Surgeons of the Soul: An Interview With Georgi Gospodinov and Angela Rodel

Stephen Morison Jr.

It is early on a Friday morning when I meet Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov and translator Angela Rodel, recipients of the 2023 International Booker Prize for the novel Time Shelter, at a Costa Coffee behind Sofia University in downtown Sofia, Bulgaria. Gospodinov, whose work has been translated into twenty-one languages and whose other prizes include the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature and the Angelus Central European Literature Award, both for his 2012 novel The Physics of Sorrow, takes off his summer coat to reveal a black T-shirt adorned with an image of a Pac-Man video game screen.  

When it was announced in late May that Gospodinov’s third novel, translated into English by Rodel, had won the Booker—the first time a Bulgarian writer has received the honor—I was still on page 62. Time Shelter, which was published in Bulgaria by Janet 45 in 2020 and in the United States by Liveright in 2022, begins with a quirky premise. It is about a man who opens a retirement home in Switzerland for people with Alzheimer’s Disease. The rooms are thematically organized by decade, and he matches his patients with the decades they can still remember. Gospodinov is known for his unusual plot structures. The novel is largely a meditation on memory, and the lack of linearity kept me from getting a firm grasp for the first fifty pages or so. But I read steadily on, registering bemusement for a few pages and curiosity for a few others, until around page 50, when I realized I was no longer counting pages. The voice, the premise, and the humor had captured me, and I was along for the ride. Many of my favorite books begin this way. They tease me from behind a stilted narration or a labyrinthine plot for fifty or sixty pages until the unusual voice becomes a familiar guide.

Time Shelter is about the way things used to be, and also about the way we like to remember the way things used to be. It’s a story about old things, the flotsam and jetsam of the past, told in a way that I haven’t experienced before, and it’s this combination of oldness and newness that reminds me of so much of what I love about reading.

The novel fits neatly into Gospodinov’s body of work, which is possible to view as a sort of literary arthropod of chapters, stories, and prose poems. He began as a poet during the Eastern European economic chaos of the 1990s. His collection Lapidarium (1992) won Bulgaria’s National Debut Prize, and four years later, his next collection, The Cherry Tree of One People, won the Book of the Year award from the Bulgarian Writers’ Association. He released more poetry collections, including Letters to Gaustin (2003), which he references in Time Shelter, and his international breakthrough occurred with the 2005 translation of his 1999 novel, Natural Novel. Translated by Zornitsa Hristova for Dalkey Archive Press, the book leans heavily on metafiction and consists of linked stories that connect tangentially to tell the evolving story of a protagonist who shares the name of his author. Several chapters describing ideas for how to write a novel. One tangent revisits the toilet scene from Pulp Fiction. The book is similar to Time Shelter in tone and ideas, except—pulled from the bleak times that surrounded Gospodinov in Bulgaria in the 1990s—its humor is darker. Natural Novel was translated into over twenty languages and paved the way for Gospodinov’s next novel, The Physics of Sorrow (2012), which went on to be nominated for and win awards in multiple countries.

Gospidonov’s books include the novels Time Shelter (Liveright, 2022) , The Physics of Sorrow (Open Letter, 2015), and Natural Novel (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), as well as the story collection And Other Stories (Northwestern University Press, 2007).
 

Ultimately, Gospodinov is a satirist. He takes the piss out of cultures and countrymen, a bit like the great Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov did at the end of the 19th century or Mark Twain did in the United States, except Gospodinov lacks the avuncular soft touch of these authors. His work is peppered with literary allusions and the interplay between his narrative and previous works is sharp and fun. I often catch myself snorting while reading a Gospodinov novel.

For the first fifty pages of Time Shelter, Gospodinov carefully and calmly skewers everybody, and then like the scientist touching his eye to the lens of the microscope and gently turning the knob, he focuses in on what he knows, which is Europe and Bulgaria.

Over drinks—tea for Gospodinov, coffee for Rodel, and lemonade for me—the author explains that his mother was a university student in Sofia when he was born in 1968, during a decade when the communist government encouraged young people to move to the cities. “It was one of the stupid socialist things, to urge people to the cities,” he says. “They needed workers.” Meanwhile, the children, including young Georgi, were sent to the villages to be raised by their grandparents.

Gospodinov spent his childhood in a village near Yambol, about three hundred kilometers east of Sofia. “I learned to read and write very early, from age five to six,” he says. “In the village with my grandparents, there were not so many children around.” He fondly recalls that his grandparents were great storytellers, however. “They would mix everyday things with magical things.”

I ask him if he remembers the first story he ever wrote, and he nods. “I had a nightmare that repeated every night. I tried to narrate it to my grandmother, but she said, ‘Don’t tell me or it will come true.’” In the nightmare, Gospodinov recalls, his family was in bottom of a well, and he was looking down from the top. In the dream he had avoided death, but now, standing at the top of the well, he was all alone. He felt abandoned. The dream clearly mirrored his feelings about being left in the village while his parents lived in the city.

Haunted by the nightmare, young Gospodinov confided in his grandmother, but she cautioned him that the nightmare was “full of blood,” and he must not talk about it. But it kept coming, night after night. Eventually, he had an idea: He would write down the story of the nightmare. “I took a notebook of my grandfather’s,” he says. “I wrote with early, big letters. First letters. And it worked.” He never had the dream again.

At around the same age he remembers reading his first books: Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Little Match Girl” and “the best Bulgarian book ever,” Notes on a Bulgarian Uprising. Rodel, his translator, interrupts. “Really?” she says. “It’s unusual for a boy to read such a mature book.” The book by 19th century Bulgarian revolutionary, writer, and historian Zahari Stoyanov, about the April Uprising of 1876, an insurrection organized by Bulgarians in the Ottoman Empire, is usually introduced to high schoolers or college students.

“There was fighting and action scenes,” Gospodinov says, shrugging.

“On one side, there was a feeling of abandonment,” he continues. “That influenced The Physics of Sorrow.” In that novel, Gospodinov introduced the image of the Minotaur, the monstrous child of Pasiphae, Queen of Crete, and a white bull, who was kept locked in the Labyrinth, to represent his sense of abandonment.  

“My Bulgarian therapist says she has lots of patients who work through that,” Rodel says.

Gospodinov describes life in a village far from the capital. He points out that his childhood home of Yambol once had its moment in the sun—years later he wrote his dissertation at Sofia University about how it had been a cradle of 20th-century philosophies like anarchism and futurism—but that was long ago. “It’s far from the center today,” he says.

He recalls a reading he gave years later in one of the smaller cities of Italy. He read from a part of The Physics of Sorrow that touched upon this sentiment of living on the margins, and after he was finished, people from the audience approached him and confessed that they shared his sense of being far from the action, far from the city, far from Rome and Milan.

“This is also how Bulgaria feels,” Gospodinov says, “this sense that life happens elsewhere, of not being part of life, that life doesn’t happen for us in Bulgaria.”

I ask Rodel about her childhood and she describes growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis—not exactly a literary metropolis in the 1970s, perhaps, but not without resources. “We had an awesome public library,” she says. “I feel bad that my daughter doesn’t have that. You could go every week and get ten novels.”

In addition to being a prolific and award-winning translator of Bulgarian literature, Rodel is the executive director of the Bulgarian American Fulbright Commission. She earned a BA from Yale and an MA from UCLA in linguistics then came to Bulgaria in 1996 to study language and folk music. “Translating, like many good things in my life, I sort of fell into,” she says. Her first husband was a Bulgarian writer whom she met through her music studies, and Gosopodinov was his editor. As her Bulgarian improved, writers began approaching her. “’Oh, I’ve got this poem,’ they’d say. ‘Can you translate it?’” Nonprofits were looking for ways to connect writers and artists across Europe, and funds and prizes emerged to encourage translators and translations. Rodel started to realize that translating was a calling. She says she feels like she was in the right place at the right time.

I ask Gospodinov what it has been like bearing witness to the massive changes that have occurred in Bulgaria since the late 1960s. He spent his formative years under a strict communist regime with labor camps and school trips to visit Sofia’s Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum containing the embalmed body of the socialist leader who died in 1949. Gospodinov says he enjoys talking about this period. “All my novels are dedicated to everyday life during socialism. Every morning, my father and brother and I, we went to the cantina….” He glances at Rodel as he searches for the right word.

“The cafeteria?” Rodel offers.

“There was a blue plate on the wall with a message on it,” he says. “‘Writers are like surgeons for the human soul. They should cut out everything that is rotten and decayed.’” He smiles at the memory. “In between every spoonful,” he says, miming the act of dipping his spoon into a bowl and reading and rereading that prescription for writers.

“Austerity was an element of socialism,” he continues. He describes his parents’ simple basement flat in the city. “From the window, you could only watch the legs of the people passing, and the cats. We learned to live with deficits: lack of electricity, lack of freedom, a deficit of colors; everything was gray, the world was black and white. In school I was never asked about love or what rock music I liked.”

Gospodinov describes a divided world, one split between the socialist fictions that dominated the public sphere. In public life, he says, everybody pretended to be a “good citizen,” an “upstanding Soviet.” School was a place where you learned what you were supposed to say. “When the teachers asked what countries you liked, you said: Russia and the Soviet Union,” but in private, “you told your friends: Italy, USA, Germany, Greece!”

After high school he did two years of mandatory army duty then went to Sofia to study at the university across the street from where we are meeting. The year was 1989: The wall fell and communist rule ended. “We spent all the days in the street. I was twenty-one. We were so enthusiastic. We thought Bulgaria would become a normal country in a few months.” He laughs at his youthful optimism. Instead of quickly developing a functioning democracy and a healthy capitalist economy, Bulgaria, like many of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, imploded. Members of the socialist ruling classes divided up the national industries and transformed into mafia dons and oligarchs. The economy splintered, inflation overwhelmed salaries, and governments leapt into power then just as quickly dissolved. Corruption was rampant.

Gospodinov has witnessed “thirty years of constantly going back and forth to the streets,” of seemingly endless rounds of efforts to curb corruption and inflation. Thankfully, since Bulgaria’s acceptance into the European Union in 2007, improvements have been made, and the last decade has seen steady economic growth and relative political stability.

Our conversation returns to Gospodinov’s award-winning Time Shelter. I tell him that the book hooked me once I recognized that its structure was less a traditional narrative than it was a meditation. I compare it to Melville’s Moby-Dick, with its slender central narrative that permits a meditation on the physical and metaphorical pursuit of a whale. Time Shelter’s structure reminds me of that, I say, except the central focus is memory.

“Obsession over memory,” Gospodinov says in agreement. “Yes, this is the obsession. I’m not interested in hard-boiled novels, not interested in who is the killer.” He shakes his head, but I’m not sure how he intends the gesture because in Bulgaria one shakes the chin side-to-side for yes and up-and-down for no. But he smiles and elaborates, “Well, time is the killer, of course.”

We laugh, and he continues. “I like the idea of a book as a place you enter, like a laboratory, to try your idea. I don’t have microscopes…. Language is the only tool.”

I ask him about the way his work makes reference to the Greek epics, the American canon, to Western European writers and Eastern Europeans both inside and outside Bulgaria.

“I like to write books that talk with other books,” he says. “It’s a network. There’s Odysseus coming back home, Moby-Dick is referenced by the epigraph at the beginning, The Magic Mountain is in there, pop culture references, Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939.’ It’s a book about Alzheimer’s and memory loss, memory dissolving while the world is ending…but the narrator will die first. This was my structure: The end of time, but as they say in the Bible, the end of time, not the end of place.”

Gospodinov’s reference reminds me that there were many times when I was reading his book that I wondered how hard it must have been for Rodel to identify Biblical and other literary references while she was translating. It is one thing to be fluent in a language, but it is another to recognize references to books that have been translated into Bulgarian from other languages.

“Having been raised very Catholic, Biblical references don’t escape me,” Rodel says. “But the Bulgarian [literary] references are harder. I worked with Georgi to identify them.” In The Physics of Sorrow, which she also translated into English, she remembers there was an unusual reference to an erotic passage from Mario Puzo’s 1969 crime novel, The Godfather. The passage had been well known to Gospodinov’s generation because erotica had been so heavily censored during socialist times. “Another deficit,” Gospodinov notes.

When an erotic scene was included in the translation of The Godfather, it quickly became infamous. Gospodinov knew that Bulgarians would remember it when he referenced it in his 2012 novel. He laughs and explains that, when his novel was translated into Spanish, he learned that censorship of erotic scenes had been even stricter under Franco’s fascist regime in Spain. The erotic scene from The Godfather had been completely excised. “So the translation of my book was the intro of the scene to Spain.”

While reading Time Shelter, I had been intrigued by certain specific words. I ask the pair about Rodel’s use of “diddly squat,” which is the English phrase she presents when the narrator hears an antiquated word that reminds him of a particular moment from his past. “It was very important,” Gospodinov says. “It was like the madeleine from Proust, an unlocker of memory, a thing that brought me back to the 1980s.”

I point out that, a few paragraphs after “diddly squat,” the word lumbersexual is used, and Gospodinov smiles and says that, while he thinks the translation is accurate, it is impossible for the English word to convey the secondary meaning that it does in Bulgaria. He explains that the current dark-bearded fashion looks very much like the hair and beard styles that were popular during the period in which Bulgarians successfully freed themselves from the Ottoman Empire at the tail end of the 19th century. In particular, Hristo Botev, a much-revered patriot and poet who was killed in close battle with the Turks, kept his hair combed in handsome waves, his mustache ends waxed into points, and his beard brushed full and lush. He would have fit right in at one of the many hipster barbershops currently scattered throughout Sofia.

“Humor, irony, and self-irony are very important to me,” Gospodinov says. “It’s typical of my grandparents’ sense of humor; the realization that we’re not in the center, that the world is elsewhere. Here in Bulgaria, we knew how to be pathetic, how to be too macho.” He appreciates how self-deprecating humor can negate ego. “It’s not intentional, but all my books have this mix between melancholy and humor.”

He returns to memories from his childhood and remembers an exchange with his great-grandmother when he was very young. “My great-grandmother was ninety-something when I was four, and I had a pain in my ears. I told her that I thought I would die, but she told me: ‘No, first, I will die, then your grandparents will die, then your parents, and then you.’ I began to cry louder.” He laughs. “But this is the Bulgarian way.”
 

Stephen Morison Jr. has been a contributor to Poets & Writers Magazine since 1999.

Balkan Spring: Report From Literary Sofia, Bulgaria

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

10.5.20

I am hurrying to meet a short story writer in the City Garden of Sofia, Bulgaria. It is a bright winter day, with temperatures hovering a bit above freezing. The leaves are off the trees and the fountains are shut down for the season, but eight or nine chess players sit on the benches near the Sofia City Art Gallery. They eye me, bundled in my gray winter coat, curious if I’ll pay them for the dubious pleasure of watching them beat me, but I shake my head and continue. I pass the little stone statue of a flower girl left over from communist times then mount the steps of the Neoclassical façade of the Ivan Vazov National Theater and wait. Fears about social distancing, masks, and infection rates are still weeks away. It is January in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, and I’m excited for an introduction to some of the country’s writers. 

I step down into the little plaza before the red brick facade and turn to admire the white stone columns soaring up to the marble pediment festooned with gilded statues of Apollo and his muses. Towers crowned by lead domes bookend the entrance portico to the theater, with each dome surmounted by chariots bearing the goddess Nike, who is clutching a theater mask and raising what appears to be a torch. It’s a bit tough to tell for certain, as the statues are forty meters overhead.

In the distance, beyond the roof, the snow-capped summit of Mount Vitosha towers over the city. I get distracted for a moment by a half-dozen red and white balloons that blow high over my head from some celebration in the park. The balloons float up toward the contrails of an Airbus A330 crossing in the direction of Istanbul, and when my eyes return to street level, Alexander Shpatov is walking toward me along the length of the rectangular basin of the empty fountain. 

Sofia’s Ivan Vazov National Theatre (left); story writer Alexander Shpatov stands in front of a statue of Nicola Vaptsarov, a Bulgarian poet, communist, and revolutionary who died in 1942.

Shpatov is in his thirties, with a week-old beard and short brown hair, and dressed in a russet, knee-length duffle coat against the cold. He extends his hand and introduces himself then leads me back toward the chess players to a two-story, cylindrical, glass kiosk—about four meters in circumference—beside the art gallery. I had assumed the odd structure was closed for the winter. “It’s a library,” he explains and swings open the fogged door to introduce me to Monica Chalakova, a twenty-something, curly-haired librarian seated behind a molded-plywood desk.

The kiosk was built in the 1990s, after the fall of communism, a chaotic time in the country, Shpatov explains. It was put up by a flower seller without permission from the municipality, and the city seized it a few years later when they began to reinstitute order. The building was derelict for a time, inhabited by homeless men, then Shpatov worked with the cultural arm of city government to craft this new identity for it in 2014. The glass walls of its two stories are engraved with the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet as well as the letters of the Glagolitic alphabet, which preceded Cyrillic. (Shpatov explains that Glagolitic was invented by the seven saints of Slavic culture, who also disseminated it to the Bulgarians. In May there is a national holiday dedicated to literature, culture, and the alphabet. It is a fascinating history because the saints were professors as much as holy men. The brothers, Cyril and Methodius, taught at the Imperial University of Constantinople in the 800s and were dispatched as emissaries of the Byzantine emperor in order to persuade the imperial subjects and their trading partners to adopt Christianity. Cyril and Methodius invented an alphabet for the Slavic languages then taught it to other priests, including one named Kliment, whom the city’s oldest university is named after. The pre-Cyrillic alphabet was etched into the windows of the kiosk, together with the Cyrillic, during the building’s redesign four years ago.) 

Today, the kiosk serves as a small lending library and a tourist information center. Shpatov runs literary tours in Bulgarian that depart from here during the warmer months. The city approached him to help organize the tours and the kiosk after he made a name for himself as a short story writer. 

In 2006, Shpatov’s first story collection won a national award, and the three collections he has published since have all sold well and been favorably reviewed. His narratives favor urban settings, and he explains that previously, during communist times and also during the Bulgarian national revival period of the late 19th century, writers preferred to write about the villages of their births. He credits the American novelist Garth Greenwell, who taught at the American College of Sofia, where Shpatov is an alumnus, for reassuring him and encouraging him to maintain his focus on the city. The Bulgarian writer met the American writer at a reception at the school and the two became friends. “Garth asked me, ‘Why isn’t there a book about Sofia? There should be one,’” Shpatov recalls. “So I wrote one.”

His books are popular, but Shpatov tells me that on at least two occasions, when he was reading outside of the capital, a member of the audience stood, said something derogatory about “these Sofia stories,” and stormed out.

After high school Shpatov attended the University of Sofia, where he earned a law degree. He’s a lawyer by day, but writing and Bulgarian literature are clearly his passions. Today he’s agreed to lead me on a one-person literary tour. 

In the warmth of the glass library, he opens a map of Sofia and explains that Sofia has six neighborhoods and more than three hundred streets named after famous poets, writers, book titles, literary characters, professors of Bulgarian literature, and literary critics. “I haven’t seen anything like this anywhere else, not even in Moscow,” he says. His finger jabs at place names on the map as he tells me about Ivan Vazov, the writer the theater is named after. In 1893, after the Russians helped the Bulgarians kick out the Ottoman Turks, who had ruled Bulgaria since the 14th century, Vazov wrote his novel Under the Yoke, about the transition from Ottoman rule. The book is canonical reading in Bulgarian public schools and is so famous that a recent re-translation that substitutes contemporary Bulgarian words and phrases for many of the antiquated words and expressions in the original has created a national debate.

Next Shpatov tells me about Geo Milev, a poet from the early part of the 20th century whose photo I’ve seen before: Milev posed for photos with a sweep of brown hair dramatically covering the right side of his face. I had assumed it was a fanciful bit of tonsorial flare, but Shpatov explains that the poet was disfigured in World War I, that he lost his right eye and had a scar and indentation across the right half of his face. 

The two-story, cylindrical glass kiosk used as a lending library in the City Garden (left); a statue of Geo Milev, a Bulgarian poet, journalist, and translator.

 

Milev was a national hero, but he was also a political leftist during the nationalist period between the wars. After a communist group planted a bomb in 1925 that blew up the rooftop of the St. Nedelya Church in the city center, killing 200 and injuring 700 members of the ruling class, Milev was swept up in a round-up of leftists. He was never seen again. Thirty years later, during communist times, a mass grave was uncovered, and Milev’s damaged skull was identified and his glass eye was found. 

Shpatov’s lessons continue as we leave the kiosk and head out into the brisk weather for a tour that lasts for another ninety minutes but never leaves the one-block radius surrounding the quiet park. He points out the plaque on a large, rough stone before the national theater that marks the spot in 1895 where the famed satirical writer, Aleko Konstantinov, met with a group of naturalists who formed one of the nation’s first hiking and tourism clubs. 

Shpatov waves at the Grand Hotel of Sofia, an 11-story glass cube set atop a three-story granite base, and tells me that the bottom three stories used to be the Sofia City Library until some political wrangles during the chaotic nineties placed it in private hands. 

We walk around the old Tsarist palace, which had once been the Ottoman administrative headquarters, then became a communist administrative center, and now houses two museums, where Shpatov points out a statue to the poet and communist organizer Nikola Vaptsarov, who attempted to organize a Bulgarian resistance against the Nazis. The Nazis tried him and shot him in 1942 without interference from the Tsar, and so during communist rule the government positioned his statue in such a way that the writer appears to be looking accusingly at the former palace. 

After pointing out another dozen memorials and authors, Shpatov leads me to a swath of green lawn in the center of the city between the Neo-Renaissance Military Club and the gilded onion domes and gleaming eaves of the Russian Church. On this spot of parkland, Shpatov explains, there once stood a building that housed the most popular literary café of the 1930s. He shows me a satirical cartoon from a newspaper of the era; the artist has drawn caricatures of 107 of the city’s leading intellectuals, politicians, writers, and artists all gathered at their customary tables throughout the café. I feel his disappointment when he explains to me that, when the communist government commandeered control of intellectual and artistic circles, the café was shut down and fell into disrepair. In the 1970s a municipal government interested in extending the green spaces at the city center removed the structure, leaving a grassy square in its stead.

Thoroughly chilled in the January air, Shpatov leads us a couple blocks east to Krivoto, a restaurant popular with the students of Sofia University, which he’s immortalized in one of his short stories. He insists that it’s a Sofia tradition in winter to drink a Stolichno dark beer at one of the restaurant’s tables, so we sit and order a beer then a couple more while he tells me about his own writing.

Unlike the majority of writers I’ve interviewed, Shpatov makes no claims to being a literary protégé as a child. Instead, he remembers getting off to a bad start with his high school Bulgarian literature teacher— who ended up teaching him all four years—when he skipped her class to attend a football (futbol) game. Later, he claims he made a similar impression on his English teacher when that teacher asked him to create an anthology of poems for the class, and Shpatov crafted a collection of songs to be sung in Levski Stadium, where the professional football club plays. “I got the lowest grade for the course; which is to be expected,” he says.

Despite his descriptions of his own poor performance, he credits his English literature class, which was a mandatory part of his studies at the American College, with providing him a thought-provoking contrast to his Bulgarian literary studies. In the tenth grade he studied Hamlet in his English class and also in Bulgarian translation. In Bulgarian he was assigned to write an essay on the theme of madness in the play, while his English teacher’s assignment was more creative. The students were required to perform a scene. Some of his classmates rented costumes from the National Opera, but he and his friend chose an easier way out. “We did a puppet show, so we could read the text.” He laughs and mimics clumsily holding a script and reading while also manipulating a puppet.

Shpatov felt like the approach of his English teachers humanized the writers he studied while his Bulgarian teacher lionized them. “Which Geo Milev is more memorable,” he asks, “the guy with the scar or the guy with the hair?” He points out that the statue, which the city erected in the park named after the poet, features that elegant sweep of hair. 

In the tenth or eleventh grade, Shpatov isn’t exactly sure which, he was assigned to write an essay in the style of Aleko Konstantinov, the naturalist who is one of Bulgaria’s most beloved writers, and he was surprised when his Bulgarian teacher awarded him a “6,” the equivalent of an “A” in the Bulgarian system. He sent the assignment to a satirical newspaper. His grandfather was a subscriber, so Shpatov hoped to surprise the old man. One of the editors liked the submission and asked the young writer to send some stories, so Shpatov quickly sent five. The editor chose one then helped him edit it down from twelve pages to two. “At the last moment though,” Sphatov says, “the chief editor stepped in and what got published was two paragraphs, 211 words, stripped from the initial 3,774.” He vowed that someday he would publish the story in full, and in fact a later version of the story appeared in his first collection, Footnotes, which was published in 2005, when he was twenty. 

His approach to publication at the time was fairly typical of young writers in Bulgaria. Because the country’s population is only seven million, profits from the sales of story collections tend to be modest. As a result, publishing companies will only print and help distribute a new writer’s book if the writer pays for the costs of the printing. Shpatov approached a pastry shop owned by a relative who has an appreciation for the arts and asked him to sponsor the publication of the book. (Later, the shop owner handed out copies of the book to his customers.) But Shpatov knew he also needed an editor to help him hone the manuscript. He had a high school friend whose father was Deyan Enev, a well-known writer and editor, and he asked his friend if his father would consider editing his stories for him. The friend asked for a printout of the collection and told Shpatov he would wait for the opportune moment. A few weeks later, Shpatov’s friend told him he was in luck: “One day, my dad was on the toilet, and he says, ‘Give me something to read.’ So I handed him your stories.” Enev agreed to work with him.

Footnotes, published by Vesela Lyutzkanova Publishing House, won the award for “Best Fiction Debut” in the 34th Yuzhna Prolet National Literary Competition in 2006. Shpatov sold out his first printing of five hundred copies and printed another thousand, which also sold well. “I got the most money from that first book,” Shpatov laughs, “because it was all for me.” (Because he had paid the cost for the publication and carried the books around town to sell at various bookstores, he earned a higher percentage of the actual sales price than he would after he signed a formal contract with publishers in subsequent deals.)

Two year later, Shpatov had written enough new stories for a follow-up collection. He had maintained enough name recognition that he still drew invitations for interviews from newspapers and television talk shows, and after one TV interview with a successful Bulgarian publisher, the woman told him she wanted to publish his next collection. Shpatov’s second collection, Footnote Stories, was published by Janet 45, a press based in Plovdiv, in 2008.

The most distinctive quality of Shpatov’s stories is their setting in the capital city. After World War II, communist censors imposed socialist realist values on the country; fictions that centered the wisdom of the peasantry were favored over stories about urbanites.  Throughout the history of the Soviet block, it was common for leaders to order intellectuals out of the cities and into the countryside where the peasants were encouraged to knock them down a peg by forcing them to adopt country mannerisms and values.  Some of this anti-intellectualism continues today.

“All of our great short stories are about the village,” Shpatov says.  He references Yordan Radichkov, another of the writers carved in stone beside the former palace. “Radichkov said his biggest regret was that he ‘got lured into Sofia.’” 

It was Garth Greenwell who reassured Shpatov it was okay to write about the city. Greenwell was teaching English to high schoolers at the American College of Sofia, and Shpatov came to volunteer as a translator for foreign teachers on a parent-teacher conference night. The two started talking and eventually Greenwell gave Shpatov a copy of James Joyce’s Dubliners. “Here’s a story about the city,” Greenwell said. It confirmed Shpatov’s own ambitions to draft a book of tales from Sofia. 

His next collection, #LiveFromSofia, was published in 2014. It was an immediate success, selling well and winning the Sofia prize for literature, earning him invitations to do readings in Plovdiv and Varna, and causing Sofia city officials to approach him about some sort of joint venture. The writer suggested turning the abandoned glass kiosk into a library and initiating a literary tour. The library doesn’t just loan books; it’s a center for collecting donations of old books from city residents which are in turn donated to rural libraries around the country. “Last year, we donated eight thousand books,” he says.

Shpatov had wanted the cover of #LiveFromSofia to look like a label from a beer bottle, a reference to one of its stories, “Beers by the National Theater,” and he thought he might be able to form a marketing partnership with the Stolichno beer company (whose product we are drinking) because Stolichno, translated, means “of the Capital.” Unfortunately, the company rejected his attempts to partner with them. Shpatov brushed off his disappointment and set about making his own promotion. He looked for beer bottles that were the appropriate size and shape to hold his book cover “label” and discovered that Stolichno Weiss bottles were the exact shape he needed. He bought five crates, 100 bottles in all, and sanded off the logo on the cap and steamed off the labels. The plan was to replace both the cap and the labels with copies of the mock beer label that appears on the cover of his collection and then hand out a beer with each of the first hundred books he sold at the annual Sofia Christmas Book Fair.

It was mind-numbing work, he tells me, so he enlisted a group of friends to help him. The waitress brings him his next beer, and he admires it. “In the process, we wound up drinking an entire crate,” he says, smiling, “so we only wound up with eighty beers.” 

I nod. It seems about right to me. In Shpatov’s world, like all those writers from the 1930s he loves, there’s a blurry line between his friendships, his adventures, and his fictions. It’s not just the art of writing he loves, but also the community that embraces it and the history that links him to all those Bulgarian heroes whose names litter the map of his city and are etched into the bases of the statues that populate the parks of downtown Sofia.

Bulgaria is a country of seven million people located on the eastern edge of the European continent. It borders Turkey to the southeast, Greece to the south, the Black Sea to the east, and Romania to the north. Until 1989 it was a member of the Soviet communist bloc. The end of Soviet control led to a free-for-all for resources, the rise of mafias and oligarchs, and a full-scale economic collapse in 1997. The European Union accepted the country in 2007, and economic growth has been steady since then, but its income levels are still among the poorest in Europe.

The Bulgarian word for book is kneega. It’s a Slavic word that sounds closer to the Turkish word for book, kitap, to me. Certainly it’s quite different from the neighboring Albanian word libër, which comes from the Italian libro, derived from the Greek vivlio. The Ottoman Turks controlled Bulgaria for about five hundred years, until 1878, but the word probably predates this influence (and most likely joined the Slavic tongues during the Islamic incursions into the Caucasus Mountains that began in the 800s). 

In the 19th century Bulgaria reemerged as a nation. With support from Russia, a country of fellow Orthodox Christian Slavs, the Bulgarians kicked out their Ottoman overlords and declared themselves a nation-state. If you tour Bulgaria, you can see the architectural remains of this transition. In the central city of Plovdiv, about 130 kilometers southeast of Sofia, on a defensible hill where the Romans left behind a temple and a theater, Christian merchants in the 19th century built richly decorated wood-framed homes, creating a neighborhood that was separate and distinct from the Ottoman mosques, hammams, bazaars, and public buildings located beside the river in the valley below. It was a time of prosperity for the rising middle class in Bulgaria and a literary awakening for poets and intellectuals who wrote epic poems about the revolutionaries who the Turks kept capturing and turning into martyrs. 

But it wasn’t until the eve of independence that my favorite early Bulgarian writer began to tumble through the Balkan atmosphere. Aleko Konstantinov wrote his first stories in the 1890s. Aleko, as he’s referred to in Bulgaria, is the nation’s better-looking version of Mark Twain. He was a refreshing figure of liberal thought and common sense in his day, an advocate of hiking and the benefits of fitness, and a crusader against snake oil salesmen, montebanks, and hucksters, especially those of the political variety.

Aleko’s greatest character is named Bai Ganyo. (The word Bai is an honorific used for an older accomplished man, and probably comes from the Turkish Bey, which became the Arabic Beg. The title once referred to a tribal chief, but during Ottoman times slowly came to be used in the way that “Colonel” was used in the antebellum South, which is to say it was a pompous term used by a macho culture to distinguish wealthy men who claimed to possess important cultural insights but were typically rich bores.) Bai Ganyo is an indelible figure in Bulgarian culture and thought. The character is a satirical depiction of a nouveaux riche bully who dresses in traditional Bulgarian dress and is forever showing up at parties and cafes in Prague and other Eastern European capitals, where he acts boorishly and embarrasses the other Bulgarians in the vicinity. For Americans he is a thoroughly modern character: Picture yourself sitting at a corner café in Paris, one of those little overpriced coffee shops near Rue de Temple in the Marais, and imagine that a loud American wearing a MAGA hat takes the table beside your own and begins pontificating loudly about the inferior quality of French beer and the general rudeness of French citizens.

Ask any eighth grader in Bulgaria if they know Bai Ganyo, and they’ll nod enthusiastically. However, adult Bulgarians are hesitant when they hear a foreigner mention the character. Bai Ganyo represents every native impulse that liberal-minded Bulgarians despise in their uncles and cousins. Like references to your own Trump-supporting uncle, the situation is complicated. It’s okay for you to make fun of your uncle but not okay for others to chime in.

At the entrance to the strolling shopping street a few blocks from the National Theater where I met Shpatov, the city has erected a life-sized bronze of Aleko. The local tour guides don’t bother to include the statue in their circuit of the downtown, preferring the easier-to-explain statues of Imperial-era horseback tsars raising swords and the statues of communist-era workers raising rifles in triumph. Aleko’s writings advocate something more complicated than nationalist or socialist sentiments, something at once more profound and more ambitious. His writings satirized populist, self-serving, and simpleminded politicians. He was a Romantic from a middle-class family who ridiculed the corruption of more pragmatic and powerful men and, as a result, was assassinated before he was thirty-five years old. Bulgarians revere him as a sort of private national symbol, one that they know intimately but who they’re cautious about sharing with outsiders.

The Child Star

Ludmila Filipova is waiting for me behind the floor-to-ceiling windows at a table in the back of the Esterhasi Bar, just down from Eagle’s Bridge, a quarter mile east from the National Theater. The waiters know her. When I ask for her, they whisk me past an assembling party in the front of the restaurant, past the glass wall that partitions the quiet back room, to the small round table where she is seated. She stands to greet me. The author of twelve novels, Filipova has pale eyes and blonde hair and is wearing a black dress patterned with white dots and red poppies. I’ve seen Filipova’s books in translation at several of the bookstores in town, so it comes as a surprise when she tells me, in so many words, that before she became a writer, she was the last socialist princess of Bulgaria.

Novelist Ludmila Filipova, author of twelve books, including the best-seller The Parchment Maze (2013), translated by Angela Rodel and David Mossop, at Esterhasi Bar in Sofia.

 

Filipova has a risotto coming, and I order a white wine to match the glass that is sitting before her on the table, then take out my reporter’s notebook, click my ballpoint, and start to ask a question. Filipova smiles confidently then begins to speak before I can get any words out. There is no need for questions. I write steadily for the next ninety minutes. Her story is unlike that of any writer I have ever met, which is extraordinary because across the many countries where I have sat in bars and cafes and interviewed poets and authors, certain patterns have emerged. She fits none of them.

Filipova’s grandfather was Grisha Filipov, a Russian-speaking Bulgarian who fought against the fascist in World War II, was arrested by them during the war, then released when the Soviets arrived. He was raised in the Ukraine, came to Bulgaria when he was nineteen, and eventually rose to become a member of the Bulgarian Politburo, the clique of communist leaders who ruled the country from the end of World War II until 1989. From 1981 to 1986 he was the leader of the National Assembly and widely acknowledged as the right-hand man of Todor Zhivkov, the General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party from 1954 and the face of Big Brother in Bulgaria during communist times. Zhivkov was famous as the longest serving dictator in the Eastern Bloc, and Filipova’s grandfather was his chief lieutenant. For generations, her grandfather was one of the most feared men in Bulgaria or one of the most respected, depending on one’s perspective.

Filipova shows me a photo on her phone. It was taken on a national day of celebration in 1981, and in it she is four years old, standing behind the communist leaders atop the tomb of Georgi Dimitrov, the embalmed first dictator of communist Bulgaria, while cadres of workers march by on the avenue below. The tomb has since been destroyed. It used to sit in the park where I met Shpatov. In the winter there is a Christmas market adjacent to where it once stood. Sometimes a Christmas tree is erected on the pavement—all that remains of the former temple to communism.  

Filipova loved her grandfather. From her perspective, he was the economic genius who spotted the failings of socialism and began to permit some free market reforms a decade before Mikhaïl Gorbachev opened the doors to Russian Glasnost. 

“I was age thirteen or fourteen at the time of the revolution,” Filipova says, describing the end of communist rule in Bulgaria. “Imagine a kind of princess, going to palaces and resorts; my godmother was the daughter of the socialist leader.”

Filipova was also a child actor. With her blonde hair and blue eyes, she was selected to play Bulgarian girls in some of Bulgaria’s most famous films from the communist era, including a small part in the popular children’s movie Dog in a Drawer

Then 1989 arrived and the communists fell. One day, her mother woke her up and told her that she wouldn’t be going to school today; her grandfather had been removed from power. Overnight, like Disney’s Russian tsarina Anastasia, her privilege fell away. She became an object of ridicule, she says; her teachers laughed at her. In the streets, people recognized her and jeered. She remembers their calls, “Oh, your grandfather is in prison. Ha, ha, ha!” She was thirteen. 

At fourteen she got a job in a café serving sandwiches and coffee, and she worked hard in school. Her mother pressured her to be practical, and she eventually earned a degree in economics. During the nineties she worked for one of Bulgaria’s new oligarchs. She says she used the experience to gather information for future books; she wanted to tell the story of Bulgaria’s changing society and economy from her own perspective. By 2005 she had a partial draft written. Her grandfather had died of cancer in 1994 then her father had passed away, and now her mother was ill and in the hospital. “After ’89, the new heroes of Bulgaria needed enemies,” she says. “They picked the top three families of the socialist times, and they tried to say that they are responsible for all the bad things that happened to Bulgaria.” 

Her grandfather had been jailed; her parents both lost their jobs. She watched her father hock the family’s possessions to put food on the table. They lost everything. “My parents and relatives died from the stress,” she says.

She showed her developing novel to her mother in the hospital. Her mother had never been supportive of her impulses to paint or write when she was younger, but she liked what she saw in the early drafts, and she urged her to keep working on it. Filipova’s first book fictionalizes the Bulgarian transition from communism to free market capitalism and then the nineties free-for-all. It includes insights she received from her grandfather. “I started writing with no desire to be a writer,” she says. “I simply wanted to give information.” 

In Bulgaria a book that sells three thousand copies is considered a success. Filipova says that her first book, Anatomy of Illusion, sold ten thousand copies in one month and has sold as many as seventy thousand copies to date. “I started with Ciela [Publishing],” she says. “I was one of their best, best writers, but didn’t approve of their professional attitude.” Unhappy with the support she received for the books she wrote after Anatomy of Illusion, she switched publishers, then switched again, eventually landing with Enthusiast Publishing. Ciela still plays a role in the distribution of her novels, but she says that Enthusiast lives up to their name by “always trying to invent and develop new ideas for making bridges between writers and readers.” She says she likes that they are willing to communicate and work with writers “seven days per week.” Indeed, Filipova’s research trips frequently take her out of the country. She was in Brazil just before our meeting, and when I try to contact her for a few follow-up questions, it takes several days before I hear from her. When I do, she explains that she was “on a Turkish mountain researching a topic without a phone connection.” It’s easy to see why she is eager to work with editors willing to take her calls on the weekends.

Filipova has published eleven novels since the release of her debut, and seven of them have gone on to become best-sellers. She enjoys researching then dramatizing criminal conspiracies, social and political issues, or regional theories about history. To some extent, she has carved out a role for herself as the Dan Brown of Bulgaria; she identifies attractive conspiracy theories and fictionalizes them. “Even now, I’m not calling myself a writer,” she says. “I’m calling myself a ‘distributor of knowledge.’” Filipova enjoys switching genres with each new book, from historical to documentary to mystical. While working on a book she tries to avoid similar books or even television shows in a similar genre, and she dives into research in dramatic fashion. For a book about Antarctica, for instance, she traveled to Antarctica on three different expeditions. Before publishing her last two books, the science fiction novels The Reason and The Contact, she earned a masters degree in astronomy from Sofia University.

She confesses to being a highly structured writer:  She maps out her plots, creates her characters, and adds them to her outlines—sure of her endings long before she nears the completion of her first drafts. “Some writers, they say they prefer not to know the ending,” she says. “It’s considered very creative and very high level; but it’s very important to know the end because it’s very efficient. Organization is very important if you want to make a good story.”

Filipova says that she has faced criticism from the established literary circles in Sofia which, she says, prefer to see novel writing as an art that refuses to make concessions to popular tastes. When she began writing, Bulgarian literary circles were dominated by “a lot of selfishness and ego” that looked down their noses at popular fictions, she says. “Before me, they all try to become these god writers. They wrote things that were not very understandable, that were very complicated and that were without story.”

Early on she felt pressure to change. “After my first book, they said it was successful ‘because she’s blonde.’ After my second, ‘it’s because she’s blonde.’” But Filipova followed her own path, and now she sees many more Bulgarian writers creating and publishing popular fiction in different genres.

Nowadays, Filipova says that she is content with her research and her work. Bulgaria continues to be beset by political and economic problems (tensions that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic) but Filipova remains optimistic and supportive of the current government. “Bulgarians are very negative,” she says, as she takes a last bite of her salad. “They like to complain, but I’m a very positive person.” 

The fall of communism in Bulgaria in 1989 led to a period of economic and societal chaos. As a result of the dissolution of the interdependent communist block system, in the 1990s the standard of living fell in Bulgaria by an estimated 40 percent. In 1997, after a series of wild fluctuations, inflation peaked at 311 percent and the currency collapsed. A newly elected government stepped in and, with help from the International Monetary Fund, started to put the economy on firmer ground, but not before an estimated one million Bulgarians left the country looking for work and better prospects. Nearly half a million headed for Turkey while another three hundred thousand emigrated to the United States. 

Since the country’s acceptance into the European Union in 2007, these numbers have stabilized, but it has become a common part of the Bulgarian experience to know somebody—a brother, a sister, a cousin, a friend—who has spent time working in the United States. 

Bulgarian fiction and film reflect this. For example, the recent Bulgarian film, 18% Gray, which appeared in Bulgarian theaters on January 24, 2020, is about a Bulgarian immigrant’s vehicular odyssey across the United States. Like many thoughtful films in Bulgaria, the movie started out as a novel, this one by Zachary Karabashliev.

The Buglarian Kerouac

Zachary Karabashliev meets me on Vitosha Boulevard, the pedestrian thoroughfare for shopping, strolling, and people watching that is fronted by the bronze statue of Aleko. It is just after twilight in November, and the bricks of the boulevard gleam with the reflected glare of the streetlights and the cafes. Karabashliev is in his early fifties, fit and youthful. He has a shock of gray hair, a long nose, and a pugnacious chin. He is dressed in a dark vest, white button-down with the collar undone, and a loosened striped tie. He has just completed a full day on the job. As both a famous novelist and the editor in chief of the country’s largest publisher, Karabashliev probably knows more about Bulgaria’s literary life than anybody else in the country.  

We leave the avenue and walk in the direction of his apartment, stopping a couple blocks away at an out-of-date bar he says he’s not sure he’s ever entered. Inside we find leather stools and orange velour textures. We take a small table in the back room where it is quieter, order a pair of Irish whiskeys, and begin our conversation. 

The former headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party in downtown Sofia (left); novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Zachary Karabashliev, who is also editor in chief of Ciela Publishing, at Orisha Bar & Dinner in Sofia.

 

His company, Ciela Publishing, founded by a pair of lawyers twenty-six years ago, was originally focused on disseminating legal texts. In its first decade the house added fiction, nonfiction, and young adult titles, and it continues to grow. The company employs six full-time editors and last year published close to two hundred books, Karabashliev tells me. Half are original Bulgarian titles; the other half are books in translation.

Karabashliev’s fame as a writer has followed a similar rising curve. He says he always wanted to write, but his environment in the Black Sea city of Varna, where he was born and raised, was not conducive to such a dream. “As a kid, I never saw a real writer,” he says. “I thought all the writers were dead or lived someplace else.” From age 18 to 20, during a time when Bulgaria was still socialist, Karabashliev was required to serve in the Bulgarian military, and afterward, when he was in college, there was more emphasis on criticism than creative writing. “Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, I was very influenced by Structuralism,” he says. “Deconstruction was big.” 

In 1993, he entered a short story in a national student literary contest and won an award equivalent to a month’s salary. He remembers the date, May 18, because the next day his daughter was born. He continued to write and work in Bulgaria, but the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fall of the communist authorities had created a political and then an economic crisis.

“When we emigrated there was only one bookstore open in Varna,” he says. “I wanted to be a writer so bad. I was writing short stories [that were] published in newspapers, but the idea of being a writer was absurdly unthinkable at the time.” 

In 1997 the economy completely collapsed, and Karabashliev and his wife searched for other options. “It makes me angry to remember,” he says. “You have no idea how fucked up this place was. In 1997, the monthly salary for teachers was ten American dollars.” 

So he moved to the United States, settling for two years in Columbus, Ohio, where he worked the night shift for Anheuser Busch and studied English with other refugees during the day. “I took French in high school, and I knew about three words of French,” he says. “I only knew English through the lyrics of songs—Iron Maiden, Metallica, Pink Floyd—so you can imagine the vastness of my vocabulary when I arrived. It was pathetic.”

After two years in Ohio, Karabashliev relocated to San Diego to work and raise his daughter while also continuing to write plays, screenplays, short stories, and novels. He tried writing in English, which he now speaks fluently with an American accent, with little success. His breakthrough occurred in 2008 when he sent his manuscript of a finished Bulgarian novel, 18% Gray, home for a read by one of his former professors in Varna. The professor shared it with a friend at Ciela; they liked it and agreed to publish it. 

He credits the move to the United States with changing his life and also changing the way he thought about language. “Because I didn’t understand English at all,” he says, “for the first time in my life, it was necessary for me to think before I spoke, and it changed something in my perspective.” His circumstances were also different. He’d left his friends behind in Bulgaria. “There’s something about writing in the U.S., it made my job slightly easier. I could be more lonely over there. Socially, I was not as engaged as I am now.”

After Ciela agreed to publish his novel, the move from acceptance to final printing was quick. The speed with which a book can move from manuscript to distributed novel is one of the things he enjoys about the Bulgarian marketplace. “I have no idea why it takes so long in the U.S.,” he says. “I always thought that it seemed very weird.” Before the year was out, his book was on the shelves in Bulgaria, and Karabashliev flew home to promote it. 

Things had improved in his home country since he had left eleven years earlier. Now bookstores and bright cafes dotted the streets of Sofia. Salaries were rising; even the teachers were doing better. (In recent years, the public school teachers of Bulgaria have been given at least two highly publicized raises.) And Sofia has always been a gorgeous place. In addition to the National Theater, there’s a jewel-box opera house, cathedrals, Roman ruins, a historic mosque, a historic Jewish temple and a giant Communist-era auditorium. Plus the Bulgarian capital city hosts film festivals and international sports contests, and there’s a blossoming café culture.

On top of all that, the early reviews of Karabashliev’s book were very strong. “I will never forget the first article that came out,” he says. He was interviewed by a reporter from a prominent newspaper who hadn’t read his novel. “She asked me what it was about.”

“It’s a road trip. It’s about lust and love and—” 

“Oh, is it like Kerouac?” 

“No—”

“‘I love Kerouac. I love Kerouac,’ she said.” 

Karabashliev laughs. “As a student I loved Kerouac too, but… the next day, the newspaper comes out with an article with the headline, ‘The Bulgarian Kerouac!’” 

The article helped his sales, and he went back and reread Kerouac. “I didn’t care for it,” he says.

  He flew back to the United States and resumed his life there, this time in San Diego, where he worked as a part-time professional photographer—taking portraits and photographing weddings—and tending bar at a Sheraton. In Bulgaria, meanwhile, he was a best-selling novelist with a burgeoning reputation and multiple opportunities. So, in 2014 he accepted the job running Ciela and moved back to Bulgaria, taking up residence in a top-floor flat in the heart of the city. 

In the years since, he has become one of Bulgaria’s most prominent artists. The day after our meeting, about a month before the arrival of COVID-19, I go to a theater to watch the film Jojo Rabbit, and when the lights lower, the trailer for the film version of Karabashliev’s novel fills the screen. 

I ask him about the economics of publishing in Bulgaria. “In Bulgaria, when you publish a book, you get a small advance, or even, you don’t,” he says, “but you get a royalty statement every three months. And that’s super solid. Whatever you sell, it’s yours.”

The industry of publishing is greatly affected by the size of its language base. The number of potential readers a language contains determines not only how many publishing companies exist but also how many writers can survive solely on the profits of their artistic output. In some countries, there are simply not enough readers to enable any full-time writers to survive. I ask Karabashliev if there are enough Bulgarian readers for his publishing house to offer writers contracts that are large enough to live on.

“The easiest way to explain it is to compare the Bulgarian to the U.S. market,” he says. There are between seven and eight million Bulgarian speakers in the world, he says, whereas there are about three-hundred million people who speak English in the United States. Bulgaria is about fifty times smaller, say forty to be on the safe side,” he explains. “The logic would be this: If a novel in the U.S. sells 10,000 copies, that equals 250 copies in Bulgaria. But if a book in Bulgaria sells 10,000 copies that is equal to 400,000 copies in the U.S.” He drains his whiskey. “That would eventually make me a millionaire.” He smiles. “I just want to clarify the restrictions I work under. Sometimes it’s so discouraging.” 

18% Gray has sold about 70,000 copies over the course of the eleven years it has been in print, Karabashliev says. He’s no millionaire, but he appears happy with his position: He is the managing editor of Ciela, the movie version of his successful novel is about to be released, he’s recently remarried to a political scientist, and he has a three-year-old daughter waiting for him at home.

He tells me that his earlier marriage ended in divorce while he was in the United States, and the memory causes him to reflect on his peripatetic life and the costs associated with pulling up stakes and moving from one continent to the next. He recalls listening to Ha Jin, the Boston University professor and writer who emigrated to the United States from China following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, speaking about the subject on NPR or a podcast. Karabashliev remembers him saying, “‘I know it would have been better to have been stuck in China and be a Chinese writer, but I chose to be something else.” After he returned to Bulgaria, Karabashliev met Mo Yan, the Chinese Nobel Laureate in literature, and realized that here was the example that Ha Jin was referring to, the man who stayed home, who wrote in Chinese, who wrote stories about his home village. Karabashliev turns the idea over as we speak. “Can you not be both?” he asks. He glances at me. “To this day, I have no answers.”

He thinks back to his early arrival in the United States. “I remember when I first landed in Newark, New Jersey. The first breath I took, there was openness in the air. I can’t express this. We stepped in a Burger King, and I remember the air. I was like, ‘Shit…the openness.’ I’ve never dreamed of being an immigrant in Europe. In the U.S., I never was considered an immigrant, never for a moment.”

But his circumstances changed after 18% Gray won the Bulgarian National Book Award. At some point he had more opportunities for work in Sofia than he did in San Diego, and he confesses that he could not imagine himself being buried in the United States, or any place other than Bulgaria.

He talks about his work as an editor, the magic of picking up a submission by an unpublished writer and being drawn into the narrative. “You cannot engineer it,” he says. “You cannot produce it.” He’s often been tempted, he admits, to apply a heavy hand to works that seem like they would benefit from the imposition of his tastes, but he’s made a firm decision to avoid heavily editing his writers’ works, and he’s stuck with it. 

He says he is proud of a recent decision to print a thousand-page book about the Bulgarian concentration camp in the town of Belene that was infamous during communist times. “The decision there was not to create a commercial success,” he says, “but just to publish it.” He insists on paying for our whiskeys, and we move toward the street. His wife and daughter are waiting. “The funny thing is, [the book] became a commercial success anyway.” He hasn’t eaten yet, and he stretches out his hand to say farewell. Then the Bulgarian Kerouac goes home to make homemade pizza with his family.  

Bulgaria’s involvement in World War II, like everything else about the country, is unique. Forced into a reluctant alliance with Nazi Germany despite the country’s warm historic relations with Russia, the Bulgarian Tsar, Boris III, sent Bulgarian troops to the front lines, but he refused to allow the Nazis to round up or harm Bulgaria’s Jewish citizens. Before the war’s end, Boris was dead from Nazi poisoning and had been succeeded by his six-year-old son, Simeon II. The young tsar was quickly sent into exile when the Soviets invaded. 

From the end of the Second World War until 1989, the Bulgarian Communist Party controlled the political, economic, intellectual, and artistic life of Bulgaria, and the communists left more than just a few statues of flower girls behind. The communists certainly encouraged the worship of all those left-leaning writers whose names are still scattered across the map of the city, attached to streets, neighborhoods, subway stops, buildings, theaters, and schools.

Among the many successful living writers from communist times, a few have been able to adapt and to continue to write and publish, and also to find work as editors of magazines and as writing instructors in the democratic and capitalist system. 

The Master

I wait for Vladimir Zarev on a Sunday in front of the National Theater, the same spot where I met the younger Shpatov. Born in 1947, the son of a literature professor, Zarev was famous during communist times and continues to be successful today. He studied Bulgarian philology at Sofia University and published his first book of poems, Riot of Emotions, in 1972. In the years since, he’s published ten novels, multiple volumes of short stories, and two nonfiction books, many of which have been translated into German, Turkish, and other languages. 

Zarev has informed me by text message that his daughter will translate for us, and she arrives before the writer. She tells me she is a headhunter for business professionals as she leads me around the corner to Momento, a modern café filled with Pottery Barn–style furnishings. Her 72-year-old father soon joins us at a wooden table.

The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (left); novelist Vladimir Zarev, who is also editor of the literary magazine Savremennik, or Contemporary, at Cafe Memento in Sofia.

 

Zarev is bald on top with a round face and a white beard. He wears glasses and occasionally touches his chin in a gesture that seems thoughtful and slightly reticent. I ask him when he first thought of himself as a writer, and he says when he was three years old…then he waits a beat, and his daughter translates that he was only joking. 

He describes growing up in a house where his parents kept a “huge library” that intimidated him. It had a cold and Gothic feel, he says, and he avoided it until he was in the sixth grade, when all that changed. Before long he was skipping school to read books. By the eighth grade, he had fallen in love with Dostoyevsky and was writing his first poems. Eventually he went to university and studied the history, structure, and development of languages then joined the military and wrote his first book.

It’s hard to get him to talk about the details of those days. He would rather speak philosophically about how as a writer he resisted the strictures of his era, about how the act of writing under the communists was an act of resistance. “We craved freedom,” he says, “because freedom is a form of difference. The more different a person is, the more free he is. We were forbidden to be different.” It is one of the reasons he started writing—to be free. He says that the writers of the era tried to master the language, constantly working to say things that could be understood to mean two things. It’s how they avoided censorship.

I ask him if he was explicitly told what to write, and he says that nobody told him what to write; instead, there were people who carefully read anything he wrote and occasionally rejected them. For example, Exodus, the second book of his historical trilogy—after Genesis and before The Choice—originally contained a character who was a writer and was sent to a gulag. The censor, after reading Zarev’s submitted draft, informed him that his book wouldn’t be released with this character in it. Zarev removed the character.

Despite such pressure, the writer successfully published four acclaimed novels during communist times, and he was appointed editor of the country’s most prestigious literary magazine, Savremennik, or Contemporary. After the change-over to democracy and capitalism, he spearheaded efforts to preserve the magazine, and he still edits it today. 

I describe the literary café from the thirties that Shpatov told me about during our literary tour then ask Zarev if places like that existed for writers during the 1970s. “Back then there was a very strong union of writers,” he says. He describes a large building where the publishing houses and magazines had headquarters. On the first floor there was a cafeteria and a restaurant. It was a club, of sorts, that was only for writers. “If you were a regular person you couldn’t go.”

During these times, the political party only favored writers who supported the party’s agendas. He was a member of the writers union, although there were some great writers who were never permitted to become members, he says. There were two ways to be admitted: Either you were voted in by the party or you were accepted after popular acclaim. The party writers received all the awards and earned all the benefits. The quality of the text wasn’t that important, even though there were some great writers back then, he says. The best ones tended to write historical novels because they were not forbidden, and they tried to masquerade alternative messages in their works. “The writers were taken very good care of by the political party,” he says. For example, there were large vacation homes by the sea that were available to them. 

“Books back then were a huge matter,” he says. There was only one television channel, and it was a time before the internet or handheld devices. The only movies you could watch were made by the Soviet Union, and people weren’t interested in watching those. “But this wasn’t the real reason books were important,” he says. “If you read a good book, you might consider yourself a rebel; it was a form of social unity; a good book or a good movie was difficult to find; searching for them was a subconscious way to rebel against society’s rules.”

Now that democracy is here, Zarev says, he regrets that the importance of books has faded and they don’t seem to unite the people as much. Artists can say what they want, and as a result, art has lost a little of its glitter, he says. 

Yet he still writes. “It’s a beautiful thing to write. When I write, it feels like somebody is dictating to me from someplace up above; it gives meaning to my life; it’s a form of separating the author from death.”

Zarev is pleased that his books continue to be translated into German and other languages, pleased at the attention they’ve garnered from the German critics and press, and he also continues to teach. For the last decade he has taught creative writing workshops, typically with twenty students, organized by the National Palace of Culture. He says he tries to persuade his students that writing is an art form that cannot be taught, that there are only two ways to learn to write well, and those are:  to learn by doing—to learn from your mistakes, slowly and painfully—and also to learn from the greatest writers in the world by reading them.

When he was in university as a young man, Zarev craved the opportunity to learn from great writers. It wasn’t until the late seventies that Americans were permitted to be translated into Bulgarian but then he immediately fell in love with Hemingway and Salinger—Faulkner most of all. He learned psychology from Dostoyevsky, he says, and Faulkner taught him how to create atmosphere.

Zarev constructs his books thematically, he says, and he has repeatedly explored two major themes in his work: The first is the problem of power, the way it can be manipulated, the way it corrupts, the way the powerful change the notion of power itself. “Beauty is power, money is power, art is power; every writer is a charming enslaver,” he says. And the second is the fear of death, the way that fear encourages creativity. 

