Last weekend, over 14,000 writers, publishers, agents, translators, reviewers, professors, and readers swarmed the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle for the annual Associated Writing Programs conference—four days of heavy drinking, pot-chocolate (it’s legal in Washington!), endless craft panels, a bustling exhibition hall, and the most awesomely awkward dance parties ever.
Put a huge number of book people in any one place and shit is bound to get weird. And when a huge percentage of these book people are young, struggling writers? Weird plus neurotic. Good thing Bubble Man was at the entrance to greet everyone with some love.
Over the past decade, AWP has grown to be one of the largest and most important book events of the year. No longer just a place where mediocre poetry is belted out to the accompaniment of crushing depression and a strummed guitar, AWP is a crucial sales outlet for a lot of presses. (Especially poetry presses, who, due to the decline of other outlets and the increase in AWP attendance will sell $3,000+ worth of books over the weekend.)
Personally, I think this was the best AWP I’ve ever attended. We broke all our sales records—thanks to a few superfans who bought books and brought friends over to buy all the rest of the books—had a great time with local friends George Carroll, Jay Weaver, Don Mee Choi, and Owen Rowe, enjoyed all the Elliot Bay Book Company experiences, danced a lot too much, and threw an epic (and soon to be annual) Open Letter Happy Hour.
That said, this blog isn’t really about happiness and stability . . . So, here are a few observations and jokes to give you a better sense of AWP and to lead into this month’s translation highlights.
1) Someone really needs to do a book entitled The Hats and Beards of AWP. AWP is like Williamsburg on steroids. There can never be enough beard and skinny jeans! Also, George Carroll’s lovely wife kept referring to AWP—usually pronounced as three distinct letters, “a,” “w,” “p”—as a single word: “Awwwp.” Which is a way cooler way to say its name, and which led to the conference-long game of trying to identify the “Wizard of AWP.”
2) What the hell is this, and what is it advertising?
3) Please stop with the endless poetry readings. I know everyone that’s part of an MFA program wants a chance to read their work out loud, but some of the events are 4+ hours long. That’s just insane and mind-numbing. Especially given the fact that more than half of the poets read with the same annoying cadence. I went to one poetry reading, and left after texting this imitation to a few friends:
And then. I read.
Read a poem.
Poem of poem.
I believe. AWP is. Is. Is.
A place. Pleasant place.
AWP IS. It is.
It is a place of performance.
We. We perform.
AWP. AWP performs.
Me. Me. Writing.
4) Why does everyone come home from AWP with a wicked, neverending cold? Are writers inherently dirty and germ filled? CLEAN YOURSELVES NEXT YEAR. My sinuses can’t take this shit.
5) Every night from 10-midnight, there is an AWP dance party. And yes, it is filled with as much awkward as you’re envisioning. Thankfully, there is free beer and wine for the first hour, and the DJ specializes in playing Rap for White Girls (e.g., Nelly’s “Ride with Me”), so by around 11, there’s a lot of normally self-conscious people on the dance floor moving in ways that sort of resembles dancing. In other words, it’s totally awesome. (Somewhere there exists a video of me and Scott Esposito dancing to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”) It’s non-judgmental—because, well, look around—truly all-ages, and a pretty fun release after 10 hours of bad poetry and the worst indoor lighting imaginable.
But this year, the Saturday night dance party was a bit of a train wreck. It all started off with one
douchebag lonely hipster doing a methodical hip thrust in the middle of the dance floor. Wearing only a wife beater and more hair grease than Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m not sure if he thought he was being ironic, or simply performing some sort of desperate mating call, but he managed to piss off most everyone there. And then, because “hipsters” of this sort just can’t embarrass themselves enough, he actually got on stage, had a friend join him, and even lost the wife beater . . . before someone official threw him off—an unsavory 45 minutes later. We spend most of the night hoping, for his sake, that he was tripping balls—even though that wouldn’t change the fact that he was the worst person there ever. And because this image is scarred on my brain forever, I figured I’d share it with all of you. You’re welcome!
OK, now on to this month’s interesting translations!
