Archives: August 2017

Staring into the Void

Hirsh Sawhney for The TLS
Partition

In the 70th year since Partition, Hirsh Sawhney reflects on how it has been depicted in Indian and Pakistani literature, for The TLS:

In 2013 Google released an advertisement featuring an elderly Hindu man in Delhi, Baldev, who is reminiscing about a Muslim playmate, Yusuf, from his childhood in Lahore. Baldev hasn’t seen Yusuf in many decades, having migrated from Pakistan to India during Partition, and he misses him. Baldev’s attentive granddaughter, Suman, uses Google to search for Yusuf and manages to track down his Pakistani grandson, Ali. The pair arrange for Yusuf to travel from Lahore to Delhi. With the help of Google, Ali easily figures out how to attain a visa for Yusuf, who is soon standing at Baldev’s doorstep. The long-lost friends embrace; the Google logo flashes. Soon the old men are getting blissfully drenched together beneath a rainy sky. Thanks to technological progress, they have been able to overcome decades of trauma, geopolitical strife and communal discord.

Various commentators in India, the United States, Canada and Malaysia have showered praise on this advert, and it has been viewed more than 13 million times. But despite its laudable message of cross-border religious harmony, it is perhaps more notable for its lacunae, which reveal a great deal about the way in which Partition is remembered today. For example, the advert centres on two men, though Partition disproportionately affected the lives of women. Furthermore, it doesn’t contain the slightest trace of the British Empire, even though it was Britain, in conjunction with the Indian leaders it favoured at various points during colonial rule, who imposed Partition on the country without adequately preparing it. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs sometimes experienced tension before colonialism, but Britain deliberately engineered policies that fomented strife between these groups in order to manage its imperial holdings more effectively. It pitted the Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Congress Party of Mohandas Gandhi against one another, putting India on a crash course towards division and destruction.

The elisions in the advert aren’t surprising. The diminishment of imperial responsibility for the woes of Partition has a long history. In an article about Indian independence in 1947, Time magazine praised the justness of a British legal system in the Raj that denied basic human rights to ordinary Indians. It claimed that “by the time the British reached India, both Hindu and Moslem were deeply immersed in hate”. The Atlantic, in 1958, asserted that “long before the British conquered India, the Hindus had resented their Muslim Mogul masters”. Around the same time, Anglo-American readers were delighting in Khushwant Singh’s finely constructed Partition novel Train to Pakistan (1956) – a book that contains not a single British character. The fact that Singh’s family made a fortune collaborating with the Raj perhaps explains this omission.

In recent decades, scholars such as Gyanendra Pandey and Yasmin Khan have helped to unravel the complex role the British played in encouraging the religious discord that still beleaguers South Asia today, and yet the tendency to downplay the role of the colonizer in Partition persists in many English-language texts. Even seemingly nuanced accounts can’t seem to shake off this habit. Take Nisid Hajari’s book Midnight’s Furies (2015), which received thunderous acclaim in the US, UK and India. It presents provocative evidence of British imperialists actively fanning the flames of communal discord by paying off Muslim clerics to preach against the Congress Party, and yet the author seems reluctant to rigorously scrutinize British actions and attitudes leading up to Partition. He often makes light of the role of imperial actors, such as Viceroy Mountbatten; he rehashes old tropes about the “deep roots” of divisions between Hindus and Muslims, mentioning age-old “frictions” stemming from the destruction of “flower-strewn temples” by “Muslim conquerors”. Various scholars, including Audrey Truschke and Romila Thapar, have demonstrated the tenuousness of such claims. Thapar, for example, has pointed out that alleged Hindu grievances about the eleventh-century destruction of the Somnath temple were first aired in Britain’s Parliament; only after this point do records begin to reference “the Hindu trauma”.

It is true, as many critics have pointed out, that South Asian thinkers and politicians would do well to reckon with the culpability of their own leaders and citizens in carrying out Partition and perpetuating religious violence. As the legacy of twentieth-century imperialism continues to inform our current moment of global instability, it is similarly imperative for Anglo-American audiences to see through the simplicities epitomized by Google’s Partition commercial.

(…)

Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh

Yen Pham interviews for the White Review
For-Otessa-2

(…)

Q
THE WHITE REVIEW

— You’ve talked about very specific historical anxieties you’ve inherited from your parents (who are Croatian and Iranian immigrants). They fled fascism and were divested of wealth but raised you to be very rich in culture. What was it like growing up in Newton and how did your family fit in there?

