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Corporeal: An International Exquisite Corpse

By Jeon Sam-hye, Carlos Yushimito, Jessica Schiefauer, Naivo, and Chakib Daoud
Translated By Anton Hur, Valerie Miles, Saskia Vogel, Allison M. Charette, Elisabeth Jaquette, & Mercedes Gilliom

Words Without Borders partnered with Slice Literary to produce an International Exquisite Corpse story, written by five writer/translator teams from around the world. Below is the resulting story (in both the English translation and the original languages), which was published in the Spring/Summer 2017 of Slice Magazine.

Slice has hosted Exquisite Corpse readings all over the United States. There’s something irresistible about the Exquisite Corpse format, which lends itself to both collaboration and spontaneity. Here’s how it works: One writer pens the first segment of a story. Sometimes we’ll offer a theme to serve as a springboard. Then the fun really begins. The next writer receives the final line of that first segment and continues the story. And so on, and so on, until we reach the final writer. The end result is a story stitched together by a group of writers, each one not knowing what came beforehand.

We’ve been experimenting with the Exquisite Corpse format lately. Most recently we tried it live. Writers wore headphones to muffle the sound before their turns. The stories that emerged were messy and brilliant and filled with unexpected echoes. As I was listening to one of these stories unfold, I began to wonder what would happen if we brought together writers who spoke different languages. Soon I was sitting down to coffee with Jessie Chaffee from Words Without Borders, and she took it from there. 

—Celia Johnson, Creative Director of Slice

Words Without Borders builds cultural understanding through the translation, publication, and promotion of contemporary international literature. Each month our free online magazine features new international writing translated into English for the first time. Our blog, WWB Daily, presents interviews and articles about international literature. Our goal is to break down borders by making the voices of writers around the world available to English readers. And what better way to break down borders than with a multilingual Exquisite Corpse?

I was thrilled when Celia approached me about working with us on this project. It was exciting to partner with Slice, a vital advocate for emerging writers, and through that partnership to feature international emerging writers and translators whom we’ve published in WWB. Each part of the process involved multiple layers of translation, as, for example, the final line of a section written in Korean was translated into English and then into Spanish so that the narrative could continue.

The writers featured here—from South Korea, Peru, Sweden, Madagascar, and Tunisia—and their talented translators have created a story that could not have been produced by a single voice. Instead, this richly layered narrative reflects the extraordinary work that is possible when we create space for a multiplicity of voices and build bridges for artistic collaboration. 

—Jessie Chaffee, Editor at Words Without Borders


Corporeal: An International Exquisite Corpse (English Translation)

Part 1
By Jeon Sam-hye, Translated from Korean by Anton Hur

Tiptoes. Lining up your heels and knees. A method of keeping your feet on the ground while getting closer to the sky. Of supporting your weight on the tips of your feet. I saw this method the most in the plaza. A plaza where more than a million people gathered, each holding a candle in the cold night. When the distant stage called “The candlelight wave!” we stood on our tiptoes. A simple “ceremony” of lifting your candle when the wave came. We peered ahead and whispered, Is it coming? It’s coming. It’s coming! Almost! We tiptoed, raising our candles high before lowering them. I looked up the video. The immense crowd on their tiptoes, the calves and thighs that must have tensed underneath the candles rising and falling.

My niece of just six months, who’s yet to crawl, would stretch and giggle when I tickled her, planking her feet and knees. Those feet that have never touched the ground, never supported her weight, taking the posture that creates her tallest height. She giggles.

I saw children in the plaza. Even when they knew it was futile, they kept standing on their tiptoes trying to see. What’s in front? Who? Feet showing the effort of seeing further.

Feet showing the effort of approaching the sky.

They say height grows with feet, that height stops growing once the feet stop. Feet once smaller than the palm of an adult’s hand are suddenly longer than twenty centimeters. With my slowly but surely grown feet I stand, strength in my toes, looking far ahead.

Is it coming? It’s coming. A posture of urgent waiting. Of wanting to know, at the end of a shimmering road, even just a second earlier, whether you are coming, of wanting to see the ship over the horizon. Of wanting to see you arrive, even just a second faster. Of showing that I’m here by making myself taller, even by just a little bit more.

Are you coming? I’m here. Coming? Here. My muscles whisper whenever I lift and lower myself on tiptoe. Here I stand, the tallest I have ever been, searching for you.

Part 2
By Carlos Yushimito, Translated from Spanish by Valerie Miles

Here I stand, the tallest I have ever been, searching for you.

