive are universal honors. She knows—because movies have taught her so—that when the downtrodden prevail, so does the common good.
* * *
But let’s keep looking. We can't look away:
Next—next to her, actually, in the seat right beside Mercedes—there’s him, Leobardo. Slumped and sprawled, his stocky, hairy-knuckled fingers enthusiastically roam the screen of his cell phone: he’s playing Crazy Taxi and has zero qualms about cutting off other cars, screeching onto the sidewalk, or mowing down the occasional pedestrian. He lifts his head periodically to make sure he’s still where he needs to be, on his real-life form of transport, the Uptown/Bronx-bound subway. Today is his first day of work and he feels pretty crazy himself, as a matter of fact, pretty loco indeed.
Then there’s the subway ad placed right in front of both Leobardo and Mercedes, a few handspans above their heads. An ad that must be for ice cream, since Häagen Dazs paid a fortune to display it before the many thousands of daily commuters on the 4 train. The poster proclaims the tagline “äah,” an exhalation of rapture at the creaminess of Häagen Dazs ice cream, followed by the slogan, “satisfaction that can’t be undone.” But what the passengers see is something very different: a spoon smeared with a glistening brown substance and the phrase “äah Keano Prof.undo.” The ice cream company’s attempt at word play has been papered over with a shoddy flyer proclaiming the services of Keano, professor and fortune teller, in a slyly crude bilingual double entendre that any Spanish speaker would instantly detect (Keano Prof.undo becomes qué ano profundo, which means, yes, “what a deep anus”). The brown-slathered spoon leers at both Leobardo and Mercedes, glaring out from the publicity mash-up that means nothing to non-Hispanic readers.
Finally, let’s take a good look at Mercedes’s asinine snort of laughter. We must remember that Mercedes is all about anti-hegemonic resistance, and also, sometimes, due to the authority long invested in her as a victim of social derision, cruelty. The unfortunate pun makes her—at last!—completely forget the chronotope “graduation,” her purple gown, and the influence still exerted by 1980s Hollywood films on her personal expectations. Her hilarity manages to distract Leobardo, who lifts his eyes to the “äah Keano Prof.undo,” abandons his phone, and loses control of his taxi, which promptly crashes into a wall. Game over.
“¿Les quedó chistoso, no?” he ventures. Pretty funny, right?
“Sí.” Mercedes, who isn’t particularly adept at small talk, puts on her glasses and conceals her mangled hangnails under the vast sleeves of her gown.
“Even a little crude, actually,” he adds, still in Spanish.
Leobardo resumes fiddling with his phone in an attempt to recover the taxi. In his zeal, he stops thinking about how today is the day he’ll finally get to do what brought him to New York in the first place: take over his uncle’s job, and, following his example, start earning money in dollars. Mercedes, who assumes the conversation is over, relaxes and unsheathes her thumbs.
Leobardo, too, has certain dialogues from The Warriors committed to memory—“Can you count, suckers? I say the future is ours… if you can count!”—although he knew the movie as Los Guerreros and the dubbing was in Mexican Spanish, not Spanish-Spanish: “suckers” was “torpes,” for instance, not “estúpidos,” as it had been for Mercedes. Leobardo and his neighbor El Machuca, in whose basement they often gathered as teenagers to drink cans of Tecate and watch videos, were fascinated by the part of the film when the New York gangsters—the “gringo cholos”—discover that they’ve become enormously powerful on plainly numerical grounds: they’re the toughest, and the gang is growing, so it’s only a matter of time before they take over not only the subway but also New York itself. “One gang could run this city. One gang!”
In hopes of looking a little like los guerreros themselves, Leobardo and El Machuca bought two identical vests they never dared to wear without a shirt underneath, let alone together. It gave them an exorbitant thrill to imagine ruling over a whole metropolis, or just over a handful of train cars. Growing up in the sleepy Baja Californian city of Ensenada, however, they didn’t even have a subway.
Leobardo thinks there might be something for him in New York after all. He associates the subway here with the little sports quad at the school he attended: body odor, freshly showered girls accessorizing and applying their makeup, guys shoving each other, universally disregarded signs that prohibit eating and drinking. Most of all, he associates it with the chance to share space alongside people with whom he would otherwise share nothing. Which is to say, a gathering place made interesting by randomness. But if Leobardo barely socialized on the sports quad at school, he’s doing even less of it on the New York subway. He looks up to make sure he’s on the right line. All’s well; the Upper East Side. Now the train will cut across Spanish Harlem and head into the Bronx until it reaches the place where he’ll meet with his uncle’s gringo business partner. “Él le sabe bien al show.” The other guy knows the ins and outs. His uncle has also assured him that he won’t need much English for the job; after all, practically the whole neighborhood is Latino. “Let the gringo speak English. Besides, speaking Spanish on the job can help you honor tu gente, mijo. There’s almost two and a half million Latinos in New York. Working class in the Bronx, like you and me. They’ll be on your side.” This is what Leobardo’s uncle had told him. A city he can make his own, he thinks, and his taxi flips over again. Game over. Putamadre.
* * *
At this especially tedious point of the route, we must focus our attention on three events:
The first is that, as the doors slide open at the 86th Street stop, a hot mouthful of air seeps into the car; unfortunately for the users of the New York subway system, the platforms aren’t air-conditioned. The torrid gust is accompanied by a pair of elegant parents who are in turn accompanying, with all the poise they can summon, their twenty-something daughter. She, too, is bound for Yankee Stadium, and like Mercedes, she has been imprudent enough to leave home already dressed in her purple gown, her cap, and most probably her insecurities, as well.
The second event is that the subway screeches to a halt in the dark tunnel before the next station and the conductor makes an announcement over the speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen: we are experiencing delays due to train traffic ahead of us.” A general lament ripples forth, a motley chorus of exclamations: “Fuuuuuck.” “Mielda.” “Really?” “Jehovah, have mercy.” “Jeez!” “Oh shit.” Leobardo sighs and slips his phone into his pocket. Mercedes, who had been tugging her hangnails with jubilant anxiety at the appearance of her garment twin—the communal reassurance that her ludicrous singularity so desperately needed!—abandons the activity and is consumed by the same sense of dread she always felt as a child when she was buckled into the Gusano Loco against her will.
A man in a wheelchair with very white skin and red hair emerges from the adjacent car: his appearance is the third event. In the absence of free hands, he grips a plastic cup between his teeth for donations. “Help the homeless,” he says, though the cup makes it hard to hear him. The passengers step aside to make room for him and he decides to stop, remove the cup from his mouth, and berate Mercedes’s gown twin into a handout. “Can you spare a dollar? Huh? A dollar? Help the homeless, sis. Give me a few bucks.” And he raises the plastic cup to her nose. Intimidated, the girl takes a step back. Her father reaches for her hand. “C’mon, sis, I can’t be a criminal, I don’t even have a leg. Give me a fucking dollar, you fucking whore.” The man grumbles and lurches forward in his chair, rolling right over the feet of those, like Mercedes and Leobardo, who don’t move them out of the way in time.
“Help the homeless. I live in a fucking shelter. Give me a few dollars.”
Several passengers bridle at his hostility, wondering whether a person with reduced mobility has the right to demand money this way. A rattled Leobardo looks like he’s going to hold back, but he doesn’t.
“Me pisaste, ¿no ves? Y a la señorita le arruinaste la bata.”
“Digo que debería aprender modales y disculparse. Say I’m sorry. Easy. Say I’m sorry. To her, and also to her,” he says, looking first to Mercedes and then to her gown twin, both of whom, despite their attire, couldn’t presently care less about the chronotope “graduation.”
“What the fuck are you saying, you fucking beaner?” The man wrenches the wheelchair backward, once again rolling over Leobardo’s foot and Mercedes’s gown. “I have no fucking leg, I have no fucking home, so fuck you and fuck her.”
Mercedes, startled by his tone and by the cut across his forehead that continues to redden his hair, tries to express to Leobardo that everything’s fine. Several passengers gesture indignantly at the attitude of this man who has not only disrespected them, but also dared to discriminate against the young Latino in their midst.
Leobardo is emboldened, maybe because it’s his first day of work in New York City. He doesn’t recognize himself. Today, he’s the toughest guy in town. He gets up. “Va a pedirles perdón a las señoritas,” he says. “You say I’m sorry or I keep the cup.” Gathering more courage than he’s ever had in his life, he reaches out and takes it.
“What the fuuuuck?”
“I just want you be gentle, guëy.” Leobardo instantly drips with sweat. “And that word you call me, beaner, qué es eso, like wetback? Eso es bien feo. I just want you be gentle, guëy. Better for you, better for everybody, va a ver.”
He approaches the elegant father of the future graduate. “You give him one dollar, ¿verdad, señor? Si él say I’m sorry, you give him one dollar.”
The father takes a dollar bill from his wallet and puts it into the plastic cup that Leobardo holds out to him.
“Now smile and say it. ‘I’m sorry,’” Leobardo instructs the man in the wheelchair.
“I don’t give a shit! Give me back my fucking cup.”
“I just trying to help, okay, and for you to be more polite. This lady can also give you one dollar, ¿verdad que sí, señorita?” And since he directs the question to Mercedes, she rummages hastily in the bag she’s clutching across her gown and hands Leobardo not one but five dollars. “Look, amigo. Just say ‘I’m sorry.’”
“Bueno, that is a start. Come with me. Sea amable y yo le ayudo. I help you. Some help for el señor, please,” he asks, and the train revs back into motion as the passengers dig into their pockets to support the causes of decorum, tolerance, and respect.
Reaching the 138th St.–Grand Concourse Station, the man wheels out of the car, his cup full of change. Leobardo returns to his seat, surprised at himself. Mercedes readjusts her glasses, pushing them further up her nose, and although she doesn’t look at him, because she can feel herself blushing a bit, she’s proud of her fellow subway passenger, of how civilly he has resisted the tyranny so often exerted in New York—sometimes even by members of subaltern groups. After graduation, she thinks, she and her classmates will found a sort of intellectual squad. A kind of warrior crew that, like her fellow subway passenger, will become the scourge of everyone who perceives Spanish-speakers as “beaners,” job-stealers, naturally sultry dancers (“hot Latin chick,” Mercedes has herself been called, though heat is not among her primary characteristics), and, most of all, rude. Never again. She and her classmates are about to earn a diploma that will forever commit them to the symbolic value of Hispanism and Latinidad as a global cause. Glory. A glory that can only grow. “Can you count, suckers?”
* * *
Her stop, finally: Yankee Stadium. Mercedes walks with joy—and elegance, too—alongside the family of her cap and gown twin, united not only by their imminent graduation but also and even more powerfully by the experience they’ve shared en route. Leobardo, for his part, says goodbye to Mercedes by lowering his eyes and taking out his phone. He doesn’t feel like playing Crazy Taxi anymore. He thinks about how the 1980s movies of his childhood still influence his life and remembers Los Guerreros—and, by association, his friend El Machuca. “Remember the truce: nobody packed and nobody will flex any muscle,” one of the gangsters said. He smiles with an amusement much like what he felt at the sight of the “äah Keano Prof.undo” poster. As the subway shoots across the Bronx, and as he registers the satisfaction of a job well done, he composes a text to his uncle: “Ey, tío, done deal. The gringo’s a boss. Red hair, a bloody cut on his forehead. Impressive. Todo un profesional. Where should I meet him next?” Although Leobardo is part of a minority, as his uncle has explained to him, his new life doesn’t seem to displease him. Quite the contrary, in fact. Reaching the last stations on the line, he learns to enjoy the excess of cathartic perspiration, his well-earned personal glory. Pure and simple. With this job, he’ll finally get to make a city his own. For, of course, the common good.
© Sara Cordón. Translation © 2021 by Robin Myers. All rights reserved.
An enterprising cam girl calls a middle-aged Brooklyn man's bluff when he asks to meet in person in this short story by Naief Yehya.
“I love you,” he told her.
“I love you,” he said again.
She kept on smiling, but her look changed as she pretended to look offscreen.
“I love you,” he typed again.
She stared at the message, and got close to the camera as if she were to say something confidentially. “I love you too darling, but your tips don’t show me enough love.”
Mel continued reading other participants’ messages. She contorted her facial muscles, feigning surprise, opening her eyes wide as if encountering the unexpected. But there was nothing unexpected. The comments were always the same, the same expressions of arousal, the same demands to show more, to touch herself, to play, to lick herself, or to assume this or that erotic position. A little bell rang to announce a tip, and she would smile and thank her generous admirers. She would threaten to take off her corset. She would remove a stocking, slowly caressing her dainty legs. She would tell silly stories, play the coquette while batting her eyes, then would jump, sensually move her hips, finally thanking everyone and ending the show with a promise to return the next day.
He sent plenty of private messages to her but did not receive a response. There was nothing urgent he needed to tell her, but at the same time he felt compelled to communicate with her regardless of the results. That’s why he kept insisting, stupidly, compulsively, despite knowing there would be no response. He kept calm because he knew that if he continued, he’d be blocked and there’d be no going back. If he was flagged for harassment, he would be permanently blocked, and that would mean being sent to a limbo he couldn't imagine living in. He was used to seeing her cam every day from start to finish. Before she had become famous she would answer his private messages. They even spoke over the phone on certain occasions and had a couple of private video calls that were brief but satisfying. She hadn’t agreed to meet in person, but he knew that was too much to ask. It would imply unusual connection. He himself was not ready for such a commitment.
However, they had spoken intimately about his finances. He had told her that he worked with the stock market. She appeared to take him at his word, and even asked for advice on how to manage her money. What to invest in, saving strategies, and what to do in case her income didn’t grow as she expected it to after expenses for lights, paraphernalia, and decorations for her set. He invented convincing responses that hinted at professional expertise. He also lied to her about the possibility of inviting her to invest in an index fund known for its high returns. She told him she would think about it. Any self-respecting cam girl knows it’s not a good idea to do business with fans. He knew this, too. These were things that could be said without consequences or commitment. Plans for a charmed life sustained by tips, stripteases, and solitary orgasms. Plans made without any intention of ever carrying them out. He needed to hear her voice. He felt his blood pressure rising and felt a familiar sharp pain in his forehead. He called once more, repeating to himself, this is the last time, this is the last time.
Ring, ring. Suddenly: “What do you want?” Mel said curtly, in a harsh voice, but one he recognized by its sensuality.
He was too surprised to speak. He hadn’t considered the possibility she would pick up.
“Why do you keep pushing? What more do you want from me? I give you everything that I can, but nothing satisfies you. What’s left? What’s missing? Tell me.” He kept his silence. His forehead and hands were soaked. He sat on the toilet.
“I need you,” he said finally.
“Why do you need me? What do you need me for?”
“I want to be with you,” he said, repeating one of those plans without consequences.
“I love you.”
“You’ve already said that.”
He had nothing else to offer.
“Do you have a family? A wife, children? A dog?”
“Do you want to be with me? Come and pick me up.”
“I’m in Riverhead. Do you have a car? Are you able to come?”
“Yes, yes, I can.” The phone trembled in hands.
“I’ll text you the address. Come right away.” She hung up.
He came out of the bathroom, where he had locked himself for the previous hour or so. His wife looked at him and asked: “Is everything okay? It looks like you saw a ghost, or a hemorrhoid the size of your hand.”
“Everything is fine, but I need to head out.”
“You promised to help the children with their homework."
“Tony, from the office, he’s . . . dead.”
“How? What happened to him?”
“I don’t know, I have to see. They called me to go and see him.”
“I’ll go with you. I must call Miranda. This is terrible,” she said as she covered her eyes.
“No, don’t call anyone, not even his wife. Don’t say anything to anybody.”
“But what happened?”
“I’m not sure, I have to go.”
He hurried to the bedroom and threw on his old black suit. The children shouted—they were waiting—but he didn’t respond.
He put on the only black tie he had and walked towards the door. Rolf, their terrier, looked at him with disappointment and fell back asleep.
“Are you going to tell me what’s really going on?” his wife asked, clearly agitated, her eyes swollen with tears.
“Don’t worry, I’ll explain everything when I return. Do not call anyone. I will call you.”
“What’s with all this mystery?”
He left in a sweat, without saying another word. He looked up the address that Mel gave him on Google Maps. It would take an hour and fifteen minutes from his house in Brooklyn. It was enough time for him to organize his thoughts and prepare in case it was a trap. Maybe he’d arrive and no one would be there. Perhaps she’s a minor and a team of cops would be waiting for him. He didn’t think that Mel was underage, but how could he really know? It could be a trap to kidnap him and take him for everything he had. After all, he had claimed to be an executive for an important finance firm.
He could confess that he worked in the human resources department of a pharmacy chain. He had nothing to be ashamed of. It was an important and respectable job. He’d also have to tell her about his wife and kids. He thought to call Tony. Just a quick phone call. To bring him up to speed about his death. He didn’t do it. Traffic was heavier than expected. This wasn’t a case of infidelity, at least not yet. Watching a lovely girl swaying her hips with little in the way of clothes over a monitor, asking her to do things and rewarding her with Bitcoin tips, was not the same as cheating on his wife. Having private phone and video calls with her couldn’t count as a betrayal, either.
The female voice of the Google Maps guide announced his arrival. A decrepit, half-empty restaurant. He took a moment to summon the courage to open his car door and step out. He didn’t know what he was going to say, or what he was doing there. As he stepped into the restaurant, the smell of fried food and lukewarm coffee gave him chills. His wife was disgusted by dirty diners like this one. He picked the first table and sat there watching the door.
He ordered a coffee, which predictably needed more sugar than it could hold to counter its bitter taste. He looked at his watch every two or three minutes. He tried reading some article on his phone but was too distracted. He checked Mel’s Instagram and Twitter accounts again, waiting anxiously for her to post something, anything. He was confused and he felt lightheaded. His wife dialed him once. He didn’t answer and put his ringer on silent. He laid his head on the table and dozed off for a moment. He woke up frightened. He went to the bathroom to wash his face. When he returned, he thought, Mel would be there. It didn’t happen that way. Time kept passing and he tried calling Mel one more time. She didn’t answer.
Two hours and a gallon of coffee later, he decided to give up. He dialed her once more and heard a phone ringing. He lifted his gaze to see a disheveled girl standing at the door, no makeup on, wearing a wrinkled summer dress and a leather jacket, phone ringing in her hand. They stared at each other. She declined his call without a word and sat down in front of him. He was surprised by her appearance but particularly by her unkempt black hair. Where had her silver wig gone? They sat silently for a moment as if to absorb the impact of meeting face-to-face, in the flesh. The waitress came back around. Mel ordered tea and a slice of cherry pie.
“It’s the best thing they have here,” she said, adjusting her backpack and stuffing her bags into the booth.
“I should’ve ordered that.”
“It’s nothing special.”
“You came,” he said.
“You too.” More silence. She stared at her phone with regret.
“What’s all that?” he asked, pointing at her things.
Another long silence. He also pretended to be on his phone as if he were searching for something, making it seem like he was sending a text. She placed her phone on the table. She took a sip of her tea and took a bite of her pie.
“You told me that you love me. Now you can prove it.”
“I came here as soon as possible.”
“Take me to your house in Manhattan.”
“What do you mean, when? Right now.”
“You and I have known each other for awhile now. How long has it been, a month? I’m not here to bullshit or lie to you.”
“Yeah, it’s been about four weeks since I started watching your cam show.”
“You see? That’s why I trust you and want to propose that we become business partners. Do you think I’d put myself in danger by meeting just anyone? I’m not crazy.”
“Right. My cam show is growing, but with more capital and careful planning, I can make it to the top ten rankings in a matter of weeks.”
“And what will I do?”
“First, I want you to be my financial partner. If all goes well between us, maybe we take the next step and make shows as a couple. I have everything I need to make it. I just need a bit of help.”
“Me, in one of your shows?” was all he managed to say.
“Why not?” she asked with a mouthful of pie. “But for now, I need a place to stay. I got kicked out of my apartment over a stupid misunderstanding.”
“Apparently, my lease explicitly prohibits me from recording live sex shows.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Neither can I. So, you’ll take me to your place in Manhattan? I can put up a temporary studio in any room. I need to get ready for my next show.” She looked at the time on her phone as she spoke.
“The thing is . . . I don’t live in Manhattan.”
“You told me you did.”
“Not everything I told you was true. I live in Brooklyn.”
“Brooklyn. That’s fine. I can adapt.” She finished her pie and took one last sip of her tea. She got the check and asked, “Are we going?”
“But I just got here,” he said, since no excuses came to mind.
“And what do you want to do here?”
“I don’t know, be with you.”
“Don’t be gross. What are you referring to?”