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

—  Well, my parents are both violin teachers, and in a sense, that was how I think my parents related to the culture – as musicians and educators. But I’m in the middle of three siblings and I learned a lot from my big sister, who was my hero growing up – very rebellious and sort of counter-culture. So I did not grow up in mainstream America, I guess. I didn’t play sports, although I wish I did, it probably would have been good for me. I always felt estranged from the place I grew up, but part of something less nationalistic and more human – my family culture, which was primarily art-based.

Q
THE WHITE REVIEW
— It comes to mind because many of your characters – or, McGlue and Johnson and Eileen – are characters that are deeply imprinted by but also alienated from New England and its culture. Is there a connection for you between the sort of openness in your writing about ‘grotesque’ exterior functions of the body and socially unacceptable interior functions of the mind?

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

— Well, yes, because I think both are things that aren’t openly acceptable in quote-unquote civilised society. At least in the culture that I’ve known, we’re meant to feel like there’s something really wrong with us if we don’t look healthy and beautiful all the time, and if we’re having negative thoughts, then we’re not good people and that has to be corrected. And there are industries that work on both sides of that to make people look young and beautiful all the time and to make people feel right and think right and act right all the time. But you know, other cultures aren’t like that. Like, other cultures embrace things that we might think of as evil, or a power that might scare us, or something transgressive or more mysterious. But I think, at least in America… I mean, we come from Puritans, who were totally psycho and stole the country really violently from a Native culture that was probably pretty violent too. Americans don’t really live in lily-white cookie-cutter societies, but I think the way that Christianity has worked in the government has instilled a sense of God as the authority that spies on you and controls the world, more Big Brother than anything else. Growing up, I didn’t totally understand where the sense of the terrifying authority that was always watching me came from, and it was probably a brainwashed conception of God. You know, like, do the right thing, ’cause you’re gonna get in trouble, and what’s the consequence, you’ll go to hell. I’m not a Christian but that entered me through osmosis and it took 36 years for that concept to dissipate. Actually, I’m still working on that.

Q
THE WHITE REVIEW

— That’s an extensive period of unbrainwashing.

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

— And the way that that manifested for me was in the ways that it manifests for my characters quite often. Feeling ashamed of having a mortal body, and feeling like, ‘I must be crazy.’ Like, either I’m crazy, or everybody else is crazy, because what the fuck is going on here, you know? Just as simple as walking down the street and seeing someone suffering and begging for help, and people walking by on their cell phones. How are we doing that? How are we so shut off that this is the way that things work? And this is the way it’s worked for thousands of years, I’m sure. It’s not like we’re all benevolent creatures, but we pride ourselves on being good, and, I don’t know, I question that in my work.

Q
THE WHITE REVIEW

— Do you think that people in general are as weird as the people in your stories?

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

—  I think that there are some people who are boring by nature and maybe placid. You know, people vibrate at all different frequencies. I vibrate at a – I would say – a high and neurotic but spiritual frequency, with a lot of anxiety but a lot of passion. And I think my characters do that too, sometimes. I think that there are also some people who were never given the freedom to individuate as children so they didn’t really develop personalities or strategies for coping with the world which would make them interesting. So I don’t blame people for being boring, but I don’t want to write about boring people. Sometimes I attempt to and what I uncover is that they’re boring because they’re really repressed.

(…)

The South African Parables of Ivan Vladislavic

Hermione Hoby interviews for the New Yorker
Hoby-The-South-African-Parables-of-Ivan-Vladislavic

For the New Yorker, Hermione Hoby talks with the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic about his fiction and the current state of South Africa:

In “Villa Toscana,” the first story in “The Exploded View,” a startling collection by the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic, a statistician named Budlender has helped redraft questionnaires for the South African national census of 1996. Apartheid was abolished in 1991; this is the first nonracial headcount in the country’s history. As Budlender, whom we understand to be white, drives to the homes of respondents to test this questionnaire, he interrogates the visual data of the road. It occurs to him that “people were always saying” that the city’s roads were filled with brand-new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. Then again, he thinks, people were also always saying that “every second car in Joburg is falling apart.” So, he asks, “Were the roads full of new cars or old cars? There was a lesson in this, which only a statistician seemed capable of learning: as soon as you took into account what people were saying, you lost track of what was actually happening.”