“Have you ever thought about why God kicks Adam and Eve out of heaven?” Zarev asks. “There’s honey and butter in heaven; there are no animals in heaven; no enemies; it’s warm and cozy. There is nothing left for Adam and Eve to do; it’s making them lazy, and they start to lose their minds.” 

From Zarev’s perspective, God sends the serpent on purpose, so he can kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden, and they can start to use their imaginations to survive. “When they become mortal, they have to come up with fire, with animal skins so they don’t freeze, with different weapons, with electricity, energy.” 

For Zarev, there is a small socialist message in death, although he doesn’t describe it that way; what he says is, “Death is the only way that all of us can be equal. The ill die, but also the healthy; the poor and the rich; ugly and pretty; it’s the only form of equity that we’ve been given.” 

I ask him about the work of young Bulgarian writers, and he says he’s pleased that people can write what they want to write. He notes that the influence of other European writers on Bulgarian authors is more evident today, and he believes that literature has been undergoing a Renaissance in Bulgaria in recent years. Like the younger writers I interviewed before him, he is optimistic and upbeat when speaking about the future of writing in his country. I ask him about his father, the college professor with the large library. Would he be happy with the state of the country today? 

Zarev smiles and nods, “Da,” he says. He thinks his father would be happy with the changes. 

It is nearly six months later as I walk back through City Garden, the park in front of the National Theater. Like most of the city’s public spaces during the pandemic, the theater closed for the spring, offered some outdoor shows during the summer and now has begun to perform before reduced audiences. Bulgarians have been lucky. Their government acted with foresight in the early stages of the pandemic, quickly closing schools and restricting international travel. The country’s small population and relatively low density has helped them to avoid a large infection rate. It is October, and the country of seven million has experienced fewer than a thousand deaths. Over at Ciela Publishing, Zachary Karabashliev tells me that in the springtime when the government closed the malls and the bookstores, he was worried that the company would have to begin to lay people off, but instead, Ciela launched a series of online promotions and marketing schemes that permitted them to maintain their work force. 

In a country this old, it’s easy to view the pandemic as just one more placeholder in a timeline that stretches back beyond the Greeks and the Thracians to a 7,000 year-old necropolis in Varna containing treasures from an otherwise lost civilization, and to Neolithic cave art near the village of Rabisha that is older still.  

I glance at the artifacts from Bulgaria’s more recent history that are visible from the steps of the theater. There is the stone that marks the spot where Aleko Konstantinov began his hiking club in 1895, and off to the east, rising above the theater, is Mount Vitosha that his club climbed later that day. There is the palace and the balcony where the tsar addressed jubilant crowds when the Ottomans were kicked out. It is the same balcony where the communist dictator, Georgi Dimitrov, addressed happy crowds when the tsar was kicked out. There’s the swath of pavement where Georgi Dimitrov’s marble mausoleum once stood, where Lyudmila Filipova once watched a parade as a child. There is the old library under the new hotel. There is the empty space where the literary café stood, and there is the repurposed glass cylinder where Alexander Shpatov’s library and info kiosk remain. 

I glance up at the marble statues arranged on the pediment of the National Theater above me and notice for the first time that somebody has sarcastically gilded the willy of the littlest cherub hovering with some garlands in his hand beside the central figure of Apollo. It makes me laugh, and it seems a nice place to end this literary tour. The visual joke adds a humorous note to the classical themes that Vladimir Zarev spoke about. It also is a welcome reminder that the enthusiasm of youth can reshape our collective histories and help us to look forward to the possibilities of things yet to come. I walk to the glass walled library and put my mask on, making sure it covers my nose and mouth, before reaching for the handle and opening the door. 

Stephen Morison Jr. is an American writer living in Bulgaria, where he is the dean of students at the American College of Sofia. His writings have appeared in the Sigh PressHippocampus MagazineAntigonish ReviewSouth Carolina Review, and other magazines. He is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. His recollections of his meetings with Paul Bowles in Tangier, titled Talking With Paul, was published by Khbar Bladna in Tangier in June.

Postcard From the Pandemic: Late at Night in the Heart of Bulgaria 

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

4.10.20

The debates began online, where they continue. My friend Todd, an adjunct English professor in Maine, commented on his Facebook page that the new virus didn’t seem to be any different than the old strains of influenzas that sweep through New England annually. It was late in the day, and I was worn out. Work at the American College of Sofia, in Bulgaria’s capital, where I’ve been living with my wife since last August, had stretched into evening, and I’d eventually slogged home through the slush and swapped my work desktop for my MacBook and a Stolichno Bock beer. I read Todd’s comment then glanced above the screen, out through the glass window and door of our balcony, to see the lights over the ski runs on the high ridges of Vitosha Mountain. 

Our daughter was still in New Haven, while our friends at our last school in Rome were still blithely teaching, oblivious to the plague that was already spreading in the north. I’d been reading about the virus in Wuhan and listening to information about it on the British, French, German, Qatari, and American news channels that were part of our cable package; so I wrote to Todd to share the report that 15 percent of the new virus’ victims in China appeared to wind up in the hospital with a virulent pneumonia. “That doesn’t sound like a typical flu,” I wrote, but I wasn’t super concerned. A few minutes later, my wife and I reserved a Spark electric car and used it to drive up the snowy mountain roads for an evening of skiing under the lights.

The Bulgarian government closed the schools the next week. They’d already closed them for a week in January for the annual “flu vacation,” but now they surprised us with a second closure. They blamed it on an outbreak of Type B influenza, but by then, we were all more nervous about COVID-19. As the dean of students at the American College of Sofia, I released my assistants and worked on through the break. But the daily rush was reduced to a trickle, and I had time to exchange e-mails with my Tangier publisher about her progress editing my memoir about my time in the city with Paul Bowles. I also exchanged a couple e-mails with the magazine editor in New York City who was guiding my article about Bulgarian writers toward publication. The coronavirus was an increasing concern, but it had yet to become an informational black hole, sucking more and more of my attention into its maw. 

My school stayed closed. The Bulgarian government wisely extended the flu-cation, then extended it again. My friends in Rome were quarantined and began posting photos taken from their windows, from their rooftops. My brother in Paris, the banker, shared a snapshot of his work computers crowding his mahogany dining room table in his apartment in the 16th arrondissement. 

On the Ides of March it snowed all day, dropping a glorious powder across the heart of Bulgaria. I trudged to the college through the snow-covered sidewalks of our postcommunist city where services like snow collection are underfunded and neglected. High above me, the mountain ski runs gleamed bright with fresh snow, but the creaky lifts were closed for social distancing. In the evening, the ridges were dark, an empty weight of shadows in the waxen winter sky.

The international mechanisms that sustain my family’s global lifestyle, which had made it so simple for me to teach in Bulgaria and fly to my brother’s place in Paris for Christmas or my cousin’s place in Tunis for Thanksgiving or to host my friends from Barcelona or Barlieu, began to be snuffed out by the virus. 

A Bulgarian colleague translated a news report for me that said the government might shut down the airport. International flights were already being canceled. It was spring break in New Haven and our daughter had driven to Canada with some friends. Yale was contemplating shutting down for good. Our nervousness became worry, which became concern then edged toward panic. In the course of three hours on a Saturday, we found her a flight, bought her a ticket, and asked sympathetic friends to drive her to Toronto. 

I loaded a flight-tracking app on my phone, and we watched her digital plane cross the Atlantic, layover in Brussels and, finally, land in Sofia. Visitors were no longer permitted in the terminal. We huddled in our Hyundai electric car and texted her. They weren’t letting her flight disembark. Surely, they wouldn’t send her back to the States. Minutes became an hour then an hour and a half, until they finally opened the doors and began to process them, taking their temperatures, asking where they had come from. The government required her to quarantine in our apartment for fourteen days—but she was with us, in the relative safety of the bedroom we’d decorated for her visits.

News of the sick began to arrive via social media. In New York City my friend Wendy, the dance choreographer who worked for the public schools, had it. Her saxophonist husband had it too, and so did their spritely eleven-year-old daughter. On a Zoom call, Wendy looked tired with puffy eyes and frizzy hair, but she could laugh. She was working out of their apartment in Brooklyn, teaching online, despite the fever and the cough,

News of the dead was more concerning, and for the first time the black hole of the disease exerted a physical pull, and I began to feel my orbit wobbling. Pauline from college, who’d inherited her father’s travel guide empire, reported on her Facebook page that her upstairs neighbor in Manhattan had died before the paramedics could reach him. He was sixty-five. 

Then Willie had it. His mom posted on his Facebook page so his friends would know that he was in the ICU. He was fighting the virus on a ventilator, but his fever had broken. His kidneys were failing; they were giving him dialysis. His friends posted praying emojis. I posted praying emojis. For five days it went on, and then he was gone. Willie’s obituary came in a group e-mail shared by college friends. We told stories, blocks of text in between indented forwarded messages. We were shocked that the likable, soft-humored old friend was gone, shocked by our own mortality, as I suppose everybody is eventually. His kids, both teenagers, didn’t care about our search for meaning, they just missed their dad. 

Todd, who’d once doubted the severity of the coming virus, informed me in a Facebook Messenger text that our high school friend’s father-in-law was in an ICU, “one of fourteen cases in his county in Maine.” 

I’d long before talked, via WhatsApp, with my mom on Martha’s Vineyard and convinced her to stop her work as a home health aid. She was in her seventies but looked fifty-eight and acted, as always, twenty-eight. The iPhone screen magnified her wrinkles in a way that annoyed the hell out of her, but there she was, sheltering in her living room in Oak Bluffs. My dad was buttoned up in his home in Florida. He reported in a WhatsApp chat—keeping the video off—that one of his friends from Massachusetts had the virus, but “he seems to be getting better.” 

Online and in the news broadcasts, the debates continued. My brother Sam, who must keep working his factory job in Borne, Massachusetts, in order to pay his bills and eat, insists on posting pro-Trump news stories on Facebook and e-mailing them to me via our family chat groups. The stories he forwards claim the virus is all a hoax, or that it is part of a plot by the Chinese government. Sam claims the president is a genius who will save us all.

Intelligently worded news articles in places like the New York Times are only marginally more reassuring. Nobody seems to know the truth. Are we desperate for ventilators or are they just a slow death sentence? Is the virus awaiting us all, insistent that the only way out is herd immunity, or should we stay hidden away behind our Frank Booth masks and latex gloves? Have we stumbled into a dystopic Zombie movie without Bill Murray there to remind us to laugh, or are we slowly transitioning toward normalcy and one morning we’ll wake and wonder what all the fuss was about?

In my dean’s office in my empty school on my empty campus in my abnormally quiet post-Communist capital, I sit in my chair, face my computer’s camera and begin my daily parade of Zoom and Google Meets conferences. I’ve learned to set the apps on split screen, so I can see everybody, but then I tend to stare at myself more than the others. Am I the only one who does this? There I am in the corner, bald and going balder, with glasses no less…this human I’ve become.  

The death count is still low in Bulgaria, but this is a poor country and there is growing pressure on the government to let the shopkeepers open their stores, to let the people mingle again so they can spend and earn. We’ve escaped the worst of it so far, but what will happen if the next wave rises higher than the first? When I was a kid on the Marblehead beach, in a wetsuit on a surfboard after a winter storm, my toes going numb as I paddled around with the swells coming in over the reef by the Neck, watching for the next break—back then I knew the second wave in the swell was higher than the first. I’d jump on the first only to have it mush out, and as I sank back down in the icy gray water, a nimble guy from California in his iridescent gear would skim past me balanced between gravity and the power of the sea.

Already the stray dogs that used to occasionally trot across my campus from the abandoned parkland to our west have become a pack of eight; eight quiet canines who pass me in the street in the twilight as I walk home after work. Eight quiet canines—sounds like a line from a nursery rhyme, a line from the old Europe of Falstaffian scoundrels, internecine wars, and plagues. The dogs are clearly hungry and scavenging, but not yet desperate. Not yet, but getting there. 

I write my editor at the magazine in New York, eager to do what I can to maintain my civil compact with the world, to prop up this web of connectedness that has preserved my global life, suddenly nervous that the fragility that was there all along, all those delicate invisible forces that kept my plane aloft and my computer screen lit, are being challenged by the drifting shapes and empty eyes of those feral dogs padding past me in the encroaching dark. My editor writes back and explains that they’re publishing postcards from the pandemic. I read a few from the other contributors, and they warm me. I’ve always loved postcards, I tell him. When I was first traveling, before we had mobile phones or the internet, postcards were little lifelines. 

It’s late at night, nearing midnight in Sofia, and I’m determined to be in my office at the abandoned school by nine tomorrow, but I refill my glass beside my MacBook. Out beyond the apartment window, the mountain is a dark emptiness that fills the sky. I get to work.

 

Stephen Morison Jr. is an American writer living in Bulgaria, where he is the Dean of Students of the American College of Sofia. His writings have appeared in the Sigh Press, Hippocampus Magazine, Antigonish Review, South Carolina Review, and other magazines. He is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. His recollections of his meetings with Paul Bowles in Tangier, titled Talking With Paul, will be published by Khbar Bladna in Tangier in June.

A view of Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, framed by Vitosha Mountain. 

Postcard From the Pandemic: Turning Fifty-Three in Indiana

by

Stacy E. Holden

4.6.20

I turned fifty-three years old two weeks ago. No one would normally place any significance on this particular birthday, but during a pandemic it seems like a significant milestone. Physically isolated in my suburban home in Indiana, thoughts about the coming days, months, and even years invite dystopian scenarios usually left to Aldous Huxley or Margaret Atwood.    

I spent my last birthday, all twenty-four hours of it, traveling from Morocco to Indiana, where I live. I left Casablanca at what would have been 10:00 PM EST on March 17 and didn’t arrive back in Lafayette until 2:00 AM EST on March 19. Since then, I promised myself that the next birthday would be better, a celebration.   

One year later, I feel wistful when I think of that god-awful flight, jumping from plane to plane as I made my way home through Paris and Atlanta.  

I usually take stock on my birthday. I am writing a book, and it is taking too long. If this was any other year I would take out paper and pen, break down tasks for the coming year into manageable pieces. The subsequent sense of control over my life, though fleeting, would have been just a little gift to myself.     

But this year I don’t want to reflect on the future. I don’t know if my retirement funds will dissipate. If my seventy-two-year-old husband with preexisting conditions will test positive. If I will forage for food out in the woods after we consume the emergency supply of canned goods in our COVID-19 closet.  

I don’t want to think in the future tense, so I delve instead into some boxes in an upstairs closet.  Their contents call up the past, photos, diaries, and other odd objects that I have saved over the past forty-five years or so. 

I cannot be the only one to look to the past for comfort in these scary times.  

My diaries trace a troubled childhood in an alcoholic home. Letters from pen pals communicate my intentions of getting out, visiting foreign places. Beatles memorabilia reminds me of adolescent escape. A scrapbook with theatre reviews earnestly dedicated in green magic marker to “the writers of the modern world.”   

Traveler-Writer-Historian: I became the woman I wanted to be.  

I find an old mood ring. I haven’t worn it in forty years, probably more. I pick it up, wondering what color it will turn when its wearer fears the apocalypse. I squeeze the ring onto the tip of my pinky, but its crystal stays dark.    

In high school, a friend had written out her doubts and fears on a yellow sheet from a legal notepad. I seek answers in the poem she constructed from them:

There inside the darkness
All alone and by myself
I may listen without pressure
To hear the real me talk.

She died four years ago, just a week before she turned fifty years old. 

A fragile, brown envelope contains photos of my grandma. She is young, maybe younger than I would be when she died. I still carry the memorial card from her funeral in my wallet. She died the day I turned twenty-one.  

I asked her once if she remembered the influenza pandemic of 1918.  

“Yes,” she said.  

I pressed her for more.

“Yes,” she said. “I knew people who died.”  

Photos show my grandma’s aspiration to achieve Clara Bow’s “It Girl” glamour in the 1920s. She bobbed her hair and put on a loose dress with a drop waist. In the photos, she sits on the steps of an unfamiliar brick building, their arms draped around each other.  

My grandma does not show signs of the sadness she later conveyed when she talked about the past. Her Irish Catholic family disapproved of her writing, so she never published racy novels about adventurous women. Instead, she married a janitor who blew most of his paychecks trying for a big trifecta payout. She gave birth to stillborn girl, and she raised two boys, my father and his bipolar brother.  

Someday I, too, will be no more than a nearly forgotten story conjured up by such ephemera. This birthday realization makes me sad, but, also, strong, reconciled to life’s frailty, which existed long before the pandemic of my time. 

 

Stacy E. Holden is an associate professor of history at Purdue University.  Her research focuses on the modern Arab world. She is currently writing a midlife travel narrative that traces Edith Wharton’s 1917 trip to Morocco.

Postcard From the Pandemic: Space as a Blanket for Well-Being

by

Ginger Gaffney

3.26.20

For me, safety has never been in numbers. Big family gatherings, business meetings, large crowds of gathered people—for any reason—these were things I dreaded and avoided. I’m what the writer Fenton Johnson, author of At the Center of All Beauty and Solitude and the Creative Life, refers to as a solitaire. I’m best off alone with a horse, with one friend for lunch in a quiet place, with my wife at home reading books. Self-isolation is something I’ve perfected since my early childhood. 

I was mute until the age of six. I spoke to no one, and no one seemed to be bothered by it. My family, an Irish Catholic northeastern family, filled in my blanks. Not speaking is one form of isolation, no eye contact is another. Keeping my physical body a good healthy distance from intimate activities was another strategy I perfected. From one corner of a room to another, I figured out the angles of space needed to be left alone. No one knew how calculated I was, not even myself. It seemed to be my first nature, and to this day when I enter a room filled with people I’m deftly aware of the space between tables, between the door and the far corner, and never can I enter a space that has standing room only. I’ve lived this way for over fifty years.

These days, when I go into the public, I see many people who look just like me. Heads down, eyes averting one another, torsos yielding sideways to gain more space between us. I have always known how our bodies hold an honest form of language; I’ve been listening to this language my whole life. What is most striking to me in this time is how our bodies have become more monotone, less diverse, a thin shell is covering our body language, and all I hear is fear.

There is no safety in numbers. Numbers, us, our human form; we are the threat to ourselves.

In my twenties I began riding horses to save my relationships. Seems an odd thing to say, but it was true, and even I did not know how or why. I had received enough counseling to realize I had issues with intimacy. Running through lovers without remorse, self-reflection, or interest. Horses demanded I stay put. They needed me to bring my full self to the moment, and when I strayed, they would bolt, buck, or twirl. There was no faking it. I watched how the horse moved away from me, wary of this body who did not know how to connect. 

Horses are herd animals, yet inside the herd there is a distinct sense of each animal’s space. They have a pocket of air, a bubble which surrounds them, and each horse needs that space to keep their relationships clear, clean, and understood. When a horse senses a break in that order of space, an infringement on the verge of happening, they send out signals first. One ear goes backward. One eye slides into the corner of its socket. A partial flick of the tail to the left. Keep yourself over there and we will be fine. And then, everything is fine. Things go back to the normal peaceful moment that most horses enjoy every day.

Over the last twenty-five years I have turned my love of horses and their language into a career as a horse trainer, and one of my biggest challenges has been to teach humans how to understand body language—both their own and their horse’s. How the movement of bodies in space has so much to say. When I’m out in public now, during this early moment of the epidemic, which will most likely last a long time, I want to tell people about what the horses have taught me.

Silence and distance, these do not make us strangers. Intimacy, the language of our bodies, is reflected in the smallest gestures. A tilt of your head sideways and a gentle smile when you pass someone on the street is a thousand kind words. Soft eyes, soft eyebrows, eyes that blink a little slower and longer can help slow our heart rate, relax our anxiety. If we notice how our faces hold tension, and let that tension release with a long, audible sigh—this alone could help the person standing behind us in the line at the grocery store. We can care for each other even when we keep our distance. At the park, or wherever you are heading out to these days, remember space is a natural part of our co-existence. Safety comes as much in giving each other space as it does when we gather in numbers. Right now, space can be a blanket for our well-being.

These days when I head out to the horses, I’m ever more aware of how our bodies reshape each other from a distance. I feel pressure on my chest as my horse gets too close. I hear the sound of each hoof landing in an even four-beat cadence just behind the soft padding of my own two feet in the sand. I feel the mist of breath on my forearm as we walk to the arena, my horse right next to me—three feet away. I notice the soft wrinkles above my horse’s eyes, the slow opening and closing of his nostrils, and I wonder what does he see in me?

Can I do better? Can I go into the world and trust the space between us? Can I meet people in the eye, open my chest, drop my shoulders, tilt my head to the side and smile? Can I help make someone feel more cared for in this very difficult time, just by letting my body have a kinder language? For so many years I hid myself in this space between us, but now I want to reach out. I want to try.

 

Ginger Gaffney is a top-ranked horse trainer and the author of the memoir Half Broke, published by W. W. Norton in February. She received an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and her work has been published in Tin House and Utne Reader. She lives in Velarde, New Mexico.

Ginger Gaffney, author of the memoir Half Broke (Norton, 2020).

Postcard From the Pandemic: Doing Time in Hong Kong

by

Kaitlin Chan

3.26.20

How much longer? With every push notification and breaking headline, we are reminded that the coronavirus knows no schedule. My experience of time has been stretched and condensed in ways I never could have predicted at the start of this.

At 8:00 PM on January 3, a text from my reporter friend L:

Kaitlin! I’m so sorry…I was fully looking forward to our catch up tmr but I got sent to Wuhan to cover the viral pneumonia outbreak.

I remember being at my desk in Hong Kong, a chill running down my spine as I reread the message. A viral outbreak? Like SARS, which had devastated and shut down the city for half a year in 2003? I texted her back calmly, a “no worries! Let’s raincheck” kind of dispatch. I told myself to stop overreacting, that the virus would probably be safely contained. A regional issue, to be solved by the outstanding medical workers in Wuhan.

The next two months feel like a hundred years. I hear from friends in China that things are getting more serious, to refrain from traveling around Lunar New Year. I table at a book fair, where the conversation focuses more on the anti-extradition bill protests than the coronavirus. My then-partner turns thirty-two years old. We celebrate with cupcakes and Greek food. My friend B from New York visits me, a new temporary member of my small family of two. At the end of January, I move back to Taipei for a two-month artist residency. I had a plan, and I wanted to follow it.

This is when things totally fall apart. My sister messages me about running out of toilet paper in Hong Kong. The now ubiquitous “bare-shelves-images” abound. Everyone in Taipei is wearing surgical masks, the streets a sea of black down jackets dotted with pale blue and white. B and I hurriedly buy a box before any price-gouging or long queues begin. The clerk asks us twice if we want to buy more. “Just fifty? You’re going to run out,” he warns us in Mandarin. But how long? I wonder to myself. How long will life be like this? When touching is banned and staying in is paramount?

I couldn’t have known then that the threads of my life (and everybody else’s) would eventually unravel. I end my residency early and move back in with my mother in Hong Kong. I continue working on the book project that is my current “job” but everything feels a little helpless. 

My friend J in California tells me over the phone how they erased entire weeks from their schedule. We had both bought paper planners in January, excited about the promise of clarity and renewed selves held between the blank pages. But now trying to plan more than a week ahead seems naïve. We are lucky to even have today. With so many people around the world succumbing to death, it feels necessary that we treasure things as mundane as making breakfast in the morning, a FaceTime with a friend after a long day of zero social interaction.

Today, like every other day, is a chance to begin again. I make two slices of toast, check-in with friends online, and sit down at my desk. I look at performance artist Tehching Hsieh on the poster next to me. In his earliest performance, Cage Piece (1978–79), he lived in a cage for an entire calendar year. What most scholars focus on is his resilience, his solitude, and his boredom. But today I am thinking about his unnamed friend. Hsieh’s friend, who brought him food and clothes, and changed his waste bucket. How none of us were meant to survive alone. I eagerly await the day I can hold my friends in my arms again.

 

Kaitlin Chan is an artist and curator from Hong Kong. She is currently working on a graphic novel on queerness in East Asia with the support of the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship. Her Instagram is @chen_jiaxian.

Postcard From the Pandemic: Zoom Teaching

by

Nina Schuyler

3.23.20

And just like that, the world was thrown off kilter, and with it, the realm of teaching. Our physical classroom at the university had to move online. Full-time and part-time professors had to sign up for a two-hour online training about how to teach using video technology—Zoom—and it had to be done now. 

I’d taught classes online before using Zoom, but there were plenty of novices among the seventy-plus professors who crowded into the online training session, which was presented on Zoom. The questions in the “chat” came rapid-fire:“What about running labs in science?” “Group presentations?” “Can you record the sessions?” “Should I use a personal Zoom account?” The presenter had two helpers who typed responses. Showing us his Zoom screen, the presenter demonstrated how to log on, send a link to students, use the “white board,” the “chat,” and “participants.” 

“Things won’t be as free-flowing as a classroom,” he said. 

He also suggested we advise students to: 1) dress appropriately—no lying in bed or in pajamas; 2) find a quiet place so they could hear the lecture; 3) mute their microphone if they weren’t speaking; and 4) not to use Zoom while driving. “We had one student try that,” he added. 

Depending on the class, we could record a lecture and send it to students, or run a real-time class. I teach a three-hour seminar class, looking closely at sentences, and 90 percent of that time we are discussing literature. It is dynamic, quasi-Socratic method, with students and myself asking questions, so it would be synchronous teaching. 

Most of my students were in their twenties, living in San Francisco, and I imagined loud roommates in the background talking or playing music. Or the rustling of papers. Or the toilet flushing. I planned to mute everyone so they could hear each other. I’d ask students to use Zoom’s “raise hand” feature if they wanted to speak. I’d also build in more than the usual number of breaks so students could eat, stretch, use the bathroom. It would be orderly, controlled, a bit stifled, but with clear audio. If the class lasted two and half hours, I would consider it a success. 

Before class I sent out the link to students so they could download Zoom and offered to do a test run to make sure their audio and video worked. Five out of the eleven students took my offer. The days leading up to the ‘real’ class were spent working out the tech kinks.

Class would go well—or not. It would be lively—or not.  It would be similar to the class—or not at all. Maybe no one would talk or the technology wouldn’t work, or the students would feel uncomfortable and the format would be stifling. 

When it was nearly time for class, I e-mailed the Zoom link and waited. Minutes ticked by. What if no one showed up? The presenter hadn’t gone through that scenario. The first one in the “room” was a young man in his twenties. 

“There you are,” I said. “How are you? Are you doing OK?” 

He waved. “Doing fine. Nice to be back in class.”

Then another student, and another, and it felt like a reunion, as if the wind had swept everyone up and flung them far and wide and years and years had gone by. But the gust suddenly had changed and whirled them back into my orbit and here we were again—we were all so excited to see one another. 

“How is everyone?”’ I said. “Is everyone OK?”

They began to talk and tell jokes, and one student who refused to turn on his video, saying he looked too tired, was convinced to do so—and there he was, smiling sheepishly. 

“You said you looked tired, dude, and you do, but you always look that way,” said one of the students. 

Everyone laughed and it felt so good to laugh. 

One student said he lost his job—he was a waiter at a restaurant. “Hey, it’s not so bad,” he said. “I didn’t earn that much so the fall isn’t far.” Then another student said she’d lost her restaurant job, too. Then another—let go as a substitute teacher. “And I really liked the job,” she said. Someone said she wished she’d lose her job, she hated it, and we all laughed. We were a group that existed prior to Covid-19, a solid group, and we were all here. Except one. 

“Where is she?” one student said. 

“Let’s wait,” I said. 

I showed them around Zoom—here’s the chat button, here’s the mute button, the participant button. I sat back and waited for the student, listening to them talk, and there was the usual banter and joking and ribbing, “Hey, where are you? What’s that lame poster behind you?” “Did you move back home.” “Yeah.” No one was in their pajamas or stretched out in bed, but I wouldn’t have minded. 

When the face of the final student popped up on the screen, everyone cheered. She sat in her kitchen, half her face lit up by the sun, the other half in shadows like a marvelous piece of art. 

It took a minute, not even that, to immerse ourselves in the work—the sentences they’d written for class, and sentences from the work they’d read for class—Gabriel García Márquez, Lauren Groff, and Rivka Galchen. We were doing what we used to do in a physical classroom: We were asking why write it like this—why use this word? This image? What’s the effect? And we, as always, were astonished by each other’s work, at the magic of the right word, the right image, the right rhythm. Everything else—the virus, the fear, the panic, the boredom, the sense that the world was ending—wonderfully vanished. 

Three hours later, class came to an end. 

I’d forgotten to mute everyone; I’d forgotten to ask them to raise their hands. I’d forgotten because there was no need; the dynamic that had been created in the physical room had waltzed into our digital room. 

“If anyone hears of job openings, pass them along,” I said. 

“And buy books from your independent bookstore,” said one of the students who worked at an independent bookstore. “We ship.”

“And stay safe,” said another student.

Yes, please, stay safe.

 

Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Translator, won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for general fiction and was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her nonfiction book, How to Write Stunning Sentences, was a Small Press Distribution best-seller. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and the Writing Room.

 

Authors Reimagine Live Events During the Coronavirus Pandemic

by

Michael Bourne

3.23.20

Six years ago, when Emily St. John Mandel published Station Eleven (Knopf, 2014), her best-selling novel about a pandemic flu that decimated the world’s population, she couldn’t have known that her next novel, The Glass Hotel (Knopf, 2020), would arrive at the height of a pandemic flu outbreak that, if not as lethal as the fictional “Georgia flu” of her earlier book, is nevertheless upending the world economy—and, not incidentally, her twenty-five-city book tour.

“Yeah, irony, right?” Mandel says with a rueful chuckle. “I maintain that this is nowhere near as bad as the Georgia flu. We’re not going to end our days in traveling Shakespearean theater companies crossing a post-apocalyptic wasteland.”

Perhaps not, but the coronavirus pandemic has radically disrupted the book business, setting off waves of bookstore closures and book festival cancellations, making it nearly impossible for authors like Mandel to tour in support of their books. For now these closures and cancellations are only affecting books published this spring, but if the national lockdowns continue, it could send lasting shockwaves through the always fragile publishing ecosystem. 

Already, though, authors and booksellers are teaming up to shift canceled live events online using digital tools like Zoom and Facebook Live. Mandel herself will be participating in a live digital Q&A Tuesday, March 24, with author Isaac Fitzgerald, hosted by Brooklyn’s Greenlight Books, where Mandel was originally scheduled to launch her book in person. The same night, a new organization, A Mighty Blaze, run by writers Jenna Blum and Caroline Leavitt, will be featuring Facebook Live events for Laura Zigman’s new novel Separation Anxiety (Ecco, 2020) and Andrea Bartz’s novel The Herd (Ballantine, 2020), along with a slate of debut authors.

It remains to be seen how effective these digital book events will be, especially for smaller presses that rely on in-person events at bookstores and festivals to introduce their authors to readers, says Mary Gannon, executive director of the Community of Literary Magazine and Presses. “I think everybody is trying to pivot and reinvent as quickly as possible just to experiment with how these events might work,” she says. “So it’s hard to tell at this point if digital events can make up for canceled live ones, but there’s kind of nothing else to do.”

No matter how successful these digital events are, virus-related lockdown orders and restrictions on in-person gatherings will hurt authors and the book industry more generally, Gannon says. When fears of infection slashed attendance at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference earlier in March, she says, many of the small presses in her organization saw sales for the month drop by as much as 20 or 30 percent, just from the loss of in-person sales from that one event.

“I think there’s going to be serious negative impact on both small and large publishers, but the smaller publishers are the ones that are more at risk because they have fewer resources,” she says. “It’s especially important right now for us to support literary magazines and small presses in any way we can. They’re essential to ensuring the health and diversity of the literary arts.”

Indeed, Paul Bogaards, deputy publisher at Knopf and Pantheon Books, offers a slightly more sanguine view of the disruption to live author events. At Knopf and Pantheon, imprints of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, which is a part of Penguin Random House, Bogaards says, all book tours have been canceled or postponed through the end of April, which impacts about a dozen titles at just those two imprints. “I can’t speak for the industry, but given the CDC protocols in place, no one is touring,” he says. “Physical gatherings are kaput. Boots-on-the-ground book tours are dead for the moment.”

But, he says, critics haven’t stopped reviewing books, authors continue to sit for interviews, and publishers are able to maintain their social media campaigns. “Touring is just one spoke in the wheel of book promotion and publicity,” he says, “and, in point of fact, publishers are doing less of it than they once did.”

Bogaards is encouraged by upticks in sales of commercial fiction and topical nonfiction, along with titles that touch directly on contagious diseases like Stephen King’s The Stand (Doubleday, 1978), Albert Camus’s The Plague (Gallimard, 1947), and Mandel’s Station Eleven. Publishers are hoping the enforced down-time will spark renewed interest in their classic titles. To that end, Knopf and Pantheon are launching social media initiatives designed to prompt readers toward its backlist catalog. “I mean, if you are under a government-ordered lockdown, what better way to travel than through the pages of a book?” he says.

In the meantime, authors at small and large publishers are exploring digital alternatives to live events. Blum and Leavitt, the organizers behind A Mighty Blaze, were among the first to see the need for a hub for writers whose book tours were stranded by the pandemic. The idea for the site came about after Leavitt, author of twelve books, including With or Without You, due out in August from Algonquin, learned that the Texas Library Association Conference, where she had been invited to appear, had to cancel and move its offerings online.

“I had spent a lot of time memorizing what I thought was a funny speech, with hand movements and everything,” she says. “I made a video of it and I sent it to Algonquin just for a lark, and they liked it so much they said, ‘Ooh, we can send that out.’ So I started the ‘Nothing is Cancelled Book Tour,’ where I told authors to make little videos and I’d post them as if they were in a bookstore. All I asked is that they shout out another writer and shout out an indie bookstore.”

The site took off, and Leavitt quickly joined forces with Blum, author of The Lost Family (HarperCollins, 2018). Calling themselves “two women writers in yoga pants trying to help other writers whose book tours have been canceled,” the pair has already attracted more than fifty industry partners, including Poets & Writers and two hundred author participants.

“It’s grown exponentially every day,” says Blum. “I would say it’s been growing faster than COVID. We’ve been having so many writers join us, and so many industry people from publishers to publicists to agents to indie bookstores to literary conferences and festivals—everybody wants to help.”

Still, digital events aren’t for everyone. Poet Tess Taylor is publishing two collections this spring, Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Rift Zone, due from Red Hen Press in April. Taylor was able to attend a reading for Last West at MoMA in February, but most of the subsequent events for that book, along with twenty-five more events planned for Rift Zone, have all been canceled.

The two books contained a decade’s worth of poems, Taylor says, and she spent a year organizing the events to support them. “It feels like building a sandcastle,” she says. “You know, you build it up and up and up and then a wave comes and it knocks it down. I don’t know if I’m sad or angry. I’m all those things, and then sometimes I’m just humbled because what’s going on is so much bigger than just us or me.”

Living as she does in California, which is currently under a shelter-in-place order, Taylor says she will be throwing herself a digitally streamed “imaginary book party” with fellow poet Judy Halebsky, inviting friends “to have a glass of wine and watch us give our reading” online, and plans to regularly post poems by poets she admires. But she admits to feeling ambivalent about moving her live events online.

“I’m using social media because I want to be in a community right now at this moment when we can’t go out in the world, but I love people,” she says. “I love human beings. I really miss them. I love bookstores and want to support them. I love the feeling of live poetry, having it read, being in a room where someone is sharing their words and their breath with you—in the most wonderful way, not in a toxic way. Poetry is a beautiful way of sharing breath, and I miss that.”

 

 

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

From top: Emily St. John Mandel, author of Glass Hotel; Caroline Leavitt, cofounder of A Mighty Blaze and author of With or Without You; and Tess Taylor, author of Rift Zone.

(Credit: Mandel: Michel Leroy; Leavitt: Jeff Tamarkin; Taylor: Taylor Schreiner)

Cancellations and Postponements: Retreats and Contests Affected by the Crisis

6.19.20

As event organizers across the literary community adapt and change plans to help keep us all well, we are compiling a list of canceled and postponed conferences, residencies, and award deadlines. (If you know about a cancellation or award not on this list, please send an e-mail to editor@pw.org.) Be sure to check back for updates.

 

Cancelled or Postponed Conferences and Festivals

The Bay Area Book Festival, originally planned for May 2 to May 3, 2020, has been rescheduled for May 1 to May 2, 2021. Beginning May 1, 2020, the festival will also offer virtual programming as the Bay Area Book Festival Unbound, featuring live and recorded events held through the festival’s YouTube channel.  Visit the festival’s website for additional information on both the rescheduled festival and this year’s virtual programming.

The Conversations & Connections conference, sponsored by Barrelhouse magazine and originally planned for April 18, 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, Barrelhouse staff have organized the Spring 2020 Read-In and Write-In, featuring an online book group and an online workshop with guest lectures from writers and editors as well as generative writing “sprint” sessions. Visit the Barrelhouse website for information on these online events, and visit the conference’s website for additional information on the conference cancellation.

The Granta & Wesleyan Writers Conference, originally planned for June 24 to June 28, 2020, has been rescheduled for June 23 to June 27, 2021. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Iceland Writers Retreat, originally planned for April 29 to May 3, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 14 to October 18, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for addtional information.

The Indiana University Writers’ Conference, originally planned for May 30 to June 3, 2020, has been canceled. The conference will be held again in 2021. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Iowa Summer Writing Festival, originially planned for June and July 2020, has been canceled. Visit the festival’s website for additional information, and visit its Facebook page for writing prompts from festival instructors in coming weeks. 

The Jackson Hole Writers Conference, originally planned for June 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, starting in late April 2020, select components of the originally scheduled programming will be offered online, including workshops, panels, and manuscript critiques. Visit the conference’s website for additional information on the cancellation and on alternative online programming.

The Los Angeles Festival of Books, originally planned for April 18 to April 19, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 3 to October 4, 2020. Visit the festival’s website for additional information.

The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Summer Writers’ Conference, originally planned for June 7 to June 13, 2020, and from June 14 to June 20, 2020, has been rescheduled for June 6 to June 12, 2021, and from June 13 to June 19, 2021. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Nantucket Book Festival, originally planned for June 18 to June 21, 2020, has been canceled as an in-person event in downtown Nantucket, Massachusetts. A virtual festival featuring guest writers will be offered instead. A festival celebrating local writers will also be planned for later in the year. Visit the festival’s website for additional infomation on the cancellation as well as the virtual conference and local writers’ festival.

The North Carolina Writers’ Network Spring Conference, originally planned for April 18, 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, the North Carolina Writers’ Network will offer the North Carolina Writers’ Network Cabin Fever Conference from April 16 to April 18, 2020, a virtual conference featuring “630 minutes of high-quality, socially-distant instruction in the craft and business of writing.” Visit the organization’s website for additional information on the cancellation as well as the virtual conference. 

The NYC Writer’s Hotel Poetry Weekend, originally planned for May 21 to May 25, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 22 to October 26, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The NYC Writer’s Hotel All-Fiction Writers Conference, originally planned for June 3 to June 9, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 14 to October 18, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Orion Enviromental Writers’ Workshop, originally planned for June 21 to June 26, 2020, has been canceled. The workshop will be offered instead in a reimagined, “more intimate” format from October 25 to October 30, 2020. Visit the workshop’s website for additional information.

The Poetry at Round Top festival, originally planned for April 24 to April 26, 2020, has been canceled. The festival will be held again from April 16 to April 18, 2021. Visit the festival’s website for additional information.

The Sarah Lawrence College Publish and Promote Your Book Conference, originally planned for June 13, 2020, has been postponed. Visit the conference’s website for additional information, including updates on rescheduling.

The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, originally planned for July 21 to August 2, 2020, has been canceled. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Split This Rock Poetry Festival, originally planned for March 26 to March 28, 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, the festival will be offering online programming including a virtual bookfair, readings, and free workshops. Visit the festival’s website for additional information, including virtual event details.

The 50th anniversary Squaw Valley Writers Workshops, originally planned for July 6 to July 13, 2020, have been postponed to July 5 to July 12, 2021. The 2020 summer workshops in fiction, nonfiction, and memoir have been canceled; the 2020 summer workshop in poetry will be offered online as the “Virtual Valley” from June 20 to June 27, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Tin House Summer Workshop, originally planned for July 12 to July 19, 2020, as an in-person event on the Reed College campus in Portland, Oregon, has been reimagined as a virtual workshop. The virtual program in short fiction and novel writing will be held from July 12 to July 18, 2020. The virtual program in poetry, nonfiction, and the graphic novel will be held from July 19 to July 26, 2020. Visit the workshop’s website for additional information.

The Wordplay festival, originally planned for May 9, 2020, as an in-person event at the Loft Literary Center and adjacent spaces in Minneapolis, has been reimagined as a virtual festival. The virtual festival will be offered from April 7, 2020, to May 9, 2020, and will feature events with more than 100 authors. This programming is offered in conjuction with the Boston Book Festival, Bronx Book Festival, Wisconsin Book Festival, Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival, and other festivals. Visit the festival’s website for additional information.

The Wyoming Writers Conference, originally planned for June 5 to June 7, 2020, has been canceled. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

 

Canceled or Postponed Contest Deadlines

The deadline for the 2020 Crook’s Corner Book Prize, sponsored by the Crook’s Corner Book Prize Foundation, has been extended. The new deadline is June 1, 2020. Visit the foundation’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize has been extended for books published between January 1 and June 30. Previously, books published during the first half of the year were required to be submitted by a deadline of June 30, 2020; this deadline has been waived. The deadline for all submissions is now December 31, 2020. Visit the competition’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2020 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition has been extended. The new deadline is September 1, 2020. Visit the competition’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2020 Montreal International Poetry Prize, sponsored by McGill University, has been extended. The new deadline is June 1, 2020. Visit the competition’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2020 PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History, sponsored by PEN America, has been extended. Thew new deadline is August 1, 2020. Visit PEN America’s website for additional information.

The 2020 Troubadour International Poetry Prize, sponsored by Coffee-House Poetry, has been rescheduled. The prize, originally scheduled this year as a spring contest, has been rescheduled with a deadline of September 28, 2020; visit the Coffee-House Poetry website for additional information.

 

Postcard From the Pandemic: Zoom Teaching

by

Nina Schuyler

3.23.20

And just like that, the world was thrown off kilter, and with it, the realm of teaching. Our physical classroom at the university had to move online. Full-time and part-time professors had to sign up for a two-hour online training about how to teach using video technology—Zoom—and it had to be done now. 

I’d taught classes online before using Zoom, but there were plenty of novices among the seventy-plus professors who crowded into the online training session, which was presented on Zoom. The questions in the “chat” came rapid-fire:“What about running labs in science?” “Group presentations?” “Can you record the sessions?” “Should I use a personal Zoom account?” The presenter had two helpers who typed responses. Showing us his Zoom screen, the presenter demonstrated how to log on, send a link to students, use the “white board,” the “chat,” and “participants.” 

“Things won’t be as free-flowing as a classroom,” he said. 

He also suggested we advise students to: 1) dress appropriately—no lying in bed or in pajamas; 2) find a quiet place so they could hear the lecture; 3) mute their microphone if they weren’t speaking; and 4) not to use Zoom while driving. “We had one student try that,” he added. 

Depending on the class, we could record a lecture and send it to students, or run a real-time class. I teach a three-hour seminar class, looking closely at sentences, and 90 percent of that time we are discussing literature. It is dynamic, quasi-Socratic method, with students and myself asking questions, so it would be synchronous teaching. 

Most of my students were in their twenties, living in San Francisco, and I imagined loud roommates in the background talking or playing music. Or the rustling of papers. Or the toilet flushing. I planned to mute everyone so they could hear each other. I’d ask students to use Zoom’s “raise hand” feature if they wanted to speak. I’d also build in more than the usual number of breaks so students could eat, stretch, use the bathroom. It would be orderly, controlled, a bit stifled, but with clear audio. If the class lasted two and half hours, I would consider it a success. 

Before class I sent out the link to students so they could download Zoom and offered to do a test run to make sure their audio and video worked. Five out of the eleven students took my offer. The days leading up to the ‘real’ class were spent working out the tech kinks.

Class would go well—or not. It would be lively—or not.  It would be similar to the class—or not at all. Maybe no one would talk or the technology wouldn’t work, or the students would feel uncomfortable and the format would be stifling. 

When it was nearly time for class, I e-mailed the Zoom link and waited. Minutes ticked by. What if no one showed up? The presenter hadn’t gone through that scenario. The first one in the “room” was a young man in his twenties. 

“There you are,” I said. “How are you? Are you doing OK?” 

He waved. “Doing fine. Nice to be back in class.”

Then another student, and another, and it felt like a reunion, as if the wind had swept everyone up and flung them far and wide and years and years had gone by. But the gust suddenly had changed and whirled them back into my orbit and here we were again—we were all so excited to see one another. 

“How is everyone?”’ I said. “Is everyone OK?”

They began to talk and tell jokes, and one student who refused to turn on his video, saying he looked too tired, was convinced to do so—and there he was, smiling sheepishly. 

“You said you looked tired, dude, and you do, but you always look that way,” said one of the students. 

Everyone laughed and it felt so good to laugh. 

One student said he lost his job—he was a waiter at a restaurant. “Hey, it’s not so bad,” he said. “I didn’t earn that much so the fall isn’t far.” Then another student said she’d lost her restaurant job, too. Then another—let go as a substitute teacher. “And I really liked the job,” she said. Someone said she wished she’d lose her job, she hated it, and we all laughed. We were a group that existed prior to Covid-19, a solid group, and we were all here. Except one. 

“Where is she?” one student said. 

“Let’s wait,” I said. 

I showed them around Zoom—here’s the chat button, here’s the mute button, the participant button. I sat back and waited for the student, listening to them talk, and there was the usual banter and joking and ribbing, “Hey, where are you? What’s that lame poster behind you?” “Did you move back home.” “Yeah.” No one was in their pajamas or stretched out in bed, but I wouldn’t have minded. 

When the face of the final student popped up on the screen, everyone cheered. She sat in her kitchen, half her face lit up by the sun, the other half in shadows like a marvelous piece of art. 

It took a minute, not even that, to immerse ourselves in the work—the sentences they’d written for class, and sentences from the work they’d read for class—Gabriel García Márquez, Lauren Groff, and Rivka Galchen. We were doing what we used to do in a physical classroom: We were asking why write it like this—why use this word? This image? What’s the effect? And we, as always, were astonished by each other’s work, at the magic of the right word, the right image, the right rhythm. Everything else—the virus, the fear, the panic, the boredom, the sense that the world was ending—wonderfully vanished. 

Three hours later, class came to an end. 

I’d forgotten to mute everyone; I’d forgotten to ask them to raise their hands. I’d forgotten because there was no need; the dynamic that had been created in the physical room had waltzed into our digital room. 

“If anyone hears of job openings, pass them along,” I said. 

“And buy books from your independent bookstore,” said one of the students who worked at an independent bookstore. “We ship.”

“And stay safe,” said another student.

Yes, please, stay safe.

 

Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Translator, won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for general fiction and was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her nonfiction book, How to Write Stunning Sentences, was a Small Press Distribution best-seller. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and the Writing Room.

 

Postcard From the Pandemic: Doing Time in Hong Kong

by

Kaitlin Chan

3.26.20

How much longer? With every push notification and breaking headline, we are reminded that the coronavirus knows no schedule. My experience of time has been stretched and condensed in ways I never could have predicted at the start of this.

At 8:00 PM on January 3, a text from my reporter friend L:

Kaitlin! I’m so sorry…I was fully looking forward to our catch up tmr but I got sent to Wuhan to cover the viral pneumonia outbreak.

I remember being at my desk in Hong Kong, a chill running down my spine as I reread the message. A viral outbreak? Like SARS, which had devastated and shut down the city for half a year in 2003? I texted her back calmly, a “no worries! Let’s raincheck” kind of dispatch. I told myself to stop overreacting, that the virus would probably be safely contained. A regional issue, to be solved by the outstanding medical workers in Wuhan.

The next two months feel like a hundred years. I hear from friends in China that things are getting more serious, to refrain from traveling around Lunar New Year. I table at a book fair, where the conversation focuses more on the anti-extradition bill protests than the coronavirus. My then-partner turns thirty-two years old. We celebrate with cupcakes and Greek food. My friend B from New York visits me, a new temporary member of my small family of two. At the end of January, I move back to Taipei for a two-month artist residency. I had a plan, and I wanted to follow it.

This is when things totally fall apart. My sister messages me about running out of toilet paper in Hong Kong. The now ubiquitous “bare-shelves-images” abound. Everyone in Taipei is wearing surgical masks, the streets a sea of black down jackets dotted with pale blue and white. B and I hurriedly buy a box before any price-gouging or long queues begin. The clerk asks us twice if we want to buy more. “Just fifty? You’re going to run out,” he warns us in Mandarin. But how long? I wonder to myself. How long will life be like this? When touching is banned and staying in is paramount?

I couldn’t have known then that the threads of my life (and everybody else’s) would eventually unravel. I end my residency early and move back in with my mother in Hong Kong. I continue working on the book project that is my current “job” but everything feels a little helpless. 

My friend J in California tells me over the phone how they erased entire weeks from their schedule. We had both bought paper planners in January, excited about the promise of clarity and renewed selves held between the blank pages. But now trying to plan more than a week ahead seems naïve. We are lucky to even have today. With so many people around the world succumbing to death, it feels necessary that we treasure things as mundane as making breakfast in the morning, a FaceTime with a friend after a long day of zero social interaction.

Today, like every other day, is a chance to begin again. I make two slices of toast, check-in with friends online, and sit down at my desk. I look at performance artist Tehching Hsieh on the poster next to me. In his earliest performance, Cage Piece (1978–79), he lived in a cage for an entire calendar year. What most scholars focus on is his resilience, his solitude, and his boredom. But today I am thinking about his unnamed friend. Hsieh’s friend, who brought him food and clothes, and changed his waste bucket. How none of us were meant to survive alone. I eagerly await the day I can hold my friends in my arms again.

 

Kaitlin Chan is an artist and curator from Hong Kong. She is currently working on a graphic novel on queerness in East Asia with the support of the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship. Her Instagram is @chen_jiaxian.

Postcard From the Pandemic: Zoom Teaching

by

Nina Schuyler

3.23.20

And just like that, the world was thrown off kilter, and with it, the realm of teaching. Our physical classroom at the university had to move online. Full-time and part-time professors had to sign up for a two-hour online training about how to teach using video technology—Zoom—and it had to be done now. 

I’d taught classes online before using Zoom, but there were plenty of novices among the seventy-plus professors who crowded into the online training session, which was presented on Zoom. The questions in the “chat” came rapid-fire:“What about running labs in science?” “Group presentations?” “Can you record the sessions?” “Should I use a personal Zoom account?” The presenter had two helpers who typed responses. Showing us his Zoom screen, the presenter demonstrated how to log on, send a link to students, use the “white board,” the “chat,” and “participants.” 

“Things won’t be as free-flowing as a classroom,” he said. 

He also suggested we advise students to: 1) dress appropriately—no lying in bed or in pajamas; 2) find a quiet place so they could hear the lecture; 3) mute their microphone if they weren’t speaking; and 4) not to use Zoom while driving. “We had one student try that,” he added. 

Depending on the class, we could record a lecture and send it to students, or run a real-time class. I teach a three-hour seminar class, looking closely at sentences, and 90 percent of that time we are discussing literature. It is dynamic, quasi-Socratic method, with students and myself asking questions, so it would be synchronous teaching. 

Most of my students were in their twenties, living in San Francisco, and I imagined loud roommates in the background talking or playing music. Or the rustling of papers. Or the toilet flushing. I planned to mute everyone so they could hear each other. I’d ask students to use Zoom’s “raise hand” feature if they wanted to speak. I’d also build in more than the usual number of breaks so students could eat, stretch, use the bathroom. It would be orderly, controlled, a bit stifled, but with clear audio. If the class lasted two and half hours, I would consider it a success. 

Before class I sent out the link to students so they could download Zoom and offered to do a test run to make sure their audio and video worked. Five out of the eleven students took my offer. The days leading up to the ‘real’ class were spent working out the tech kinks.

Class would go well—or not. It would be lively—or not.  It would be similar to the class—or not at all. Maybe no one would talk or the technology wouldn’t work, or the students would feel uncomfortable and the format would be stifling. 

When it was nearly time for class, I e-mailed the Zoom link and waited. Minutes ticked by. What if no one showed up? The presenter hadn’t gone through that scenario. The first one in the “room” was a young man in his twenties. 

“There you are,” I said. “How are you? Are you doing OK?” 

He waved. “Doing fine. Nice to be back in class.”

Then another student, and another, and it felt like a reunion, as if the wind had swept everyone up and flung them far and wide and years and years had gone by. But the gust suddenly had changed and whirled them back into my orbit and here we were again—we were all so excited to see one another. 

“How is everyone?”’ I said. “Is everyone OK?”

They began to talk and tell jokes, and one student who refused to turn on his video, saying he looked too tired, was convinced to do so—and there he was, smiling sheepishly. 

“You said you looked tired, dude, and you do, but you always look that way,” said one of the students. 

Everyone laughed and it felt so good to laugh. 

One student said he lost his job—he was a waiter at a restaurant. “Hey, it’s not so bad,” he said. “I didn’t earn that much so the fall isn’t far.” Then another student said she’d lost her restaurant job, too. Then another—let go as a substitute teacher. “And I really liked the job,” she said. Someone said she wished she’d lose her job, she hated it, and we all laughed. We were a group that existed prior to Covid-19, a solid group, and we were all here. Except one. 

“Where is she?” one student said. 

“Let’s wait,” I said. 

I showed them around Zoom—here’s the chat button, here’s the mute button, the participant button. I sat back and waited for the student, listening to them talk, and there was the usual banter and joking and ribbing, “Hey, where are you? What’s that lame poster behind you?” “Did you move back home.” “Yeah.” No one was in their pajamas or stretched out in bed, but I wouldn’t have minded. 

When the face of the final student popped up on the screen, everyone cheered. She sat in her kitchen, half her face lit up by the sun, the other half in shadows like a marvelous piece of art. 

It took a minute, not even that, to immerse ourselves in the work—the sentences they’d written for class, and sentences from the work they’d read for class—Gabriel García Márquez, Lauren Groff, and Rivka Galchen. We were doing what we used to do in a physical classroom: We were asking why write it like this—why use this word? This image? What’s the effect? And we, as always, were astonished by each other’s work, at the magic of the right word, the right image, the right rhythm. Everything else—the virus, the fear, the panic, the boredom, the sense that the world was ending—wonderfully vanished. 

Three hours later, class came to an end. 

I’d forgotten to mute everyone; I’d forgotten to ask them to raise their hands. I’d forgotten because there was no need; the dynamic that had been created in the physical room had waltzed into our digital room. 

“If anyone hears of job openings, pass them along,” I said. 

“And buy books from your independent bookstore,” said one of the students who worked at an independent bookstore. “We ship.”

“And stay safe,” said another student.

Yes, please, stay safe.

 

Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Translator, won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for general fiction and was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her nonfiction book, How to Write Stunning Sentences, was a Small Press Distribution best-seller. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and the Writing Room.

 

Postcard From the Pandemic: Blue Gloves and the TSA

by

Edward Schwarzschild

4.6.20

A box of galleys for my new novel arrived today. The novel, due out from SUNY Press in October, is titled In Security, but I didn’t take any special safety precautions when the brown-uniformed, blue-gloved UPS driver handed me the box. I thanked him and asked how he was doing. “Hanging in there,” he said, keeping his distance, hustling back down the stairs toward his idling truck.

My novel’s main character is a Transportation Security Officer (TSO) who works for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at Albany International Airport here in upstate New York. I’ve been teaching at the University at Albany, SUNY, since 2001, but back when I was struggling to write the novel, I also took a job with the TSA at Albany International. For a few months in 2012, I was a TSO in training. I worked the 5:00 AM to 9:00 AM shift at the airport’s checkpoint, five days a week, and then I’d change out of my uniform and, a little more tired than usual, head to campus for my day job.

Those were the weeks of Hurricane Sandy, Halloween, Obama’s re-election, Thanksgiving, the run-up to a new year. Morning after morning, just before I hit the checkpoint, I slipped on the same sort of blue latex gloves the UPS man was wearing when he handed over my box of galleys.

I wasn’t worrying about viruses when I put on those gloves. I wasn’t worried about catching something that could kill me and/or my family. I was focused on trying to learn basic, standard operating procedures. How to search carry-on baggage. How to check boarding passes and IDs. How to swab palms for traces of explosive material. How to perform a pat-down. 

I haven’t worked the job in years, but I remain a TSA news junkie, and I still linger around checkpoints when I travel. During this pandemic, though, I’ve found myself thinking even more than usual about the people I worked with at the airport and the gloves we wore. The fundamental premise of the job, repeated at every briefing, visible on the posters in every office, lounge, classroom, was that our duty was to keep people safe. We were supposed to identify threats while simultaneously creating calm. And yet, this was 2012, and no matter how often the higher-ups reminded us that many of the 9/11 terrorists had started their fateful day at airports smaller than ours, we didn’t really feel that our lives were in danger. The worries I heard voiced on the job concerned changing shifts, getting promoted, requesting transfers, and passing various tests. Worries about moving up, moving on. Yes, there were plenty of terrifying incidents in airports between 2001 and 2012, and we were well aware of them all, but they didn’t stop us from feeling safe while we were busy keeping other people safe.

It can feel as if a lifetime has passed between 2012 and now. I despaired about more than a few things in those intervening years. I spent, for instance, far too much time anxious about the fate of a novel that seemed forever in progress. Still, I kept at it, and as I did, gradually, long before 2020 and our current crisis, my priorities shifted. My perspective changed. Short version: My brother died, some friends and colleagues died, my son kept growing up. The long version of all that probably deserves its own essay.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still invested in the new novel and I felt proud when I opened that box and saw the cover with my name on it. But in this anxious time, as the death toll from the pandemic rises, my thoughts shift to those people—the real-life workers, like those I got to know at the checkpoint—who hold down low-paying, thankless jobs despite the scorn regularly heaped upon them. They are people who perform simple, ordinary acts of heroism day in, day out. They put the blue gloves on, take them off, then put them back on again.