“Nothing bad, I just want to be with you.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be together, more than you can imagine. Where’s your car?”
He pointed to the street.
“Get the bill and let’s go,” she said, standing up.
He left a twenty-dollar bill on the table, in the amateur conviction that he wasn't leaving a trail. They walked to the car. He had broken into a sweat and his hands were fidgeting. He opened the doors. She threw her bags and backpack in the rear seat. She saw that it was filled with strollers, bats, balls, and other plastic multicolored things.
“Why are there toys in your car?”
She sat in the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment. “There’s a lip liner and some makeup here. Do you use this?”
“I think I need to tell you something.”
“Don’t worry about it. I can guess what you’re about to say. You can tell me on the way to Brooklyn.”
He started the car. He was about to say something, but Mel was looking at her phone and put her hand up to stop him. He pulled onto the road and thought back to the other plans he’d made without commitment.
“If at any moment someone asks about Tony, you can tell them that you’re sorry about his passing.”
“Planes y Compromisos” © Naief Yehya. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Samantha Ortega. All rights reserved.
Antonio Gamoneda's collection of poems interprets the American blues tradition with powerful results.
In the introduction to their translation of Antonio Gamoneda’s Castilian Blues [Blues Castellano], Benito del Pliego and Andrés Fisher describe the book as “rooted in an ‘aesthetics of translation.’” It is a resonant phrase that sums up both their approach to translating Gamoneda’s poetry and the confluence of sources that feed into his adoption of a universalized blues-idiom. Written during the years 1961–1966 but first published in 1982, Castilian Blues is an intermediary text that bridges the two major phases in Gamoneda’s poetic career: the early poems in his first book, Sublevación inmóvil (1961), written during Franco’s dictatorial period in Spain, and the mature voice in Descripción de la mentira (1977), a monumental work published after a sixteen-year silence that was in defiance of fascist censorship and brutality. Indeed, Castilian Blues would have been Gamoneda’s second published book, until Franco’s censors, according to del Pliego and Fisher, “mandated that the book be purged of entire poems, quotes, and references antithetical to the dictatorial ideology” before it could be published. Gamoneda rejected this imposition, choosing to remain in a furious, pregnant state rather than give in to the butchery of the censors.
Castilian Blues is an important link between Gamoneda’s early work and the post-Franco poems that would solidify his place as, in Raul Zurita’s words, “the greatest living poet in the Spanish language,” and it conjures a special affinity to the US American vernacular tradition in its embrace of an African-American blues aesthetic. As the title indicates, Castilian Blues marks a period in Gamoneda’s life when, as Del Pliego and Fisher inform us, he “immersed himself in . . . blues and gospel [music],” and even ventured to publish “translations of six ‘Negro Spirituals’ in 1961.” In the midst of the poverty and hardships of Francoist Spain, Gamoneda found in the blues idiom a “double function, beyond the [a]esthetic one: expressing suffering and seeking solace from it.”
Indeed, in several of the book’s poems, we encounter stylistic facets of the blues tradition, albeit “translated” from the modality of the emotional expression of blues into the refrain of an image that recurs with startling piquancy. For example, in “Blues for Christians,” the stanzas seem to evoke the three-pronged verse structure of a blues song, switching from the statement of a problem to an enhancement of the problem’s imagery, eventually resolving (or collapsing upon itself) in a surfeit of emotional release:
Before, some men sat down to smoke
and to slowly watch the land.
Before, many men sat down to smoke
and slowly came to understand the land.
Now one cannot smoke when night comes.
Now there is neither tobacco nor hope.
The repetition of the first two lines in the next two is deceptive; the quasi-refrain has subtly changed tenor and meaning. The incidentals of action—a few men smoke and watch the land—give way to a deepening of time in the pluralization of men smoking and the power of a formerly empty, almost accidental activity which has solidified into a ceremony of desolate mourning. Without speaking the pain of a body politic, the poem uses the level of landscape, and, like the blues, converts the political into internal despair and external song.
The split between the spoken and the internalized occurs in another poem, “Questions Blues,” where Gamoneda directly evokes the blues in his questioning of the ardor of an apostrophied subject (be it the reader or a beloved) whose silence defeats his entreaties, sending him into a plangent mode:
For a while I’ve had the blues
because my words don’t enter your heart.
Many days I’ve had the blues
because your silence enters my heart.
There are times I feel blue at your side
because you only love me with love.
Many days I feel blue at your side
because you don’t love me with friendship.
In the fraught space of Francoist Spain, loveless sex seems to be a transactional certainty, and friendship is the radical missing half of the speaker’s dilemma (“you only love me with love”). If even love is corruptible under the cruel lash of fascism, true friendship assumes a greater role in rebuilding the trust necessary for revolutionary love. The refrain, repetition, and recall of the blues are all at play here, but interestingly, part of what’s missing in this translation is the sonic play of the last line in the original second stanza (“porque no me amas con amistad” / “because you don’t love me with friendship”) in which amar and amistad embrace, yet repel one other with their different connotations. The missing alliterative conjunction of these terms (an opportunity which other translators might have been tempted to utilize) bespeaks the translative strategy taken up by Del Pliego and Fisher, who, in their own words, adopt a “literal” approach to the poems in Castilian Blues, choosing syntactical, word-for-word transparency as opposed to leaning on the poem’s nuances.
This tactic seems to serve Gamoneda’s lyric well, with the trust the translators show in the straightforwardness of the blues-idiom Gamoneda emulates. If the musical qualities of Gamoneda’s poems can be reproduced exactly as in the original iteration, taking a word for word, line by line approach, then perhaps the explicitly creolized cadences of Gamoneda’s blues en castellano might effectively be translated to the reader.
In Stomping the Blues, Albert Murray defines the blues as “an attitude toward the nature of human experience (and the alternatives of human adjustment) that is both elemental and comprehensive,” an attitude in which the political implications of social injustice, trauma, and personal loss manifest as a “perseverance” that “not only embodies but stylizes, elaborates, and refines into art.” Murray universalizes the blues idiom as a transcendent art form that encompasses the Black American experience but also allows for its poetics of canto hondo to register in other languages and experiences. The early traces in Castilian Blues of Gamoneda’s later work on the trauma of Francoist violence and what I’ve called elsewhere an “ontology of disappearance”—in which the absence of the missing speaks louder than the effects of memory—directly evoke this message and aesthetic of perseverance. Like the blues, we glimpse such perduration in Gamoneda’s poems of hope as well as in the poems of despair, such as in the brief, yet intimate poem that concludes the book:
When I fall on a chair, and my head brushes death;
when I grab the darkness of the pots with my hands;
or when I contemplate the documents representing the blues,
friendship is who holds me.
Gamoneda, who came of age as a poet in the wake of the Generacion del 27, found in the American blues the presence of what his great predecessor, Federico Garcia Lorca, had earlier theorized as the presence of “duende” in the poetries of deep song. Lorca writes that all “the arts are capable of possessing duende,” and often, “the composer’s duende passes to the interpreter,” a reality which we glimpse in Gamoneda’s poems, as they weave in the pathos of blues imagery. The book’s surprising internationalism, at a time when Francoist Spain presented a “closed door” on Gamoneda, opens a critical chapter in Gamoneda’s career and influences. Castilian Blues is a significant book because it underlines the understated connections between the Spanish duende tradition and the American blues tradition, in the unlikely space of Gamoneda’s unique social-realist lyric style.
© 2021 by Jose-Luis Moctezuma. All rights reserved.
Helene Bukowski's harrowing debut novel invites readers to a strange dystopia.
In Helene Bukowski’s Milk Teeth, a debut novel of stark images, “scorched” birds plummet from the sky and plants are “bleached by the sun.” Forests are eerily still after “the great death of the animals,” when desperate quadrupeds sought safety in ocean waters, their carcasses washing ashore “among the pieces of driftwood and plastic.” Bukowski published Milk Teeth in her native Germany in 2019, the year she turned 26, and as we see in Jen Calleja’s nimble and intelligent new translation, she has a flair for evocative scene-setting and some well-articulated concerns about the planet. These qualities fuel a brisk plot in which Bukowski’s heroines are under siege on multiple fronts, fending off murderous bigots and scrounging for sustenance in what appears to be an irretrievably broken world. This is a scary book—and an impressive one.
Milk Teeth focuses on a few agonizing months in the life of our narrator, a young woman named Skalde. She and her mother Edith live in “the territory,” a sparsely populated area in which nature is slowly erasing the remnants of capitalism. This process is epitomized by another of Bukowski’s haunting images: an abandoned high-rise, its windows smashed and its lobby annexed by birch trees.
Skalde and Edith’s house—an eccentric, book-filled place where one might find firewood in a dresser drawer—is stocked with crunchy twice-baked bread, preserved fruits, fuel, and various “provisions” that they gather from the woods and toss in the back of their pickup truck. In Bukowski’s vision of a not implausible near-future, all forms of media and long-distance communication have collapsed. If government of any kind still exists, it’s beyond reach. Skalde, Edith, and the others in the territory endure vast climactic fluctuations—debilitating fog has given way to a heat so extreme that nobody goes outside in midday—but the scientific institutions that might’ve explained and combated these deadly shifts appear to have been destroyed as well.
Bukowski doesn’t coddle the reader; aside from the obvious environmental degradation, she declines to explain exactly what happened that left her characters in such difficult straits. “Some say there was a fire. The dryness of the forests,” Skalde tells us. “…Others claimed the process had been creeping. Bit by bit, everything crumbled to dust.” Many have died. A relative few fled “across the sea.” Skalde and Edith had considered the latter option, but someone blew up the bridge that linked them to the rest of the world. The anonymous vandal’s aim was to prevent outsiders from reaching the territory. Skalde, Edith, and a handful of neighbors are stranded in the forest, maybe for good.
This is all a skillful job of worldbuilding, but it’s just a prelude to a development that threatens to plunge the territory into violence.
Exhausted by the myriad hardships that she confronts every morning, Edith has become mercurial. Her petty arguments with Skalde escalate; she even tries to end one by using boiling water as a weapon. Skalde, in turn, spends her time in the woods, where she’s made a small hideout from fallen branches; inside, she naps on a bed of moss. One day, Skalde finds that her bespoke “den” is being used by a particularly vulnerable squatter—a preadolescent girl whose hair is unmistakably “red, as if ablaze.” This is a problem. Many in the territory, motivated by what appears to be a mix of naivete and superstition, believe that people with red hair are evildoers who should be chased away or killed before they ruin everything for the area’s longtime residents. The girl, we learn, is Meisis; she has no parents and can’t (or won’t) explain how she ended up in a place that shuns her. Skalde takes her home. This infuriates Edith, who knows that Meisis’ presence is likely to make them targets. Skalde focuses on “the situation I found myself in in that moment. To wake up next to the child and hold her hand, as if I had never done anything else.”
The intolerance of redheads, an allegory for any number of historical and contemporary instances of discrimination, is the book’s least subtle—and least original—component. In the 2010 short film “Born Free,” a 2010 collaboration between the British hip-hop artist M.I.A. and French director Romain Gavras, boys and men with red hair are rounded up, bussed to a desert, and executed. M.I.A. has said the film was inspired by the plight of the Tamil ethnic group during the 26-year-long Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in 2009. But if Bukowksi’s allegory is derivative—a charge that can be leveled against any number of metaphorical representations of bigotry—it remains a crisply effective component of the story. When Meisis alights in the oft-grim territory, her hair is a vivid, unmistakable contrast to her surroundings—amid the “greyness and austerity” of abandoned buildings, she’s a dazzling bas relief come to life, a vision of beauty and innocence that a loud, dangerous group of local bullies cannot abide. Meisis’ plight needn’t be interpreted as having a specific meaning—it’s an evocative parable that reminds us of the damage wrought by ignorance, jingoism, and incendiary falsehoods.
In the face of this simmering hostility, Skalde and Meisis press on with their routine. They tend a potato patch before noon, when “the heat outside was still bearable,” and they butcher rabbits for meals. They hang their handwashed clothes on a line “stretched between the plum tree and the cherry tree”—an example of the many vivid images that Calleja, Bukowski’s translator and a past finalist for the International Booker Prize, renders in prose that’s simultaneously plain and poetic. The attempt to forge a refuge for Meisis flounders when angry neighbors, who’ve already threatened to harm the girl, come to believe that she’s to blame for the recent disappearance of two young women. The neighbors can’t explain what the child might’ve done, so they don’t try—to them, it’s enough that she has the red hair of “a changeling.” According to pernicious legend, changelings never lose their milk teeth. It’s on this basis that the neighbors issue a threat: if Meisis, who’s about six years old, doesn’t start losing her baby teeth within a few weeks, they’ll kill her. Skalde is left to devise a humane solution to an appalling ultimatum. Should she, Meisis and Edith flee? Try to negotiate a truce? Lock the doors, retreat to the basement, and live off preserved food? None of these options are appealing.
Bukowski doesn’t explicitly answer any of these questions, a fruitful narrative choice that imbues the action with an ambient, unsettled menace, which stayed with me in the hours and days after I reached the end of this economical book. In one tense scene, Edith reminds Skalde that in years past, she’s suffered numerous “injuries” inflicted by violent neighbors; Bukowski elaborates, but only a bit, describing an incident that left Skalde’s bloody nose dripping onto her pickup truck’s hood. Her decision to let our imaginations fill in the blanks is evidence that she trusts her readers. It’s difficult to distinguish oneself in the crowded field of postapocalyptic fiction, but Bukowski’s dystopia is at once vivid and ominous. Like a horror-film director who knows that the suggestion of menace is scarier than a river of blood, she recognizes that restraint is her ally. Moreover, when she asks us to imagine a planet that’s been rendered barely livable, one where society itself has been obliterated, she recognizes that it’s a thought exercise we’re all prepared for. It comes too easily.
Animal suffering and climate migration, bigotry, and borders—in Milk Teeth, Bukowski confronts daunting issues but never gives in to despair. Ultimately, her debut succeeds because it’s populated by characters who feel authentic—people who are duly frightened yet heroically normal in the face of cascading crises. They eat blackberries till their lips turn purple, take long baths, and eat dinner in silence, their dogs snoozing “peacefully under the table.”
Meisis loves the forest, feels safest there. So does Skalde. Often, they wander into the woods and relax in the shade beneath a big evergreen. “Sometimes,” Skalde says, “we would lie for hours between the pines and not move. It almost felt like we would sink into the landscape.” With the palette Bukowski has given us, the reader can see this rich tableau; it’s composed of red hair, green moss, brown tree bark—an afternoon of tranquility in an age of ruin.
© 2021 by Kevin Canfield. All rights reserved.
The strength of Mokhtar Mokhtefi's memoir is in the invitation it offers the reader to experience the personal stakes at the center of all collective struggles.
In the late 1940s, with World War II over, tensions were mounting in the French colony of Algeria. It is during this period that Mokhtar Mokhtefi gains admission to a prestigious French boarding school, Duveyrier, in Blida, Algeria, not far from his home. From the classrooms of this school, he learns about the philosophical and political principles that underpin French governance: liberté, égalité, fraternité. During his weekends at home among his family and friends, he will witness various injustices perpetrated under French colonial rule that undermine those same principles. Mokhtefi’s memoir, I Was a French Muslim: Memories of an Algerian Freedom Fighter, chronicles the formative experience of inhabiting these juxtaposed realities. His detailed account of his first-hand observations of the hypocrisies of French colonialism sheds light on the process by which average Algerian citizens eventually joined together in the struggle for independence.
The book begins with the author’s arrival at a French preparatory school, where he would become the first member of his family to receive an education beyond primary school. Mokhtefi’s writing in this initial section is as much a coming-of-age story as it is the tale of his scholastic endeavors and exposure to Algerian resistance movements. As he learns about the environment that produced him, the young boy also wrestles with feeling like an outsider in a space he does not fully understand. In one particular passage, the boy’s perception of his outsiderness manifests in something as simple as his lack of pajamas:
After going to the shoe storeroom, the dressing room, and the bathroom, I realize that all the Algerians are wearing pajamas, I’m the only one not. When I put on my gandoura, the terrified look of a neighbor, the disdainful look of another, are chilling. All of a sudden I feel like an outsider, an intruder. Mortified, I get under the covers and let the tears flow. I hold it against those boys but also against my father, who refused to buy me pajamas, the article of clothing that would have helped me integrate in this environment. I know that pajamas are worn by people who have “evolved,” that they signal modernity.
Mokhtefi reveals not only the humiliation he felt but also the French perspective he has internalized—that he has not “evolved.” The author’s advanced age at the time he penned the memoir provide a retrospective gaze and the necessary distance for him to reread his own adolescence and ascribe meaning to formative moments like the one above.
Part two (the narrative is divided into three parts) is a granular look at the struggles faced by the average young nationalist at the dawn of war. Titled “Awakening,” this section delivers on its promise to illustrate how Mokhtefi wrestled with and eventually joined up with pro-independence movements. At this stage, the young man spends his time rallying student support for the nationalist cause. He spends his free time debating the contours of revolutionary efforts with friends and colleagues before eventually concluding that the National Liberation Front (FLN) represents the future of his nation, shown in this exchange:
I answer: "The three-step proposal being put forward—'ceasefire, elections, negotiations'—is certainly unacceptable."
"I totally agree with you."
I continue: "Algeria must go forward, like Morocco and Tunisia, with negotiations that recognize our rights to independence."
"The problem is more complex," he notes. "Neither Morocco nor Tunisia have nine hundred thousand Frenchmen on their land. Given the diversity of the population, we could envisage an independent Algeria in association with France."
"Ferhat Abbas suggested that formula ten years ago," I point out, "and as you know, he just joined the FLN in Cairo."
The memoir provides a reminder that the path to independence was uncertain, compelling young nationalists, who shared pro-independence goals but who could not always agree on how to achieve independence or on what governance post-independence should be structured, to work towards finding common ground and compromise. Differences in opinion among nationalists often led to infighting and individuals like Mokhtefi were consistently challenged to reconcile diversity of opinions with their own objectives.
In the third and final part, Mokhtefi succeeds in enlisting and joining the ranks of soldiers who leave their families for the maquis,a group of resistance fighters who would eventually bring about the Algerian Revolution. He learns how to operate telegraph equipment and transcribe Morse code used by freedom fighters, but not without noting how the militants have assembled a mirror image of French military forces:
As much as I am delighted to discover, the morning of my arrival, that the [training] center resembled a small military barracks, this caricature of an exercise taken from the enemy army is grotesque. In order to appear soldierly, Hassani expands his torso, salutes with rapid-fire gestures, and speaks forcefully. Somewhere between the phony tough guy and this corporal who walks and acts embarrassed, the sergeant looks ill at ease.
The remainder of the book follows Mokhtefi’s journey as he throws himself and his energies into the fight for Algerian independence while remaining observant and critical of the choices made by leaders around him. The memoir ends with a final, formative moment in both his own coming-of-age and in Algerian history: the crystallization of independence.
First released in French in 2016, the memoir is far from the first autobiographical narrative to be penned by an Algerian freedom fighter. The strength of this coming-of-age journey, set against the backdrop of the struggle for independence, lies in the invitation it offers the reader to experience the personal stakes at the center of all collective struggles.
Language is more than just a method of communication. It is about the ability to lay down roots, to settle into an identity, to have a place in history, in the present, and in the future. Language is personal, but it is also political. Language is about knowing who you are and where you fit into the social world. People classified as Coloured by the Apartheid regime of South Africa, and now also the Democratic regime of South Africa, have for a long time been without roots, identity, and a language or languages they can claim as their own. This issue presents work by contributors from the Kaaps community, predominantly coming from the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa.
So, what is Kaaps? There are many different answers to this question. Some would say that Kaaps is an Afrikaans dialect spoken by the so-called Coloureds living in Cape Town. Others see Kaaps as a language distinct from Afrikaans. Very little information is available on the formation of the language of Kaaps, with some narratives tracing its development to the eighteenth century, when communication became necessary between the Khoikhoi people of southwestern Africa, the recently arrived Dutch, and enslaved people shipped in from West Africa and Asia. This resulted in the creation of a pidgin-turned-creole that became known as Cape Dutch, based in Dutch and blending indigenous languages of the Khoikhoi and San, as well as Malay, Portuguese, and Indonesian. However, in the late 1800s a group of Dutch descendants known as the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (GRA), or the Society of True Afrikaners, started mobilizing to purify the Cape Dutch language, calling for it to be standardized. The GRA felt entitled to remove the indigenous “filth” from the language, calling the result Afrikaans.
