Join Superstition Review in congratulating past contributor Laura Wetherington on the publication of her poetry collection, Parallel Resting Places. As the winner of the New Measure Poetry Prize, Laura’s collection explores the world of translation. More specifically, Parallel Resting Places navigates, “What happens when a poet tries to filter the untranslatable from another language? The rush of unknowing, decoding the wind, the body becomes an antenna. Following behind Jack Spicer’s After Lorca and swinging its ovaries, Laura Wetherington’s second book uses the concept of translation to create original poems from the work of writers like Liliane Giraudon, Marie Étienne, Dominique Fourcade, and Jean-Marie Gleize. These poems run through a liminal linguistic space where meaning, mishearing, and dreams collide, sometimes midsentence, where they hinge into song… Interstitial love letters to queer writers process a miscarriage, the most recent election, and queer puppy love. This is a book of yearning-for a foreign tongue, for a body growing inside the body, and for a form of communication that can capture feeling.”
There is a constant textual drama in the address and voice of Laura Wetherington’s heady poems; a mirror staged. With monologues, letters, lyrics, and prose she performs a writing through to a new ground of sensation and thinking. Call it the present. The music is gorgeous and the sound is captivating. Parallel Resting Places is a wonderful book and a welcome addition to a tradition that troubles tradition.
Peter Gizzi, author of Archeophonics
Click here to order your copy of Parallel Resting Places. Also, be sure to check out Laura’s Twitter and Website, as well as, her poetry in our Issue 19.
This interview about Ryan Greene’s translation and collages was conducted via email by Art Editor Anna Campbell.
Ryan Greene likes text + image. He has exhibited visual poetry rooted in infectious disease biology, coordinated installations of multimedia work by artist-scientists, and published handmade books of poetry/collage by local artist-writers. He is the instigator behind F*%K IF I KNOW//BOOKS and he dreams of bilingual, immersive public poetry projects. Like Collier, the ground he stands on is not his ground.
Superstition Review: You work as a translator of poems from Spanish to English as well as with creating collages. How would you define the relationship between these forms of art?
Ryan Greene: Both collage and literary translation involve a type of friction. A rubbing up of edges. A joy in the sound of that scrape. A question of when one thing ends and another begins. Put differently, both translation and collage are rooted in a convergence that results from [and in!] a kaleidoscopic, and often cacophonous, conversation between context, authorship, and collaborative creativity.
All that sounds kind of floofy though…
To be more concrete, I am drawn to collage and translation because of the “layered-ness” of their many moving parts. In collage, I like that I can take scraps and snippets from many sources and ask them to share the same space. Torn advertisements and ripped photographs and scrawled text all mingling, fighting, love-making, whatever. A COMMUNITY COHABITATING THE PAGE! There’s a charge that becomes possible when these different components live together.
When translating poems, there’s a similar tangling. The original text/author and all of its/their context comes into conversation with the translated text/me and all of its/my context. In other words, translation becomes the work of re-mapping one composite object [the original poem and its interplay of rhythm, sound, repetition, breath, space on the page, idiom, register, personal/political/historical context, etc.] into another composite object [my translation written in my english]. Navigating this poetic web of relations can be sticky, AND it’s part of what keeps me coming back to translation over and over again.
SR: Can you explain your process for translation?
RG: I think about my translation process at two primary scales:
At the level of my body, I often feel like I’m in an airplane cockpit with an overstimulating array of buttons and lights flashing in front of me. I typically translate on a computer, and I tend to get set up in nearly the same way every time. On the left half of my screen, I have the original text displayed. On the right hand of my screen I have the document where I am translating and an internet browser window with several tabs [typically Wordreference, DeepL translator/Linguee, an English thesaurus, an English dictionary, Google images, and a Google web search page]. As I work on my translation, I toggle back and forth between the various resources that I need, stopping to do research when necessary. Depending on the poem, I may end up using additional references to supplement the ones listed above. For instance, when I was first translating the collection Tránsito [Transit] by Claudina Domingo, I spent a lot of time using Google Maps street view to explore the various street corners and neighborhoods that she mentions in the poems. Having this extra visual context was a huge help when working on the early drafts of the book.
