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.