Trans-Atlantyk: An Alternate Translation by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt (Yale University Press)
I love Gombrowicz, but have never gotten around to reading this book about a penniless Polish writer who escapes the Nazis and moves to Argentina—much like Gombrowicz himself. When I was in Argentina a few years back though, we were taken on a literary walking tour and if memory serves, we went by the bar where Witold used to hang out and rant about how much Borges sucked. Apparently he had a thing against JLB, and liked to tell EVERYONE about it.
One evening, a friend challenged him on this by asking what Borges stories Gombrowicz had read. His very Polish response: “None! Why would I ever waste my time reading that crap?”
God I love Polish writers.
Killing the Second Dog by Marek Hlasko, translated from the Polish by Tomasz Mirkowicz (New Vessel)
Sticking with that same theme, I would read anything written by this guy who, according to the New Vessel website, was considered to be the “Polish James Dean.”
Add to that picture the fact that this book is about two Polish con men trying to swindle an American widow, and I’m completely sold.
Stone Tablets by Wojciech Zukrowski, translated from the Polish by Stephanie Kraft (Paul Dry Books)
A few months back, I found out that basically all of my ancestors on both sides of my family are from the area surrounding Gdańsk/Danzig. More specifically, my dad’s side is made up of Pomeranians and my mom’s is all Kashubians. This is one reason why I got into The Tin Drum right from the start—one of the main characters in the opening section is a Kashubian arsonist. Fire AND Poland! (Actually, taking this character as representative for larger Kashubian characteristics explains a lot about my personality.) Anyway, later on in the novel, there’s a great speech by Oskar’s Kashubian grandmother:
“That’s Kashubes for you, little Oskar. Always getting hit on the head. But you are going where things are better now, and leaving old Granny behind. Because Kahsubes don’t move around a lot, they always stay put, and hold their head still for others to whack, because we ain’t really Polish and we ain’t really German, and Kashubes ain’t good enough for Germans or Pollacks. They want everything cut and dried.”
Also, Stone Tablets is about a Hungarian diplomat in India during the Hungarian Uprising. But let’s be honest—I’m mostly including it here because the author is Polish.
Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by David Short (Karolinum Press)
Sticking with Eastern Europe . . . There are two Bohumil Hrabal books coming out this spring: Rambling On this month, and Harlequin’s Millions in May. If you haven’t read Hrabal, you absolutely must. Too Loud a Solitude, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced of Age, I Served the King of England, these are all fantastic novels that embody Hrabal’s idiosyncratic style that is joyful, conversational, and instantly engaging. Here’s Adam Thirlwell’s description of it from his wonderful The Delighted States:
In Czech, there is a word for Hrabal’s style. This word is Hrabalovština. Hrabalovština is a comic display of vocabulary, of headlong words and invented syntax—it is a system which is forever trying to put off its own demise. But Hrabal’s own word for his style was palavering, and palavering is a much more useful and precise concept for this style, this new invention in the art of the novel. Palavering is an art, and it is committed to deferral, to a comic refusal to be polite, and stop talking. It is, according to Hrabal, “my defense against politics, my policy in fact.” And this word policy is important. It shows how considered and meditated was Hrabal’s apparently natural style. Because the truest poetry is also the most feigning. Against the direction and drive of ideas, Hrabal offer the more vulgar luxuries of digression, and of free association.
Hopefully this collection of short stories and Harlequin’s Millions—and other celebrations and articles related to the centennial of Hrabal’s birth—will help spawn a new group of Hrabal fans . . .
I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton (Minotaur)
Here’s a bit from the opening of the review of this novel in the Independent:
Leaving aside the literary merits of I Remember You, residents of Iceland were thoroughly terrified by the book—but, ironically, for its jacket, featuring a pair of intensely staring eyes that (for some reason) deeply disturbed—and even obsessed—many Icelanders, and occasioned a slew of complaints.
Why didn’t Minotaur use this cover instead of that crap up there? And why can’t I find an image of this? I want to know how intensely these eyes are staring!
Speaking of Iceland, I really wish I could go to the Secret Solstice Music Festival in June. Scratch that. I wish I could just move to Iceland and spend the rest of my days tending bar and floating in the Blue Lagoon.
Also, one other random thing: Unless I’m missing something, there are only three books by women coming out in translation this month. That’s embarrassing.