At the level of the project, my translation process often looks like this…
I read a poem and I get an itch to translate it.
If the author’s alive, I do my best to get in contact. This can be straightforward, or it can involve various grapevine gymnastics.
Eventually [to my eternal amazement and delight!], I’m typically able to get in touch and begin an email correspondence letting them know that I’m interested in translating their poem[s].
I’ll start working on my translations, highlighting questions/options/alternatives along the way. This can involve several drafts.
Next I’ll get in touch with a trusted friend [or friends] to read over the translations, and we’ll discuss possible edits and brainstorm solutions to various snaggles.
After this first round of edits, I’ll do another bit of smoothing/tightening and then spend time talking with the poet to clarify questions, discuss possibilities, and get additional context.
At this point, I’ll go back to my drafts, make adjustments based on our conversation[s] and let the poems marinate.
After this percolation stage [anywhere from a few days to a few weeks] I’ll revisit the poems to make some final adjustments and to clarify any remaining questions with the author.
Then, finally, I feel ready to start finding ways to share the poems more publicly.
It’s important that I emphasize, the list above is a generalization. My process is sometimes far more condensed, and other times far more convoluted. Also, I must say in all caps that I DO NOT BELIEVE IN DEFINITIVE TRANSLATIONS. This means that I often will revisit translations even after they are published to make changes, return to earlier versions, or try out new approaches. Each translation I make is just that, a translation.
Also, I want to highlight that my translation process relies heavily on collaboration. Collaboration is built into my conversations with the author, my editing/brainstorming with friends, and ultimately with all the translators whose work has shaped me and my own approach. Also, in the past year, I have been more intentionally experimenting with collaborative translation involving multiple translators in the entirety of the translation process. Here is an interactive portal that documents a collaborative translation experiment I completed with my friend Janice Gan using a poem by Elena Salamanca. It is a multimedia attempt to visibilize the often invisible parts of the translation process.
SR: Can you discuss your collage making process, both hand-cut and digital?
RG: For hand-cut collage, I tend to take that pretty literally. In the past, I used scissors and sometimes an X-acto, but these days I almost exclusively use my fingers to make the “cuts.” In 2019 I met Jocelyn Samayoa at the Tijuana Zine Festival and I was moved by her commitment to hand ripping each scrap of her collages. The added time and effort this takes adds something to the process. An intimacy? A tangibility? A concision? Whatever it is, I like it, and I think it’s good for me not just to accept, but to CELEBRATE, rough edges!
When I’m making digital collages, I find that I’m much less decisive. I tend to work in bursts. Trying out ideas. Piling on images and snippets from different sources. Then trashing and rehashing. Sifting and shifting. Flipping it all upside down and seeing what sticks. What this means is that my digital collages often include multiple versions of the same images with different sizes, crops, transformations, opacities, etc. This repetition and overlay is where I find my favorite textures emerging!
One thing I’ll add is that I rarely, if ever, make collages that do not include at least some text. On the flip side, I rarely, if ever, make poems that do not include at least some visual elements. So I guess image + text serves as a gravitational center for me. A good example might be this goofy clickbait sonnet I made earlier this year as a part of a fleeting pandemic writing group with co-workers.
SR: What does your physical workspace or studio look like? What is one thing you must have with you as you work?
RG: My primary creative endeavors are translation, collage, bookmaking, and poetry. I am currently subletting a friend’s apartment, and due to the pandemic, most of my “making” happens right here! This means that under my [friend’s] bed there are two paper cutters [borrowed from the Cardboard House Press Cartonera Collective], several reams of paper, stacks of salvaged magazines for collaging, and partially completed books. The space under my [friend’s] nightstand is the home of my trusty saddle stitch stapler. On my [friend’s] desk, there is a computer where I do my writing and digital collage work. Next to the desk is a scanner that I recently inherited from another friend. This is where I have been digitizing my own hand-made work as well as the work of friends. In the closet, I have stacked some additional bookmaking supplies above and below my clothes. In the kitchen/living room, there are two small tables where I set up the paper cutters when I’m working on making books. Under one of these tables I’ve stashed a box with finished books and the guts and limbs of books in process. So I guess you could call it a live/work studio…Ha!