Budlender’s “lesson” reminded me of questions I have asked my own South African relatives. My father left the country for Britain in 1973, after being advised that his anti-apartheid activism would see him “accidentally” killed. Since then, the country has gone through many convolutions, including the transformative Presidency of Nelson Mandela, and yet Budlender’s questions are the same ones that I have been asking my father—the same ones the country has been asking itself—with ebbing energy, for twenty years. Has crime declined? Yes and no. Has reconciliation succeeded? Depends on whom you ask. There remain counterfacts for every fact. This highly equivocal world challenges even a statistician; as Budlender himself concedes, “there were no reliable statistics.”

The novelist André Brink once called Vladislavic “one of the most imaginative minds at work in South African literature,” and the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole has rhapsodized that his language is “as scintillating and fine-grained as a silver gelatin print.” Despite such endorsements, and despite winning a Windham-Campbell Prize for Literature in 2015, Vladislavic has not been widely read outside his country. Now, with the ascendancy of far-right regimes around the world, there is a new, anxious interest in South Africa’s political model—or, rather, in its cautionary exemplum. Optimism, never easy to measure, has surely faded since the hopeful upheaval of the nineties. President Jacob Zuma, who assumed office in 2009, has for months been facing calls to resign over what the normally neutral Nelson Mandela Foundation called “political meddling for private interests.” When living in a degraded political system, both monitoring and processing degeneration becomes hard. If the former is more the job of a statistician, the latter task might fall to the novelist.

When I met him a few months ago, in Johannesburg, Vladislavic, who is fifty-nine, commanding and soft-spoken, agreed that there might be some advantage to living where he does. “In a way, living here is a gift if you’re a thinking person, because you’re challenged constantly,” he said. “Even driving around in the leafy suburbs, you’re challenged to think about your own position.” Vladislavic had offered to take me for a drive in his Toyota Corolla (“the default setting of cars,” he called it) around the city, which is mostly flat and seems uncentered and inscrutable in the way of Los Angeles. He continued, “Our whole history has been about imposing order on things that cannot be controlled. Where people live, who they fall in love with, what they think.” His work, he suggested, could be understood, at least in part, as a reckoning with this way of understanding society—“between trying to control and letting things go, between order and chaos.” Part of the chaos is the lack of distinction between what can be measured and what cannot. “Villa Toscana” ends with Budlender in a kind of reverie among the perfume bottles at the home of one of his census respondents, around whom he has woven his own private fictions.

Vladislavic was born in central Pretoria, the son of a Croat motor mechanic and a housewife, into a predominantly Afrikaans environment. When he was nine or ten, his family moved out of the city and into the suburbs, where he first encountered the enmity between white Afrikaners and white English speakers. In 1978, he graduated from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand (“Wits”) and has lived in Johannesburg ever since. His first novel, “The Folly,” an absurdist allegory, was published in 1993, two years after apartheid ended. In the book, an inhabitant of “the old South Africa” becomes engrossed by a new neighbor who, he notices, has begun to precisely demarcate with string the contours of a phantom building in the vacant plot beside his home. As the project billows to fantastical and unstable proportions, the novel’s social realism swells into magical realism. The house becomes a literal castle in the air—evidence that neither messy reality nor imagination can be accounted for by blueprints.

(…)

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Words Are Delicate Instruments

Lucia Duero interviews for Guernica
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Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku is interviewed by her translator Lucia Duero for Guernica:

(…)

Guernica: You grew up in communist Albania, under a dictatorship led by Enver Hoxha, who was in power from 1944 until his death in 1985. It was a climate characterized by oppression and isolation; religion was outlawed. In an already isolated country, your family’s political background—which included an uncle’s attempt to assassinate Hoxha—isolated you even further. What do you remember about that time?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: When I was three years old, my family moved to my mother’s hometown, Kruje. That is where I spent my childhood. The town had a beautiful landscape, set on mountains with a view of the Adriatic Sea. It was a conservative place, well-known for having done business with Italy before World War II. That’s why the people there were pragmatic, reserved, and skeptical. In my family there was no small talk, only talk about serious things like global politics—trying to interpret the distant political signs, looking desperately for some hope things would change. Religion was forbidden beginning in 1968, when I was born. So my communication with them was limited to issues of everyday life, which were issues of survival.