This Afrikaans language was then used as a tool of oppression by the Apartheid government in South Africa, not only against Nguni language speakers, but also against the descendants of the Khoikhoi and enslaved people. The language discarded in this purification process was regarded as not worthy of use in any formal or institutional setting; for generations, those of us who speak Kaaps have been taught that we must instead speak Afrikaans, a language so far from our roots and the histories that make us. With so little academic research on the history and development of Kaaps done by actual speakers and users of the language, it sometimes feels like grasping at straws to create a narrative for ourselves.
Because Kaaps was not considered a proper language, Kaaps literature and identity are in their infancy. While the first written form of Kaaps appeared in the Arabic Afrikaans alphabet of the early 1800s, there is a limited literary history where Kaaps is concerned. And this absence of Kaaps in the greater South African landscape contributes to the assumption of a people without an identity, agents of the “White man’s language,” Afrikaans. And this is problematic for so many reasons to do with who we are as a people, with our identity, our roots, how we see ourselves in the world, where we see ourselves, and our place in the greater society of South Africa.
In many libraries in the Cape Flats, or other communities where Kaaps is the predominant language, asking for texts in Kaaps is a futile exercise. Often libraries in these communities still do not reflect the existence of Kaaps in either written or spoken form, viewing it as slang or street language. Many Kaaps speakers have internalized these opinions and feel they must identify as Afrikaans speakers when that language does not represent their roots or identity. The resulting distancing and alienation from the dominant culture can lead to acceptance of the false narratives and negative stereotypes that that culture imposes. And the rejection of those stereotypes takes place in a context where one’s own language and identity are not validated.
A lot of work must still be done to grow positive ideas about Kaaps and the Kaaps movement, but there are already some exciting initiatives underway. Currently a group led by Professor Quentin Williams at the University of the Western Cape is in the process of producing a trilingual, first of its kind Kaaps dictionary, and this work is a massive step in the direction of becoming as a people.
In a similar vein, I’ve sought to amplify the Kaaps language and identity through my own work as a writer. After the publication of my first book, which was entirely written in Kaaps, people from so-called Coloured communities all the way to Namibia who considered themselves Afrikaans speakers told me that they relate more to the Kaaps I write than they do to Afrikaans. Language is important, not just as a communication tool, but as a marker of agency.
This is the perspective that informed the creation of this issue. The contributors here not only expand the body of Kaaps literature, but also confirm the link between language and its speakers’ identities.
Khadija Tracey Heeger is a poet, actress, facilitator, cultural activist, and writer who hails from the Cape Flats. Her poem “Children of the Xam” traces the rich and complex ancestry of the region's population, recounting the many generations and peoples that have gone before. As Heeger notes, “the idea of a single bloodline running through a human’s veins is ridiculous, and yet we choose to exclude through this thinking.”
Poet Nashville Blaauw also speaks to identity. His "I Lift My Eyes Up" depicts the council flats of his native Elsies River but captures the entire Cape Flats. The poem alludes to Psalm 121, which speaks about help coming from the Lord; but as Blaauw notes, in the Cape Flats positive influences can be as far away as the mountains and help available only from less positive sources. The influences of the flats are also sometimes a model for young people’s ambitions, and positive role models are often far away like the mountains.
Writer, illustrator, and translator Andre Trantraal also observes township life in “The Wind Blows Where It Wishes and You Hear Its Sound,” the first chapter of his graphic novel Childhood. As Trantraal has remarked, “There isn’t exactly an abundance of stories about children from Coloured townships written by people who themselves know what it is like being a child growing up in a Coloured township.” His portrait of a stubborn young boy in a standoff with his devout grandmother makes a start toward correcting that lack.
Shirmoney Rhode is a writer and performance poet hailing from Elsies River on the Cape Flats. She predominantly writes in Kaaps and is committed to telling, and retelling, stories of marginalized and dispossessed people of color. In "scratch cards," translated by Andre Trantraal, the poet compares lotto cards and childrearing: “they place all their / hopes and dreams / on that one ticket.”
Martin Muller, better known by his stage name SIEP, is a hip-hop artist and community activist using the hip-hop culture as a medium. SIEP is the founder of the production company Ill Major Movement (IMM) and sees himself as a MC, beat maker, producer, and DJ, rhyming predominantly in his mother tongue, Afrikaans. His lyrics blend street culture and slang with comedy, social commentary, politics, real-life issues, and personal experiences in complex rhyme structures. His “Affirm,” from his album SIEP, emphasizes that every person has a soul, echoing his artistic name, SIEP, “Soul in Every Person.” It’s accompanied by the music video.
Olivia M. Coetzee’s “Snake’s Hill” follows a young woman, Sanna, who discovers that the man who raised her is not her real father. Confronting her mother about her father’s real identity, she learns not only that the man is nearby, but that he wants to see her.
For each contributor to this issue, writing is more than just sharing experiences of their world. It is shaping their worlds with their words, with their illustrations, with their music, and shaping the literary landscape and the identity of so-called Coloureds of South Africa. Through this work we are challenging the ideology that writing, performing, singing, and rapping in Kaaps is only for entertainment, and showing that there is more to this world than stereotypes of gangsterism, drugs, alcohol, poverty, and people who have no culture or identity. With every stroke of a pen, every syllable rapped in Kaaps, every word rhymed through poetry, a picture of us is formed, ready to be shared with the world. A picture of a people whose ancestors created this language called Kaaps, and who are continuing to speak and celebrate it today.
© 2021 by Olivia M. Coetzee. All rights reserved.
Watch Khadija Tracey Heeger read her poem "Children of the Xam" in the original Kaaps.
Poet Khadija Tracey Heeger honors a rich and complex heritage.
Between the vertebrae of the Langeberg and carved deep in the palm of the Keerom,
on the tongue of Slanghoek comes the sigh of reconciliation,
it is here you’ll find the name Xam,
in the earth and sky, and in the womb of the Breede.
Plaited through the psalms of the Xam, Khoi, and amaXhosa
the name Cape Town a journey still to come,
off in a distance, still far, still faint, still whisper.
another name translates her seed—an inconvenient history to consider.
From Hessequa and Chainoqua, Namaqua and Einaqua,
till the Kwe and the Kun,
here we are, anchored at this wharf.
Child of the calabash, edge of bow paired with spear and shield
in this sacred tapestry the blood of Khoi and amaXhosa
sweetened with the native Xam.
Another ship, moored in Table Bay,
bears the future sins of the grape.
Still slaves, still shackles reign in this Cape,
fruits of Asia and East-West Africa remain.
My tongue lies in English and aches in Dutch
like backs to whips and cleats
But here in the blood of my blood of my blood—ground from the protea and buchu flesh
a waking root calls on a wandering breath.
Come silenced tongue and praying mantis, pray so our hearts can be strong
and thaw the knowledge of old.
Come fetch me Blombos Cave’s ghost,
come find me Diepkloof Xam’s milk,
come set me free crooked Klipdrift ancestral tree,
and let the centuries describe this cradle’s seed.
In the beginning of the beginning, of the beginning,
in the times, long, yes, long before
Krotoa, Massevana, Susanna, Hintsa, and Chaka bled art on rock,
far outside the grip of the colony,
long, long before the despair of apartheid
the case of categories and purity failed.
under this skin, of our skin, of our skin
rising from the books of DNA, from indigenous and colonizer,
you and I were mixed in the bone marrow found in Elsie’s kraal
and deep within the halls of the ancient Blombos Cave.
“Xam se Kinnes” © Khadija Tracey Heeger. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Olivia M. Coetzee and Khadija Tracey Heeger. All rights reserved.
Watch the music video for "Affirm" performed by SIEP, in the original Kaaps.
This rap performance by SIEP uplifts and speaks truth.
I affirm the soul in each person
I affirm the soul in each person
It’s clean as a bone with the vocal tone
Who is still suffering?
That was seventy-six
Try it now
We make cop thugs cop slugs
That’s one for you and your peeps
Another one for your stepfather peeping
At your sister, trying to chise
We put that red on his shirt
Like Mr. Price
Who runs this shit?
The economy is going to hell
MCs can’t spell
The president can’t count
But count on S-I-E-P
To come through
Bag of chips and all that
Mic check, one two,
Pull rabbits out of hats
The gift of life in flesh is just a rental
I don’t fuck with tats, this body is a temple
Herschelle Gibbs on point, you know what I mean
The beats are nice the herb is tight and light green
Wolf in sheep’s clothing,
Out to get me
Ring my bell, put your paws
up on the windowsill
You can’t trust anyone, son
SIEP is the boss
But only God is great
So come and kneel at the cross
I affirm the soul in each person
I affirm the soul in each person
It’s clean as a bone with the vocal tone
Who is still suffering?
Things we need to learn how to say
Ace of Spades of the DA
Yes, we’re still waiting for ninety-four
Bobo Simon, y’all
I need my cure
Underground, bank account in minus
Spring is here, nose is red, check the sinus
This is for the pain, for the arthritis
Barefoot on the broad way
Satan endorses my chemical descent
When I said get behind me
This is not what I meant
Mortein Target, Doom
Keep the devils and flies at bay
Each day I wonder if my soul’s gone astray
Priest here to pray
Wayde van Niekerk
My mother’s little brother at the bin
Looking for scrap, for food among the old news
So ask yourself this: whose suffering continues?
I affirm the soul in each person
I affirm the soul in each person
It’s clean as a bone with the vocal tone
Who is still suffering?
The flow is simple but the skill is still singular
Kaas, Hess, Olie, Dab the best of the Peninsula
Your supremacy is fake like the triple K
Dust and breath, MCs step this way
In life the lesson comes after the examination
That fear at night in my room
When I read the Book of Revelation
Loudmouth with a silver spoon
He’s alright but SIEP is sicker
He’s tight but SIEP is deeper
Eyes pink like Floyd, dark side of the moon
I dig Isaac Mutant but I don’t fuck with Dookoom
That’s not a dis, chill, listen again
Laws of physics, let the chips fall where they may
See, I was never top of my class
But fuck it to this day no one has ever been in my class
I affirm the soul in each person
I affirm the soul in each person
Clean to the bone with the vocal tone
Who is still suffering?
“Beklemtoon” © Martin SIEP Muller. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Andre Trantraal. All rights reserved.
Watch Andre Trantraal read an excerpt from his fiction "The Wind Blows Where It Wishes and You Hear Its Sound," in the original Kaaps.
A young boy finds himself desperately making amends in this novel chapter by Andre Trantraal.
The deafening ascent of a passenger jet, like an argument heard in passing, fills the early evening air. Bishop Lavis Township is a stone’s throw from D. F. Malan airport. Seven-year-old James—a slender brown hatstand—his mother, older sister Augustine, and baby brother Stephen are ensconced in the living room, watching an episode of an Afrikaans drama series on television. When they are not idling in the bedroom that they share they usually spend their evenings camped out in front of the television set. There is little else to do.
He does not know where his father is but on a Friday evening it would not be the unlikeliest thing in the world to find him gambling or drinking or both in a gray sandy weedy backyard in the vicinity. His father will be away well into the small hours, as will several of the various relations who also live in the house.
In the bedroom that she shares with an alcoholic husband and an adult son, his grandmother sings and prepares for church. His grandfather, for his part, is a beneficiary of the blissful sleep conferred by cheap wine. Earlier this day he stood in the middle of the bedroom and put away an entire bottle of Oom Tas in one long uninterrupted swig; his head tilted back, his Adam’s apple pulsating obscenely, his eyes meeting James’s for a brief moment as the boy stood in the doorway, watching.
He often drinks when he comes home from work in the evenings, two, up to three bottles at a time. By the time his wife comes home from church he will have finished another bottle, will be ready to put her faith to the test. He will do his utmost to hurt and humiliate and provoke and enrage. There will be profanity, virtuoso swearing, and accusations of infidelity; accusations no less demeaning for their absurdity and patent falseness. He will fitfully spew invective for hours until he finally falls asleep, a tired-out aggressive wind.
Tomorrow he will be surly, quiet and reserved.
James, go get done for church. You know you must walk with Mainie, says his mother.
He gives no reply.
His grandmother is attending the “big tent” this evening. That is what everyone he knows who is a Pentecostal Christian calls these things: popular public church services held inside large canvas tents around the Cape Flats. She expects, as ever, that James will go with her; as usual, he is not too keen to oblige. He hates church, even if he will admit it to no one, including himself, but faithfully attends the weekly service (held in a classroom, with the permission of the relevant authorities, at John Ramsay High). His sister follows the example set by the less pious older members of the household and simply refuses to go to church, while his brother is exempted from attending on account of being a fidget of note. Every Sunday morning James sits by his grandmother’s side through nearly four hours of koortjies and testimony and sermons and prayer, a reluctant but uncomplaining and steadfast companion. He hates every eternal minute of it but he wants—and needs—his grandmother’s approval more. He is certain he desires God’s approval as well but in simple terms of incentive it is easier to tell if his grandmother is pleased with him.
Before he started school he would also go to morning prayers with her—intimate, less formal get-togethers, held every once in a while. The services would take place in the homes of friends: fellow suffering sisters in Christ, fellow housewives and mothers and grandmothers. Sometimes it would just be one other person present, along with James and his grandmother. They would pray in living rooms, curtains fully drawn. The prayers would begin low and quiet and gradually build toward a frenzied wailing climax that dissolved into a bittersweet diminuendo where everyone seemed slowly to become fully aware of themselves and everybody else present again by softly praising God.
* * *
His grandmother is ready to depart.
She wears a dress that kisses her ankles, a colorful silk scarf covers her head; in her right hand she wields a big black Bible.
James, so you don’t want to go to church? Get done!
She had asked him the same question a few minutes earlier from inside the kitchen, over the din of the television set, before swallowing a headache powder with a glass of water. He pretended not to hear. It should be patently obvious to anyone but the most resolutely blind that he is not aching with impatience to go to the house of the Lord. He is still wearing tracksuit pants and a cotton vest, not his Sunday best.
James! she says, her voice rising sharply in disbelief. She is amazed that he is ignoring her.
He can only manage a kind of odd whining sound in response. He stares sulkily ahead at the screen, avoids eye contact with her.
Die Duiwel is wee in jou gat op venaan. You’ve got the Devil up your arse again.
Regret corners him before she even closes the door.
He has disappointed her.
He has not behaved the way a good young Christian should.
He ponders these indictments for a few seconds; then, with studied casualness, he gets up. It is only once he is inside the room where he sleeps that he gives full expression to his desperation by frantically changing into his church clothes. There is still time to make things like they were before, still time to make amends.
He flies through the living room, embarrassed by the eyes that follow him out the front door (he wishes that someone would laugh, it would lighten the moment and spare his blushes, but no one does), and dashes down the street as fast as his thin legs will allow. His grandmother is about to vanish around a corner. He wants to shout, ask her to slow down or wait for him, but it would not be right somehow. He finally catches up to her, slows down and falls into step beside her. His chest burns, his breath is spent. He wants her to smile down at him so he will know that everything is still the same between them, but she just stares ahead, remains silent, and keeps on walking in the falling darkness.
“Die Wind Wai Soes Hy Wil” © Andre Trantraal. Translation © 2021 by Andre Trantraal. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
In Nashville Blauuw's poem, the speaker decries the everyday tragedies that befall residents of council flats.
I lift my eyes up to the council
flats, where does my help
Where moving out is
mostly in a coffin
and youngsters are expert
in theft and multiplying hurt
knife against the throat
and enough guns on the street
but no food to eat
But while I toss
the coin and skip school
I’m the boss
because I was
destined for greatness
But Mum’s purse
was unable to enable
I lift my eyes up to the council
flats, where does my help
While flies buzz around the trash bin
while the sums do not add up
and the prospect of profits dim
is it true that my father
used the guitar-string
to ease his pain?
now I’m sitting here
and people say I’m a loser
I’m standing in line
waiting for soup
but the hitman watches and waits
and I wonder
if I’ll see the dusk
I lift my eyes up to the council
flats, where does my help come from?
Where, in the bowels of the shebeen,
you will see my innermost exposed
My mother serves the Lord
So that one day
She’ll wear a golden crown
But all I desire
is the copper that runs
inside old wires
like blood inside veins
and supplies my need
I’m just small fry
caught in a lie
So all I can try
is to not die
“Ek Slaan My Oë Op Na Die Flatse” © Nashville Blaauw. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Andre Trantraal. All rights reserved.
Poet Shirmoney Rhode uses lotto cards as a powerful metaphor for parenthood in this poem.
are like lotto scratch cards
to their parents
they buy tickets
for next to nothing
and they place all their
hopes and dreams
on that one ticket
then they score its surface
with a coin
or a small stone
or anything that will
make the silver come off easily
and if it doesn’t reveal
the numbers or symbols
that will translate into
a posh house or car
then that ticket is bad luck
a waste of money
and it ends up in
a denim back pocket
in the washing machine
and the ticket emerges
in bits and pieces
and that which has no use
will be discarded
“scratch cards” © Shirmoney Rhode. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Andre Trantraal. All rights reserved.
A young woman learns about a family secret in this short story written and translated by Olivia M. Coetzee.
Listen to Olivia Coetzee read from "Slang Hiewel" in the original Kaaps.
My name is Susan Ruiters. Everyone calls me Sanna after my mom’s mother, Susanna. I was born in the late 1970s to my mother, Gertruida Johanna Ruiters, and my dad . . . Well, that’s why I’m here. I never would have known if JB hadn’t told me about the man in the photograph. Maybe Mom would still be waiting for the right time to tell me.
Mom was born on a farm. Her family worked and lived there with ten other families. It was called Snake’s Hill, and all five of Mom’s children were born there: me, the three Johns, and Gert. John was my mother’s husband’s name, but everyone called him Senior, including us, his children. Three of my brothers were named John. John the first was called Junior, he was the second eldest after me, but he was stillborn, umbilical cord strung around his neck. The second John was named after his two grandfathers, John and Bernard, but we called him JB. And the third John, the youngest, was the only one we called by his name. Gert was named after one of my uncles, and he was the quiet one, always with his head in a book somewhere, nothing like the Johns that were left.
If you stand outside our kitchen door, you can see how big the farm is. You may think that this farmer must take care of the people who work for him, putting us up overlooking his farm. The only thing the farmer takes care of is putting up a buffer between the snakes and his family. That’s why we call it Snake’s Hill. During the summer there are snakes, and during winter there are mud and snakes.
* * *
Mom took her time to die. When I was fifteen the white people’s doctors gave her six years to live and sent her home with painkillers and a note saying she had to report to the oncology department at the state hospital for treatment. Our doctor gave her herbs and showed her how to prepare marijuana to smoke and drink. Mom turned forty that year she got the news. Ten years after her diagnosis I left to find my father and Mom was up, working in her garden, taking care of her house, drinking her herbs, and consuming marijuana. She was too busy taking care of life to worry about death, she would always tell anyone who would listen.
“Your heart, your body, and your mind, that’s what counts,” she always said.
We never owned the land our house was built on, nor did we own the house itself. It was the property of the farmer. Sometimes it looked like he owned us, the way he would push the workers to do their job, or else. How do you own a house on someone else’s land? Mom believed that every person needed to have one thing before they died.
“If there is nothing else, Sanna, you’ll still have a place to go home to. Everyone needs a place to call home.”
Growing up, I had a home, a mother, and brothers who I loved, and memories and a picture of the man I knew as my father, Senior. The winter after Senior died, I would lie on Mom’s bed in the sun, daydreaming about him. The warmth of his voice, the calluses on his fingers when he would wipe the tears rolling down my cheeks after something one of the boys did. The wink he gave me after shoving a handful of sweets in mine, as if to say, “Don’t tell the boys you’re my favorite.” But his face changed over time, or maybe it was my view of him, because the older I got the more I felt the disconnect between me and Senior. The photo in the frame next to Mom’s bed was no longer enough.
“Look, Mom, Senior’s still smiling with us,” I remember saying as I lay on my back with the photo frame in my hand. She was standing in the door watching me, a small smile caught in the corners of her mouth, but there was always something swimming in her eyes that I could never understand.
“But it’s just a photo, my child,” she would say, taking the frame and wiping the glass to remove the fingerprints I left on it. She would then fix the doily on the bedside table and put the photo frame back in its place. It was almost like she was looking to maintain her distance from the man she had married, because she had three of his shadows running around her every day, asking for a bigger piece of bread or complaining about school shoes too small for growing feet. Then she would always leave as the tears formed, reminding me that we needed to peel potatoes. The older I got the more she required me to do chores around the house and help take care of John and Gert.