SR: How has the pandemic affected your art and process?
RG: Most of my art is done at home now. I used to facilitate bookmaking workshops for the Cardboard House Press Cartonera Collective at Palabras Bilingual Bookstore every week. This was a central part of my community and my support network. Finding new ways to not just maintain, but build, creative community has been difficult, but not impossible. For instance, in September [National Translation Month], I co-coordinated a translation celebration called BOCALLAGE//COLLAGEMOUTH with two other local translators [Mary Hope Whitehead Lee and Claudia Nuñez de Ibieta]. The reading featured poetry by seven womxn writing in Spanish from the Americas, the Caribbean, and Central Africa and was a wonderful reminder that even in a pandemic, we can [and must!] continue to work intergenerationally, interlingually, and interculturally.
One interesting shift for me in this time is that I’ve had more opportunities to read publicly with the poets whose work I translate. Given that most of the poets I collaborate with live in different countries, it’s rare that we are able to be together in person for an event. Since most readings are taking place online these days, the opportunities for reading together have multiplied. No travel necessary! Being able to share the poems bilingually has been a true treat, and something that I hope to continue going forward.
SR: How is your work touched by social justice?
RG: My translation practice has been greatly informed by the “language justice and language experimentation collaborative” Antena Aire, co-founded by Jen Hofer and JD Pluecker. Their collective (and individual!) work has provided me with both theoretical and practical frameworks to approach my own translations. I return again and again to this section from their Manifesto for Ultratranslation:
We recognize how translation has been used, is used and might still be used as a tool of conquest, assimilation, or domestication…Ultratranslation is a process of working against languages that seek to dominate. At the most basic level, the message of translation: there is something being said elsewhere that is of crucial importance for us here (in this language) to hear. It is worth great effort to listen to that “something elsewhere.” Ultratranslation would not bring something elsewhere into a dominant language (English, for instance) in a smooth, seductive, unproblematized way, as if to suggest that now “we” “understand” “you.” Ultratranslation nudges dominant languages away from dominance, toward the space between original and translation. Into the space of the ultra.
Here, there is a recognition of translation’s non-neutrality. And so the question becomes, how do I choose to use translation? For me, I think a lot about voice and leverage. Because I am a white, cis-het, well-off, English-speaking, male, U.S. citizen, my voice is undeniably [and undeservedly] privileged. As a translator, I’m always looking for ways to leverage that undeserved power in order to amplify the voices of the undersung poets with whom I collaborate [most of whom are womxn, none of whom are widely known in English, and several of whom identify as queer]. As a publisher and cultural worker, I’m also always looking for ways to celebrate [and learn from] the voices of undersung translators in my community who do not have the same privileges I do and whose work is undercelebrated within the undercelebrated world of translation.
At the level of the text, I return again to Jen and JD’s demand to “[nudge] dominant languages away from dominance….” Ringing in my ears is always the voice of Mónica de la Torre, who argues that “voice necessarily ventriloquizes, necessarily voices.” In other words, all voice [and therefore all writing] is chorus…is collage. For me, that means that the original text I’m translating is not in capital “S” Spanish, but in the particular composite spanish that belongs to the poet with whom I’m collaborating. In turn, as a translator I am bringing the poem into my particular compositeenglish. My question, then, when translating is how to use my own english to push and prod capital “E” English outside its comfort zone while also doing honor to the original poem [and poet]. I’m a translator in progress and this is a direction in which I’m hoping to grow.
In my collage work, I’ve been thinking a lot about how collage as a medium can enact the type of world that I’m dreaming toward. I remember working on a poetry/collage/sculpture thing back in 2016 just before and after the election. In that project, I was specifically exploring the connections between the xenophobic language of the trump machine and the types of language used in the world of immunology. In both, there is assumption of a body [think nation] that is at constant threat of infection [think immigration] and that seeks to protect itself through maintenance of barriers [think borders] and vigilant surveillance [think border patrol, think police]. Four years later, in the lead-up to a mid-pandemic election with nationalist, law-and-order rhetoric at full volume, I’ve been reflecting on that project. I’m convinced there’s something to learn from collage, whose primary charge [and potential] stems from the juxtaposition of difference.
SR: What are your upcoming projects?
RG: On the translation front, I recently finished working on a series of political performance poems by Elena Salamanca called Landsmoder, and I am now in the process of trying to publish the full manuscript. Some individual poems are available here and here. I also finished working with Claudina Domingo on her sprawling collection of poems centered on Mexico City called Tránsito [Transit]. I am similarly in the process of submitting the full manuscript to publishers. A selection of the poems are available here, here, and here. In terms of translation projects in progress, I’m working on a book of poems called El Nuevo Mundo I [The New World I] by Yaxkin Melchy, which is the first of five full-length collections that comprise his decade-in-the-making poetic project EL NUEVO MUNDO [THE NEW WORLD]. The first translations from The New World I will be coming out in the next issue of ANMLY. I am also working on translating a book of poems called GAME[R] OVER by Giancarlo Huapaya which explores the nexus of late capitalism, digitality, and USA-brand racism, xenophobia, and exoticization. The first set of translations will be coming out in issue 17 of Tripwire.
On the collage front, I’m working on a digitally-mediated poetic project called SPACE ROCK. Broadly speaking, it’s an exploration of “faithstuff” that includes contributions from nearly 30 friends and loved ones. Several portions of the text will be a mixing and mashing of the various things people have sent me. In this way, the project is rooted in a spirit of textual collage. Additionally, I am going to be creating several digital collages [visual] that will be incorporated into the online interface for the project. SPACE ROCK is a bit of a slow-burner, so I’m sure to be working on it for a while ☺
Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, I do a lot of bookmaking. I’m currently working on several projects with friends around the Valley. I’m working on a small comic with a 8-year-old friend named Keenan. I’m working on helping to publish my friend Sean Avery’s forthcoming audio/textual poetry/essay collection called 808s & Otherworlds. I’m collaborating with my friend Raji Ganesan to make a book object for a series of rituals/meditations she’s getting ready to share. I am working with my friend Shaunté Glover to publish a collection of Instagram collage poems called A Series of Journal Entries Disguised as Poetry: Written by a Lesbian. I have also been collaborating with my friend June Powers to publish her first three chapbooks of poetry. We are getting ready to launch all three very soon! Lastly, I’m finishing up a print run of a project called 4M Books: Vol. 1 that is a bilingual, bidirectional, four-in-one book featuring four local authors writing in English and Spanish.
Found in Translation: Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jimenez
Changing Hands Book Club
This month we’ll discuss Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jimenez.
Whether you’re a seasoned traveler, a voracious reader, or a dreamer who wants to see the world, all are invited to our newest book club focused on international literature. Sometimes visiting other countries doesn’t always give travelers an insider’s view into foreign cultures; sometimes we are still too outside, too different, to get at the heart of a place. Often the best way to understand distant lands and peoples is to read their literature, to get inside the head of a foreign author, to hear their myths and fairy tales molded around words they penned in their mother tongue.
In Found in Translation, we will delve into a work of international literature in a small group setting while enjoying coffee, beer, or wine drinks from First Draft Book Bar, located in Changing Hands Phoenix.
Stop by Changing Hands Phoenix or Tempe (or order online by clicking “add to cart” below) to get your copy of Blood of the Dawn for 10% OFF.
Then meet us at First Draft Book Bar to discuss the pick and enjoy happy hour prices all through the event.
FREE PARKING / LIGHT RAIL
Don’t want to drive? Take the Light Rail! It lets off at the Central Avenue/Camelback Park-and-Ride, which has hundreds of free parking spaces across the street from Changing Hands.
ABOUT THE BOOK Blood of the Dawn follows three women whose lives intertwine and are ripped apart during what’s known as “the time of fear” in Peruvian history when the Shining Path militant insurgency was at its peak. The novel rewrites the conflict through the voice of women, activating memory through a mixture of politics, desire, and pain in a lucid and brutal prose.
Claudia Salazar Jimenez (b. 1975, Lima, Peru), critic, scholar, and author, founded PERUFEST, the first Peruvian film festival in New York, where she lives, and won the 2014 Americas Narrative Prize for her debut novel, Blood of the Dawn.
Location: Changing Hands Bookstore, 300 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
Today we are pleased to feature Paisley Rekdal as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her discussion with fellow poet and classicist Kimberly Johnson, she takes the opportunity to talk about working with classical literature, the complexities of language and translation, women as translators of the classics, and the themes of the classical writings which the two have used as inspiration for their own work. They discuss mainly Paisley’s work with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Kimberly’s translation of Virgil’s The Georgics and how they have found inspiration in these classical poetic texts. And with their work, they’ve become “steeped in an ancient idiom” which has influenced their own poetic style and translation methods.
Paisley speaks to her own journey in contemporizing Ovid’s myths in her book of poetry Nightingale which is to be released in May. She notes that one of the trials of her work was finding how to “contemporize the myths without becoming a slave to just retelling them” and how she wanted to try “translating images of power” and “structures of change” that exist within the myths into her own poetry. She details the struggles and trials she faced in her work with the text and more.
They also take time to discuss the trials of translation of the classics and Kimberly’s work with Georgics. Kimberly notes that she “lives the world in lines” as a translator and poet, wanting to preserve the experience of the original poem. She and Paisley “reside in that complexity of language” which is inherent to poetry as an expressive art. Their extensive interest and creative engagement with the classics also helps them speak to modern topic of women working in classical translation and the appeal of the classical myths to a modern audience. For them, “the classics holler out to us from a period of imagined stability” and the themes and unique stories of those works are particularly attractive to modern readers. To hear more about the intricacies of their creative processes and their perspectives on the classics, please take the time to listen to this fascinating podcast.
Date: Thursday, February 28, 2019 Time: 7:00pm Location: University of Arizona: Poetry Center, 1508 E Helen St, Tucson, AZ 8571
We are proud to present Myriam Moscona, Jen Hofer, and John Pluecker, who will read from their work. After the reading, there will be a short Q&A and a book signing. This event is co-sponsored by the Jewish History Museum.
Myriam Moscona is a poet and journalist born in Mexico City in 1955, of Bulgarian Sephardic descent. Moscona is the author of nine books, including Vísperas (Fondo de Cultura Económica, México, 1996), Elque nada (ERA, México, 2006) and De par en par (Bonobos, México, 2009), which explores poetry beyond its traditional construction. Her book-length sequence Ivory Black (Negro marfil), translated from the Spanish by Jen Hofer, received the 2012 Harold Morton Landon Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Jen Hofer is an LA-based poet, translator, social justice interpreter, teacher, knitter, book-maker, public letter-writer, urban cyclist, and co-founder of the language justice and language experimentation collaborative Antena and the language justice advocacy collective Antena Los Ángeles. She has published 10 books in translation, 3 books of poetry, and numerous homemade books in DIY editions.
John Pluecker is a language worker who writes, translates, organizes, interprets, and creates. In 2010, he co-founded the collaborative Antena and in 2015 the social justice interpreting collective Antena Houston. His most recent translations from the Spanish include Gore Capitalism and Antígona González. His book of poetry and image, Ford Over, was released in 2016 from Noemi Press.
This past summer, the Review’s Student Editor-in-Chief Jackie Aguilar interviewed Laura Esther Wolfson, author of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, released this past June with University of Iowa Press.
Did the essay “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors” inspire you to write the essay collection of the same title? If not, what inspired this collection?
There was no single inspiration for the entire book; each section had its own inspiration. I remember the triggering moments for only a few of them. I wrote the sections sporadically over the course of a decade and half, and one by one, they appeared in magazines. The title essay, written around 2013, was among the last to be written and individually published.
As those years of writing were passing, I did not conceive of the parts as a collection. Only very late, when almost all of them were written, did it occur to me that they belonged together.
What was the most difficult part in the process of creating For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors [the book, not the essay]?
It was difficult to write regularly while working full-time, caring for infirm, elderly parents, managing a degenerative illness of my own, and sharing a studio apartment with another person plus two cats, the latter, bellies bulging, stretched out across my keyboard or patting my pen with their chocolate point paws. It was difficult to pursue the essay form (or whatever it is that I write; readers, including reviewers, do not agree), given the ubiquity and primacy of the novel and unceasing reminders from gatekeepers that collections don’t sell. Finally, it was difficult to resist the seductions of social life and the Internet. I failed again and again, at all of these things.
Writing is at times a healing journey for writers. Was writing these essays a healing journey for you? What did it give you?
I approach writing as a process, with little thought to outcome. It’s true that each section is about some sort of loss, and that I fashioned each loss into a written creation, so that the writing resulted in certain gains. Writing these pieces did make me into a better writer, and publication of the book did make me into an author, serendipitously providing me with a readymade new identity just as my health worsened to the point where I could no longer continue at my day job.
However—and what follows here is a catalogue of many of the topics the book covers—(the) writing and authorship did not save any marriages, remedy childlessness, restore health, or make up lost income. In fact, writing and publishing the book heightened my awareness of those lacks and losses.
None of this is a disappointment, though; I did not write in order to heal.
Your work as a Russian linguist looms large in many sections of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. Can you expand on how your knowledge of other languages and work as a translator/interpreter has affected your writing and transformed your view of writing?
An awareness of the world as a large and multifarious place led me to languages, and languages then increased my awareness of the size and diversity of the world. Between my awareness of the world and my interest in literature, history and international affairs there exists a similar circularity.
We translators and interpreters often fret that our work is not ‘substantive,’ i.e., that our language expertise is in service to the thoughts, information and knowledge of others. However, deep and sustained language study and language work (as a translator, interpreter, transcriber or terminologist) lead inevitably to a grasp of whatever topic is taken up in the documents or meetings assigned (for example, international humanitarian law, nuclear physics, renewable energy, etc.), as well as a general familiarity with geography, geopolitics, history, international affairs, foreign cultures, language acquisition and immigrant adaptation, both linguistic and cultural. It is these latter topics especially that find their way into my work.
Knowledge of other languages gives me a varied palette, providing access to more—of everything: more worldviews, literatures, stories, current events, histories, jokes, folktales, proverbs, syntaxes, grammars, etymologies, words, and most of all, more meanings, and more meaning.
As a translator-turned-writer, I am of course obsessed with accuracy and style; le mot juste is crucial. For the translator, this means fidelity to the source document. For the writer, it means fidelity to the thing depicted, whether that is something that exists in the world outside the creator’s mind and soul, or within.
What writing project are you currently working on? Does it have a connection to your essay collection “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors”?
I’m now at work on a long autofiction about love, infidelity and chronic illness, with embedded nuggets of flash literary criticism and flash international affairs punditry. Super-Pricey Royal Blue French Lace Bra is the working title. The voice is recognizably mine, and it partakes of many of the same obsessions present in For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. However, it is an entirely separate work.
Today we are pleased to feature poet Rose Knapp as our Authors Talk series contributor. Rose talks about how her poems deal with language and translation.
She asks what actual differences exist between common speech and poetic language. Also, is translation possible even within the same language? Finally, how do answers to these questions affect relationships?
You can read and listen to Rose’s poetry in Superstition Review, Issue 19.
Less than one-percent of international literature is translated into English every year, an abysmally low number by any account. Occasionally, a translated author breaks through with a bestselling hit, such as Elena Ferrante’s trilogy of Neapolitan novels. But those successes largely depend on media coverage: glowing reviews in the New York Times and Boston Globe, features in commercial magazines, Vogue and O. What about the many authors who might be fortunate to have their works translated into English, but who remain relatively unnoticed by the reading public—even by devotees of literary fiction? Even authors who write in English but reside out the United States struggle to obtain mainstream readership and name-recognition stateside as compared to within their home country.
I’m not sure when I decided to devote more of my reading time to discovering international authors. A few years ago I started to review books for literary magazines, and sometimes editors suggested titles or ARCs that had arrived in the office of say, the Kenyon Review, and offered them for assignment. Not only did I delight in discovering stunning masters of fiction—Kevin Barry is one, author of City of Bohane, set in a dystopian future Ireland—but I relished the distance reviewing books by authors abroad gave me. Like it or not, in the U.S., many fiction writers and reviewers belong to the same circle. Knowing that I had less of a chance of running into Barry at a reading or conference made writing an honest critique of his work a more liberating and enlivening endeavor.
Other international titles came to me by way of friends, such as the satirical novel Lovestar by Icelandic writer Andre Magnason; my ex-boyfriend met the author briefly and passed along a copy to me. The more I reviewed and met others who did, the more I received recommendations of international fiction writers to actively seek out. Critic John Domini’s reviews led me to read Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, but more importantly, two novels by German author Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days and Visitation. Much acclaimed on the international literary scene, Erpenbeck is lesser known to the mainstream American reading public, certainly less so than the oft-spotlit Ferrante.
Delving into international literature inevitably leads you as a reader to become familiar with the presses bringing such stellar work to an English-speaking audience. Europa, New Directions, New American Press, Dalky Archive, and Restless Press all publish fiction in translation—presses I’ve come to keep my eye on, whose catalogues I eagerly devour as soon as they drop through my mail slot.
Such presses and their translators do a great service by taking risks and bringing much-deserved talent to a North American audience. Some authors, such as Kevin Barry, whose City of Bohane was first published in the U.S. by Graywolf, eventually make the leap to a major publisher and distribution (Barry’s recent Beatlebone was released by Doubleday), and hopefully, a wider audience. But most importantly, these presses, authors, and translators deserve your attention and support whether or not their authors ever get picked up by a Big 5 publisher. By exploring foreign authors you probably haven’t heard of, your literary landscape will grow more colorful and rewarding, treading imaginative terrain you’d never expect.
On a Sunday in late sleety March, 1984 my clan was celebrating Grandmother’s seventieth anniversary. We lived in Zaporozhye, a failed industrial giant in the south-east of Ukraine. There was a deluge of toasts, vodka, champagne, red caviar and homemade poems.
The toasts and the poems were all pompous nonsense, the caviar too salty. My cousin Shurik and I were exiled to the nursery because we had crawled under the dinner table, moving the white linen cloth dangerously while taking off the guests’ shoes. We were ordered to occupy ourselves with quiet games until they called us in for tea and cake. In the nursery, Shurik and I had exhausted both classic Scrabble and table football; then the less Orthodox, self-invented “Beat the Lazy Fool” and “Husband and Wife Are Looking for a Treasure under the Bed.” Still, there was no news of the dessert, and we were getting bored yet again. So I took a sketch book and some felt tips and drew a jagged oval in the middle of the page.
I told Shurik, “This is the Island of Poovia in the Souporific Ocean.”
“Is it mine?” Shurik asked. “Only half of it, but you are President,” I said, generously giving the younger sibling priority and ascribing myself the post of the Chancellor.
While the President was draining the blue felt tip to color the Souporific Ocean, the Chancellor distributed the remaining political power on Poovia among the members of the family. We knew no one else who we could command to fulfill state duties and practice the pronunciation of their new names, far too convoluted even for Ukrainian tongues.
The two remaining hours before the dessert passed unnoticed, and then we were finally gorging ourselves on the delicious Napoleon cake and seeping Krasnodar tea. Our parents, laughing and cursing, were stumbling on the new names that I had printed on paper slips: Myrrn Kyldynysyvj, Minister of Defense; Ryitta Brbukhovva, State Secretary – just to mention the easiest ones. Only for Grandmother, a retired piano teacher, had we made a magnanimous exception. She got an easy, mellow name of Marrám Lalá and the cushy post of the Minister of Culture.
Thus, in 1984, behind the Iron Curtain, we suddenly had a whole island to ourselves, and believe me, it was a most tropical one. Tangerines that we could only eat on the New Year’s Eve in real life, were served to the President first thing every morning. Many a felt tip was spent depicting the President’s palace, beaches, palm groves, and on designing the gorgeous Chancellor’s dresses.
Truth to say, the rest of the government didn’t do anything at all besides asking us, from time to time, “And are you still playing that game, what’s its name… Peevia?”
The only goal of Poovian politics was fostering a huge, harmless and humorous cult of the President’s personality – oh that girl who had had an operation to engrave his name on her ventricle; oh that funny fat man who had stolen the President’s night pot.
For Shurik, the main sense of Poovia was its two football teams sponsored by the competing electronic corporations, the Chancellor’s Melon and the President’s Cucumber. Each of the footballers had his own personality: the Melon goalkeeper, for instance, was so slow that a crow made a nest on his head during the final match. Needless to say, the Cucumber won more often.
For me, the beauty of Poovia was in creating a new language. I compiled a dictionary of Poovarian, about two hundred splendid words – verbs, nouns, adjectives, idioms that existed, I could swear, in no other language (for example, to compliment a beautiful woman, one would have to say, “What bald teeth you have!”) The grammar of Poovarian resembled Russian, with a tinge, as I discovered only not long ago, of French and Turkish. I wrote the National Poovarian Anthem, some songs for pop-stars, and many articles for the quality newspapers and tabloids – all that at the expense of homework.
With the help of a primitive cassette recorder, we broadcast important balls and receptions. We interviewed the President, the Chancellor and, occasionally, the increasingly senile and hence the least microphone-shy Marrám Lalá.
Poovia thrived for three years, five cassettes and fifteen sketch books. Then Shurik and I were blown away from the island, estranged from each other by puberty.
Children’s life in the Soviet Union was not so awful as to need radical distractions. We had our share of fun: music lessons, table tennis, and we both attended a good school with in-depth English instruction. Eating tangerines once a year in no way meant that we starved. Living in communal flats or tower blocks did not make us claustrophobic. For us, tales about Lenin as a little boy did not sound like brainwashing and a children’s military parade at the primary school was as normal as ABC. In 1984, we did not feel trapped in an anti-utopia.
Now I see Poovia as a nursery presentiment of emigration: a dress rehearsal a decade in advance; an intuition, naïve but not entirely wrong, of western life as we perceived it later. For me, it was also a dress rehearsal of writing, in a language not my own.
Shurik and I still remember each other’s birthdays. “Are your teeth still bald?” he always asks me instead of congratulating.
Little did we know then that Shurik would become one of the first high school graduates in the ex-USSR to go to study abroad, first in Switzerland, then in England, and end up working in a renowned London bank. The floor of his living-room is the size of a football field and wears a snow-white carpet.
I was very happy to escape the 1990s chaos and corruption of the post-Soviet Ukraine – nothing would ever change and I didn’t feel responsible for improving things at the cost of my personal goals. I entered the period of a decade-long denial of my motherland, busy building a new life from scratch. Leipzig, Germany became my new home. To my parents, my carpetless living-room seems the size of a tennis court. When they visit me, I tell them that when we go to Cyprus in March, ripe tangerines fall down from the trees, and no one cares to pick them.
It was in 2014 that Ukraine pulled me back into its courageous, fiery orbit of the Maidan and the War of Independence with its terrible toll. I scarcely believed my ears and eyes when the world news uttered the name of Donetsk, my alma mater city in the east, and its adjacent towns, and showed those tranquil, drowsy places in fire and chaos. I could do little about it, apart from feeling acute empathy and shame. The only thing that made up for my denial was translating wonderful, inimitable contemporary Ukrainian poetry into English for publication in American and British literary magazines and anthologies.
Last year, I broke my self-imposed moratorium and flew to Kiev. I met my old college mates who’d had to flee the war-afflicted territories where they had enjoyed well-established lives. The airplane was landing, and I looked down from the window in impatient, torn anticipation. The blue Dnieper River sparkled in the light of the setting sun and in its middle, it wasn’t the ancient capital of Kiev I saw. It was my Island of Poovia that stretched under the plane wings in all its 1984 splendor.