When I was in kindergarten, not quite six years old, I was part of a group of children who were being prepared to give a concert on television—then I was separated from them, without explanation. When I went home, sad and angry, my mother had to explain me that we were “different.” Our family had what she called a “bad biography”—as an anti-communist family, we were condemned. Later I had to face this kind of situation all the time. Our family was like a quarantine: No one could escape, and no one could get in. We were rejected. So I was prepared for a difficult life, as were my parents and grandparents.

Albania was a very isolated country, politically, economically, and culturally. Our only connection to the world was through a radio program called Voice of America, and through the Italian television waves, which we caught illegally through primitive, improvised antennas. The only way to escape from reality was reading books. When I was twelve years old, I had already read all the books for children in the library. Confused, the librarian gave me some novels for adults and asked, “Are you sure you will not misunderstand them?” I smile when I remember that now. I think she hesitated because she was afraid love stories might influence me in a negative way. So my books were hidden everywhere—as “love letters,” as I call them in one of my poems. I had to hide those books from my mother; the last thing she wished for me was to be a daydreamer. And in such circumstances, she was right to worry.

Guernica: In one of your poems you write, “a childhood without promises / is bread without yeast / still sweet yet tough and dry.” How did you reconcile the idea of future with such a hopeless situation?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Childhood is usually identified with fantasy, adventure, and dreaming. But mine didn’t offer a lot of hope. I could read my future in my palm. Everything foretold: “You have no future!” A person must be very strong to keep going without hope.

My early books, especially the Child of Nature, are my attempt to understand and explain the essence of morality in that kind of situation. My people were persecuted, hopeless, abandoned by the world and by God (“at the edge of sadness,” as they used to say), but they never gave up. They never betrayed themselves; they were a great moral model. Amid such challenges, you have to wonder: What gives meaning to human life?

Guernica: You’ve lived under two very different political regimes: communist Albania with its lack of freedom, scarcity, and lack of possibilities, and capitalist Albania, with so-called freedom, abundance, and opportunity. What has been your experience of those two regimes, and how did they impact your writing?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Totalitarian regimes produce a culture and a moral code that is totally different from what happens in a democracy. There are two moral categories in a communist society: honest men and bad men. The “honest” ones resist compromising or collaborating with the regime, while the “bad” are the persecutors and collaborators. You can choose to be on one side or the other, but there is nothing in between. In a normal society, other factors can define who you are. You can be a good worker, sociable, tough, generous, tolerant, collaborative, friendly, and so on.

Jean-Paul Sartre said that France was freer than ever during the German occupation, when people had no choices but one: to collaborate or to resist. I’m not saying there was something good about that system. But the freest people I’ve ever met, or knew about, belonged to that period. For example, Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer who dared to fight for political pluralism and free elections. She created the first social democratic party, despite knowing the high price she would have to pay. We usually understand freedom as meaning that there are many choices—but does having more choices, or believing we do, actually make us more free?

Guernica: Your writing grapples with ideas of femininity and masculinity, and you yourself often write from a perspective of a man. How do you think about that binary?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Very often I hear talk about female literature, or femininity in literature. It’s a categorization I am not sure about. Maybe there are a few elements that distinguish women’s observations from men’s, like the ability to notice some fine details. But if you hide the author’s name, in most cases you would have difficulty identifying their gender. The same is true of the subjects of men and women’s writing: women’s literature is often considered sentimental. But if depth and brains are thought to be masculine characteristics, what we can say about women writers like Wisława Szymborska or Emily Dickinson?

Every time I find myself writing from the perspective of a man, a male character, I don’t have a clear explanation why. It might be because through a male voice I can satisfy my curiosity about what it would be like to be of the opposite gender. Or it might be even more subconscious than that—perhaps I feel less exposed under the “skin” of a man, less prejudged and more protected.

(…)

A Report from the First-Ever Asian American Literature Festival

Kyle Lucia Wu for LitHub
IMG_7178-1240x930-1

Kyle Lucia Wu reports on the first Asian American Literature Festival for LitHub, and talks of how important it is that it exists:

“No one is immune to the fantasy of authenticity,” Paisley Rezkal said. It was the last panel of the second day at the first-ever Asian American Literature Festival. I’d already gotten my tarot cards read, spoken on a panel, participated in a speed-mentoring session, eaten too many carbs, and slept in a dorm room that resembled, as a friend said of the picture I texted her, a World War II hospital. I probably should have wanted to take a nap, but I was leaning forward with my chin in my hand, quite literally sitting on the edge of my seat, because I felt like she was talking to me. Over the course of the whole weekend, I felt like people were talking to me more directly than they had in a very long time.