 

Edward Schwarzschild, a recent NYFA fellow in fiction, is the author of Responsible Men and The Family Diamond. At the University at Albany, SUNY, he is director of creative writing and a fellow of the New York State Writers Institute.

Thumbnail photo credit: Elisa Albert

The author during his time with the Transportation Security Administration in 2012.

(Credit: Danny Goodwin)

Postcard From the Pandemic: Space as a Blanket for Well-Being

by

Ginger Gaffney

3.26.20

For me, safety has never been in numbers. Big family gatherings, business meetings, large crowds of gathered people—for any reason—these were things I dreaded and avoided. I’m what the writer Fenton Johnson, author of At the Center of All Beauty and Solitude and the Creative Life, refers to as a solitaire. I’m best off alone with a horse, with one friend for lunch in a quiet place, with my wife at home reading books. Self-isolation is something I’ve perfected since my early childhood. 

I was mute until the age of six. I spoke to no one, and no one seemed to be bothered by it. My family, an Irish Catholic northeastern family, filled in my blanks. Not speaking is one form of isolation, no eye contact is another. Keeping my physical body a good healthy distance from intimate activities was another strategy I perfected. From one corner of a room to another, I figured out the angles of space needed to be left alone. No one knew how calculated I was, not even myself. It seemed to be my first nature, and to this day when I enter a room filled with people I’m deftly aware of the space between tables, between the door and the far corner, and never can I enter a space that has standing room only. I’ve lived this way for over fifty years.

These days, when I go into the public, I see many people who look just like me. Heads down, eyes averting one another, torsos yielding sideways to gain more space between us. I have always known how our bodies hold an honest form of language; I’ve been listening to this language my whole life. What is most striking to me in this time is how our bodies have become more monotone, less diverse, a thin shell is covering our body language, and all I hear is fear.

There is no safety in numbers. Numbers, us, our human form; we are the threat to ourselves.

In my twenties I began riding horses to save my relationships. Seems an odd thing to say, but it was true, and even I did not know how or why. I had received enough counseling to realize I had issues with intimacy. Running through lovers without remorse, self-reflection, or interest. Horses demanded I stay put. They needed me to bring my full self to the moment, and when I strayed, they would bolt, buck, or twirl. There was no faking it. I watched how the horse moved away from me, wary of this body who did not know how to connect. 

Horses are herd animals, yet inside the herd there is a distinct sense of each animal’s space. They have a pocket of air, a bubble which surrounds them, and each horse needs that space to keep their relationships clear, clean, and understood. When a horse senses a break in that order of space, an infringement on the verge of happening, they send out signals first. One ear goes backward. One eye slides into the corner of its socket. A partial flick of the tail to the left. Keep yourself over there and we will be fine. And then, everything is fine. Things go back to the normal peaceful moment that most horses enjoy every day.

Over the last twenty-five years I have turned my love of horses and their language into a career as a horse trainer, and one of my biggest challenges has been to teach humans how to understand body language—both their own and their horse’s. How the movement of bodies in space has so much to say. When I’m out in public now, during this early moment of the epidemic, which will most likely last a long time, I want to tell people about what the horses have taught me.

Silence and distance, these do not make us strangers. Intimacy, the language of our bodies, is reflected in the smallest gestures. A tilt of your head sideways and a gentle smile when you pass someone on the street is a thousand kind words. Soft eyes, soft eyebrows, eyes that blink a little slower and longer can help slow our heart rate, relax our anxiety. If we notice how our faces hold tension, and let that tension release with a long, audible sigh—this alone could help the person standing behind us in the line at the grocery store. We can care for each other even when we keep our distance. At the park, or wherever you are heading out to these days, remember space is a natural part of our co-existence. Safety comes as much in giving each other space as it does when we gather in numbers. Right now, space can be a blanket for our well-being.

These days when I head out to the horses, I’m ever more aware of how our bodies reshape each other from a distance. I feel pressure on my chest as my horse gets too close. I hear the sound of each hoof landing in an even four-beat cadence just behind the soft padding of my own two feet in the sand. I feel the mist of breath on my forearm as we walk to the arena, my horse right next to me—three feet away. I notice the soft wrinkles above my horse’s eyes, the slow opening and closing of his nostrils, and I wonder what does he see in me?

Can I do better? Can I go into the world and trust the space between us? Can I meet people in the eye, open my chest, drop my shoulders, tilt my head to the side and smile? Can I help make someone feel more cared for in this very difficult time, just by letting my body have a kinder language? For so many years I hid myself in this space between us, but now I want to reach out. I want to try.

 

Ginger Gaffney is a top-ranked horse trainer and the author of the memoir Half Broke, published by W. W. Norton in February. She received an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and her work has been published in Tin House and Utne Reader. She lives in Velarde, New Mexico.

Ginger Gaffney, author of the memoir Half Broke (Norton, 2020).

Postcard From the Pandemic: Doing Time in Hong Kong

by

Kaitlin Chan

3.26.20

How much longer? With every push notification and breaking headline, we are reminded that the coronavirus knows no schedule. My experience of time has been stretched and condensed in ways I never could have predicted at the start of this.

At 8:00 PM on January 3, a text from my reporter friend L:

Kaitlin! I’m so sorry…I was fully looking forward to our catch up tmr but I got sent to Wuhan to cover the viral pneumonia outbreak.

I remember being at my desk in Hong Kong, a chill running down my spine as I reread the message. A viral outbreak? Like SARS, which had devastated and shut down the city for half a year in 2003? I texted her back calmly, a “no worries! Let’s raincheck” kind of dispatch. I told myself to stop overreacting, that the virus would probably be safely contained. A regional issue, to be solved by the outstanding medical workers in Wuhan.

The next two months feel like a hundred years. I hear from friends in China that things are getting more serious, to refrain from traveling around Lunar New Year. I table at a book fair, where the conversation focuses more on the anti-extradition bill protests than the coronavirus. My then-partner turns thirty-two years old. We celebrate with cupcakes and Greek food. My friend B from New York visits me, a new temporary member of my small family of two. At the end of January, I move back to Taipei for a two-month artist residency. I had a plan, and I wanted to follow it.

This is when things totally fall apart. My sister messages me about running out of toilet paper in Hong Kong. The now ubiquitous “bare-shelves-images” abound. Everyone in Taipei is wearing surgical masks, the streets a sea of black down jackets dotted with pale blue and white. B and I hurriedly buy a box before any price-gouging or long queues begin. The clerk asks us twice if we want to buy more. “Just fifty? You’re going to run out,” he warns us in Mandarin. But how long? I wonder to myself. How long will life be like this? When touching is banned and staying in is paramount?

I couldn’t have known then that the threads of my life (and everybody else’s) would eventually unravel. I end my residency early and move back in with my mother in Hong Kong. I continue working on the book project that is my current “job” but everything feels a little helpless. 

My friend J in California tells me over the phone how they erased entire weeks from their schedule. We had both bought paper planners in January, excited about the promise of clarity and renewed selves held between the blank pages. But now trying to plan more than a week ahead seems naïve. We are lucky to even have today. With so many people around the world succumbing to death, it feels necessary that we treasure things as mundane as making breakfast in the morning, a FaceTime with a friend after a long day of zero social interaction.

Today, like every other day, is a chance to begin again. I make two slices of toast, check-in with friends online, and sit down at my desk. I look at performance artist Tehching Hsieh on the poster next to me. In his earliest performance, Cage Piece (1978–79), he lived in a cage for an entire calendar year. What most scholars focus on is his resilience, his solitude, and his boredom. But today I am thinking about his unnamed friend. Hsieh’s friend, who brought him food and clothes, and changed his waste bucket. How none of us were meant to survive alone. I eagerly await the day I can hold my friends in my arms again.

 

Kaitlin Chan is an artist and curator from Hong Kong. She is currently working on a graphic novel on queerness in East Asia with the support of the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship. Her Instagram is @chen_jiaxian.

Postcard From the Pandemic: Zoom Teaching

by

Nina Schuyler

3.23.20

And just like that, the world was thrown off kilter, and with it, the realm of teaching. Our physical classroom at the university had to move online. Full-time and part-time professors had to sign up for a two-hour online training about how to teach using video technology—Zoom—and it had to be done now. 

I’d taught classes online before using Zoom, but there were plenty of novices among the seventy-plus professors who crowded into the online training session, which was presented on Zoom. The questions in the “chat” came rapid-fire:“What about running labs in science?” “Group presentations?” “Can you record the sessions?” “Should I use a personal Zoom account?” The presenter had two helpers who typed responses. Showing us his Zoom screen, the presenter demonstrated how to log on, send a link to students, use the “white board,” the “chat,” and “participants.” 

“Things won’t be as free-flowing as a classroom,” he said. 

He also suggested we advise students to: 1) dress appropriately—no lying in bed or in pajamas; 2) find a quiet place so they could hear the lecture; 3) mute their microphone if they weren’t speaking; and 4) not to use Zoom while driving. “We had one student try that,” he added. 

Depending on the class, we could record a lecture and send it to students, or run a real-time class. I teach a three-hour seminar class, looking closely at sentences, and 90 percent of that time we are discussing literature. It is dynamic, quasi-Socratic method, with students and myself asking questions, so it would be synchronous teaching. 

Most of my students were in their twenties, living in San Francisco, and I imagined loud roommates in the background talking or playing music. Or the rustling of papers. Or the toilet flushing. I planned to mute everyone so they could hear each other. I’d ask students to use Zoom’s “raise hand” feature if they wanted to speak. I’d also build in more than the usual number of breaks so students could eat, stretch, use the bathroom. It would be orderly, controlled, a bit stifled, but with clear audio. If the class lasted two and half hours, I would consider it a success. 

Before class I sent out the link to students so they could download Zoom and offered to do a test run to make sure their audio and video worked. Five out of the eleven students took my offer. The days leading up to the ‘real’ class were spent working out the tech kinks.

Class would go well—or not. It would be lively—or not.  It would be similar to the class—or not at all. Maybe no one would talk or the technology wouldn’t work, or the students would feel uncomfortable and the format would be stifling. 

When it was nearly time for class, I e-mailed the Zoom link and waited. Minutes ticked by. What if no one showed up? The presenter hadn’t gone through that scenario. The first one in the “room” was a young man in his twenties. 

“There you are,” I said. “How are you? Are you doing OK?” 

He waved. “Doing fine. Nice to be back in class.”

Then another student, and another, and it felt like a reunion, as if the wind had swept everyone up and flung them far and wide and years and years had gone by. But the gust suddenly had changed and whirled them back into my orbit and here we were again—we were all so excited to see one another. 

“How is everyone?”’ I said. “Is everyone OK?”

They began to talk and tell jokes, and one student who refused to turn on his video, saying he looked too tired, was convinced to do so—and there he was, smiling sheepishly. 

“You said you looked tired, dude, and you do, but you always look that way,” said one of the students. 

Everyone laughed and it felt so good to laugh. 

One student said he lost his job—he was a waiter at a restaurant. “Hey, it’s not so bad,” he said. “I didn’t earn that much so the fall isn’t far.” Then another student said she’d lost her restaurant job, too. Then another—let go as a substitute teacher. “And I really liked the job,” she said. Someone said she wished she’d lose her job, she hated it, and we all laughed. We were a group that existed prior to Covid-19, a solid group, and we were all here. Except one. 

“Where is she?” one student said. 

“Let’s wait,” I said. 

I showed them around Zoom—here’s the chat button, here’s the mute button, the participant button. I sat back and waited for the student, listening to them talk, and there was the usual banter and joking and ribbing, “Hey, where are you? What’s that lame poster behind you?” “Did you move back home.” “Yeah.” No one was in their pajamas or stretched out in bed, but I wouldn’t have minded. 

When the face of the final student popped up on the screen, everyone cheered. She sat in her kitchen, half her face lit up by the sun, the other half in shadows like a marvelous piece of art. 

It took a minute, not even that, to immerse ourselves in the work—the sentences they’d written for class, and sentences from the work they’d read for class—Gabriel García Márquez, Lauren Groff, and Rivka Galchen. We were doing what we used to do in a physical classroom: We were asking why write it like this—why use this word? This image? What’s the effect? And we, as always, were astonished by each other’s work, at the magic of the right word, the right image, the right rhythm. Everything else—the virus, the fear, the panic, the boredom, the sense that the world was ending—wonderfully vanished. 

Three hours later, class came to an end. 

I’d forgotten to mute everyone; I’d forgotten to ask them to raise their hands. I’d forgotten because there was no need; the dynamic that had been created in the physical room had waltzed into our digital room. 

“If anyone hears of job openings, pass them along,” I said. 

“And buy books from your independent bookstore,” said one of the students who worked at an independent bookstore. “We ship.”

“And stay safe,” said another student.

Yes, please, stay safe.

 

Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Translator, won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for general fiction and was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her nonfiction book, How to Write Stunning Sentences, was a Small Press Distribution best-seller. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and the Writing Room.

 

Cornucopia: Report From Literary Bogotá

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

6.13.18

Forgive me for a moment while I indulge in an old-fashioned description of Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. Rest for a moment. You are oxygen starved and flushed despite the chill of the mountain air. You have ridden a funicular up to the eighteenth-century Church of the Fallen Lord atop Monserrate, on the eastern lip of the mountains that ring the city. The mountains are verdant. There are copses of wagging green wax palms and sibilant clusters of Colombian oaks. Drifting over from the open-air restaurants behind the church come the smells of wood smoke and grilling chorizo. You’re leaning against a protective stone wall along the cliff edge, staring down from an elevation of 10,000 feet onto the valley fourteen hundred feet below. 

Pilgrims have been climbing to this hilltop for centuries, often on their knees. Behind you the church has positioned fourteen bronze sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross. Number eleven features a Roman centurion pounding a spike into the arm of the naked Christ. No doubt it once seemed an apt metaphor for the civil wars and violence that troubled Colombia. Twenty years ago, Medellín, the country’s second largest city, was the most dangerous city in the world (the murder rate reached 381 murders per 100,000 people, compared to the current murder rate in New York City of less than 4 killed per 100,000). 

Bogotá stretches out beneath you. From here, the city lies obscured under the afternoon haze, like an aging starlet under a bubble bath: mischievous, flirtatious, pliable. Only the skyscrapers of the financial district and the Torres del Parque above the bullfighting ring jut up above the haze, stretching invitingly toward the tropical sun.

The old Bogotá was reputed to be a land of frightening violence but also great beauty. The actors included drug lords, Marxist guerillas, government death squads, and the American Drug Enforcement Agency. Internal divisions were enflamed by the regional players in the Cold War. The assassination of a popular political leader in 1948 led to a decade of chaos and killings. In the 1960s, frustrated leftist professors became activist guerilla leaders. In the 1970s, profitable illegal exports of marijuana to the United States evolved into a gushing cocaine pipeline. No one was entirely to blame, but no one was entirely innocent either. In such an environment, it seems a small miracle that writers continued to write, but they did. In the worst of times, Gabriel García Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize for novels bubbling with legend, passion, romance, and tragedy. Marquez died in 2014, but Colombian writers have continued to produce some of the most celebrated fiction on the planet. 

Colombia still has its problems, but incidences of murder and violent crime have fallen to rates roughly equal to our North American cities. Two years ago the government ratified a peace treaty with the Marxist guerillas. The drug traffickers that once claimed Colombian territory are said to be terrorizing Mexico now. So maybe now is the time to let Colombia relinquish its status as the reigning Wild West. Maybe now is the proper moment to describe it as beautiful without the underpinnings of violence. Maybe now is the time to meet with the country’s writers and listen as they explain how artists emerge from a war zone and learn to put a century of trauma behind them.

“One of the strangest ideas any Spanish conquistador could have ever had was to found a city here twenty-six hundred meters over sea level,” says Juan Gabriel Vásquez, echoing sentiments expressed by the narrator of his 2011 novel about the Colombian drug trade, The Sound of Things Falling, originally published in Spanish and released in English by Riverhead Books in 2013. 

Seated beside me on a tasteful modern sofa in his living room, the author watches me through rimless glasses and explains that at the beginning of the twentieth century it took European visitors to Bogotá a couple of weeks to cross the Atlantic by boat and then another seven days to work their way from the coast to the elevated capital. Vásquez is happy to search the past for clues about the present, and he theorizes that the capital’s remote location has negatively impacted the local character. 

“Bogotanos are a closed people,” he says, “not easy.” Vásquez is disappointed with the millions of Bogotanos who voted against a 2016 referendum concerning the peace process. The majority of citizens in the capital voted No, whereas Colombians in the most war-torn areas voted overwhelmingly in favor of peace. The author blames a lack of empathy, and he blames religious conservatism and racial intolerance. “When your capital city, historically, does not accept diversity—racial diversity or foreigners, except the Europeans they look up to—it makes for a complicated present.”

Vásquez, who is a well known author in both Colombia and abroad, has invited me to visit with him to speak about Colombian writing in the apartment he shares with his wife and twin daughters in the tree-lined, upscale northeast corner of the capitol city. 

“Before Márquez there were few novelists, but poetry, we have always had great poets,” he says. He reminds me that one of Bogotá’s nicknames is ‘The South American Athens’ and tells me that, before he could read, he remembers using the books from the shelves of his parents’ home as building blocks. As a student at the private Anglo Colombian School of Bogotá, Vásquez was bilingual from a young age, and he recalls when he was a nine-year-old soccer fan that his father bought him a biography of the soccer star Pelé in English then paid him to translate it into Spanish. 

“I don’t remember a time in which I was not writing,” he says. “I published a short story in the school paper when I was eight.” 

Juan Gabriel Vásquez 

 

All the same, Vásquez did not aspire to be a writer as a young man. His father, mother, aunts and uncles were all lawyers. “In the ‘80s, in my social milieu, it wasn’t really easy to think about being a novelist,” he says. He attended law school at Universidad del Rosario, a private university founded by the Dominicans in 1643. But upon graduation, he handed his parents his diploma and moved to Paris to study literature in Spanish at the Sorbonne and start writing in earnest. By age twenty-six, he had published two novels but wasn’t satisfied with them. “I made this mess of a book with techniques from Woolf’s stream of consciousness, Faulkner’s time shifts, Vargas Llosa’s dialogues,” he says. His first two novels were simply a rehearsal, he explains. Searching for a new path, Vásquez accepted an invitation to stay a week with some friends in the Ardennes Forrest in Belgium. A week turned into a month, then three months and nine. The house was ten minutes from the nearest village, thirty minutes from Liege, far enough that he could avoid distractions. During his retreat, he rediscovered Joseph Conrad and the Spanish novelist Javier Marías. And then, “At the very end of my stay, I read a book I found by chance, maybe at an airport or train station, it was—I hope I’m remembering this correctly—American Pastoral by Phillip Roth.”

Emerging from the Ardennes reinvigorated and ready for his next step, he married his girlfriend, Mariana Montoya, a Colombian professional. The pair moved to Barcélona, where Vásquez completed and published The Informers (Riverhead Books, 2010), the first book he feels reflects his voice. After writing three more novels and living for sixteen years in Europe, Vásquez returned with his wife and twin daughters to Bogotá in 2012. We talk about the pillars of Colombian literature, pausing where all discussions about Colombian writers quickly land, on Gabriel García Márquez. Vásquez describes the prejudice Márquez overcame as a young writer. The intellectuals of the capital assumed that great writers could only arise from the urban upper classes and not from a provincial, coastal village. “He suffered from the old centralism of Colombian literature,” Vásquez says.

Vásquez sees Márquez’s early novels as necessary rungs on the ladder toward the Nobel Prize winner’s eventually apotheosis as the éminence grise of Colombian letters. “Leaf Storm [Márquez’s first novel] is so Faulknerian it is almost a caricature,” he says. “No One Writes to the Colonel is almost a rewriting of Old Man and the Sea; In Evil Hour is La Peste [The Plague by Albert Camus], and then there is One Hundred Years of Solitude, maybe one of the most perfect novels in the world.”

Vásquez credits the mature Márquez with transforming literature and, in the process, cementing the confidence of Colombian writers. “He didn’t have One Hundred Years of Solitude to step on; I did. I have received a tradition: a word that comes from the Latin root meaning ‘to give.’ He has given me the book that has enabled me to write the books I have written.”

On the coffee table before us, the author’s mobile phone rings. He apologizes for interrupting our talk and explains that he received word last night that he has won a literary award in Portugal and must fly to Lisbon in the morning.

I glance around the room, admiring an antique mantel clock on a shelf behind us and a framed lithograph of a pair of billiards players—a work by the Colombian painter Saturnino Rodriguez, referenced in Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling—above a white brick fireplace. The possessions return me to the theme of class and privilege. Would it have been possible for Vásqez to have succeeded if he hadn’t been born into a privileged family?

“Culture still has an elitist side in Colombia,” the author admits as he returns to our conversation. “Books are expensive. Reading a serious book takes hours, and people who spend four hours a day commuting on a difficult transportation system don’t have that time.” 

On the other hand, he points out that even in a country where the civic commitment of the people is constantly being questioned, the government and the citizens are quick to make books available for the poor. “Any kind of cultural event, a reading or a conversation between writers, will just fill up with people,” he says. “People are thirsty for books.” 

He reminds me that as part of a government initiative to reinvest in Medellín, the second largest city in the country and capital of the mountainous Antioquia province, authorities built libraries in the city’s most violent neighborhoods. “Twenty years ago, it was the most violent place in Colombia, and now it is a model city, largely due to libraries being built in places where you could not walk,” he says. It seems a liberal fantasy, yet news reports in the New York Times, the Economist, Forbes, CNN, the Guardian, and countless Spanish language outlets trumpet the success of the initiative. Beginning in 2004, ten libraries were built in the centers of small grassy parks in ten troubled neighborhoods. Serving also as community centers and technology centers, the public projects helped to introduce safe spaces and resources into the most crime-infested barrios. 

“Colombia still has a little way to go before becoming a full-fledged, egalitarian, tolerant democracy, which is what I would like it to be,” Vásquez says, “but it is making an effort.”

 

I leave the writer’s home and make my way south along the shaded sidewalks of his neighborhood, past the French Lycée and the pillared portico of the Club Médico de Bogota. I am far from the impoverished neighborhoods to the south. Although the political violence appears to be coming to an end, the problematic disparity between Colombia’s rich and poor continues. 

To attempt to alleviate the disparity, the municipality assigns each neighborhood a ranking from one to six. The rankings can be found on each resident’s utility bill. In Bogotá, the citizens are reminded of their spot in the social hierarchy every time they open an invoice for electricity, water, or WiFi. 

Somebody living in a one-story dirt-floored room on the south side of the city or a flood-prone mountainside ravine or a zonas de tolerancia, a tolerated red light district, is a one or a two. He or she pays the least amount for basic utilities. The neighborhoods in the northeast quadrant of the city are fours, fives, or sixes. Their proximity to the best private schools, the equestrian clubs, the tennis clubs, and the best shops and restaurants means they pay the most for basic services.

The dramatic social disparities continue to make the city somewhat unsafe. During my time in Bogotá, my friends and acquaintances urge me to be vigilant. I use Ubers and local taxis to get around, and the majority of my interviews are conducted in the northeast neighborhoods where security guards and police maintain a visible presence.

For example, I meet the poet Johan Fabian Pinilla Sanchez at Juan Valdez Café Origenes, a Colombian competitor to Starbucks, in the Rosales district, a number-four neighborhood. Pinilla has dark curly hair and a three-day beard. He wears an unpretentious button-down shirt and blue slacks. We sit at a sidewalk table separated from the street by a concrete planter topped with thick hedges and an awning. 

In addition to being a writer, Pinilla is a professor of philology with a specialization in French language at La Universidad Nacional de Colombia in downtown Bogotá. The school and university systems in Colombia are as divided as the neighborhoods. The wealthy families aspire to send their children to one of the private, centuries-old, church-founded universities like Universidad Javeriana, Universidad del Rosario, or the Universidad de los Andes, while the poorer classes dream of attending the public, leftist Universidad Nacional, which offers tuition on a sliding scale. 

Pinilla (left) grew up on the south side of Bogotá. “Here in the Rosales neighborhood, you can find a kind of wealthy people, but very close to here you can find the other side of the coin,” he says in English. “In the south is different; we have always poverty, crime, poor education.”

Pinilla’s father drives a taxi and his mother makes clothing out of their home. Pinilla describes his childhood as humble but pleasant; the family had enough money to meet their basic needs. For fifteen years, he was an only child and then his parents had a second son. “It was a surprise for all three of us,” he says with a laugh.

He was a bookish young man. During elementary school, his friends were other children who were serious about their schoolwork. At times, his studiousness isolated him from his peers, and during high school he often felt ostracized. Pinilla began his university studies in electrical engineering at the Universidad Distrital, a public college close to his home. While there, he explored opportunities for work and study overseas and eventually landed a job as an administrative assistant for a publishing company in Luxembourg. There he studied French and discovered a passion for languages, eventually continuing his schooling in Brazil and France before returning to Bogotá and his current post at the Universidad Nacional.

“The National University, it’s important,” he explains. “It was founded in 1867, during the construction of the country. It was the start of an idea of a public education. We associate the construction of the university with the construction of the country.”

Gabriel García Márquez was a graduate, but so were many of the country’s most famous leftwing guerilla leaders. Camilo Torres Restrepo, a charismatic Catholic priest, created the sociology department at the school before leaving in the 1960s to join the National Liberation Army (ELN). (Torres Restrepo may be most famous for his quote, “If Jesus were alive today, He would be a guerrillero.”) And Alfonso Cano was an anthropology student at the university in the 1960s before he joined the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and rose to lead the group from 2008 until his death in a firefight with government forces in 2011. 

“You can still find the ideas of Che Guevara, ideas of liberation,” Pinella says. “Education is the only way to improve the country, and the university, despite its black history, is an important element in that.”

Pinilla’s interest in poetry coincided with his discovery of his love for the comparative study of languages. A course on morphosyntax, which analyzes the harmonic association between a word’s sound and its meaning, changed the way Pinilla thought about verse. “My poems are not just about meaning but also about sound,” he says. “I’m more aware of syntax elements.”

By 2014, he had written forty or fifty poems, and he could discern a shared theme in enough of them to make a book. “I started to try to have contacts with publishers,” he says, speaking loudly. A small surge of customers have pressed into the café, there’s a line at the register, and a man at the next table bumps the back of my chair. “I have the feeling that here in Colombia,” Pinilla says, “to be a beginner, it’s hard.”

For more than a year, the poet sent hundreds of e-mails to Colombian, Peruvian, Argentinian, Spanish, and French publishers until he heard back from a small Colombian house, Tragaluz Editores. 

“Poetry is not a big seller,” Pinella says. “Most publishing houses don’t carry much poetry. But Tragaluz’s purpose is to be independent, new, fresh.” 

Three months after he submitted his book, they called him. And six months later, his book was released. Pinilla has seen it in four or five bookstores around the city, including the Casa Poesia Silva, a government-run foundation devoted to assisting local writers. Named after the famed Colombian poet José Asunción Silva, a nineteenth-century dandy who was friends with the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé in Paris, Silva modest former home serves as library, bookshop, and community space for writers.

Pinilla’s publisher held a release party for his book at A Seis Menos (Six Hands), a cultural space, restaurant, and gallery located in the city center, but the poet hesitates as he recalls the event. “After the opening, so many people were giving a positive reception, and I asked myself why I made the book. Was it just to hear these congratulations? It was a bit of a crisis. I took a long time without writing,” he says. “Making a book was a kind of altruism,” he says. “I was making a book for the people, for the future. But after the opening, maybe all that altruism was not the true reason. Maybe it was a question of ego:  It was just for me.” 

Despite such doubts, Pinilla has continued to write. Most recently, he released a collaborative book of poems and paintings with Australian visual artist, Mellisa Schellekens. Our interview is winding down, and I ask him if I can photograph him. He agrees, and I reach down to retrieve the red backpack I have wedged between my legs and the concrete planter, but my hand waves through empty air. I feel a sick shock of understanding, like the moment when you realize, too late, that you’ve just driven through a stop sign. 

“My bag is gone,” I say, and I remember the bump from the chair behind me. I’ve lived in cities for decades, yet I failed to notice the effort to distract me while the thief wormed the bag away from my side. I’ve lost my camera, an umbrella, a pair of sunglasses and a baseball cap. All replaceable, yet I’m frustrated and annoyed at myself.

Pinilla retrieves the waitress and explains the situation. She says that management will study the video from the CCTV camera aimed at our group of tables in an effort to spot the thief and keep him from returning. 

“I feel ashamed to be a Colombian,” Pinilla says.

I assure him that it could have happened in Rome or New York then snap a photo of him with my iPhone, which was, luckily, in my pocket.

The next morning, a Saturday, I head to the Mercado de Paloquemao, a covered market in the city center. Cocoa and coffee famously grow well in Colombia, but so do Andean ancestral potatoes in a rainbow of colors, the orange-lime lulo fruit, the pulpy aphrodisiac borojó, and a hundred other fruits and vegetables. 

Outside in the parking lot, the flower market is bright and thick with the smell of roses and lavender. A local friend purchases a bouquet then leads me to a café beneath the corrugated roof of the market where we spend two dollars each on a caldo of potatoes, yucca, catfish, and broth. A couple hours later, we split a paper plate of lechona, made of pork, rice, and peas slow cooked inside the crispy husk of the pig. 

The cornucopia of flavors is an apt analogy for the diversity of styles and personalities that is Colombian culture and writing, which despite its Catholic roots and lingering social conservatism is beginning to publish voices from a wider range of genders, orientations, and perspectives.

Returning to the Juan Valdez coffee shop the next morning, I meet the novelist, playwright, publisher, and teacher Mauricio Arévalo. Slender with olive skin and a sweep of black hair that falls over fashionable red-framed glasses, the twenty-nine-year-old Arévalo has thick black lines like henna tattoos poking out from under his shirt cuffs and twining around his wrists. He explains that he is just back from a trip with his ninth-grade students to the Amazon to visit an indigenous tribe who showed them how to use the juices of the huito fruit, which the tribe uses in sacred ceremonies, to dye the skin. He let his ninth graders paint designs on his arms. “They loved it,” he says, laughing.

 

Mauricio Arévalo
 

Arévalo has been teaching Spanish literature to high schoolers for almost ten years, but shortly after his award-winning novel, ¿Alguna vez jugaste a las escondidas? (Have You Ever Played Hide & Seek?), was released, he experienced an unexpected sabbatical.

“I was teaching at a Catholic high school,” he says. “I had a bit of a crisis; they were not very happy about my sexual identity.” The school promoted traditional conservative worldviews while Arévalo, who is gay, promoted a more progressive philosophy. “I strongly believe that diversity, as gender and sexual diversity, may become a motor for education.” 

The tensions eventually caused Arévalo to quit and try to make a living as a freelancer, but the income instability made his life difficult. He was wary but relieved when, a year later, he received a call from the country’s most exclusive private high school, the Colegio Nueva Grenada, asking if he was available to teach. The school assured him that his private life would not influence his professional success or failure at the school. He took the job, and the renewed security has enabled him to begin work on a second novel.

I ask Arévalo about his earliest memories of writing, and he recalls a short story he wrote when he was six or seven about three flowers and a girl who had to choose one of them. “Mom and Dad were so proud of me,” he says with a smile. The story earned him a reputation within the family as a reader and writer. His aunt gave him a copy of The Little Prince; his father bought him books from the illustrated series The Adventures of Tintin, which he loved at the time but later rejected after he grew to understand the Neocolonialist politics behind the series.

When he was a thirteen-year-old high school student, Arévalo discovered theater. “I was a very shy child and then theater pushed me to show what I was, that I was a gay man, for instance, and I was not afraid to show who I was.”

When it came time for university, the writer applied for admission to the Universidad de los Andes, the most prestigious and most expensive private university, and they awarded him a scholarship. His tuition was free, but there were other challenges to overcome. He discovered that his classmates had benefitted from enviable private high school educations. “They were so clever,” he says. He was intimidated to watch them taking notes on Macintosh computers while he wrote in his notebook.

It took time, three or four semesters, before he began to feel confident that he could survive at the school. This eventual success he attributes to his professors. “I met a whole bunch of role models,” he says. “Some were writers, some were writing plays, some were theater directors. It was amazing because I learned from the best.”

After four years, his impulse was to continue in academia. He had a plan to earn a PhD in queer studies in Brazilian literature, but then, he says, “I met a man.”

The boyfriend, now his husband (same-sex marriage has been legal in Colombia since a ruling by the national Constitutional Court in the spring of 2016), questioned whether a life of monkish study was the appropriate path for somebody who was so happy in the company of others. “That was when I realized I wanted to write creatively,” he recalls. “That was when I started my first novel.”

Arévalo finished a draft and submitted it to Penguin Random House, the multinational behemoth that represents the largest publishing house in Colombia. He received positive feedback about the quality of the work, but ultimately they rejected it and advised him to try to build an audience with an independent publisher. He submitted to smaller publishers, but months of submissions and e-mails only brought additional rejections. “If no one is going to publish me,” he recalls thinking, “I’m going to become a publisher.”

In 2013, he assembled a staff of five and began producing Revista Artificio (Artifice Magazine), a publication devoted to literature and culture. The periodical was a success, and it helped him broaden his contacts in the Bogotano world of arts and letters. A year later, an artist who illustrated a cover for his magazine introduced him to an independent publisher who read his novel and accepted it then submitted it to the Ministry of Culture, which was sponsoring a contest for new writers. ¿Alguna vez jugaste a las escondidas? won the contest, earning Arévalo publicity and a prize of twenty million pesos, or about eight thousand dollars.

“When you have no name, people don’t buy your books,” he says. “Contests are one of the diving boards for writers in Colombia. It’s one of the channels for new writers to be published.”

The writer describes disparate influences, from Marquez’s Leaf Storm to the TV series Six Feet Under to a novel called Santa Evita by the Argentinian writer Tomás Eloy Martínez, an account of the disposition of the long dead body of Eva Perón, the infamous wife of the former President of Argentina. His second novel is still in the research phase. “My husband calls, and I say I am writing but I’m reading and taking notes.” He is, in a word, still searching for the right voice. 

Over the winter, this process was interrupted when Arévalo accepted an invitation to join a collaborative playwriting project. The goal was for a group of nine actors, directors, and writers to work together to produce nine individual plays. Arévalo was drawn to the theme of “lockdowns,” the increasingly common practice that schools have developed all over the world to protect themselves from attacks by armed individuals by locking all their doors. He wanted to write about “not being able to move,” and wrote a play about a teacher locked down with his students. “When they are locked down, they have excuses to share their fears that have to do with coming of age,” Arévalo says. He brought the play into his high school classroom and conducted readings with his students. “I approached some issues of sexual violence, and I was afraid of how they would understand it, but they totally got into it,” he says. The play will be published in May, and a movie producer has expressed an interest. Arévalo is currently working on a script.

I ask him about how the years of wars and violence in Colombia have influenced his work, and he explains that writers in their twenties, especially those raised in Bogotá, have been less affected by the years of warfare than previous generations. “From 2010 till now, some writers have been addressing the violence in a different way,” he says. “We heard the stories but we didn’t live the war directly. It was easier for us to talk about reconciliation. From 2010 till now, we create literature about what it might be like to be a country at peace.”

“I think our predecessors could only portray the violence, but they hadn’t time to process and see the complexity behind those issues. We are more reflective. We are testing and allowed to be a different country, to tell a different story. Not the story about the massacre or the kidnapping or the narco-terrorist but instead about, for example, a magical jungle naïf culture.” There are lots of writers like myself who want to write a different country, a different culture—if we don’t we are reliving again and again our violent past. We are reforming, reaffirming, our nation. It’s like starting again.”

I ask him about limitations he has felt due to his social class or sexuality, and he agrees that in Colombia the class divisions are problematic. His family was not rich, and yet he has been afforded opportunities. “But I’m maybe one in ten thousand,” he says.

Arévalo finds that his identity as a gay man has been less of a hurdle. “Literature is one of the worlds that is really open to gender equality. I actually find that being a gay man is better than being a woman in this world. You are still a man in this very machoistic culture.” He describes a recent scandal that is still resonating in the Colombian literary world. In 2017, France and Colombia celebrated a year dedicated to cultural exchange and appreciation, a Temporadas Cruzadas that committed the two governments to cross-cultural events at festivals, theaters, museums, universities, businesses, and other forums throughout the year. In December, as the year was drawing to a close, the Colombian Ministry of Culture selected ten prominent Colombian authors to represent the country on a literary panel in Paris. But the authors chosen were all men, and the biased selection raised the ire of female Colombian writers. A novelist named Carolina Sanin published a letter in a Bogotano newspaper that rocketed her to prominence. 

I contact her and request an interview, but she does not reply and word comes back that she is hesitant to grant in-person interviews in English. So instead, I arrange to interview her editor.
 

Salomé Cohen Monroy greets me at the ground floor entrance to Laguna Libros, a small independent publishing house located in a simple, two-story brick building painted blue with its door flush onto the sidewalk. We are situated just east of the Universidad Nacional in the city center. The neighborhood here is composed of narrow blocks that were once residential and now appear to be populated by small companies. Cohen is twenty-five with auburn hair. She sports a pair of peach-colored, horn-rimmed glasses, wears a leopard-print blouse, bird earrings, and brick-colored Doc Martins with yellow laces. We ascend a narrow set of stairs to a conference table on a second floor landing between two offices. 

Cohen explains that the publishing house’s original plan was to sell inexpensive art books to students and less wealthy art fans. Rather than producing colorful but pricey coffee table books, they made smaller books in black-and-white. “It didn’t work,” she says. So they fell back on plan B: reprinting forgotten or overlooked books by Colombian authors. And they stumbled onto several hits. The first was Baranquilla 2132, a sort of Colombian 1984. Originally published in the 1930s by José Antonio Osorio Lizarazo, it sold well when they re-published it in 2011. Another success has been a collection of letters entitled Memoria por Correspondencia written by Emma Reyes, a Colombian artist and friend of Frida Kahlo, who was famous for her 1960s Parisian salon. The letters, addressed to the Colombian historian and journalist Germán Arciénagas, describe the artist’s horrific childhood.

“We started with a two-thousand-book print run, and in two weeks we needed more,” Cohen says. To date, they’ve sold twenty-three thousand copies. “Which is a lot for the Colombian market.” 

After the book’s national success, Laguna Libros signed deals for translations in eighteen languages including a deal with Penguin Random House for an English edition with the author’s cut from the contract going to an orphanage stipulated by the deceased painter. That edition, entitled The Book of Emma Reyes, was released to acclaim in the United States by Penguin last October.

Cohen confesses that during high school she was “not especially into literature.” She read books about girls with eating disorders and other types of young adult literature. She grew up in Bogotá in an upper-middle-class family. Her mother had been a bohemian who moved in art circles, and when a teacher that Cohen’s mother respected opened a new school devoted to the arts in a new campus, she enrolled her three children. Cohen was the youngest. 

The school, Gimnasio Fontana, was designed by the famed Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona. Active throughout the ’60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, Salmona used red brick to construct buildings with warm organic spaces, curved facades, and public areas featuring trees and grasses. His buildings spawned imitation, and today large swaths of the northeastern Colombian enclaves of Bogotá feature smart, brick apartment complexes interwoven with shade trees and parks. 

Not only did Cohen attend a school designed by the architect, but she currently resides in his most famous work, the Torres del Parque, a pair of residential towers that hover over the Bogotá bullring and the neighboring planetarium. Cohen’s friend, a journalist and magazine editor studying at Columbia University in New York City, has allowed Cohen the use of his apartment while he is away. The buildings rise in cylindrical towers with wings that unfurl like a toreador’s cape. Their presence has revitalized La Macarena, the residential neighborhood at their base, which is near the city center. 

A strong student, Cohen attended the Universidad de los Andes. She began as a political science major, but halfway through her degree discovered that she was more enthralled with books and began taking literature courses. Upon graduating, she applied for jobs with publishing houses, found work manning a booth at the annual Bogotá book fair, then used the connections she made there to hop scotch to her current job with Laguna Libros. She’s been at the press for three years.

Cohen describes a local publishing industry dominated by two or three multinationals with limited avenues for new writers. There are no literary agents. “Well, one Colombian agent,” she says, “but she lives in New York.” When an author signs with Laguna Libros, the publisher splits any foreign publishing deals with the writer. 

Since their start eleven years ago, the publishing house has established three distinct lines of books: overlooked Colombian books, literary fiction by contemporary authors from throughout Spanish America, and a line of graphic novels, sometimes originals and sometimes texts republished from other Spanish-speaking countries.

One successful book in their contemporary line takes place in the Chapinero neighborhood, a bohemian district favored by gay men. Cohen points out that there are many bookstores in the district, and the novel sells well there. One of the publisher’s graphic novels is Uncle Bill, originally published in Mexico, which details the day a drug-addled William Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife with a pistol (he was aiming for the glass she was balancing on her head). 

During our interview, Felipe González, Cohen’s boss and the founder of Laguna Libros, a bearded man of thirty-four, steps out from his neighboring office and I ask him if Colombian publishers have faced government censorship or threats from the many previously warring parties in the country. González and Cohen smile at the question. There have been political assassinations of newspaper editors in the past, they say, but the various combatants in the country have tended to ignore literary publishers as inconsequential. Some bestselling authors, like Jorge Franco Ramos—whose novel Rosario Tijeras, which has sold more than two hundred thousand copies—have had to contend with pirate publishers selling cheap copies on the streets, but the pair say the pirates don’t waste their time stealing from smaller publishers.

Cohen oversees the line of contemporary novels. To date, she has published more women than men, she says, but she believes this to be unintentional. “It happened spontaneously,” she says. “The things we were getting from women were better than from men. Also if I get a manuscript that’s machista [chauvinist] then I don’t like it.”

At present, the publisher is also working in partnership with the Bogotá municipal government to organize a novel contest open to any Colombian woman writer. Submissions are read by men and women, both Colombian and international judges.

When Cohen isn’t reading submissions, editing books, and organizing contests, she is working on her own writing. She has written articles and book reviews for various online publications, including a story about Bogotá prostitutes and an opinion piece in protest of society’s insistence that women depilate. As part of her efforts to improve as a writer, she has signed up for several creative writing workshops.

A fairly recent phenomenon in Colombia, workshops in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry can be found across the city. Several book stores host eight-week seminars, held weekly and taught by established authors at a typical cost of $175. Creative writing classes are also offered by the municipal authority. These six-month workshops, which typically meet on Saturdays for four hours, are free but require an application and work sample; space is limited, so students must win admittance. 

“People from all social provenances attend,” Cohen says of the workshops. The writing tends to be strong, and the classes have helped her improve her writing while also placing her in circles with talented emerging writers. 

As our conversation winds down, I snap her photo with a borrowed camera, and she helps me call a taxi, but then she recalls an incident of a different kind of literary censorship. Offended by the contents of a book entitled El Tio (The Uncle) by Félix Marin, a powerful and wealthy family supposedly purchased every copy of the publisher’s print run and then had them burned. 

“Every copy?” I ask.

“That’s the story,” she says.

It’s an interesting example, one that I can’t help but compare to the ways people in power work to censor art—and often entire communities—in the United States. Buying the entire print run effectively pays off the publisher and the writer, and enables one to legally squelch an embarrassing tell-all book. It’s censorship, but in capitalist, right-leaning countries, it’s the accepted kind. 

The next evening, I return with some friends to meet Cohen at her apartment, which has a spectacular view of the city. She leads us down into the blocks along the hillside across the street from her home. I’ve been cautioned about wandering too deep into this neighborhood by myself, and Cohen agrees that it would not be wise for a foreigner to explore too far; however, the streets are lined with bars and restaurants. We step into Café Popular, where Cohen greets the manager and the bartender, who recommends a round of flaming gin-and-tonics. Cohen is delighted. She talks about the upcoming Bogotá book fair as we sip our drinks, and there is no need to ask her how she feels about the peace process or the prospects for her country; her opinion is evident in her enthusiasm. Clearly, she and other young people are ready to write the next chapter of Colombia’s story, one in which the guns have been refashioned as pens and celebrity chefs and mixologists have bumped the criminals and narcos off the stages of fame.

 

Here would be a nice place to end, but I have one final voice to introduce. Hector Abad is a sixty-year-old author from Medellín who was best known for his hyperrealist novels before he released his memoir, El Olvido que Seremos (Forgetting What We Will), published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2006 as Oblivion: A Memoir. The book is a plaintive reflection upon his father’s murder. More than that, it is a Proustian examination of Abad’s childhood, his father’s love, and the author’s own encroaching death. In interviews and publicity photos, the author has gray hair, a neat gray beard, and glasses. During a guest appearance on the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” on CNN, he displays a gentle good humor. 

Abad is in Morocco on a literary tour when I visit Colombia, so we exchange questions and answers via e-mail. When I ask him if his country has changed since he published Oblivion, he points out that Medellín was once the most violent city in the world and that now it isn’t even on the list of the top fifty most violent cities. He points out that homicides in his hometown have fallen from 7,500 per year to under a thousand. “We were in hell,“ he writes, “now we are in purgatory.” 

Abad says he is optimistic about the peace process, pointing out that in the last election cycle the political party representing the FARC, one of the former Marxist guerilla groups, participated in the voting and succeeded in winning a few Senate seats. Things appear to be changing.

I ask him how these changes have influenced his writing. 

“Writing about violence was not normal or natural for me,” he responds. “If I did that, it was because violence came into my own home. I couldn’t avoid the argument.”

If I have learned anything from dipping into the literary world of Colombia, it is that violence entered people’s homes without knocking. There are more than fifty million Colombians. When I said at the beginning of this essay that there were no innocent parties in the Colombian civil wars, I was writing too quickly. I meant that among the various armed and warring parties, each shared some of the blame. What I neglected to mention was that the vast majority of Colombians were neither armed nor warring; the vast majority were not interested in war—they were innocent, and they were victims. The writers among them reflected these experiences in their plays, stories, and poems.

Now, as a country that for so long was defined by war emerges from that stretch of darkness, its writers and artists appear ready to turn the focus of their lives and their work toward anything else. 

“Now I am working in subjects less political and much more personal,” Abad says. “Love, beauty, money, art, friendship, envy, greed, passion, natural death, big data, social media. The subjects we all are more interested in when murder is not around.”

 

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He has reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, Albania, China, Denmark, Egypt, Jordan, Myanmar, Rome, Vietnam, North Korea, and Syria. He currently lives in Maine.
 

(Photos by Patrick O’Brien. Vásquez and Pinilla by Stephen Morison Jr.)
 

Salomé Cohen Monroy

Censored Stories: Report From Literary Myanmar

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

11.1.08

I am in Yangon, the
largest city of Myanmar, for only three days before Cyclone Nargis sweeps across
the country, driving a tidal surge inland from the Bay of Bengal, killing
nearly 85,000 people, and displacing as many as 800,000. But before the cyclone
strikes, before the streets are flooded and the electricity goes out and the
phone lines are knocked down by huge trees pulled from the ground, I travel the
countryside to get a glimpse of everyday life in this Southeast Asian country,
which, with no official warning of the storm from the government, is quiet and
calm.

I cross the Yangon River on a ferryboat and accept a guided
tour from a gregarious and enterprising bicycle rickshaw driver named Kyi.
Rectangular ponds for fish farming dot the right side of a narrow road. The
ponds are surrounded by tall, leafy trees: acacias, tamarinds, and palms. Farther
back sit wood huts with corrugated tin roofs. Hopping off the rickshaw, I
follow Kyi down a brick path that’s disappearing into the dry soil, beneath
some nutmegs, to an open market.

“Can I take a picture?” I say, standing before a squatting,
fly-covered man with a black eye and a butcher’s knife. He’s separating organs
from a bluish white pile of cow innards. Kyi nods happily, but before I can
raise my camera, a man wearing a blue jumpsuit steps out from behind a fish
stall and clucks his tongue. Kyi tells me to put the camera away. Later, as we
walk back to the road, I ask him who the man was. “Government informant,” Kyi
says blandly.

Any examination of the writing life in Myanmar, formerly
known as Burma, must begin with a discussion of censorship and repression. In
the Orwellian police state that is Myanmar—the country has been under military
rule since 1962, when General Ne Win staged a coup that dismantled a civilian
government—everybody is scared of the authorities, but to be a writer is to
actively invite attention. The state censors must approve all printed matter.
In order to encourage self-censorship, the authorities review written works
after printing but before distribution. Anything they don’t like must be
removed, and if a censor doesn’t like an entire book or issue of a magazine or
newspaper, the whole print run is destroyed. Writers who attempt to subvert the
system and hide messages in their work risk arrest. In January, when the poet
Saw Wai hid a political message that criticized the current military dictator,
Senior General Than Shwe, in a love poem, he was arrested and sent to Insein
(pronounced “insane”) Prison.

Foreign writers and journalists aren’t permitted in the
country. The American Center in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), a walled and guarded
library and English language center affiliated with the American embassy (and
heavily monitored by the Burmese secret police), invited Paul Theroux to come
and read during the week I was in the country. According to my contacts at the
American Center, Theroux accepted, but the government denied him a visa.
Similarly, the author Roy Kesey had planned to join me and write an article of
his own, but he admitted to being a writer when an embassy official called and
grilled him about his visa application, and he was rejected. The writer Imma
Vitelli, a foreign correspondent for the Italian Vanity
Fair
, applied to enter the country two weeks after I left but, like
most journalists trying to enter the country to cover the aftermath of the
cyclone, she was denied.

For my part, I wrote “teacher” in the box on the application
that asked me to identify my profession, and I was granted a tourist visa. I
spent the trip contacting writers on phones I presumed to be bugged,
interviewing authors I presumed to be watched, and wondering when the
authorities would seize me and put me on the next flight out. Sadly, I felt
less conspicuous, and therefore safer, after the cyclone swept Yangon. With so
much chaos and destruction, I assumed the security forces were too distracted
to track me.

Now that I’m out of the country, I’m faced with a dilemma.
How do I write about the things I learned without risking the lives of the
Burmese authors who spoke with me? Previous Western writers have simply changed
the facts to obscure their sources, but such efforts can end up sounding poorly
researched and slightly incredible (when they are actually neither). Some of my
interview subjects, unwilling to be intimidated, have allowed me to use their
names, but I have tried to protect others by changing their names and other
pertinent characteristics.

Despite its poverty and
dispiriting censorship, Myanmar is a highly literate country. With a per capita
income of less than two hundred dollars a year, it’s one of the poorest nations
on the planet, but 90 percent of its roughly fifty million citizens can read.

In Yangon, bookstores and magazine stands are ubiquitous.
Sellers of secondhand books operate in open-air stalls along the sidewalks of
Pansodan Street across from the brick clock towers of the colonial-era High
Court building, which is surrounded by a twelve-foot-high chain-link fence and
guarded by sentries. Plastic sheeting protects their stacks of books from the
occasional rainstorm.

 

At the Sule Pagoda, the gilt
and marble temple at the center of the old city, and also at the Shwedagon
Pagoda, the massive, luminous, hilltop temple north of the city where Buddhists
burn incense and press their foreheads to the marble pavilions beneath carved
icons and golden spires, there are arcades with bookstores selling copies of
the ancient Pali texts—the canon of Theravada Buddhism—that formed the entirety
of the written word here before the arrival of the British in 1824. (By 1886,
the country had been established as a province of British India; in 1937 it
became a separate, self-governing colony; eleven years later, the nation became
an independent republic, but democratic rule ended in 1962.) In addition to the
original texts, modern novels based on the religious stories are popular in the
bookstores that dot the city’s downtown.

The helpful owner of the Bagan Bookshop, located in two neat
rooms on Thirty-seventh Street, searches his shelves for me and locates a
bootleg copy of the stories of Burmese writer Thein Pe Myint. An American
graduate student, Patricia M. Milne, who worked under Anna Allott, the English
grande dame of Burmese literary studies, translated the book in 1975. Thein Pe
Myint wrote in the 1930s and 1940s while he fought for freedom from the
British, and he offers the native alternative to Orwell’s imperial perspective.
The opening story in the book begins with news of a storm: “The banyan and
tamarind trees were swaying, while the smaller trees and bushes were
practically prostrate, just like little chickens cringing in fear of a kite.” I
read these lines as cyclone winds begin to break over the city, causing the
corrugated tin roof of the home beneath my hotel window to flap and bang.

Short stories deemed
acceptable by Burmese censors generally follow the socialist realist model.
They are patriotic or nationalist; they promote selflessness; they say
something nice about love or hard work; they end with a moral. I meet with the
short story writer and translator U San in a crumbling, colonial-era villa not
far from the vast new American embassy, a short drive from the Shwedagon
Temple. A taxi drops me by the open gate, and I walk up a short driveway, past
an overgrown lawn, onto a rotting porch where I tug on a tarnished brass pull.
U San answers the door in a white singlet and a green plaid longyi, the traditional
sarong-like garment worn by both men and women in Myanmar. Like all the writers
I meet with in Myanmar, U San can speak English. After some brief pleasantries,
he tells me he is upset because the censor has just rejected an article he
wrote.

“It was supposed to go here,” he says, holding up a newspaper
and showing me the advertisement that occupies the space on the page where his
article was scheduled to appear. “There was nothing political in it. It was an
article about the Burmese language. The censor just didn’t agree with my
perspective.”

He leads me into a pleasant sitting room with high ceilings
and a towering glass-fronted mahogany cabinet crowded with small icons. The
collection includes numerous brass bodhisattvas, a porcelain Chairman Mao
smoking a cigar in a wicker chair, and a bust of Shakespeare. An accomplished teacher
in his sixties, U San has a slender aristocratic bearing and thinning white
hair that he sweeps straight back across a mottled scalp. In between lectures
about the evolution of the contemporary short story in Myanmar, he fusses and
shuffles about like the unassuming detective Father Brown in the old G. K.
Chesterton stories—a clever man projecting a simple facade. He offers me tea,
but then forgets to bring it and instead returns with a stack of his
translations.

“I haven’t written any stories since my student days,” he
says. “I’m a translator.” He shows me his first anthology of translated
stories, published in 1969. “It was a best-seller and went through three
editions. Before this, Burmese stories were just nursery rhymes and Pali tales,
but afterward, they began to experiment.”

The anthology is a paperback survey of writers from the
Western canon. It starts with Defoe, offers excerpts from Austen, Hawthorne,
and Dickens, then samples the American modernists and ends with a story by
Updike. Over the course of the 1970s, the collection transformed the Burmese
writing scene and drew criticism from Burmese academics, who accused its
translator of promoting Western tastes and values at the expense of Burmese
traditions, U San says. In the years since, he has published other translations
that cover the same basic periods, but he supports himself through his
teaching.

He explains that the first Western-style novel to be printed
in Myanmar was a retelling of The
Count of Monte Cristo
. Around 1900, the Burmese writer James Hla
Gyaw published Maung Yin Maung
Ma Me Ma
, which reset the Dumas novel in Burma and proved to be very
popular.

U San lifts one of his own anthologies. “I had to change the
name of this one. I named it A
Jury of Her Peers
after the Susan Glaspell story that is in it. But
the government thought the her
was Suu Kyi,” he says, referring to the leader of the Myanmar opposition party
who has been under house arrest for thirteen of the last eighteen years. “I had
to change it before the publisher could release it.”

I glance out the window, beneath a dusty curtain, and watch
an Indian almond tree swaying violently. Earlier in the day I was at the
American Cultural Center, where an American acquaintance warned me that a
cyclone was going to strike Yangon later that evening. U San says he has heard
about the coming storm from a friend. Although U San is hospitable, I’m worried
that the rains will begin and I’ll be stranded with him. After a bit more
polite discussion, I apologize and walk back to the road to find a taxi.

As I’m thanking him, I ask him how much I can quote from our
conversation for this article. He offers me a bemused Father Brown smile and
says, “I have said nothing political.” I nod but am not sure what to think. His
complaints about the censors are clearly political. In the end, the threat
posed by the junta has forced me to change his name and alter descriptions of
his home.

The storm arrives that
evening at 11:30. I suffer through a sleepless night listening as the hotel’s
windows smash and the corrugated panels of the neighboring rooftop slap and
eventually fly away. At two in the morning, the ancient tamarind tree growing
out of the sidewalk in front of the hotel comes crashing down on the
three-story rooftop, causing the whole structure to shudder. By three, the
hotel has begun to leak; water seeps down from the ruined roof, dripping
through the ceilings of the rooms and flooding the corridors. By daylight, the
power is out across the city, and the shortages begin. By the time the trees
have been chopped to pieces by teams of patient men with simple hand tools (machetes,
axes, and handsaws) and vehicles can begin to get through, the cost of gasoline
has tripled.

In isolated corners of the
city, I discover that, miraculously, some telephones are working. I borrow the
hotel owner’s mobile phone (which I learned was a rare and expensive luxury in
Myanmar when I walked into a cell phone store and was told that, although
phones were being sold as status symbols, no SIM
cards were available without government permission and $2,500). Using the
borrowed cell phone, I reach several more writers and arrange to meet them.
Taxis are no longer an option, so I trek across the city, weaving around, over,
and even through downed trees that have fallen onto the electrical and
telephone lines, webbing the streets with wires.

I meet with Chit Oo Nyo in his modest flat, one floor up from
the numbered streets just north of the imperial-era Strand Hotel. Thankfully,
his apartment has escaped major damage, but he’s without electricity and has to
carry water up from the street. He introduces himself as simply “Mr. Chit.” His
wife, “Lady Chit,” is a bright, plump woman who sits across from us and fans us
with a plastic fan while we talk. I’m still sweating from the walk through the
humid streets. Mr. Chit leaves a lit flashlight on the table. On a daybed in
the shadows at the back of the room sit his silent, bald mother and his
similarly silent sister; both of them appear to be meditating.