A Curse on Dostoevsky by Atiq Rahimi, translated from the French by Polly McLean (Other Press)
This novel—the fourth to be made available in English from Afghani writer Rahimi—sounds really fun:
Rassoul remembers reading Crime and Punishment as a student of Russian literature in Leningrad, so when, with axe in hand, he kills the wealthy old lady who prostitutes his beloved Sophia, he thinks twice before taking her money or killing the woman whose voice he hears from another room. He wishes only to expiate his crime and be rightfully punished. Out of principle, he gives himself up to the police. But his country, after years of civil war, has fallen into chaos. In Kabul there is only violence, absurdity, and deafness, and Rassoul’s desperate attempt to be heard turns into a farce.
Given how Other Press has been killing it lately, I won’t be surprised if we’re talking about this next year as a potential BTBA 2015 longlist title . . .
Decoded Olivia by Mai Jia, translated from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn (FSG)
We never seem to receive galleys for the “fun” books in translation that presses bring out. A tragic, complicated novel about World War II survivors? Perfect for Post. A thriller about code-breaking and an autistic math genius? Seems more Flavorwire that Three Percent. Shit! I want code breaking! I like math!
But seriously, although I’m sure this isn’t as interesting as the jacket copy makes it out be, it does sound like a good escape from the “heavier” stuff that I feel like I’ve been reading this year. Actually, right now, to balance the more traditionally “literary” stuff I’ve been reading (and will be reading after the BTBA longlist announcement), I’ve been reading Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. I’m not quite halfway done, but I’m really enjoying it . . . It’s very entertaining, and although I’ve never seen the movie Stalker or the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games, both of these things make sense. I also have things to say about the “meaningfulness” of “entertaining” books, but I think I’ll save that for next month.
On Leave by Daniel Anselme, translated from the French by David Bellos (Faber and Faber)
By contrast, On Leave is a bit more serious . . . One of the few novels about the French-Algerian War, On Leave is a book about three soldiers who, on a 10-day break from the fighting, realize that they don’t really fit into society anymore. It was published during the conflict (in 1957; the war ended in 1962), and was read by almost no one. This truly is a lost classic, and kudos to David Bellos for translated it and Faber and Faber for publishing it.
Also, extra-thanks to the Faber publicity department for using a blurb from Paul Doyle’s Three Percent review on the press release. I’ll never forget the first time Grove pulled a blurb from one of my reviews, and I still get giddy when Three Percent pops up in places like this.
Falling Out of Time by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)
Of all Grossman’s books, this is the one that sounds the most intriguing to me, mostly for it’s genre-bending nature:
In Falling Out of Time, David Grossman has created a genre-defying drama––part play, part prose, pure poetry––to tell the story of bereaved parents setting out to reach their lost children. It begins in a small village, in a kitchen, where a man announces to his wife that he is leaving, embarking on a journey in search of their dead son. The man––called simply Walking Man––paces in ever-widening circles around the town. One after another, all manner of townsfolk fall into step with him (the Net-Mender, the Midwife, the Elderly Math Teacher, even the Duke), each enduring his or her own loss. The walkers raise questions of grief and bereavement: Can death be overcome by an intensity of speech or memory? Is it possible, even for a fleeting moment, to call to the dead and free them from their death? Grossman’s answer to such questions is a hymn to these characters, who ultimately find solace and hope in their communal act of breaching death’s hermetic separateness. For the reader, the solace is in their clamorous vitality, and in the gift of Grossman’s storytelling––a realm where loss is not merely an absence but a life force of its own.
That’s all for this month. Check back in on Tuesday, March 11th to find out which books made the longlist for the 2014 BTBA in Fiction. And April is LOADED with great translations, including one of the best Open Letter books of 2014 . . .
As I mentioned earlier, I participated in the Festival of New French Writing that took place in NYC a couple weeks back. It was a great festival, and I had every intention of writing up most of the panels . . . but, well.
Thankfully, freelance writer and audio engineer JK Fowler1 interviewed a couple of the French writers and put together some nice write-ups about two of the panels. These are available in full over at The Mantle, but JK offered to let us run long excerpts here as well. I thought I’d put these up in two posts so those who couldn’t attend could get a sense of the festival.