The festival, which focuses solely on Asian American literature, is the first of its kind. It’s put on by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center in collaboration with a number of organizations, including Poetry Magazine, Kundiman, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. The initial day was held at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the second day at The Phillips Collection, the last at the Library of Congress. The fact that it’s called a festival, not a conference, is demonstrative of its communal, celebratory spirit.

Though the general spirit felt lighthearted, the words and intention were weighty. This kind of nurturing environment is rare, which I mentioned to Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, the curator of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and editor-in-chief of Asian American Literary Review. “We are not living writ large in a welcoming space,” he said. “Many of us move through violent spaces all the time and are subject to all kinds of awful treatment and conditions, so it’s our responsibility to work against those and to create caring spaces.” It sounds both natural and difficult, but either way, the intentionality behind the festival shone through.

My schedule for the first day included a talk on Vietnamese diasporic literature featuring Vu Tran, Linh Dinh, and Cathy Linh Che, a reading by queer Asian writers Wo Chan, Peggy Lee, and Rajiv Mohabir, a fiction reading by Don Lee and Akhil Sharma, and the Poetry magazine summer issue launch. There were stations set up from various organizations, from Kaya Press to Bamboo Ridge to AAWW, in the ‘literary lounge,’ where attendees made self-care cards, memes and child-to-parent letters.

The following day offered one-on-one mentoring sessions with Nicole Chung and Jennifer Chang, and though I’d neglected to sign up, I heard that Nicole had an opening and was lucky enough to sit down with her in a bright side room at the museum. I had just read Nicole’s latest essay online and was thrilled to meet her and talk about representation, fiction vs. nonfiction, and literary community in person. “I always love the chance to talk with writers at all levels, young writers especially,” she told me about the mentoring sessions that day. “A lot of writers need just a little bit of encouragement—honestly, I know I still need that—so it’s a privilege to be able to offer that feedback and that kind of encouragement.”

After that, I saw Kazim Ali and Franny Choi give a literary address with a large audience squeezed into the bookshop of the Phillips Collection, inverted umbrellas hanging overhead; Writer-Scholar speed dating went on nearby in the Carriage House. The AAWW Margins Fellows for this year (myself included) then read our work. One of the fellows, Yanyi, said it felt amazing to read in a space where his poems related one of many diverse Asian-American experiences. “I didn’t have a second thought about whether the audience would ‘get’ what I was writing about, nor did I have to worry if I was speaking for anyone but myself,” he explained.

Following that, Ryan Lee Wong moderated the Kundiamn/AALR Mentoring Reading, which featured Alexander Chee, Paisley Rekdal, Grace Jahng Lee, and Justin Monson; he began by asking us all to take a collective deep breath. I was particularly struck by something Alexander Chee said about what he would like to pass along to his students:

The idea that the white imagination is the only thing that’s limitless is this idea that we’re always fighting, if not in ourselves, in other people. When I was presenting my manuscript to publishers, I felt like I wasn’t legible to them because they had never met anyone like me. It was like they couldn’t believe I existed, much less that this book had been written that was in front of them. That cured me of any idea of that imagination as limitless—it was so incredibly limited that I was shocked. But what I did understand completely from that experience was that they felt they had the power to define what was real and what was not. That was what I would be trying to take back from them for the rest of my career, so when I think about what I’m trying to pass on, it’s a sense of confidence to face that.

(…)

From MA

Ida Börjel in Asymptote
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Seen in Asymptote, poems from Ida Börjel’s collection MA, translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida:

A
Earth: mother earth
was. Pangaea
was and Gondwana
was broken from Pangaea
from Pangaea        Laurasia

from Pangaea Laurasia
Ma all was broken into pieces
Pangea was
and Gondwana was broken from Pangaea
the universe expands
the conditional
void, locked
in time, twisted in
the human measurement earth’s
loneliness, emptiness, earth’s
abandoned lonely lunacy
time, the human era        the anthropocene

adrenaline, adrenaline was
swirls, swirls
the milky way’s
spiral structure, poisonous swirls were
hamster wheels, the mobius strips’
which happened, it happened and happened
pattern light, bright lattice bright
where eye light fractured into prisms
where the bloodhound
whose eye had burst        insomnia