Mr. Chit has written and published sixty-two books. His
novels are often based on the tales from Hindu legends (stories incorporated
into Myanmar’s Buddhist belief system much as Christians incorporated the
Jewish Old Testament into theirs), and they are all set in the ancient past.
One of his most famous books is a retelling of the Ramayana, a poem attributed to the Sanskrit
poet Valmiki, who lived in 400 BCE. “The
conservatives condemn me because I’ve reversed some elements,” he says. Much
like John Gardner’s Grendel,
which retells Beowulf
from the perspective of the monster, Mr. Chit’s book is told from the
perspective of the Ramayana‘s
antagonist, the ten-headed ogre Ravana.

Lady Chit brings me tea while Mr. Chit takes puffs of a long
brown cheroot with a silver band and drinks coffee. “I don’t have a schedule,”
he says. “I write for three or four hours a day. Some days I don’t write; I
can’t. I need not only the will but also the inspiration. Sometimes I can’t
help writing, as if the words are streaming out.” He adjusts his square
glasses. “I don’t use a computer; I write with my own hand on blank paper—I
don’t want to confine my words even between two lines.”

He is currently working on
a novel that reflects the client-state relationship that exists between Myanmar
and China. Several of the Burmese I have met have complained that Chinese
executives are taking over the country, and my acquaintances at the American
Center explain that the Chinese government is heavily invested in Myanmar’s oil
and raw materials. Mr. Chit’s novel, set in the ninth century, avoids
contemporary politics by focusing on the relationship between the Burmese Pyu
dynasty and the Chinese Later Han dynasty.

Mr. Chit’s father was a choreographer of Burmese traditional
dances; in the novelist’s apartment there is a glass cabinet lined with small
statuettes of Burmese dancers. Mr. Chit tells me he has written a story in
English about the figurines that was published in a local magazine. It’s about
how the figurines come to life and finish a story after the writer falls
asleep. It begins: “Dr. Maheinda, enjoying the moonlight, opened the window of
his study (which was also his reading room, his research room and his library).
He felt pleased the air-conditioner did not work as the electricity had gone
out. Not relying on the generator or the battery, he lit the Waso [a Buddhist
celebration held in July] candles. But under the moonlight, the candlelight was
brassy and ugly, so he put it out.”

Mr. Chit’s novels and stories reflect the oldest traditions
in Burmese literature, the Pali religious stories. It is a market he has tapped
successfully, but when I ask him if writing sixty-two novels makes for a
profitable career in Myanmar, Mr. Chit puffs on his cheroot and tells me he
would prefer not to answer. He says no more, but I can interpret his silence:
To answer would mean criticizing the government, and that is something Mr. Chit
is careful not to do.

The second afternoon following the storm, I meet with
the poet Pyin Thu in a third-floor studio on Sule Paya Road, where he holds
his English-language classes. He has a dark ponytail and wears steel-rimmed
glasses, a purple longyi, and a chartreuse
collared T-shirt. Despite occasional problems with censorship, he has published
poems and articles in a number of prestigious Burmese literary magazines and
has translated the writings of Kenneth Goldsmith into Burmese. He has a poem in
English forthcoming in the New Mexico-based arts magazine THE. His first collection of poetry was published in
Myanmar in 2005.

On the round wooden table where we sit and talk, there is a
copy of Dave Eggers’s A
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
(Simon & Schuster, 2000)
and Christopher Merrill’s Things
of a Hidden God
(Random House, 2005). Pyin Thu describes his poetry
as postmodern, but this isn’t something he strives for. “This came to me
naturally, according to my experience,” he says. “In my life meaning is not
fixed. [We] always talk about chaos and uncertainty in life, how the reality
you see is not the reality that is happening around you.”

Outside, the city has been transformed by the storm: The
colonial-era buildings downtown are missing their roofs, the glass lobby of the
Asia Plaza Hotel is gutted, and the streets are a labyrinth of wires, branches,
trunks, and twisted signs. Meanwhile, from their new, undamaged capital to the
north, the government estimates that hundreds have died. In actuality, that
number may be closer to a hundred thousand. But Pyin Thu isn’t really talking
about this kind of difference in perspective. Instead, he says, he’s referring
to the metaphysical possibilities such absurd discrepancies suggest. “There can
be another alternate reality beyond your senses. Whenever I write poetry, I try
to show the bridge between Reality A and Reality B.”

He lets me look at some selections from his second poetry
collection and explains that the censors, who are uncertain whether his
preference for aesthetics over literal meaning isn’t somehow obscuring a
politically charged message, have rejected it. His face grows sober as he tells
me this, and he admits that the censorship has led to a debilitating depression
that occasionally affects his writing.

Pyin Thu is forty-seven with two children: a daughter about
to go off to college and a son already studying to be a doctor. He’s of Chinese
descent, a minority that currently comprises about 3 percent of the Burmese
population. I ask him about his literary
influences, and he lists Plath, Hughes, Auden, and the contemporary poet
Charles Bernstein. He’s also a fan of the Burmese “khit san” writers, a Burmese
avant-garde who, in the 1920s, abandoned the traditional florid style favored
by the Buddhist writers and experimented with simpler, secular forms.

We talk for more than an hour, and he grows excited as he
discusses his philosophies. He’s looking forward to an upcoming trip to the
American southwest (his exit visa has been approved) when he will meet with
writers and read his poetry. “I can’t stop writing,” he admits. “I always say,
‘No more, nothing else.’ But it just keeps on coming out.”

It is unusual for a contemporary Burmese author’s work to be
translated into English, but in September Hyperion released Smile As They
Bow
by Nu Nu Yi Inwe. The novel, about a
Burmese transvestite, a controversial subject in communist and conservative
Myanmar, was censored for twelve years before being published in its native
language. Its translation was almost immediately short-listed for the
ten-thousand-dollar Man Asian Literary Prize. The attention earned the writer
an invitation to read at a literary festival in Korea, but it also made her
cautious.

When I call and ask to meet with her in the days before the
storm, she hesitates. “I’ll call you back at your hotel,” she says.

“In Myanmar, they can revoke your permission to leave the
country at any time and for any reason,” another writer tells me. “Even at the
airport they can change their minds and say, ‘No, you can’t go.'”

In the midst of processing her visa to Korea, Nu Nu Yi Inwe
decides it is not a convenient time to meet with a visiting writer from the
United States.

The day before I leave
Myanmar on my return flight to Beijing, I arrange to meet Dr. Ma Thida. An
earlier meeting we arranged was delayed by the cyclone, but on Monday she
suggests that we meet in the restaurant of the City Star Hotel, behind the old
City Hall near Sule Pagoda and within sight of the storm-ruined High Court
building. She sounded uncertain on her telephone, which clicked and faded as we
spoke.

Dr. Ma Thida is a medical doctor as well as the author of the
novel The Sunflower
and the short story collection In
the Shade of an Indian Almond Tree,
both of which are banned in
Myanmar. In the early nineties, she aligned herself with the Burmese opposition
leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Her activism resulted in
her arrest and secret trial. She spent six years in Insein Prison, much of it
in solitary confinement, until international efforts earned her release in
1999. In recent years, she has lectured at the University of Iowa and Yale
University, and shortly before my visit to Myanmar, Brown University selected
her to receive the International Writers Project Fellowship, a one-year residency
designed to help writers who are unable to work freely in their home countries.

On the Monday after the storm, I make the trek through the
eastern neighborhoods to the City Star Hotel, which is still without power. I
arrive fifteen minutes before our appointed time and take the exterior stairs
to the quiet, second-floor restaurant. In the powerless gloom, the fans are
still and no food is available. Sunlight, thick with dust motes, angles past
curtains on the windows that line the south side of the room. Despite the
motionless air and burdensome heat, three men sit at a round table in the
center of the room.

I order a warm Coke—the
hotel doesn’t carry the cheaper Burmese brands like Lemon Sparkling—and take
out my copy of Thein Pe Myint’s short stories. I find a story written in 1938
that begins: “The monsoon skies were ominously dark over Rangoon. Above the wet
green trees and the red buildings, the High Court clock tower stood out tall
against the threatening sky. The big clock face, very white against the dark
background, showed the time as half past six.” A block away, the cyclone has
knocked the white face out of the clock tower, leaving a gaping hole. As I turn
the pages, I sneak glances at the people seated at the center table. Two are
stocky, middle-aged Burmese men, their frames suggestive of ex-athletes. One
has a pitted face and wears a Hawaiian shirt. The other has on a black collared
T-shirt. Both wear slacks and smoke. The third member of the group is a
younger, slender man with Indian features. They do not talk or order drinks.
The waiters do not approach their table. I wonder if they are members of the
Burmese intelligence assigned to monitor my meeting with the writer. This is
the paranoia encouraged by the police state. I’ve learned to worry; during
interviews, I lower my voice to ask certain questions, even when nobody is
near.

At 2:30, the exact time the author proposed for our meeting,
a member of the hotel staff approaches me with his hand outstretched. “Are you
Mr. Steve?” he says. “I am sorry, but Dr. Ma Thida has given me a message. She
cannot come. Do you have a message to give to her?” He offers me a piece of
paper to write on.

page_5: 

I ask him to tell her that perhaps we can meet at Brown
University in late summer. Weeks after my trip to Myanmar, fiction writer
Robert Coover, who oversees the fellowship at Brown, tells me that Dr. Ma Thida
appears to be suffering from “a certain amount of electronic surveillance and
harassment during her present stay in Myanmar.” His impression is based on the
fact that the doctor’s e-mail accounts keep getting deleted, and he apologizes
for not being able to offer me a working e-mail address to contact her. She has
been given permission to go south into the Irrawaddy Delta, he tells me, and
she has been working long hours treating the cyclone victims.

I think back to something
an English-speaking Burmese told me as I walked back from the City Star Hotel
the day Dr. Ma Thida canceled our appointment. As we watched a handful of men
work at the trees with machetes, the stranger turned to me. “In a country where
there is no help from the government, we help ourselves,” he said, then quickly
slipped back into the crowd.

On the plane ride from Yangon back to Beijing, I sit
next to a German salesman dressed in black slacks and a black short-sleeved
button-down with a black Rolex on his wrist. His name is Peter, and he is
sixty. His wife is Burmese and from a powerful political family, and Peter
maintains profitable relationships with the ruling junta. He makes a good
living supplying several small factories scattered throughout the country with
spare parts. He tells me that his wife oversees a small medical clinic that he
funds in a town north of Yangon. This fact makes me want to overlook his social
and business connections with the ruling junta—until he begins to generalize
about both the regime and the Burmese people.

“They’re lazy,” Peter
says, then explains that without the military junta in charge, the people’s
indolence would cause them to starve to death. He’s certain that the
dictatorship will do everything necessary to care for the victims of the
cyclone in the south. It’s Peter’s contention that a regime that routinely
tortures its political opponents, that represses its artists and censors its
writers, a regime that held a free election in 1990 then locked many of the
victors in jail, is necessary to keep a country that is among the poorest in
the world from slipping further into poverty and despair.

Although I’ve changed the
names and descriptions of several people I met while writing this article,
sadly, Peter has not been fictionalized in any way.

Postscript: As I write this, more than eight weeks have
passed since my trip, and an estimated two million rice farmers are still
suffering from the effects of the cyclone. The military junta continues to
restrict access to the area and appears more intent on suppressing the efforts
of Burmese citizens to spread videos and firsthand accounts of the devastation
than they are in assisting efforts to distribute food and medical care to the
victims.

Robert Coover recently
wrote me a second note stating that Ma Thida would be happy to correspond with
me by e-mail, and I have exchanged several messages with her. In them, she
describes her work at a free Muslim clinic in Yangon working with cyclone
victims. “They, the delta people, have been ignored by both the government and
international NGOs in terms of health care for so long,” she writes. “So we
sadly found the medical needs of the delta to be huge. Health care facilities
and infrastructure are so weak there. On top of that, most medical teams just
focused on clinical treatment and they didn’t provide any follow-up activities
and health educational activities. So we fulfilled that blank.”

I ask her how her work as
a doctor is related to her writing. “I love to be with and work with people,”
she writes. “That is what made me become a medical doctor and writer. Listening
to people’s feelings, thoughts, and suffering inspired me to treat or help them
and write about them. My area of specialization is general surgery. I love
surgery a lot. Beneath the skin, everything is awesome, wonderful and
different. To correct, repair and remake weakness and abnormality of body parts
is such an interesting work for me. While I do surgery, I am feeling I am doing
an art.”

She reports that her
first and only novel was allowed to be published by “the scrutiny board” in
1993, but several months later she was arrested for “endangering the public
peace, having contact with illegal organizations, and distributing unlawful
literature,” and it was banned. After her release in 1999 (international
pressure from organizations like Amnesty International and foreign governments
succeeded in commuting her sentence), editors were reluctant to print her work,
and the censors rejected her short stories. It wasn’t until “late 2000,” when
she wrote some nonfiction articles, that she was permitted to publish again.

“Finally, I can write
now, but still under thorough scrutiny. But I love writing. I can’t help it. I
can’t stop sharing my feelings, thoughts, knowledge, empathy, concerns and
blessings with people and readers. So I continue writing.”

Stephen
Morison Jr.
teaches literature and writing at School Year Abroad
China in Beijing. His article “Chinese Characters: Report From Literary
Beijing” appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Poets
& Writers Magazine
.

Literary Myanmar

Despite its poverty and dispiriting censorship, Myanmar is a highly literate country. Last spring freelance writer Stephen Morison Jr. traveled to Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, to visit its many bookstores and interview some of the local authors. He was there for only three days before Cyclone Nargis swept across the country, killing nearly 85,000 people.

Bagan Bookshop

Image: 
The Bagan Bookshop is located in two neat rooms on Thirty-seventh Street in Yangon.

Kyaw Thein Literature

Image: 

Stacks of books rise to the ceiling of Kyaw Thein Literature, one of the many open-air stalls along the sidewalks of downtown Yangon.

Pansodan Street Bookseller

Image: 

In Yangon, bookstores and magazine stands are ubiquitous. Plastic sheeting protects stacks of books in the open-air stalls along Pansodan Street.

Seven Bookstore

Image: 

A hand-written sign invites passersby to visit the Seven Bookstore in Yangon.

Seven Bookstore 2

Image: 
The long, narrow interior of Seven Bookstore in downtown Yangon.

The Cyclone Hits

Image: 

Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in early May, flooding the streets of Yangon, knocking out electricity and phone service, and killing tens of thousands of people. It was the worst natural history disaster ever recorded in the history of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

The Cyclone Hits 2

Image: 
A resident of Yangon clutches an umbrella as Cyclone Nargis sweeps across Myanmar in early May.

The Day After Cyclone Nargis

Image: 

Residents walk through the streets of Yangon the day after the storm flattened trees and knocked out electricity and phone service.

The Day After Cyclone Nargis 2

Image: 

Several hours after Cyclone Nargis hit Yangon, the ancient tamarind tree growing out of the sidewalk of the author’s hotel came crashing down on the three-story rooftop, causing the whole structure to shudder.

The Rising Fortunes of the Chinese Expat Scene

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

4.16.08

When I glance back over the notes from my recent interview with expatriate fiction writer Roy Kesey in Beijing, I notice the things I’ve written in a section devoted to his early years in particular: Parents devout Christians. Father college administrator who taught him to play the stock market when he was “ten or so.” Roy deferred paying tuition to Georgetown to “work the penny stocks” and lost it during the Black Monday crash of 1987. Had to leave Georgetown. Applied for and won scholarship to Oxford University. Studied philosophy and literature.

Each factoid is rich with information, yet it is their proximity to one another—all these slightly paradoxical bits neatly aligned in a list—that makes them startling. In a scattershot interview that lasts more than an hour, Kesey never offers me a simple or a bland explanation, never allows my mind to begin to wander, never gives me a moment to jot down a general observation when a specific story is at its root. His life, like his fiction, reminds me of the murals of Zak Smith or the “combines” of Robert Rauschenberg: Its majesty derives from the confluence of the mini-units, the way the fascinating details cohere and form a whole that you can see without having to squint.

After college, the writer whose “Dispatches” from Beijing are one of the bright spots on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and who last year signed a four-book deal with Dzanc Books—the first of which, the story collection All Over, was published last October—spent time teaching at universities in France and Peru before accompanying his Peruvian wife to China. “Juan Morillo is a Peruvian writer I really respect,” Kesey says. “He’s been in Beijing for the last thirty-two years.” Kesey, together with his wife, Lu (a diplomat), and two kids, have been here for five.

Kesey answers my questions while enjoying an espresso at Beijing’s Bookworm Café, a setting that’s part-library, part-restaurant, part-performance space, part-bookstore. There are black tables, black faux-wicker chairs, spinning ceiling fans, cabinet-sized Chinese air conditioners in the corners, bookshelves lining the walls, and a mixture of bee-bop, electronica, and rock emanating at low volume from the sound system. I ask him about other Latin American writers he enjoys. “I’m a big Borges fan,” he says, “but I really love [Julio] Cortázar. He’s Argentinean, sort of a half-generation after Borges.”

Until recently, Kesey, Morillo, and others have been atypical members of Beijing’s expat writing scene. The majority of English language books published by Western writers living in China have been of the nonfiction variety. Beijing, despite its cheap food and beer—two dollars worth of Chinese yuan will buy you a nice Chinese meal or a twelve-pack of Tsingtao beer—has yet to become the Paris of the 21st century. In the expatriate cafés that radiate from the northeast hub marked loosely by the embassies and the Sanlitun strip of Western bars—places like Moré (Spanish tapas), Purple Haze (Thai menu, largely foreign clientele) and the Bookworm (French menu café)—you’ll find plenty of writers, but most of them are stringing for the local English language periodicals or posted in Beijing for short stints by one of the larger English language dailies in England or the U.S.

The journalists tend to work hard to master Mandarin—the official language of the People’s Republic of China—but move away once they become successful. For example, in 2004 Ian Johnson published Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China (Pantheon) after winning a Pulitzer for his China coverage while working for the Wall Street Journal in 2001, but he’s since been shifted to the newspaper’s Berlin bureau. Similarly, Peter Hessler won acclaim for his books Rivertown: Two Years on the Yangtze (HarperCollins, 2001) and Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present (HarperCollins, 2006) and landed a gig to write for the New Yorker about China but has since moved to Colorado.

Meanwhile, an expat fiction scene is beginning to emerge in Beijing. Kesey, whose writings range from humorous realism, a la George Saunders in Shanghai, to surrealist postmodern displacement—one of his stories, “Martin,” is the faux-report of a patient “pretending” to be a doctor “treating” an actual guitar string that she “thinks” is a man who thinks he is a guitar string—recently ran a fiction writers workshop at the Bookworm. Jenny Niven, the twenty-six-year-old Glaswegian literary events coordinator at the Bookworm (the café also includes a thirteen-thousand-volume, four-thousand-member English-language lending library), keeps a parade of visiting and local writers marching through its doors for weekly readings. From March 6 to March 21, the café hosted a full-on literary festival: two weeks of panel discussions, workshops, and book signings by China-centric novelists Adam Williams and Catherine Sampson, poets Justin Hill and Edward Ragg, translator Eric Ambrahamsen, journalists Rob Gifford and Melinda Liu, and business writers Tim Clissold and James McGregor, among others.

I ask Kesey if there is much exchange between members of the Beijing
expat literary scene and Chinese writers. “I think it’s divided, but
the literary oasis where both sides meet is here,” he says with a nod
around us at the Bookworm. Kesey advises me to meet with a translator
friend of his, and a week later, I have tea with Abrahamsen, one of
three Mandarin-to-English translators who run Paper-Republic.org, a Web
site featuring Chinese fiction writers in translation. According to
Abrahamsen, there is increasing overlap between the Chinese and Western
creative writing communities. Many Chinese writers, put off by
censorship and the Byzantine Chinese publishing system that pays no
royalties to authors, are hoping to publish directly with a Western
press, skipping Chinese publication entirely, he says.

Zhang Lijia is one example of this trend. A fashionable and
opinionated woman who favors two-tone glasses and bright dresses, Zhang
meets me for lunch in an Italian café a couple blocks north of the
Bookworm, near the apartment where she lives with her two children.
Zhang has parlayed her talent, tenacity, and English language skills
into a recent book contract in the U.S. Her memoir, Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China,
was recently published by Atlas Books, but Zhang still remembers the
days when her assertiveness and smart outfits caused her problems.

In
1980, at the age of sixteen, under the auspices of a government program
that encouraged parents to retire early and hand their factory
positions to their children, Zhang accepted her mother’s pincers,
pliers, and wrench and joined the ten thousand other workers at the
Chenguang missile factory in Nanjing. “When I was in the factory, poems
and short stories were a way to escape my boredom. Poetry groups would
meet in parks and people’s homes. The Misty Poets appealed to me
because they were not allowed, and because they wrote personal poems
that talked about love and were filled with rich imagery,” she says,
referring to the group of poets—Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Duo Duo, Yang Lian,
and others—who reacted against the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

Zhang,
who is forty-two, is friends with a number of well-known Chinese
writers from her generation, but she has chosen to concentrate on
writing in English. In 1988, she met her former husband, Calum MacLeod,
an English investment consultant and journalist, and moved to England.
She returned to China in 1993 and, fluent in English, began a career in
journalism. She assisted fellow journalist Ian Johnson for a time, then
embarked on her own career, eventually writing features for Newsweek, the Washington Times, South China Morning Post, and others. Together with her husband, she edited China Remembers
(Oxford University Press, 1999), a collection of interviews with
Chinese rank-and-file citizens—a Korean War veteran, a famine survivor,
a student from the Tiananmen protests, and others—who played roles in
recent history and also gave birth to two children.

After
September 11, Zhang says magazines cut back on staff, so she returned
to England to study. “I never had a proper degree, and I always felt
sorry for myself,” she says. While earning her MA in creative and life
writing at the Goldsmiths College, University of London, Zhang
completed a first draft of her memoir and began her novel, Lotus,
about a prostitute from Nanjing, which is currently making the rounds
of Beijing’s English-language book editors. “Women’s issues are one of
the things that always interests me,” she says. “I’m hoping to write a
story about the kidnapping of women [who are then sold to husbands in
remote provinces]. It’s so modern here, and yet these medieval
practices still go on.”

Despite her decision to write in English,
Zhang believes there is more freedom for Chinese writers today. “There
are less concerns now than ten or twenty years ago,” she says. “For
example, China Remembers was stopped at customs. Our book may be confiscated, may be burned, but I will be fine.”

With
success stories like Kesey’s and Zhang’s and the cost of a Chinese meal
still hovering around two dollars, it’s a good bet that the community
of English language fiction writers will continue to climb.


Read “Chinese Characters: Report From Literary Beijing” by Stephen Morison Jr. in the May/June 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine.

The Exiles: Report From Literary Syria

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

2.12.14

Throughout the past year, white tents with the letters UNHCR stenciled in blue on the top have been showing up in the countryside around my home in Madaba-Manja, Jordan. They’ve appeared in the campgrounds of the Bedouin herders, who usually live in more traditional gray and khaki tents. The stencils identify them as belonging to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—the tents are part of the international influx of supplies for the Syrian war refugees—and their appearance in my neighborhood means they’re being sold on the black market.

I call a friend of mine in Amman, Jordan, who makes a quick phone call and then rings me back. “The tents are selling for fifty dinar [about seventy-five dollars] in Mafraq and seventy-five dinar in Amman,” he says. There are two theories about where they’re coming from. Some people think there’s corruption in the supply chain and that the tents are hitting the black market before they’ve been distributed to the refugees, but a second, more plausible theory is that the Syrians are selling the tents because they need the money. “Two families will move into one tent,” my friend says, “and then they’ll sell the second one.”

In July, when the government stopped releasing information about the number of Syrians flooding into the country, there were 144,000 Syrians in the Zaatari refugee camp, which sits on a barren plain five miles south of the Syrian border. The Jordanian authorities built a six-foot-high dirt berm running parallel to Highway 10. Beyond the mound, I can see seemingly endless rows of white tents. In January and February of 2013, seasonal rains caused flooding, and the Jordan Times carried front-page stories about demonstrations organized by refugees who were upset about the poor housing and food shortages.

I loiter by the Jordanian Army’s armored personnel carrier at the entrance and watch the people flow in and out. Families walk past carrying suitcases tied with string; unsupervised kids run around; and what appears to be a crazy man lurches about in the road, misdirecting traffic.

On the drive back to Amman, my mobile phone rings; a friend has arranged an interview with the Syrian screenwriter and director Muhammad Bayazid, an exile whose successful business has enabled him to avoid the camp and rent an apartment in Amman. He has agreed to meet me and talk about the impact of the war on his life and work.

Muhammad Bayazid fled from Syria into Jordan on November 19, 2011, after twenty-four hours of imprisonment and torture at the hands of shabiha—thugs working for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It was a startling turn of events for a young man who five years earlier was shaking hands with Asma al-Assad, the first lady of Syria, and agreeing to use his talents as a screenwriter and filmmaker to help publicize her many charities.

We meet in early June at Gloria Jean’s Coffees, a Starbucks-style café on Madina Street in Amman. It’s a neutral public space. The Syrian border is less than an hour away, and Bayazid remains cautious. He’s thirty years old, with finger-combed hair and a four-day growth of beard, dressed in a red shirt, jeans, and a watch with a blue denim band. He tells his story using the English he taught himself as a kid in Syria and improved later during stints in Los Angeles and London.

Growing up, Bayazid fueled his passion for storytelling by reading classics such as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which were supplemented by American comic books checked out from Syrian libraries. “I adored them,” he says. “Batman, Superman, SpiderMan. When I was a kid, I drew comics of my own.”

Bayazid’s father was a successful Sunni Muslim businessman in a country riven by ethnic strife. Having attended Al-Azhar, a famous Muslim theological university in Egypt, Bayazid’s father wore a beard but was not radical. He was just a “normal Muslim,” Bayazid says, a businessman who moved between Italy and Syria looking for a stable environment for his clothing business.

When Bayazid was in high school in Damascus, he volunteered for a nonprofit organization that cared for orphans. The company wanted to edit documentaries for one of its projects, and Bayazid volunteered to help. His experience led to an interest in filmmaking and eventually a trip to Los Angeles for a three-month course in film editing.

Afterward, back in Syria, he continued his education and worked part-time as a film editor. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Damascus University, he opened his own production company specializing in public service announcements and commercials for nonprofit organizations. To improve his writing, he finagled an invitation to study documentary filmmaking with the BBC in London and ended up spending eight months under the tutelage of Julian Doyle, the editor of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and the assistant director of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).

By 2006, Bayazid says, his business “couldn’t have been any better.” He employed six people and was expanding into 3-D production. He had clients in the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt, and Syria and had just met with the first lady of Syria, who was impressed by one of his short films.

All was going well until the Arab Spring uprisings began in Tunisia in December 2010; the demonstrations were well publicized, and they expanded into Egypt and Syria in January 2011. In Egypt the military chose to remain neutral, but in Syria the armed forces sided with the government against the protesters.

Bayazid witnessed one of these clashes in Daraa, a Syrian town adjacent to the Jordanian border and one of the hot spots during the earliest days of the Syrian revolution. “It was the trigger of my standing against the regime,” he says.

He was in his car, returning to Syria from working on a project in Jordan. At the border, the guards told him gangs had closed the main road; it wasn’t safe. They advised him to turn around and head back to Amman, but Bayazid decided to risk it. He drove north toward the town of Daraa and watched security forces—not gangs, as the border guards had claimed, but government forces—burning tires in the road.

“Since they closed the road, I cut into one of the Daraa villages, Sanamen. A funeral went past, and I pulled the car over and joined them. As a Muslim, [joining a funeral] is pretty common. Firing began, and I saw with my own eyes a man with a bullet between the eyes.” Bayazid could see a sniper on the roof of a building inside a government compound. “It was very clear who was killing who,” he says, certain that government forces were shooting unarmed members of the funeral procession. “After that day, I couldn’t shut up anymore.”

Soon thereafter he criticized the regime in an interview with a Lebanese radio reporter, and after the piece aired, a representative from the Republican Guard—al-Assad’s praetorian guard—called him and politely told him to focus on his filmmaking and leave politics alone. Bayazid responded with a Facebook post that accused the president of killing his own people. He received a second phone call that threatened to hurt him and his family if he continued criticizing the regime. Unnerved, Bayazid started planning to move his filmmaking business to Jordan.

He had nearly completed the move—his office was moved and his bags were packed and waiting in his apartment—when he got in a car with a friend to grab some dinner. As they drove toward a café, they saw three shabiha harassing three girls in a car. He asked his friend to stop the car. One of the men was going through the photos on a phone belonging to one of the girls, and the girl reached from the car window and snatched the phone back. “That was her mistake,” Bayazid says. The shabiha yanked her out through the window of the car, banging her head in the process. Bayazid got out to help.

He tells me his plan was to claim he was a friend of Asma al-Assad, the first lady. He would accuse the men of creating a disturbance that would swing public opinion against the regime, and the girls would escape while he argued with them. But he never got the chance to speak. As he stepped from his car, the shabiha attacked him.

“They hit me with three-foot sticks and an electric cattle prod to the chest,” Bayazid says. Using plastic zip-ties that cut into his wrists, they handcuffed him, then blindfolded him and dragged him into a nearby basement under an abandoned store. The basement was filled with other prisoners. Bayazid listened to the shabiha beating and torturing the others. Then they came for him.

“I’ll tell you about being tortured,” he says.

The roots of the Syrian revolution are twofold. On one hand, there is the desire of the Syrian middle and upper classes to have greater freedom of speech and a larger role in their own governance. Hafez al-Assad, an air force general, took over the country in a coup d’état in 1970; upon his death in 2000, he was succeeded by his son, Bashar. The father rose to prominence as a member of the Baath Party, a secular, nationalist, and socialist political party that pays lip service to Arab unity. During the cold war era, Hafez al-Assad aligned Syria with the Soviet Union, which provided military aid to Syria, and he used Syria’s army and the secret police to control the populace.

When I visited the country in 1990, I discovered a repressive, Orwellian state. Secret policemen, identifiable in matching leather jackets, rifled through my luggage at the borders, tailed me in the streets, and followed me into shops. One day I got a shave from a barber who glanced nervously back and forth from my bearded face to the mirror, where he could see a member of the secret police sitting behind us.

Most of the middle-class Syrians fighting against the regime want an end to Big Brother and the civil violations that accompany the endless surveillance: They want an end to censorship, an end to wasta (the Arabic word for nepotism, “connections,” and corruption).

But there is also a second, separate motive behind the revolution. A large number of lower-class Syrians view the revolution as a religious war. The al-Assads belong to a religious minority in Syria; they are Alawis, a sect that forms about 12 percent of the Syrian population and whose members adhere to a branch of Shia Islam. Most Syrians—three-quarters of the population—are Sunni Muslims. In some ways, the split between Shiites and Sunnis is similar to the Catholic and Protestant split that divides Northern Ireland and the Republic to its south. Of the states in Syria’s neighborhood, Iran and Iraq are majority Shia states, and there is a sizable Shia population in Lebanon, while Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States are majority Sunni states.

In 1982 in Syria, there was a Sunni revolt against Hafez al-Assad, who responded by ordering his brother, the head of the armed forces, to shell the city of Hama, flattening the old section and killing at least ten thousand of its Sunni inhabitants (some reports claim the number was forty thousand). When I visited the country eight years later, the old city of Hama was still in ruins; no effort had been made to clear the rubble. Burned-out cars sat amid the wreckage of flattened homes. Hafez al-Assad let the bombed-out neighborhood sit untouched as a warning to the survivors.

I witnessed these things as an outsider, as a tourist with a camera and a pen, but for the Syrian poet Amjad Etry, the happenings in Hama changed his life.

In mid-June, when Amjad Etry arrives at my cousin’s apartment in Abdoun, a posh neighborhood in Amman, Jordan, he is nervous about the way he looks and reluctant to talk. He has swept-back shoulder-length hair and a full beard flecked with gray. The long hair is new, he says; the chaos caused by the war has him too exhausted to visit a barber. He speaks Arabic and French but no English. After four months in the country, he is still struggling to find work in Anglophone Amman.

 

Francesca de Châtel, a Dutch author and journalist who speaks French and Arabic, and who served as editor in chief of the Damascus English-language magazine Syria Today for four years and published a book that is part travelogue and part survey of water resources in Syria, kindly serves as an interpreter during our conversation.

Etry is reluctant to talk about how he got into the country or exactly why he left Syria. He lights a Winston. “I don’t smoke much,” he says and then tells us about his life.

His parents fled the fighting in Hama in 1981 when he was three, moving the family to a leafy suburb of Damascus called Ghouta. Traditional Arab families dedicate time each week for visiting relatives—aunts, uncles, and cousins—to play cards and chat about the news of the day, but Etry says he never felt comfortable in these group settings; he needed time alone. His siblings—five sisters and three brothers—teased him about his solitary nature. “Even in my own family, I feel like a foreigner, a spiritual foreigner,” he says. 

Adding to his sense of alienation was his family’s very real displacement. The cities of Hama and Damascus are only 130 miles apart, but in 1981 they were on opposite sides of a religious and cultural war. When Etry entered school in his Damascus suburb at age six, the students called him Al Hamwi, “the one from Hama,” and when he returned to Hama with his family for visits, his cousins called him Al Shami, “the one from Damascus.”

“I live as an outsider,” he says.

I ask him if the massacre in Hama had any impact on him personally, and his eyes mist over. “To people from Hama, the events of 1982 are like the birth of Jesus,” he says, meaning that the massacre has become a historical reference point. “People in Hama will say, ‘That wedding was five years before the events,’ or ‘she died five years after the events.’” There is nobody from Hama who wasn’t affected, he says. Everybody lost someone.

Contemplative and soft-spoken, Etry took refuge in books, words, and poetry. At age thirteen, he began memorizing aphorisms, proverbs, and poems. In particular, he fell in love with the poems of Nizar Qabbani, a famed 20th-century Syrian poet, diplomat, and publisher, and he also began writing his own poems.

After high school, he earned an undergraduate degree in French literature and a master’s degree in audiovisual translation from Damascus University. During this period, he supported himself through a variety of jobs: teaching French, transcribing and writing footnotes for handwritten Arabic scholarly commentaries for commercial publication, and working beside his brothers in their tailor shop.

In 2008, Etry had enough poems for a collection, which he assembled and succeeded in getting sanctioned by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, which censors and approves all books published inside the country. A Kurdish friend designed the cover, and Etry contracted with a publisher to print the book. (As is the case throughout the Middle East, most poets and creative writers either win a state-sponsored contest and have their work published by the ministry of culture or they submit their work to the censors and, after receiving their okay, self-publish for distribution to friends and for use at public readings). At the last minute, however, Etry grew dissatisfied with his collection and canceled the printing.

Even at the university, he says, he continued to live a solitary life, spending the bulk of his time “studying, working, or daydreaming.” It wasn’t until 2009, when he discovered online poetry forums, that he began to build a community of writers. That same year he published his first poem online, and since then he has worked to find his own voice. Although he is an admirer of Qabbani, who is noted for his erotic poetry and his poems devoted to the Arab nationalist cause, Etry says his own poems are neither erotic nor political. “They’re more like Sufi poetry.” Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam whose most famous adherent was the 13th-century poet known in the West as Rumi. “Sufi poetry is more about love and the spirit,” Etry says. “It’s more abstract, more cerebral; it doesn’t discuss daily routines.”

I ask him if he can recite one of his poems for us, and he nods. He explains that the events of the past two years have had an enormous impact on his writing. His neighborhood in Syria lost telephone service and electricity for more than five months. And his vocabulary has changed, he says. He notices that the words lost, sadness, shelling, bombing, and death now appear frequently in his work.

He recites softly and confidently. Most of his poem is in classical Arabic, which means the grammar creates natural rhymes between subjects and their modifiers. When he’s finished, he translates a line for us: “The heart echoes our worry for Damascus, and the sigh is as fearful as the eyes around us.”

Prior to the revolution, Etry says, there were a number of places in Damascus where poetry readings were held. Poets who were members of the government-sponsored writers union, which Etry describes as “like a retirement home for poets,” read in government-run cultural centers to very small audiences. But in the neighborhoods around Damascus University, “people were actually interested,” he says. There were cafés and private cultural centers where readings occasionally attracted audiences of more than a hundred people. Since arriving in Amman, Etry has given one reading—at Jadal, a small, private cultural center located in the city’s historic downtown.

Like Bayazid, Etry currently has enough resources to avoid the refugee camp, but his money is dwindling. I ask him what ethnicity he is and which side he supports in the fighting, and he replies, “I am first human, second Arab, and third Syrian. Hama is Christian and Sunni, but the villages around it are Alawi and Sunni. I have Alawi friends, Kurdish friends, Christian friends, and Druze friends, and it doesn’t make a difference.”

Ultimately, Etry hopes, the conflict will lead to greater freedom of expression. “The pens will be liberated,” he says.

In Syria the government censors everything that is published. Writers and publishers live in fear that they will pay to print a book, magazine, newspaper, or journal only to be prohibited from distributing it. “There is no freedom,” Muhammad Bayazid says. “You can’t cross any line; you’d be destroyed immediately. Bribery and wasta is everywhere. Assad’s family owns the whole economy, and there is nothing we can do regarding this.”

Filmmakers in Syria have to have all scripts accepted by the raqabeh, the supervision arm of the state intelligence services—the secret police. Technically, the censor is a member of the ministry of culture, but in Syria the members of the ministry of culture are also members of the intelligence service. “As Syrians, every one of us has his own internal raqib [a member of the raqabeh]. We don’t cross the lines,” Bayazid says.

The soft-spoken Etry is more optimistic; he describes a slow easing of restrictions. “Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have seen a kiss in an Arab [television] series; now it’s normal to show kissing and all that.” However, Etry agrees with Bayazid that writing about sex, religion, or the government remains taboo and results, at the very least, in the government’s refusing to permit a writer to publish.

The Syrian writers union—like writers unions in Vietnam, Myanmar, and China—is complicit in the censorship. The organization is run by the government and, in exchange for government loyalty, its members are provided with health insurance as well as small stipends for reading in government-run cultural centers.

The Syrian writers I meet with outside the country are critical of the union. “The writers union is under the control of the regime; it is Baathist. It is a killing cliché of slogans that bore me to sleep,” Syrian poet Hala Mohammad tells me during an interview at the Saint Severin café on the Boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris. “I don’t like boring people at all; I’m attracted to people with the courage to fight boredom.”

Mohammad won a state-sponsored contest for her first collection and has since published six books of poetry, but she never consented to joining the writers union. “In Syria, writers are stuck between ‘not forbidden and not allowed,’” she says. “I think the revolution started because people are tired of being stuck in the middle.”

Mohammad speaks French and some English, but she prefers to respond to my questions in Arabic. Dressed in a simple black outfit, she is accompanied by her friend Tamara Alrifai, who works for Human Rights Watch and who translates for us.

An outspoken critic of the al-Assad regime, Mohammad has received threats. She came to Paris in June 2011 in order to undergo treatment for breast cancer, but she chose to remain in France with her husband, the Syrian film director Haitham Hakki, because she did not feel safe in her home country. “Maybe I’m pretending I’m courageous, but I’m scared,” Mohammad says.

She shows me her latest book of poems, which she just received from her publisher in Beirut. The collection is about the revolution. “This is my kind of resistance; this is my kind of love; to tell the world there is a Syrian poet who belongs to a people who are noble, who don’t like killing, whose only crime is that they dream dreams of freedom, of justice, of individuality.”

Mohammad grew up in a family of nine children in the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia. Her father was a liberal schoolteacher who educated his daughters and permitted them the freedom to run about the neighborhood. Two of Mohammad’s sisters who were educated in the West became doctors, while Mohammad knew from an early age that she was a poet.

At fifteen, she secretly fell in love with an older man and poured her emotions out in private poetry. Later that year, she gathered her family and some guests—about forty people in all—for a private reading. When she started reading, they began laughing. “They were not laughing at me, they were just surprised that I was standing there saying, ‘I am a poet,’” she recalls. “We are a family who like to mock each other. I remember being happy I could give them this happiness. I liked that they were laughing. After that, they kept asking me to read them my poetry.”

Fifteen years later, in 1990, after her physician sisters helped her with the tuition to attend the University of Paris 8 in France, her first collection of poetry won an award and was selected for publication by the Syrian Ministry of Culture.

While Mohammad is outspoken in her enmity for the regime, she is complimentary of one former member of the government, Antoun Makdissi, the former head of Authorship and Translation within the Syrian Ministry of Culture. Mohammad remembers Makdissi as a man who tried to increase freedom of speech from within the government. Unfortunately, he was ousted after writing an open letter urging Bashar al-Assad to allow more unrestrained expression.   

In 2005 Mohammad combined her passion for writing and her background in filmmaking to make a documentary film about Syrian writers in prison. “If you can’t find a way to be free under the dictator,” she says, “you won’t be free when [the dictator is] gone.”

Members of her family have been similarly active in pushing for greater personal and political rights. Her brother Osama is a filmmaker who made a movie under the auspices of the Syrian state cinema institute that was shown at the Cannes Film Festival but was banned at home; it was thirteen years before he was permitted to make a second film.

Mohammad says the revolution began as a peaceful fight for equality and freedom but has now been co-opted by radicals on both sides. “The government won’t allow the revolution to succeed because it will lose its power,” she says. “And the [religious] extremists don’t like it because they can’t be equal to other people because they have been sent by God.”

Mohammad is angry about the situation, but she is also worried about oversimplifying things. She points out that American notions of Islamic religious extremism are often shallow or mistaken. More than any other subject, Mohammad is passionate about the need for people to avoid black-and-white interpretations of world events. “My mother wears the hijab, but she is not an extremist; she is an angel,” she says. “It’s so bad the way movies make things so black and white, having a hero who kills all the bad guys. We’re all the heroes. Human principles are the heroes, not some guy. I don’t like the word hero. I feel sorry for the villains in movies.”

I ask her about her influences, and she says she likes the poetry of Ezra Pound, that she loves the music of Joan Baez, that she admires the work and writings of Angela Davis, and that she is a great supporter of the political activists seeking more freedom in Iran and across the Arab world.

article_photo_5: 
page_5: 

She agrees to read a sample of her poetry. She writes in classical Arabic—typical among educated Arab poets—and she speaks in a deep, pleasant voice that commingles the objective intonations of a broadcast news anchor with the emotional inflections of a blues singer. Introducing the poem, she explains that Hamza al-Khateeb was a thirteen-year-old boy who was tortured and killed by the Syrian regime on April 29, 2011. When his mutilated body was returned to his parents and their protestations went viral, the government filmed a public service announcement in which a nurse with red-painted fingernails tried to argue that the boy’s wounds were not caused by torture. The poem, which is dedicated to the boy’s mother, describes the murder and the cover-up.

For now, Mohammad says, she will stay in Paris, where between her savings and her occasional work as a writer for various Arabic newspapers she is finding ways to make ends meet. But she yearns to return to Damascus. “We built all our lives in Syria, and we’re impatient to go back; we’re dreaming of going back.”

Muhammad Bayazid is sitting in Gloria Jean’s Coffees in Amman. “I’ll tell you about being tortured,” he says. I nod and ask him to continue.

“They took me to an old basement under a store. The place was filled with other people. I’m sure people were killed. One guy was hanging from the ceiling with his wrists tied behind his back; it pulls the arms out of the sockets. They stripped me naked except my underwear, cursing me the whole time, calling me a traitor, and beating me with an electric cable. I was lucky; they threatened to hang me from the ceiling, but they just beat me. They would hit me for five minutes and then rest.

“I remember the guy beating me looked exhausted. I was looking at his face. He was about twenty years old, and I was sad about him. They’ve changed him forever; he needs psychotherapy.

“They burned me with a cattle prod. I have a permanent burn mark here.” He points to his left shoulder and tugs down his shirt collar to show me. “It’s a nice memory. Do you want to see it?”

I shake my head. I want to look away.

“I lost the feeling of pain. After hours of being beaten, you feel nothing. An officer came with two security officials with AK-47s, and he asked me why I insulted the soldiers. I told him I didn’t want this drama in Damascus, that it would turn the population against the regime. He kicked and slapped me and told me I would be transferred to a security center. I thought I would be killed there.”

Instead, he got lucky. He isn’t sure why. Perhaps they believed his story about being friends with the Syrian first lady, or maybe they were worried because news of his detention was being broadcast on Al Jazeera; his friend in the car had called the news agency hoping publicity would help gain Bayazid’s release.

The security officials blindfolded him again and took him outside to a car where they told him they were releasing him. Bayazid, fearful that in his bloody and disheveled state another group of secret police might see him and arrest him again, paid the men the equivalent of a hundred dollars to take him to a friend’s house.

“Really?” I ask. “You bribed your torturers to take you someplace safe because you were scared that other secret police would see you, recognize that you’d been tortured, and rearrest you?”

“It happens,” he says.

Once he had made it to the home of a nearby friend, Bayazid called his driver and asked him to bring him a change of clothes; his were soaked with blood. He drove himself to the Jordanian border. Inside the crossing checkpoint, there was a television in the waiting room playing Al Jazeera. News of his detention was among the lead stories, and he worried that the border guards would see the news and keep him in the country. They didn’t notice and let him pass.

Later a friend in a government ministry told Bayazid that if he had waited twenty-four hours, he would have been arrested a second time. Since fleeing the country, Bayazid says, his name has been added to a list of people the regime has ordered to be killed on sight. His family quickly followed him to Jordan.

He was worried when his passport expired in March 2012, but he discovered that he could send bribes to officials inside the country, and he soon had an updated passport.

Still, he remains nervous. He arrived at an earlier interview and discovered a suspicious-looking man waiting for him. As he neared, the man “reached for something that looked like a gun,” Bayazid says, so he sped off in his car. He hopes that the regime has become preoccupied with other problems and no longer has time to worry about killing him.

In Jordan he continues to work. He has been commissioned to make fund-raising ads to be shown on American cable stations for the Syrian Support Group, which backs the revolution, and he also creates ads to be shown in the Arabian Gulf countries for a group raising money for the refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp.

“We don’t want the war with this dirty regime to change the purity of us,” he says. On his computer, he shows me a sixty-second public service ad he made for a group called Al Jasad Al Wahid or One Body. It’s a call for Syrian unity, a plea for the country not to fragment and factionalize.

In it, a young Arab boy is seen flipping through a coffee-table picture book in an all-white, futuristic-looking apartment. The book is filled with colorful photos of the revolution: There are shots of peaceful crowds waving Syrian flags, a photo of an elderly gentleman genuflecting with a Syrian-flag bandanna wrapped around his forehead, and several shots of beautiful Syrian monuments. A clock on a nearby table shows the time and date: 3:00 PM, March 15, 2025. The boy closes the book and walks to a massive picture window overlooking Damascus’s famed Umayyad Square, bright and beautiful. The scene fades to white and an Arabic sentence appears:

“Syria, we build it together.”

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He has reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Jordan, Myanmar, Vietnam, and North Korea. He lives in Madaba-Manja, Jordan, and is working on a children’s book set in Beijing titled “Emily and the Grand and Terrifying Dragon” (www.emilyandthedragon.com).

The Revolution: Report From Literary Egypt

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

3.1.13

We went because we believe in freedom of speech,” says Karam Youssef in her office at the back of Kotob Khan, her bookshop in al-Maadi, a leafy suburb eight miles south of Cairo along the Nile River. “It was the best day in my life, to be honest.” With her slight frame, black pixie haircut, button-down cotton shirt, and khaki pants, Youssef doesn’t look like a street fighter, but in the spring of 2011, the bookseller spent several weeks battling government supporters in Tahrir Square. “My husband [Ahmed Abou Zeid, an independent filmmaker] was injured when a rubber bullet struck him above the eye.” 

Youssef joined thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square with hope that President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster would lead to greater freedom of expression, but now she’s worried that the Arab Spring of 2011—known in Egypt as the January 25th Revolution—will result in increased censorship and repression. Shortly after her husband was injured, Youssef noted that the protests were beginning to be dominated by men with a religious agenda, and she abandoned the square. “Egyptians as a society, they are moderate; they aren’t fanatics,” she says. “But now it seems like maybe there is more fanaticism. This current is strong, and we didn’t know about it.”

Youssef’s father died when she was young, and her mother, widowed at age twenty-eight, was an elementary school teacher who encouraged her daughter to read and taught her to be independent—but not too independent. When Youssef earned academic scholarships to universities in the United Kingdom, her mother balked, and Youssef settled for a school in Cairo. After college, she dreamed of making documentaries for TV and radio, but lacked the resources and connections for the mandatory internship and took a job with AT&T (which became Lucent, then Alcatel-Lucent). In twelve years she worked her way up from administrative assistant to manager before switching to Hewlett-Packard. By 2006, she had saved enough to start something of her own (“something to do with culture and books,” she says) and she opened a bookstore and started a publishing house.

At Kotob Khan, floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves lined with books fill two back rooms and surround a front café area; posters and black-and-white photos of famous authors hang in the spaces between the shelves. In addition to offering a selection of classic and contemporary authors in English—from Gore Vidal to Knut Hamsun–and two rooms of Arabic titles, Youssef screens films here, hosts writing workshops, and sponsors concerts. Her publishing arm focuses on printing works of local poetry and literary fiction and translating into Arabic foreign works she admires. “We were happy for three to four years,” she says, “then I started to find out about my society and how corrupt it is.” 

Former dictator Mubarak is widely credited with relaxing censorship laws, but corruption and religious extremism undermined these advances. In 2010, an official visited Youssef’s store looking for bribes. In the past, they had given him what he asked for, but this time she said, “Enough,” and rebuffed him. A short time later, she received an unexpected call from her printer, who was in the midst of preparing an Arabic edition of Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by the Anglo-Pakistani author Tariq Ali. (The book, the first in a series of five, is about the fall of Moorish southern Spain in 1492 to the Christian forces of Ferdinand and Isabella.) “I’m sorry, I cannot print this for you,” she recalls being told. A scene depicting young men bathing together in a hammam, a public bath, while reading poetry might get him into trouble, he said. 

“The evening of the same day, January 17, 2011,” Youssef says, “a guy came into the bookstore and said, ‘Your bookmark is haram [sinful].’ It has Islamic calligraphy and English script, and I’ve got a fatwa [a ruling on a point of Islamic law] from al-Azhar [Cairo’s eleven-hundred-year-old religious university] that it is haram.”

Eleven days later, on January 28, she and her husband joined the protesters in the square. 

Since the revolution, business has plummeted; English book sales to tourists and expatriate customers that subsidized her other activities have fallen by 60 percent. “The margin of Arabic books is very limited,” she says during our interview, which took place last August. “Embassies are telling people not to come. They kidnap tourists—Americans—in the Sinai all the time. There’s no police. It’s a big mess.”

During the early days of the revolution, Youssef noticed an increase in sales of writing about revolutions and change. People bought books about Che Guevera, Communism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the U.S. Constitution, about “the state of law and what it means when you say somebody is liberal.” But those sales have faded. “The country is exhausted now,” Youssef says. “We went out for freedom and justice, and we got the Muslim Brothers running the country. And to them, we are the enemy. And I may be the first thing they turn against.”

After our meeting, I return to my pension in Cairo’s historic downtown. The roundabouts and avenues here are lined with beautiful but crumbling Haussmann-style buildings built during the nineteenth-century reign of Isma’il Pasha. Naguib Mahfouz and Alaa al-Aswany, two of Egypt’s most famous authors, have written tales about this neighborhood, and as I walk its streets, I remember the pages of their novels. At 34 Talaat Harb Street, I pause to admire the Greek Revival bust above a door tucked into a neoclassical lintel nearly hidden under signs announcing travel agencies, trading companies, doctors, and professionals; this building, with its sixth-floor row of Roman columns, balconies with iron railings, open interior stairs and nonfunctioning wooden elevator with brass fittings, is the setting of al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (American University in Cairo Press, 2005), a novel about contemporary Egyptians—about once-prosperous Europhiles, immoral millionaires, devout doormen, and a host of other characters. 

Continuing east, I pass the palatial neo-Mamluk building that houses the Museum of Islamic Art and cross the street into the narrow alleys of Islamic Cairo. 

Winding my way to the eleven-hundred-year-old al-Azhar Mosque, built during the Fatimid Caliphate, I scoot between crawling traffic and enter the Khan el-Khalil, pass hawkers eager to entice me into shops selling mother-of-pearl furniture and brass serving plates, and eventually leave the tourist section for alleys choked with pedestrians shopping for spices, cloth, produce, appliances, flatware, furniture, and a thousand other items. 

This is the neighborhood of Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (Doubleday, 1990), the first novel in his Cairo trilogy; it is the story of the merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a man of contrasts and contradictions—a stern and severe figure in his home, a gregarious and profane raconteur in his shop, a singer and carouser in the apartment of the plump singer who is his mistress. 

Backtracking west toward Tahrir Square and the Nile, the streets grow uncharacteristically quiet. It’s the third week of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month when Muslims abstain from food, drink, and sex during daylight hours; the populace is enjoying their monthlong holiday. At Tahrir, the protesters are taking a break, but the violence of the revolution is still on display. 

The headquarters of the former ruling party, a fifteen-story monolith situated between the Egyptian Museum (home to mummies and Pharaonic treasures) and the Nile, is a ransacked, burned-out hulk; the roads leading into the adjacent Garden City neighborhood are barricaded by nine-foot walls of concrete blocks put up by the authorities to keep out the protesters. One barrier beside the padlocked entrance to the old American University of Cairo campus has had its cinderblocks pushed apart, and I climb through and continue down the street, past a bustling government ministry fronted by clusters of security officers by the door and a uniformed military guard holding the handles of a fifty-caliber machine gun atop an armored vehicle in the street.

Elaborate graffiti—of Mubarak as a monster and the newly elected President Mohamed Morsi looking calm and charismatic, of hijab-covered grandmothers cheering on gun-waving protesters, of a spray-painted computer power button and beneath it the Arabic words “the people,” and countless other symbols and sayings—covers the walls of the buildings throughout the district. 

A few tilting tents with political banners draped over them are still pitched in the center of Tahrir (which is technically a midan or circle, not a square). Here I find a trio of crop-bearded, stern-looking men in their early thirties dressed in soccer sweat suits and flip-flops. They claim underemployment and blame it on the economy, then offer me tea despite the Ramadan prohibitions against eating food or drinking liquids. If Karam Youssef appeared an unlikely street fighter, these men, scarred and unshaven, look better suited to the task. 

It’s early August and over a hundred degrees in the shade; there’s no relief from the brittle air, not even after I thank the men for their hospitality and head over to one of the bridges overlooking the muddy, swirling Nile.

A few hours later, evening comes; the minarets of Cairo’s many mosques ring with the Maghrib, the evening call to prayer, and the Cairenes of the downtown awaken and spill out onto the streets to snack, socialize, and shop. Talaat Harb Square, where my hotel is located, becomes a madhouse of honking cars, frustrated drivers, and swarming pedestrians; vendors cover the sidewalks, spreading out rows of cheap sandals, shoes, toys, sunglasses, underwear, slacks, shirts, pots, glasses, and watches; boys help their merchant-fathers by climbing atop chairs and shouting to draw attention to their goods; mothers in hijabs form an inadvertent blockade in front of a shop having a sale; little kids weave in and out of the press dodging cars and people; traffic cops on the street corners look mild and unconcerned (it’s the holiday season, and anyway, their ability to scare the citizenry disappeared thirteen months ago); somebody lights a string of firecrackers; somebody else sends up a bottle rocket.

I weave through the crowd to meet up with Muhamed “Nebo” Abdelnaby, a short story writer, novelist, and translator, in the Greek Club, a semiprivate salon located on the second floor of another dusty and beautiful nineteenth-century building. It’s the only place that serves alcohol to locals during Ramadan, Nebo says. The Greek Club has twelve-foot ceilings and arched lintels between paneled columns; a pair of pocket doors opens onto a room with glassed-in bookshelves and more tables. Tall windows are shuttered and curtained. We’re at a wooden four-top against the paneled back wall, watching as artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, journalists, and lawyers (a creative profession in Mubarak’s Egypt) fill the tables of the club. It’s nearing midnight.

“We call it ‘the Society,’” Nebo says, and he nods at the people around us. 

Of modest stature, with delicate features and slender, black-framed, tinted glasses, Nebo is thirty-five but looks younger. He has an easy, mischievous smile and occasionally marks his points with hand gestures. He calls polite greetings to one table after another: to a crowd of attractive young people in casual clothes—some of the men with ponytails, some of the women in sleeveless tops—and to a table of middle-aged journalists with unshaven faces in suits without ties. He appears to be on a first-name basis with half the room, which, at this point in the evening, numbers about fifty.

The new president, Morsi, received his PhD from the University of Southern California, and I assume this crowd was also educated in the West until Nebo begins to describe his childhood. His illiterate father moved from the countryside, abandoning a peasant’s life for a factory job in the workers’ suburb of Shubra al-Kheima, in the early 1970s. When Nebo was five, his parents enrolled him in a religious school. They weren’t particularly religious, he says, but the public kindergartens only accepted kids aged six and older. After that, much of Nebo’s childhood was devoted to memorizing the Koran and other religious texts. “It helped me be strong in the Arabic language,” he says and sips his beer. 

When he was twelve, he fell in love with the twin pillars of Egyptian literature: Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, and Yusuf Idris, a novelist, short story writer, and playwright. “I began to imitate them,” he says. He commingled the high language of his religious studies and the structure and plotting of books by the famous writers and, at eighteen, won a national contest sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. His collection was published, and he was sent on a ten-day trip to Rome. “Beginner’s luck,” he says with a soft smile.