But the closest thing I had to a father-daughter relationship after Senior died was our pastor. He cared about the families in his flock, scolding when it was necessary, praying when prayer was needed, and preaching when preaching was called for, but most important, he delivered his envelope for our tithes on time every second to last Sunday of the month. He did his work of keeping his flock in line with what the Scriptures said. But I was grateful for him. He begged Mom to allow me to join the choir. When she refused, he forced her hand by telling her that she was sinning by “keeping one of God’s angels out of his choir.” His words, not mine. I was the only one who could sing and wanted to play an instrument. My siblings were out practicing rugby and breaking radios so they could fix them again. But it’s not like our dreams mattered, because we knew we would eventually have to join the farmer’s workforce. The silent law of the land: if you don’t work, you need to leave, and where do you go when there’s only one place you have always known? But when I was at church practicing with the choir or at home singing by myself, it was like I could see the world opening up to me. People always said I took after my father, but I never heard Senior sing—he hardly ever said two words. But I never questioned them.
“This child is born with the devil in him,” Mom always used to say when JB went on a streak of setting fire to any little thing he could get his hands on, toy cars, my dolls, mom’s torn doilies that she put aside to fix when she had the time. JB was two years younger than me.
“Starting fires wherever you go,” she always scolded JB, and when he ignored her, she would turn to me and tell me to stop singing. I couldn’t keep myself from singing, but I tried, practicing every day with the choir to get it all out. But the more I sang, the more I wanted to sing. I just couldn’t understand why Mom was so against it.
“You need to get married, have kids, and take care of them” was a tune the other girls of the neighborhood and I heard on the regular. My brothers and the other boys, of course, were never told find a wife, marry her, have kids, and settle.
But Mom’s wish for me to get married and have kids almost came true. I met Connie a year after I completed high school. Mom threatened me using the pastor’s tricks, telling me that I was sinning against God for not marrying the man he sent me.
“Will you marry me?” was not the question I wanted to hear coming from a man, but that was the expectation when you met a young guy who was “good enough” in your mother’s eyes. He was a mechanic, just like his father and his father’s father. But of course, things between us didn’t last.
The fact that my relationship with Connie ended didn’t stop Mom nagging.
“Sanna, you must take a husband and settle down,” she begged me the same year I decided to go and look for my father. JB was the one to start that fire inside my head. Mom was right, he starts fires everywhere, and as he grew older his words became the matches spreading sparks wherever he went. I laughed at him when he told me that we had different fathers. I thought JB was just being his usual self, getting up to nonsense. But when he saw I didn’t believe him he stomped out of the kitchen into Mom’s room—when she wasn’t home, he could come and go in her room as he pleased. That specific day she had to go to the clinic for a check-up, and usually when she went there, she would leave early in the morning and come back home late in the afternoon. He returned with a little parcel in his hands, threw himself back into the kitchen chair next to me, and said, “See for yourself!” Four rubber bands held the parcel together. I can remember one of the rubber bands snapping as he pulled them off. He placed the photo, the letter, and a red harmonica in front of me, saying, “Read this and tell me if I’m lying.”
While I was inspecting the letter and the photo, he picked up the harmonica. I started reading the letter, written in big cursive letters and addressed to me. JB started coughing after he sucked on the harmonica.
It’s strange how words and images remain fresh in your brain when you go through life-changing moments.
But that’s not all. After JB had his fun with the harmonica, he said with a big sigh,
“I saw him here when Senior was still alive.”
My questions about what JB meant were met with a story: it was the year before Senior died, and after he and Mom told us to go sleep, like they normally did, a visitor arrived, the man in the photograph. JB, being JB, left the bedroom, pretending he was thirsty. And that’s when he saw my father sitting with Mom and Senior.
“He smelled like Aqua Velva and smoke,” JB said. I asked why he had never told me anything about this. He said he never knew until he read the letter and saw the photograph and the red harmonica.
That afternoon when my mother returned from the clinic, she told me the story of my father and his dream of joining a jazz band in Cape Town. She told me how she tried everything to get him to stay with the two of us, but his mind was made up, and she couldn’t stop him. He promised to visit, but he never did. He left her with a few hundred bucks, a newborn baby, and a broken heart.
When Senior moved back in with his parents, six months after my father left, they fell in love. Mom said Senior took me as his own blood and never wanted me to know that I wasn’t his own. And when Senior died, she decided she would tell me the whole story when I was ready and able to understand her side of it.
“It looks like the Lord decided that you were ready to know, my child,” she whispered with tears running down her cheeks.
I cried with her while she explained, voice trembling through her heartbreak. Time and again she stopped, resting, wiping her nose, tapping with a tissue on the tear tracks across her cheeks before taking a deep breath and continuing with the next part of the story. I asked her about the night JB saw my father. She told me she didn’t want him to see me, because what would she have told me about him? So she asked him to leave, and he left the letter, the photograph, and the harmonica. He came prepared, like he didn’t expect Mom to even open the door for him.
She was expecting me to be angry, but how could I be? All I felt was a sense of relief because everything made sense to me. The times she scolded me for singing—maybe she was scared that my dream would also break her heart. When she kept on pushing me to find a husband, to get married. Maybe she thought if they had been married, he would’ve stayed. Maybe she was scared to lose me. It made sense why I could sing, and my brothers couldn’t. Maybe I should have been angry, but I wasn’t.
She finally told me that he plays with a band called “The Nightingales.”
“A friend who knows your father ran into him in Cape Town a few months ago. He regularly plays at a club called Ruby’s, and he wanted to know about you.”
I was excited then to meet Freddy. Still am.
“Slang Heuwel” © Olivia M. Coetzee. Translation © 2021 by Olivia M. Coetzee. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
In a work that takes the form of a diary and a novel, Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero contemplates failure and procrastination to ultimately affirm writing as an act of freedom.
The publication of Mario Levrero’s (1940-2004) The Luminous Novel in English, in Annie McDermott’s beautiful translation, is a true literary event. Although Levrero has enjoyed cult status for some time in Uruguay and Argentina, his work is just beginning to get the recognition it deserves elsewhere. Published posthumously in 2005, The Luminous Novel is his masterpiece: an almost unclassifiable work, halfway between fiction and autobiography, in which we follow the author struggling (and failing) to write a book called “The Luminous Novel.” Fashioning himself as a sort of new Bartleby (Bartleby Lavalleja was one of his early literary pseudonyms), Levrero infinitely postpones the writing of this novel, but, as a good “scrivener,” he then records his fruitless attempts, so that not-writing becomes something to write about at length.
The Luminous Novel is a book whose importance could be compared to that of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and one hopes this release could spark an editorial phenomenon similar to what followed the publication of Natasha Wimmer’s translation of Bolaño’s novel in 2007, almost thirty years after the so-called Latin American Boom captivated the English-speaking world. But unlike Bolaño, García Márquez, Vargas-Llosa, or Fuentes, Levrero is an author who fits only awkwardly in the Western canon or a certain imaginary of “Latin America.” Ángel Rama, the great Uruguayan critic, included him in the “rare writers” club. Rama’s raros, a designation meaning at the same time rare and odd, describes an Uruguayan literary trend that began with the publications of the Uruguay-born French poet Comte de Lautréamont. Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror, with its artistic rejection of bourgeois values and emphasis on the morbid, the macabre, and spiritual eroticism, would become a model for Surrealism and the avant-garde. For Rama, a similar eccentricity can be traced in a “minority trend” within the national literature that included authors like Felisberto Hernández and Armonía Somers, whose works moved away from the laws of causality, made use of the dreamlike and the strange, avoided the utopian perspective on national realities, and experimented with the space of the subjective and subconscious as ways of approaching reality.
All of these aspects can be traced throughout Levrero’s vast oeuvre (twelve novels and six collections of short stories, not to mention diaries, comics, and essays), but in Levrero the characterization of the “rare” should not be limited exclusively to recognizing its off-center position within a literary tradition. In fact, he himself mocked the label in a self-interview. His work experiments with diverse genres and themes, including science fiction, fantasy, the crime novel, autobiography, psychoanalysis, and parapsychology. His influences range from cinema and popular culture to authors such as Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett. Levrero’s “rarity” has more to do with a peculiar way of approaching literary and creative phenomena, that is, with his capacity for an obsessive observation of reality that seeks to make the strange emerge from everyday life. It is there that he places the unique spiritual experience of creation.
For Levrero, the contemplation of quotidian images and their subsequent registration in writing reveals secret meanings that emanate from his subconscious and that he can later connect with an intimate and true reality. This aspect is especially evident in the final stage of his work, to which The Luminous Novel belongs.
Levrero received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000 to finish a novel whose planned title was “The Luminous Novel.” He had begun working on it in 1984 and, after a fifteen-year period during which he abandoned and resumed the project several times, he managed to come up with the five initial chapters later published in the novel. The Guggenheim Fellowship promised the necessary financial relief for him to finally focus on and finish The Luminous Novel. Instead, Levrero delivered a massive, 400 page-long diary, which he titled “Prologue: Diary of the Grant.” It covered about a year of entries in which the author documented his daily life as well as his “failure” to write his novel. This text precedes the unfinished “Luminous Novel,” which is just over 100 pages. Both elements are included in The Luminous Novel as we know it.
Levrero’s experiments with the diary form date from 1986, when he started writing Diario de un canalla (Diary of a Scoundrel). First published in an anthology in 1992 and then again in 2014—together with the posthumous publication of Burdeos 1972: A Diary, written in 2003, about his memories of living in Bordeaux for a few months following a love affair—Diario de un canalla is closely related to The Luminous Novel. In the former’s first entry, dated December 3, 1986, Levrero recalls that the aim of the novel, written as he was about to undergo a dreaded gallbladder operation, was “to rescue some passages of my life, with the secret idea of exorcising the fear of death and the fear of pain.” In the same diary, the author tries to investigate the reasons for the abandonment of his novel and recognizes diaristic writing as a form of “self-construction,” with which he tries to “rescue pieces” of himself, and thus confirms an abiding truth of his approach to his art: “I don’t want to talk about style or structure: this is not a novel, dammit! My very life is at stake.”
This strong affirmation underlies Levrero’s later diaristic work, where writing will also be a form of recovery and vital commitment, as seen in Empty Words (1996) (also magnificently translated by Annie McDermott for And Other Stories and published in 2019). Empty Words is based on a kind of handwriting therapy that consisted of performing calligraphy exercises under the idea that, by improving penmanship, personality can be restored and character affirmed. What begins as an exercise in embellishment of the letter moves towards a reflection on artistic creation.
The Luminous Novel is part of the same journey of self-knowledge, therapy, and literary exercise as the previous books, but, above all, it is a renewed reflection on artistic creation as a form of spiritual experience in the contemporary world.
In The Luminous Novel, Levrero’s inaction takes on pathological and addictive traits, which he refuses to remedy, despite his deteriorating health. He goes to sleep in the wee hours, after having spent the day experimenting with Visual Basic and playing cards on the computer; he eats little and only thanks to a generous friend who delivers him food; he is late to Yoga classes and resists leaving his house as he prepares literary workshops; he puts off therapy and spends much of his days perfecting a yogurt-making technique; he evokes failed love affairs, interprets his dreams, watches pornography, and procrastinates until dawn, when he finally puts pen to paper. His diary entries, recorded in the twilight hours, his sleep disturbances, and his inability to get off the internet are expressions of a daily and repetitive failure: the Sisyphean punishment to which life subjects him. On the other hand, this lack of discipline also reveals traits of authenticity, since life and writing “without form” is a struggle against adaptation: an expression of rebellion against demands for order in life or for rigid adherence to the conventions of literary genres. This honest and genuine acceptance of defeat is not without humor, and at the same time it is a result of deep self-reflection and spiritual searching.
The writing of Levrero’s diary begins with the desire to transform the mundane everyday into a “spiritual and luminous” experience. Usually regarded as a marginal genre, the diary is transformed into a full-fledged literary work through the enunciation of its author’s failure to write. Through Levrero’s description of his own search for it, the elusive text becomes a tangible and concrete literary sign, making the diary the only possible work, the central work. If addiction was a way of “escaping reality,” diary writing reestablishes connection as it becomes an exploration of a relationship with the world. Levrero’s reaction to his own helplessness is not tragic, but comical and cynical. It is a complete acceptance of failure as a possibility of life. Hence the hilarious little letters addressed to “Mr. Guggenheim,” where he writes ironically about the misuse of the funds of the grant. By thumbing his nose at one of professional writing’s most coveted prizes, Levrero mocks the institutionalization of the figure of the writer and, contrary to expectations, does not write the promised novel, but simply vindicates the experience of writing as an act of freedom, a spiritual act.
The distance between the five chapters of the novel written more than fifteen years earlier and the diary entries from the year 2000 is insurmountable. The writer has been transformed and is unable to return to that original inspiration. However, the diary as a lengthy prologue prepares us for “The Luminous Novel,” a captivating part of the book, where spiritual experiences are expressed in such simple details as watching a dog, an encounter with a pigeon, the evocation of lost loves, sexual encounters, or the conception of life as a journey in which our different selves simultaneously ride trains to various and uncertain destinations. Finally, the last chapter, “First Communion,” which appears as an independent piece, is one of the most powerful stories in the book. It narrates, by way of closing, the story of the author’s own spiritual communion and his encounter with God in adulthood. Here, the artist indulges in a religious experience that can only be compared to the mystery of the creative act, full of intensity and transience, and, in his case, not exempt from irony and ambiguity.
Both “Prologue: Diary of the Grant” and “The Luminous Novel” are deliberately unfinished. This condition honors one of Levrero’s beliefs about literature: “The only thing that matters is style.” Faced with this idea, which diminishes the value of any organically structured plot, all that matters is the voice of the writer, which comes, as Roland Barthes remarked in Writing Degree Zero, from an articulation between the flesh and the world. This points us to the originality and importance of Levrero’s diary, which is an exercise in style, or rather, a true literary work. That unique voice, his style, is faithfully maintained in Annie MacDermott’s translation.
When we read Mario Levrero in English, we continue to hear his comic, intelligent, cynical, and endearing voice. We feel that we are engaged in dialogue with him. We are unafraid of being alone, or of experiencing our own failure.
© 2021 by Isaura Contreras. All rights reserved.
The year Pablo Escobar was killed was the year I realized I would become a writer. Escobar was, of course, the head of the drug cartel whose war against the Colombian state had shaped my teenage years, beginning with the murder of a minister of justice in 1984—I was eleven then—and continuing during the following decade with a kind of terrorism that we had never known before: bombing, for instance, a shopping mall on Mother’s Day, a commercial airplane with more than a hundred passengers, and even the well-protected building that housed the national intelligence agency. Escobar wanted to pressure the government into rejecting extradition laws that would have sent drug dealers to American jails; he dreamed of negotiations such as the ones that had ended with amnesty laws for guerrilla members in the previous years. His best strategy, he thought, was generalized fear. The extent of his determination is evident in an undercover recording of his voice taped while he was in hiding.
“We have to create real fucking chaos so they’ll call us to peace talks,” he says. “If we take it to the politicians, burn down their houses and make a real bloody civil war, then they’ll have to call us to peace talks and our problems will be fixed.”
Like most Colombians, I had several close encounters with “chaos” during those years. One of them has a special meaning for me, so much so that I have given it narrative form in a novel called The Shape of the Ruins. On January 30, 1993, I was walking toward a place that had become for me a retreat, a refuge of sorts. The building occupied a whole block in downtown Bogotá; it was built like a warehouse, with brick walls and no windows, and its three stories held dozens of small cubicles where, it seemed to me, you could find a secondhand copy of every book ever published in the Spanish-speaking world. As a disenchanted law student, slowly coming to terms with the place that fiction had taken up in my life, I used to flee the classroom at the slightest opportunity—between, shall we say, Administrative Law and Equity and Trusts—and spend some time browsing, often losing track of time and missing Equity and Trusts, and collecting cheap editions of Latin American fiction like a man gathering tinned food for a long period of isolation.
That day I had one title in mind: Último round, two volumes of miscellanea by Julio Cortázar, an Argentinian writer whose novel Hopscotch I had read the previous year with feelings of jealousy and frustration. Hopscotch followed the lives and conversations of a group of friends and lovers in Paris, and its world of books and jazz and existential doubts could not have felt more seductive for the young man I was, because it was conspicuously not my own world of senseless violence, of constant threat, of TV ads that offered unreasonable rewards for information leading to the capture of a mafia lord, or asked Colombian parents, in block capitals, white on black, this ominous question:
DO YOU KNOW
WHERE YOUR CHILDREN
ARE RIGHT NOW?
A friend of mine, a reader older than me and thus more knowledgeable, had told me that Último round included a particular essay about what he called, rather pompously, the art of the short story. “You can’t write short stories if you haven’t read ‘On the Short Story and Its Environs,’” he announced. So there I was, hunting for that magical book in the place I knew best. But before visiting my windowless warehouse, I decided to try my luck at a nearby stationery shop that used also to have a small selection of books and had often surprised me with unexpected treasures; reaching the shop window, however, seeing that the place had been invaded by small, noisy children and nervous mothers buying supplies for the beginning of the school year, I decided to walk on. I had turned the corner and was approaching the entrance to my warehouse when the bomb went off. In the news, late that night, I learned that the attack had probably targeted the Chamber of Commerce, that it had left twenty-five dead, and that among the victims were a couple and their two children, seven and four years old, who had been buying stationery for the new school term.
The narrator of The Shape of the Ruins remembers these words, attributed to Napoleon: “To understand the man, you have to understand what was happening in the world when he was twenty.” I was twenty years and thirty days old when that bomb went off in downtown Bogotá, leaving me to face the uncomfortable fact that, with a small adjustment of time or place, I could have been one of the dead. A friend of mine used to say that if a book matters to us, we may not recall the exact details of its plot or its characters, but we will always remember what we were doing when we read it; conversely, I’ve always thought that fiction readers, when remembering an important event, tend to recall, almost involuntarily, the book they were reading at the time. The day of the bombing I was reading Seven Nights, a series of lectures on literature by Jorge Luis Borges. In my copy I underlined these words: “There is no chance. . . . What we call chance is our ignorance of the complex machinery of causality.” But I don’t think I had the bomb in mind when I chose them.
I finished my Borges in February and I read Aura, by Carlos Fuentes, in March. I read The Alexandria Quartet between April and May and The Unbearable Lightness of Being in June. Because I’ve always written down the date I finish on the last page of every book I read, I can state for a fact that I was twenty years and seven months when I read Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, in Julio Cortázar’s translation; I was twenty years and nine months old when I read Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, and twenty years and eleven months when, just weeks after Pablo Escobar was gunned down on the rooftops of Medellín, I finished Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, reading the last lines aloud as if they were a prayer susceptible to being answered. Ellmann is talking about Joyce’s two areas of interest, his family and his writing. “These passions never dwindled,” he says. “The intensity of the first gave his work its sympathy and humanity; the intensity of the second raised his life to dignity and high dedication.”
To return to Napoleon’s dictum: that was my world—the world of my twentieth year. On one side, the unpredictable violence that shaped our lives in the theater of an irregular war; on the other, the invisible revolutions that involved only me, as I began to accept that this, the possibility of a life spent reading and writing fiction, was replacing every other ambition I’d once had.
Over the years, I’ve slowly come to the realization that the two phenomena did not occur in separate universes. The novels I read in those days were, it seems to me now, a kind of antidote against the degradation of my society. While terrorism transformed individual lives in devious ways, including the lives of those who did not experience it in the flesh but felt its indirect consequences, the novels I was reading, although incapable of solving anything, seemed to respond with a certain private order to the public chaos. They preserved a certain notion of the human—indeed, the humane—amid actors and circumstances that seemed bent on reducing, even obliterating it. A novel was a place of silence where I could rest from the deafening noise surrounding us all; a place where I could live for a sustained time in the company of a consciousness more penetrating than my own; a promise of a richer, fuller life.
As terrorism forced us to live indoors, where risks were reduced, a feeling that I can only call claustrophobia began contaminating my days. The fictions I read alleviated that sense of oppression, mainly by pointing at the common human factors between myself and all those men and women dealing—in faraway places and in their own languages—with preoccupations I could understand. I looked for fictions that could speak to me across cultural contrasts; I’m not exaggerating when I say that I felt myself better understood by Stephen Dedalus than by the newspapers I read every day. When today I discuss the internationality of fiction, I’m really remembering this: its mysterious ability to read me, to interpret me, across time and space.
This, I believe, is fiction’s claim to being an international art form: its ability to liberate us from our frustratingly limited perspectives on life. The fictions I read lived in conversation with other fictions: García Márquez introduced me to Virginia Woolf, and Vargas Llosa introduced me to Flaubert. With each one of those new acquaintances, my sense of reality seemed to enlarge. In a book of interviews—which, according to the last page, I read in December 1993—Adolfo Bioy Casares is asked whether to write is, in a certain way, to stop living. He answers:
It seems to me that the opposite is true. I dare to give the advice to write, because writing is adding a room to the house of life. There is life and there is thinking about life, which is another way of going through it intensely.
