Why This Book Should Win: BTBA Judge Daniel Medin Q&A with John Keene about Letters from a Seducer
John Keene is the author of Annotations, and Counternarratives, both published by New Directions, as well as several other works, including the poetry collection Seismosis, with artist Christopher Stackhouse, and a translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.
Letters from a Seducer – Hilda Hilst, Translated by John Keene
Daniel Medin: How did you discover Hilda Hilst’s writing? What led you to want to translate this book?
John Keene: My first real encounters with Hilst’s writing are a decidedly 21st century phenomenon. I had seen her name mentioned several times in various critical texts, and finally did an online search for her work about a decade ago. What I found and dove into was the old Angelfire website, still live, that Yuri Vieira dos Santos set up for her in 1999, and launched from her Casa do Sol. It was via that site, which features links to many of her works, photos, and lists of translations, that I was able to immerse myself in Hilst’s world. I only wish serendipity had led me to it before she passed away in 2004, so that I could have contacted her to let her know how deep my enthusiasm for her work was and is, just based on what I found there. After learning that although passages of her work had been translated into English, none of her books had, I immediately wanted to do so (I often have delusions of being the one to translate this writer or other’s work into English to introduce her or him to Anglophone readers), and fortuity again intervened when Rachel Gontijo Araújo invited me first to write the introduction to her collaborative translation with Nathanaël of The Obscene Madame D, and then to translate the deeply challenging but exhilarating Letters from a Seducer.
DM: Letters from a Seducer is a part of Hilst’s famous “pornographic tetralogy.” How are these works different from what she was had been doing before? What distinguishes Letters from the others?
JK: Let me begin by saying that all of Hilst’s prose fiction is experimental, from her initial fiction text, Fluxo-Floema (1970), on, and is informed by her prior primary focus as a poet and a playwright. (She continued writing poetry throughout her life, I should note.) Her earliest poetry, published in the 1950s, is fairly conventional, but by the 1960s you can detect subversive notes, experiments with earlier Lusophone (and Iberian) forms, etc., so that when she began writing prose, it was hardly surprising that she would not follow the standard route. Yet I think it’s fair to say that her fiction is distinctive even from parallel experiments that were happening in Brazilian literature at the time, as a comparison between her texts of the 1970s and those of her close friend, Lygia Fagundes Telles, one of the major fiction writers of Brazil and in the Portuguese language, will suggest. While a book like The Obscene Madame D (1982) does overtly treat sexual themes, in the “porno-chic” works, as she called them, she more openly and directly uses and plays with pornographic language and discourse, and the works themselves turn in part on themes that might be considered pornographic, except that Hilst’s artistry, irony and wit transform them into something quite different. Letters (1991) is the second novel and masterpiece of the four texts; one of them, Contos d’Escarnio: Textos Grotescos (1990) is a collection of stories; Bufólicas (1992) comprises poems; and O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, or Lory Licky’s Pink Notebook (1990), as I think the brilliant translator Adam Morris dubbed it, is an extremely ludic, graphic precursor to Letters written in the voice of a child. (And possibly not publishable in the US, despite its relentless humor.) With Letters, Hilst reaches the pinnacle of the tetralogy and, I think, her art, fusing all the strands that have come before into a profound text about writing, living, sex, human mortality, and so on. It is also quite funny; she never sheds her humor, even at some of the most outrageous moments in the text, which is one of the things I really appreciate about her work.
DM: Could you point out one of your favorite passages, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?
JK: To anyone who has heard me expound on this passage before, my apologies, but towards the beginning of the “Of Other Hollows” section, there’s a passage where Stamatius (Tíu) is meditating, as he’s won’t to do, about what he should be up to instead of agonizing of his writing and his life, as practical Eulália is off keeping things together for them, and Hilst writes:
E deveria ter procurado os cocos e os palmitos. Mas fico a escrever com este único toco e quando acabar o toco troco um coco por outro toco de lápis lá na venda do Boi (tem esse nome porque um boi passou certa vez por ali e peidou grosso). Vendem cachaça pagoça maria-mole carne-seca latas de massa. Então deveria ter ido a cata dos cocos, dos palmitos, e não fui. Continuo dizendo o que não queria. Minhas unhas. Curtinhas e imundas. E as dos pés?… que bom estão limpas.
Now, this probably won’t register immediately if you don’t read or speak Portuguese (or Spanish), but what Hilst is doing here is playing repeatedly with the word “oco,” such that you get a string of those “hollows” (“ocos”) one after the other, as well as other rhymes, assonances and consonances, a veritable seemingly untranslatable—into English—music, through the words that she uses: os cocos (coconuts), toco (stump/stub, also: I play, touch), troco (I exchange), etc. In fact, the “o/ou” (OH) and “u/o” (OOH) sounds appear in sentence after sentence, sometimes in a string of words, so that even when you don’t exactly get the “hollow,” you get the sound that embodies it. This is the work of a true poet, and someone incredibly attentive to language. There’s also a great deal of polysemy here at the phonemic level. So this was a huge challenge: how to bring this into English, since it will by necessity be lost? I had to find an equivalent but distinctly English music, and realized that English does have musical resources of its own that would work. But it wasn’t easy, and when I felt I’d figured it out, I was exhilarated. There are many such moments, but this remains my favorite, and I could read the Portuguese aloud over and over. It’s amazing how she pulls it off.
And I should have looked for coconuts and palm hearts. But I’m here writing with this lone stump and when I stop I’ll swap a coconut for another pencil stub over there at the Ox shop (so named because an ox passed through there once and let out a huge fart). They sell cachaça peanut fudge maria-mole dried meat tin cans of sauce. But I should have gone to gather up coconuts, palm hearts, and I didn’t. I keep talking about what I don’t want. My fingernails. Tiny and filthy. And my toenails? good to say, they are clean.
DM: You’ve a new collection of fiction publishing soon, some of which is set in Brazil. Have the two projects—your translation of Hilst and your writing of Counternarratives—overlapped in any way? Or did they largely run parallel to one another?
JK: This is an excellent question. I wrote or began several of the Brazil-related stories before translating Hilst, but I did draft and complete one—“Anthropophagy,” about the great Brazilian Modernist poet Mário de Andrade toward the end of his life, during his short stint in Rio de Janeiro—after finishing the translation. When I reread, sometimes aloud, the galleys after New Directions President and Editor-in-chief sent them to me, I could hear my poetry and music asserting itself in the prose. This is a tendency of mine, but I also think Hilst’s work played a role. It is probably most evident in a story called “Cold,” about the great minstrel performer, composer, actor, director, and impresario Bob Cole. In the story, which is about a musician who cannot get music out of his head to the point that it drives him to the mental brink, I have text boxes with snippets of his lyrics, and I also collage in lyrics into the main body of the text. This was all quite deliberate. The prose at certain points breaks into music; it isn’t just lyrical, though. There are moments, I realized during a reading at Kean University the other day, where the music of the words themselves takes material form, sounding almost like drumming or hip hop, and I have to admit I was a little startled, because I had written the story and could hear it in my head, and had even read it before an audience last spring at the University of Montana, but this time, I was quite aware of what I’d done, under, I am willing to admit, the influence and sign of Hilst. That is just one example, and I’m sure there are more. Like other great authors, she shows in her work that anything is possible, if you can pull it off. That also was something I took to heart when finishing Counternarratives.
The preface to Letters of a Seducer was published in the 2014 Translation Issue of The White Review; you can read it here.