Since graduating from a religious university with degrees in English and translation, his writing voice has evolved, he says. His subsequent stories and novels weave the colloquial Arabic of the streets with the formal language of the classroom and the mosque. “The colloquial language changes every day,” he says. “The street language can enrich the old language.” Now his influences include Jorge Luis Borges, José Saramago, Juan José Millás, and Paul Auster. “I often feel like I have something in common with Paul Auster, more so than with my neighbor. We are all writers, one family scattered all over the world.”

He lives with his parents, which is typical among unwed adults in the Middle East; they are aging, and he looks after them. He writes in the early mornings, visiting cafés for privacy. “My father doesn’t understand what I do, really,” he says quietly, “but they tell the neighbors I’m writing stories like Naguib Mahfouz, whom they know from TV and movies.” 

One of his publishers invited him to the Frankfurt Book Fair where he had conversations with Western booksellers, writers, and critics. Too often, he felt like the Westerners he met wanted him to fulfill their preconceived notions of what an Egyptian writer should be. “They don’t want us to be experimental; they don’t want us to be a little bit crazy; this is for their writers.”

I ask him about the impact of the January 25th Revolution on writers in Egypt, and he criticizes publishers who have been releasing imperfect books about the Arab Spring, hoping the topic will appeal to customers even if the writing is poor; then he grows nostalgic. “We had some wonderful nights in Tahrir Square,” he says. “It was big. Like an explosion: Boom.” He makes a mushroom cloud with his hands. “We have not the right to lose hope.”

Things might grow more conservative in Egypt for a time, but Nebo, an avant-garde writer raised in an Islamic school, has a laissez-faire attitude about the prospect of increased censorship. He points out that he can always self-publish on the Internet. “For the first time, people speak about everyday problems frankly,” he says. “If the Egyptian people want to try the Islamic parties, let us try it. Maybe this will last for some years, but nothing lasts forever.”

It’s after three when I return to my hotel and fall into bed. Below my window on Talaat Harb Square, the shouting, fireworks, and horns of the nocturnal crowds continue; they intrude on my dreams until the call of the muezzin from the minarets announces the Fajr, the dawn prayer, then the streets grow quiet as the daytime abstinence begins.

I return to Egypt nine weeks later, in early October. President Morsi has wrestled power from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and his Muslim Brotherhood party is firming up control. On the ride from the airport, I sit in my taxi on the highway, frozen in traffic for an hour. Five thousand Ultras—soccer hooligans who fought against Mubarak supporters during the January 25th Revolution—are marching on the Presidential Palace and creating a massive traffic jam. Seventy-five Ultras were killed in riots at a football match last February, and the group wants justice. 

Eventually the traffic eases, and I drop my luggage at my pension on Talaat Harb and walk a block to meet Fatma El-Boudy, the owner of Al-Ain publishing house, at Café Riche, an airy, wood-paneled café that was the center of fashionable and literary Cairo for much of the twentieth century and now has returned to prominence due to its proximity to Tahrir Square. At the end of the dining area, a television beside the manager’s desk provides updates on the protests and warns that larger gatherings are scheduled for tomorrow in Tahrir. “During the January 25th Revolution, the people used to come here to eat, to have a beer, and then continue,” El-Boudy recalls. “The lucky ones had a chair.”

Sixty years ago, this area, running east from Tahrir, was the Champs-Élysées of Cairo’s belle epoque downtown, and Café Riche was its most popular meeting spot. Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian chanteuse, whose reputation in Egypt is difficult to imagine—try picturing Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Elvis, and Maria Callas all rolled into one person—was a regular at Café Riche. So was Naguib Mahfouz, who drank his daily two half-finjans of Turkish coffee at the café. King Farouk, the Egyptian monarch, met his second wife here, perhaps while Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser drank cardamom-scented coffee at a nearby table and plotted the coup that would end Farouk’s reign. Even the Palestinian American literary critic Edward Said frequented this neighborhood during his childhood and describes it in his memoir. 

“This is the heart of my job,” ElBoudy says, waving with her cigarette at the people around her. The mother of two grown daughters is wearing a ruffled white-and-black blouse, a dark blazer, and oversized black-and-white pearls; a bejeweled pin shaped like a thrush adorns her lapel; she chain- smokes Marlboros. “I’m very alert to what is going on in my country. As you can see, I know many people and many people know me. My publishing is not separate. It’s a flesh-and-blood thing.”

Seated at the table with us is a civil rights lawyer in a red tie with a bushy goatee; the Sudanese head of a Jordanian think tank in a blue jacket; an Egyptian specialist in religious movements wearing black-framed glasses and an open-necked shirt; and El-Boudy’s editor, a thirtysomething poet named Tamer Afeefy, who hands me a paperback copy of his collection. El-Boudy introduces me to a poet at a neighboring table and explains that there is a short song or poem at the beginning and end of Egyptian soap operas. “He writes those,” she says.

Al-Ain began in 2000 as a publishing house for books about popular science, explains El-Boudy, who has a PhD in biochemistry. Her early successes were a book about the human genome and a translation of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It wasn’t until 2005 that Al-Ain’s list expanded into literary fiction after El-Boudy befriended the late Tayeb Salih, the Sudanese novelist, and secured the Egyptian rights to A Season of Migration to the North. “It’s not enough to say he is a good writer,” she says. “He has created the most important novel in fifty years.”

I ask her if she is worried that the new administration will bring additional censorship. “I publish many books against the Muslim Brotherhood,” she says. Her science books can’t help but offend the creationist stance of Muslim conservatives, but she’s also published outright attacks on the religious group. “One book is called Secularism Is the Solution, instead of the Muslim Brotherhood’s saying, ‘Islam is the solution,’” she says.

She explains, with help from the intellectuals around us, that the Muslim Brotherhood, once it has cemented its grip on the presidency, will turn its attention to the ministries that oversee human rights, journalism, and the media. Already El-Boudy has been surprised by how many of her fellow publishers are announcing their Islamic loyalties. “More and more are revealing their stripes. There are more and more Islamic publishers.”

El-Boudy publishes sixty titles a year with a standard first printing of a thousand copies; she distributes these to the approximately thirty branches of the three main booksellers in Egypt, as well as a few independent stores like Kotob Khan and her own bookstore located on Talaat Harb Square; she also sells to shops in Lebanon, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and the Emirates. Once published, she submits her books to contests, hoping to win recognition and publicity for the titles and their authors.

Although she is not pleased with the current threat of censorship, she is undaunted. “I’ve got no social commitments,” she says. “My daughters are married; I can go where I want and do what I want to do. I’ve got no responsibilities. My mother died; I’m divorced. It gives me the freedom and time to create.”

The next day is Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. On Tahrir Square, in the morning, I watch two thousand protesters, upset because the president is only appointing members of the Muslim Brotherhood to his government, set up a stage and put up banners. I wander back to the Café Riche and join the lawyer from El-Boudy’s evening table for a breakfast of falafel, bread, white cheese, and beans. A friend comes in with news, and the lawyer tells me that members of the Muslim Brotherhood have arrived in the square: They ripped down the anti-Morsi banners and tried to tear down the stage; there was fighting.

My phone rings; it’s El-Boudy, who was supposed to meet us here. “I’ve heard there are thousands gathering in Tahrir. The traffic could be bad. How does it look? Should I come in?” I confirm that there’s been fighting, and we agree that she should stay home for the day.

“I think I’ll go back to the square,” I tell the lawyer.

He nods. “Yeah, it’s a good opportunity for you.”

The number of people in the square has doubled in the hour since I left; now, there are four or five thousand; they’ve spilled out from the sidewalks and grassy midan onto the paved traffic circle. New banners are up, facing the old; the largest is black with three-foot-high Arabic script proclaiming: Justice. A couple hundred people on a corner across from the Metro begin chanting anti-Morsi slogans, then they wade into the larger mass. Men are lying in the street chalking ornate slogans on the tarmac while cars, buses, and taxis honk at them and edge around; two small girls, ages four or five, wearing little Palestinian kaffiyeh head scarves, stand on a subway grate holding a sign that says in Arabic: “The system is killing me; my blood is cheap for you.” A man with a cart is selling lemonade; another sells seeds. I wade into the crowd, take pictures, and eventually emerge by a T-shirt vendor across from the Egyptian Museum. The vendor tells me he’s from Aqaba, a city in Jordan, three hours from where I live; he warns me to be careful. “You’re a foreigner; you should leave the square.” Beside us, on the sidewalk in front of a café, middle-aged men in traditional dishdasha robes sit in small groups. They aren’t drinking tea; mostly they stare at their feet and appear to be waiting. I cross the street to the road that fronts the museum; it’s blocked by museum guards with machine guns—the museum was ransacked during the January 25th Revolution—who glance at my foreign face and let me pass. 

Fifteen minutes later, there’s a rolling cheer, a wave of sound like the bellow in a stadium after the home team scores, and four hundred men sprint out of Tahrir, past the eastern side of the museum, followed by a cloud of rocks arcing overhead, then another mob of five hundred men chases after them. The pursuing bunch stops and forms a line across the street; some hold squares of cardboard over their heads; a few wear split buckets or other helmetlike contraptions. They hold the line for fifteen minutes or so, tossing rocks, absorbing rocks, picking up new rocks and throwing them again; then there’s a roar from my left, and the men in front of me turn and run. The original four hundred return on the attack; they surge forward, forming little scrums around a couple of guys who didn’t run away fast enough. Shoving becomes shouting becomes punching. 

The guards beside me maintain their posts but look nervous. A dozen middle-aged men and women—the women in hijabs and conservative clothing, the men in dishdashas and Muslim caps—emerge from the sidewalk to our right and ask the guards if they can pass in order to escape the fighting. The guards hesitate; the women plead, and they’re allowed to pass. I follow them past the museum then circle around behind it and make my way back to my hotel.

Two hours later I’m on the second floor balcony of my pension overlooking Talaat Harb Square, drinking tea with the short story writer Mohammed Abu il Dahab and watching groups assemble beneath us. They gather in hundred-person formations, rectangular phalanxes, like Elks getting ready to enter a Fourth of July parade, then they raise their banners and disappear down Talaat Harb Street toward Tahrir.

I ask Abu il Dahab if the politics and protests are affecting his writing. “A critic last Monday said he wanted to kill himself [after reading my latest novel]. He asked, ‘Why is it so depressing?’” the writer says while sipping his tea and smoking a Pharaoh-brand cigarette. “He said that I am a good writer, but in this book, I made the art dirty. He said I have to respect the religion more than this.”

Abu il Dahab is a social worker at a mental hospital in Banha City, about twenty-eight miles north of Cairo. He grew up in the area and remembers aspiring to be a screenwriter when he was eleven or twelve, but then he read one of Naguib Mahfouz’s story collections at age fifteen and everything changed. “This book changes many things [for me]: about how to be a writer, about how to see the world. It made sure for me that I have to be a writer.”

He began to read the canon of Egyptian writers and was most affected by Edwar al-Kharrat, who is the “only writer, in my opinion, who combines ammiyya [the colloquial Arabic that is spoken on the street and changes from region to region] and fusha [the classical Arabic that is read and written across the Middle East].” He credits the work of al-Kharrat with helping him solidify his ideas about how to write. “I found my voice,” he says. He was twenty years old. 

There’s a shout from Talaat Harb, and we glance down to watch twenty men shuffle into the square carrying an injured man. They lay him on the sidewalk and crowd around. The man is bleeding from a head wound. Someone produces a gauze bandage; someone else begins to wrap his head. 

“I have seven books,” Abu il Dahab says. “The most important thing that affected me was a death. In my first six books, in all my books, death is the major theme: death, death, death.”

Abu il Dahab is from a family of limited means, and he met a girl from Alexandria, from a family unknown to his clan. Forsaking tradition, he ran away with her to Cairo where they moved “from hotel to hotel to flat,” he says. “One day, she called the elevator and opened the door, but the elevator wasn’t there, and she fell: five stories.” Her name was Suhayleh. “Her name occurs again and again in my books,” he adds.

He remarried, this time to his cousin. It was a match his family approved of, but it didn’t last. After three years, she grew sick of him spending four hours a day reading books or writing on his computer. She wanted a child and blamed him for their failure to conceive; eventually, she divorced him. “But during that time, I wrote very many short stories and sent them to many journals and magazines,” he says.

page_5: 

We leave my pension and Talaat Harb, and Abu il Dahab leads me through Old Cairo, weaving down side streets and through squares to a basement bar: two rooms, a TV, some tables, a bathroom. We order Egyptian Stella beers and sit in the back and talk, while cockroaches dart along the brick wall beside us. He tells me about a television interview he sat for a month ago when he accused other contemporary writers of lying about their support for the political changes taking place in the country. “What’s Egypt going to do now? We don’t know what’s in the future. Now our future lies with the Ikhwan Musliman [the Muslim Brothers].” He describes a plan he has heard about that will place an Islamic cultural center at the heart of every city; the way he describes it makes it sound like an Orwellian attempt to monitor cultural activities and censor books on a local level.

We finish our beers and venture out to an outdoor restaurant serving kushari, the Egyptian street food that mixes noodles, rice, chilies, tomatoes, and other ingredients. “Things will become hard for writers who write like me,” Abu il Dahab says. “Many of my friends and I wrote in, you can say, a free way about sex, religion, politics. It seems like in these days to come, this will be difficult.”

The following evening I return to al-Maadi for a final meeting with Karam Youssef at Kotob Khan. I get off a packed subway train from Tahrir Square and take a taxi to her bookstore to sit surrounded by wooden bookshelves and the bright spines of books. The Vulcan features of Naguib Mahfouz stare down from a poster; from hidden speakers, Bob Dylan is singing with his customary moral certainty.

Youssef introduces me to three writers—a young female short story writer, Eman Abdel Rehim, and two male novelists, Mohamed Rabie and Al Taher Sharkawy—but for the next fifteen minutes she barely allows them to get a word in edgewise. She wasn’t in the square yesterday, but her friends were, and they updated her by cell phone. After pitched battles that led to more than a hundred injured, the anti-Morsi forces succeeded in driving the Muslim Brotherhood members out of the square. “They hit me. Do you think I am going to take it?” she says, speaking, at least this time, metaphorically. “What we discovered in the last few weeks is, maybe, we overestimated them. Yesterday, we saw signs that we were blowing them out of proportion. We went out yesterday, and we can go out next week and the week after.” She waves her fist; she’s sorry she wasn’t there, sorry she missed the fight.

The writers in front of her listen quietly. Abdel Rehim is a merchandiser for a company that exports ready-made clothes to American stores; Rabie is a civil engineer; Sharkawy is the editor of a children’s magazine and the manager of a newspaper. Change and conflict figure prominently in all their work. Rabie was in Riyadh during the Gulf War in the 1990s, and Abdel Rehim also spent years in Saudi Arabia before returning to Cairo as a fifteen-year-old. For Sharkawy, the conflict is more internal. He was educated in religious schools in a community north of Cairo, and he says he had to fight against self-censorship, but eventually he succeeded in putting his own misgivings to rest. “There is nothing in Islam to stop a creator from his creativity,” he says. “On the contrary, poets in the Abbasid period [the Islamic golden era that lasted from 750 to 1258] were very respected by the khalifa and the sultan because they had a connection with unseen powers. As a creator, you have a right to go through all the taboos and break them in order to study them.”

He is fearful of the turn he has seen in the January 25th Revolution, fearful that the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis—the most conservative Muslim political group—will begin to dictate their religious opinions to the population as a whole. “I fear that there is a group that thinks they have the correct interpretation of Islam; I fear that there will be a conflict between my opinion, my fiction, and the ‘correct’ opinion. They think their leaders never make mistakes, that things are ‘sacred’ and cannot be debated.”

The religious turn of the revolution troubles all of them. Recent events have caused Rabie so much stress that it has become hard for him to write; his current novel is three months behind schedule. Abdel Rehim has begun a short story about a civil war in Egypt. “War is becoming part of daily life,” Youssef says.

She has seen Salafis recently appointed to government posts, and she’s begun to hear talk about “cleaning” the films shown in movie theaters, and “cleaning” literature and fiction. Her voice rises as she points out that the works of Kate Chopin and James Joyce were once censored in the United States but liberal-minded people overcame the forces of conservatism and intolerance. 

“This country cannot be ruled by Muslims,” she says forcefully. “We will not be Saudi. We will not be Pakistan. We have a big diversity. You cannot do this to Egyptians!”

Postscript: Since October 2012, clashes between secular groups and President Morsi’s Islamist supporters have grown fiercer and larger. The situation escalated in November when Morsi fired a top judge and granted himself additional powers, a move that caused his opponents to compare him to the ousted dictator Mubarak. Despite opposition from women’s groups and secularists, a new constitution championed by Morsi was approved by a national vote on December 22. On the streets, secular disapproval caused protesters to torch the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the cities of Suez and Alexandria. In Cairo, Karam Youssef joined protesters in Tahrir Square. “Egypt has been and will always be the Beacon of the Middle East and the Arab world,” she writes. “We will accomplish our revolution no matter how long it takes.” 

 

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He has reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, China, Jordan, Myanmar, Vietnam, and North Korea. He lives in Madaba-Manja, Jordan.

The Revolution: Report From Literary Egypt

For his article “The Revolution: Report From Literary Egypt,” contributing editor Stephen Morison Jr, who lives in Madaba-Manja, Jordan, traveled to Cairo twice—first in late August 2012 and again in early October—and spoke with writers, publishers, and booksellers about the Arab Spring of 2011, freedom of expression and censorship, and the ongoing protests of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the city’s Tahrir Square.

1. Barricade

Image: 

The roads leading into the Garden City neighborhood of Cairo are barricaded by nine-foot walls of concrete blocks put up by the authorities
to keep out the protesters.

2. Headquarters

Image: 

The headquarters of Egypt’s former ruling party, a fifteen-story monolith situated between the Egyptian Museum (home to mummies and Pharaonic treasures) and the Nile, is a ransacked, burned-out hulk.

3. Graffiti

Image: 

Elaborate graffiti covers the walls of buildings in Cairo.

4. Graffiti

Image: 

The graffiti in Cairo reflects the political mood of the city: images of former president Hosni Mubarak as a monster and the newly elected President Mohamed Morsi looking calm and charismatic, hijab-covered grandmothers cheering on gun-waving protesters, a spray-painted computer power button and beneath it the Arabic words “the people,” and countless other symbols and sayings.

5. Kotob Khan

Image: 

Right to left: Egyptian novelists Al Taher Sharkawy and Mohamed Rabie, short story writer Aman Abdel Rehim, and bookseller and publisher Karam Youssef at Kotob Khan, Youseff’s bookstore in Cairo.

6. Muhamed Abdelnaby

Image: 

Short story writer, novelist, and translator Muhamed “Nebo” Abdelnaby at the rooftop restaurant of the Happy City Hotel in Cairo. Aldelnaby, who was raised in an Islamic school, has a laissez-faire attitude about the prospect of increased censorship in Egypt and points out that he can self-publish on the Internet.

7. Mohammed Abu il Dahab

Image: 

Short story writer Mohammed Abu il Dahab at a basement bar in Old Cairo. “Things will become hard for writers who write like me,” he says. “Many of my friends and I wrote in, you can say, a free way about sex, religion, politics. It seems like in these days to come, this will be difficult.”

9. Children Protest

Image: 

Two girls, ages four or five, wearing little Palestinian kaffiyeh head scarves, join the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on October 20, 2012. They hold a sign that says in Arabic: “The system is killing me; my blood is cheap for you.”

Writer’s Stabbing Raises Questions and Fears: Postcard From Beijing

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

2.18.09

Four days after a liberal blogger and writer was stabbed at a bookstore during a reading in Beijing, the writing community here still has more questions than answers. Xu Lai is recovering, his compatriots are actively theorizing about the motives behind the incident in their blogs, and the proprietors of the bookstore-café that sponsored the event are uneasy and hoping to avoid notoriety.  

Xu Lai, the novelist and journalist best known in China for his blog ProState in Flames, had just finished responding to questions about his blog and his recently released novel Fanciful Creatures at One-Way Street Library bookstore on the afternoon of Saturday, February 14, when he was approached by two men who forced him into the bathroom then stabbed him in the abdomen and threatened to cut off his hand. Xu Lai’s wife and other attendees came to the writer’s assistance and chased the assailants out into the street where they escaped.

Reports from various Chinese bloggers who were at the event quoted the attackers as shouting, “We’re here to take revenge,” “You’ll know better than to offend people next time,” and “You brought this on yourself. You know why we’re doing this, don’t you?”

The assailants have yet to be apprehended.

In China, where all media continues to be censored and controlled by the government, liberal-minded citizens have grown to rely on an informal network of respected blogs to bring them the news of the day. In this environment, Xu Lai enjoys a mild celebrity. ProState in Flames offered postings and links to China-focused news articles and was mildly critical of the state until it was shutdown by the government last November.

Xu Lai’s blogging compatriots have offered various theories for the attacks, with some speculating that his criticisms of China may have simply offended a pair of thugs with nationalist sympathies. But many also wondered if the Chinese government, which occasionally resorts to heavy-handed tactics to silence its critics, played a role.

During the economic boom of recent years, Chinese writers and intellectuals have witnessed a steady expansion of their freedom of speech, and fans of literature have enjoyed increasing access to formally sensitive books and topics. But like stock market watchers in the West, the writers, readers, and bookstore owners of China are alert for any indicators that might signal a downturn in the current liberal trend.

One-Way Street Library, a bookstore-café with two branches founded by a group of writers and artists, has been an increasingly well-known sponsor of readings and lectures by contemporary writers, journalists, publishers, filmmakers, and artists. The readings tend to avoid politics in favor of the avant-garde and they are generally very well-attended.

Contacted today, one of the bookstore’s partners preferred not to talk about the incident. She confirmed she had visited Xu Lai in the hospital after the attack and was happy to confirm that the writer would make a full recovery, but she had no further comment and preferred that reports about the incident avoid discussion of the bookstore.

The blog Black and White Cat probably has the best overview of the stabbing.

Stephen Morison, Jr. is a writer and teacher living in Beijing, China.

 

Springtime in Tirana: Report From Literary Albania

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

8.16.17

It is a warm, spring Wednesday in Tirana as I cross the tree-lined café district with my translator, Altin Fortuzi, through the once infamous Blloku (The Block) neighborhood, on our way to meet with a group of Albanian writers and poets. During the reign of the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who served as the head of state of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985, only the party elites were permitted to enter Blloku, but now it’s home to shady cafés, mobile phone outlets, upscale clothing stores, and brightly-painted bars; even Hoxha’s former villa has been turned into a restaurant. We pass the now-defunct museum to the deceased dictator, a concrete shrine—its architect appears to have hoped it would resemble a rising sun but it looks more like a squashed grouper—now mercifully stripped of its former marble façade and repurposed as a state television studio.

Tirana is surrounded by green mountains topped with swatches of snow even in mid April; to the north are the Albanian Alps, also called the Accursed Mountains. South and west, the mountains continue to the Adriatic and the Mediterranean eventually plunging to white sand beaches.

Albania borders Greece to the south, Macedonia to the east, and Montenegro and Kosovo to the north. Its ancient Illyrian people are referred to in classical Greek and Roman texts. Today, the conical felt cap—the pileus—worn by Odysseus in Homer’s epic can still be found on the heads of Albanian farmers.

In the 15th century, Albania was the European sore thumb of the Ottoman empire, constantly getting whacked by incursions and excursions. The Muslim Ottomans famously Shanghaied young Christian Albanians, pressing them to fight in their mercenary armies where, devoid of roots, they occasionally grew to overwhelm their masters. One Albanian conscript in the Ottoman ranks cut off a piece of the empire in the 15th century and kept it for himself. Popularly called Skanderbeg, he carved out a buffer zone between the Ottoman Empire and the Italian city states, selling his services back and forth while maintaining territorial hegemony over a proto-Albania for a few years in the middle of the early Renaissance. Today, a bronze statue of the hero, on horseback with raised sword and horned helmet, overlooks Tirana’s Skanderbeg Square, the marble-tiled communist-era parade grounds.

Skanderbeg Square

 

Our first meeting is with poet and novelist Arlinda Guma at a restaurant, bookshop, and small publishing house called E7E. Located in the downtown, the café and independent bookstore was founded by a loose and temporary coalition of poets and writers who, in the waning days of the communist dictatorship, transformed the home of the poet, essayist, painter, and rock lyricist Ervin Hatibi into a meeting space for writers, artists, and creative types. The name comes from a bit of Albanian wordplay: E7E stands for E përshtatshme, which means “suitable,” but this can be shortened using texting slang and written as E për7shme. The founders of the café shortened it further to E7E, which also refers to their early goal of publishing a literary arts newsletter every seventh day of the month (i.e. the 7th, 17th, and 27th). We sit at a small table in the open courtyard among other customers.

“I don’t read bestsellers and I’m a little bit ashamed of the name writer,” says Guma. “In Albania, a driver of a politician is more respected than a person of culture.”

Arlinda Guma

 

Guma has written and published two novels and a collection of poetry while working as an office assistant and assistant accountant for various organizations, including an arm of the European Union and an Italian firm. She is annoyed that it isn’t easier for a writer of literary fiction to make a sustainable income.

Writers typically bear the costs of printing their own books in Albania, she says, while the publishing house handles distribution to bookstores. “When I have to meet a publisher I feel like a child who is afraid of going to the dentist,” she says. “For them it doesn’t matter if you are talented or not, for them what matters is how much you will pay, because in Albania the writer has to pay the publisher [to print] the book.” When a book sells, the writer gets a portion of the cover price, usually 55 percent.

Guma’s annoyance over the fate of artists and writers in Albania’s capitalist economy may reflect the fact that she can remember a time when writers were selected then supported by the communist state. The end of communism has brought greater freedom—anybody can choose to be a writer—but greater freedom, in this instance, also means more uncertainty. There is no guarantee that a writer will earn any money from their work.

Guma’s first novel, Bulevardi i yjeve (Stars Boulevard), which she self-published in 2014, follows characters in a mental hospital, and her second, Terma humanitare si fjala bombardim (Humanitarian Terms Like the Word Bombardment), released two years later, in 2016, is based on a true story about a tragi-comic bombardment of a UN Humanitarian mission during the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Stars Boulevard was praised by some French academics, and Guma, hoping that she might find a French publisher, applied for a translation grant from the Albanian Ministry of Culture, an arm of the Albanian government, but was rejected. Undaunted, she is in the midst of her third novel, a humorous account of the life of a young writer.

She also writes columns for an online Albanian woman’s magazine and, until three years ago, wrote for a local print newspaper, but this relationship was terminated after she wrote an unflattering piece about Albania’s current prime minister, Edi Rama. “During communism, the government only promoted writers who promoted their demagogy,” she says. “During democracy, it’s the same system.” She explains that the current ministry of culture tends to favors writers it views as political allies.

She recalls that one of her childhood influences was Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac, the Post-Napoleonic French realist who influenced Friedrich Engels and others. Most American and Western European writers were banned during the communist era of her childhood, but since the fall of the communists in 1992, literature from around the world is available. “I’m enchanted by Salinger’s style, and I’m heavily influenced by French and German authors,” she says. She mentions Stefan Zweig, the mid-20th century Austrian writer who killed himself during the Nazi occupation, and she’s effusive about John Fante, the American writer who influenced and was championed by Charles Bukowski. (There is a bar named for Bukowski across the street from E7E). She says she also admires the Albanian poet and story writer Millosh Gjergj Nikolla (penname Migjeni) and the poet Frederik Rreshpja, and she appreciates Ismail Kadare, the most famous of all Albanian writers.

You, Me & Bukowski, a bar and restaurant in Tirana.

 

Under the communist regime, published writers and poets served as the mouthpiece for the state, and few were brave enough to experiment with the party line. One exception was Kadare, author of thirty-seven novels, seven story collections and a play. Like Mo Yan, the government-supported, Nobel-Prize-winning Chinese author, Kadare has a talent for writing philosophically complex novels while also adhering to the party line of his communist rulers. Kadare won the Man Booker International Prize the first year it was offered in 2005, and more than twenty of his works have been translated into English.

“During communism, only the writer of the ruling ideology was respected; the other was shot or sent to prison,” Guma says. “Kadare was the only exception.”

In the center of Tirana, beside Skanderbeg Square, behind the Ottoman-era mosque and adjacent clocktower (built in the 1800s by the architect-poet Etëhem Bey Mollaj), between a row of government ministries and the semi-Deco national theater, there is a concrete dome atop a bunker. A doorway cut into the side leads down a set of stairs fifteen meters or so into an underground tunnel complex, built by Hoxha, the former dictator; the complex has been transformed into a museum detailing the oppressive years of the communist regime.

The pyramid of Tirana, a former museum dedicated to Enver Hoxha, now a television studio..

 

The exhibits range from the mildly humorous (the Albanians attempted to bug the Italian embassy by placing a listening device in the wooden handle of a broom used by a local maid) to the horrific: During World War II, captured communist partisans were tortured and executed by the Italian and German fascist occupiers. After the war, the communists responded in kind. They collectivized the countryside, redistributed the country’s wealth and persecuted the middle class, executing priests, merchants, and other potential enemies of their state.

Hoxha aligned himself with Stalin, mimicking the Soviet dictator’s show trials, public confessions, executions, and concentration camps. But following Stalin’s death in 1953, the next Soviet ruler, Khrushchev, surprised Hoxha by pressuring him to end his cult of personality and share power with a broader coalition of Albanian communist elites. When the Soviets additionally urged the dictator to resolve his differences with Yugoslavia, his northern neighbor who had incorporated the Albanian-speaking province of Kosovo into its boundaries after World War II, Hoxha broke with the Soviets.

In 1961, he succeeded in replacing financial and technical support from Moscow with support from Beijing. But having angered all his neighbors as well as his most powerful regional ally, he grew increasingly fearful of the possibility of outside attack; hence, the bunkers dotting every mile of the Albanian capital, the countryside, the beaches, the mountain tops, everywhere. Hoping to ensure national unity, he turned all churches and mosques, including the Etëhem Bey Mosque on the national square, into community centers (Albanian was and is about 60 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian).

One of many bunkers alongside a road in Tirana.

 

The bunker museum details all of this in videos, photos, and recordings of concentration camps, executions, forced confessions, and show trials. Dispirited, I return to street level to meet with Rudi Erebara, a poet, novelist, and translator in his late forties, who remembers the communist era well.

The sun has gone down on the beautiful April day and the sidewalks have grown cool when we join Erebara at a table outside a nameless café: The locals call it Lulu’s, after the owner, or Blue Umbrella, after an umbrella that once shaded one of its sidewalk tables.

“After the war, they pulled my uncle’s fingernails out to make him tell them where he hid the gold,” Erebara says, repeating the stories he heard as a child. “When he came home, he couldn’t walk for eight months. He never recovered; he died a year or two later.”

It is evening, and Erebara is dressed in a cap, blue-framed glasses, and a windbreaker. He is celebrating a number of recent victories: He has just been awarded a European Union Prize for Literature for his novel Epika e yjeve të mëngjesit (The Epic of the Morning Stars), which he self-published in 2016, and he also recently reclaimed, then sold, the home taken from his family during the communist era. Jubilant, he chain-smokes cigarettes and downs cognacs. When we join him, he lets us order beers then lifts the floodgates on an occasionally chilling river of information. Erebara’s family and personal histories are as rich and intricate as those of his country.

Poet, writer, and translator Rudi Erebara (left) and Altin Fortuzi.

 

His paternal grandfather was a prosperous middle class shopkeeper in Tirana who bought and sold gold from his retail shop. After the communists took over, they arrested Erebara’s paternal uncle to find out where he had hidden his stock. “He told them after four months of torture,” Erebara says.

Luckily, his father, just fourteen at the time, had enlisted and fought with the anti-fascist partisans during the war. As a result, he was permitted to attend university in Prague at the Academy of Performing Arts from 1947 to 1951.

“Miloš Forman was in his class,” Erebara says, citing the Czech director who fled to the United States when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, ending that Eastern Bloc country’s brief experiment with liberalism. Forman eventually became famous for directing the Oscar-winning films One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Erebara’s father became well known in Albanian, but his path was erratic.

“My father used to say how easy it was to go to jail,” Erebara says, pointing out that this is a central theme in his award-winning novel. In his final year at university in 1951, Erabara’s dad was arrested while directing a show in Prague. Three portraits of communist leaders were hung at the back of the stage in the theater: Stalin in the center with the Czech leader Klement Gottwald on his right and the Albanian leader Hoxha on his left. Hoxha was about four inches lower than Gottwald, and when somebody noticed, his father made an off-hand comment about how a Czech middle-class citizen had more class than Hoxha. The next day, he was arrested and sent back to Albania. As punishment for his remark, he served in the Albanian army without pay for several years, and his family was removed from their comfortable home in central Tirana.

In 1957 Erebara’s father was permitted to work in the state-owned film studios, writing and directing eleven movies and twenty-five documentaries. “Everybody loves him,” Erebara says. “When he died [in 2007], five thousand people came to his funeral.”

During the communist era, such a show of appreciation for an individual would have been impossible. Under Hoxha’s regime, poetry, art and films were credited to communist arts collectives; individual attribution was forbidden. “It was just a big industrial ideological machine,” Erebara says.

Born in 1971, during a period when the Chinese were increasing their subsidies for Albanian infrastructure while using the country as a front to import technology from the West, Erebara remembers a feeling of prosperity in the capital, but without any lessening of the atmosphere of oppression and fear. He recalls watching the communist government build new neighborhoods in the city using political prisoners as laborers. “There was a concentration camp two hundred meters from my house,” he says.

His father’s films were well received, even praised by Hoxha, but still his family lived in constant fear. “My mother had a green valise prepared with clean clothes in it because we were always scared they were going to arrest us and kick us the fuck out of Tirana,” he says.

The writer’s first novel, self-published in 2010, is a fictionalized account of an acquaintance who spent years searching for the remains of his father, killed in jail during the Hoxha years. The acquaintance owns a construction company and, after a mudslide exposed bones on the outskirts of Tirana, he used one of his excavators to uncover the remains of eighty-one bodies. “All shot in the head,” Erebara says.

One of the writer’s maternal uncles disappeared on August 25, 1979, when he was just twenty-five. Erebara believes he attempted to escape the country and defect to the West, but he has never been able to find any record of him resurfacing outside of Albania. “I looked in the U.S. with the International Red Cross, even with the Mormons,” he says. “I don’t think he’s alive.”

In 2010 he self-published a novel inspired by these events, Vezët e thëllëzave (Eggs of the Quails). It sold poorly, but the public’s desire to revisit the crimes of the Hoxha years has increased since then. In 2013, he republished it and quickly sold out his thousand-copy print run.

As a child, Erebara dreamed of being a filmmaker, a writer, and an artist. He auditioned to be a painter and was accepted at the Academy of Fine Arts, now the University of Arts in Tirana, eventually graduating with a degree in textiles and carpets while continuing to paint, write poetry, work on novels, and translate works from English to Albanian. After the fall of the communists he was part of the group of artists and intellectuals who banded together and created the E7E bookstore, café, and publishing house. He rattles off a list of more than a dozen Albanian artists who were involved. In addition to publishing a newsletter and a poetry journal, they began to translate and publish books that had been prohibited under communism, such as Neitzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Erebara had poems accepted in literary magazines even before the fall of communism, and he followed these with a collection, Fillon pamja (There Begins the View), in 1994. He also continued to be recognized for his paintings, and in 1997, he accepted an invitation with some other Albanian artists to have a gallery show at High Point University in North Carolina. The George Soros Foundation, which has been a steady contributor to the arts in Albania since the early 1990s, paid for their airfare. Erebara arrived in North Carolina and participated in the show, but then disaster struck.

In Albania, after the dissolution of the communist system, there had been a five-year scramble for wealth and resources as the state-owned economy was privatized. Individuals, some with ties to the former communist government and some with ties to the new, democratically-elected government, incorporated themselves and solicited investments claiming they would be used to purchase properties and other resources. Some were legitimate while others were fronts for criminal money laundering and pyramid schemes. In the rush to get in on a good thing, families sold off assets and invested their life savings. With an estimated billion dollars sunk into dozens of these firms, the economy soon hinged on their success. In 1997, the first of the schemes collapsed and the rest soon fell, creating a panic that led to chaos and anarchy.

Erebara’s brother called him and warned him not to come home. Across Albania, enraged citizens were turning on one another, rioting, looting, hijacking cars, kidnapping strangers. It wasn’t safe to travel. Commerce ground to a halt. Criminal gangs took over whole cities, and people fled urban areas for their ancestral villages hoping to find refuge. The European powers and the United States sent in troops to extract their embassy employees and other citizens.

Internationally, the crisis was overshadowed by concern for the neighboring wars in the former Yugoslavia: The civil war of 1997 to 1998 and ethnic cleansing campaigns in Albanian-speaking Kosovo initiated a refugee crisis as Kosovars flooded into Albanian, further destabilizing the country.

In April 1997 the United Nations sent in an Italian-led force of seven thousand soldiers to attempt to separate combatants and oppose the criminal gangs, but it was clear that the country would remain chaotic, poor, and desperate for the immediate future. Erebara took his brother’s advice and overstayed his visa in the USA. He became an illegal immigrant and moved to Brooklyn, New York.

Young and willing to avail himself of whatever odd job appeared, he worked as a roofer, brick-layer, concrete pourer, sheet rocker, painter, and plumber. Within five years, he was subcontracting jobs to a crew of a half-dozen workers. In his final year in the United States he says he grossed a half-million dollars and dutifully filed federal, state, and local taxes. He considered applying for a legal work visa—a green card—but the immigration consultant he approached warned him that he might wind up being deported instead. In 2002, he made the decision to return to Albania.

He had hardly been idle while away. He had worked on his second collection of poetry, Lëng argjendi (Silver Juice), and his years in the United States had improved his English translating skills.

Since returning to Tirana, Erebara has married an Albanian journalist, and they are raising two daughters, ages six and eleven. He has also published sixteen translations, including works by Herman Melville, John Grisham, Harold Pinter, A. R. Ammons, and Kenzaburo Oe. “It took me two-and-a-half years to translate Moby Dick,” he says. “In Albanian, we don’t have the parts of the Nantucket whaling ship.” The United States Embassy subsidized Erebara’s translation of Ammons, and the book won an award for translations from the Association of Albanian publishers.

But today we are celebrating his award for original fiction. As a 2017 recipient of the European Union Prize for Literature, he will receive €5,000 (approximately $5,448) and see his novel translated into eleven languages. We are also toasting the bittersweet sale of his family’s former home.

We leave the sidewalk café and walk around the corner to see a villa in the midst of a renovation. This is the house where Erebara’s father and uncles were born. After the fall of communism, families were able to successfully petition to have properties confiscated during the Hoxha era returned to them. Twenty-five years after the downfall of the dictatorship, Erebara regained the title then sold the building. His pocket bulges with a fat roll of Ablanian leks, and he insists that we take a taxi across town to Petro, a grill house still serving sausages, ribs, steaks and beers, where he continues to enthrall us with stories late into the night.

The next morning, we rent a Dacia Sandero (a French-Romanian car) and plot a course to the nearest beach on the Albanian Riviera, in the south. Infrastructure improvements are evident everywhere along our six-hour journey. A raised and gleaming four-lane highway stretches before us in the port city of Durrës but terminates at a barrier a hundred kilometers later. Behind the fencing, a crew is building an embankment to continue the highway.

Turning onto surface roads, we wind through the seaside city of Vlorë and through an uneven stretch along the waterfront where crews are repositioning traffic islands, inserting new palm trees, and repaving the road. Google Maps scrambles to keep up, rerouting us every few minutes as we negotiate the changing conditions.

In the countryside, we pass farmers in horse-drawn wagons, a seemingly abandoned nuclear power plant with seven cooling towers, and a Roman-era Illyrian archeological site, before entering a long valley after Durrës. The road soon turns upward into Llogara National Park, and we’re surrounded by fir and pine forests as we negotiate the switchbacks toward the pass. Even here, the forests are dotted with the concrete domes and blind eyes of pillboxes dug into the soil.

Snow-topped mountains, hillside meadows, and cliffs running down to the Mediterranean match descriptions from Ismail Kadare’s acclaimed first novel, Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur (The General of the Dead Army), translated from the French version of the Albanian by Derek Coltman and published in 1963. The novel follows the adventures of an Italian general and a Catholic priest sent to Albania to recover the remains of fallen Italian soldiers twenty years after World War II.

Written in the midst of the Hoxha years, the book employs the rudimentary syntax and diction mandated by communist censors who required literature to be accessible to the proletariat. At first, the storyline struggles to overcome plot devices that are obvious propaganda: An Albanian peasant tells the Italians of a lone resistance fighter who shot many Italian troops from a hillside before dying bravely, and the general, rather than noting that stories of heroic snipers who shoot hundreds of enemies singlehandedly are a mainstay of Eastern Bloc, post-WWII propaganda (e.g., Vasily Zaytsev, “Hero of the Soviet Union,” a sniper the Soviets immortalized in books and films) or marveling that seemingly every culture contains stories of lone snipers fighting off hundreds (e.g., Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper; Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan; as well as the stories of Simo Hayha in Finland and Zhang Taofang in China), is awestruck: “‘It’s astounding,’ the general said a half an hour later, as they were driving back toward Tirana, ‘that a single man could have dreamed of fighting an entire army.’”

On the other hand, the novel’s premise enables Kadare’s protagonist to reflect on mass burials and the futility of war, two topics that were avoided during the Hoxha years. As the story swells toward its climax, Kadare, writing under the hair trigger of a censor in a paranoid regime, manages to bang the tired mechanisms of totalitarian propaganda into a story that shudders to life: The characters grow increasingly sympathetic as the plot nears its surprising climax.

In 1985, as Hoxha was dying, Kadare smuggled an unpublished novel that blatantly criticized the regime out of Albania to France to be published. As the Eastern Block was breaking up and the Berlin Wall began to be pulled down in 1990, Kadare fled to France and received political asylum. His move proved prescient. Seven years later, the economic crash sent thousands along the same path.

***

Upon returning to Tirana, I meet with Gentian Çocoli at a café across the river—really more of a scenic storm drain than a river—from Blloku. Altin Fortuzi, my fixer and translator, explains that although the owners of the restaurant and bookshop translate the name as “Friend’s Book House,” “Friend of the Book’s House” would be more accurate. During the communist era, Fortuzi tells us, “friend of the book” was an award the government gave to kids who checked out many books from public libraries. “There was an ugly pin to go with the title,” he says. The café’s name both spoofs and honors the old communist prize.

Friend’s Book House

 

It’s an appropriate place to meet Çocoli, who for the last twenty years has edited and published Aleph, a literary journal featuring Albanian and international authors. A typical issue has a color cover and 275 pages.

Çocoli, middle-aged with sandy hair, is wearing a corduroy jacket with a brown-and-white, checked pocket square. He is from Gjirokastër, a southern town near the Greek border that was also the birthplace of Ismail Kadare and Enver Hoxha.

As a young man, Çocoli’s love of nature and science journals made him think about studying biology, but he struggled against the rigidity of the field, as well as the rote-learning style of his teachers; instead, he fell in love with poetry and writing. When he was twenty-two he left Gjirokastër for the capital. “I saw a lot of talented people, so I moved from my hometown to meet my brothers in arms. All came from their valleys,” he says. His peripatetic life has caused him to identify with the story of Odysseus, he says. References to the Greek epic occur frequently in his poems.

In 1991, Çocoli’s parents sent him money to purchase a coat to help him survive the winter, but instead, he spent the cash on a tutor to teach him English. About the same time, a friend gave him an anthology of American poems and an issue of the New York Review of Books. Another friend introduced him to George Plimpton’s Paris Review. “Being a post-communist country is like being post-colonial, you must find your personal identity,” he says. “In post-communist countries, translation is much more important than personal writing.”

A friend introduced him to the board members of the literary arm of the Soros Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist, and they agreed to help him publish his new literary magazine. The first issue of Aleph came out in October 1996, during a time when Tirana, according to Çocoli, was “free with a big capital F.”

But like Odysseus, Çocoli’s voyage has not been easy. In 1997, he went to his family’s country home for a weekend and ended up trapped there for three months. The financial crisis had begun, and it was not safe for him to travel on the roads. Instead, he wrote a collection of poems about the house, pointing out that one of the primary goals of Albanians who leave the country to find work is to send back enough money to build a house. His poetry collection was called Circumference of Ash (2001) and it received the Best Book of the Year Award, given by the Albanian Ministry of Culture.

As the crisis eased, he returned to publishing Aleph. The Soros foundation gave him two thousand dollars a year for the project, but after a dozen years, that support ended. He tried to make the money up by piecing together funding from a network of institutions—the American Embassy, the Italian Cultural Institute, the Albanian Ministry of Culture—but he couldn’t make it work. Struggling to provide for his family, he accepted a position at the Ministry of Culture, but he only lasted a year. He resigned when his boss refused to support his proposal that money be allotted for translators of poetry.

Quitting proved fortuitous, as he applied for and was awarded a residency at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. He spent four months in Iowa City and was tempted to remain when he was offered a job at Prairie Lights, but his two-month-old daughter awaited him back in Albania.

He returned to his wife and daughter (now two daughters, ages five and eleven) and accepted a new job with the Ministry of Culture. This time he succeeded in creating a budget for grants for translators, but he quit again after his boss refused to create a fund for writers and poets.

And still, like Odysseus, he presses on. At present, he is working on two retrospective issues of Aleph, one celebrating the best poetry of the past twenty years and the other featuring the best prose. He’s excited about the project but skeptical that it will result in a large profit. “I live a very poor life,” he says, but he has no plans to change it.

***

That evening, I meet poet Erina Çoku behind the picture windows of the café and restaurant attached to the Hotel Iliria, directly across the street from the pillars and red facade of the School of Albanian Literature at the University of Tirana. Çoku is an editor for Pegi Publishing, a book publisher with headquarters nearby. She has spent the day editing a philosophy textbook with a professor, and she is eager to drink a coffee and talk about poetry.

Erina Çoku

 

“It doesn’t matter how busy I am, I write; I’ll write while walking, while shopping in the supermarket, on something like this,” she says indicating the receipt for our coffee. Indeed, when I “friend” her on Facebook the next day, I discover that she posts new original poems every couple of days.

“My uncle was a teacher,” she says. “He kept giving me different books to read.” She remembers that the Albanian children’s author Odhise Grillo was the first poet she read. As she got older, she loved the works of Russian Imaginist poet (and the famously colorful) Sergei Yesenin and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

In 1994, at her high school in her hometown of Burrel in northern Albania, she approached her literature and writing teacher, a writer and critic, and asked him to read a collection of poems she had written. At the same time, she mailed a letter to Toena Publishers in Tirana asking why they didn’t publish new young voices.

An editor at Toena asked to see her work then offered to publish a collection of her poems, and her teacher agreed to help her edit them. She credits him with helping her to temper her youthful impulses. “I needed to step back from teenage enthusiasm for being great and take form and rhymes more seriously. I learned to be more—” she searches for the appropriate English word, “Not selective, to not overinflate words, to clean the words and pick the best one.”

Çoku agrees that many publishers in Albania ask the writers to pay to print their own works, but Toena covered all the expenses for her first book, Krahë s’kanë ëngjëjt e mi (My Angels Have No Wings). It was published in 1996, released on schedule, but the collapse of the economy in 1997 ruined the company’s marketing plans. After high school, Çoku studied literature at the university across the street then got married and, as the country floundered, moved to Greece with her husband.

“After university, I stopped reading poetry for a time,” she says. “I wanted to have my own voice. I wanted to develop my own images, my own vocabulary.”

She worked in a shop, learned Greek, and even traveled to England. She credits these experiences with helping her to mature and grow. She acquired new literary influences, including the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis, a romantic modernist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1979. Çoku gestures with both hands: “[Living and working in Greece] fed me new feelings, new thoughts, new ways of thinking. It was a kind of food for my poetry.”

After seven years abroad, she returned to Albania and contacted her high school teacher; he helped her edit her second collection, Gjurma e gjethes (Leaf’s Trace), which she self-published in 2011. Shortly after this, newly divorced with two children, she began her work at the publishing company.

She points out that sometimes she writes formal poems with rhyme and meter, and sometimes her poems follow no rules. “I wanted to have my own voice. I’m not interested in imitating something.”

Çoku paid for the printing, marketing, and distribution of her second collection herself, but as an established poet, the book earned the attention of Albanian writers and critics; she drew a crowd to her public readings and favorable reviews appeared in local media.

Today Çoku is bright with optimism about what the future holds for her and her young sons. Her boys have recently developed a passion for studying the cello, and the oldest is studying with a good teacher in the public music school in the neighborhood. She enjoys her life as an editor, and she continues to write: Currently she’s working on her third collection.

“It would be better if I was kind of rich,” she says thoughtfully. “I would do a lot of traveling; it would help my poetry; it would be good. I would have more time for meditation. But even in this busy time, I’m still writing a lot. Poetry is still with me. It is good.”

***

The next morning I walk south through the city to a road leading up Salita Hill. Developers have begun to build expensive neighborhoods on the hillsides overlooking the capital, and the poet and painter Eljan Tanini has been given a studio by the owners of Kodra e diellit (Sunhill Residence), one of the new developments.

“My second book is about the city,” Tanini says when we sit down at the Fiesta Bar, a coffee shop with views of the downtown, located at a piazza on a switchback between parallel rows of mountainside condominiums. Bearded with a rebel’s mane of brown hair, wearing a scarf, a turquoise shirt, plaid pants, leather hiking boots with yellow laces and beaded bracelets, Tanini is a twenty-nine-year-old activist and artist who speaks passionately about his love for the Albanian capital. “I don’t have a wife, but I know my daughter will be called Tirana,” he says.

Eljan Tanini

 

The city features heavily in his first book, a collection of poetry called Pa pik’ (Without Periods) that he self-published in 2015 and dedicated to his ex-girlfriend and the corner of the Hemingway Bar in the city center where he composed much of the text.

Impressed by his poems, paintings and reputation, the developers of the condos have granted him a glass-faced retail space on the main street to use for the creation of his artwork. His latest paintings, colorful abstracts that recall the work of Joan Miró, lean against the walls of his studio beneath hung photographs of puddles, clouds, and stains—abstract shapes that inspire him. Images from his paintings illustrate Without Periods.

Over coffee, he tells me about his efforts to preserve a lake in a nearby park. Working with other young people, he has been at the forefront of protests intent on slowing the development of the city’s open spaces that has proliferated since capitalism supplanted the planned economy. Holding up his phone, he shows us a picture of himself surrounded by policemen. He was arrested while protesting the city’s efforts to fill in an artificial lake at a nearby park and build a kindergarten on the site. A judge sentenced him to five days of community service for his actions. “I was a journalist for the two biggest TV stations, but I stopped to join the protests at the lake,” he says.

Although political activism has interrupted his journalism, he has never stopped his poetry and artwork. As a child, he convinced his parents to hire a costly tutor to prepare him for admission to a prestigious arts high school, the Lyceum Jordan Misja. The investment paid off:  He was accepted to the high school, then to the University of Tirana, where he studied philosophy as an undergraduate, then earned a masters degree in literature. His master’s thesis analyzed the concept of beauty in the works of Umberto Eco.

Since graduating, he has read at literary festivals across Albania and been awarded a writers residency in Split, Croatia. Recently he was invited to exhibit at the Mediterranean Biennale. Meanwhile, the city government is planning on installing several of his sculptures—gargantuan models of paper airplanes—at the site of a former Albanian airfield that has been developed into an apartment complex.

Tanini continues to live with his parents in the apartment in the city center where he threw paper airplanes from the windows as a child. His father, who is struggling with heart problems, nags him to find a wife. “Before communism, [Albanians] were married with birth,” the poet says, referring to the custom of arranged marriages. “In communism, matchmakers would arrange marriages. Probably this is why most people did not marry for love. Love was supposed to grow out of marriage.” But Tanini isn’t ready to settle down yet.

Stephen Morison Jr. (left) and Eljan Tanini at Tanini’s studio in Tirana.

 

The city awarded him the commission for the paper airplane sculptures, but the prize was only €100 (approximately $117), so he found a private investor, a wealthy man whose father was a pilot during the communist era. The man is pleased the sculptures are the same size as the jets his father once flew. Tanini plans for the folded “paper” of the planes to contain passages and phrases from the works of Albanian poets and writers. “It’s a nice thing to remember history,” he says.

The poet shows us around his studio, then we begin the walk back to the center of the city. As we descend, Fortuzi, my translator, remembers the day after the communist government fell when he and his high school classmates broke into the cabinet in the classroom reserved for the teaching of the histories and philosophies of Marxism and the Albanian labor party. “We took pages from the books of Enver Hoxha and used them to make paper airplanes,” he says. He pauses on the hillside sidewalk and mimics releasing a paper airplane into the wind.

 

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He has reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, China, Denmark, Egypt, Jordan, Myanmar, Rome, Vietnam, North Korea, and Syria. He currently lives in Maine.

Piazze and Pasquinades: Report From Literary Rome

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

4.15.15

There’s a twist to why I invited you to this place,” Gabriele Romagnoli says as he leads me past the grand marble steps and neoclassic columns of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, a 132-year-old museum and exhibition hall in Rome, to the discreet side entrance where we take the elevator to the roof. “Can you guess why I asked you to meet me here?” The elevator opens, and we pass into a massive, two-thousand-square-meter rooftop garden glassed in and transformed into a greenhouse by the architect Paolo Desideri in 2007, then transformed again into a restaurant run by the Italian celebrity chef Antonello Colonna. The decor features white tables and chairs in a distinctively postmodern setting with clean sweeping lines and twenty-foot-tall walls of glass. It’s a Bauhaus dream capping a white marble rooftop surrounded by the neoclassic landscape of Quirinal Hill, the second highest of Rome’s seven hills, where Quirinal Palace, the Louvre-sized presidential residence, looks down upon the Eternal City.

Romagnoli lives on the ground floor of a neighboring building, and he likes the restaurant, which serves a buffet lunch to the bankers and government officials who work in the area, because it is nothing like the traditional tourist’s romantic conception of Rome. “It isn’t some dark, crowded restaurant in Trastevere,” he says. “It’s like we are not in Rome here; it could be Germany or Amsterdam. You have Rome,” he raises a hand to indicate the beautiful building on the other side of the balcony railing from where we are sitting, “but it’s not like—arrhh—all around you.”

The author has introduced a theme I am to hear again and again from Italian writers: a desire to shake free from a past so impressive it is suffocating. In Italy, the shadows cast by the artists of the Roman golden age and the Renaissance still linger over the writers of the twenty-first century.

For instance, when I ask Romagnoli if there is a great Italian novel or some debate that parallels the endless American discussion about the “Great American Novel,” he shakes his head and tells me the great Italian novel has been written at least three times and that the competition is too stiff for there ever to be another. “La Divina Commedia by Dante; how can you write the great Italian novel when someone wrote a work that was science fiction, fantasy, history, and romance all in one, seven hundred years ago?”

Romagnoli’s own novels have been highly praised. At various stopping points in a Cinderella career, the author has written for newspapers, magazines, television, and film. He was the editor of Italian GQ, and at present he’s a columnist for Vanity Fair Italy and La Repubblica. But he made his bones as a fiction writer.

In 1988, Pier Vittorio Tondelli, an influential Italian writer who later died young of AIDS, sent out a call for young writers to contribute to an “Under 25” edition of an Italian magazine, and Romagnoli sent five stories. He had one accepted for his first fiction publication.

Romagnoli was a young journalist working the night shift for a Turin newspaper, and he wrote his fiction on one of those old computers with the lines of green text that were common in newsrooms in the 1980s. Manning the phone on the city desk in the early morning after the paper had been put to bed, he idled away the hours writing stories “just for myself.” He invented a game: He would transcribe the beginning of an actual news story that had come over the wire, then “change the ending, forget the story, and write what I wanted. The rule was to fill one page on the computer.”

A journalist friend in Milan told him a personal story one day and he wrote it down, changed the ending, and sent it back to her. Amused, she asked if she could send it to an editor friend of hers named Antonio Franchini, now famous but at the time a rookie editor with the Italian publishing behemoth Mondadori. Franchini called Romagnoli a couple of days later and asked him to send more stories. The writer remembers he had “seventy-something” stacked on his desk, but he hesitated. “I thought I needed to experience more pleasure and pain,” he says. He didn’t think his stories were good enough and didn’t send anything.

A week later, Franchini called him again. “Do you realize how many people send me their novels and stories and want me to publish them? I’m sitting here behind stacks and stacks of shit, and the one person I call and ask to send me something doesn’t send it,” he said. This time Romagnoli sent what he had, and Franchini liked it.

The reviews of his debut, Navi in bottiglia, 101 microracconti (Ships in Bottles: 101 Micro-Stories), compared him to the classical Greeks; the critics strained to flatter him using words he had to look up in the dictionary; he won two awards. “My life changed,” he remembers.

Thirty years later, at fifty-four, Romagnoli is tall and lanky, with steel-gray hair, a long face, black eyebrows curtained by chunky black-framed glasses, and a fighter jet of a nose. In a slim-fit white oxford, jeans, green sneakers, and a polished-steel watch, the writer resembles a younger, casual-wear version of Toni Servillo, the actor who starred in Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning La grande bellezza. Certainly, Romagnoli’s career has been as colorful as anything to be found in the film.

When Romagnoli grew bored in Italy, his Turin newspaper sent him to New York. Four years after dreaming of being a foreign correspondent posted to New York City, he found himself in Manhattan with an expense account. He chuckles. “It is trouble to realize one’s dreams so quickly.”