F

also the cheaters were, the cheaters
 in an opportunistic flood wave, shock wave was
 waves and in the waves wading after
 the anti-information board’s green
or gray censorious praxis tags
 after wet crackers in the head during
 the press conference, paper bullets fired against
 the foreign ministry’s cheating oil deals
 iron ore, profit, fabrications
the fiction that the only thing that was
 was the only possible path through
 deforestation, iron ore
 the arms factory and the shrewdness
 shrewdness was; Operation Paperclip
 the antitank rifle Carl Gustaf in Kashmir
 the anniversary was, anniversaries
 iron ore, the decision mid-summer
 regarding the german soldiers’ safe transit
 across the tracks between the Norwegian
 and Finnish border        Svea

butterflies, butterfly mine
dams were; labyrinthine
echo chamber
 the shivering; the capsules; semi
prone; flood delta the situation
 could be assessed based on their love
 usually they came out to dance and listen
—when we played and no one came 
the soldiers knew that action would follow
the Syrian troop’s human shields
 a fine wreath of children
 clinging to the tanks to not
 be shot into the head
there was, in the factory and the factory
 outside the factory walls
 the profit margin, the human factor
 what had become reasonable in as things stand
full speed ahead, legitimate answers, weak
 levees        Katrina

(…)

 

You Okay For Time?

Kaori Fujino short story for Granta
Snake_Plant_(Sansevieria_trifasciata_'Laurentii')

Kaori Fujino has written a short story about a female friendship for Granta, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori:

For my best friend’s wedding present, I sent her a potted sansevieria. I compared product photos and prices online, selected one within my budget, addressed it to her new apartment, and hit send. I thought a leafy plant would be a more thoughtful gift than crockery or towels.

I called her soon after.

‘Did you get it?’

‘Yes, thank you! I love it – hope it’s okay, though.’

I knew what she meant. She was the only one in our class who’d failed to grow a hyacinth bulb in water, and she’d even made a cactus rot. The reason I’d chosen a sansevieria out of all the many leafy plants was, shall we say, out of consideration. The shop blurb said the sansevieria was stronger and easier to look after than any other plant, and on top of that it produced negative ions thereby improving indoor air quality, making it the perfect gift. ‘Stronger and easier to look after than any other plant’: that meant even she’d be able to care for it. She wasn’t a child any more after all, not by a long stretch – and she was married, to boot. There had been times when I thought she’d probably never marry, but she did. In which case she should at least be able to care for one of these.

I didn’t tell her that.

‘It’ll be fine,’ I said simply, full of affection for her. ‘The instruction leaflet was enclosed, right? Make sure you read it.’

‘Oh, hang on a sec. Ryo wants to say thank you too.’

The sound of her breathing receded, and her husband exhaled into my ear.

‘Hey, how are you?’ he said cheerfully. ‘Thanks for the wedding reception.’

He was referring to the fact I gave a speech on behalf of the bride’s friends. I put a lot of effort into it, feeling all warm and fuzzy as I rediscovered so many memories of her. They all sparkled, like a little brook. Everything that happened between us, the things she said, the things I said, were all washed away out of reach, leaving only the freshness of crystal clear water. How was I to convey this modest joy, pleasantly cool yet still warm, to everyone there? In a corner of my mind I knew I was being condescending. And yes, I was disdainful of my friend. But this didn’t diminish my friendly feelings towards her. So I put my whole heart into giving the speech. I talked about how gentle and kind she was, how serious and candid and unaffected. I really like my friend. I always did, and I still do.

My friend’s husband laughed and said he would make sure she didn’t let my gift die. My friend came back on the line.

‘You okay for time?’ That’s what she always said when she wanted a long chat. I was okay for time. I was surprised she was, being newly married, but it was just like her really.

‘It’s fine, no problem. Ryo’s going to have a bath now.’

And so she started talking, just like she always did.

The subject was her husband. She discovered new things about him every day, she said. Occasionally she lowered her voice and spoke about amusing details with great relish: how she couldn’t contend with the grime on his shirt collar just by rubbing it with detergent and washing it; how he coughed up phlegm in the toilet twice a day; the dull, heavy smell of sweat that filled the bedroom after a sound night’s sleep; the appalling potency of his bad breath first thing in the morning. How he folded his pants neatly and put them away. How he was particular about which shampoo and conditioner he used. How he’d been upset that they didn’t sell his preferred products in the local drug store, so he’d ordered them online.

‘Isn’t it weird? It’s only shampoo and rinse – any would do, surely?

‘It’s conditioner,’ I corrected her. ‘Even you always use the one your mom chose, don’t you?’