To what extent did this kind of grit remind me of my own past? I caught myself thinking about my dad again; I had just turned twelve, and he drove me out to a country farm in Cumberland. We stood beside each other that day, quietly enjoying the sight of the rabbits scuffling around in their cages. Winter seemed to be moving in the same manner, discreetly, pawing the air blindly, trapped in the befuddling cold.

Finally my father said, Pick one.

And the rabbits twitched their noses on the other side of the wire, nostrils flaring apprehensively, each one observing us from a single side of its chubby face, hoping, perhaps, to go unnoticed.

I chose one with white fur and quiet, violet eyes.

That one, I said.

Simply—I thought later—because I found it beautiful.

My father nodded to the farmer who had been lingering a while and who caught it directly. A fleshy woman, with ruddy red cheeks and arms the size of two of mine together, she smacked the animal in the throat with the back of her hand in a quick, precise blow. The rabbit fell limp instantaneously, hanging floppily by its long back paws, unmoving. Something dreamlike, a momentary listlessness in that peaceful gesture of its nose and pink tongue emerged definitively in the stillness of death. She slit its throat then, a quick incision to bleed it out, and tugged hard at the pelt as if removing a glove, the furry sheath baring a rosy, live body.

That’s the price of beauty, I thought later, as my father drove us home. And this the weight of knowing how to appreciate it.

Part 3
By Jessica Schiefauer, Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel

That’s the price of beauty, I thought later, as my father drove us home. And this the weight of knowing how to appreciate it.

My whole life, I’ve carried this experience with me; it controlled my desires and loves for so long. I spent years on a winding path, lost and fumbling, until I met a woman who had something on her body that I was never allowed to see. She concealed it with her clothing and never undressed in my presence. When we went to bed, I would have to wait outside the room while she changed into her nightgown, and the times we visited the beach, only I went swimming. She would sit in the shade of a parasol, wearing her thin white shirt, reading or knitting or listening to our little battery-powered radio. If she was backlit by the sun, I could on occasion make out that strange contour through the fabric, and this filled me with an odd mix of lust and aversion. If she looked up and saw me, if her gaze met mine, I’d blush and be compelled to turn away, fling myself into the cool sea, and do my best to rinse away the lust and shame. But still it lingered inside me—a biting, tickling feeling, as if my curiosity about what was under her clothes was coaxing my nerves to grow new endings. Sometimes she’d smile and wave or call out to me happily as I splashed around in the water. I’d wave back, shout back, but inside me fantasies were invoking other fantasies, and I’d let my head sink below the surface just to give the images space to run free for a moment.

She would let me touch it, but only when she was in a particularly good mood. I never found out if it was the same color as her skin or a different color, if the bone structure could be glimpsed beneath the casing, or if it was one massive piece. But I clearly remember the feeling of being allowed to caress something unseen in the dark, of my fingers searching and discovering.

Part 4
By Naivo, Translated from French by Allison M. Charette

But I clearly remember the feeling of being allowed to caress something unseen in the dark, of my fingers searching and discovering.

Is there an emotion more undefinable than touching under threat of order interrupted and forbiddance soon to be restored? When we reach between the bars to brush the flank of an animal restrained, the shiver gripping us is that of a stolen escape. Freedom hijacked. But what of it? Light and its oppressive laws had caused me too much suffering since running aground on these reckless heights, since my muscles had found effort’s honeyed recompense in repose. Now, my fingers traveled without fear of ambush along this thing that fleeting clarity had imprisoned and gifted to my senses, heightened a hundredfold. Effortless, swept away by the sheer dizziness of pleasure. My nerves showed me a blind breach in time that no brief moment could evermore fill. But it could not last, and it stopped, too soon. Always too soon, like the faintest edges of the unknown, brought to light and swiftly reburied. I stood, but could not fully straighten: a mass, seemingly enormous, swelling to fill the space I found myself in, keeping me from an upright position, as if the already-faded sensations had surreptitiously redelivered me to an animal state. I had to walk bent double; when a brighter ray of light struck my face, I was forced to crawl to press forward. Only then did I ask myself: Why? What was this game, of my mind dying, petering out? Memories succumbing as my universe constricts. I fumbled for my clothes, searching desperately for the thing, the stuff, the substance that could restore this presence to me, this lost intention.