He lasted three years in New York before his attention wandered. He returned to Italy to write scripts for movies and television. “I hadn’t watched much Italian TV,” he says. “I hadn’t watched much American TV either, but I was thinking of an Italian Sopranos.” He wanted something groundbreaking, original, new. In 2001, he wrote a police drama, Distretto di polizia, in the tradition of Hill Street Blues. The series ran successfully, but soon after its start, he received a call from the press office of the Italian police. “The chief likes the series,” the spokesman told him. “The problem is the gay guy.” Romagnoli had invented a gay policeman, and the Italian police were not happy. You cannot film episodes outdoors in Rome without the support of the police department.  Shortly after Romagnoli left the show, the gay character “became straight.”

Unsatisfied with the constraints he discovered as a screenwriter, Romagnoli went back to journalism. After 9/11 he accepted a posting to the Middle East and filed stories from Cairo, then Beirut. He also continued writing fiction.

I ask Romagnoli to describe his writing process. “People have this idea you write the best sentences in a beautiful room facing the seaside,” he says. “My best lines, I got them from the bus, from the subway.” We talk about how he got his start, and he points out that there are no MFA programs in Italy. “Nobody really believes you can teach writing in six months,” he says, then sketches out the only class he could teach on the subject. “Find your own voice,” he would say. He smiles. “Then you go home.”

He checks his watch. His editor at la Repubblica, the Roman newspaper for the center-left, has assigned him to cover a story in the suburbs. Immigrants from Africa and the Middle East have attacked a bus after it refused to stop for them, which in turn incited a local neighborhood-watch group to turn vigilante and randomly attack immigrants. He’s supposed to ride the bus and interview whomever he finds on board. “My editor said that I lived in the Middle East, so I should be perfect for it.” He lifts his eyebrows suggesting that he’s unconvinced, then smiles and hurries off to make the bus.

The Colosseum, Rome

Theatre of Marcellus, Rome

Rome is like this. While enjoying an espresso atop an architectural masterpiece in the city center, it’s easy to miss the immigrant riot on the outskirts. There’s little crime in the touristy downtown, aside from the pickpockets, but the suburbs are rougher. The economic downturn that affected the world in 2007 continues to plague Italy. Unemployment hovers at 13 percent and is higher for young adults.

On the backside of the Aventine Hill, where I live, parkland traces an ancient defensive wall built by Caesar Aurelian, and prostitutes take up positions on the park benches starting in the early afternoons, their caked mascara and ruined faces incongruously peering out from the stream of retirees and fashionable professionals. 

Some days the tension among Rome’s disparate parts is more visible than others. I schedule a meeting with the novelist Melania Mazzucco in the city center. But Mazzucco texts and explains that Italy’s largest labor union is planning to protest Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s effort to pass a law making it easier for Italian companies to fire workers. On October 25, a hundred thousand laborers march through the streets of Rome waving banners. They chant and listen to speeches in the remains of the Circus Maximus, then stroll about taking selfies in front of the Colosseum.

Mazzucco is waiting for me the next afternoon in front of the armless and legless sculpture in the Piazza di Pasquino, adjacent to the Piazza Navona. She points to a poem on a piece of paper glued to the ancient figure’s pedestal and explains that it’s a political message. Members of the general public began expressing their dissatisfaction with the ruling authorities by putting messages on the statue shortly after it was discovered and placed in this location—the front of a palace owned by a cardinal of the church—in 1501. The messages are called pasquinate, a word that has migrated into English as pasquinades, after the statue. “Here they put up poems against those in power,” Mazzucco says. “It’s like a Speakers Corner, a place where the people can tell the truth.”

The novelist has distinctive dark, curly hair and narrow, black-framed glasses. It’s late fall, and she’s wearing a down jacket and a light blue scarf. “I’ve always written,” she says. “I was born into an artistic family. My father was a playwright; my childhood was spent in theaters. I remember I was amazed with how a woman fifty years old could become another person: a wonderful young girl or a queen.”

Her father typed his plays in a small room of their home, and when she was a child, she enjoyed copying him by typing little stories of her own. But as a teenager, she thought she might follow a different path. “You live without skin in some ways,” she says, explaining what scared her about the prospect of becoming a writer. “You are naked in front of life.”

Fascinated by memory, she thought she might like to become a doctor and study the workings of the mind, but the Italian school system does not encourage students to follow their passions. Instead, young people are slotted according to their aptitudes as indicated by a nationwide high school exam, the maturità. “You must choose [your field of study] when you are eighteen,” Mazzucco says. Still, she dreamed of at least a minor rebellion and embarked on a romantic plan to move to France and become a French writer. It didn’t quite work out. She moved abroad but “felt a bit lost,” she says.

At nineteen, she returned to Italy and finished a degree in Italian literature at Sapienza University of Rome before enrolling in the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, a Roman school for filmmaking, whose most famous literary graduate is Gabriel García Márquez. For two years she took technical classes in how to direct, edit, produce, and write films. The school began to instill in her confidence that she might support herself with her writing. After she graduated, she earned money editing and selling screenplays.

She also took a job working for Treccani, the largest Italian encyclopedia company. The firm assigned her to help reduce the size of its encyclopedia from thirty-five volumes to just twelve. Mazzucco had to make a list of writers to be removed. She made the cuts but then felt sad about them. “I told myself I have to read these writers.” She bought their books and started reading.

When she was twenty-three, she experienced a crisis. “I was editing a screenplay, and I realized it was not so interesting. I realized I had a story to tell. I had to write a novel, not to publish it—I never expected to publish it—but I needed to write it to save my life.”

Her first draft reached fifteen hundred pages. She sent it to publishers and received dozens of rejections. Eventually, she began to cut it down. When it had reached a more manageable size, a medium-sized publishing company in Milan, Baldini & Castoldi, called her and expressed interest, but they insisted on more cuts, eventually reducing the book’s length to four hundred pages.

“It was not a huge commercial success,” she says. “Well, it was a good success for a literary novel.” That book, Il bacio della Medusa (The Kiss of Medusa), received excellent reviews, and Mazzucco began to think of herself as a writer. “I began to think that I could live off my words.”

Growing up, her family had lived in the northwestern part of the city, but this felt very far from the Rome depicted in postcards and movies. Romans complain about their unreliable public transportation and snarled surface roads, and Mazzucco explains that the people living in Rome’s outlying neighborhoods often feel as if they are living in another city. “My dream had always been to move to the center of Rome.”

After her third novel was published, she and her boyfriend committed to an azzardo, an adventure. They pooled all their money and signed a lease for an apartment in the city’s historic center. She’s never left.

In 2003, her novel Vita (Life), based on the life of her grandfather, who moved to the United States and experienced hardship and then returned to his native land, won Italy’s most respected literary prize, the Premio Strega. Later, the novel was translated and won awards in Spain and Canada, as well as placement on the “best of” lists of Publishers Weekly and the New York Times. Since the award, Mazzucco’s life has become busier. “There are book fairs. I traveled to fifty-five countries to promote the book.”

I ask her about censorship, and she says she hasn’t faced any difficulties—Italian laws protecting freedom of speech are similar to those in the United States—but she mentions that her last book caused a bit of a scandal. “It is about a girl with no mother but two fathers. Someone tried to take a teacher who assigned it to court. I was not surprised that the neo-Fascist politicians hated my novel, but I was surprised that such a tender novel created a scandal.”

Things have improved for female writers since the era of her grandmother, Mazzucco says, when female writers fought to be referred to as scrittori (“writers,” using the male plural ending) rather than scrittrici (“writers,” using an arguably pejorative, diminutive ending). But sexism remains an issue. “I was the last woman to win the Strega, in 2003,” she says. “Since I won, it has been all men.”       

Our focus shifts to the economic downturn and its impact on Italian writers. She says she’s worried about the fate of Italian literature during the current era. “In Venice in the sixteenth century, a literary essay could sell two thousand copies. Now it’s the same. A book on literary theory could sell two thousand copies. That makes me suffer a lot.

“Our problem was that the high society read; the middle class never became readers. It is a historical problem that our writers were aristocrats, even in the twentieth century. You couldn’t afford to write if you didn’t have family money.” This changed in the 1960s when the baby boom and a stronger economy enabled the middle class to afford the securities of a home and a car, but the current situation has caused Italians to wonder if those days of financial stability are slipping away, she says.

Fifteen years ago, Mazzucco points out, young actors and writers could still find semiaffordable places in downtown Rome. “Now it’s mostly tourists.” She pauses long enough for me to hear the people speaking English at the café tables all around us. “Now it’s different,” she says.

The Pantheon, Rome

While attending a reading by the American poet Moira Egan and her husband, Damiano Abeni, an Italian physician and translator, I meet the Italian poet Paolo Febbraro. Febbraro is worried that his English is poor, but he agrees to answer questions for this article via e-mail, and he eventually meets with me to discuss his life as a writer in Rome.

Febbraro is a hardworking high school literature teacher, and we meet during his lunch break at a café a block from the public high school where he teaches, just off the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. This ancient neighborhood, whose name refers to its position on the west bank of the Tiber, is popular with tourists and locals alike for its shops and restaurants.

Tall and lanky with reddish hair and a fair complexion that earned him the nickname l’Americanino when he was a boy, Febbraro explains that in 1984, when he was nineteen, he fell in love with the poetry of Giorgio Caproni, a famous Italian poet, and was inspired to begin writing poems of his own. Eager to continue to grow and improve, Febbraro followed the traditional route of writers in Italy: He looked for a mentor.

Since there are no MFA programs in Italy, ambitious young poets and writers instead correspond with or attempt to meet established writers, hoping to be adopted as a sort of protégé. Eventually, Febbraro was introduced to the poet and critic Giorgio Manacorda who, after listening to Febbraro describe himself and his work, asked to read his poems. “I always waited for the right moment and the right encounter,” Febbraro recalls.

Manacorda’s first responses to Febbraro were critical; he pointed out weaknesses. The younger man listened and reworked his poems until, after two years, he had produced a group that Manacorda was willing to recommend. With the support of this veteran writer and critic, the Milan publishing company Marcos y Marcos agreed to publish the work, Il secondo fine (The Second End), which won the prestigious Mondello Award.

Now an established poet with multiple books to his credit, Febbraro frequently returns the favor. “A lot of young poets send me their poems by mail for advice. I answer and give them advice. In the rarest cases, I can help them to publish.”

Once established, an Italian poet may earn invitations to literary conferences or to various literary-arts festivals; Pisa, Modena, Pordenone, and Turin host well-regarded ones. Poets and writers also submit to and are considered for literary prizes. It was at an awards ceremony for a prize in Tuscany that Febbraro met Seamus Heaney. Febbraro’s wife, Daniela, speaks English well, and she approached the Nobel Prize winner and then introduced her husband. “It is a bright page in my life,” Febbraro says. The ensuing friendship resulted in several trips to Ireland both to visit Heaney and to see the country. Febbraro also happily welcomed Heaney to Rome in 2013 when the Irish poet stayed at the American Academy in Rome, an institution that frequently hosts American and Anglophone writers and happens to be located near Febbraro’s home. An essay Febbraro wrote about the late Irish laureate was published in January.

Febbraro mentions his time in Ireland when he talks about his writing process. He says that many different things inspire him to write; he credits Daniela as both a muse and a teacher who introduced him to English literature and to psychoanalysis, and he says the Irish countryside has often inspired him.

By contrast, he is less enamored of his hometown. Born and raised in Rome—his mother was a middle school teacher and his father was a general in the branch of the military that, in the Italian system, is in charge of chasing tax evaders—he does not love the city. “The beautiful Rome is that of the ancients until the eighteenth century. Since then it is just buildings, buildings, buildings, a lot of traffic and noise.” He wrote a short story about these sentiments titled “I demolitori” (“The Demolition Men”) about “the violence of living in a place so packed.

“Rome is wonderful for the center, the Roman ruins,” he says. “But all around, it is absolutely not so good of a city.”

I ask him about the conflicts Gabriele Romagnoli was sent to cover, the fighting on the outskirts between immigrants and ethnic Italians, and he nods, saying that he has heard about the trouble.

“Italy is in a deep cultural crisis,” he says. “There are cuts in the financial provisions from the public sector. The problem is a historic problem. We had national unification too late. We had Fascism. We had a civil war. After 1945, we tried to rebuild. The American style—capitalist marketing—came too soon, before a bourgeoisie was formed. We haven’t the English tradition of an industrial middle class. Not too many people read.”

Indeed, Italy’s regional economic problems have only exacerbated an existing crisis for the nation’s book publishers. An April 2014 report by the Italian Publishers Association, a nonprofit group representing 90 percent of the national book market, describes significant declines in both book buying and reading in Italy as well as dramatic changes in purchasing habits as Italians, like Americans, decrease their visits to brick-and-mortar bookstores and shift their attention to the digital sphere.

In short, Italy’s traditional big publishing houses are struggling. While creative small publishers like La Nuova Frontiera, which specializes in translations by Spanish, Portuguese, African, and Latin American authors, and Playground, which is notable for its gay and lesbian literature, continue to carve out niches for themselves, the big players, a group that includes Arnoldo Mondadori Editore; RCS MediaGroup; Gruppo editoriale Mauri Spagnol; Feltrinelli; and Sellerio, all headquartered in Milan, are attempting to adapt to a marketplace that has lost 14 percent of its overall value in the past three years.

Rome’s twin churches, Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli.

Despite the country’s economic struggles, Italy is still an attractive place to work and live, and immigrants continue to petition the government for entry. My wife and I are part of that ongoing influx. We have recently been granted Permesso di Soggiorno visas—the phrase means “permission to stay”—the Italian equivalent of green cards. The visas allow us to work and be taxed. As part of the immigration process, my wife and I were required to attend a class offering an overview of some of Italy’s basic laws. On November 24, in an immigration office near our home, we are ushered into a large nondescript room with drop ceilings and rows of plastic chairs to be shown a video featuring two English speakers who explain the basics of the Italian parliamentary system, then detail the negative consequences for would-be citizens who treat women poorly or drink and drive or use drugs. Surrounding us in the room are other immigrants. Our video teachers explain that there are 4.5 million foreign-born immigrants living in the country, which amounts to between 7 and 8 percent of the overall population and includes nearly 1.5 million Muslims.

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is the daughter of an Italian mother and a Somali father. Ali Farah’s parents met at Padua University, the eight-hundred-year-old Italian institution located near Venice. Ali Farah’s dad was on scholarship, and her mom was from nearby Verona. They fell in love, and when they finished their studies, they moved to Somalia. Ali Farah was three at the time. Her father was a proud nationalist who would have liked to educate his children in the Somali school system, but the schools were overcrowded and the teachers poorly trained. Somalia is a former Italian colony, so Ali Farah enrolled in an Italian school that was free for Italian citizens. She remembers moments when she was three or four when her bilingual development caused her anxiety. “I used to have these blackouts of language,” she says. “I wasn’t able to talk at all, so I started reading.”

Like her parents before her, she fell in love young—before she finished high school—and gave birth to her oldest son, Harun, when she was just eighteen. Then in 1991 the Somali civil war began, and everything changed. She fled with her parents, first to Hungary and then to Italy, and was forced to finish studying for her maturità on her own. She did well and was admitted to Sapienza University of Rome. However, her young Somali husband, unable to find work in Italy during the economic downturn in the nineties, moved to Canada, where he remains today.  

All this occurred more than two decades ago. Today, Ali Farah lives in Belgium with her second husband, but she returns to Rome, where she lived for eighteen years, in December to promote her second novel, Il comandante del fiume (The Commander of the River), and she agrees to meet me at a café that she frequented during her years in the city when she lived in Testaccio, a couple blocks south of my home.

Testaccio is home to hipster cafés, art cinemas, and street art. For centuries, an enormous abattoir disassembled cattle and pigs on a bend in the river here and provided the city’s butchers with meat. The old cobblestone cattle yards and long warehouses with their horrific cast-iron butchering lines have been converted into a sprawling museum of contemporary art. Long before the area was famous for its slaughterhouse, this was the spot where merchant ships offloaded goods and supplies. At the time, fluids and grains were shipped in amphorae: long-necked clay jars. After hundreds of years of discarding these vessels, a literal mountain of olive-oil amphora shards—testae—rose above the neighborhood. The mound is still there, tree-topped and filling a square block, looming a hundred feet above the surrounding shops, restaurants, and apartments. In the nineteenth century, the pope used the hill as a stand-in for Golgotha. Passion plays were performed on its summit. Today, bars, restaurants, and discos are dug into its sides. Through plexiglass windows at the rear of these buildings, patrons can look at the piled remains of garbage from the Roman golden age.

I meet Ali Farah at Piramide metro station and walk into Testaccio, past the nursery school that her two younger children attended before she moved to Belgium. She explains that the public library next door agreed to allow her to work inside even during lunch hours, when it closes, after she told them her kids were at the school next door. When she lived in this neighborhood, she woke up each morning and went for a jog along the footpaths beside the Tiber. “I woke up today, and the first thing I did was to run. I don’t miss Rome at all,” she says, “but I miss the river.”

In Somalia as a teenager, Ali Farah kept a journal, but in the chaos and displacement of the war, she stopped writing, even for herself. She didn’t begin again until six years later when she was twenty-four. “After Sapienza [University], I worked for an NGO [nongovernmental organization] as a cultural translator,” a job that required her to help recent immigrants better understand Italian law and culture. “The NGO asked me to collect stories from the immigrants I worked with. I think that gave me the legitimacy to write. I was so modest. Who am I to write? But it gave me confidence.”

She started writing poetry then began writing nonfiction and journalism for an organization called Migrant News, whose mission was to report on the experience of immigrants to Italy from the perspective of people who had experienced immigration firsthand. Eventually a friend from La Sapienza with parents from Cape Verde told Ali Farah about a group that met once a week to discuss books. She attended a meeting, and members asked her about her writing then invited her to read her poems aloud at a reading. Here, a representative from an NGO asked her if he might use her poems in an anthology of writings by children of immigrants, adding to her confidence.

Before our interview, Ali Farah was at La Sapienza answering questions posed by students who dreamed of being writers. “I tell them: If you have something to say, you can become good,” she says. “It’s not something that happens suddenly. You just have to work hard.”

Like Febbraro, Ali Farah credits established writers and educators with helping her make contacts in the world of publishing. Alessandra Di Maio is a professor of Italian literature and comparative literature who has taught at schools in Italy and Massachusetts, and who became Ali Farah’s friend and mentor. “Alessandro said you have to stop telling people that you’re shy,” she remembers. “You must believe in yourself.”

Both of Ali Farah’s novels are about the lives of immigrants in Italy, and she points out that accepting immigrants is a new reality for Italians. “It’s hard for them to digest,” she says. She reminds me that during the twentieth century, many Italians left their homeland to find work in the United States and other countries. “Until recently, they were immigrants themselves.” One of her motives for writing is to remind Italians about the country’s colonial past while showing them how much migrants and children of migrants have become woven into the fabric of contemporary Italy.

For the time being, there continues to be tension between native Italians and the newcomers. Ali Farah writes about this in Madre piccola (Little Mother), her 2007 novel, told from the first-person point of view of three recent immigrants. “If you are born in Italy without Italian parents, you are not Italian. Italians don’t know anything about their colonial past. When I speak in Italian, Italians tell me, ‘Oh, your Italian is so good!’ Of course, it’s good! It’s my mother tongue.”

She’s more optimistic about the future. Prior to moving to Belgium with her family, she worked for six years for the Center for Somali Studies at Roma Tre University teaching the Somali language and archiving books, photographs, and stories about the experience of Somalis in Italy. The plot for her most recent book was inspired by one of these stories. “[Italians] will understand [the perspective of immigrants], but it’s just a question of time. The Republic is just a hundred fifty years old.”

page_5: 

Walking home in the rain after our interview, I am reminded by the bustling streets that one of the nice things about the center of Rome is that people actually live here. Despite the infamous squalor of the traffic and the much-derided public-transportation system, the citizens have not decamped for the suburbs. Apartment blocks, both handsome and modest; enviable villas; and modern housing complexes all exist cheek-by-jowl with cathedrals, fashionable shops, ancient ruins, and restaurants. In the city center, it is not uncommon to find residents actually living atop—and even inside—the ruins.

For example, the two-thousand-year-old Theater of Marcellus, which opened in 13 BC to host performances of the comedies of Plautus, the tragedies of Seneca the Younger, and other works by playwrights whose names are lost to antiquity, is still standing and has long been repurposed as a domestic residence. Its guts were removed in the Middle Ages, but its walls remain. The eleven-thousand-square-foot palatial home has its entrance in the neighborhood of the Jewish ghetto, while its curved and colonnaded backside—the original exterior of the theater—faces the Capitoline Hill. It is common to find tourists from China and the United States milling about on the sidewalk outside the building’s ancient galleries wondering aloud if this isn’t the Colosseum, a structure that passing Romans will inform them is a couple of blocks to the east.

The Theater of Marcellus never hosted gladiator battles or bull baiting. Instead, two thousand years ago, crowds of up to twenty thousand people filled it to watch works that would be revived during the Italian Renaissance, when they inspired Petrarch and Boccaccio, who in turn inspired Chaucer and Shakespeare. It’s thrilling and also slightly chilling, I suppose, to acknowledge that literature began here, in buildings that are not only still being looked at but actually lived in. I can’t help but imagine that those ancient Romans would be delighted to know that in the streets, piazzas, theaters, living rooms, and computers of contemporary Rome, poetry and writing continue to thrive.

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He has reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Jordan, Myanmar, Vietnam, North Korea, and Syria. He lives in Rome.

Piazze and Pasquinades: Report From Literary Rome

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

4.15.15

There’s a twist to why I invited you to this place,” Gabriele Romagnoli says as he leads me past the grand marble steps and neoclassic columns of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, a 132-year-old museum and exhibition hall in Rome, to the discreet side entrance where we take the elevator to the roof. “Can you guess why I asked you to meet me here?” The elevator opens, and we pass into a massive, two-thousand-square-meter rooftop garden glassed in and transformed into a greenhouse by the architect Paolo Desideri in 2007, then transformed again into a restaurant run by the Italian celebrity chef Antonello Colonna. The decor features white tables and chairs in a distinctively postmodern setting with clean sweeping lines and twenty-foot-tall walls of glass. It’s a Bauhaus dream capping a white marble rooftop surrounded by the neoclassic landscape of Quirinal Hill, the second highest of Rome’s seven hills, where Quirinal Palace, the Louvre-sized presidential residence, looks down upon the Eternal City.

Romagnoli lives on the ground floor of a neighboring building, and he likes the restaurant, which serves a buffet lunch to the bankers and government officials who work in the area, because it is nothing like the traditional tourist’s romantic conception of Rome. “It isn’t some dark, crowded restaurant in Trastevere,” he says. “It’s like we are not in Rome here; it could be Germany or Amsterdam. You have Rome,” he raises a hand to indicate the beautiful building on the other side of the balcony railing from where we are sitting, “but it’s not like—arrhh—all around you.”

The author has introduced a theme I am to hear again and again from Italian writers: a desire to shake free from a past so impressive it is suffocating. In Italy, the shadows cast by the artists of the Roman golden age and the Renaissance still linger over the writers of the twenty-first century.

For instance, when I ask Romagnoli if there is a great Italian novel or some debate that parallels the endless American discussion about the “Great American Novel,” he shakes his head and tells me the great Italian novel has been written at least three times and that the competition is too stiff for there ever to be another. “La Divina Commedia by Dante; how can you write the great Italian novel when someone wrote a work that was science fiction, fantasy, history, and romance all in one, seven hundred years ago?”

Romagnoli’s own novels have been highly praised. At various stopping points in a Cinderella career, the author has written for newspapers, magazines, television, and film. He was the editor of Italian GQ, and at present he’s a columnist for Vanity Fair Italy and La Repubblica. But he made his bones as a fiction writer.

In 1988, Pier Vittorio Tondelli, an influential Italian writer who later died young of AIDS, sent out a call for young writers to contribute to an “Under 25” edition of an Italian magazine, and Romagnoli sent five stories. He had one accepted for his first fiction publication.

Romagnoli was a young journalist working the night shift for a Turin newspaper, and he wrote his fiction on one of those old computers with the lines of green text that were common in newsrooms in the 1980s. Manning the phone on the city desk in the early morning after the paper had been put to bed, he idled away the hours writing stories “just for myself.” He invented a game: He would transcribe the beginning of an actual news story that had come over the wire, then “change the ending, forget the story, and write what I wanted. The rule was to fill one page on the computer.”

A journalist friend in Milan told him a personal story one day and he wrote it down, changed the ending, and sent it back to her. Amused, she asked if she could send it to an editor friend of hers named Antonio Franchini, now famous but at the time a rookie editor with the Italian publishing behemoth Mondadori. Franchini called Romagnoli a couple of days later and asked him to send more stories. The writer remembers he had “seventy-something” stacked on his desk, but he hesitated. “I thought I needed to experience more pleasure and pain,” he says. He didn’t think his stories were good enough and didn’t send anything.

A week later, Franchini called him again. “Do you realize how many people send me their novels and stories and want me to publish them? I’m sitting here behind stacks and stacks of shit, and the one person I call and ask to send me something doesn’t send it,” he said. This time Romagnoli sent what he had, and Franchini liked it.

The reviews of his debut, Navi in bottiglia, 101 microracconti (Ships in Bottles: 101 Micro-Stories), compared him to the classical Greeks; the critics strained to flatter him using words he had to look up in the dictionary; he won two awards. “My life changed,” he remembers.

Thirty years later, at fifty-four, Romagnoli is tall and lanky, with steel-gray hair, a long face, black eyebrows curtained by chunky black-framed glasses, and a fighter jet of a nose. In a slim-fit white oxford, jeans, green sneakers, and a polished-steel watch, the writer resembles a younger, casual-wear version of Toni Servillo, the actor who starred in Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning La grande bellezza. Certainly, Romagnoli’s career has been as colorful as anything to be found in the film.

When Romagnoli grew bored in Italy, his Turin newspaper sent him to New York. Four years after dreaming of being a foreign correspondent posted to New York City, he found himself in Manhattan with an expense account. He chuckles. “It is trouble to realize one’s dreams so quickly.”

He lasted three years in New York before his attention wandered. He returned to Italy to write scripts for movies and television. “I hadn’t watched much Italian TV,” he says. “I hadn’t watched much American TV either, but I was thinking of an Italian Sopranos.” He wanted something groundbreaking, original, new. In 2001, he wrote a police drama, Distretto di polizia, in the tradition of Hill Street Blues. The series ran successfully, but soon after its start, he received a call from the press office of the Italian police. “The chief likes the series,” the spokesman told him. “The problem is the gay guy.” Romagnoli had invented a gay policeman, and the Italian police were not happy. You cannot film episodes outdoors in Rome without the support of the police department.  Shortly after Romagnoli left the show, the gay character “became straight.”

Unsatisfied with the constraints he discovered as a screenwriter, Romagnoli went back to journalism. After 9/11 he accepted a posting to the Middle East and filed stories from Cairo, then Beirut. He also continued writing fiction.

I ask Romagnoli to describe his writing process. “People have this idea you write the best sentences in a beautiful room facing the seaside,” he says. “My best lines, I got them from the bus, from the subway.” We talk about how he got his start, and he points out that there are no MFA programs in Italy. “Nobody really believes you can teach writing in six months,” he says, then sketches out the only class he could teach on the subject. “Find your own voice,” he would say. He smiles. “Then you go home.”

He checks his watch. His editor at la Repubblica, the Roman newspaper for the center-left, has assigned him to cover a story in the suburbs. Immigrants from Africa and the Middle East have attacked a bus after it refused to stop for them, which in turn incited a local neighborhood-watch group to turn vigilante and randomly attack immigrants. He’s supposed to ride the bus and interview whomever he finds on board. “My editor said that I lived in the Middle East, so I should be perfect for it.” He lifts his eyebrows suggesting that he’s unconvinced, then smiles and hurries off to make the bus.

The Colosseum, Rome

Theatre of Marcellus, Rome

Rome is like this. While enjoying an espresso atop an architectural masterpiece in the city center, it’s easy to miss the immigrant riot on the outskirts. There’s little crime in the touristy downtown, aside from the pickpockets, but the suburbs are rougher. The economic downturn that affected the world in 2007 continues to plague Italy. Unemployment hovers at 13 percent and is higher for young adults.

On the backside of the Aventine Hill, where I live, parkland traces an ancient defensive wall built by Caesar Aurelian, and prostitutes take up positions on the park benches starting in the early afternoons, their caked mascara and ruined faces incongruously peering out from the stream of retirees and fashionable professionals. 

Some days the tension among Rome’s disparate parts is more visible than others. I schedule a meeting with the novelist Melania Mazzucco in the city center. But Mazzucco texts and explains that Italy’s largest labor union is planning to protest Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s effort to pass a law making it easier for Italian companies to fire workers. On October 25, a hundred thousand laborers march through the streets of Rome waving banners. They chant and listen to speeches in the remains of the Circus Maximus, then stroll about taking selfies in front of the Colosseum.

Mazzucco is waiting for me the next afternoon in front of the armless and legless sculpture in the Piazza di Pasquino, adjacent to the Piazza Navona. She points to a poem on a piece of paper glued to the ancient figure’s pedestal and explains that it’s a political message. Members of the general public began expressing their dissatisfaction with the ruling authorities by putting messages on the statue shortly after it was discovered and placed in this location—the front of a palace owned by a cardinal of the church—in 1501. The messages are called pasquinate, a word that has migrated into English as pasquinades, after the statue. “Here they put up poems against those in power,” Mazzucco says. “It’s like a Speakers Corner, a place where the people can tell the truth.”

The novelist has distinctive dark, curly hair and narrow, black-framed glasses. It’s late fall, and she’s wearing a down jacket and a light blue scarf. “I’ve always written,” she says. “I was born into an artistic family. My father was a playwright; my childhood was spent in theaters. I remember I was amazed with how a woman fifty years old could become another person: a wonderful young girl or a queen.”

Her father typed his plays in a small room of their home, and when she was a child, she enjoyed copying him by typing little stories of her own. But as a teenager, she thought she might follow a different path. “You live without skin in some ways,” she says, explaining what scared her about the prospect of becoming a writer. “You are naked in front of life.”

Fascinated by memory, she thought she might like to become a doctor and study the workings of the mind, but the Italian school system does not encourage students to follow their passions. Instead, young people are slotted according to their aptitudes as indicated by a nationwide high school exam, the maturità. “You must choose [your field of study] when you are eighteen,” Mazzucco says. Still, she dreamed of at least a minor rebellion and embarked on a romantic plan to move to France and become a French writer. It didn’t quite work out. She moved abroad but “felt a bit lost,” she says.

At nineteen, she returned to Italy and finished a degree in Italian literature at Sapienza University of Rome before enrolling in the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, a Roman school for filmmaking, whose most famous literary graduate is Gabriel García Márquez. For two years she took technical classes in how to direct, edit, produce, and write films. The school began to instill in her confidence that she might support herself with her writing. After she graduated, she earned money editing and selling screenplays.

She also took a job working for Treccani, the largest Italian encyclopedia company. The firm assigned her to help reduce the size of its encyclopedia from thirty-five volumes to just twelve. Mazzucco had to make a list of writers to be removed. She made the cuts but then felt sad about them. “I told myself I have to read these writers.” She bought their books and started reading.

When she was twenty-three, she experienced a crisis. “I was editing a screenplay, and I realized it was not so interesting. I realized I had a story to tell. I had to write a novel, not to publish it—I never expected to publish it—but I needed to write it to save my life.”

Her first draft reached fifteen hundred pages. She sent it to publishers and received dozens of rejections. Eventually, she began to cut it down. When it had reached a more manageable size, a medium-sized publishing company in Milan, Baldini & Castoldi, called her and expressed interest, but they insisted on more cuts, eventually reducing the book’s length to four hundred pages.

“It was not a huge commercial success,” she says. “Well, it was a good success for a literary novel.” That book, Il bacio della Medusa (The Kiss of Medusa), received excellent reviews, and Mazzucco began to think of herself as a writer. “I began to think that I could live off my words.”

Growing up, her family had lived in the northwestern part of the city, but this felt very far from the Rome depicted in postcards and movies. Romans complain about their unreliable public transportation and snarled surface roads, and Mazzucco explains that the people living in Rome’s outlying neighborhoods often feel as if they are living in another city. “My dream had always been to move to the center of Rome.”

After her third novel was published, she and her boyfriend committed to an azzardo, an adventure. They pooled all their money and signed a lease for an apartment in the city’s historic center. She’s never left.

In 2003, her novel Vita (Life), based on the life of her grandfather, who moved to the United States and experienced hardship and then returned to his native land, won Italy’s most respected literary prize, the Premio Strega. Later, the novel was translated and won awards in Spain and Canada, as well as placement on the “best of” lists of Publishers Weekly and the New York Times. Since the award, Mazzucco’s life has become busier. “There are book fairs. I traveled to fifty-five countries to promote the book.”

I ask her about censorship, and she says she hasn’t faced any difficulties—Italian laws protecting freedom of speech are similar to those in the United States—but she mentions that her last book caused a bit of a scandal. “It is about a girl with no mother but two fathers. Someone tried to take a teacher who assigned it to court. I was not surprised that the neo-Fascist politicians hated my novel, but I was surprised that such a tender novel created a scandal.”

Things have improved for female writers since the era of her grandmother, Mazzucco says, when female writers fought to be referred to as scrittori (“writers,” using the male plural ending) rather than scrittrici (“writers,” using an arguably pejorative, diminutive ending). But sexism remains an issue. “I was the last woman to win the Strega, in 2003,” she says. “Since I won, it has been all men.”       

Our focus shifts to the economic downturn and its impact on Italian writers. She says she’s worried about the fate of Italian literature during the current era. “In Venice in the sixteenth century, a literary essay could sell two thousand copies. Now it’s the same. A book on literary theory could sell two thousand copies. That makes me suffer a lot.

“Our problem was that the high society read; the middle class never became readers. It is a historical problem that our writers were aristocrats, even in the twentieth century. You couldn’t afford to write if you didn’t have family money.” This changed in the 1960s when the baby boom and a stronger economy enabled the middle class to afford the securities of a home and a car, but the current situation has caused Italians to wonder if those days of financial stability are slipping away, she says.

Fifteen years ago, Mazzucco points out, young actors and writers could still find semiaffordable places in downtown Rome. “Now it’s mostly tourists.” She pauses long enough for me to hear the people speaking English at the café tables all around us. “Now it’s different,” she says.

The Pantheon, Rome

While attending a reading by the American poet Moira Egan and her husband, Damiano Abeni, an Italian physician and translator, I meet the Italian poet Paolo Febbraro. Febbraro is worried that his English is poor, but he agrees to answer questions for this article via e-mail, and he eventually meets with me to discuss his life as a writer in Rome.

Febbraro is a hardworking high school literature teacher, and we meet during his lunch break at a café a block from the public high school where he teaches, just off the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. This ancient neighborhood, whose name refers to its position on the west bank of the Tiber, is popular with tourists and locals alike for its shops and restaurants.

Tall and lanky with reddish hair and a fair complexion that earned him the nickname l’Americanino when he was a boy, Febbraro explains that in 1984, when he was nineteen, he fell in love with the poetry of Giorgio Caproni, a famous Italian poet, and was inspired to begin writing poems of his own. Eager to continue to grow and improve, Febbraro followed the traditional route of writers in Italy: He looked for a mentor.

Since there are no MFA programs in Italy, ambitious young poets and writers instead correspond with or attempt to meet established writers, hoping to be adopted as a sort of protégé. Eventually, Febbraro was introduced to the poet and critic Giorgio Manacorda who, after listening to Febbraro describe himself and his work, asked to read his poems. “I always waited for the right moment and the right encounter,” Febbraro recalls.

Manacorda’s first responses to Febbraro were critical; he pointed out weaknesses. The younger man listened and reworked his poems until, after two years, he had produced a group that Manacorda was willing to recommend. With the support of this veteran writer and critic, the Milan publishing company Marcos y Marcos agreed to publish the work, Il secondo fine (The Second End), which won the prestigious Mondello Award.

Now an established poet with multiple books to his credit, Febbraro frequently returns the favor. “A lot of young poets send me their poems by mail for advice. I answer and give them advice. In the rarest cases, I can help them to publish.”

Once established, an Italian poet may earn invitations to literary conferences or to various literary-arts festivals; Pisa, Modena, Pordenone, and Turin host well-regarded ones. Poets and writers also submit to and are considered for literary prizes. It was at an awards ceremony for a prize in Tuscany that Febbraro met Seamus Heaney. Febbraro’s wife, Daniela, speaks English well, and she approached the Nobel Prize winner and then introduced her husband. “It is a bright page in my life,” Febbraro says. The ensuing friendship resulted in several trips to Ireland both to visit Heaney and to see the country. Febbraro also happily welcomed Heaney to Rome in 2013 when the Irish poet stayed at the American Academy in Rome, an institution that frequently hosts American and Anglophone writers and happens to be located near Febbraro’s home. An essay Febbraro wrote about the late Irish laureate was published in January.

Febbraro mentions his time in Ireland when he talks about his writing process. He says that many different things inspire him to write; he credits Daniela as both a muse and a teacher who introduced him to English literature and to psychoanalysis, and he says the Irish countryside has often inspired him.

By contrast, he is less enamored of his hometown. Born and raised in Rome—his mother was a middle school teacher and his father was a general in the branch of the military that, in the Italian system, is in charge of chasing tax evaders—he does not love the city. “The beautiful Rome is that of the ancients until the eighteenth century. Since then it is just buildings, buildings, buildings, a lot of traffic and noise.” He wrote a short story about these sentiments titled “I demolitori” (“The Demolition Men”) about “the violence of living in a place so packed.

“Rome is wonderful for the center, the Roman ruins,” he says. “But all around, it is absolutely not so good of a city.”

I ask him about the conflicts Gabriele Romagnoli was sent to cover, the fighting on the outskirts between immigrants and ethnic Italians, and he nods, saying that he has heard about the trouble.

“Italy is in a deep cultural crisis,” he says. “There are cuts in the financial provisions from the public sector. The problem is a historic problem. We had national unification too late. We had Fascism. We had a civil war. After 1945, we tried to rebuild. The American style—capitalist marketing—came too soon, before a bourgeoisie was formed. We haven’t the English tradition of an industrial middle class. Not too many people read.”

Indeed, Italy’s regional economic problems have only exacerbated an existing crisis for the nation’s book publishers. An April 2014 report by the Italian Publishers Association, a nonprofit group representing 90 percent of the national book market, describes significant declines in both book buying and reading in Italy as well as dramatic changes in purchasing habits as Italians, like Americans, decrease their visits to brick-and-mortar bookstores and shift their attention to the digital sphere.

In short, Italy’s traditional big publishing houses are struggling. While creative small publishers like La Nuova Frontiera, which specializes in translations by Spanish, Portuguese, African, and Latin American authors, and Playground, which is notable for its gay and lesbian literature, continue to carve out niches for themselves, the big players, a group that includes Arnoldo Mondadori Editore; RCS MediaGroup; Gruppo editoriale Mauri Spagnol; Feltrinelli; and Sellerio, all headquartered in Milan, are attempting to adapt to a marketplace that has lost 14 percent of its overall value in the past three years.

Rome’s twin churches, Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli.

Despite the country’s economic struggles, Italy is still an attractive place to work and live, and immigrants continue to petition the government for entry. My wife and I are part of that ongoing influx. We have recently been granted Permesso di Soggiorno visas—the phrase means “permission to stay”—the Italian equivalent of green cards. The visas allow us to work and be taxed. As part of the immigration process, my wife and I were required to attend a class offering an overview of some of Italy’s basic laws. On November 24, in an immigration office near our home, we are ushered into a large nondescript room with drop ceilings and rows of plastic chairs to be shown a video featuring two English speakers who explain the basics of the Italian parliamentary system, then detail the negative consequences for would-be citizens who treat women poorly or drink and drive or use drugs. Surrounding us in the room are other immigrants. Our video teachers explain that there are 4.5 million foreign-born immigrants living in the country, which amounts to between 7 and 8 percent of the overall population and includes nearly 1.5 million Muslims.

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is the daughter of an Italian mother and a Somali father. Ali Farah’s parents met at Padua University, the eight-hundred-year-old Italian institution located near Venice. Ali Farah’s dad was on scholarship, and her mom was from nearby Verona. They fell in love, and when they finished their studies, they moved to Somalia. Ali Farah was three at the time. Her father was a proud nationalist who would have liked to educate his children in the Somali school system, but the schools were overcrowded and the teachers poorly trained. Somalia is a former Italian colony, so Ali Farah enrolled in an Italian school that was free for Italian citizens. She remembers moments when she was three or four when her bilingual development caused her anxiety. “I used to have these blackouts of language,” she says. “I wasn’t able to talk at all, so I started reading.”

Like her parents before her, she fell in love young—before she finished high school—and gave birth to her oldest son, Harun, when she was just eighteen. Then in 1991 the Somali civil war began, and everything changed. She fled with her parents, first to Hungary and then to Italy, and was forced to finish studying for her maturità on her own. She did well and was admitted to Sapienza University of Rome. However, her young Somali husband, unable to find work in Italy during the economic downturn in the nineties, moved to Canada, where he remains today.  

All this occurred more than two decades ago. Today, Ali Farah lives in Belgium with her second husband, but she returns to Rome, where she lived for eighteen years, in December to promote her second novel, Il comandante del fiume (The Commander of the River), and she agrees to meet me at a café that she frequented during her years in the city when she lived in Testaccio, a couple blocks south of my home.

Testaccio is home to hipster cafés, art cinemas, and street art. For centuries, an enormous abattoir disassembled cattle and pigs on a bend in the river here and provided the city’s butchers with meat. The old cobblestone cattle yards and long warehouses with their horrific cast-iron butchering lines have been converted into a sprawling museum of contemporary art. Long before the area was famous for its slaughterhouse, this was the spot where merchant ships offloaded goods and supplies. At the time, fluids and grains were shipped in amphorae: long-necked clay jars. After hundreds of years of discarding these vessels, a literal mountain of olive-oil amphora shards—testae—rose above the neighborhood. The mound is still there, tree-topped and filling a square block, looming a hundred feet above the surrounding shops, restaurants, and apartments. In the nineteenth century, the pope used the hill as a stand-in for Golgotha. Passion plays were performed on its summit. Today, bars, restaurants, and discos are dug into its sides. Through plexiglass windows at the rear of these buildings, patrons can look at the piled remains of garbage from the Roman golden age.

I meet Ali Farah at Piramide metro station and walk into Testaccio, past the nursery school that her two younger children attended before she moved to Belgium. She explains that the public library next door agreed to allow her to work inside even during lunch hours, when it closes, after she told them her kids were at the school next door. When she lived in this neighborhood, she woke up each morning and went for a jog along the footpaths beside the Tiber. “I woke up today, and the first thing I did was to run. I don’t miss Rome at all,” she says, “but I miss the river.”

In Somalia as a teenager, Ali Farah kept a journal, but in the chaos and displacement of the war, she stopped writing, even for herself. She didn’t begin again until six years later when she was twenty-four. “After Sapienza [University], I worked for an NGO [nongovernmental organization] as a cultural translator,” a job that required her to help recent immigrants better understand Italian law and culture. “The NGO asked me to collect stories from the immigrants I worked with. I think that gave me the legitimacy to write. I was so modest. Who am I to write? But it gave me confidence.”

She started writing poetry then began writing nonfiction and journalism for an organization called Migrant News, whose mission was to report on the experience of immigrants to Italy from the perspective of people who had experienced immigration firsthand. Eventually a friend from La Sapienza with parents from Cape Verde told Ali Farah about a group that met once a week to discuss books. She attended a meeting, and members asked her about her writing then invited her to read her poems aloud at a reading. Here, a representative from an NGO asked her if he might use her poems in an anthology of writings by children of immigrants, adding to her confidence.

Before our interview, Ali Farah was at La Sapienza answering questions posed by students who dreamed of being writers. “I tell them: If you have something to say, you can become good,” she says. “It’s not something that happens suddenly. You just have to work hard.”

Like Febbraro, Ali Farah credits established writers and educators with helping her make contacts in the world of publishing. Alessandra Di Maio is a professor of Italian literature and comparative literature who has taught at schools in Italy and Massachusetts, and who became Ali Farah’s friend and mentor. “Alessandro said you have to stop telling people that you’re shy,” she remembers. “You must believe in yourself.”

Both of Ali Farah’s novels are about the lives of immigrants in Italy, and she points out that accepting immigrants is a new reality for Italians. “It’s hard for them to digest,” she says. She reminds me that during the twentieth century, many Italians left their homeland to find work in the United States and other countries. “Until recently, they were immigrants themselves.” One of her motives for writing is to remind Italians about the country’s colonial past while showing them how much migrants and children of migrants have become woven into the fabric of contemporary Italy.

For the time being, there continues to be tension between native Italians and the newcomers. Ali Farah writes about this in Madre piccola (Little Mother), her 2007 novel, told from the first-person point of view of three recent immigrants. “If you are born in Italy without Italian parents, you are not Italian. Italians don’t know anything about their colonial past. When I speak in Italian, Italians tell me, ‘Oh, your Italian is so good!’ Of course, it’s good! It’s my mother tongue.”

She’s more optimistic about the future. Prior to moving to Belgium with her family, she worked for six years for the Center for Somali Studies at Roma Tre University teaching the Somali language and archiving books, photographs, and stories about the experience of Somalis in Italy. The plot for her most recent book was inspired by one of these stories. “[Italians] will understand [the perspective of immigrants], but it’s just a question of time. The Republic is just a hundred fifty years old.”

page_5: 

Walking home in the rain after our interview, I am reminded by the bustling streets that one of the nice things about the center of Rome is that people actually live here. Despite the infamous squalor of the traffic and the much-derided public-transportation system, the citizens have not decamped for the suburbs. Apartment blocks, both handsome and modest; enviable villas; and modern housing complexes all exist cheek-by-jowl with cathedrals, fashionable shops, ancient ruins, and restaurants. In the city center, it is not uncommon to find residents actually living atop—and even inside—the ruins.

For example, the two-thousand-year-old Theater of Marcellus, which opened in 13 BC to host performances of the comedies of Plautus, the tragedies of Seneca the Younger, and other works by playwrights whose names are lost to antiquity, is still standing and has long been repurposed as a domestic residence. Its guts were removed in the Middle Ages, but its walls remain. The eleven-thousand-square-foot palatial home has its entrance in the neighborhood of the Jewish ghetto, while its curved and colonnaded backside—the original exterior of the theater—faces the Capitoline Hill. It is common to find tourists from China and the United States milling about on the sidewalk outside the building’s ancient galleries wondering aloud if this isn’t the Colosseum, a structure that passing Romans will inform them is a couple of blocks to the east.

The Theater of Marcellus never hosted gladiator battles or bull baiting. Instead, two thousand years ago, crowds of up to twenty thousand people filled it to watch works that would be revived during the Italian Renaissance, when they inspired Petrarch and Boccaccio, who in turn inspired Chaucer and Shakespeare. It’s thrilling and also slightly chilling, I suppose, to acknowledge that literature began here, in buildings that are not only still being looked at but actually lived in. I can’t help but imagine that those ancient Romans would be delighted to know that in the streets, piazzas, theaters, living rooms, and computers of contemporary Rome, poetry and writing continue to thrive.

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He has reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Jordan, Myanmar, Vietnam, North Korea, and Syria. He lives in Rome.

Springtime in Tirana: Report From Literary Albania

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

8.16.17

It is a warm, spring Wednesday in Tirana as I cross the tree-lined café district with my translator, Altin Fortuzi, through the once infamous Blloku (The Block) neighborhood, on our way to meet with a group of Albanian writers and poets. During the reign of the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who served as the head of state of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985, only the party elites were permitted to enter Blloku, but now it’s home to shady cafés, mobile phone outlets, upscale clothing stores, and brightly-painted bars; even Hoxha’s former villa has been turned into a restaurant. We pass the now-defunct museum to the deceased dictator, a concrete shrine—its architect appears to have hoped it would resemble a rising sun but it looks more like a squashed grouper—now mercifully stripped of its former marble façade and repurposed as a state television studio.

Tirana is surrounded by green mountains topped with swatches of snow even in mid April; to the north are the Albanian Alps, also called the Accursed Mountains. South and west, the mountains continue to the Adriatic and the Mediterranean eventually plunging to white sand beaches.

Albania borders Greece to the south, Macedonia to the east, and Montenegro and Kosovo to the north. Its ancient Illyrian people are referred to in classical Greek and Roman texts. Today, the conical felt cap—the pileus—worn by Odysseus in Homer’s epic can still be found on the heads of Albanian farmers.

In the 15th century, Albania was the European sore thumb of the Ottoman empire, constantly getting whacked by incursions and excursions. The Muslim Ottomans famously Shanghaied young Christian Albanians, pressing them to fight in their mercenary armies where, devoid of roots, they occasionally grew to overwhelm their masters. One Albanian conscript in the Ottoman ranks cut off a piece of the empire in the 15th century and kept it for himself. Popularly called Skanderbeg, he carved out a buffer zone between the Ottoman Empire and the Italian city states, selling his services back and forth while maintaining territorial hegemony over a proto-Albania for a few years in the middle of the early Renaissance. Today, a bronze statue of the hero, on horseback with raised sword and horned helmet, overlooks Tirana’s Skanderbeg Square, the marble-tiled communist-era parade grounds.

Skanderbeg Square

 

Our first meeting is with poet and novelist Arlinda Guma at a restaurant, bookshop, and small publishing house called E7E. Located in the downtown, the café and independent bookstore was founded by a loose and temporary coalition of poets and writers who, in the waning days of the communist dictatorship, transformed the home of the poet, essayist, painter, and rock lyricist Ervin Hatibi into a meeting space for writers, artists, and creative types. The name comes from a bit of Albanian wordplay: E7E stands for E përshtatshme, which means “suitable,” but this can be shortened using texting slang and written as E për7shme. The founders of the café shortened it further to E7E, which also refers to their early goal of publishing a literary arts newsletter every seventh day of the month (i.e. the 7th, 17th, and 27th). We sit at a small table in the open courtyard among other customers.

“I don’t read bestsellers and I’m a little bit ashamed of the name writer,” says Guma. “In Albania, a driver of a politician is more respected than a person of culture.”

Arlinda Guma

 

Guma has written and published two novels and a collection of poetry while working as an office assistant and assistant accountant for various organizations, including an arm of the European Union and an Italian firm. She is annoyed that it isn’t easier for a writer of literary fiction to make a sustainable income.

Writers typically bear the costs of printing their own books in Albania, she says, while the publishing house handles distribution to bookstores. “When I have to meet a publisher I feel like a child who is afraid of going to the dentist,” she says. “For them it doesn’t matter if you are talented or not, for them what matters is how much you will pay, because in Albania the writer has to pay the publisher [to print] the book.” When a book sells, the writer gets a portion of the cover price, usually 55 percent.

Guma’s annoyance over the fate of artists and writers in Albania’s capitalist economy may reflect the fact that she can remember a time when writers were selected then supported by the communist state. The end of communism has brought greater freedom—anybody can choose to be a writer—but greater freedom, in this instance, also means more uncertainty. There is no guarantee that a writer will earn any money from their work.

Guma’s first novel, Bulevardi i yjeve (Stars Boulevard), which she self-published in 2014, follows characters in a mental hospital, and her second, Terma humanitare si fjala bombardim (Humanitarian Terms Like the Word Bombardment), released two years later, in 2016, is based on a true story about a tragi-comic bombardment of a UN Humanitarian mission during the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Stars Boulevard was praised by some French academics, and Guma, hoping that she might find a French publisher, applied for a translation grant from the Albanian Ministry of Culture, an arm of the Albanian government, but was rejected. Undaunted, she is in the midst of her third novel, a humorous account of the life of a young writer.

She also writes columns for an online Albanian woman’s magazine and, until three years ago, wrote for a local print newspaper, but this relationship was terminated after she wrote an unflattering piece about Albania’s current prime minister, Edi Rama. “During communism, the government only promoted writers who promoted their demagogy,” she says. “During democracy, it’s the same system.” She explains that the current ministry of culture tends to favors writers it views as political allies.

She recalls that one of her childhood influences was Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac, the Post-Napoleonic French realist who influenced Friedrich Engels and others. Most American and Western European writers were banned during the communist era of her childhood, but since the fall of the communists in 1992, literature from around the world is available. “I’m enchanted by Salinger’s style, and I’m heavily influenced by French and German authors,” she says. She mentions Stefan Zweig, the mid-20th century Austrian writer who killed himself during the Nazi occupation, and she’s effusive about John Fante, the American writer who influenced and was championed by Charles Bukowski. (There is a bar named for Bukowski across the street from E7E). She says she also admires the Albanian poet and story writer Millosh Gjergj Nikolla (penname Migjeni) and the poet Frederik Rreshpja, and she appreciates Ismail Kadare, the most famous of all Albanian writers.

You, Me & Bukowski, a bar and restaurant in Tirana.

 

Under the communist regime, published writers and poets served as the mouthpiece for the state, and few were brave enough to experiment with the party line. One exception was Kadare, author of thirty-seven novels, seven story collections and a play. Like Mo Yan, the government-supported, Nobel-Prize-winning Chinese author, Kadare has a talent for writing philosophically complex novels while also adhering to the party line of his communist rulers. Kadare won the Man Booker International Prize the first year it was offered in 2005, and more than twenty of his works have been translated into English.

“During communism, only the writer of the ruling ideology was respected; the other was shot or sent to prison,” Guma says. “Kadare was the only exception.”

In the center of Tirana, beside Skanderbeg Square, behind the Ottoman-era mosque and adjacent clocktower (built in the 1800s by the architect-poet Etëhem Bey Mollaj), between a row of government ministries and the semi-Deco national theater, there is a concrete dome atop a bunker. A doorway cut into the side leads down a set of stairs fifteen meters or so into an underground tunnel complex, built by Hoxha, the former dictator; the complex has been transformed into a museum detailing the oppressive years of the communist regime.

The pyramid of Tirana, a former museum dedicated to Enver Hoxha, now a television studio..

 

The exhibits range from the mildly humorous (the Albanians attempted to bug the Italian embassy by placing a listening device in the wooden handle of a broom used by a local maid) to the horrific: During World War II, captured communist partisans were tortured and executed by the Italian and German fascist occupiers. After the war, the communists responded in kind. They collectivized the countryside, redistributed the country’s wealth and persecuted the middle class, executing priests, merchants, and other potential enemies of their state.

Hoxha aligned himself with Stalin, mimicking the Soviet dictator’s show trials, public confessions, executions, and concentration camps. But following Stalin’s death in 1953, the next Soviet ruler, Khrushchev, surprised Hoxha by pressuring him to end his cult of personality and share power with a broader coalition of Albanian communist elites. When the Soviets additionally urged the dictator to resolve his differences with Yugoslavia, his northern neighbor who had incorporated the Albanian-speaking province of Kosovo into its boundaries after World War II, Hoxha broke with the Soviets.

In 1961, he succeeded in replacing financial and technical support from Moscow with support from Beijing. But having angered all his neighbors as well as his most powerful regional ally, he grew increasingly fearful of the possibility of outside attack; hence, the bunkers dotting every mile of the Albanian capital, the countryside, the beaches, the mountain tops, everywhere. Hoping to ensure national unity, he turned all churches and mosques, including the Etëhem Bey Mosque on the national square, into community centers (Albanian was and is about 60 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian).

One of many bunkers alongside a road in Tirana.

 

The bunker museum details all of this in videos, photos, and recordings of concentration camps, executions, forced confessions, and show trials. Dispirited, I return to street level to meet with Rudi Erebara, a poet, novelist, and translator in his late forties, who remembers the communist era well.

The sun has gone down on the beautiful April day and the sidewalks have grown cool when we join Erebara at a table outside a nameless café: The locals call it Lulu’s, after the owner, or Blue Umbrella, after an umbrella that once shaded one of its sidewalk tables.

“After the war, they pulled my uncle’s fingernails out to make him tell them where he hid the gold,” Erebara says, repeating the stories he heard as a child. “When he came home, he couldn’t walk for eight months. He never recovered; he died a year or two later.”

It is evening, and Erebara is dressed in a cap, blue-framed glasses, and a windbreaker. He is celebrating a number of recent victories: He has just been awarded a European Union Prize for Literature for his novel Epika e yjeve të mëngjesit (The Epic of the Morning Stars), which he self-published in 2016, and he also recently reclaimed, then sold, the home taken from his family during the communist era. Jubilant, he chain-smokes cigarettes and downs cognacs. When we join him, he lets us order beers then lifts the floodgates on an occasionally chilling river of information. Erebara’s family and personal histories are as rich and intricate as those of his country.

Poet, writer, and translator Rudi Erebara (left) and Altin Fortuzi.

 

His paternal grandfather was a prosperous middle class shopkeeper in Tirana who bought and sold gold from his retail shop. After the communists took over, they arrested Erebara’s paternal uncle to find out where he had hidden his stock. “He told them after four months of torture,” Erebara says.

Luckily, his father, just fourteen at the time, had enlisted and fought with the anti-fascist partisans during the war. As a result, he was permitted to attend university in Prague at the Academy of Performing Arts from 1947 to 1951.

“Miloš Forman was in his class,” Erebara says, citing the Czech director who fled to the United States when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, ending that Eastern Bloc country’s brief experiment with liberalism. Forman eventually became famous for directing the Oscar-winning films One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Erebara’s father became well known in Albanian, but his path was erratic.

“My father used to say how easy it was to go to jail,” Erebara says, pointing out that this is a central theme in his award-winning novel. In his final year at university in 1951, Erabara’s dad was arrested while directing a show in Prague. Three portraits of communist leaders were hung at the back of the stage in the theater: Stalin in the center with the Czech leader Klement Gottwald on his right and the Albanian leader Hoxha on his left. Hoxha was about four inches lower than Gottwald, and when somebody noticed, his father made an off-hand comment about how a Czech middle-class citizen had more class than Hoxha. The next day, he was arrested and sent back to Albania. As punishment for his remark, he served in the Albanian army without pay for several years, and his family was removed from their comfortable home in central Tirana.