But there were other, more complex emotions. A novel was also a place of solitude where I could recover from the hostility, the sheer anger of my city; a place of quiet nonconformity and careful rebellion, a rejection of the flawed world outside, a silent protest that was not altogether free of resentment. In García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, Simón Bolívar has this to say about what I was feeling, perhaps unfairly: “Every Colombian is an enemy country.” The violence outside invaded and contaminated our private lives. I’ve written a short story about this—it’s called “The Boys” and appears in my collection Songs for the Flames—in which middle-class teenagers meet to fight for fun, unable to recognize or understand the deep pleasure they take in making somebody else cry or bleed. This is the degradation I was talking about. We were all broken, each one of us, living in a broken society. In a mysterious way, the activity of reading fiction, even if it never quite mended those fractures, opened a space that I could use to better cope with them.
Twenty-eight years have passed since then. I have published a little under 3,000 pages of novels and short stories; also, two books of literary essays and hundreds of reviews that strive to understand what fiction is, what it does. I have changed in these twenty-eight years, and the books I love have changed, and my relationship with fiction has changed too. In one obviously important way, my twenty-year-old self was (quite unconsciously, truth be told) using fiction to deal with a hostile reality; today I consciously use fiction to investigate that reality, whose hostility has also changed but never disappeared. Rather than protecting myself from it, I use the novels I read, but also those I write, to go toward it—toward its areas of darkness, its uncharted territories—and try to come back with some kind of illumination, or, to use a humbler word, information. We may as well call it the news. I have forgotten where I encountered for the first time those lines of William Carlos Williams that many writers before me have brought to court to speak as witnesses in defense of literature:
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
With a few exceptions like Spanish and English—my language and yours—most of Europe refers to long works of prose fiction with a word derived from romanice, which in medieval Latin means “natural language” or “common tongue,” as opposed to written Latin, the language of scholars and elites. This little etymological insight pleases me, I must confess, because it reflects the democratic impulse that to me is inseparable from the genre: this genre born, in its modern incarnation, when an anonymous Spanish writer thought that the life of a poor outcast, a pícaro called Lazarillo de Tormes, was worthy of our curiosity and our sustained attention. But our beautiful word novel, coming from the Italian or the Old French for “news,” feels to me deeply satisfying. With its suggestion of messengers reaching us from undiscovered countries—yes, areas of darkness and uncharted territories—with the implicit embracing of everyday reality, the reality one would see in the papers, the novel carries the promise of bringing us something that concerns us and concerns many men.
What this something is, the nature of this news, has always been difficult to define. It is obviously not the kind of information we look for in journalism or history, precious as that is; it is not quantifiable information, or information that can be confirmed empirically. Fiction, James Wood writes, is “a ceaseless experiment with uncollectible data,” and many of the misunderstandings surrounding it arise from the expectation that the data contained there are, in fact, collectible. Of course, any attentive reader will close Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler knowing more than before about casinos, and they will probably learn with Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense many a thing they didn’t know about chess. But if that’s all they get, or all they were after in the first place, to say that they would be missing the point is perhaps an understatement. Borges called one of his great short stories “an ethic for immortals,” but I expect few readers will approach it with the intention of applying its lessons in the future.
The novel we call historical has often been the victim of this kind of misunderstanding. Of course, every reader of Wolf Hall will learn a great deal about the court of Henry VIII, and I can only be glad they do, just as every reader of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World will gather interesting facts about the War of Canudos in nineteenth-century Brazil. But I dare say both Vargas Llosa and Hilary Mantel pursue a double goal in their fiction: to be as accurate as history, yes, but also to tell us something that history doesn’t. Great nonfiction, of which I have consumed plenty, seems to me irreplaceable as a source of a certain kind of information. What would be the point of using fiction to give readers more of the same? The novel’s sole raison d’être, says the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch, is to say what only the novel can say. And what is true about the past, as explored in the best works of the historical genre, is true of the present as well. The news we receive from the novels of Javier Marías or Ali Smith is not to be found anywhere else. Carlos Fuentes used to ask, “What is imagination but the transformation of experience into knowledge?” Yes: fiction is knowledge. Admittedly, it is an ambiguous and ironic kind of knowledge, but one without which our understanding of the world would be incomplete, fragmentary, or even severely flawed.
This is what fiction has to offer. But the real question is: What do we want from fiction?
This question has taken on a new meaning for me in the last few months, as we grapple with the uncertainties of the pandemic. I caught the virus at the end of February 2020, so early in the game that the tests in my country were not able to diagnose it correctly; for a few months, after overcoming a severe pneumonia and recovering with no serious consequences, I was convinced I’d had a different virus, although every new symptom confirmed by the media turned out to have been present in my case. Today, the uncertainty that I felt back then has yielded to our general uncertainty, the collective difficulty of knowing just how all this should be dealt with. It seems to me when I look out of my digital windows (through which virtually no place in the world escapes our gaze) that the pandemic has deadened our ability to imagine others—their anxiety, their pain, their fear—and exhausted our strategies to deal with our own fear, our own pain, our own anxiety.
In these moments, hundreds or maybe thousands of us have reached for Albert Camus’s The Plague, or Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, or even García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. What I find stubbornly fascinating about this attitude is the fact that there is something religious in it (believers looking for answers in a Book) and at the same time deeply practical and almost materialistic: novels as “interpreters of maladies,” if I may borrow for a second Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful title; or, to put it differently, fiction as a vade mecum. Those words, as you will know, mean “Go with me.” That’s what I ask of the best fictions: that they walk with me, interpreting the world as we move forward, telling me the news.
© 2021 by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Reprinted by permission of Litfest. All rights reserved. The Lancaster International Fiction Lecture is a joint venture between Litfest (Lancaster Literature Festival) and the Departments of Languages & Cultures and English Literature & Creative Writing at Lancaster University.
The languages featured in this issue take us back more than five hundred years, when the monsoon winds brought traders from the Arabian Peninsula, China, and India to the Malay Archipelago. Language contact between different Asian communities who sailed across the seas to trade, and the arrival of first the Portuguese and Spanish, and later the Dutch and British, in Asia resulted in the development of hybrid communities, out of which arose new contact languages, often referred to as creoles. Spanning across four countries and boasting influences from various linguistic traditions, the contact languages represented in this issue are Zamboangueño Chavacano in the Philippines, and three Portuguese-based creoles, Sri Lanka Portuguese, Melaka Portuguese (also known as Papiá Cristang), and Patuá (also referred to as Macau Creole Portuguese and Makista). Also featured is a lesser-known Malay-based vernacular, Chetti Malay (Malay Chetti Creole), spoken in Malaysia. Based on their dwindling number of speakers and a lack of intergenerational transmission, Sri Lanka Portuguese and Melaka Portuguese are classified as endangered, while Chetti Malay, and especially Patuá, which has fewer than fifty speakers left, are critically endangered. This special issue aims to provide a space for the voices of these contact languages to be heard, offering readers a glimpse into the world of these mainly minority communities as they share their thoughts and stories in their original languages, which appear alongside the translated versions of their writings.
In the fifteenth century, Bazaar Malay, a form of pidgin-derived Malay, was the lingua franca among traders and locals in the Malay Archipelago, including in Melaka (located about 150 kilometers south of the current-day capital city, Kuala Lumpur). A particularly bustling port city, Melaka was the birthplace of two of the contact languages featured here: Chetti Malay, a Malay-based contact language spoken by the Melaka Chetti, who are said to be descendants of intermarriages between South Indian Hindu traders and local women; and Melaka Portuguese, which traces its roots to the arrival of the Portuguese in Melaka in the sixteenth century. The resulting unions between the Portuguese and the locals led to the development of the Melaka Portuguese-Eurasian community. Other than the Portuguese, from which most of its vocabulary is derived, Melaka Portuguese displays influences from Malay in terms of its grammatical structure, and also contains words from Malay, Dutch, and Indian (e.g., Hindi, Konkani, and Tamil) and Chinese (e.g., Hakka and Hokkien) languages as well as English.
To the west, the Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka from 1505 to 1648 gave rise to another Portuguese creole, Sri Lanka Portuguese, which was used by the Burghers, i.e., those of Portuguese and even Dutch ancestry, and by the Afro-Sri Lankan community (also known as the Kaffirs1). Today, it is mainly spoken by around three thousand Portuguese Burghers in a few locations in Sri Lanka. As the Portuguese moved to East Asia, yet another Portuguese creole, called Patuá, developed. More specifically, Patuá arose when Melaka Portuguese speakers settled in Macau, and it is indeed very similar to Melaka Portuguese, showing the connections between these and other locations along the Portuguese route. Patuá also displays influences from Malay, Cantonese, and English, while Sri Lanka Portuguese is influenced by Tamil and Sinhala. The final language in this issue, Zamboangueño Chavacano, however, differs significantly from the others: it is the only Spanish-based contact language featured, and its status is stable, with about 300,000 speakers and a tradition of language education, literacy, and literature.
This issue includes poems in Chetti Malay, Sri Lanka Portuguese, Patuá, and Zamboangueño Chavacano, and a folktale in Melaka Portuguese. The four verses in Chetti Malay by four members of that language community—Nironjini Pillay, Shagina Bhalan, Nadarajan Mudalier, and Mahendran Pillay—are in the style of a traditional Malay poem known as the pantun, with its typical a-b-a-b rhyme scheme. The tradition of the pantun among the Melaka Chetti distinguishes them from other Malaysians of Indian origin, as this form of cultural expression is particularly associated with the Malay communities of Southeast Asia. In their oral form, these poems require linguistic creativity and dexterity as verse after verse is traded between speakers. The Melaka Portuguese, in fact, had a similar form of these singing duels, the mata cantiga (literally “to kill with a song”), while a related exchange of pantun, also known as the Dondang Sayang, is still performed by another hybrid community, the Baba Nyonyas in Melaka.
This particular pantun comprises four verses that describe the origins and cultural heritage of the Melaka Chetti people, with a special focus on their traditional attire. As is typical in a pantun, the first two lines in each verse present a figurative suggestion of the more direct message contained in the final two lines. The translation of the poem attempts to retain the rhyme and rhythm of the pantun while maintaining the overall meaning of each verse.
The two Sri Lanka Portuguese poems included here, written by Magin Mario Balthazaar, a Sri Lanka Portuguese Burgher, also reflect the cultural heritage of the author’s community. Translated by Hugo C. Cardoso, “Minha ámoor nóóna” (“My Beloved Lady”) and “Tééra nósa viida” (“The Land of our Lives”) reflect the importance of music and dance in the Portuguese Burgher community as it celebrates love and life.
“Macau nôs-sa téra” (“Macau, Our Homeland”) is a poem in Patuá by lawyer and playwright H. Miguel de Senna Fernandes. The poem is an expression of love for one’s homeland, a theme that is shared by Balthazaar’s “Tééra nósa viida” and can also be found in Melaka Portuguese literature; it can perhaps be related to the need to identify with a place, to find a sense of belonging among mixed minority groups and their diasporic communities, who over the last five hundred years have lost or are losing their language and possibly parts of their culture. This language loss has taken place gradually, as more dominant languages replace a community’s home language, as speakers become more fluent in these dominant languages, and as they culturally assimilate with people outside their communities through, for example, intermarriage and migration.
The tone shifts in two poems by the late Francis C. Macansantos, a poet and writer who wrote in Zamboangueño Chavacano and English. Born in Cotabato City in the Philippines, Macansantos grew up in Zamboanga City and lived in Baguio City from 1981 until his death in July 2017. His works have won several awards, including the National Book Award for Poetry in English in 2017 for Snail Fever. In both of the poems that appear here, “Ojos del marijada” (“Eyes of the Wave”) and “Ñor Marcos (Un Soliloquia)” (“Mr. Marcos—(A Soliloquy)”), the sea plays a key role, as does a sense of succumbing to one's fate.
The final piece in this issue is a folk story told in Melaka Portuguese. “Diabu kum Tripa” (“The Gut Demons”) is translated here by Sara Frederica Santa Maria, who teaches Melaka Portuguese to children at the Portuguese Settlement (and to both children and adults online since the COVID-19 pandemic began). The Portuguese Settlement (Kampung Portugis in Malay) was established in the early 1930s by the coast of Melaka. The approximately twenty-seven-acre village is about fifteen minutes away from the city center and has a population of about a thousand people. The Melaka Portuguese refer to the Settlement as Padri sa Chang, which literally means “The Priests’ Land,” as the land for the village was obtained through the efforts of two Catholic priests, Father Alvaro Martin Coroado and Father Jules Pierre François.
In “Diabu kum Tripa,” Sara brings into English a story she heard many times as a young girl, which is a rather gory tale of six pregnant women who become bodiless demons. It was not uncommon for such frightening stories to be passed from one generation to another as a form of advice to prevent children and young people from going out late in the evening.
You will notice that the original Melaka Portuguese text of “Diabu kum Tripa” has similarities to Sri Lanka Portuguese and Patuá. This is not just because Portuguese is their main lexifier—it also relates to their historical development as the Portuguese traveled through South, Southeast, and East Asia. Along the way, the contact languages that developed were already likely to be a mixed variety, which then continued to evolve through further contact with local languages, peoples, and cultures. Five hundred years on, these three Portuguese-based languages, as well as Chetti Malay, are at risk of disappearing and, like Patuá (and Tugu Portuguese in Indonesia), may only be heard in performances in the future; Zamboangueño Chavacano is the only one of the contact languages featured here that continues to be used and learned widely. The writings in this issue, then, are a rarity, and we are pleased to present them in both their original languages and in English translation, so readers may first “hear” the authors’ own voices and then begin to grasp them through translation.
For speakers of endangered languages, creative writing can be an opportunity to express themselves on subjects personal, traditional, and contemporary, using the nuances and melodies of their languages. The work they produce often speaks to their histories, traditions, and values, and gives readers a sense of what is important to them, whether it be love, family, or maintaining cultural traditions (themes found in many of the works presented in this issue). However, as Macansantos’s poems show, these writings can also be a powerful expression of the human condition, particularly that of the poor and marginalized. In addition, for multilingual writers such as those represented in this issue, choosing to write in their heritage languages can be seen as an expression of agency, an active choice to communicate in a nondominant language rather than, for example, an official or national language (e.g., Malay, Filipino, Portuguese, or Chinese), or an international language like English. Thus, providing a space for minority and endangered languages to be published and read in their original form, rather than just in a translated version, connotes respect for these languages, their writers, and their communities, and helps to document their use for future generations.
1. Note: This term is not offensive in the Sri Lankan context.↩
© 2021 Stefanie Shamila Pillai. All rights reserved.
In this traditional folktale passed down orally from one generation to the next, pregnant women turn into demons.
Sara Frederica Santa Maria reads "The Gut Demons" in the original Melaka Portuguese.
Long ago, deep in the jungle, there lived six pregnant women. Every day they would go hunting for food. This activity exhausted them, as their bellies grew bigger and heavier by the day. One day, they gathered to speak about their troubles. One of them suggested that they consult a sorceress. They were told that the sorceress could help them, but they could only meet with her on Thursday nights. They discussed the matter for many hours and then decided to visit her.
The very next Thursday night, the women went to see the sorceress. After listening to their troubles, the sorceress replied in an ominous tone: “If you want my help, you must listen very carefully to what I say. When you go in search of food, you must do so at night, and you must only go with your head and intestines.
"You must leave at midnight and be back home by three in the morning. If you aren’t, you will become gut demons for eternity. The only way to return to your human form will be to drink the blood of pregnant women.” The six women took in the sorceress’s words. From that night onward, they would go looking for food in the darkness of the night, leaving their bodies behind. Fearing the curse, they returned home by three in the morning without fail.
The women continued their nightly hunting rituals until one night, when a young hunter spotted them in their bodiless form. All he saw were floating heads attached to trailing intestines. Uncowed, he followed them to their house and witnessed their transformation. The next night, he returned to the house and watched as they left their bodies behind. Waiting patiently until they set out to hunt, he crept into their house. Next, he repositioned the pregnant women’s bodies so that they would have trouble finding them. When they returned, they could not fit into the bodies that were placed where they had left them. Each of them frantically flew in all directions in search of the right body, but to no avail. The clock struck three, and from that moment on they were forced to remain gut demons.
You may say you have never come across these demons. Legend has it they were all captured by mighty sorcerers many, many years ago . . . or do they still lurk nearby, watching you in the dark?
Translation © 2021 by Sara Frederica Santa Maria. All rights reserved.
In this self-translation, the late Filipino poet Francis C. Macansantos masks the dark side of the ocean with deceptively seductive language.
Listen to Dr. Sonia Macansantos Alensub read Francis C. Macansantos's "Ojos del marijada" in the original Zamboangueño Chavacano.
Stop looking for the wave’s eyes.
With its whole body it gazes at you,
Eyes of blue-green watch you,
Dimpled smiles hidden in water.
Laughter of clouds at its crest
Doing a little dance before hurtling down,
Crashing against your chest because it knows you,
Pulling you out to sea, summoning you
To a home where you lived long ago.
"Ojos del marijada" © Francis C. Macansantos. Translation © Francis C. Macansantos. By arrangement with the estate of Francis C. Macansantos. All rights reserved.
A dying man contemplates his poverty and the heavens in this self-translation by the late Filipino poet Francis C. Macansantos.
Listen to Dr. Sonia Macansantos Alensub read Francis C. Macansantos's "Ñor Marcos" in the original Zamboangueño Chavacano.
Mr. Marcos, a junk dealer, was found dead at dawn, still seated on a bench overlooking the sea at the Zamboanga wharf.
Dawn till twilight
I’m on the lookout for empty containers
To sell to the Chinaman.
Tin cans and bottles,
My cart, low-slung like a sled,
Is like a table that glides down the street,
Starting as a void
That fills out at day’s end
With empty containers.
If I find nothing,
I cannot set plates on the table.
The day is an empty container
Filled with empty time.
What face can I present to those
Whose plates are full,
Whose time is full,
Whose lives are full?
A bigger void still
Is the sky
Where stars scatter, pell-mell,
And in daytime is space tinted blue.
Is what gives us patience.
Are they two sisters
Or two faces of being broke?
Here by the seashore,
The moon taunts, smiles,
“Come into my parlor, old man.”
Talk to my children, whore,
Jingle and shake your stars
In their faces.
Here I will wait for the sky
To open her chest.
Here we will face each other,
Void to void.
"Ñor Marcos (Un Soliloquia)" © Francis C. Macansantos. Translation © Francis C. Macansantos. By arrangement with the estate of Francis C. Macansantos. All rights reserved.
The origins and heritage of the Melaka Chetti people take center stage in this pantun, a traditional Malay poetic form.
Listen to K. Vimala Devi Rajah (d/o G. Kandasamy Rajah) read "Pantun" by Nironjini Pillay, Shagina Bhalan, Nadarajan Mudaliar, and Mahendran Pillay in the original Chetti Malay.
Traveling from India to Melaka,
Dealing in spices, cloth, and copper.
We are known as the Chetti of Melaka,
Guardians of tradition and culture.
Sporting shirts with bronze buttons we inspire,
Ornate fabric so expensive.
A symbol of culture is our attire,
Radiant, handsome, and majestic.
Curry simmering in a cast-iron pot,
A pot passed down through generations.
Dressed in kebaya with hair tied up in a knot,
Chetti women ready for celebrations.
Dressed in sarongs and white T-shirts,
And wooden clogs inherited from ancestors.
A shawl on the shoulder and headgear on point,
These are a Chetti man's treasures.
"Pantun" © Nironjini Pillay, Shagina Bhalan, Nadarajan Mudalier, and Mahendran Pillay. Translation © 2021 by Nurul Huda Hamzah and Stefanie Shamila Pillai. All rights reserved.
This poem praises the people, the land, and the culture of the Sri Lanka Portuguese Burgher community.
Listen to Magin Mario Balthazaar read "Tééra nósa viida" in the original Sri Lanka Portuguese.
The fish sing over here,
The fish sing.
If you go to the seashore
You will hear them.
The shrimp fishermen
Are catching crabs.
Let’s buy some fish
And live the good life.
What’s the name of our land?
It is Batticaloa.
How beautiful is it?
Is our land, Batticaloa!