First up is the panel with Atiq Rahimi and Russell Banks, moderated Lila Azam Zanganeh. Most everyone knows of Russell Banks, but here’s a bit of info on Rahimi:
French-Afghan writer and filmmaker, Atiq Rahimi fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and relocated to France. After studying at the Sorbonne, he joined a production company and made several documentaries for French television. He began writing in the late 1990s, with his first novel, Earth and Ashes (Other Press), written in Persian, becoming an instant bestseller in Europe and South America. The film version of Rahimi’s book has won 25 awards, including the Prix du Regard vers l’Avenir at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. In 2008, Rahimi won the Prix Goncourt for Syngué Sabour (translated into English as The Patience Stone (Other Press)), his fourth book but first written in French. Rahimi returned to his native Afghanistan in 2002. As Senior Creative Advisor for that nation’s largest media group, Moby Group, he developed programs and genres for its various media outlets, and helped develop and train a new generation of Afghan filmmakers and directors. Rahimi is currently in pre-production of the film version of Syngué Sabour, which he will direct from his screenplay.
This was a pretty good panel—Rahimi has a very interesting life history, and Banks is pretty accustomed to presenting to crowds—but the most interesting part of the panel (in my opinion) was when a woman in the audience asked the two writers about writing “the other,” specifically how they construct their female characters. Here’s some of JK’s notes:
What does it mean to be deterritorialized as Deleuze writes of? To write from a different space for Banks, to re-think space-time. In traveling to Jamaica from his New England town at a young age, Banks began to see the world from the outside, noticed its ideologically-driven machinations, his work reflecting this gradual awakening. These deliberate movements, deliberate displacements etched the tales of morality when approaching the voices of the “Other” so present in his works. This search, this going-beyond oneself, the breaking of one’s comfort zone to explore the voice of the “Other” led him to realize our own, as Americans, identity of the exile, as outsiders embedded in a country to whom none of us belong. To Rahimi, this travel of the physical body forced encounters between his self as pre-developed and new logics, new forms of thinking about life. To travel then, to move is to breed an authenticity bred from unease. Zanganeh asks if Rahimi ever fears of being exoticized. In France, says Rahimi, he is Afghan. In Afghanistan, he is French. Forced to exile, he exists within the boundaries of no country.
“To exile or be exiled, upon the edge of the world looking in: this must be the acquired position of the writer.” (Russell Banks, Festival of New French Writing 2011)
To adopt the voice of the “Other” as problematic, Rahimi and Banks take divergent approaches. Banks underlines the importance of respecting difference, that he will not write that which he cannot hear being said to him. Writing, Banks states, “is a visual and auditory process of hallucination.” Through the approach that the semantic landscapes he builds are not reflections of the real world but the world of the possible, Rahimi sees no limits. Led by the question, “Is it true or is it not true?” Rahimi rides the imagination which allows him to move beyond the limits of a structured reality to the realm of the “could-be”.
Following this event, JK interviewed Rahimi for an hour. Here are a few highlight. First, about Afghanistan:
JK: I am interested too in more personal memories that you may have of the Afghanistan from your childhood versus the Afghanistan after the series of invasions. What changes did you see in people’s faces or in the spaces of Afghanistan?
AR: Ah, you know, this is going to be an anecdote but in 1980 I was a student and at this time I worked as a journalist on vacations for a magazine and I went to the North of Afghanistan alone. It was the beginning of war in Afghanistan and I was to make a report on the carbon mine in Afghanistan about the workers in this mine. And one day I had forgotten my camera in a local tea house. One week later, I came back and this guy said, “Oh, Mister!” I was a Mister for them, you know [laughter]. Maybe because of my blue eyes, etc. He told me that I had forgotten my camera here. It was one week later and he gave me my camera back. This explains the mentality of the people. This guy was poor. He was not a rich man because it was a very small tea house in the village and for them a camera was not very cheap and he could have taken it very easily but he wanted to give it to me. This is important for me, you know? But in 2002, after eighteen years of being away from Afghanistan, I went back. The first thing that I noticed was that the walls of each house were very high. The windows were all closed with brick and everybody would watch you with incertitude. Nobody talked with you.