In 1957 Erebara’s father was permitted to work in the state-owned film studios, writing and directing eleven movies and twenty-five documentaries. “Everybody loves him,” Erebara says. “When he died [in 2007], five thousand people came to his funeral.”

During the communist era, such a show of appreciation for an individual would have been impossible. Under Hoxha’s regime, poetry, art and films were credited to communist arts collectives; individual attribution was forbidden. “It was just a big industrial ideological machine,” Erebara says.

Born in 1971, during a period when the Chinese were increasing their subsidies for Albanian infrastructure while using the country as a front to import technology from the West, Erebara remembers a feeling of prosperity in the capital, but without any lessening of the atmosphere of oppression and fear. He recalls watching the communist government build new neighborhoods in the city using political prisoners as laborers. “There was a concentration camp two hundred meters from my house,” he says.

His father’s films were well received, even praised by Hoxha, but still his family lived in constant fear. “My mother had a green valise prepared with clean clothes in it because we were always scared they were going to arrest us and kick us the fuck out of Tirana,” he says.

The writer’s first novel, self-published in 2010, is a fictionalized account of an acquaintance who spent years searching for the remains of his father, killed in jail during the Hoxha years. The acquaintance owns a construction company and, after a mudslide exposed bones on the outskirts of Tirana, he used one of his excavators to uncover the remains of eighty-one bodies. “All shot in the head,” Erebara says.

One of the writer’s maternal uncles disappeared on August 25, 1979, when he was just twenty-five. Erebara believes he attempted to escape the country and defect to the West, but he has never been able to find any record of him resurfacing outside of Albania. “I looked in the U.S. with the International Red Cross, even with the Mormons,” he says. “I don’t think he’s alive.”

In 2010 he self-published a novel inspired by these events, Vezët e thëllëzave (Eggs of the Quails). It sold poorly, but the public’s desire to revisit the crimes of the Hoxha years has increased since then. In 2013, he republished it and quickly sold out his thousand-copy print run.

As a child, Erebara dreamed of being a filmmaker, a writer, and an artist. He auditioned to be a painter and was accepted at the Academy of Fine Arts, now the University of Arts in Tirana, eventually graduating with a degree in textiles and carpets while continuing to paint, write poetry, work on novels, and translate works from English to Albanian. After the fall of the communists he was part of the group of artists and intellectuals who banded together and created the E7E bookstore, café, and publishing house. He rattles off a list of more than a dozen Albanian artists who were involved. In addition to publishing a newsletter and a poetry journal, they began to translate and publish books that had been prohibited under communism, such as Neitzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Erebara had poems accepted in literary magazines even before the fall of communism, and he followed these with a collection, Fillon pamja (There Begins the View), in 1994. He also continued to be recognized for his paintings, and in 1997, he accepted an invitation with some other Albanian artists to have a gallery show at High Point University in North Carolina. The George Soros Foundation, which has been a steady contributor to the arts in Albania since the early 1990s, paid for their airfare. Erebara arrived in North Carolina and participated in the show, but then disaster struck.

In Albania, after the dissolution of the communist system, there had been a five-year scramble for wealth and resources as the state-owned economy was privatized. Individuals, some with ties to the former communist government and some with ties to the new, democratically-elected government, incorporated themselves and solicited investments claiming they would be used to purchase properties and other resources. Some were legitimate while others were fronts for criminal money laundering and pyramid schemes. In the rush to get in on a good thing, families sold off assets and invested their life savings. With an estimated billion dollars sunk into dozens of these firms, the economy soon hinged on their success. In 1997, the first of the schemes collapsed and the rest soon fell, creating a panic that led to chaos and anarchy.

Erebara’s brother called him and warned him not to come home. Across Albania, enraged citizens were turning on one another, rioting, looting, hijacking cars, kidnapping strangers. It wasn’t safe to travel. Commerce ground to a halt. Criminal gangs took over whole cities, and people fled urban areas for their ancestral villages hoping to find refuge. The European powers and the United States sent in troops to extract their embassy employees and other citizens.

Internationally, the crisis was overshadowed by concern for the neighboring wars in the former Yugoslavia: The civil war of 1997 to 1998 and ethnic cleansing campaigns in Albanian-speaking Kosovo initiated a refugee crisis as Kosovars flooded into Albanian, further destabilizing the country.

In April 1997 the United Nations sent in an Italian-led force of seven thousand soldiers to attempt to separate combatants and oppose the criminal gangs, but it was clear that the country would remain chaotic, poor, and desperate for the immediate future. Erebara took his brother’s advice and overstayed his visa in the USA. He became an illegal immigrant and moved to Brooklyn, New York.

Young and willing to avail himself of whatever odd job appeared, he worked as a roofer, brick-layer, concrete pourer, sheet rocker, painter, and plumber. Within five years, he was subcontracting jobs to a crew of a half-dozen workers. In his final year in the United States he says he grossed a half-million dollars and dutifully filed federal, state, and local taxes. He considered applying for a legal work visa—a green card—but the immigration consultant he approached warned him that he might wind up being deported instead. In 2002, he made the decision to return to Albania.

He had hardly been idle while away. He had worked on his second collection of poetry, Lëng argjendi (Silver Juice), and his years in the United States had improved his English translating skills.

Since returning to Tirana, Erebara has married an Albanian journalist, and they are raising two daughters, ages six and eleven. He has also published sixteen translations, including works by Herman Melville, John Grisham, Harold Pinter, A. R. Ammons, and Kenzaburo Oe. “It took me two-and-a-half years to translate Moby Dick,” he says. “In Albanian, we don’t have the parts of the Nantucket whaling ship.” The United States Embassy subsidized Erebara’s translation of Ammons, and the book won an award for translations from the Association of Albanian publishers.

But today we are celebrating his award for original fiction. As a 2017 recipient of the European Union Prize for Literature, he will receive €5,000 (approximately $5,448) and see his novel translated into eleven languages. We are also toasting the bittersweet sale of his family’s former home.

We leave the sidewalk café and walk around the corner to see a villa in the midst of a renovation. This is the house where Erebara’s father and uncles were born. After the fall of communism, families were able to successfully petition to have properties confiscated during the Hoxha era returned to them. Twenty-five years after the downfall of the dictatorship, Erebara regained the title then sold the building. His pocket bulges with a fat roll of Ablanian leks, and he insists that we take a taxi across town to Petro, a grill house still serving sausages, ribs, steaks and beers, where he continues to enthrall us with stories late into the night.

The next morning, we rent a Dacia Sandero (a French-Romanian car) and plot a course to the nearest beach on the Albanian Riviera, in the south. Infrastructure improvements are evident everywhere along our six-hour journey. A raised and gleaming four-lane highway stretches before us in the port city of Durrës but terminates at a barrier a hundred kilometers later. Behind the fencing, a crew is building an embankment to continue the highway.

Turning onto surface roads, we wind through the seaside city of Vlorë and through an uneven stretch along the waterfront where crews are repositioning traffic islands, inserting new palm trees, and repaving the road. Google Maps scrambles to keep up, rerouting us every few minutes as we negotiate the changing conditions.

In the countryside, we pass farmers in horse-drawn wagons, a seemingly abandoned nuclear power plant with seven cooling towers, and a Roman-era Illyrian archeological site, before entering a long valley after Durrës. The road soon turns upward into Llogara National Park, and we’re surrounded by fir and pine forests as we negotiate the switchbacks toward the pass. Even here, the forests are dotted with the concrete domes and blind eyes of pillboxes dug into the soil.

Snow-topped mountains, hillside meadows, and cliffs running down to the Mediterranean match descriptions from Ismail Kadare’s acclaimed first novel, Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur (The General of the Dead Army), translated from the French version of the Albanian by Derek Coltman and published in 1963. The novel follows the adventures of an Italian general and a Catholic priest sent to Albania to recover the remains of fallen Italian soldiers twenty years after World War II.

Written in the midst of the Hoxha years, the book employs the rudimentary syntax and diction mandated by communist censors who required literature to be accessible to the proletariat. At first, the storyline struggles to overcome plot devices that are obvious propaganda: An Albanian peasant tells the Italians of a lone resistance fighter who shot many Italian troops from a hillside before dying bravely, and the general, rather than noting that stories of heroic snipers who shoot hundreds of enemies singlehandedly are a mainstay of Eastern Bloc, post-WWII propaganda (e.g., Vasily Zaytsev, “Hero of the Soviet Union,” a sniper the Soviets immortalized in books and films) or marveling that seemingly every culture contains stories of lone snipers fighting off hundreds (e.g., Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper; Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan; as well as the stories of Simo Hayha in Finland and Zhang Taofang in China), is awestruck: “‘It’s astounding,’ the general said a half an hour later, as they were driving back toward Tirana, ‘that a single man could have dreamed of fighting an entire army.’”

On the other hand, the novel’s premise enables Kadare’s protagonist to reflect on mass burials and the futility of war, two topics that were avoided during the Hoxha years. As the story swells toward its climax, Kadare, writing under the hair trigger of a censor in a paranoid regime, manages to bang the tired mechanisms of totalitarian propaganda into a story that shudders to life: The characters grow increasingly sympathetic as the plot nears its surprising climax.

In 1985, as Hoxha was dying, Kadare smuggled an unpublished novel that blatantly criticized the regime out of Albania to France to be published. As the Eastern Block was breaking up and the Berlin Wall began to be pulled down in 1990, Kadare fled to France and received political asylum. His move proved prescient. Seven years later, the economic crash sent thousands along the same path.

***

Upon returning to Tirana, I meet with Gentian Çocoli at a café across the river—really more of a scenic storm drain than a river—from Blloku. Altin Fortuzi, my fixer and translator, explains that although the owners of the restaurant and bookshop translate the name as “Friend’s Book House,” “Friend of the Book’s House” would be more accurate. During the communist era, Fortuzi tells us, “friend of the book” was an award the government gave to kids who checked out many books from public libraries. “There was an ugly pin to go with the title,” he says. The café’s name both spoofs and honors the old communist prize.

Friend’s Book House

 

It’s an appropriate place to meet Çocoli, who for the last twenty years has edited and published Aleph, a literary journal featuring Albanian and international authors. A typical issue has a color cover and 275 pages.

Çocoli, middle-aged with sandy hair, is wearing a corduroy jacket with a brown-and-white, checked pocket square. He is from Gjirokastër, a southern town near the Greek border that was also the birthplace of Ismail Kadare and Enver Hoxha.

As a young man, Çocoli’s love of nature and science journals made him think about studying biology, but he struggled against the rigidity of the field, as well as the rote-learning style of his teachers; instead, he fell in love with poetry and writing. When he was twenty-two he left Gjirokastër for the capital. “I saw a lot of talented people, so I moved from my hometown to meet my brothers in arms. All came from their valleys,” he says. His peripatetic life has caused him to identify with the story of Odysseus, he says. References to the Greek epic occur frequently in his poems.

In 1991, Çocoli’s parents sent him money to purchase a coat to help him survive the winter, but instead, he spent the cash on a tutor to teach him English. About the same time, a friend gave him an anthology of American poems and an issue of the New York Review of Books. Another friend introduced him to George Plimpton’s Paris Review. “Being a post-communist country is like being post-colonial, you must find your personal identity,” he says. “In post-communist countries, translation is much more important than personal writing.”

A friend introduced him to the board members of the literary arm of the Soros Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist, and they agreed to help him publish his new literary magazine. The first issue of Aleph came out in October 1996, during a time when Tirana, according to Çocoli, was “free with a big capital F.”

But like Odysseus, Çocoli’s voyage has not been easy. In 1997, he went to his family’s country home for a weekend and ended up trapped there for three months. The financial crisis had begun, and it was not safe for him to travel on the roads. Instead, he wrote a collection of poems about the house, pointing out that one of the primary goals of Albanians who leave the country to find work is to send back enough money to build a house. His poetry collection was called Circumference of Ash (2001) and it received the Best Book of the Year Award, given by the Albanian Ministry of Culture.

As the crisis eased, he returned to publishing Aleph. The Soros foundation gave him two thousand dollars a year for the project, but after a dozen years, that support ended. He tried to make the money up by piecing together funding from a network of institutions—the American Embassy, the Italian Cultural Institute, the Albanian Ministry of Culture—but he couldn’t make it work. Struggling to provide for his family, he accepted a position at the Ministry of Culture, but he only lasted a year. He resigned when his boss refused to support his proposal that money be allotted for translators of poetry.

Quitting proved fortuitous, as he applied for and was awarded a residency at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. He spent four months in Iowa City and was tempted to remain when he was offered a job at Prairie Lights, but his two-month-old daughter awaited him back in Albania.

He returned to his wife and daughter (now two daughters, ages five and eleven) and accepted a new job with the Ministry of Culture. This time he succeeded in creating a budget for grants for translators, but he quit again after his boss refused to create a fund for writers and poets.

And still, like Odysseus, he presses on. At present, he is working on two retrospective issues of Aleph, one celebrating the best poetry of the past twenty years and the other featuring the best prose. He’s excited about the project but skeptical that it will result in a large profit. “I live a very poor life,” he says, but he has no plans to change it.

***

That evening, I meet poet Erina Çoku behind the picture windows of the café and restaurant attached to the Hotel Iliria, directly across the street from the pillars and red facade of the School of Albanian Literature at the University of Tirana. Çoku is an editor for Pegi Publishing, a book publisher with headquarters nearby. She has spent the day editing a philosophy textbook with a professor, and she is eager to drink a coffee and talk about poetry.

Erina Çoku

 

“It doesn’t matter how busy I am, I write; I’ll write while walking, while shopping in the supermarket, on something like this,” she says indicating the receipt for our coffee. Indeed, when I “friend” her on Facebook the next day, I discover that she posts new original poems every couple of days.

“My uncle was a teacher,” she says. “He kept giving me different books to read.” She remembers that the Albanian children’s author Odhise Grillo was the first poet she read. As she got older, she loved the works of Russian Imaginist poet (and the famously colorful) Sergei Yesenin and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

In 1994, at her high school in her hometown of Burrel in northern Albania, she approached her literature and writing teacher, a writer and critic, and asked him to read a collection of poems she had written. At the same time, she mailed a letter to Toena Publishers in Tirana asking why they didn’t publish new young voices.

An editor at Toena asked to see her work then offered to publish a collection of her poems, and her teacher agreed to help her edit them. She credits him with helping her to temper her youthful impulses. “I needed to step back from teenage enthusiasm for being great and take form and rhymes more seriously. I learned to be more—” she searches for the appropriate English word, “Not selective, to not overinflate words, to clean the words and pick the best one.”

Çoku agrees that many publishers in Albania ask the writers to pay to print their own works, but Toena covered all the expenses for her first book, Krahë s’kanë ëngjëjt e mi (My Angels Have No Wings). It was published in 1996, released on schedule, but the collapse of the economy in 1997 ruined the company’s marketing plans. After high school, Çoku studied literature at the university across the street then got married and, as the country floundered, moved to Greece with her husband.

“After university, I stopped reading poetry for a time,” she says. “I wanted to have my own voice. I wanted to develop my own images, my own vocabulary.”

She worked in a shop, learned Greek, and even traveled to England. She credits these experiences with helping her to mature and grow. She acquired new literary influences, including the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis, a romantic modernist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1979. Çoku gestures with both hands: “[Living and working in Greece] fed me new feelings, new thoughts, new ways of thinking. It was a kind of food for my poetry.”

After seven years abroad, she returned to Albania and contacted her high school teacher; he helped her edit her second collection, Gjurma e gjethes (Leaf’s Trace), which she self-published in 2011. Shortly after this, newly divorced with two children, she began her work at the publishing company.

She points out that sometimes she writes formal poems with rhyme and meter, and sometimes her poems follow no rules. “I wanted to have my own voice. I’m not interested in imitating something.”

Çoku paid for the printing, marketing, and distribution of her second collection herself, but as an established poet, the book earned the attention of Albanian writers and critics; she drew a crowd to her public readings and favorable reviews appeared in local media.

Today Çoku is bright with optimism about what the future holds for her and her young sons. Her boys have recently developed a passion for studying the cello, and the oldest is studying with a good teacher in the public music school in the neighborhood. She enjoys her life as an editor, and she continues to write: Currently she’s working on her third collection.

“It would be better if I was kind of rich,” she says thoughtfully. “I would do a lot of traveling; it would help my poetry; it would be good. I would have more time for meditation. But even in this busy time, I’m still writing a lot. Poetry is still with me. It is good.”

***

The next morning I walk south through the city to a road leading up Salita Hill. Developers have begun to build expensive neighborhoods on the hillsides overlooking the capital, and the poet and painter Eljan Tanini has been given a studio by the owners of Kodra e diellit (Sunhill Residence), one of the new developments.

“My second book is about the city,” Tanini says when we sit down at the Fiesta Bar, a coffee shop with views of the downtown, located at a piazza on a switchback between parallel rows of mountainside condominiums. Bearded with a rebel’s mane of brown hair, wearing a scarf, a turquoise shirt, plaid pants, leather hiking boots with yellow laces and beaded bracelets, Tanini is a twenty-nine-year-old activist and artist who speaks passionately about his love for the Albanian capital. “I don’t have a wife, but I know my daughter will be called Tirana,” he says.

Eljan Tanini

 

The city features heavily in his first book, a collection of poetry called Pa pik’ (Without Periods) that he self-published in 2015 and dedicated to his ex-girlfriend and the corner of the Hemingway Bar in the city center where he composed much of the text.

Impressed by his poems, paintings and reputation, the developers of the condos have granted him a glass-faced retail space on the main street to use for the creation of his artwork. His latest paintings, colorful abstracts that recall the work of Joan Miró, lean against the walls of his studio beneath hung photographs of puddles, clouds, and stains—abstract shapes that inspire him. Images from his paintings illustrate Without Periods.

Over coffee, he tells me about his efforts to preserve a lake in a nearby park. Working with other young people, he has been at the forefront of protests intent on slowing the development of the city’s open spaces that has proliferated since capitalism supplanted the planned economy. Holding up his phone, he shows us a picture of himself surrounded by policemen. He was arrested while protesting the city’s efforts to fill in an artificial lake at a nearby park and build a kindergarten on the site. A judge sentenced him to five days of community service for his actions. “I was a journalist for the two biggest TV stations, but I stopped to join the protests at the lake,” he says.

Although political activism has interrupted his journalism, he has never stopped his poetry and artwork. As a child, he convinced his parents to hire a costly tutor to prepare him for admission to a prestigious arts high school, the Lyceum Jordan Misja. The investment paid off:  He was accepted to the high school, then to the University of Tirana, where he studied philosophy as an undergraduate, then earned a masters degree in literature. His master’s thesis analyzed the concept of beauty in the works of Umberto Eco.

Since graduating, he has read at literary festivals across Albania and been awarded a writers residency in Split, Croatia. Recently he was invited to exhibit at the Mediterranean Biennale. Meanwhile, the city government is planning on installing several of his sculptures—gargantuan models of paper airplanes—at the site of a former Albanian airfield that has been developed into an apartment complex.

Tanini continues to live with his parents in the apartment in the city center where he threw paper airplanes from the windows as a child. His father, who is struggling with heart problems, nags him to find a wife. “Before communism, [Albanians] were married with birth,” the poet says, referring to the custom of arranged marriages. “In communism, matchmakers would arrange marriages. Probably this is why most people did not marry for love. Love was supposed to grow out of marriage.” But Tanini isn’t ready to settle down yet.

Stephen Morison Jr. (left) and Eljan Tanini at Tanini’s studio in Tirana.

 

The city awarded him the commission for the paper airplane sculptures, but the prize was only €100 (approximately $117), so he found a private investor, a wealthy man whose father was a pilot during the communist era. The man is pleased the sculptures are the same size as the jets his father once flew. Tanini plans for the folded “paper” of the planes to contain passages and phrases from the works of Albanian poets and writers. “It’s a nice thing to remember history,” he says.

The poet shows us around his studio, then we begin the walk back to the center of the city. As we descend, Fortuzi, my translator, remembers the day after the communist government fell when he and his high school classmates broke into the cabinet in the classroom reserved for the teaching of the histories and philosophies of Marxism and the Albanian labor party. “We took pages from the books of Enver Hoxha and used them to make paper airplanes,” he says. He pauses on the hillside sidewalk and mimics releasing a paper airplane into the wind.

 

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He has reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, China, Denmark, Egypt, Jordan, Myanmar, Rome, Vietnam, North Korea, and Syria. He currently lives in Maine.

Piazze and Pasquinades: Report From Literary Rome

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

4.15.15

There’s a twist to why I invited you to this place,” Gabriele Romagnoli says as he leads me past the grand marble steps and neoclassic columns of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, a 132-year-old museum and exhibition hall in Rome, to the discreet side entrance where we take the elevator to the roof. “Can you guess why I asked you to meet me here?” The elevator opens, and we pass into a massive, two-thousand-square-meter rooftop garden glassed in and transformed into a greenhouse by the architect Paolo Desideri in 2007, then transformed again into a restaurant run by the Italian celebrity chef Antonello Colonna. The decor features white tables and chairs in a distinctively postmodern setting with clean sweeping lines and twenty-foot-tall walls of glass. It’s a Bauhaus dream capping a white marble rooftop surrounded by the neoclassic landscape of Quirinal Hill, the second highest of Rome’s seven hills, where Quirinal Palace, the Louvre-sized presidential residence, looks down upon the Eternal City.

Romagnoli lives on the ground floor of a neighboring building, and he likes the restaurant, which serves a buffet lunch to the bankers and government officials who work in the area, because it is nothing like the traditional tourist’s romantic conception of Rome. “It isn’t some dark, crowded restaurant in Trastevere,” he says. “It’s like we are not in Rome here; it could be Germany or Amsterdam. You have Rome,” he raises a hand to indicate the beautiful building on the other side of the balcony railing from where we are sitting, “but it’s not like—arrhh—all around you.”

The author has introduced a theme I am to hear again and again from Italian writers: a desire to shake free from a past so impressive it is suffocating. In Italy, the shadows cast by the artists of the Roman golden age and the Renaissance still linger over the writers of the twenty-first century.

For instance, when I ask Romagnoli if there is a great Italian novel or some debate that parallels the endless American discussion about the “Great American Novel,” he shakes his head and tells me the great Italian novel has been written at least three times and that the competition is too stiff for there ever to be another. “La Divina Commedia by Dante; how can you write the great Italian novel when someone wrote a work that was science fiction, fantasy, history, and romance all in one, seven hundred years ago?”

Romagnoli’s own novels have been highly praised. At various stopping points in a Cinderella career, the author has written for newspapers, magazines, television, and film. He was the editor of Italian GQ, and at present he’s a columnist for Vanity Fair Italy and La Repubblica. But he made his bones as a fiction writer.

In 1988, Pier Vittorio Tondelli, an influential Italian writer who later died young of AIDS, sent out a call for young writers to contribute to an “Under 25” edition of an Italian magazine, and Romagnoli sent five stories. He had one accepted for his first fiction publication.

Romagnoli was a young journalist working the night shift for a Turin newspaper, and he wrote his fiction on one of those old computers with the lines of green text that were common in newsrooms in the 1980s. Manning the phone on the city desk in the early morning after the paper had been put to bed, he idled away the hours writing stories “just for myself.” He invented a game: He would transcribe the beginning of an actual news story that had come over the wire, then “change the ending, forget the story, and write what I wanted. The rule was to fill one page on the computer.”

A journalist friend in Milan told him a personal story one day and he wrote it down, changed the ending, and sent it back to her. Amused, she asked if she could send it to an editor friend of hers named Antonio Franchini, now famous but at the time a rookie editor with the Italian publishing behemoth Mondadori. Franchini called Romagnoli a couple of days later and asked him to send more stories. The writer remembers he had “seventy-something” stacked on his desk, but he hesitated. “I thought I needed to experience more pleasure and pain,” he says. He didn’t think his stories were good enough and didn’t send anything.

A week later, Franchini called him again. “Do you realize how many people send me their novels and stories and want me to publish them? I’m sitting here behind stacks and stacks of shit, and the one person I call and ask to send me something doesn’t send it,” he said. This time Romagnoli sent what he had, and Franchini liked it.

The reviews of his debut, Navi in bottiglia, 101 microracconti (Ships in Bottles: 101 Micro-Stories), compared him to the classical Greeks; the critics strained to flatter him using words he had to look up in the dictionary; he won two awards. “My life changed,” he remembers.

Thirty years later, at fifty-four, Romagnoli is tall and lanky, with steel-gray hair, a long face, black eyebrows curtained by chunky black-framed glasses, and a fighter jet of a nose. In a slim-fit white oxford, jeans, green sneakers, and a polished-steel watch, the writer resembles a younger, casual-wear version of Toni Servillo, the actor who starred in Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning La grande bellezza. Certainly, Romagnoli’s career has been as colorful as anything to be found in the film.

When Romagnoli grew bored in Italy, his Turin newspaper sent him to New York. Four years after dreaming of being a foreign correspondent posted to New York City, he found himself in Manhattan with an expense account. He chuckles. “It is trouble to realize one’s dreams so quickly.”

He lasted three years in New York before his attention wandered. He returned to Italy to write scripts for movies and television. “I hadn’t watched much Italian TV,” he says. “I hadn’t watched much American TV either, but I was thinking of an Italian Sopranos.” He wanted something groundbreaking, original, new. In 2001, he wrote a police drama, Distretto di polizia, in the tradition of Hill Street Blues. The series ran successfully, but soon after its start, he received a call from the press office of the Italian police. “The chief likes the series,” the spokesman told him. “The problem is the gay guy.” Romagnoli had invented a gay policeman, and the Italian police were not happy. You cannot film episodes outdoors in Rome without the support of the police department.  Shortly after Romagnoli left the show, the gay character “became straight.”

Unsatisfied with the constraints he discovered as a screenwriter, Romagnoli went back to journalism. After 9/11 he accepted a posting to the Middle East and filed stories from Cairo, then Beirut. He also continued writing fiction.

I ask Romagnoli to describe his writing process. “People have this idea you write the best sentences in a beautiful room facing the seaside,” he says. “My best lines, I got them from the bus, from the subway.” We talk about how he got his start, and he points out that there are no MFA programs in Italy. “Nobody really believes you can teach writing in six months,” he says, then sketches out the only class he could teach on the subject. “Find your own voice,” he would say. He smiles. “Then you go home.”

He checks his watch. His editor at la Repubblica, the Roman newspaper for the center-left, has assigned him to cover a story in the suburbs. Immigrants from Africa and the Middle East have attacked a bus after it refused to stop for them, which in turn incited a local neighborhood-watch group to turn vigilante and randomly attack immigrants. He’s supposed to ride the bus and interview whomever he finds on board. “My editor said that I lived in the Middle East, so I should be perfect for it.” He lifts his eyebrows suggesting that he’s unconvinced, then smiles and hurries off to make the bus.

The Colosseum, Rome

Theatre of Marcellus, Rome

Rome is like this. While enjoying an espresso atop an architectural masterpiece in the city center, it’s easy to miss the immigrant riot on the outskirts. There’s little crime in the touristy downtown, aside from the pickpockets, but the suburbs are rougher. The economic downturn that affected the world in 2007 continues to plague Italy. Unemployment hovers at 13 percent and is higher for young adults.

On the backside of the Aventine Hill, where I live, parkland traces an ancient defensive wall built by Caesar Aurelian, and prostitutes take up positions on the park benches starting in the early afternoons, their caked mascara and ruined faces incongruously peering out from the stream of retirees and fashionable professionals. 

Some days the tension among Rome’s disparate parts is more visible than others. I schedule a meeting with the novelist Melania Mazzucco in the city center. But Mazzucco texts and explains that Italy’s largest labor union is planning to protest Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s effort to pass a law making it easier for Italian companies to fire workers. On October 25, a hundred thousand laborers march through the streets of Rome waving banners. They chant and listen to speeches in the remains of the Circus Maximus, then stroll about taking selfies in front of the Colosseum.

Mazzucco is waiting for me the next afternoon in front of the armless and legless sculpture in the Piazza di Pasquino, adjacent to the Piazza Navona. She points to a poem on a piece of paper glued to the ancient figure’s pedestal and explains that it’s a political message. Members of the general public began expressing their dissatisfaction with the ruling authorities by putting messages on the statue shortly after it was discovered and placed in this location—the front of a palace owned by a cardinal of the church—in 1501. The messages are called pasquinate, a word that has migrated into English as pasquinades, after the statue. “Here they put up poems against those in power,” Mazzucco says. “It’s like a Speakers Corner, a place where the people can tell the truth.”

The novelist has distinctive dark, curly hair and narrow, black-framed glasses. It’s late fall, and she’s wearing a down jacket and a light blue scarf. “I’ve always written,” she says. “I was born into an artistic family. My father was a playwright; my childhood was spent in theaters. I remember I was amazed with how a woman fifty years old could become another person: a wonderful young girl or a queen.”

Her father typed his plays in a small room of their home, and when she was a child, she enjoyed copying him by typing little stories of her own. But as a teenager, she thought she might follow a different path. “You live without skin in some ways,” she says, explaining what scared her about the prospect of becoming a writer. “You are naked in front of life.”

Fascinated by memory, she thought she might like to become a doctor and study the workings of the mind, but the Italian school system does not encourage students to follow their passions. Instead, young people are slotted according to their aptitudes as indicated by a nationwide high school exam, the maturità. “You must choose [your field of study] when you are eighteen,” Mazzucco says. Still, she dreamed of at least a minor rebellion and embarked on a romantic plan to move to France and become a French writer. It didn’t quite work out. She moved abroad but “felt a bit lost,” she says.

At nineteen, she returned to Italy and finished a degree in Italian literature at Sapienza University of Rome before enrolling in the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, a Roman school for filmmaking, whose most famous literary graduate is Gabriel García Márquez. For two years she took technical classes in how to direct, edit, produce, and write films. The school began to instill in her confidence that she might support herself with her writing. After she graduated, she earned money editing and selling screenplays.

She also took a job working for Treccani, the largest Italian encyclopedia company. The firm assigned her to help reduce the size of its encyclopedia from thirty-five volumes to just twelve. Mazzucco had to make a list of writers to be removed. She made the cuts but then felt sad about them. “I told myself I have to read these writers.” She bought their books and started reading.

When she was twenty-three, she experienced a crisis. “I was editing a screenplay, and I realized it was not so interesting. I realized I had a story to tell. I had to write a novel, not to publish it—I never expected to publish it—but I needed to write it to save my life.”

Her first draft reached fifteen hundred pages. She sent it to publishers and received dozens of rejections. Eventually, she began to cut it down. When it had reached a more manageable size, a medium-sized publishing company in Milan, Baldini & Castoldi, called her and expressed interest, but they insisted on more cuts, eventually reducing the book’s length to four hundred pages.

“It was not a huge commercial success,” she says. “Well, it was a good success for a literary novel.” That book, Il bacio della Medusa (The Kiss of Medusa), received excellent reviews, and Mazzucco began to think of herself as a writer. “I began to think that I could live off my words.”

Growing up, her family had lived in the northwestern part of the city, but this felt very far from the Rome depicted in postcards and movies. Romans complain about their unreliable public transportation and snarled surface roads, and Mazzucco explains that the people living in Rome’s outlying neighborhoods often feel as if they are living in another city. “My dream had always been to move to the center of Rome.”

After her third novel was published, she and her boyfriend committed to an azzardo, an adventure. They pooled all their money and signed a lease for an apartment in the city’s historic center. She’s never left.

In 2003, her novel Vita (Life), based on the life of her grandfather, who moved to the United States and experienced hardship and then returned to his native land, won Italy’s most respected literary prize, the Premio Strega. Later, the novel was translated and won awards in Spain and Canada, as well as placement on the “best of” lists of Publishers Weekly and the New York Times. Since the award, Mazzucco’s life has become busier. “There are book fairs. I traveled to fifty-five countries to promote the book.”

I ask her about censorship, and she says she hasn’t faced any difficulties—Italian laws protecting freedom of speech are similar to those in the United States—but she mentions that her last book caused a bit of a scandal. “It is about a girl with no mother but two fathers. Someone tried to take a teacher who assigned it to court. I was not surprised that the neo-Fascist politicians hated my novel, but I was surprised that such a tender novel created a scandal.”

Things have improved for female writers since the era of her grandmother, Mazzucco says, when female writers fought to be referred to as scrittori (“writers,” using the male plural ending) rather than scrittrici (“writers,” using an arguably pejorative, diminutive ending). But sexism remains an issue. “I was the last woman to win the Strega, in 2003,” she says. “Since I won, it has been all men.”       

Our focus shifts to the economic downturn and its impact on Italian writers. She says she’s worried about the fate of Italian literature during the current era. “In Venice in the sixteenth century, a literary essay could sell two thousand copies. Now it’s the same. A book on literary theory could sell two thousand copies. That makes me suffer a lot.

“Our problem was that the high society read; the middle class never became readers. It is a historical problem that our writers were aristocrats, even in the twentieth century. You couldn’t afford to write if you didn’t have family money.” This changed in the 1960s when the baby boom and a stronger economy enabled the middle class to afford the securities of a home and a car, but the current situation has caused Italians to wonder if those days of financial stability are slipping away, she says.

Fifteen years ago, Mazzucco points out, young actors and writers could still find semiaffordable places in downtown Rome. “Now it’s mostly tourists.” She pauses long enough for me to hear the people speaking English at the café tables all around us. “Now it’s different,” she says.

The Pantheon, Rome

While attending a reading by the American poet Moira Egan and her husband, Damiano Abeni, an Italian physician and translator, I meet the Italian poet Paolo Febbraro. Febbraro is worried that his English is poor, but he agrees to answer questions for this article via e-mail, and he eventually meets with me to discuss his life as a writer in Rome.

Febbraro is a hardworking high school literature teacher, and we meet during his lunch break at a café a block from the public high school where he teaches, just off the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. This ancient neighborhood, whose name refers to its position on the west bank of the Tiber, is popular with tourists and locals alike for its shops and restaurants.

Tall and lanky with reddish hair and a fair complexion that earned him the nickname l’Americanino when he was a boy, Febbraro explains that in 1984, when he was nineteen, he fell in love with the poetry of Giorgio Caproni, a famous Italian poet, and was inspired to begin writing poems of his own. Eager to continue to grow and improve, Febbraro followed the traditional route of writers in Italy: He looked for a mentor.

Since there are no MFA programs in Italy, ambitious young poets and writers instead correspond with or attempt to meet established writers, hoping to be adopted as a sort of protégé. Eventually, Febbraro was introduced to the poet and critic Giorgio Manacorda who, after listening to Febbraro describe himself and his work, asked to read his poems. “I always waited for the right moment and the right encounter,” Febbraro recalls.

Manacorda’s first responses to Febbraro were critical; he pointed out weaknesses. The younger man listened and reworked his poems until, after two years, he had produced a group that Manacorda was willing to recommend. With the support of this veteran writer and critic, the Milan publishing company Marcos y Marcos agreed to publish the work, Il secondo fine (The Second End), which won the prestigious Mondello Award.

Now an established poet with multiple books to his credit, Febbraro frequently returns the favor. “A lot of young poets send me their poems by mail for advice. I answer and give them advice. In the rarest cases, I can help them to publish.”

Once established, an Italian poet may earn invitations to literary conferences or to various literary-arts festivals; Pisa, Modena, Pordenone, and Turin host well-regarded ones. Poets and writers also submit to and are considered for literary prizes. It was at an awards ceremony for a prize in Tuscany that Febbraro met Seamus Heaney. Febbraro’s wife, Daniela, speaks English well, and she approached the Nobel Prize winner and then introduced her husband. “It is a bright page in my life,” Febbraro says. The ensuing friendship resulted in several trips to Ireland both to visit Heaney and to see the country. Febbraro also happily welcomed Heaney to Rome in 2013 when the Irish poet stayed at the American Academy in Rome, an institution that frequently hosts American and Anglophone writers and happens to be located near Febbraro’s home. An essay Febbraro wrote about the late Irish laureate was published in January.

Febbraro mentions his time in Ireland when he talks about his writing process. He says that many different things inspire him to write; he credits Daniela as both a muse and a teacher who introduced him to English literature and to psychoanalysis, and he says the Irish countryside has often inspired him.

By contrast, he is less enamored of his hometown. Born and raised in Rome—his mother was a middle school teacher and his father was a general in the branch of the military that, in the Italian system, is in charge of chasing tax evaders—he does not love the city. “The beautiful Rome is that of the ancients until the eighteenth century. Since then it is just buildings, buildings, buildings, a lot of traffic and noise.” He wrote a short story about these sentiments titled “I demolitori” (“The Demolition Men”) about “the violence of living in a place so packed.

“Rome is wonderful for the center, the Roman ruins,” he says. “But all around, it is absolutely not so good of a city.”

I ask him about the conflicts Gabriele Romagnoli was sent to cover, the fighting on the outskirts between immigrants and ethnic Italians, and he nods, saying that he has heard about the trouble.

“Italy is in a deep cultural crisis,” he says. “There are cuts in the financial provisions from the public sector. The problem is a historic problem. We had national unification too late. We had Fascism. We had a civil war. After 1945, we tried to rebuild. The American style—capitalist marketing—came too soon, before a bourgeoisie was formed. We haven’t the English tradition of an industrial middle class. Not too many people read.”

Indeed, Italy’s regional economic problems have only exacerbated an existing crisis for the nation’s book publishers. An April 2014 report by the Italian Publishers Association, a nonprofit group representing 90 percent of the national book market, describes significant declines in both book buying and reading in Italy as well as dramatic changes in purchasing habits as Italians, like Americans, decrease their visits to brick-and-mortar bookstores and shift their attention to the digital sphere.

In short, Italy’s traditional big publishing houses are struggling. While creative small publishers like La Nuova Frontiera, which specializes in translations by Spanish, Portuguese, African, and Latin American authors, and Playground, which is notable for its gay and lesbian literature, continue to carve out niches for themselves, the big players, a group that includes Arnoldo Mondadori Editore; RCS MediaGroup; Gruppo editoriale Mauri Spagnol; Feltrinelli; and Sellerio, all headquartered in Milan, are attempting to adapt to a marketplace that has lost 14 percent of its overall value in the past three years.

Rome’s twin churches, Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli.

Despite the country’s economic struggles, Italy is still an attractive place to work and live, and immigrants continue to petition the government for entry. My wife and I are part of that ongoing influx. We have recently been granted Permesso di Soggiorno visas—the phrase means “permission to stay”—the Italian equivalent of green cards. The visas allow us to work and be taxed. As part of the immigration process, my wife and I were required to attend a class offering an overview of some of Italy’s basic laws. On November 24, in an immigration office near our home, we are ushered into a large nondescript room with drop ceilings and rows of plastic chairs to be shown a video featuring two English speakers who explain the basics of the Italian parliamentary system, then detail the negative consequences for would-be citizens who treat women poorly or drink and drive or use drugs. Surrounding us in the room are other immigrants. Our video teachers explain that there are 4.5 million foreign-born immigrants living in the country, which amounts to between 7 and 8 percent of the overall population and includes nearly 1.5 million Muslims.

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is the daughter of an Italian mother and a Somali father. Ali Farah’s parents met at Padua University, the eight-hundred-year-old Italian institution located near Venice. Ali Farah’s dad was on scholarship, and her mom was from nearby Verona. They fell in love, and when they finished their studies, they moved to Somalia. Ali Farah was three at the time. Her father was a proud nationalist who would have liked to educate his children in the Somali school system, but the schools were overcrowded and the teachers poorly trained. Somalia is a former Italian colony, so Ali Farah enrolled in an Italian school that was free for Italian citizens. She remembers moments when she was three or four when her bilingual development caused her anxiety. “I used to have these blackouts of language,” she says. “I wasn’t able to talk at all, so I started reading.”

Like her parents before her, she fell in love young—before she finished high school—and gave birth to her oldest son, Harun, when she was just eighteen. Then in 1991 the Somali civil war began, and everything changed. She fled with her parents, first to Hungary and then to Italy, and was forced to finish studying for her maturità on her own. She did well and was admitted to Sapienza University of Rome. However, her young Somali husband, unable to find work in Italy during the economic downturn in the nineties, moved to Canada, where he remains today.  

All this occurred more than two decades ago. Today, Ali Farah lives in Belgium with her second husband, but she returns to Rome, where she lived for eighteen years, in December to promote her second novel, Il comandante del fiume (The Commander of the River), and she agrees to meet me at a café that she frequented during her years in the city when she lived in Testaccio, a couple blocks south of my home.

Testaccio is home to hipster cafés, art cinemas, and street art. For centuries, an enormous abattoir disassembled cattle and pigs on a bend in the river here and provided the city’s butchers with meat. The old cobblestone cattle yards and long warehouses with their horrific cast-iron butchering lines have been converted into a sprawling museum of contemporary art. Long before the area was famous for its slaughterhouse, this was the spot where merchant ships offloaded goods and supplies. At the time, fluids and grains were shipped in amphorae: long-necked clay jars. After hundreds of years of discarding these vessels, a literal mountain of olive-oil amphora shards—testae—rose above the neighborhood. The mound is still there, tree-topped and filling a square block, looming a hundred feet above the surrounding shops, restaurants, and apartments. In the nineteenth century, the pope used the hill as a stand-in for Golgotha. Passion plays were performed on its summit. Today, bars, restaurants, and discos are dug into its sides. Through plexiglass windows at the rear of these buildings, patrons can look at the piled remains of garbage from the Roman golden age.

I meet Ali Farah at Piramide metro station and walk into Testaccio, past the nursery school that her two younger children attended before she moved to Belgium. She explains that the public library next door agreed to allow her to work inside even during lunch hours, when it closes, after she told them her kids were at the school next door. When she lived in this neighborhood, she woke up each morning and went for a jog along the footpaths beside the Tiber. “I woke up today, and the first thing I did was to run. I don’t miss Rome at all,” she says, “but I miss the river.”

In Somalia as a teenager, Ali Farah kept a journal, but in the chaos and displacement of the war, she stopped writing, even for herself. She didn’t begin again until six years later when she was twenty-four. “After Sapienza [University], I worked for an NGO [nongovernmental organization] as a cultural translator,” a job that required her to help recent immigrants better understand Italian law and culture. “The NGO asked me to collect stories from the immigrants I worked with. I think that gave me the legitimacy to write. I was so modest. Who am I to write? But it gave me confidence.”

She started writing poetry then began writing nonfiction and journalism for an organization called Migrant News, whose mission was to report on the experience of immigrants to Italy from the perspective of people who had experienced immigration firsthand. Eventually a friend from La Sapienza with parents from Cape Verde told Ali Farah about a group that met once a week to discuss books. She attended a meeting, and members asked her about her writing then invited her to read her poems aloud at a reading. Here, a representative from an NGO asked her if he might use her poems in an anthology of writings by children of immigrants, adding to her confidence.

Before our interview, Ali Farah was at La Sapienza answering questions posed by students who dreamed of being writers. “I tell them: If you have something to say, you can become good,” she says. “It’s not something that happens suddenly. You just have to work hard.”

Like Febbraro, Ali Farah credits established writers and educators with helping her make contacts in the world of publishing. Alessandra Di Maio is a professor of Italian literature and comparative literature who has taught at schools in Italy and Massachusetts, and who became Ali Farah’s friend and mentor. “Alessandro said you have to stop telling people that you’re shy,” she remembers. “You must believe in yourself.”

Both of Ali Farah’s novels are about the lives of immigrants in Italy, and she points out that accepting immigrants is a new reality for Italians. “It’s hard for them to digest,” she says. She reminds me that during the twentieth century, many Italians left their homeland to find work in the United States and other countries. “Until recently, they were immigrants themselves.” One of her motives for writing is to remind Italians about the country’s colonial past while showing them how much migrants and children of migrants have become woven into the fabric of contemporary Italy.

For the time being, there continues to be tension between native Italians and the newcomers. Ali Farah writes about this in Madre piccola (Little Mother), her 2007 novel, told from the first-person point of view of three recent immigrants. “If you are born in Italy without Italian parents, you are not Italian. Italians don’t know anything about their colonial past. When I speak in Italian, Italians tell me, ‘Oh, your Italian is so good!’ Of course, it’s good! It’s my mother tongue.”

She’s more optimistic about the future. Prior to moving to Belgium with her family, she worked for six years for the Center for Somali Studies at Roma Tre University teaching the Somali language and archiving books, photographs, and stories about the experience of Somalis in Italy. The plot for her most recent book was inspired by one of these stories. “[Italians] will understand [the perspective of immigrants], but it’s just a question of time. The Republic is just a hundred fifty years old.”

page_5: 

Walking home in the rain after our interview, I am reminded by the bustling streets that one of the nice things about the center of Rome is that people actually live here. Despite the infamous squalor of the traffic and the much-derided public-transportation system, the citizens have not decamped for the suburbs. Apartment blocks, both handsome and modest; enviable villas; and modern housing complexes all exist cheek-by-jowl with cathedrals, fashionable shops, ancient ruins, and restaurants. In the city center, it is not uncommon to find residents actually living atop—and even inside—the ruins.

For example, the two-thousand-year-old Theater of Marcellus, which opened in 13 BC to host performances of the comedies of Plautus, the tragedies of Seneca the Younger, and other works by playwrights whose names are lost to antiquity, is still standing and has long been repurposed as a domestic residence. Its guts were removed in the Middle Ages, but its walls remain. The eleven-thousand-square-foot palatial home has its entrance in the neighborhood of the Jewish ghetto, while its curved and colonnaded backside—the original exterior of the theater—faces the Capitoline Hill. It is common to find tourists from China and the United States milling about on the sidewalk outside the building’s ancient galleries wondering aloud if this isn’t the Colosseum, a structure that passing Romans will inform them is a couple of blocks to the east.

The Theater of Marcellus never hosted gladiator battles or bull baiting. Instead, two thousand years ago, crowds of up to twenty thousand people filled it to watch works that would be revived during the Italian Renaissance, when they inspired Petrarch and Boccaccio, who in turn inspired Chaucer and Shakespeare. It’s thrilling and also slightly chilling, I suppose, to acknowledge that literature began here, in buildings that are not only still being looked at but actually lived in. I can’t help but imagine that those ancient Romans would be delighted to know that in the streets, piazzas, theaters, living rooms, and computers of contemporary Rome, poetry and writing continue to thrive.

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He has reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Jordan, Myanmar, Vietnam, North Korea, and Syria. He lives in Rome.

The Exiles: Report From Literary Syria

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

2.12.14

Throughout the past year, white tents with the letters UNHCR stenciled in blue on the top have been showing up in the countryside around my home in Madaba-Manja, Jordan. They’ve appeared in the campgrounds of the Bedouin herders, who usually live in more traditional gray and khaki tents. The stencils identify them as belonging to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—the tents are part of the international influx of supplies for the Syrian war refugees—and their appearance in my neighborhood means they’re being sold on the black market.

I call a friend of mine in Amman, Jordan, who makes a quick phone call and then rings me back. “The tents are selling for fifty dinar [about seventy-five dollars] in Mafraq and seventy-five dinar in Amman,” he says. There are two theories about where they’re coming from. Some people think there’s corruption in the supply chain and that the tents are hitting the black market before they’ve been distributed to the refugees, but a second, more plausible theory is that the Syrians are selling the tents because they need the money. “Two families will move into one tent,” my friend says, “and then they’ll sell the second one.”

In July, when the government stopped releasing information about the number of Syrians flooding into the country, there were 144,000 Syrians in the Zaatari refugee camp, which sits on a barren plain five miles south of the Syrian border. The Jordanian authorities built a six-foot-high dirt berm running parallel to Highway 10. Beyond the mound, I can see seemingly endless rows of white tents. In January and February of 2013, seasonal rains caused flooding, and the Jordan Times carried front-page stories about demonstrations organized by refugees who were upset about the poor housing and food shortages.

I loiter by the Jordanian Army’s armored personnel carrier at the entrance and watch the people flow in and out. Families walk past carrying suitcases tied with string; unsupervised kids run around; and what appears to be a crazy man lurches about in the road, misdirecting traffic.

On the drive back to Amman, my mobile phone rings; a friend has arranged an interview with the Syrian screenwriter and director Muhammad Bayazid, an exile whose successful business has enabled him to avoid the camp and rent an apartment in Amman. He has agreed to meet me and talk about the impact of the war on his life and work.

Muhammad Bayazid fled from Syria into Jordan on November 19, 2011, after twenty-four hours of imprisonment and torture at the hands of shabiha—thugs working for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It was a startling turn of events for a young man who five years earlier was shaking hands with Asma al-Assad, the first lady of Syria, and agreeing to use his talents as a screenwriter and filmmaker to help publicize her many charities.

We meet in early June at Gloria Jean’s Coffees, a Starbucks-style café on Madina Street in Amman. It’s a neutral public space. The Syrian border is less than an hour away, and Bayazid remains cautious. He’s thirty years old, with finger-combed hair and a four-day growth of beard, dressed in a red shirt, jeans, and a watch with a blue denim band. He tells his story using the English he taught himself as a kid in Syria and improved later during stints in Los Angeles and London.

Growing up, Bayazid fueled his passion for storytelling by reading classics such as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which were supplemented by American comic books checked out from Syrian libraries. “I adored them,” he says. “Batman, Superman, SpiderMan. When I was a kid, I drew comics of my own.”

Bayazid’s father was a successful Sunni Muslim businessman in a country riven by ethnic strife. Having attended Al-Azhar, a famous Muslim theological university in Egypt, Bayazid’s father wore a beard but was not radical. He was just a “normal Muslim,” Bayazid says, a businessman who moved between Italy and Syria looking for a stable environment for his clothing business.

When Bayazid was in high school in Damascus, he volunteered for a nonprofit organization that cared for orphans. The company wanted to edit documentaries for one of its projects, and Bayazid volunteered to help. His experience led to an interest in filmmaking and eventually a trip to Los Angeles for a three-month course in film editing.

Afterward, back in Syria, he continued his education and worked part-time as a film editor. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Damascus University, he opened his own production company specializing in public service announcements and commercials for nonprofit organizations. To improve his writing, he finagled an invitation to study documentary filmmaking with the BBC in London and ended up spending eight months under the tutelage of Julian Doyle, the editor of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and the assistant director of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).

By 2006, Bayazid says, his business “couldn’t have been any better.” He employed six people and was expanding into 3-D production. He had clients in the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt, and Syria and had just met with the first lady of Syria, who was impressed by one of his short films.

All was going well until the Arab Spring uprisings began in Tunisia in December 2010; the demonstrations were well publicized, and they expanded into Egypt and Syria in January 2011. In Egypt the military chose to remain neutral, but in Syria the armed forces sided with the government against the protesters.

Bayazid witnessed one of these clashes in Daraa, a Syrian town adjacent to the Jordanian border and one of the hot spots during the earliest days of the Syrian revolution. “It was the trigger of my standing against the regime,” he says.

He was in his car, returning to Syria from working on a project in Jordan. At the border, the guards told him gangs had closed the main road; it wasn’t safe. They advised him to turn around and head back to Amman, but Bayazid decided to risk it. He drove north toward the town of Daraa and watched security forces—not gangs, as the border guards had claimed, but government forces—burning tires in the road.

“Since they closed the road, I cut into one of the Daraa villages, Sanamen. A funeral went past, and I pulled the car over and joined them. As a Muslim, [joining a funeral] is pretty common. Firing began, and I saw with my own eyes a man with a bullet between the eyes.” Bayazid could see a sniper on the roof of a building inside a government compound. “It was very clear who was killing who,” he says, certain that government forces were shooting unarmed members of the funeral procession. “After that day, I couldn’t shut up anymore.”

Soon thereafter he criticized the regime in an interview with a Lebanese radio reporter, and after the piece aired, a representative from the Republican Guard—al-Assad’s praetorian guard—called him and politely told him to focus on his filmmaking and leave politics alone. Bayazid responded with a Facebook post that accused the president of killing his own people. He received a second phone call that threatened to hurt him and his family if he continued criticizing the regime. Unnerved, Bayazid started planning to move his filmmaking business to Jordan.

He had nearly completed the move—his office was moved and his bags were packed and waiting in his apartment—when he got in a car with a friend to grab some dinner. As they drove toward a café, they saw three shabiha harassing three girls in a car. He asked his friend to stop the car. One of the men was going through the photos on a phone belonging to one of the girls, and the girl reached from the car window and snatched the phone back. “That was her mistake,” Bayazid says. The shabiha yanked her out through the window of the car, banging her head in the process. Bayazid got out to help.

He tells me his plan was to claim he was a friend of Asma al-Assad, the first lady. He would accuse the men of creating a disturbance that would swing public opinion against the regime, and the girls would escape while he argued with them. But he never got the chance to speak. As he stepped from his car, the shabiha attacked him.

“They hit me with three-foot sticks and an electric cattle prod to the chest,” Bayazid says. Using plastic zip-ties that cut into his wrists, they handcuffed him, then blindfolded him and dragged him into a nearby basement under an abandoned store. The basement was filled with other prisoners. Bayazid listened to the shabiha beating and torturing the others. Then they came for him.

“I’ll tell you about being tortured,” he says.

The roots of the Syrian revolution are twofold. On one hand, there is the desire of the Syrian middle and upper classes to have greater freedom of speech and a larger role in their own governance. Hafez al-Assad, an air force general, took over the country in a coup d’état in 1970; upon his death in 2000, he was succeeded by his son, Bashar. The father rose to prominence as a member of the Baath Party, a secular, nationalist, and socialist political party that pays lip service to Arab unity. During the cold war era, Hafez al-Assad aligned Syria with the Soviet Union, which provided military aid to Syria, and he used Syria’s army and the secret police to control the populace.

When I visited the country in 1990, I discovered a repressive, Orwellian state. Secret policemen, identifiable in matching leather jackets, rifled through my luggage at the borders, tailed me in the streets, and followed me into shops. One day I got a shave from a barber who glanced nervously back and forth from my bearded face to the mirror, where he could see a member of the secret police sitting behind us.

Most of the middle-class Syrians fighting against the regime want an end to Big Brother and the civil violations that accompany the endless surveillance: They want an end to censorship, an end to wasta (the Arabic word for nepotism, “connections,” and corruption).

But there is also a second, separate motive behind the revolution. A large number of lower-class Syrians view the revolution as a religious war. The al-Assads belong to a religious minority in Syria; they are Alawis, a sect that forms about 12 percent of the Syrian population and whose members adhere to a branch of Shia Islam. Most Syrians—three-quarters of the population—are Sunni Muslims. In some ways, the split between Shiites and Sunnis is similar to the Catholic and Protestant split that divides Northern Ireland and the Republic to its south. Of the states in Syria’s neighborhood, Iran and Iraq are majority Shia states, and there is a sizable Shia population in Lebanon, while Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States are majority Sunni states.

In 1982 in Syria, there was a Sunni revolt against Hafez al-Assad, who responded by ordering his brother, the head of the armed forces, to shell the city of Hama, flattening the old section and killing at least ten thousand of its Sunni inhabitants (some reports claim the number was forty thousand). When I visited the country eight years later, the old city of Hama was still in ruins; no effort had been made to clear the rubble. Burned-out cars sat amid the wreckage of flattened homes. Hafez al-Assad let the bombed-out neighborhood sit untouched as a warning to the survivors.

I witnessed these things as an outsider, as a tourist with a camera and a pen, but for the Syrian poet Amjad Etry, the happenings in Hama changed his life.

In mid-June, when Amjad Etry arrives at my cousin’s apartment in Abdoun, a posh neighborhood in Amman, Jordan, he is nervous about the way he looks and reluctant to talk. He has swept-back shoulder-length hair and a full beard flecked with gray. The long hair is new, he says; the chaos caused by the war has him too exhausted to visit a barber. He speaks Arabic and French but no English. After four months in the country, he is still struggling to find work in Anglophone Amman.

 

Francesca de Châtel, a Dutch author and journalist who speaks French and Arabic, and who served as editor in chief of the Damascus English-language magazine Syria Today for four years and published a book that is part travelogue and part survey of water resources in Syria, kindly serves as an interpreter during our conversation.

Etry is reluctant to talk about how he got into the country or exactly why he left Syria. He lights a Winston. “I don’t smoke much,” he says and then tells us about his life.

His parents fled the fighting in Hama in 1981 when he was three, moving the family to a leafy suburb of Damascus called Ghouta. Traditional Arab families dedicate time each week for visiting relatives—aunts, uncles, and cousins—to play cards and chat about the news of the day, but Etry says he never felt comfortable in these group settings; he needed time alone. His siblings—five sisters and three brothers—teased him about his solitary nature. “Even in my own family, I feel like a foreigner, a spiritual foreigner,” he says. 

Adding to his sense of alienation was his family’s very real displacement. The cities of Hama and Damascus are only 130 miles apart, but in 1981 they were on opposite sides of a religious and cultural war. When Etry entered school in his Damascus suburb at age six, the students called him Al Hamwi, “the one from Hama,” and when he returned to Hama with his family for visits, his cousins called him Al Shami, “the one from Damascus.”

“I live as an outsider,” he says.

I ask him if the massacre in Hama had any impact on him personally, and his eyes mist over. “To people from Hama, the events of 1982 are like the birth of Jesus,” he says, meaning that the massacre has become a historical reference point. “People in Hama will say, ‘That wedding was five years before the events,’ or ‘she died five years after the events.’” There is nobody from Hama who wasn’t affected, he says. Everybody lost someone.

Contemplative and soft-spoken, Etry took refuge in books, words, and poetry. At age thirteen, he began memorizing aphorisms, proverbs, and poems. In particular, he fell in love with the poems of Nizar Qabbani, a famed 20th-century Syrian poet, diplomat, and publisher, and he also began writing his own poems.

After high school, he earned an undergraduate degree in French literature and a master’s degree in audiovisual translation from Damascus University. During this period, he supported himself through a variety of jobs: teaching French, transcribing and writing footnotes for handwritten Arabic scholarly commentaries for commercial publication, and working beside his brothers in their tailor shop.