‘I have to. My hair goes everywhere if I don’t.’

Whenever my friend stayed in hotels, she never touched the shampoo provided but instead lined up her own little refillable bottles on the edge of the bathtub. If I ever suggested she stayed over at my place, she would recoil and excuse herself in a small voice saying she hadn’t brought her shampoo with her.

‘I never knew men were fussy about that sort of thing. I always thought they were okay with using just shampoo and didn’t need rinse.’

‘Conditioner,’ I corrected her again.

‘Oh, right. So what’s the difference between conditioner and the rinse that I use?’

‘Yours is treatment.’

‘Oh, is that what it is?’

My friend’s voice suddenly brightened. ‘Hey, Ryo! Sure, I was just about to hang up.’ The words that came through her cell phone hadn’t been directed at me, but rather arrived as a ripple from her voice echoing throughout a large sealed room empty but for herself. Although her new home was a fifty-six square meter two-bedroom condo.

‘So, come and visit, won’t you?’ she said quickly.

‘Sure, I’ll visit. Sometime soon.’

 

I know her really very well. After all, she is my best friend. For example, it was obvious to me that she knew very little about her boyfriend when she married him, even after dating for seven years. All she’d known about him apart from his basic personal information was his taste in films, his taste in clothes, his taste in food, his taste in women – and most importantly what he liked about her and how much. She’s lacking in imagination and didn’t need to know any more. I knew, naturally, that there were sides to her boyfriend she didn’t know about, and that she wasn’t even aware she didn’t know about them.

I also knew all about their sex life. They hadn’t had sex at all during the last two years they were dating. They’d done it more frequently at the beginning of their relationship, but it had slowly died out. There were all kinds of reasons: he was busy with his work, or she had her period, or they preferred to go see a movie together rather than spend time cooped up in a bedroom, or there was an art exhibition they wanted to see, or they would go two hours by train to eat cake at a café featured in a magazine, or they’d arranged to go out with me or some other friend. I knew she was a little suspicious about it, and also that she was unhappy about it. But I also knew that she was convinced he wasn’t being unfaithful, that he was devoted only to her, and truly loved only her. And it was true. During those seven years, she had often invited me out to lunch with the two of them, and we’d also gone out together in a big group of friends to karaoke and barbecues. On those occasions I’d been able to casually sound him and his friends out, and I had to conclude that she was right. I was pretty good at that sort of thing – at ferreting out gossip, and seducing spoken-for men. He was clean. That was when I first thought my friend would probably marry him. It’d be more fun if it wasn’t the case, though.

I hoped she wouldn’t let the sansevieria die right away. I hoped there wouldn’t be an awkward situation with her feeling she’d wronged me by letting it dry out or rot.

 

It was rarely me who called her. It was always she who called.

‘You okay for time?’

‘Sure. How’s the sansevieria?’

‘It’s doing great!’ she said enthusiastically. ‘Even though I’ve only watered it twice since it arrived. I wanted to water it more, the poor thing, but Ryo said the instructions said not to water it too much so I forced myself to be patient. And it seems to like it like that. It’s really tough, isn’t it?’

‘Really? That’s great.’

‘Listen, you know what? Ryo still doesn’t do it.’

‘Doesn’t do what?’

‘Look I told you we hadn’t been doing it. For about two years.’

‘What? You are kidding me, right?’

‘It’s true.’

But I wasn’t as surprised as I’d made out, and she wasn’t all that depressed about it either. She told me about how affectionate her husband was. He wants to hold hands even at home. He’s concerned when my friend has to work overtime and comes home late, and goes to the station to meet her. He won’t eat dinner until she comes home. He wants to eat with her, and will wait for hours. Dinner is almost always ready-made meals or easy-cook packets from the supermarket. My friend always lived at home so she can’t cook very well, and she doesn’t have time to practise. Her husband doesn’t complain at all, and just smiles. He can’t cook either. He lived alone for a long time so you’d have thought he would have learned how to, but my friend overlooks this point. In bed, they talk together. She has a lot to talk about and he hangs on to her every word, so that by the time they’ve finished talking they are both dead tired, and the atmosphere isn’t conducive to sex.

‘He’s a bit like a parent, I guess. No, he’s much more overprotective than a parent,’ she said happily. ‘Just when I thought I’d finally managed to get away from my parents, I go and marry a father figure. How tedious!’

I’d known that if she ever married it would be to a parental substitute.