1. A typical dance and musical tradition of the Sri Lanka Portuguese Burgher community.↩
2. A popular Sri Lankan musical style historically connected with the traditions of the Portuguese Burgher community.↩
3. A traditional Sri Lankan drum played with the hand.↩
"Tééra nósa viida" © Magin Mario Balthazaar. Translation © 2021 by Hugo C. Cardoso. All rights reserved.
Dancing figures prominently in this short love poem.
Listen to Magin Mario Balthazaar read "Minha ámoor nóóna" in the original Sri Lanka Portuguese.
My beloved lady, my sweet lady,
Come and sing so beautifully.
There will be no trouble, life will be good,
Come and dance the káfriinha.1
Beside the house,
On the nearby fence,
Hang your skirts and all to dry,
Then take them back inside.
Your face is like a rose blossom,
I quickly take your hand
And offer you a gold ring,
For your finger, my beloved lady.
When you and I are united,
Sitting cozily together,
I will give my life, I will give my heart
To you, my lady, without regret.
1. A typical dance and musical tradition of the Sri Lanka Portuguese Burgher community.↩
"Minha ámoor nóóna" © Magin Mario Balthazaar. Translation © 2021 by Hugo C. Cardoso. All rights reserved.
This laudatory poem in Patuá celebrates what makes Macau unique.
Listen to H. Miguel de Senna Fernades read "Macau nôs-sa téra" in the original Patuá.
Macau, our homeland
Humble, though of great nobility
A tiny land of a thousand wonders
A flower for anyone in grief
Macau, our homeland
In the world there is no other like you
Home of peace, of charity
A home for every soul
Macau, a holy name blessed by God
Macau, a sweet treasure that we keep
A land of dreams,
Oh, such a beauty!
Macau, our homeland
"Macau nôs-sa téra" © H. Miguel de Senna Fernandes. Translation © H. Miguel de Senna Fernandes. All rights reserved.
"Afroinsularity" is one of two winning poems selected by Airea D. Matthews for the 2021 Words Without Borders—Academy of American Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Listen above to Shook read their translation of Conceição Lima's "Afroinsularity"
They left the islands a legacy
of hybrid words and gloomy plantations,
rusted mills, breathless sterns,
sonorous aristocratic names, |
and the legend of a shipwreck on Sete Pedras.
They arrived here from the North,
by mandate or perhaps in the service of their king:
navigators and pirates, slavers, thieves, smugglers,
simple men, rebels and outlaws too, and Jewish infants
so tender they withered like burnt corn.
On their ships they brought compasses, trinkets, seeds,
experimental plants, atrocious sorrows,
a standard of stone pale as wheat,
and other dreamless, rootless cargos,
because the entire island was a port and a dead-end road.
All its hands were black pitchforks and hoes.
And there were living footprints in the fields slashed
like scars—each coffee bush now exhales a dead slave.
And on the islands they were
bold: arrogant statues on street corners,
a hundred or so churches and chapels
for a thousand square kilometers,
and the insurgent syncretism of roadside Christmas shrines.
And there was the palatial cadence of the ússua,
the scent of garlic and zêtê dóchi
on the témpi and ubaga téla,
and in the calulu, bay leaves blended with palm oil
and the perfume of rosemary and of basil from the gardens on our family land.
And the specters melted into
the islander’s clocks—tools of empire
in a structure of ambiguous clarities
and secular condiments,
patron saints and toppled fortresses,
cheap wines and shared dawns.
At times I think of their pallid skeletons,
their hair putrid at the edge of the sea.
Here, in this fragment of Africa
where, facing the South,
a word rises high
like a painful flag.
© Conceição Lima. Translation © 2021 by Shook. All rights reserved.
This year, we partnered with the Academy of American Poets to bring you the third edition of the Poems-in-Translation Contest. We received 606 poems from 327 poets and 79 countries, translated from 61 languages. This year’s winners were selected by Pew Fellow and Yale Series of Younger Poets winner Airea D. Matthews.
The winning poems will be published in Words Without Borders and in POETS.org’s Poem-a-Day on Saturday, September 25, and Saturday, October 2. Published alongside the poems will be the original language texts and recordings of both the original poems and their English language translations. Check back throughout the month for interviews with the winners on the WWB Daily, and don't miss a virtual celebration with readings from the winners on September 27 at 7 p.m. ET.
The winning poems and their date of publication are:
Judge’s citation: “Though birthed on an altogether different continent in an altogether different country, ‘0' moves with the same lush rebellion and avant-garde flair as a poem in the twentieth-century infrarealist movement. Marked by a free, fluid, and layered aesthetic, readers leave this work with a sense of the author’s urgent integration of art and life. Though unrestrained by grammatical structure, this translation heightens craft by presenting the implicit and explicit—the personal and shared experience—as dually embedded.”
Judge's citation: “This prize-winning translation haunts. In the vein of a paracolonial text, the poem examines the specters of a racialized human commodity and its ecological aftermath. As if magic or conjure, ‘Afroinsularity’ launches with hints of ghosts and ends in a colony of haints. The reading of each deftly interpreted line thrusts the reader to beautifully confront the ways in which land holds the stories that history attempts to colonize, and how land will out the truth until the long-buried rest.”
Watch a recording of our Brooklyn Book Festival Event "World in Verse: A Multilingual Poetry Reading," a celebration of the winners of the 2021 Words Without Borders—Academy of American Poets Poems in Translation Contest
"0" is one of two winning poems selected by Airea D. Matthews for the 2021 Words Without Borders—Academy of American Poets Poems in Translation Contest. Don't miss Lauri García Dueñas and Olivia Lott on Monday, September 27 at the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Listen to Olivia Lott read her translation of Lauri García Dueñas's "0"
a cold zygote lives in my heart oblivion has your shadow you know how to count the stairs between us you know at what point i begin to boil they took the tops off the manholes on my street today i was the same as always today the woman you never see break into folds a porn star of feelings who wants to smash open a piñata the city lingers in its broken wires the men on the street are ghosts who wander around mine is an untimely escape i learn to reject your daily punishment the oppressor feeds on the pain of the defeated the defeated are going to rise up the boy dogs know about the howling but the girl dogs yell too nothing is absolute in the animal kingdom i have to get out of here the lack of movement is killing me i wasn’t born to be a sedentary figure collecting holes and blood i want to sleep surrounded by the streetlights on alameda central on a caribbean island i trace my enumeration in notebooks i make plans for what i want to write i’m naive and i want to devour the world with a bang man fleeing on a bicycle fleeting excuses for the same certainty delirium of you unwillingly over my flesh the victim’s face in your hand my victim face in your hand i want to snap the umbilical cord tying us together i’m tired of being half of your uncertainty the sisyphean madness of not repeating the course i’m going to throw stones i’m going to stone the old woman who found her way into my arteries trespasser i don’t want to keep on bleeding out my reborn i is going to break the chains of centenary torture i’m going to fight primeval fascism this time this time i’m going to breathe cry stockpile mutinous springs lacustrine landscapes maritime landscapes the neighbor has bedroom problems my issues are more complicated than a sheet with five corners how many people fit in a moldy relationship existence is god making a face i don’t like his jokes you have to put the body in writing the body in writing the body uproot thought the new man’s downfall you have to burn the old clothes turn thirty go on a trip kill time once and for all float naked with somebody in green fountains walk barefoot on pavement become beggars so as to stop the suffering to blow up the past present-day paradise dragged along by deluge come clean the kitchen pay the bills sleep with me to the rain looming over mexico city open your jaws for us make kids laugh dogs bark straightforward metaphors of us i lost the gas tap i lost all that we were don’t say memory to me let’s not say dying i’m hungry night is vengeance i say celestial noise and the sky over the city is crashing down
© Lauri García Dueñas. Translation © 2021 by Olivia Lott. All rights reserved.
Blurring genre boundaries, Cârneci's debut novel brings to life a mesmerizing landscape of female desire and frustration. As the fragmented yet captivating narrative examines the twin subjects of love and loss, readers are confronted with the ultimate feminist agenda of a woman’s right to choose, together with the numerous hurdles and dilemmas associated with it
Magda Cârneci’s FEM was first published in Romanian a decade ago (Cartea Românească, 2011) and reissued by Polirom in its popular “Top 10+” series in 2014. The novel was nominated for the annual award of the Romanian Writers’ Union, the Augustin Frăţilă Award, and for prestigious awards given by Radio România Cultural and the cultural weekly Observator cultural. Its first foreign translation, by Florica Courriol, was published in 2018 by Non Lieu in Paris, followed by Sean Cotter’s hot-off-the-press English version for Deep Vellum in 2021. In the short time since its publication, this English version has garnered well-deserved attention and praise, and in addition to receiving several high-profile reviews, it was Asymptote’s Book Club selection for June 2021.
To date, this book is Cârneci’s only foray into the realm of full-length literary fiction, and what a debut it has been! It has received numerous accolades by major literary figures, Mircea Cărtărescu calling it “a protest novel” and Deborah Levy highlighting its “profound, mysterious” and emotionally gripping nature. Fiona Sampson reminds readers of the book’s “sensual yet also intellectually and politically charged” content and hails it as a work “that can change lives.” Literary critics have been equally generous. Alta Ifland’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books establishes a parallel with the work of Clarice Lispector, and there has been a notable tendency to welcome the book into the international feminist canon. Adina Diniţoiu points out the novel’s “initiatory” qualities, while Marius Mihet draws attention to its potential as a “psychedelic novel about the essences of femininity.”
Cârneci is best known for her award-winning poetry. She is a member of the influential eighties generation in Romanian culture that includes internationally towering figures such as Mircea Cărtărescu and Matei Visniec.1 In fact, Cârneci is among the very few women writers on the male-dominated scene of contemporary Romanian literature. Romanian society has been and continues to be a predominantly patriarchal society, in which women’s roles are still likely to be defined along traditional gender lines. The work of important feminist scholars and activists such as Mihaela Miroiu, Maria Bucur, and Laura Grunberg has done a great to deal to challenge this status quo, and Cârneci joins them in this endeavour by deploying a literary, rather than overtly political, challenge. Her contribution is additionally significant seeing that she simultaneously subverts the formal purity of literary genres, introducing a fusion between poetry and prose that was seldom seen at the time and has since been taken up and practiced by several younger women authors.
FEM is a work rooted in what Stefan Borbely calls “cruel and bewildering honesty,” written in a truly experimental format that blurs the boundaries between literary genres. In FEM, Cârneci adopts a lyrical tone and the perspective of a young female narrator, who tells the story of her life to a man she is on the cusp of leaving. She calls herself “a kind of Scheherazade” whose storytelling is captivating yet fragmented and modular, in keeping with the novel’s elegant postmodern style. Even though the story follows a chronological timeline from childhood to adulthood, the narration gains dreamlike and visionary qualities, juxtaposing details of mundane incidents with descriptions of life-changing events.
As a novel about the female experience par excellence, FEM addresses key aspects of becoming a woman, such as the protagonist’s first period and her indecision about having a child. These passages constitute pioneering discussions of such topics in Romanian literature, and rightly situate Cârneci’s prose among global feminist classics. Just as importantly, however, the novel is about intimacy and that unique relationship with another human being that is simultaneously sexual, sensual, loving, disappointing, and ultimately unbearable. As FEM’s highly stylized and meandering prose examines the twin subjects of love and loss, readers are confronted with the ultimate feminist agenda of a woman’s right to choose, together with the numerous hurdles and dilemmas associated with it. Sean Cotter’s elegant translation meaningfully punctuates this internal tension and brings to life a mesmerizing landscape of female desire and frustration.
The novel fluctuates between passages in which the protagonist addresses her male partner and her reminiscences about her life, mainly in the first person and occasionally in third person narrative. Sections directly addressed to this man frame the book, thus positioning the protagonist as a modern-day mythical storyteller whose incursions into the past serve the poignant purpose of explaining the present and paving the way for her eventual decision to move on. Ultimately, this contemporary Scheherazade is bracing up not only to leave a particular partner but also to liberate herself from the shackles of a life lived on someone else’s terms, with a view to carve an alternate path for herself and start anew:
Darling, I needed to liberate my brain from these visions, to leave them behind, solidified. To leave them like the shells of odd, exotic snails, on the impersonal beach of memory detached from myself. To leave them behind like testimonies, like concrete proofs, on the yellow sand, fine and damp, on the shores of this deep world, this giant aquarium full of turbulent water, from which somehow, I do not know how, I might escape, might extract myself for a moment. I could toss myself onto the shore, onto the other side, to suffocate myself in the new air, in the too-pure ether, to feel like I might lose consciousness. To believe I have died. And then to find, I do not know how, that I escaped this shell for a moment, that I can rise, I can breathe again, I can fly. With another understanding, with another state of being.
Cârneci’s work deserves wider international attention on the strength of this passage alone, and I can only hope that this beautifully crafted publication is just the beginning.
1. In June 2021, a discussion involving these three major figures was hosted by Miriam Balanescu as part of the Romanian Cultural Institute in London’s series of literary events “The 1980s’ Generation and the Republic of Literature” and is available here. A video of Cârneci reading from Sean Cotter’s translation of FEM as part of the Romania Rocks Festival in October 2020 can be viewed here.
PEN International, with 155 centers in more than 100 countries, celebrates its centennial this year with writers around the world who share a commitment to freedom of expression, to literature and the written word, and to each other. Its younger cousin Words Without Borders, launched in 2003, has translated into English and published over 2700 writers from 140 countries, translated from 126 languages.
Both organizations were founded in the wake of cataclysmic global events. PEN emerged in 1921 after the slaughter of World War I. Its founders included Catherine Amy Dawson Scott; PEN International’s first president, John Galsworthy; and other writers who acted on a simple notion—that if writers from different nations could meet and know each other, perhaps the nationalism that spawned the war could be reduced, and friendship among men and women of ideas could have a beneficial effect on their societies (and could also be fun).
PEN Clubs quickly emerged in Europe and North America and soon after in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Australia. The mission expanded from simply a social club into one of the first human rights organizations of the twentieth century. PEN members today not only gather for literary events in their home countries and internationally but also defend writers and the freedom to write worldwide. United by a charter that asserts literature knows no frontiers and should be shared freely, PEN also acts to protect languages and translation, to assist writers in exile, and to expand the space for writers in developing areas of the world. Galsworthy hoped PEN could become a “League of Nations for Men and Women of Letters.” Today PEN is the only literary organization with consultative status at the United Nations.
In 2003, soon after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Words Without Borders launched with a mission to translate literature from around the globe into English so that ideas could be shared and cultural understanding expanded. The Words Without Borders archive leads the field with the most literature translated into English, which it makes available for school classrooms through WWB Campus.
PEN and Words Without Borders, through their missions, members, and fellow writers, share a love for language, literature, and a connection to the world. Both celebrate the universal and the specific, the global and the local, with storytelling as the connecting membrane. Writers, readers, and citizens get to know each other through one another’s fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction, for stories evoke the empathy that binds us together as a planet.
Words Without Borders is dedicating part of this edition of its monthly magazine to the celebration of PEN International’s centenary. WWB has translated and is publishing here three works from three different regions of the world by writers who have a connection to both organizations.
Kettly Mars, president of PEN Haiti, notes, “Being part of the PEN family is a privilege, especially in these extremely troubled times in Latin America and the Caribbean. Speech is in danger, human dignity is in danger. The solidarity that connects us is essential for the struggle of writers, journalists, bloggers, and artists around the world who speak and testify for the voiceless.” She adds, “I found Words Without Borders a wonderful space for exchanging and connecting words. Our fellow (wo)man is within reach of words. The diversity of voices that the organization promotes opens the world’s literature to the world, in all its diversity, complexity, and beauty.”
Kettly Mars shares here an excerpt from her novel I Am Alive, translated from French by Nathan Dize. After the major earthquake in Haiti and the outbreak of cholera, an upper-class Haitian family must accept the return of their schizophrenic oldest son from an institution where he has been living for the past forty years. The shock, the silence, the buried emotions all must be faced by family members who in turn narrate the story, some in first person, others in close third. This excerpt focuses on Alexandre’s return home. The closely narrated family story speaks to the heartache felt by so many Haitians in the wake of the earthquake.
Turkish writer Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu had to leave Turkey because of her outspoken writing. A feminist activist, Nazlı founded the #MeToo movement within the Turkish publishing community. Her controversial gender and political stands resulted in threats, and she moved first to Georgia and then to Germany and now lives on a Writers-in-Exile scholarship from German PEN for 2021–2023.
“In 2020, WWB published an excerpt from my novel, Elfiye, and my life forever changed,” she says. “Mina Hamedi of Janklow & Nesbit Associates reached out and became my agent. Simultaneously, the incredible translator I began working with for the excerpt, Ralph Hubbell, agreed to translate the entirety of my novel. Now, thanks to a partnership between WWB and PEN, yet another excerpt from Elfiye will be published soon. Not only have WWB and PEN supported me throughout this last year, but their efforts have also led to new, lifelong friendships in my life.”
Elfiye depicts the life of the lesbian title character from her teen years, when her outraged family arranges an exorcism, to her relationships in adulthood. In the excerpt here, "Tribades," translated from Turkish by Ralph Hubbell, Elfiye reencounters a former lover who has transitioned to male.
Mohammed (Med) Magani, who for a period lived in exile, has served as president of PEN Algeria and has also served two terms on PEN International’s board. He says, "Undeniably, owing to its long-standing commitment to publish world literature in translation, Words Without Borders shares with PEN International the same and ineradicable principle in defense of the double mission to protect freedom of expression and to create a world community of writers in all circumstances. Persecuted writers have found a keen sense of solidarity in PEN International that feeds on the deep-seated conviction to freeing stifled voices. As a writer in exile, with the help of PEN International, I enlarged my vision and experience of writing beyond national and local boundaries in conflicted times. Inasmuch as Words Without Borders offered me and other writers the precious opportunity to have our works translated and published in English, it multiplied the voices of literature in translation by spreading the words of the freedom of expression and of the right to creative freedom.”
Med’s “Treasures,” translated from French by Edward Gauvin, is an excerpt from his novel Un Étrange Chagrin. In the section featured here, a young bridegroom suddenly cancels his wedding just a few days before it is to take place, challenging the bride’s family position and the bride-to-be’s sense of herself and her own identity in society.
All three stories, set in different locations with different histories, explore the tender and troubled pathways of the heart as characters fall in and out of love and are bound to, then separated from, family. Intensely personal, the stories also reflect the social mores and anxieties of the societies in which the characters live.
© 2021 by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. All rights reserved.
A wealthy Haitian family is thrown into chaos by an unexpected return in this excerpt from Kettly Mars's novel.
Grégoire knew that Alexandre would be coming home to live with them soon. He had a knack for this sort of thing. He had a knack for a lot of things, for as long as he could remember. He could've put money on it. But he never was a betting man. Everyone in the family trusted Grégoire’s intuition. Maybe the others thought about it too, sometimes––about Alexandre’s return––but in general, they spoke very little about Alexandre. Yet the idea of his return floated around in Grégoire’s head for a few months. So, in moments like these, he rationalized: “Under what improbable circumstances could Alexandre come home? For what unthinkable reason would he leave the Institution? How could they imagine the possibility of their brother’s presence in their midst?” This perspective was quite simply impossible. Alexandre had suffered from schizophrenia since adolescence and had lived inside the four walls of a psychiatric institution for more than forty years. What did they know about his life, about the voices that took away his reason and his speech, about the specters who, day after day, sealed his lips shut? How did he live in his own silent realm, on the very margins of life? What did he know about the wars throughout the world, about a Black man ascending to the rank of president of the United States of America, about the death of Michael Jackson? Did he know the name of the Pope in Rome, about gay marriage, about the internet and cell phones? He lived and breathed in the same city as they did, but their worlds had been separated for ages. The family no longer knew Alexandre, lost for so long in his illness. Forty years was hardly the same as forty days. There had been travels, studies, vacations, encounters, loves, marriages and divorces, births and deaths. There had been a whole life, a bundle of large and small moments that they hadn’t shared with Alexandre. The story of Alexandre was stuck in that golden afternoon, in that bizarrely tender moment when he left the shocked household with two nurses, stupefied by a shot of tranquilizer. Alexandre was an illness, an inconsolable regret, a tender but bitter memory, a veil not to be lifted. They preferred not to think about him nor speak of him. It was a way of avoiding the possibility of the impossible.