JK: There were issues with trusting one another?
AR: Yes, there was no trust. They couldn’t believe in liberty, they couldn’t believe in those other things that I mentioned before. The second story I will tell you is that two years ago I was in a restaurant in Kabul and I had a sack with two cameras and everything else in it. I set it on the chair, had a drink, ate and 10 minutes later, my sack was gone! [laughter]
JK: A clear indication of the change, huh?
AR: You know, of course this is only anecdotal but for me it explains everything in this country, you know? Why? Because in thirty years of war, everything changed: the mentality and the confidence of people. Everybody had confidence before but no more. When you lose your confidence, you are afraid of everything, you don’t believe in everything, you know and you don’t have any confidence in yourself. And this is the beginning of the destruction of the culture, of identity; when you don’t believe in you, you don’t believe in your country, you don’t believe in your identity. So this was the big change: losing the identity and confidence in oneself. It’s very important and we do not have that now.
And then back to that whole “other”/writing from a woman’s p.o.v. thing:
JK: Now in The Patience Stone the woman is given voice and the man has his voice taken away. I want to ask you something (and I know that you have been asked this before) but do you ever ask yourself, “I wonder how I can give voice to a woman? Is that okay?”
AR: [Laughter] Well, first to give the voice to the woman, we had to paralyze the man [laughter]. This is the unfortunate thing. But in countries like Afghanistan, Iran, and other dictatorships, voice becomes very important. So in Europe or the United States, the question is “to be or not to be?” But in Afghanistan with a dictator, the question becomes, “to say or not to say?” Because the voice does not exist here. You cannot love your life and say things opposite to government opinion. And for me, to give voice to women we had to paralyze this patriarchal right from the beginning. And for this woman, it is very important to talk. As a writer, I know that words are very important. In the beginning it was the verb. I believe that because if you don’t have voice, if you cannot explain everything you do some things to express yourself and take what is bottled inside and let it outside. Why is there all of this violence in Afghanistan? Because we don’t have voice. This is a very human characteristic. When children cannot say things, they become very frustrated. And if we don’t talk we do violent things. To change the combat to debate, this is the voice.
JK: I guess what else I was trying to get at is that a lot of writers are criticized when they take the voice of the “Other”, someone they are not. Did you ever question whether it was okay to use the voice of a woman as a man? I picture the old man with the image of the woman in his mind and I am wondering what the difference is between that and writing in the voice of the woman?
AR: Ah! Well, in the beginning I wanted to be inside this man. I wanted to write about what this man thinks when his wife tells him everything because she is not a good character, Parwaneh. She tells him too much sometimes, you know? She tells him the children are not his, that every time he was not there she was sleeping around and betraying him. Why? Because she cannot express herself and if you do not have access to voice these types of things will happen. So I wanted to think about how, if I was a man and I had to listen to everything like this what it would be like but when I started writing I could not do it. I was possessed by this woman and every time I wrote the woman came inside of me and would enter my head, my heart and tell me that she wanted to talk about herself, not this man [laughter]. And because I don’t really like all the Afghan traditions, it was this woman that I wanted in Afghanistan. To be, to be present.
JK: What was the reception of The Patience Stone in Afghanistan? What did women say?
AR: Yeah, some women liked it very much and thanked me. One woman really did not like it and asked how I could present all Afghan women as prostitutes and all Afghan men as helpless or powerless. Impotent. And in Europe all the time people said they didn’t believe in this Afghan woman because Afghan women cannot be like her. But when you read Madame Bovary do you think to yourself that all French women are like this? Or if I see a film of Scorsese like Taxi Driver, can I say that all taxi drivers are like that? Every time we make our image the stereotype unfortunately. As if by talking about this Afghan woman, I am talking about all Afghan women. No, this is one case. One novel. But this is my hope.
Next up: Pascal Bruckner.
1 JK Fowler is a freelance writer and audio engineer currently living in Brooklyn, NY. He is a writer and audio engineer for The Mantle and maintains a site of flash and short fiction, poetry, and academic papers at JK Fowler.com as well as a compilation of past and in-process works, photography and audio interviews at Roaming Hills.
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