‘When are you coming over?’ she asked. ‘Come while the sansevieria is still healthy.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘What about this Saturday?’

‘Sorry, it’s the company trip that day.’

‘Well, what about the following Saturday? Weekday evenings are fine too.’

‘I’ll try to work out my schedule.’

(…)

 

 

 

Absenting the Self: Charlotte Mandell on Translating Mathias Enard

Rob Vollmar interviews for World Literature Today
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Charlotte Mandell, Mathias Enard’s English translator, is interviewed by Rob Vollmar for World Literature Today on how she came to be a translator, and on the process of rendering Enard’s work into English:

 

Mathias Énard’s Compass (New Directions, 2017) is not only a love letter to the field of orientalism but, more broadly, to the power of the written word itself, especially in translation. I became fascinated by the panoply of creative decisions that must have gone into translating it from French into English, while navigating all the other languages (Persian, Arabic, German) that fill its nooks and crannies. In order to satisfy some of that curiosity, after reviewing the book, I reached out to Énard’s traductrice attitrée, Charlotte Mandell, to find out more about her training and work as a translator as well as the eccentricities of bringing this particular book to anglophone readers.

Rob Vollmar: Could you tell us a little about how you got interested in translation and your training in preparation to be a literary translator?

Charlotte Mandell: It’s something of a long story. My parents were both university professors, so we had summers off, and since my father was interested in all things French (he wrote his master’s thesis on a little-known playwright named Henri-René Lenormand), starting when I was ten, we would spend every other summer in either the Swiss or the French Alps. So that’s how I got interested in French.

Later on, I attended Boston Latin High School—the oldest high school in America, founded in 1635—where studying Latin for five years is mandatory. Weirdly, I developed a liking for Latin, and for ancient Greek; in my advanced placement class in junior year we translated Virgil’s Aeneid, and I was hooked.

As a student at Bard College I majored in French (and minored in film theory, since my father used to bring films home to show them on a sheet on the wall—by the time I was a teenager I had seen Bergman’s Seventh Seal at least fifteen times) and continued to translate; my senior project (a book-length volume every senior has to write) was a translation of a book by the contemporary French poet Jean-Paul Auxeméry. During my junior year at Bard, I studied semiotics and film theory at the Université de Paris III. Derrida was lecturing then (this was in 1988–89), along with Julia Kristeva.

RV: Many of your early translations were nonfiction and/or French classics. Does your process for approaching older or nonfiction texts differ from contemporary fiction?

CM: Actually, my approach is almost always the same, regardless of whether or not the original is a classic: I always approach a book as if it had just been written, and as if it had never been translated before, or read in English. Translating for me is a living, breathing thing—Kate Briggs talks about this in her forthcoming essay on translation, This Little Art—and I need to act as if the book I’m translating is brand-new, fresh off the press. That way I become more invested in the act of translating it and more involved in the process. Translating for me is a very exciting process, regardless of whether the book is old or new.

RVCompass is your third Énard novel in translation. How did you become aware of his work, and what attracted you to it as a potential object of translation?

CM: A long time ago—in 2008, I think—I read an excerpt from Zone in a digest published by the French Publishers’ Agency. I knew right away that I had to translate the book, and when I heard that Chad Post’s Open Letter Press was interested in publishing it, I wrote to him and basically begged him to allow me to translate it. Open Letter published both Zone and Street of Thieves, and I’m grateful to them for that.

For Compass, my publishers are Fitzcarraldo in the UK and New Directions in the US; working with Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo and Tynan Kogane at New Directions has been enlightening and enjoyable.

RV: Your first Énard translation, Zone (Open Letter, 2010), has been described as a “novel of essentially one endless sentence.” What were the challenges associated with translating a text without the normal sentence breaks one expects in a narrative?

CM: For me the main challenge in translating Zone was finding a good place to stop for the day—often I would lose track of time and would find I’d been sitting for far too long, and hadn’t eaten in hours. I don’t read ahead when I translate, so I’m always eager to find out what comes next in the book—so Zone turned out to be addictive in its stream-of-consciousness narrative and very hard to put down.

I like long sentences—that must be part of my Latin upbringing—they don’t intimidate me. On the contrary, they pull me in—it’s almost like a literary jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure out where a sentence is going, and trying to keep its rhythm and breath intact. Latin is famous for its endless, complex sentences; often the verb will come at the very end, which makes French sentences easy by comparison!

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions