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The Watchlist: June 2017

By M. Bartley Seigel

Every month, Words Without Borders reviews editor M. Bartley Seigel shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles he’s excited about, books he hopes you’ll agree are worth all our good attentions:

From Phoneme Media, Futureman by David Avidan, translated from the Hebrew by Tsipi Keller | Poetry | 144 pages | ISBN 9781944700140 | US$16.00

Says the publisher: “David Avidan was himself a Futureman, a self-described ‘Galactic Poet’ and radical individualist known for his innovative use of Hebrew both on the page and in his performances and films. Recognized by the New York Times as one of the poets that ‘helped the biblical tongue evolve into a modern, living language,’ Avidan played in his work with lexical and syntactical innovations, neologisms, various registers of Hebrew throughout its history, and colloquial speech, which he believed deserved its place in poetry. Ever the innovator, in 1974 he even conducted a poetic dialogue with a computer. Futureman, in Tsipi Keller’s virtuosic translation, introduces selections from across Avidan’s groundbreaking oeuvre to English-language readers for the first time.”

Says me: “Hebrew isn’t a language I know much about, frankly, nor is it one that gets translated into English in great abundance, particularly not in the vein of near contemporary avant-garde poetry, so I was thrilled to see Keller's translation of Futureman come flying in over the transom. He's a cryptic, elusive, and often frustrating poet, but the payout is expansive and worth every word.”


From Deep Vellum Publishing, Heavens on Earth by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish (Mexico) by Shelby Vincent | Fiction | 384 pages | ISBN 9781941920442 | US$16.95

Says the publisher: “Three narrators from different historical eras are each engaged in preserving history in Carmen Boullosa’s Heavens on Earth. As her narrators sense and interact with each other over time and space, Boullosa challenges the primacy of recorded history and asserts literature and language’s power to transcend the barriers of time and space in vivid, urgent prose.”

Says World Literature Today: “In Heavens on Earth, Carmen Boullosa imagines a postapocalyptic world where spoken and written language is banned, memories are obliterated, and history is erased. The novel is narrated through the voices of three translators—Hernando de Rivas, Estela Ruiz, and Lear—who live in three different eras. Narrating from colonial Mexico, Hernando begins to write the history of El Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in Latin. Five hundred years later, Estela is given Hernando’s recently discovered manuscript and begins to translate it into Spanish, interweaving vignettes from her own life, family lore, and Mexican history into alternating sections of her translation.” Read an excerpt here

Says me: “I ran this title in my December column last year as Deep Vellum had a tenuous grasp of its publishing schedule at that point. The book is finally out this month, so I’m running it again, because I’m excited about it, and it’s my column. Read Boullosa because she is a masterful commander of fantastic language. Laying the implicit misogynism aside, if you're able, consider that Robert Bolaño called her ‘Mexico’s best woman writer.’” 


From Dalkey Archive, Our Dead World by Liliana Colanzi, translated from the Spanish (Bolivia) by Jessica Sequeira | Fiction | 114 pages | ISBN 9781943150113 | US$11.20

Says the publisher: “A young woman suffers a mental breakdown because of her repressive and religious mother. A group of children is fascinated by the sudden death of a friend. A drug-trafficking couple visits Paris at the same time as a psychopathic cannibal. A mysterious wave travels through a university campus, driving students to suicide. A photographer witnesses a family’s surface composure shatter during a portrait session. A worker on Mars sees ghostly animals in the desert and longs for an impossible return to Earth. A plastic surgeon botches an operation and hides on a sugar cane plantation where indigenous slavery is practiced. Horror and the fantastic mark the unstable realism of Our Dead World, in which altered states of consciousness, marginalized peoples, animal bodies, and tensions between tradition and modernity are recurring themes. Liliana Colanzi’s stories explore those moments when the civilized voice of the ego gives way to the buzzing of the subconscious, and repressed indigenous history destabilizes the colonial legacy still present in contemporary Latin America.”

Says Kirkus Reviews“Colanzi is an original talent with an utterly unique vision.” 

Says me: “Kirkus actually dinged the book more than my pull quote above indicates, saying of Our Dead World that it ‘still leaves something wanting.’ Personally, I find Kirkus’s reviews, and their oftentimes petulant voice, the something wanting. I loved the book, found Colanzi to be a refreshing change in perspective from much of what I read, and the language in Sequeira’s translation is delightful. The book is weird, insightful, and one I’d go so far as to read a second time.” 


From Akashic Books, Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre, translated from the French (Haiti) by Kaiama L. Glover | Ficiton | 160 pages | ISBN 9781617755330 | US$11.96

Says the publisher: “Hadriana in All My Dreams, winner of the prestigious Prix Renaudot, takes place primarily during Carnival in 1938 in the Haitian village of Jacmel. A beautiful young French woman, Hadriana, is about to marry a Haitian boy from a prominent family. But on the morning of the wedding, Hadriana drinks a mysterious potion and collapses at the altar. Transformed into a zombie, her wedding becomes her funeral. She is buried by the town, revived by an evil sorcerer, then disappears into popular legend. Set against a backdrop of magic and eroticism, and recounted with delirious humor, the novel raises universal questions about race and sexuality. The reader comes away enchanted by the marvelous reality of Haiti’s Vodou culture and convinced of Depestre’s lusty claim that all beings—even the undead ones—have a right to happiness and true love.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “The sights and sounds of Haiti’s vibrant carnival season invigorate this tale of vodou and Haitian culture . . . The truth of Hadriana’s fate proves more poignant than horrifying, but in Depestre’s hands, this incident is a touchstone of a culture in which distinctions between the empirical and spiritual are obscured, and whose traditional celebrations and beliefs introduce an element of the mythic into the everyday. Eroticism and humor course through his narrative. Depestre’s intimacy with his subject matter and his familiarity with the people he portrays—the story is set in his hometown, at the time when he was twelve years old—give readers an insider’s look at Jacmelian culture.”

Says me: “In Edwidge Danticat’s introduction, she says, ‘Despestre offers us the kind of tale we rarely get in the hundreds of zombie stories featuring Haitians, stories set both inside and outside of Haiti.’ That seems, to me, to be about the most important thing a work-in-translation can offer a reader—perspective on a place, people, and language we don’t immediately have access to, or one that runs counter to conventional, cliché narratives. Glover’s book does that in aces.” 


From Two Lines Press, My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump | Fiction | 296 pages | ISBN 9781931883627 | US$10.00

Says the publisher: “Marie NDiaye has won lavish praise for her unrivaled ability to reveal our innermost lives. My Heart Hemmed In is her grandest statement on the hidden selves we rarely glimpse, but whose presence is always with us. Something’s very wrong with Nadia and her husband, Ange, middle-aged schoolteachers who slowly realize they’re despised by everyone in their community. One day a savage wound appears in Ange’s stomach—as Nadia fights to save her husband’s life, their hideous neighbor Noget (who everyone insists is a famous author) inexplicably imposes his care on them. While Noget fattens them with ever richer foods, Nadia embarks on a lurid visit to her ex-husband and estranged son—is she abandoning Ange or revisiting old grievances to save him? Conjuring an atmosphere of paranoia, My Heart Hemmed In creates a nightmarish world where strange coincidences and uncertain relationships are all part of some shadowy truth. Surreal, allegorical, and psychologically acute, My Heart Hemmed In shows a masterful author giving her readers her most complex and compelling world yet.”

Says the Boston Globe: “NDiaye’s storytelling approaches something of the power and simplicity of folklore.”

Says me: “I read lots of books. I’m not bragging, it’s just an occupational hazard. Being that as it may, and so to speak, many, if not most of those books go in one ear and out the other. We’re just not as interesting an animal as we like to believe. NDiaye’s book is therefore extraordinary insofar as it not only stuck to me, it keeps sticking–I can’t shake it. Original and suspenseful, it’s a novel that picks at the ugly in each of us. The writing that is absolutely stunning; the translation, by extension, the same. My Heart Hemmed In is my pick of the litter this month.” 


From Les Figues Press, Enfermario by Gabriela Torres Olivares, translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Jennifer Donovan, Les Figues Press | Fiction | 144 pages | ISBN 9781934254653 | US$17.00

Says the publisher: “What does it mean to be? And to be different? Gabriela Torres Olivares poses these questions as she writes in the space between her characters’ bodies, desires, and experiences. With a constantly shifting gaze, these fifteen stories explore the profundity of otherness across beings and quasi beings, seeking out both discomfort and common ground. In her Enfermario, part infirmary and part bestiary, Gabriela Torres Olivares invites us into her characters’ worlds only to defamiliarize the quotidian and thus challenge our most basic preconceptions.”

Says Pola Oloixarac: “The playful darkness that looms over Gabriela Torres Olivares’ writing is vivid and breathtaking, both dreamlike and weirdly alive, like a bedtime story whispered in the ear. Enfermario is a miniature gem of modern Mexican gothic.”

Says me: “Gabriela Torres Olivares’ language—filtered down to us lowly English readers by Donovan’s expert translation—is startlingly beautiful, her stories fully realized portals into the worlds she creates. This was my first entrée into her writing, but I’m hooked, a convert, and I cannot wait to read more. I think, should you choose to dive in with me, you’ll feel likewise.” 

Published Jun 9, 2017   Copyright 2017 M. Bartley Seigel

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