A fault line, to that point unknown to the island's geologists, ruptured on a Tuesday in January. January, that lovely time of the year, when the nights are cool and the stars appear like flecks of glass blown across the night sky. The houses on the Bernier family's property held up. No one died in their courtyard, thank God. The family could still communicate over the internet, and in the evening, the news exchanged hands between parents and friends in the rest of the world. But what of Alexandre? Grégoire tried without success to call the Institution. All of the telephone lines were blocked. Just like the city streets were blocked by monstrous traffic jams. The Institution called the following evening. Yes––everything was OK. The building had experienced a few jolts, but for the most part it managed to hold together––Alexandre had a few cuts and scrapes––a bookshelf had fallen––but nothing serious had happened. The head nurse spoke but Grégoire heard only a discordant echo, a subliminal message, the beginning of another story. The head nurse had nothing else to add, everything was fine. Grégoire sighed, but he couldn't tell whether it was a sigh of relief or of doubt.
The months went by. One October day, the media spoke of a few confirmed cases of cholera in the Artibonite River Valley, the river that runs through it and nourishes the fields and rice paddies of the Central Plateau like a flow of milk. The Artibonite isn’t just down the road. But the epidemic traveled quickly. And a few weeks later, when Grégoire saw the Institution's number appear on the screen of his cellphone, he felt that another earthquake was about to shake up their lives. The Institution only called once a month, on the last day of the month, to give brief updates on Alexandre. Always the same. He was in good health, he was generally fine apart from his cholesterol levels, which tended to be slightly elevated. It was the beginning of December. The Institution never called at the beginning of the month. Never. Grégoire listened to the words on the other end of the line, and he understood the meaning of every single word the medical director told him. This time the message was crystal clear, but he couldn't find meaning in what was said. Wracked with emotions, his brain refused to register the information he received. A slight tremor overtook his body, from head to toe, and tiny drops of sweat glistened on his forehead. At the end of the conversation he took a few minutes to steady his hands, then he called Marylène and Gabrielle, his two sisters, telling them to meet him at their mother Éliane's house that very afternoon. It was better to tell the old woman the news in person; with her heart condition, they had to be careful. He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and sponged his brow. Despite the shock of the news, Grégoire felt strangely relieved. The catastrophe had befallen him; he needn't wait for it any longer.
Forty-eight hours. They only had forty-eight hours to pick Alexandre up from the Institution. To bring him home forever. That much was clear, especially since there were no other private mental institutions in the capital, and the outdated public institutions were simply not an option. Given the current state of affairs in the country, one had to get creative and rely on solidarity in order to satisfy everyone's most basic needs. This new, unique, unexpected test required them to pool their energy and give their unadulterated attention to an emergency that touched them so profoundly. The medical director left no sense of doubt––the Institution was closing permanently. One of the boarders was sick with cholera and the Institution didn't have the means to handle a full-fledged outbreak within its walls; they had neither the space nor the personnel necessary to manage a quarantine. To make matters even worse, the medical director informed everyone that the earthquake had cracked the foundation of the old house, according to the recent evaluation performed by the specialized Hashimoto firm. For three months, the continuous aftershocks had weakened the structure and the residents were no longer safe. Soon, the Institution would need to be torn down. All of the boarders needed to leave and return to their families. Grégoire couldn't help but think spitefully that the aging medical director had finally found his golden opportunity to retire.
A few hundred yards from the Institution, the family could hear the muffled hum of the car engines and motorcycles that perpetually clogged the streets. Jackhammers and backhoes rumbled as well. In the refuge of Fleur-de-Chêne, it was hard to imagine all of those crumbling houses waiting to be destroyed, the mix of humans and machines. It was hard to imagine the many lives clustered together under tents in every nook and cranny of the city capable of accommodating makeshift shelters for displaced persons––people who would continue living like this for quite some time.
Livia finished serving coffee and was in no hurry to leave. She felt the intensity of the moment, the weight of the silences between each sentence. Something serious had happened to the Bernier family. She was sure of it. She had been with them through rough times like when one of Madame Gabrielle's twins was in a car accident, the kidnapping of Grégoire's second wife, Madame Béatrice, and even the death of Monsieur Francis, the head of the family, last year. But this time the reverberations came to the family in a different way. The danger had no name, not yet. The tiny metal spoons clanked against the insides of the hot china. They all drank their coffee, even Éliane, in spite of her blood pressure. They sat in the garden conversing in short and lively phrases, their tense little exchanges collided with one another. They looked at one another with disbelief lurking in their eyes. They still hadn't surmounted the invisible wall that stood before them. They evaluated it mentally. They skirted the issue at hand, superficially addressing it, asking each other about it, evoking it. They were at a loss. The day was the same as any other, a cool and bright December afternoon where the first breezes of the precocious evening caused the thick foliage of the old oaks to tremble in the courtyard. Grégoire was speaking, repeating the medical director's words as he ran his hands through his unkempt, graying hair. He cleared his throat before each sentence, as if he was trying to expel a cold. He did that when he was nervous. Marylène and Gabrielle listened to him attentively, glancing from time to time at the closed expression on Éliane's face. Sophia could not avert her eyes from Marylène's stare, all the while thinking that Grégoire really needed to go to the barber. Jules robotically smoothed the sharp crease in his black pants.
The old woman was shaken to the depths of her soul. At eighty-six years old, Éliane had to stand up and confront her own private nightmare. Her chest rose with greater effort than usual and her lips were stiff, a sign of great anxiety for her. Luckily her children were there, all around her. They were just as shaken, but they were present and attentive. Her children, who had not been children for quite some time. She glanced at Grégoire's graying temples, his protruding belly, his ever-escaping shirttails. She saw Sophia, Grégoire’s impeccably coiffed third wife, and the stretch marks in her cleavage, her straight lower body and generous upper body, with luscious lips, a nose with flared nostrils, and eyebrows that met in the middle. She observed Marylène's closely-cropped white hair, her eyes fringed with heavy lashes, her strong nose, her thick, stubborn, curled lips, her face without makeup. She didn’t look like anyone in the family except perhaps Irène, one of Francis's spinster aunts who died at the age of one hundred, lucid. With age, Marylène had gradually lost her feminine traits, her appearance mattered to her less and less, and she wore work clothes stained with paint practically all the time. It was quite possible that she did this on purpose to annoy everyone else. Old Éliane’s gaze lingered on Gabrielle's wild mane, the mass of hair she was so proud of, and on her square fingernails––her perfect manicure à la française. Marylène and Gabrielle were like night and day, two sisters as dissimilar as two sisters could ever be. And she saw Jules, the radiologist son-in-law, athletic and elegant with his ponytail held up by a rubber band, trying his best to not appear jealous of his beloved wife, Gabrielle, eighteen years his junior. Nearly old, them too, thought the old woman. But Éliane remained the mother, the one who always acted first, the one who always had the ideas, the one who found the solutions. She grappled with her emotions. She faced her fears. She went to battle. They had to pick up Alexandre, her son wandering in the twists and turns of madness, her son who had once threatened her with a butcher's knife, her son whom she had lost for more than forty years, her son of so much love and so much pain.
Leaning over him, she watches him sleep. Grégoire brought him back about an hour ago. The car ride was physically difficult for Alexandre, who constantly pulled at the seat belt Grégoire had buckled for him. The spectacle of crumbled houses and people huddled under tents in the streets made his skin crawl. Too many people in the street, too many stares that wouldn’t let go of him––eyes that begged from inside broken walls. Alexandre brought with him just one little suitcase and a feeling of confusion accentuated by a supplementary dose of medication before his departure from the Institution. Just after settling into the little house, he stretched out on the bed in his room and, without even taking off his shoes, immediately fell into a deep sleep. He didn’t seem interested in his surroundings, the house that smelled of fresh paint, the black and white pebbles that paved the ground outside the front door. He barely looked at Ecclésiaste, the employee who would be at his service from now on and who, himself, seemed quite shaken. He did not notice any of that. He just sought out his bed as though it was an abyss he could sink into. Éliane's heart beats wildly, her legs are weak, she holds a tight grip on her cane to keep her balance. Forty-two years, three months, and eighteen days was the length of his absence. And he came back one year, to the very day, after Francis died. My God, what message are you sending me? Alexandre has thinning gray hair like his father’s, a little bit of a gut, and skinny arms and legs. He doesn’t look like he’s in good health; his skin is pale. His lips droop to the side of his mouth where he’s missing a tooth. He was the only one who called her Éliane. A fantasy or a privilege that would not have been acceptable from the other children. When he said “Éliane,” he touched her where her wrists and knees weakened, where her heart melted. He reestablished the right to love her without measure, and that didn’t involve anyone else. Not even his father. He is almost an old man in her eyes, a body exhausted by illness, a body that never knew maturity and fulfillment––a fresh fruit that has faded. She is the mother of an old man. Does he still know who she is? Will he even recognize her after all this time? Should she be afraid of him even though Dr. Durand-Franjeune says that he no longer has violent outbursts, that the years and years of medication have broken the inner workings of his illness and filled in the cracks of his being? This makes her tremble. Does he remember the little boy who ran after her in the shimmering light of the oaks? Éliane felt the weight of old age on her shoulders like a heap of lead.
Even though Éliane will soon exit the room, Alexandre opens his eyes and looks all around him. He runs his hands over his face once, twice, three times, as if he could somehow change the scenery, and return to the Institution, to the life from which he had just been torn. He just went through an ordeal, the scale of which was overwhelming. He's feeling an emotion beyond fear, worse than a threat to his life. All the voices in his head go wild. A feeling of pure panic, like the one he tried to escape by running incessantly around the concrete pillar of the living room of the Institution. But here it was, the pillar was deep in the abyss, he saw it there and it must have weighed tons. He could never bring it back and replant it in the middle of his life. He doesn’t recognize the colors around him—they are too fresh, too lively. He’s somewhere else. He’s lost. The stench of the wet paint smacks him in the face, the odor is like a wall he's run into. Where are the others? Where are Joseph and Miss Laurette and Maria? Where are his friends, Gogo and Samuel? He hears the birds singing and fluttering in the trees outside and thinks about the cookies in his pocket. That is, if birds haven't stolen them from him. He'll have to kill the birds, all of them. This is not the Institution, and his legs feel the need to run and jump over the walls, but his legs feel weighed down, heavy. A herd of voices gallops through his head, causing him pain. He sees a woman with white hair leaning over him, looking at him intensely; he smells her perfume, he can hear her beating heart. The old woman can no longer leave. She is stunned and cannot run away, her knees are about to give. Alexandre sees her in the bright light that passes through the glass slats in the little window above his bed. The galloping stops for an instant, just an instant. He looks at her for a few seconds, for what feels like an eternity, and says, “Éliane?”
From I Am Alive. Translated by Nathan H. Dize. Forthcoming, with a foreword by Kaiama L. Glover, in Fall 2022 from the University of Virginia Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from a novel by Algeria's Mohamed Magani, folk tales foreshadow a family's sorrow.
In the middle of an interior facade sunken in abiding shadow hung a water-swollen goatskin lashed to an iron rod. It wept lazy droplets into a broad, flat-edged metal saucer. Safe from prying eyes, stray cats and dogs, birds, rats, parched snakes and scorpions came by turns to slake their thirst at this ganglion that with the start of high summer became an unstinting wellspring through the attentions of Sefwane’s father, who saw to it daily that all God’s creatures, whether locals or just passing through by, drank their fill. Never, said Sefwane, had a member of his family been bitten or stung. His father died, mourned by his mule, which refused its fodder and passed away shortly thereafter. Sefwane swore he’d seen tears fall from the animal’s eyes.
One month before his daughter was to wed, Sefwane, who never spoke of things that had been, shared this scrap of the past with her. The memory had suddenly risen up from the depths of his own tender childhood years.
The daughter was touched by her grandfather’s humanity. Sefwane continued to rattle off memories from his childhood, noticing that they soothed her, procured her moments of respite from the apprehensions and uncertainties of her imminent new life. Having exhausted his personal memories, he moved on to tales and legends heard from grandparents, parents, grownups from the greater family. The days flew by; but a dozen and his daughter would be wed; she was showing signs of anxiety. Sefwane thought then of all those contemporary fables picked up here and here, at a café among friends or strangers who claimed to have heard them from the horse’s mouth. Subjects of frequent discussion, familiar at the end of the blood-soaked ‘90s, such contemporary stories, would-be fairy tales, spread through society like a final balm on the wounds of a dark decade. He began with the following fable:
In a hamlet perched on a plateau, a man and a woman lived in poverty. A thatch-roofed hut with walls of mud provided their only shelter, and a donkey their only keep. The man used the animal to transport goods and earn money. All they had in the world was this means of subsistence. One evening in April, three men armed to the teeth came, kicked in his door, and ordered him outside. He rushed to obey, falling before them with fear in his belly and panic in his eye. He knew nothing good could come, night or day, of such unexpected guests, who left slaughter, terror, and misery in their wake. But he was soon reassured: they wished him no harm and required no payment of any kind. They simply wanted his donkey. He surrendered it to them, along with the saddlebags, into which his visitors stuffed six big black plastic bags and then vanished into the darkness that now covered the land. Mute with fear, and without the slightest hint of curiosity, the man hastened to hide himself away in his hut. Once he had told his wife what happened, she asked him many questions about what was in the bags. The only description the man could supply was of their size and the strings that tied them tight. He never saw the three men again; they had disappeared for good. But the next day, the donkey found its way home in the hours before dawn, wandering through an untended wheatfield amid a riot of spring wildflowers, still laden with saddlebags and plastic bags alike as its owner looked on, dumbfounded.
The contents of these plastic bags proved, for the man and the woman, a source of profound stupefaction mingled with joy and fear. Bundles of a thousand dinars cascaded from the upended bags. The man and the woman had the presence of mind to bury the spoils in a hole inside their shabby hut, and soon forgot all about the source of their windfall. Now that safety had returned to their lives, those lives turned upside down. They built a big house and bought the surrounding land. As for the donkey, it was treated to a luxurious barn equipped with such amenities as heating and air conditioning. After all, it had slaved away for them as both ox and donkey.
All the fairy tales of the civil war, with or without the contribution of a donkey, prominently featured the spontaneous enrichment of simple folk after a series of singular events. Armed men would show up at someone’s house—usually someone retiring, honest, and unassuming—pass on trash bags full of jewels and banknotes, the gains of extortion and plunder in God’s name, and order that someone to keep the bags until they returned on a day yet to be determined. Many times, the bags’ owners never returned from the war, slain or fallen in an ambush or a skirmish with security forces. The safekeepers never saw them again. They kept quiet about the spoils in their possession, resorting to them when the just exercise of their patience seemed to them to have reached its reasonable limit. Beneficiaries of manna fallen from heaven, they went on to enjoy the affluent lives made possible by the money and jewels.
Rumor named them. Sefwane cited these names to his daughter, and she was surprised to hear among them those of three families she knew—families of friends, even—but at the same time, she was indignant to discover that these families owed their fortunes to men with bags and ropes, men who were, moreover, true believers with lethal convictions about the uncrossable line between good and evil. Her father nodded. She told him she was happy to belong to a family that led a comfortable life free of suspicion of theft or dishonesty. Sefwane nodded again, his face awash in utter agreement. He did not neglect to reassure his daughter about her immediate future: she was about to join an honorable family, safe from want, well-to-do long before the advent of the civil war and its fables. Her future held exhilarating possibilities.
His daughter Yesma could dream of everything a girl of eighteen springs might dream of. Mainly, a husband just one year older, accommodating and open to her plans for the future. With his approval, she had chosen the school of life first, and would be free to resume her studies in biology whenever she wished. One subject impassioned her above all else: the preservation of the Saharan bee, a species threatened by the introduction of the Tunisian bee into its natural habitat. Astonishing creature, the Saharan bee! They could travel up to six miles in search of red date trees whereas Tunisian bees had a range of barely two. Yesma, a jujube tree unto herself, would need no easy money; in her future awaited no laden donkey, bearer of a treasure from the civil war’s most wondrous fairy tale. Her father approved of her resolve and told her the very last from the series of fables of troubled times, the one that brought them to an end, stripped them of all wonder, and called down the intervention of powers far greater than man. The wife of a wealthy informer who had gone underground due to his faith and then resurfaced filthy rich, a convert to commercialism tinged with religion, asked her husband to reserve a Turkish bath for just the two of them. Money opens all doors, and closes them too. Once they were naked in the steam room, she asked him for two hundred dinars, to be handed over at once. Obviously, he could not comply, and told her he didn’t have his jacket at hand. His wife insistently demanded the sum from her flabbergasted husband. Finally she said, “When Judgment Day comes, this is how you will appear before God. You will have nothing on you, nothing.” With these words, Sefwane concluded the tales of the cycle of terror and wealth joined by a reminder of divine justice. He had then turned that day to an album of family photos and begun to leaf through it with Yesma by his side. From one snapshot to the next, they noticed details amusing and unusual, recalling their context, and then Yesma’s finger came to rest on a photo in which she appeared, a faint smile floating on her face. Pensive yet serene, her penetrating gaze was fixed on a point beyond the camera’s lens, some imperceptible thing. She tapped the photo and said, “When I am dead, this is the photo of me I want you to keep.”
He had no time to react, or even grasp the meaning of his daughter’s words. Yesma’s two faithful friends had just arrived, at the same hour as the previous evening, and the evenings before that, since the school year started. They had begun studying biology and were no doubt reporting to Yesma the salient facts of their new experience as students. Sefwane would hear the three young women laughing, and no one in the house dared disturb them or interfere with their time together except to bring them fruit and cakes. As he carefully pried the photo of his daughter loose from the album, he noted, that night, a rare silence from her room. It lasted for a good forty-five minutes. His ear barely made out the murmur of hushed voices. At last, the two visitors reappeared and headed for the exit, silent and serious, in something of a hurry to leave. Yesma remained in her room. Sefwane fell in step behind her two friends. He had pocketed the photo and intended to have it enlarged and framed so he could find a fitting place for it in the living room or hang it in the hallway. He would also have it shrunk to a wallet-sized print he could carry around with him.
He came back from the photographer’s to find Yesma hadn’t left her room. He knocked on the door and heard his daughter almost scream: I want to be alone! Uncertain, he waited outside the door until his wife waved him over to join her in the kitchen. She didn’t understand, she told him. Yesma refused to see anyone. And that must certainly have had something to do with the visit from her two friends. Nor would she let her two brothers into her room. Sefwane gathered his family for a summit: under no circumstances was his daughter to be disturbed. It was just under a week till the ceremony, and no word could be allowed to leak out about abnormal behavior from a girl about to be married.
Two days later, his daughter’s friends returned, spent less than half an hour in her room, then took their leave with the same haste, their faces suffused with a somber gravity. Yesma persisted in her isolation as if overcome by a sudden desire to dissociate herself from her own family. She avoided all contact and would not open her door to anyone, refusing to eat or change clothes. With the certainty of the marriage up in the air and incomprehension increasing, anxiety crept through the household, obliterating all signs, expressions, and indications of preparations for an imminent celebration. A palpable unease set in among the occupants and neighbors come to help them and share in their joy. The two friends came back one last time. The girls disappeared behind closed doors even longer than ever before. Shortly after they left, Sefwane came home, his daughter’s gift-wrapped portrait under one arm and a smaller photo of her in his wallet. His wife stopped him short in his rush to show Yesma the framed photo. She steered him to their bedroom, shut the door behind them, and brought him up to date on the latest developments concerning Yesma’s marriage. Her face wan with pain, she did her best to speak calmly. His legs cut right out from under him, Sefwane dropped to the bed, on the verge of passing out. He took his head in his hands, as if to howl.
“The wedding will not take place—not in a week, or ever,” his wife said. The pronouncement of catastrophe, true or false, came from her daughter’s close friends. Yesma’s former husband-to-be had made the irrevocable resolution not to get married, without giving any explanation. He had first announced the news to their two mutual friends, the biology students who often visited Yesma. Tasked with conveying his decision, they had first tried to change his mind, make him aware of the pain she would suffer, her and her family. The last three times they’d been to see him, they’d been messengers involved in a situation already settled to one party, so utterly did the young man dismiss all possibility of going back on his decision. Sefwane recovered his wits and then calmly went over the facts as if to convince someone else, an incredulous onlooker. His wife repeated what his daughter’s friends had said. She had intercepted them when they came out of the room and begged them to tell her why Yesma had locked herself away and would not speak to anyone but them. They had the hardest time in the world revealing the brutal truth to her—the cancellation of the marriage—without being able to explain.
The parents left their bedroom and headed straight for their daughter’s. They found her sitting on the floor, curled up in the corner to the left of the door. Her face exuded despair. She was a shadow of herself, the light gone out of her eyes. She was a ghost of herself, in a loose white dressing gown that hung from her like a shroud. Sefwane and his wife helped her to her feet and laid her down on the bed. “We know,” he said. Yesma burst into sobs. “Every time a door closes,” her mother said. “You can go back to your studies. You have all the time in the world to get married.” “It’s too late for this year,” Yesma said. “More than a trimester has already gone by.” Her two brothers came running and learned at once of the unhappy reversal that had just befallen the family. Sefwane wanted to know if anything, a quarrel, some event, a misunderstanding, a mistake, had set the fiancés against each other. “Nothing, nothing at all,” his daughter maintained. A heavy silence immured all present in embarrassment; they wished to speak of their distress, their grief. The father forced himself to remain quiet, although he was tempted to voice his doubts as to the cancellation of the marriage since the boy’s family had announced nothing of the sort.
The next day, in the hour after breakfast, he received confirmation of the boy’s unthinkable about-face from his father, who called him on the telephone and melted into a thousand apologies and pleas: he didn’t know what his son was thinking, to have become fiercely hostile to the idea of marriage overnight. He then asked after the fate reserved for the groom’s dowry and launched straight into insisting on the jewels being returned. Sefwane hung up that very instant and let out an oath; he no longer wanted anything to do with that man or his family. The jewels will pay for the humiliation we have suffered, he thought. Pleas to recover the jewels and take back the dowry ran smack into Sefwane’s disdain and inflexibility but above all those of his wife. He had trouble accepting the other father’s powerlessness to influence his son and force him to wed. A “respectable family,” the former future husband readying to take the reins of his father’s business. Sefwane’s daughter and their son had been seeing each other since high school; everyone knew about their discreet relationship and considered them already husband and wife. This breakup on the eve of marriage, even were it their son’s doing, could not have come from him alone without injunction or consent from the head of the family, or at his instigation.
The why of the cancellation had yet to be determined. Sefwane went over the criticism the boy’s father might have had of him. The two men knew and liked each other, had coffee together now and then, discussing business and supporting each other when needed, in one way or another. The union of the two families grew clearer, stronger, with their every encounter. When asked to intervene, Sefwane had activated his network of acquaintances. When called upon to give his opinion and arbitrate, he had always sided with his friend without failing to enumerate his wrongdoings in private. What of his family, then? What fault could be found with them? Sefwane opened up to his wife, who told him to forget the whole thing and think of his children’s future. He could not bring himself to accept the facts and locked himself up at home, brooding over the dire fate that had struck his family. When he was not with his daughter, trying to cheer her up, he spent most of his time in his room, pretending to be engrossed in the pile of newspapers one son or another had brought him.
Leaning over the pages, he remembered that he had once taught drawing in elementary school, felt pleasure in guiding those little hands. It hadn’t been so long ago. He recalled his colleagues: some of them had given up teaching when the village school had gone up in smoke. Others had stuck to it and conducted class in impromptu shacks. He appreciated their company in a small town that communicated so little with the outside world, deprived of meeting places apart from two cafés. They had confided their dreams to one another, his own consisting of sliding into pigeon keeping, raising messenger birds atop the mountain that overlooked the village. Within his family, his daughter Yesma had a soft spot for Saharan bees. Two decades earlier, he had nurtured the ambition of ushering his village out of isolation with pigeons. Deep down in their hearts, father and daughter alike had kept the hope alive of serving a cause without asking anything in return.
In an initial display of social withdrawal, Sefwane spent his days cloistered at home. The humiliation, silence from family members, the prying eyes of neighbors come to ask after them—these formed a conspiracy that forced him to shut himself away. It permeated the air and water in the house. In the evening, he stepped out for an hour or two into a capital city where the absence of nightlife was perfectly suited to his soul tormented by his daughter’s misfortune. Seeing to his affairs came to a brusque halt: he no longer had the heart to host festivities in the banquet hall he owned. After a dozen or so difficult days, he informed his family of his next trip to his home village. A simple inspection of the first house they had had as a family, where Yesma and their first boy had been born. He also planned to do a few small repairs as needed, make it look less like a place that had been abandoned, keep rust from devouring the locks. The night before he left, he spoke day and night with Yesma, doing his utmost to convince her to come with him. For a long time she remained undecided, then announced her desire to stay in Algiers and think about other life paths. Sefwane took these words as evidence of a positive attitude and refrained from insisting further.
Setting to work as soon as he arrived, he tackled housekeeping by dusting and cleaning all surfaces, horizontal and vertical, with soapy water, rags, a broom, and a sponge. Next he polished all the furniture until it shone. At four in the afternoon, he sat down in an armchair and beheld the fruit of his labors over the last three hours, what he’d accomplished in one fell swoop. The house was only a single story—so much the better, thought Sefwane. He wouldn’t have had the strength to go on had there been another floor, as was the case with most of the new houses in this village and beyond: they all had upper levels and garages pressed into service as places of business. His house would lose neither its traditional charm nor the features his family had known. He plugged in the TV and allowed himself a little nap; for years now, a barely visible screen and murmuring sound had exerted a restful influence upon him. He waited until night had fallen to go out and wondered when he would be able to shed this recent habit. On previous trips back, it had been his custom to meet up with a circle of childhood friends—teachers, municipal and postal employees—after cleaning the house from top to bottom. This time, crippling indecision led him to delay seeing them.
Darkness smoothed the final pallor of day. Sefwane avoided familiar streets and walked, the despondency he’d left behind in Algiers dominating his thoughts. But how else could it be? The issue of the canceled marriage sprang forth from walls and ceiling. That was how it would be for a while to come, he feared; his daughter’s ordeal had tarnished the splendid prospects she had quite innocently believed in. Something in Sefwane rebelled: “Yesma is young, less than twenty springs! All she has to do is move to a new neighborhood in Algiers and she’ll find her footing again. Every family member has to pitch in: together, they’ll create joy and the desire for happiness around her. The total eclipse of hope in her life was but a passing thing. She would gain confidence, and time would play its part as a great healer.” For a moment his chest swelled with a surge of hope, and he began to hum as he walked down the deserted street. “S'hab el baroud,” a celebratory song that loudspeakers played in wedding venues, that his daughter and her friends had danced to when they took part in the festivities. The song dwindled as he neared a grocery, no doubt the only one still open. Sefwane wanted cheese and some yogurt. To his great surprise, he ran into an old acquaintance inside. The two men emerged from the store rattling off memories from youth and young manhood as they walked. Then his friend from the village informed him of the arrival of a stranger of a certain age who had been discreetly asking questions about him two weeks or so ago. Sefwane showed outward surprise, surmising his identity right away: the father of his daughter’s ex-fiancé, or else his envoy, sent with a specific task.
The would-be in-laws owed it to themselves to conduct a prenuptial investigation of his hometown, birthplace of himself and his parents, a classic approach aimed at avoiding any unpleasant surprises and ensuring the good reputation of the other party in the new joining of families. Sefwane, however, had eschewed this preliminary step, for his first and final impression of his son-in-law’s father had sufficed to forge a favorable opinion. The second thing he had been told that night in the village where he was born plunged him into restive perplexity, like a troubled and unsettled slumber.
According to the former acquaintance he’d run into at the grocery, a second wave of fables from the civil war, less fecund in wonder, had spread after the stranger’s appearance. Rumor had it that beneficiaries of manna fallen from the sky who refused to return the spoils were paying with their lives. There were three such in the village already, and all awaited the next. In Sefwane’s case, people wondered where he had gotten the money to open up a banquet hall in Algiers. Sefwane reiterated the unimpeachable source of his funds without going into details well-known to friends, neighbors, and everyone, he thought. The revelations broke off; the man he’d met at the grocery checked his watch and took his leave, in a hurry to return home. Sefwane continued on his way, convinced he wouldn’t run into anyone else he knew because everyone tended to head home early. As in the capital, towns and villages across the land had a sort of self-imposed mental curfew, and only when such a barrier was crossed would the page indeed be turned on the dark decade. He pushed on to the edge of the village while, as it had been doing for years, an artificial fog formed and spread, born of dust from the many aggregate quarries along the vast dorsal flank of the mountain, so very close by.
All around him, the shapes of things became fluid, unreal, uncertain. Sefwane reached the final buildings, well beyond the former public dump dug into a deep crater, once a reservoir of quenching water for humans and animals. He returned to the very spot where, in the shadow of a wall one night in the year 2000, he had glimpsed a dark mass advancing behind a moving shadow. He saw the scene again now like something from a film noir. The absolute secret enclosed in the final, impenetrable folds of his existence had just been born.
From Un Etrange Chagrin. © 2021 by Mohamed Magani. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.
Former lovers meet unexpectedly and confront the truth of their breakup in this excerprt from Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu's novel Elfiye.
As Elfiye opened the door she turned her head slowly to tell the one behind her how much of a mess the house was. “Sorry, hon,” she muttered once they were inside, and closed the door. They stepped right into the living room, since the apartment didn’t have a hallway, and her guest went to the window to open the curtains. He turned to Elfiye: “What a lovely walnut tree!” he said. Elfiye had already taken her jacket off and gone into the kitchen. “Ah, yes,” she said. “You have no idea the kind of fight I put up to keep the people in this building from having that tree cut down. Apparently, it blocks the view. It would be a sin to cut down a beautiful tree like that.” She took a deep breath and asked: “What are we drinking?”
They sat across from one another in two dark green velvet armchairs, staring wistfully, wine glasses in hand. Elfiye raised hers: “To you, then. We drink to Emir!” she said. He smiled. Elfiye knew that smile; the wry grin of someone who’s finally won after suffering a string of defeats. As the smile faded from Emir’s face, they fell silent for a time; the mutual anxiety of two friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. Eventually, Emir said, “I’ve been keeping up with your poetry. You’re pretty good.”
Elfiye stared at her glass. Emir continued: “But you were always good,” he said, “You always shined. I always believed in your talent. And you haven’t disappointed.”
Elfiye lifted her eyes from her glass and looked at the person across from her. How long had it been, fifteen years? Twelve? Or was it sixteen? The way he looked at her, his attitude and air, it was just the same. He’d gained some weight. But that’s normal, she thought. His voice is just a little deeper. It warmed her to realize that his facial expressions hadn’t changed. She stood up, replenished the wine glasses, and sat back down across from her guest. She lifted her glass again. “Once more to Emir!” she said. Now he smiled fully. “That’s right,” she said. “Emir deserves two of these!”
A few hours earlier, well before the afternoon changed to evening, Elfiye had been walking along the coast road in Yeniköy. The strong Bosphorus wind had disheveled her hair, her nose turned red because she’d been walking so fast, and she was thirsty. As the road veered inland, she noticed a small café up ahead with a green iron-framed storefront window and the word gelato written across it in small gilt lettering. She rushed toward the café and, handing her change over the top of the ice cream display, asked, “Can I get a water?” A silhouette stirred inside the darkness and stood there looking at Elfiye before extending a bottle of water to her. Taking it, Elfiye said, “Thank you,” then left her change on the counter and turned away. “Enjoy,” a voice said, and she spun back around at the sound of it. Her heart had jumped into her throat, and for a minute she stood there scanning her memory; she knew that voice, it was unforgettable. Its owner plunged back into the darkness and came out of a door somewhere behind the store, and when he stood in front of Elfiye she realized who it was.
“It’s been a while,” she said softly.
“Yeah,” he said. “It wasn’t exactly a pleasant breakup.”
She saw that he was still embarrassed and felt sorry for him. Without a second thought, she put her hand on his arm and asked when he was getting off work. Did he want to go somewhere to sit and talk? Her friend disappeared around the back of the café, then a few minutes later rejoined her. They didn’t talk until the taxi pulled up to her home.
Now, in her apartment, Elfiye knew she somehow had to broach the subject but she was afraid of offending him, so she asked about his mother and his siblings, and if there was any news about what their old mutual friends had been up to. Then she talked for a long time about her own life and explained her situation at the university. By the time the conversation turned to politics they realized they’d finished a bottle of wine, and they wound their way around the things they should have been discussing by talking instead about Turkey and the July 15 coup.
Untwisting the corkscrew from the cork of a new bottle of wine, Emir scowled. “Does this country do anything right?” he said, sticking the cork back. “You can cultivate a beautiful flower, dedicate your whole life to it, and the first night that flower blooms the state shows up and stomps on it. They’ll crush it just like they’ve crushed us.”
Taking the glass from Emir, Elfiye got up the nerve to break her silence. “I am so sorry for not being there for you when things got really difficult.”
Emir opened the window. The fresh Bosphorus air filled the room, urging her on a little more. “I know, it was all so ridiculous,” she said. “But I was a child. I mean, I had to be. I don’t know if the fact that I was only twenty-three changes anything, but I did my best at the time. Still, I shouldn’t have just left you all alone like that.” She went over to the window and stood beside her guest. She lit two cigarettes and gave him one.
“It took me years to figure out where I fit into things. To be able to look at everything from a distance, to forget what I’d gone through. And while I was paying the price for my sins—you remember that’s what my mother called it, a sin—I hung you out to dry. I abandoned you. I didn’t see that there was someone else inside you. I was clueless. You did this on your own, and for how many years?” She brought her cigarette to her lips and pulled it away. “What I want to say to you is that there are things I’ve collected over the years but none of them hold any meaning anymore. I always used to imagine that if we came across each other one day I’d turn my head and walk right past you. That’s how angry I was. What I’d imagined has come true, but I can’t be angry because I feel guilty about deserting you.” Elfiye took a deep breath and fell silent.
Emir sat back down in the armchair: “Slow down,” he said to Elfiye. “First of all, I also needed almost ten years to understand all this. I’m talking about the ten years after we broke up. You aren’t responsible there. Expecting you to understand me would have been a huge mistake because I was having trouble just understanding myself. These are long processes. Long and hard. In that respect, I wasn’t expecting anything from you at all. This was my issue.”
“Expecting or not, I needed to stay your friend somehow and be there for you.”
“I don’t think that sort of thing should be an obligation,” Emir said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you nitpick over a slight, not when it took me ten years just to prepare for the questions psychiatric services would ask me when I started an application.”
“I guess I just think that there needs to be a collective network of hope and support for these things, rather than an individual one. I mean, whether it’s this person or that, we have to support them, you know?”
“Whatever you do in Turkey, you do it alone. You really think that if you’d been there for me that would have made any difference? Wearing what the state wants you to wear is no one’s business but your own. Here, you don’t have anyone. Here, you’ll always be alone.”
Elfiye crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and sat on the floor with her back against Emir’s chair. It would be easier to talk to him that way, without looking at him. “So, it needs to be shattered, right? Changed? That isolation?”
“Look, darling,” Emir said, and when he said darling he became the lover that Elfiye remembered. “We’ve more or less always had the Other. Had. Physically, mentally, economically, socially, pick your category. We’ve always had the Other and we always will. You know how society defines the other—I mean the criteria it puts in place in order for someone to be declared the other. You’re dealing with this stuff too. With a no-win situation like that, is your war going to be with society or yourself? Who are you up against? And which comes first? What are we trying to defeat and who are we going to shout our victory cry at? It’s called breaking free from society, declaring yourself before they declare you the other. And it’s not just about going against society, but against your family and your friends . . . . But not standing up to them. I mean your attitude and demeanor, the anxiety of proving something . . . . On that point, you’re all alone. Even if you’ve got the world’s most beautiful woman on your arm. This isn’t just a social challenge, it’s a revolt against the established order.”
“This,” Elfiye said. “It’s a reconstruction of the world as you know it. Using nothing but your body.”
When people come together after all the years that separated them, are they hoping for the ability to embrace, to feel, to—perhaps—make love, to look each other in the eyes just as before? For Elfiye and Emir, that was it. After ten years without any contact, what they missed were the hugs they’d shared on the French balcony and the pleasure of reliving a tiny aspect of those embraces and experiencing that nostalgia—the sense that something that was good then can still be good now, while the bad things of the past aren’t bad anymore because it’s difficult to recollect them. Elfiye grabbed the arm of the chair she was leaning against, picked herself up from the floor, and buried her face in Emir’s chest. Beneath the hand that caressed her arched back she became the Elfiye on the French balcony again; in the excitement of fondling another woman, in the anxiety of being shamed and in the comfort of sheltering in one who knows her as she is. Her hands are still so small, Elfiye thought.
“If it doesn’t hurt you or make you uncomfortable, there’s something I want to ask,” Elfiye said. “And please, if you don’t want to answer, know that I won’t ever feel bad about it. But why did you choose the name Emir?”
The hands stroking her hair suddenly stopped; then, as they began to move again toward her neck, she heard Emir’s voice: “Ever since I was born, my mother would say that if I was born a boy she’d have named me Murat. But I’m not Murat. Right when I started my hormone treatment I met this woman at work; she was like a mentor to me, she’d teach me how to do my job but talk to me too. You remember that I continued at Starbucks after we broke up, right? She was a manager there. She saw how I was struggling to get myself out of a body that wasn’t my own. For two years she allowed me to run between hospitals, hormone treatments, and psychiatrists, I mean she took care of me. One day she said something like, ‘If there’s anything you need, give the command and relax, it’ll be granted.’ And I did relax. Someone had seen me, they saw me fighting; they saw that I was never Pelin, and that I was pushing back against the state so I could become the person I wanted to be. That’s why. Emir means command. But hey, it also sounds nice on my lips—Emir. I’m Emir, that’s me.”
Elfiye straightened herself up from off the floor. She took Emir’s face in her hands. “I love you so much,” she said. She no longer felt embarrassed to be in front of him; after breaking up they’d declared two separate wars. Which one had been harder? Can you even compare pain? Elfiye wondered.
“This is nothing more than a quest for a body that’s different from a male’s, and then turning into just that,” Elfiye said. “Looking at you, I’d always see more than a lesbian or a woman. The masculinity, the butchness, the macho attitude—like that possessive grip you had when we’d be walking down the street—it was too much for me. Even if I didn’t know what I wanted, I sort of knew what I didn’t want. I asked myself what kind of woman do you want to love, and I told you honestly. I want to love a woman like myself, I’d said. Maybe I didn’t, or I didn’t know what I was, but I was sure that I didn’t want to put up with masculinity anymore. You were like my solstice, because you recreated me as something else.”
Putting up with masculinity. From the moment she’d left her mother’s womb, masculinity was the chisel that had formed Elfiye. She couldn’t decide if being able to make sense of one’s own existence in a given gender was a blessing or a curse. Everywhere she looked, the traces of masculinity were there: school, the workplace, the cinema . . . the street. Society. The state. Even if she didn’t go out to socialize, and locked herself up and lived in seclusion, she still couldn’t escape masculinity. You had to read nothing, watch nothing, or for that matter just sit in the dark. Sometimes she thought this toxin might even be seeping through the walls. The things she felt and saw, what she was constantly fighting against, went so much deeper than phrases like don’t wear this, or don’t go there, or don’t look at other people. The fundamental issue that had shaped Elfiye’s choices, as she picked out her clothes, ate her food, drank her drinks and danced, was the inability to challenge things, like the presence of a button on a jacket, or the subtext in certain everyday conversations, or the shampoo ads on the billboards, or the pronouns one used without a second thought, the inability to question how they came to be and what purpose they served. Even though she was more than ready to make love to a woman, this was why she didn’t want masculinity to corrupt the intimacy of the act, its caresses and kisses. She imagined a fresh birth, a free birth where, at the very moment that she wriggled free from flesh and bone and met the air for the first time, the doctor wouldn’t pull her from the womb and identify baby Elfiye with the words, “Looks like it’s a girl!” A birth of her own accord, with only what her body required, that was fair, sincere, bloodless.
If there’s anything you need, give the command, relax, and it’ll be given to you. Elfiye wasn’t going to tell him about the command that she had been given about herself.
“If that’s the case,” Emir said, “then why did you leave me?”
“I thought that breaking up with you wouldn’t be like breaking up with a man. Men tend to drink, or they’ll insult you in order to hide their insecurities, or sometimes they threaten you. Even the most honorable ones can’t be mature about it and they’d generally try to take advantage of my self-confidence. But the moment I told you I wasn’t happy, you turned into one of them. Don’t you remember? If you ever come around with someone else, you said and made a fist, it won’t be good. I got scared.”
“Back then, I didn’t really know you, and I’m sorry for everything. Elfiye, I didn’t know either. To be a man, I had to be dominant. Otherwise I couldn’t have survived, like I was trying to will the pink color of my ID card to change . . . ”
Elfiye stood up. She took Emir’s hand and pulled him to his feet. She hugged him tightly.
“None of that is important anymore,” she said. “You fought for this name, and you did it alone.”
“So did you,” Emir said. “I’ve never seen anyone who was such a woman’s woman.”
Elfiye’s eyes brimmed with tears, which she wiped with the back of her hand. Me too, she thought. I fought for this name, and I did it alone.
From Elfiye. © 2021 by Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Ralph Hubbell. All rights reserved.