Part 5
By Chakib Daoud, Translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Lettered by Chakib Daoud and Mercedes Claire Gilliom

Corporeal: An International Exquisite Corpse (Original Language)

Part 1 
By Jeon Sam-hye

까치발. 발끝과 무릎이 일직선이 되도록. 땅에 발을 딛되 가장 하늘과 가까워지는 방법. 발끝으로 온 체중을 지탱하는 방법. 내가 그 모습을 가장 많이 본 곳은 광장이었다. 백만 명이 넘게 모인 광장이었다. 추운 밤, 촛불을 하나씩 들고 있었다. 맨 앞의 무대에서 ‘촛불 파도타기를 시작합니다!’ 라는 말이 들리고 모두가 일제히 까치발을 했다. 아주 간단히, 자기 차례가 왔을 때 촛불을 높이 들었다가 내려놓는 그 ‘의식’에서 사람들은 앞을 내다보며 속삭였다. 오고 있어? 온다. 오고 있어! 이제 곧 여기야! 자기 차례가 왔을 때 사람들은 까치발을 하며 촛불을 높이 들었다 내려놓았다. 영상으로 찍은 장면들을 인터넷으로 찾아보았다. 저 앞의 사람들과, 뒤의 까치발과, 들었다가 내려놓는 촛불 아래로 팽팽해졌을 종아리와 허벅지와 발목의 근육.

이제 막 6개월에 접어든, 아직 길 줄 모르는 조카는 내가 간지럽히면 몸을 뻗치며 웃는다. 웃을 때마다 발끝과 무릎이 평행이 된다. 아직 한 번도 땅에 딛어본 적 없는, 무게를 지탱해 본 적 없는 발로 가장 키가 커지는 자세를 하며 웃는다.

광장에서 아이들을 보았다. 아이들은 아무리 까치발을 해도 어른의 키를 넘어설 수 없다는 걸 알면서도 계속 까치발을 하고 군중 너머 앞을 보려 했다. 저 앞엔 뭐가 있어? 저 앞엔 누가 있어? 더 먼 곳을 보려는 발.

하늘과 가까워지려는 발의 모습.

발이 커 가며 키가 자라고, 발의 성장이 멈추면 어느 순간 키의 성장도 멈추게 된다는 말을 들었다. 어른의 손바닥보다도 작았다가 어느 순간 20센티미터가 넘게 자라는 발. 오랜 시간동안 차근차근 자란 발로 땅을 딛고, 발가락 끝에 힘을 주고 저 앞을 건너다본다.

오고 있어? 오고 있어. 많은 것을 기다릴 때 하게 되는 동작. 아물거리는 길의 끝에서 상대방이 오는지 단 1초라도 먼저 알려고 애를 쓸 때, 수평선 너머에서 배가 오고 있는 것을 확인하려 할 때. 상대방이 나에게 언제 닿는지 알려고, 조금이라도 먼저 알려고. 그리고 내 키를 조금이라도 키워 내가 여기 있다는 것을 알리려고 하는 동작.

오고 있어? 나 여기 있어. 오고 있어? 나 여기 있어. 까치발을 들었다 내릴 때마다 근육이 속삭인다. 나는 이렇게 내 생에 가장 큰 키로 당신을 찾고 있어.

Part 2
By Carlos Yushimito

Aquí estoy, más alto que nunca, buscándote.

¿Cuánto se le parecía esa obstinación a la de mi propio pasado? Me encontré pensando una vez más en mi padre; cuando, al cumplir los doce años, me había conducido hasta una granja rural de Cumberland. Ese día nos habíamos quedado quietos mientras admirábamos, uno al lado del otro, a los conejos que se agitaban en sus jaulas. El invierno también se movía así, discretamente, dando ciegos manotazos sobre el aire, atrapado en el desconcierto del frío.

Al fin, mi padre había dicho:

–Elige uno.

Y los conejos habían sacudido sus narices del otro lado del alambre, inflándolas nerviosamente y mirando con apenas un solo lado de su rolliza cara, tal vez con la esperanza de no ser vistos.

Elegí uno de pelambre blanco y quietos y cárdenos ojos y lo señalé con el dedo:

–Ese –dije.

Simplemente –había pensado luego–, me había parecido hermoso.

Mi padre había asentido entonces, y casi de inmediato la estanciera, que llevaba algún tiempo aguardando, procedió a capturarlo. Aquella mujer regordeta, los mofletes rojos y lozanos, los brazos tan anchos como dos de los míos arrimados a la par, golpeó secamente con el dorso de su mano, apuntando, certera, al cuello del animal. Y casi de inmediato, el conejo había quedado quieto, flojamente colgante de sus largas patas traseras, ahora inertes. Algo que se le parecía al sueño o a una languidez temporal, ese pacífico gesto de nariz y lengua rosada, asomó definitivo con la quietud de la muerte. Cortó entonces el cuello con una rápida incisión que lo desangró, y tiró luego con fuerza de su piel como si se quitase un guante; la cubierta peluda desnudando, entonces, a un cuerpo rosado y vivo.

Aquello, pensé más tarde, mientras mi padre conducía de regreso a casa, había sido el costo de la belleza. Y esa la responsabilidad por haber sabido apreciarla.

Part 3
By Jessica Schiefauer

Senare, medan min pappa körde hem oss, tänkte jag: Det är väl skönhetens pris. Och detta är tyngden av att veta att uppskatta den.

Den erfarenheten har jag burit med mig genom livet, och länge fick den styra över mina lustar och kärlekar. Det var en vilsen väg genom åren, ett famlande, tills jag mötte en kvinna vars kropp hade utvecklat något som jag aldrig fick se. Hon höll det alltid dolt under kläderna och hon klädde aldrig av sig i min närhet. När vi gick till sängs måste jag alltid vänta utanför rummet tills hon bytt om till nattlinne, och om vi någon gång åkte till stranden var det bara jag som badade. Hon satt under parasollet i tunn vit skjorta, läste eller stickade eller lyssnade på vår lilla batteridrivna radio. Om hon satt i motljus kunde jag ibland ana den underliga konturen under tyget, och det fyllde mig med en sällsam blandning av lust och avsmak. Om hon lyfte huvudet och såg på mig, om hennes blick mötte min, då rodnade jag och blev tvungen att vända mig bort, kasta mig ut i det svala vattnet, skölja bort både skammen och lusten så gott det gick. Men den dröjde alltid kvar i mig, en stickande, kittlande känsla, som om nyfikenheten på vad som fanns under hennes kläder trugade min hud att utveckla nya nerver. Ibland log hon och vinkade, eller ropade något glatt till mig där jag plaskade i vågorna. Jag vinkade tillbaka, ropade tillbaka, men inuti mig avlöste fantasierna varandra och ibland lät jag huvudet sjunka ner under ytan, gav bilderna fritt spelrum för en stund.

Det hände att hon lät mig röra vid det, men bara om hon var på särskilt gott humör. Jag fick aldrig veta om det hade samma färg som hennes hud eller någon annan färg, om benkonstruktionen skymtade under höljet eller om det var ett massivt stycke. Men jag minns tydligt känslan av att få smeka något osynligt i mörkret, hur mina fingrar sökte och upptäckte.

Part 4
By Naivo

Mais je me rappelle clairement la sensation d’être autorisé à caresser quelque chose d’indiscernable dans l’obscurité, de mes doigts explorant et découvrant. 

Y a-t-il émotion plus indéfinissable que le toucher sous la menace d’un ordre suspendu et d’un interdit imminemment rétabli ? Quand à travers les barreaux d’une cage nous palpons le flanc d’une bête qui ne peut se retourner, le frisson qui nous saisit est celui d’une évasion volée. D’une liberté détournée, mais qu’importe ? La lumière et sa pesante loi m’avaient trop fait souffrir depuis que je m’étais échoué sur ce sommet imprudent, depuis que mes muscles avaient trouvé dans le relâchement la doucereuse récompense de l’effort. Maintenant, mes doigts se mouvaient sans crainte d’embuscade sur cette chose que la clarté fuyante emprisonnait et offrait à mes sens décuplés. Sans effort, portés par le seul vertige du plaisir. Mes nerfs me révélaient une brèche aveugle dans le temps que nulle échéance ne pourrait plus combler. Mais cela ne pouvait durer, et cela cessa en effet, trop tôt. Toujours trop tôt, comme toute frange d’inconnu mise au jour et enfouie de nouveau. Je me levai, mais ne pus me redresser entièrement : une masse qui me parut immense dominait l’espace dans lequel je me tenais et m’empêchait de retrouver la station debout, comme si les sensations maintenant évanouies m’avaient subrepticement ramené à quelque condition animale. Je dus marcher courbé, et au moment où un rai de lumière plus vif me frappa les yeux, fus obligé de ramper pour avancer. Ce n’est qu’alors que je me posai la question : pourquoi ? Quel était ce jeu où ma mémoire se perdait ? Mes souvenirs sombraient à mesure que mon univers se rétrécissait. Je fouillai mes habits, cherchant fiévreusement l’objet, la matière qui pût me restituer cette présence, cette intention perdue.

Part 5
By Chakib Daoud

Published Jun 7, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jeon Sam-hye, Carlos Yushimito, Jessica Schiefauer, Naivo, and Chakib Daoud

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