In 2008, Etry had enough poems for a collection, which he assembled and succeeded in getting sanctioned by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, which censors and approves all books published inside the country. A Kurdish friend designed the cover, and Etry contracted with a publisher to print the book. (As is the case throughout the Middle East, most poets and creative writers either win a state-sponsored contest and have their work published by the ministry of culture or they submit their work to the censors and, after receiving their okay, self-publish for distribution to friends and for use at public readings). At the last minute, however, Etry grew dissatisfied with his collection and canceled the printing.

Even at the university, he says, he continued to live a solitary life, spending the bulk of his time “studying, working, or daydreaming.” It wasn’t until 2009, when he discovered online poetry forums, that he began to build a community of writers. That same year he published his first poem online, and since then he has worked to find his own voice. Although he is an admirer of Qabbani, who is noted for his erotic poetry and his poems devoted to the Arab nationalist cause, Etry says his own poems are neither erotic nor political. “They’re more like Sufi poetry.” Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam whose most famous adherent was the 13th-century poet known in the West as Rumi. “Sufi poetry is more about love and the spirit,” Etry says. “It’s more abstract, more cerebral; it doesn’t discuss daily routines.”

I ask him if he can recite one of his poems for us, and he nods. He explains that the events of the past two years have had an enormous impact on his writing. His neighborhood in Syria lost telephone service and electricity for more than five months. And his vocabulary has changed, he says. He notices that the words lost, sadness, shelling, bombing, and death now appear frequently in his work.

He recites softly and confidently. Most of his poem is in classical Arabic, which means the grammar creates natural rhymes between subjects and their modifiers. When he’s finished, he translates a line for us: “The heart echoes our worry for Damascus, and the sigh is as fearful as the eyes around us.”

Prior to the revolution, Etry says, there were a number of places in Damascus where poetry readings were held. Poets who were members of the government-sponsored writers union, which Etry describes as “like a retirement home for poets,” read in government-run cultural centers to very small audiences. But in the neighborhoods around Damascus University, “people were actually interested,” he says. There were cafés and private cultural centers where readings occasionally attracted audiences of more than a hundred people. Since arriving in Amman, Etry has given one reading—at Jadal, a small, private cultural center located in the city’s historic downtown.

Like Bayazid, Etry currently has enough resources to avoid the refugee camp, but his money is dwindling. I ask him what ethnicity he is and which side he supports in the fighting, and he replies, “I am first human, second Arab, and third Syrian. Hama is Christian and Sunni, but the villages around it are Alawi and Sunni. I have Alawi friends, Kurdish friends, Christian friends, and Druze friends, and it doesn’t make a difference.”

Ultimately, Etry hopes, the conflict will lead to greater freedom of expression. “The pens will be liberated,” he says.

In Syria the government censors everything that is published. Writers and publishers live in fear that they will pay to print a book, magazine, newspaper, or journal only to be prohibited from distributing it. “There is no freedom,” Muhammad Bayazid says. “You can’t cross any line; you’d be destroyed immediately. Bribery and wasta is everywhere. Assad’s family owns the whole economy, and there is nothing we can do regarding this.”

Filmmakers in Syria have to have all scripts accepted by the raqabeh, the supervision arm of the state intelligence services—the secret police. Technically, the censor is a member of the ministry of culture, but in Syria the members of the ministry of culture are also members of the intelligence service. “As Syrians, every one of us has his own internal raqib [a member of the raqabeh]. We don’t cross the lines,” Bayazid says.

The soft-spoken Etry is more optimistic; he describes a slow easing of restrictions. “Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have seen a kiss in an Arab [television] series; now it’s normal to show kissing and all that.” However, Etry agrees with Bayazid that writing about sex, religion, or the government remains taboo and results, at the very least, in the government’s refusing to permit a writer to publish.

The Syrian writers union—like writers unions in Vietnam, Myanmar, and China—is complicit in the censorship. The organization is run by the government and, in exchange for government loyalty, its members are provided with health insurance as well as small stipends for reading in government-run cultural centers.

The Syrian writers I meet with outside the country are critical of the union. “The writers union is under the control of the regime; it is Baathist. It is a killing cliché of slogans that bore me to sleep,” Syrian poet Hala Mohammad tells me during an interview at the Saint Severin café on the Boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris. “I don’t like boring people at all; I’m attracted to people with the courage to fight boredom.”

Mohammad won a state-sponsored contest for her first collection and has since published six books of poetry, but she never consented to joining the writers union. “In Syria, writers are stuck between ‘not forbidden and not allowed,’” she says. “I think the revolution started because people are tired of being stuck in the middle.”

Mohammad speaks French and some English, but she prefers to respond to my questions in Arabic. Dressed in a simple black outfit, she is accompanied by her friend Tamara Alrifai, who works for Human Rights Watch and who translates for us.

An outspoken critic of the al-Assad regime, Mohammad has received threats. She came to Paris in June 2011 in order to undergo treatment for breast cancer, but she chose to remain in France with her husband, the Syrian film director Haitham Hakki, because she did not feel safe in her home country. “Maybe I’m pretending I’m courageous, but I’m scared,” Mohammad says.

She shows me her latest book of poems, which she just received from her publisher in Beirut. The collection is about the revolution. “This is my kind of resistance; this is my kind of love; to tell the world there is a Syrian poet who belongs to a people who are noble, who don’t like killing, whose only crime is that they dream dreams of freedom, of justice, of individuality.”

Mohammad grew up in a family of nine children in the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia. Her father was a liberal schoolteacher who educated his daughters and permitted them the freedom to run about the neighborhood. Two of Mohammad’s sisters who were educated in the West became doctors, while Mohammad knew from an early age that she was a poet.

At fifteen, she secretly fell in love with an older man and poured her emotions out in private poetry. Later that year, she gathered her family and some guests—about forty people in all—for a private reading. When she started reading, they began laughing. “They were not laughing at me, they were just surprised that I was standing there saying, ‘I am a poet,’” she recalls. “We are a family who like to mock each other. I remember being happy I could give them this happiness. I liked that they were laughing. After that, they kept asking me to read them my poetry.”

Fifteen years later, in 1990, after her physician sisters helped her with the tuition to attend the University of Paris 8 in France, her first collection of poetry won an award and was selected for publication by the Syrian Ministry of Culture.

While Mohammad is outspoken in her enmity for the regime, she is complimentary of one former member of the government, Antoun Makdissi, the former head of Authorship and Translation within the Syrian Ministry of Culture. Mohammad remembers Makdissi as a man who tried to increase freedom of speech from within the government. Unfortunately, he was ousted after writing an open letter urging Bashar al-Assad to allow more unrestrained expression.   

In 2005 Mohammad combined her passion for writing and her background in filmmaking to make a documentary film about Syrian writers in prison. “If you can’t find a way to be free under the dictator,” she says, “you won’t be free when [the dictator is] gone.”

Members of her family have been similarly active in pushing for greater personal and political rights. Her brother Osama is a filmmaker who made a movie under the auspices of the Syrian state cinema institute that was shown at the Cannes Film Festival but was banned at home; it was thirteen years before he was permitted to make a second film.

Mohammad says the revolution began as a peaceful fight for equality and freedom but has now been co-opted by radicals on both sides. “The government won’t allow the revolution to succeed because it will lose its power,” she says. “And the [religious] extremists don’t like it because they can’t be equal to other people because they have been sent by God.”

Mohammad is angry about the situation, but she is also worried about oversimplifying things. She points out that American notions of Islamic religious extremism are often shallow or mistaken. More than any other subject, Mohammad is passionate about the need for people to avoid black-and-white interpretations of world events. “My mother wears the hijab, but she is not an extremist; she is an angel,” she says. “It’s so bad the way movies make things so black and white, having a hero who kills all the bad guys. We’re all the heroes. Human principles are the heroes, not some guy. I don’t like the word hero. I feel sorry for the villains in movies.”

I ask her about her influences, and she says she likes the poetry of Ezra Pound, that she loves the music of Joan Baez, that she admires the work and writings of Angela Davis, and that she is a great supporter of the political activists seeking more freedom in Iran and across the Arab world.

article_photo_5: 
page_5: 

She agrees to read a sample of her poetry. She writes in classical Arabic—typical among educated Arab poets—and she speaks in a deep, pleasant voice that commingles the objective intonations of a broadcast news anchor with the emotional inflections of a blues singer. Introducing the poem, she explains that Hamza al-Khateeb was a thirteen-year-old boy who was tortured and killed by the Syrian regime on April 29, 2011. When his mutilated body was returned to his parents and their protestations went viral, the government filmed a public service announcement in which a nurse with red-painted fingernails tried to argue that the boy’s wounds were not caused by torture. The poem, which is dedicated to the boy’s mother, describes the murder and the cover-up.

For now, Mohammad says, she will stay in Paris, where between her savings and her occasional work as a writer for various Arabic newspapers she is finding ways to make ends meet. But she yearns to return to Damascus. “We built all our lives in Syria, and we’re impatient to go back; we’re dreaming of going back.”

Muhammad Bayazid is sitting in Gloria Jean’s Coffees in Amman. “I’ll tell you about being tortured,” he says. I nod and ask him to continue.

“They took me to an old basement under a store. The place was filled with other people. I’m sure people were killed. One guy was hanging from the ceiling with his wrists tied behind his back; it pulls the arms out of the sockets. They stripped me naked except my underwear, cursing me the whole time, calling me a traitor, and beating me with an electric cable. I was lucky; they threatened to hang me from the ceiling, but they just beat me. They would hit me for five minutes and then rest.

“I remember the guy beating me looked exhausted. I was looking at his face. He was about twenty years old, and I was sad about him. They’ve changed him forever; he needs psychotherapy.

“They burned me with a cattle prod. I have a permanent burn mark here.” He points to his left shoulder and tugs down his shirt collar to show me. “It’s a nice memory. Do you want to see it?”

I shake my head. I want to look away.

“I lost the feeling of pain. After hours of being beaten, you feel nothing. An officer came with two security officials with AK-47s, and he asked me why I insulted the soldiers. I told him I didn’t want this drama in Damascus, that it would turn the population against the regime. He kicked and slapped me and told me I would be transferred to a security center. I thought I would be killed there.”

Instead, he got lucky. He isn’t sure why. Perhaps they believed his story about being friends with the Syrian first lady, or maybe they were worried because news of his detention was being broadcast on Al Jazeera; his friend in the car had called the news agency hoping publicity would help gain Bayazid’s release.

The security officials blindfolded him again and took him outside to a car where they told him they were releasing him. Bayazid, fearful that in his bloody and disheveled state another group of secret police might see him and arrest him again, paid the men the equivalent of a hundred dollars to take him to a friend’s house.

“Really?” I ask. “You bribed your torturers to take you someplace safe because you were scared that other secret police would see you, recognize that you’d been tortured, and rearrest you?”

“It happens,” he says.

Once he had made it to the home of a nearby friend, Bayazid called his driver and asked him to bring him a change of clothes; his were soaked with blood. He drove himself to the Jordanian border. Inside the crossing checkpoint, there was a television in the waiting room playing Al Jazeera. News of his detention was among the lead stories, and he worried that the border guards would see the news and keep him in the country. They didn’t notice and let him pass.

Later a friend in a government ministry told Bayazid that if he had waited twenty-four hours, he would have been arrested a second time. Since fleeing the country, Bayazid says, his name has been added to a list of people the regime has ordered to be killed on sight. His family quickly followed him to Jordan.

He was worried when his passport expired in March 2012, but he discovered that he could send bribes to officials inside the country, and he soon had an updated passport.

Still, he remains nervous. He arrived at an earlier interview and discovered a suspicious-looking man waiting for him. As he neared, the man “reached for something that looked like a gun,” Bayazid says, so he sped off in his car. He hopes that the regime has become preoccupied with other problems and no longer has time to worry about killing him.

In Jordan he continues to work. He has been commissioned to make fund-raising ads to be shown on American cable stations for the Syrian Support Group, which backs the revolution, and he also creates ads to be shown in the Arabian Gulf countries for a group raising money for the refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp.

“We don’t want the war with this dirty regime to change the purity of us,” he says. On his computer, he shows me a sixty-second public service ad he made for a group called Al Jasad Al Wahid or One Body. It’s a call for Syrian unity, a plea for the country not to fragment and factionalize.

In it, a young Arab boy is seen flipping through a coffee-table picture book in an all-white, futuristic-looking apartment. The book is filled with colorful photos of the revolution: There are shots of peaceful crowds waving Syrian flags, a photo of an elderly gentleman genuflecting with a Syrian-flag bandanna wrapped around his forehead, and several shots of beautiful Syrian monuments. A clock on a nearby table shows the time and date: 3:00 PM, March 15, 2025. The boy closes the book and walks to a massive picture window overlooking Damascus’s famed Umayyad Square, bright and beautiful. The scene fades to white and an Arabic sentence appears:

“Syria, we build it together.”

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He has reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Jordan, Myanmar, Vietnam, and North Korea. He lives in Madaba-Manja, Jordan, and is working on a children’s book set in Beijing titled “Emily and the Grand and Terrifying Dragon” (www.emilyandthedragon.com).

The Revolution: Report From Literary Egypt

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

3.1.13

We went because we believe in freedom of speech,” says Karam Youssef in her office at the back of Kotob Khan, her bookshop in al-Maadi, a leafy suburb eight miles south of Cairo along the Nile River. “It was the best day in my life, to be honest.” With her slight frame, black pixie haircut, button-down cotton shirt, and khaki pants, Youssef doesn’t look like a street fighter, but in the spring of 2011, the bookseller spent several weeks battling government supporters in Tahrir Square. “My husband [Ahmed Abou Zeid, an independent filmmaker] was injured when a rubber bullet struck him above the eye.” 

Youssef joined thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square with hope that President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster would lead to greater freedom of expression, but now she’s worried that the Arab Spring of 2011—known in Egypt as the January 25th Revolution—will result in increased censorship and repression. Shortly after her husband was injured, Youssef noted that the protests were beginning to be dominated by men with a religious agenda, and she abandoned the square. “Egyptians as a society, they are moderate; they aren’t fanatics,” she says. “But now it seems like maybe there is more fanaticism. This current is strong, and we didn’t know about it.”

Youssef’s father died when she was young, and her mother, widowed at age twenty-eight, was an elementary school teacher who encouraged her daughter to read and taught her to be independent—but not too independent. When Youssef earned academic scholarships to universities in the United Kingdom, her mother balked, and Youssef settled for a school in Cairo. After college, she dreamed of making documentaries for TV and radio, but lacked the resources and connections for the mandatory internship and took a job with AT&T (which became Lucent, then Alcatel-Lucent). In twelve years she worked her way up from administrative assistant to manager before switching to Hewlett-Packard. By 2006, she had saved enough to start something of her own (“something to do with culture and books,” she says) and she opened a bookstore and started a publishing house.

At Kotob Khan, floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves lined with books fill two back rooms and surround a front café area; posters and black-and-white photos of famous authors hang in the spaces between the shelves. In addition to offering a selection of classic and contemporary authors in English—from Gore Vidal to Knut Hamsun–and two rooms of Arabic titles, Youssef screens films here, hosts writing workshops, and sponsors concerts. Her publishing arm focuses on printing works of local poetry and literary fiction and translating into Arabic foreign works she admires. “We were happy for three to four years,” she says, “then I started to find out about my society and how corrupt it is.” 

Former dictator Mubarak is widely credited with relaxing censorship laws, but corruption and religious extremism undermined these advances. In 2010, an official visited Youssef’s store looking for bribes. In the past, they had given him what he asked for, but this time she said, “Enough,” and rebuffed him. A short time later, she received an unexpected call from her printer, who was in the midst of preparing an Arabic edition of Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by the Anglo-Pakistani author Tariq Ali. (The book, the first in a series of five, is about the fall of Moorish southern Spain in 1492 to the Christian forces of Ferdinand and Isabella.) “I’m sorry, I cannot print this for you,” she recalls being told. A scene depicting young men bathing together in a hammam, a public bath, while reading poetry might get him into trouble, he said. 

“The evening of the same day, January 17, 2011,” Youssef says, “a guy came into the bookstore and said, ‘Your bookmark is haram [sinful].’ It has Islamic calligraphy and English script, and I’ve got a fatwa [a ruling on a point of Islamic law] from al-Azhar [Cairo’s eleven-hundred-year-old religious university] that it is haram.”

Eleven days later, on January 28, she and her husband joined the protesters in the square. 

Since the revolution, business has plummeted; English book sales to tourists and expatriate customers that subsidized her other activities have fallen by 60 percent. “The margin of Arabic books is very limited,” she says during our interview, which took place last August. “Embassies are telling people not to come. They kidnap tourists—Americans—in the Sinai all the time. There’s no police. It’s a big mess.”

During the early days of the revolution, Youssef noticed an increase in sales of writing about revolutions and change. People bought books about Che Guevera, Communism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the U.S. Constitution, about “the state of law and what it means when you say somebody is liberal.” But those sales have faded. “The country is exhausted now,” Youssef says. “We went out for freedom and justice, and we got the Muslim Brothers running the country. And to them, we are the enemy. And I may be the first thing they turn against.”

After our meeting, I return to my pension in Cairo’s historic downtown. The roundabouts and avenues here are lined with beautiful but crumbling Haussmann-style buildings built during the nineteenth-century reign of Isma’il Pasha. Naguib Mahfouz and Alaa al-Aswany, two of Egypt’s most famous authors, have written tales about this neighborhood, and as I walk its streets, I remember the pages of their novels. At 34 Talaat Harb Street, I pause to admire the Greek Revival bust above a door tucked into a neoclassical lintel nearly hidden under signs announcing travel agencies, trading companies, doctors, and professionals; this building, with its sixth-floor row of Roman columns, balconies with iron railings, open interior stairs and nonfunctioning wooden elevator with brass fittings, is the setting of al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (American University in Cairo Press, 2005), a novel about contemporary Egyptians—about once-prosperous Europhiles, immoral millionaires, devout doormen, and a host of other characters. 

Continuing east, I pass the palatial neo-Mamluk building that houses the Museum of Islamic Art and cross the street into the narrow alleys of Islamic Cairo. 

Winding my way to the eleven-hundred-year-old al-Azhar Mosque, built during the Fatimid Caliphate, I scoot between crawling traffic and enter the Khan el-Khalil, pass hawkers eager to entice me into shops selling mother-of-pearl furniture and brass serving plates, and eventually leave the tourist section for alleys choked with pedestrians shopping for spices, cloth, produce, appliances, flatware, furniture, and a thousand other items. 

This is the neighborhood of Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (Doubleday, 1990), the first novel in his Cairo trilogy; it is the story of the merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a man of contrasts and contradictions—a stern and severe figure in his home, a gregarious and profane raconteur in his shop, a singer and carouser in the apartment of the plump singer who is his mistress. 

Backtracking west toward Tahrir Square and the Nile, the streets grow uncharacteristically quiet. It’s the third week of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month when Muslims abstain from food, drink, and sex during daylight hours; the populace is enjoying their monthlong holiday. At Tahrir, the protesters are taking a break, but the violence of the revolution is still on display. 

The headquarters of the former ruling party, a fifteen-story monolith situated between the Egyptian Museum (home to mummies and Pharaonic treasures) and the Nile, is a ransacked, burned-out hulk; the roads leading into the adjacent Garden City neighborhood are barricaded by nine-foot walls of concrete blocks put up by the authorities to keep out the protesters. One barrier beside the padlocked entrance to the old American University of Cairo campus has had its cinderblocks pushed apart, and I climb through and continue down the street, past a bustling government ministry fronted by clusters of security officers by the door and a uniformed military guard holding the handles of a fifty-caliber machine gun atop an armored vehicle in the street.

Elaborate graffiti—of Mubarak as a monster and the newly elected President Mohamed Morsi looking calm and charismatic, of hijab-covered grandmothers cheering on gun-waving protesters, of a spray-painted computer power button and beneath it the Arabic words “the people,” and countless other symbols and sayings—covers the walls of the buildings throughout the district. 

A few tilting tents with political banners draped over them are still pitched in the center of Tahrir (which is technically a midan or circle, not a square). Here I find a trio of crop-bearded, stern-looking men in their early thirties dressed in soccer sweat suits and flip-flops. They claim underemployment and blame it on the economy, then offer me tea despite the Ramadan prohibitions against eating food or drinking liquids. If Karam Youssef appeared an unlikely street fighter, these men, scarred and unshaven, look better suited to the task. 

It’s early August and over a hundred degrees in the shade; there’s no relief from the brittle air, not even after I thank the men for their hospitality and head over to one of the bridges overlooking the muddy, swirling Nile.

A few hours later, evening comes; the minarets of Cairo’s many mosques ring with the Maghrib, the evening call to prayer, and the Cairenes of the downtown awaken and spill out onto the streets to snack, socialize, and shop. Talaat Harb Square, where my hotel is located, becomes a madhouse of honking cars, frustrated drivers, and swarming pedestrians; vendors cover the sidewalks, spreading out rows of cheap sandals, shoes, toys, sunglasses, underwear, slacks, shirts, pots, glasses, and watches; boys help their merchant-fathers by climbing atop chairs and shouting to draw attention to their goods; mothers in hijabs form an inadvertent blockade in front of a shop having a sale; little kids weave in and out of the press dodging cars and people; traffic cops on the street corners look mild and unconcerned (it’s the holiday season, and anyway, their ability to scare the citizenry disappeared thirteen months ago); somebody lights a string of firecrackers; somebody else sends up a bottle rocket.

I weave through the crowd to meet up with Muhamed “Nebo” Abdelnaby, a short story writer, novelist, and translator, in the Greek Club, a semiprivate salon located on the second floor of another dusty and beautiful nineteenth-century building. It’s the only place that serves alcohol to locals during Ramadan, Nebo says. The Greek Club has twelve-foot ceilings and arched lintels between paneled columns; a pair of pocket doors opens onto a room with glassed-in bookshelves and more tables. Tall windows are shuttered and curtained. We’re at a wooden four-top against the paneled back wall, watching as artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, journalists, and lawyers (a creative profession in Mubarak’s Egypt) fill the tables of the club. It’s nearing midnight.

“We call it ‘the Society,’” Nebo says, and he nods at the people around us. 

Of modest stature, with delicate features and slender, black-framed, tinted glasses, Nebo is thirty-five but looks younger. He has an easy, mischievous smile and occasionally marks his points with hand gestures. He calls polite greetings to one table after another: to a crowd of attractive young people in casual clothes—some of the men with ponytails, some of the women in sleeveless tops—and to a table of middle-aged journalists with unshaven faces in suits without ties. He appears to be on a first-name basis with half the room, which, at this point in the evening, numbers about fifty.

The new president, Morsi, received his PhD from the University of Southern California, and I assume this crowd was also educated in the West until Nebo begins to describe his childhood. His illiterate father moved from the countryside, abandoning a peasant’s life for a factory job in the workers’ suburb of Shubra al-Kheima, in the early 1970s. When Nebo was five, his parents enrolled him in a religious school. They weren’t particularly religious, he says, but the public kindergartens only accepted kids aged six and older. After that, much of Nebo’s childhood was devoted to memorizing the Koran and other religious texts. “It helped me be strong in the Arabic language,” he says and sips his beer. 

When he was twelve, he fell in love with the twin pillars of Egyptian literature: Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, and Yusuf Idris, a novelist, short story writer, and playwright. “I began to imitate them,” he says. He commingled the high language of his religious studies and the structure and plotting of books by the famous writers and, at eighteen, won a national contest sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. His collection was published, and he was sent on a ten-day trip to Rome. “Beginner’s luck,” he says with a soft smile.

Since graduating from a religious university with degrees in English and translation, his writing voice has evolved, he says. His subsequent stories and novels weave the colloquial Arabic of the streets with the formal language of the classroom and the mosque. “The colloquial language changes every day,” he says. “The street language can enrich the old language.” Now his influences include Jorge Luis Borges, José Saramago, Juan José Millás, and Paul Auster. “I often feel like I have something in common with Paul Auster, more so than with my neighbor. We are all writers, one family scattered all over the world.”

He lives with his parents, which is typical among unwed adults in the Middle East; they are aging, and he looks after them. He writes in the early mornings, visiting cafés for privacy. “My father doesn’t understand what I do, really,” he says quietly, “but they tell the neighbors I’m writing stories like Naguib Mahfouz, whom they know from TV and movies.” 

One of his publishers invited him to the Frankfurt Book Fair where he had conversations with Western booksellers, writers, and critics. Too often, he felt like the Westerners he met wanted him to fulfill their preconceived notions of what an Egyptian writer should be. “They don’t want us to be experimental; they don’t want us to be a little bit crazy; this is for their writers.”

I ask him about the impact of the January 25th Revolution on writers in Egypt, and he criticizes publishers who have been releasing imperfect books about the Arab Spring, hoping the topic will appeal to customers even if the writing is poor; then he grows nostalgic. “We had some wonderful nights in Tahrir Square,” he says. “It was big. Like an explosion: Boom.” He makes a mushroom cloud with his hands. “We have not the right to lose hope.”

Things might grow more conservative in Egypt for a time, but Nebo, an avant-garde writer raised in an Islamic school, has a laissez-faire attitude about the prospect of increased censorship. He points out that he can always self-publish on the Internet. “For the first time, people speak about everyday problems frankly,” he says. “If the Egyptian people want to try the Islamic parties, let us try it. Maybe this will last for some years, but nothing lasts forever.”

It’s after three when I return to my hotel and fall into bed. Below my window on Talaat Harb Square, the shouting, fireworks, and horns of the nocturnal crowds continue; they intrude on my dreams until the call of the muezzin from the minarets announces the Fajr, the dawn prayer, then the streets grow quiet as the daytime abstinence begins.

I return to Egypt nine weeks later, in early October. President Morsi has wrestled power from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and his Muslim Brotherhood party is firming up control. On the ride from the airport, I sit in my taxi on the highway, frozen in traffic for an hour. Five thousand Ultras—soccer hooligans who fought against Mubarak supporters during the January 25th Revolution—are marching on the Presidential Palace and creating a massive traffic jam. Seventy-five Ultras were killed in riots at a football match last February, and the group wants justice. 

Eventually the traffic eases, and I drop my luggage at my pension on Talaat Harb and walk a block to meet Fatma El-Boudy, the owner of Al-Ain publishing house, at Café Riche, an airy, wood-paneled café that was the center of fashionable and literary Cairo for much of the twentieth century and now has returned to prominence due to its proximity to Tahrir Square. At the end of the dining area, a television beside the manager’s desk provides updates on the protests and warns that larger gatherings are scheduled for tomorrow in Tahrir. “During the January 25th Revolution, the people used to come here to eat, to have a beer, and then continue,” El-Boudy recalls. “The lucky ones had a chair.”

Sixty years ago, this area, running east from Tahrir, was the Champs-Élysées of Cairo’s belle epoque downtown, and Café Riche was its most popular meeting spot. Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian chanteuse, whose reputation in Egypt is difficult to imagine—try picturing Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Elvis, and Maria Callas all rolled into one person—was a regular at Café Riche. So was Naguib Mahfouz, who drank his daily two half-finjans of Turkish coffee at the café. King Farouk, the Egyptian monarch, met his second wife here, perhaps while Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser drank cardamom-scented coffee at a nearby table and plotted the coup that would end Farouk’s reign. Even the Palestinian American literary critic Edward Said frequented this neighborhood during his childhood and describes it in his memoir. 

“This is the heart of my job,” ElBoudy says, waving with her cigarette at the people around her. The mother of two grown daughters is wearing a ruffled white-and-black blouse, a dark blazer, and oversized black-and-white pearls; a bejeweled pin shaped like a thrush adorns her lapel; she chain- smokes Marlboros. “I’m very alert to what is going on in my country. As you can see, I know many people and many people know me. My publishing is not separate. It’s a flesh-and-blood thing.”

Seated at the table with us is a civil rights lawyer in a red tie with a bushy goatee; the Sudanese head of a Jordanian think tank in a blue jacket; an Egyptian specialist in religious movements wearing black-framed glasses and an open-necked shirt; and El-Boudy’s editor, a thirtysomething poet named Tamer Afeefy, who hands me a paperback copy of his collection. El-Boudy introduces me to a poet at a neighboring table and explains that there is a short song or poem at the beginning and end of Egyptian soap operas. “He writes those,” she says.

Al-Ain began in 2000 as a publishing house for books about popular science, explains El-Boudy, who has a PhD in biochemistry. Her early successes were a book about the human genome and a translation of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It wasn’t until 2005 that Al-Ain’s list expanded into literary fiction after El-Boudy befriended the late Tayeb Salih, the Sudanese novelist, and secured the Egyptian rights to A Season of Migration to the North. “It’s not enough to say he is a good writer,” she says. “He has created the most important novel in fifty years.”

I ask her if she is worried that the new administration will bring additional censorship. “I publish many books against the Muslim Brotherhood,” she says. Her science books can’t help but offend the creationist stance of Muslim conservatives, but she’s also published outright attacks on the religious group. “One book is called Secularism Is the Solution, instead of the Muslim Brotherhood’s saying, ‘Islam is the solution,’” she says.

She explains, with help from the intellectuals around us, that the Muslim Brotherhood, once it has cemented its grip on the presidency, will turn its attention to the ministries that oversee human rights, journalism, and the media. Already El-Boudy has been surprised by how many of her fellow publishers are announcing their Islamic loyalties. “More and more are revealing their stripes. There are more and more Islamic publishers.”

El-Boudy publishes sixty titles a year with a standard first printing of a thousand copies; she distributes these to the approximately thirty branches of the three main booksellers in Egypt, as well as a few independent stores like Kotob Khan and her own bookstore located on Talaat Harb Square; she also sells to shops in Lebanon, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and the Emirates. Once published, she submits her books to contests, hoping to win recognition and publicity for the titles and their authors.

Although she is not pleased with the current threat of censorship, she is undaunted. “I’ve got no social commitments,” she says. “My daughters are married; I can go where I want and do what I want to do. I’ve got no responsibilities. My mother died; I’m divorced. It gives me the freedom and time to create.”

The next day is Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. On Tahrir Square, in the morning, I watch two thousand protesters, upset because the president is only appointing members of the Muslim Brotherhood to his government, set up a stage and put up banners. I wander back to the Café Riche and join the lawyer from El-Boudy’s evening table for a breakfast of falafel, bread, white cheese, and beans. A friend comes in with news, and the lawyer tells me that members of the Muslim Brotherhood have arrived in the square: They ripped down the anti-Morsi banners and tried to tear down the stage; there was fighting.

My phone rings; it’s El-Boudy, who was supposed to meet us here. “I’ve heard there are thousands gathering in Tahrir. The traffic could be bad. How does it look? Should I come in?” I confirm that there’s been fighting, and we agree that she should stay home for the day.

“I think I’ll go back to the square,” I tell the lawyer.

He nods. “Yeah, it’s a good opportunity for you.”

The number of people in the square has doubled in the hour since I left; now, there are four or five thousand; they’ve spilled out from the sidewalks and grassy midan onto the paved traffic circle. New banners are up, facing the old; the largest is black with three-foot-high Arabic script proclaiming: Justice. A couple hundred people on a corner across from the Metro begin chanting anti-Morsi slogans, then they wade into the larger mass. Men are lying in the street chalking ornate slogans on the tarmac while cars, buses, and taxis honk at them and edge around; two small girls, ages four or five, wearing little Palestinian kaffiyeh head scarves, stand on a subway grate holding a sign that says in Arabic: “The system is killing me; my blood is cheap for you.” A man with a cart is selling lemonade; another sells seeds. I wade into the crowd, take pictures, and eventually emerge by a T-shirt vendor across from the Egyptian Museum. The vendor tells me he’s from Aqaba, a city in Jordan, three hours from where I live; he warns me to be careful. “You’re a foreigner; you should leave the square.” Beside us, on the sidewalk in front of a café, middle-aged men in traditional dishdasha robes sit in small groups. They aren’t drinking tea; mostly they stare at their feet and appear to be waiting. I cross the street to the road that fronts the museum; it’s blocked by museum guards with machine guns—the museum was ransacked during the January 25th Revolution—who glance at my foreign face and let me pass. 

Fifteen minutes later, there’s a rolling cheer, a wave of sound like the bellow in a stadium after the home team scores, and four hundred men sprint out of Tahrir, past the eastern side of the museum, followed by a cloud of rocks arcing overhead, then another mob of five hundred men chases after them. The pursuing bunch stops and forms a line across the street; some hold squares of cardboard over their heads; a few wear split buckets or other helmetlike contraptions. They hold the line for fifteen minutes or so, tossing rocks, absorbing rocks, picking up new rocks and throwing them again; then there’s a roar from my left, and the men in front of me turn and run. The original four hundred return on the attack; they surge forward, forming little scrums around a couple of guys who didn’t run away fast enough. Shoving becomes shouting becomes punching. 

The guards beside me maintain their posts but look nervous. A dozen middle-aged men and women—the women in hijabs and conservative clothing, the men in dishdashas and Muslim caps—emerge from the sidewalk to our right and ask the guards if they can pass in order to escape the fighting. The guards hesitate; the women plead, and they’re allowed to pass. I follow them past the museum then circle around behind it and make my way back to my hotel.

Two hours later I’m on the second floor balcony of my pension overlooking Talaat Harb Square, drinking tea with the short story writer Mohammed Abu il Dahab and watching groups assemble beneath us. They gather in hundred-person formations, rectangular phalanxes, like Elks getting ready to enter a Fourth of July parade, then they raise their banners and disappear down Talaat Harb Street toward Tahrir.

I ask Abu il Dahab if the politics and protests are affecting his writing. “A critic last Monday said he wanted to kill himself [after reading my latest novel]. He asked, ‘Why is it so depressing?’” the writer says while sipping his tea and smoking a Pharaoh-brand cigarette. “He said that I am a good writer, but in this book, I made the art dirty. He said I have to respect the religion more than this.”

Abu il Dahab is a social worker at a mental hospital in Banha City, about twenty-eight miles north of Cairo. He grew up in the area and remembers aspiring to be a screenwriter when he was eleven or twelve, but then he read one of Naguib Mahfouz’s story collections at age fifteen and everything changed. “This book changes many things [for me]: about how to be a writer, about how to see the world. It made sure for me that I have to be a writer.”

He began to read the canon of Egyptian writers and was most affected by Edwar al-Kharrat, who is the “only writer, in my opinion, who combines ammiyya [the colloquial Arabic that is spoken on the street and changes from region to region] and fusha [the classical Arabic that is read and written across the Middle East].” He credits the work of al-Kharrat with helping him solidify his ideas about how to write. “I found my voice,” he says. He was twenty years old. 

There’s a shout from Talaat Harb, and we glance down to watch twenty men shuffle into the square carrying an injured man. They lay him on the sidewalk and crowd around. The man is bleeding from a head wound. Someone produces a gauze bandage; someone else begins to wrap his head. 

“I have seven books,” Abu il Dahab says. “The most important thing that affected me was a death. In my first six books, in all my books, death is the major theme: death, death, death.”

Abu il Dahab is from a family of limited means, and he met a girl from Alexandria, from a family unknown to his clan. Forsaking tradition, he ran away with her to Cairo where they moved “from hotel to hotel to flat,” he says. “One day, she called the elevator and opened the door, but the elevator wasn’t there, and she fell: five stories.” Her name was Suhayleh. “Her name occurs again and again in my books,” he adds.

He remarried, this time to his cousin. It was a match his family approved of, but it didn’t last. After three years, she grew sick of him spending four hours a day reading books or writing on his computer. She wanted a child and blamed him for their failure to conceive; eventually, she divorced him. “But during that time, I wrote very many short stories and sent them to many journals and magazines,” he says.

page_5: 

We leave my pension and Talaat Harb, and Abu il Dahab leads me through Old Cairo, weaving down side streets and through squares to a basement bar: two rooms, a TV, some tables, a bathroom. We order Egyptian Stella beers and sit in the back and talk, while cockroaches dart along the brick wall beside us. He tells me about a television interview he sat for a month ago when he accused other contemporary writers of lying about their support for the political changes taking place in the country. “What’s Egypt going to do now? We don’t know what’s in the future. Now our future lies with the Ikhwan Musliman [the Muslim Brothers].” He describes a plan he has heard about that will place an Islamic cultural center at the heart of every city; the way he describes it makes it sound like an Orwellian attempt to monitor cultural activities and censor books on a local level.

We finish our beers and venture out to an outdoor restaurant serving kushari, the Egyptian street food that mixes noodles, rice, chilies, tomatoes, and other ingredients. “Things will become hard for writers who write like me,” Abu il Dahab says. “Many of my friends and I wrote in, you can say, a free way about sex, religion, politics. It seems like in these days to come, this will be difficult.”

The following evening I return to al-Maadi for a final meeting with Karam Youssef at Kotob Khan. I get off a packed subway train from Tahrir Square and take a taxi to her bookstore to sit surrounded by wooden bookshelves and the bright spines of books. The Vulcan features of Naguib Mahfouz stare down from a poster; from hidden speakers, Bob Dylan is singing with his customary moral certainty.

Youssef introduces me to three writers—a young female short story writer, Eman Abdel Rehim, and two male novelists, Mohamed Rabie and Al Taher Sharkawy—but for the next fifteen minutes she barely allows them to get a word in edgewise. She wasn’t in the square yesterday, but her friends were, and they updated her by cell phone. After pitched battles that led to more than a hundred injured, the anti-Morsi forces succeeded in driving the Muslim Brotherhood members out of the square. “They hit me. Do you think I am going to take it?” she says, speaking, at least this time, metaphorically. “What we discovered in the last few weeks is, maybe, we overestimated them. Yesterday, we saw signs that we were blowing them out of proportion. We went out yesterday, and we can go out next week and the week after.” She waves her fist; she’s sorry she wasn’t there, sorry she missed the fight.

The writers in front of her listen quietly. Abdel Rehim is a merchandiser for a company that exports ready-made clothes to American stores; Rabie is a civil engineer; Sharkawy is the editor of a children’s magazine and the manager of a newspaper. Change and conflict figure prominently in all their work. Rabie was in Riyadh during the Gulf War in the 1990s, and Abdel Rehim also spent years in Saudi Arabia before returning to Cairo as a fifteen-year-old. For Sharkawy, the conflict is more internal. He was educated in religious schools in a community north of Cairo, and he says he had to fight against self-censorship, but eventually he succeeded in putting his own misgivings to rest. “There is nothing in Islam to stop a creator from his creativity,” he says. “On the contrary, poets in the Abbasid period [the Islamic golden era that lasted from 750 to 1258] were very respected by the khalifa and the sultan because they had a connection with unseen powers. As a creator, you have a right to go through all the taboos and break them in order to study them.”

He is fearful of the turn he has seen in the January 25th Revolution, fearful that the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis—the most conservative Muslim political group—will begin to dictate their religious opinions to the population as a whole. “I fear that there is a group that thinks they have the correct interpretation of Islam; I fear that there will be a conflict between my opinion, my fiction, and the ‘correct’ opinion. They think their leaders never make mistakes, that things are ‘sacred’ and cannot be debated.”

The religious turn of the revolution troubles all of them. Recent events have caused Rabie so much stress that it has become hard for him to write; his current novel is three months behind schedule. Abdel Rehim has begun a short story about a civil war in Egypt. “War is becoming part of daily life,” Youssef says.

She has seen Salafis recently appointed to government posts, and she’s begun to hear talk about “cleaning” the films shown in movie theaters, and “cleaning” literature and fiction. Her voice rises as she points out that the works of Kate Chopin and James Joyce were once censored in the United States but liberal-minded people overcame the forces of conservatism and intolerance. 

“This country cannot be ruled by Muslims,” she says forcefully. “We will not be Saudi. We will not be Pakistan. We have a big diversity. You cannot do this to Egyptians!”

Postscript: Since October 2012, clashes between secular groups and President Morsi’s Islamist supporters have grown fiercer and larger. The situation escalated in November when Morsi fired a top judge and granted himself additional powers, a move that caused his opponents to compare him to the ousted dictator Mubarak. Despite opposition from women’s groups and secularists, a new constitution championed by Morsi was approved by a national vote on December 22. On the streets, secular disapproval caused protesters to torch the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the cities of Suez and Alexandria. In Cairo, Karam Youssef joined protesters in Tahrir Square. “Egypt has been and will always be the Beacon of the Middle East and the Arab world,” she writes. “We will accomplish our revolution no matter how long it takes.” 

 

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He has reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, China, Jordan, Myanmar, Vietnam, and North Korea. He lives in Madaba-Manja, Jordan.

Censored Stories: Report From Literary Myanmar

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

11.1.08

I am in Yangon, the
largest city of Myanmar, for only three days before Cyclone Nargis sweeps across
the country, driving a tidal surge inland from the Bay of Bengal, killing
nearly 85,000 people, and displacing as many as 800,000. But before the cyclone
strikes, before the streets are flooded and the electricity goes out and the
phone lines are knocked down by huge trees pulled from the ground, I travel the
countryside to get a glimpse of everyday life in this Southeast Asian country,
which, with no official warning of the storm from the government, is quiet and
calm.

I cross the Yangon River on a ferryboat and accept a guided
tour from a gregarious and enterprising bicycle rickshaw driver named Kyi.
Rectangular ponds for fish farming dot the right side of a narrow road. The
ponds are surrounded by tall, leafy trees: acacias, tamarinds, and palms. Farther
back sit wood huts with corrugated tin roofs. Hopping off the rickshaw, I
follow Kyi down a brick path that’s disappearing into the dry soil, beneath
some nutmegs, to an open market.

“Can I take a picture?” I say, standing before a squatting,
fly-covered man with a black eye and a butcher’s knife. He’s separating organs
from a bluish white pile of cow innards. Kyi nods happily, but before I can
raise my camera, a man wearing a blue jumpsuit steps out from behind a fish
stall and clucks his tongue. Kyi tells me to put the camera away. Later, as we
walk back to the road, I ask him who the man was. “Government informant,” Kyi
says blandly.

Any examination of the writing life in Myanmar, formerly
known as Burma, must begin with a discussion of censorship and repression. In
the Orwellian police state that is Myanmar—the country has been under military
rule since 1962, when General Ne Win staged a coup that dismantled a civilian
government—everybody is scared of the authorities, but to be a writer is to
actively invite attention. The state censors must approve all printed matter.
In order to encourage self-censorship, the authorities review written works
after printing but before distribution. Anything they don’t like must be
removed, and if a censor doesn’t like an entire book or issue of a magazine or
newspaper, the whole print run is destroyed. Writers who attempt to subvert the
system and hide messages in their work risk arrest. In January, when the poet
Saw Wai hid a political message that criticized the current military dictator,
Senior General Than Shwe, in a love poem, he was arrested and sent to Insein
(pronounced “insane”) Prison.

Foreign writers and journalists aren’t permitted in the
country. The American Center in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), a walled and guarded
library and English language center affiliated with the American embassy (and
heavily monitored by the Burmese secret police), invited Paul Theroux to come
and read during the week I was in the country. According to my contacts at the
American Center, Theroux accepted, but the government denied him a visa.
Similarly, the author Roy Kesey had planned to join me and write an article of
his own, but he admitted to being a writer when an embassy official called and
grilled him about his visa application, and he was rejected. The writer Imma
Vitelli, a foreign correspondent for the Italian Vanity
Fair
, applied to enter the country two weeks after I left but, like
most journalists trying to enter the country to cover the aftermath of the
cyclone, she was denied.

For my part, I wrote “teacher” in the box on the application
that asked me to identify my profession, and I was granted a tourist visa. I
spent the trip contacting writers on phones I presumed to be bugged,
interviewing authors I presumed to be watched, and wondering when the
authorities would seize me and put me on the next flight out. Sadly, I felt
less conspicuous, and therefore safer, after the cyclone swept Yangon. With so
much chaos and destruction, I assumed the security forces were too distracted
to track me.

Now that I’m out of the country, I’m faced with a dilemma.
How do I write about the things I learned without risking the lives of the
Burmese authors who spoke with me? Previous Western writers have simply changed
the facts to obscure their sources, but such efforts can end up sounding poorly
researched and slightly incredible (when they are actually neither). Some of my
interview subjects, unwilling to be intimidated, have allowed me to use their
names, but I have tried to protect others by changing their names and other
pertinent characteristics.

Despite its poverty and
dispiriting censorship, Myanmar is a highly literate country. With a per capita
income of less than two hundred dollars a year, it’s one of the poorest nations
on the planet, but 90 percent of its roughly fifty million citizens can read.

In Yangon, bookstores and magazine stands are ubiquitous.
Sellers of secondhand books operate in open-air stalls along the sidewalks of
Pansodan Street across from the brick clock towers of the colonial-era High
Court building, which is surrounded by a twelve-foot-high chain-link fence and
guarded by sentries. Plastic sheeting protects their stacks of books from the
occasional rainstorm.

 

At the Sule Pagoda, the gilt
and marble temple at the center of the old city, and also at the Shwedagon
Pagoda, the massive, luminous, hilltop temple north of the city where Buddhists
burn incense and press their foreheads to the marble pavilions beneath carved
icons and golden spires, there are arcades with bookstores selling copies of
the ancient Pali texts—the canon of Theravada Buddhism—that formed the entirety
of the written word here before the arrival of the British in 1824. (By 1886,
the country had been established as a province of British India; in 1937 it
became a separate, self-governing colony; eleven years later, the nation became
an independent republic, but democratic rule ended in 1962.) In addition to the
original texts, modern novels based on the religious stories are popular in the
bookstores that dot the city’s downtown.

The helpful owner of the Bagan Bookshop, located in two neat
rooms on Thirty-seventh Street, searches his shelves for me and locates a
bootleg copy of the stories of Burmese writer Thein Pe Myint. An American
graduate student, Patricia M. Milne, who worked under Anna Allott, the English
grande dame of Burmese literary studies, translated the book in 1975. Thein Pe
Myint wrote in the 1930s and 1940s while he fought for freedom from the
British, and he offers the native alternative to Orwell’s imperial perspective.
The opening story in the book begins with news of a storm: “The banyan and
tamarind trees were swaying, while the smaller trees and bushes were
practically prostrate, just like little chickens cringing in fear of a kite.” I
read these lines as cyclone winds begin to break over the city, causing the
corrugated tin roof of the home beneath my hotel window to flap and bang.

Short stories deemed
acceptable by Burmese censors generally follow the socialist realist model.
They are patriotic or nationalist; they promote selflessness; they say
something nice about love or hard work; they end with a moral. I meet with the
short story writer and translator U San in a crumbling, colonial-era villa not
far from the vast new American embassy, a short drive from the Shwedagon
Temple. A taxi drops me by the open gate, and I walk up a short driveway, past
an overgrown lawn, onto a rotting porch where I tug on a tarnished brass pull.
U San answers the door in a white singlet and a green plaid longyi, the traditional
sarong-like garment worn by both men and women in Myanmar. Like all the writers
I meet with in Myanmar, U San can speak English. After some brief pleasantries,
he tells me he is upset because the censor has just rejected an article he
wrote.

“It was supposed to go here,” he says, holding up a newspaper
and showing me the advertisement that occupies the space on the page where his
article was scheduled to appear. “There was nothing political in it. It was an
article about the Burmese language. The censor just didn’t agree with my
perspective.”

He leads me into a pleasant sitting room with high ceilings
and a towering glass-fronted mahogany cabinet crowded with small icons. The
collection includes numerous brass bodhisattvas, a porcelain Chairman Mao
smoking a cigar in a wicker chair, and a bust of Shakespeare. An accomplished teacher
in his sixties, U San has a slender aristocratic bearing and thinning white
hair that he sweeps straight back across a mottled scalp. In between lectures
about the evolution of the contemporary short story in Myanmar, he fusses and
shuffles about like the unassuming detective Father Brown in the old G. K.
Chesterton stories—a clever man projecting a simple facade. He offers me tea,
but then forgets to bring it and instead returns with a stack of his
translations.

“I haven’t written any stories since my student days,” he
says. “I’m a translator.” He shows me his first anthology of translated
stories, published in 1969. “It was a best-seller and went through three
editions. Before this, Burmese stories were just nursery rhymes and Pali tales,
but afterward, they began to experiment.”

The anthology is a paperback survey of writers from the
Western canon. It starts with Defoe, offers excerpts from Austen, Hawthorne,
and Dickens, then samples the American modernists and ends with a story by
Updike. Over the course of the 1970s, the collection transformed the Burmese
writing scene and drew criticism from Burmese academics, who accused its
translator of promoting Western tastes and values at the expense of Burmese
traditions, U San says. In the years since, he has published other translations
that cover the same basic periods, but he supports himself through his
teaching.

He explains that the first Western-style novel to be printed
in Myanmar was a retelling of The
Count of Monte Cristo
. Around 1900, the Burmese writer James Hla
Gyaw published Maung Yin Maung
Ma Me Ma
, which reset the Dumas novel in Burma and proved to be very
popular.

U San lifts one of his own anthologies. “I had to change the
name of this one. I named it A
Jury of Her Peers
after the Susan Glaspell story that is in it. But
the government thought the her
was Suu Kyi,” he says, referring to the leader of the Myanmar opposition party
who has been under house arrest for thirteen of the last eighteen years. “I had
to change it before the publisher could release it.”

I glance out the window, beneath a dusty curtain, and watch
an Indian almond tree swaying violently. Earlier in the day I was at the
American Cultural Center, where an American acquaintance warned me that a
cyclone was going to strike Yangon later that evening. U San says he has heard
about the coming storm from a friend. Although U San is hospitable, I’m worried
that the rains will begin and I’ll be stranded with him. After a bit more
polite discussion, I apologize and walk back to the road to find a taxi.

As I’m thanking him, I ask him how much I can quote from our
conversation for this article. He offers me a bemused Father Brown smile and
says, “I have said nothing political.” I nod but am not sure what to think. His
complaints about the censors are clearly political. In the end, the threat
posed by the junta has forced me to change his name and alter descriptions of
his home.

The storm arrives that
evening at 11:30. I suffer through a sleepless night listening as the hotel’s
windows smash and the corrugated panels of the neighboring rooftop slap and
eventually fly away. At two in the morning, the ancient tamarind tree growing
out of the sidewalk in front of the hotel comes crashing down on the
three-story rooftop, causing the whole structure to shudder. By three, the
hotel has begun to leak; water seeps down from the ruined roof, dripping
through the ceilings of the rooms and flooding the corridors. By daylight, the
power is out across the city, and the shortages begin. By the time the trees
have been chopped to pieces by teams of patient men with simple hand tools (machetes,
axes, and handsaws) and vehicles can begin to get through, the cost of gasoline
has tripled.

In isolated corners of the
city, I discover that, miraculously, some telephones are working. I borrow the
hotel owner’s mobile phone (which I learned was a rare and expensive luxury in
Myanmar when I walked into a cell phone store and was told that, although
phones were being sold as status symbols, no SIM
cards were available without government permission and $2,500). Using the
borrowed cell phone, I reach several more writers and arrange to meet them.
Taxis are no longer an option, so I trek across the city, weaving around, over,
and even through downed trees that have fallen onto the electrical and
telephone lines, webbing the streets with wires.

I meet with Chit Oo Nyo in his modest flat, one floor up from
the numbered streets just north of the imperial-era Strand Hotel. Thankfully,
his apartment has escaped major damage, but he’s without electricity and has to
carry water up from the street. He introduces himself as simply “Mr. Chit.” His
wife, “Lady Chit,” is a bright, plump woman who sits across from us and fans us
with a plastic fan while we talk. I’m still sweating from the walk through the
humid streets. Mr. Chit leaves a lit flashlight on the table. On a daybed in
the shadows at the back of the room sit his silent, bald mother and his
similarly silent sister; both of them appear to be meditating.

Mr. Chit has written and published sixty-two books. His
novels are often based on the tales from Hindu legends (stories incorporated
into Myanmar’s Buddhist belief system much as Christians incorporated the
Jewish Old Testament into theirs), and they are all set in the ancient past.
One of his most famous books is a retelling of the Ramayana, a poem attributed to the Sanskrit
poet Valmiki, who lived in 400 BCE. “The
conservatives condemn me because I’ve reversed some elements,” he says. Much
like John Gardner’s Grendel,
which retells Beowulf
from the perspective of the monster, Mr. Chit’s book is told from the
perspective of the Ramayana‘s
antagonist, the ten-headed ogre Ravana.

Lady Chit brings me tea while Mr. Chit takes puffs of a long
brown cheroot with a silver band and drinks coffee. “I don’t have a schedule,”
he says. “I write for three or four hours a day. Some days I don’t write; I
can’t. I need not only the will but also the inspiration. Sometimes I can’t
help writing, as if the words are streaming out.” He adjusts his square
glasses. “I don’t use a computer; I write with my own hand on blank paper—I
don’t want to confine my words even between two lines.”

He is currently working on
a novel that reflects the client-state relationship that exists between Myanmar
and China. Several of the Burmese I have met have complained that Chinese
executives are taking over the country, and my acquaintances at the American
Center explain that the Chinese government is heavily invested in Myanmar’s oil
and raw materials. Mr. Chit’s novel, set in the ninth century, avoids
contemporary politics by focusing on the relationship between the Burmese Pyu
dynasty and the Chinese Later Han dynasty.

Mr. Chit’s father was a choreographer of Burmese traditional
dances; in the novelist’s apartment there is a glass cabinet lined with small
statuettes of Burmese dancers. Mr. Chit tells me he has written a story in
English about the figurines that was published in a local magazine. It’s about
how the figurines come to life and finish a story after the writer falls
asleep. It begins: “Dr. Maheinda, enjoying the moonlight, opened the window of
his study (which was also his reading room, his research room and his library).
He felt pleased the air-conditioner did not work as the electricity had gone
out. Not relying on the generator or the battery, he lit the Waso [a Buddhist
celebration held in July] candles. But under the moonlight, the candlelight was
brassy and ugly, so he put it out.”

Mr. Chit’s novels and stories reflect the oldest traditions
in Burmese literature, the Pali religious stories. It is a market he has tapped
successfully, but when I ask him if writing sixty-two novels makes for a
profitable career in Myanmar, Mr. Chit puffs on his cheroot and tells me he
would prefer not to answer. He says no more, but I can interpret his silence:
To answer would mean criticizing the government, and that is something Mr. Chit
is careful not to do.

The second afternoon following the storm, I meet with
the poet Pyin Thu in a third-floor studio on Sule Paya Road, where he holds
his English-language classes. He has a dark ponytail and wears steel-rimmed
glasses, a purple longyi, and a chartreuse
collared T-shirt. Despite occasional problems with censorship, he has published
poems and articles in a number of prestigious Burmese literary magazines and
has translated the writings of Kenneth Goldsmith into Burmese. He has a poem in
English forthcoming in the New Mexico-based arts magazine THE. His first collection of poetry was published in
Myanmar in 2005.

On the round wooden table where we sit and talk, there is a
copy of Dave Eggers’s A
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
(Simon & Schuster, 2000)
and Christopher Merrill’s Things
of a Hidden God
(Random House, 2005). Pyin Thu describes his poetry
as postmodern, but this isn’t something he strives for. “This came to me
naturally, according to my experience,” he says. “In my life meaning is not
fixed. [We] always talk about chaos and uncertainty in life, how the reality
you see is not the reality that is happening around you.”

Outside, the city has been transformed by the storm: The
colonial-era buildings downtown are missing their roofs, the glass lobby of the
Asia Plaza Hotel is gutted, and the streets are a labyrinth of wires, branches,
trunks, and twisted signs. Meanwhile, from their new, undamaged capital to the
north, the government estimates that hundreds have died. In actuality, that
number may be closer to a hundred thousand. But Pyin Thu isn’t really talking
about this kind of difference in perspective. Instead, he says, he’s referring
to the metaphysical possibilities such absurd discrepancies suggest. “There can
be another alternate reality beyond your senses. Whenever I write poetry, I try
to show the bridge between Reality A and Reality B.”

He lets me look at some selections from his second poetry
collection and explains that the censors, who are uncertain whether his
preference for aesthetics over literal meaning isn’t somehow obscuring a
politically charged message, have rejected it. His face grows sober as he tells
me this, and he admits that the censorship has led to a debilitating depression
that occasionally affects his writing.

Pyin Thu is forty-seven with two children: a daughter about
to go off to college and a son already studying to be a doctor. He’s of Chinese
descent, a minority that currently comprises about 3 percent of the Burmese
population. I ask him about his literary
influences, and he lists Plath, Hughes, Auden, and the contemporary poet
Charles Bernstein. He’s also a fan of the Burmese “khit san” writers, a Burmese
avant-garde who, in the 1920s, abandoned the traditional florid style favored
by the Buddhist writers and experimented with simpler, secular forms.

We talk for more than an hour, and he grows excited as he
discusses his philosophies. He’s looking forward to an upcoming trip to the
American southwest (his exit visa has been approved) when he will meet with
writers and read his poetry. “I can’t stop writing,” he admits. “I always say,
‘No more, nothing else.’ But it just keeps on coming out.”

It is unusual for a contemporary Burmese author’s work to be
translated into English, but in September Hyperion released Smile As They
Bow
by Nu Nu Yi Inwe. The novel, about a
Burmese transvestite, a controversial subject in communist and conservative
Myanmar, was censored for twelve years before being published in its native
language. Its translation was almost immediately short-listed for the
ten-thousand-dollar Man Asian Literary Prize. The attention earned the writer
an invitation to read at a literary festival in Korea, but it also made her
cautious.

When I call and ask to meet with her in the days before the
storm, she hesitates. “I’ll call you back at your hotel,” she says.

“In Myanmar, they can revoke your permission to leave the
country at any time and for any reason,” another writer tells me. “Even at the
airport they can change their minds and say, ‘No, you can’t go.'”

In the midst of processing her visa to Korea, Nu Nu Yi Inwe
decides it is not a convenient time to meet with a visiting writer from the
United States.

The day before I leave
Myanmar on my return flight to Beijing, I arrange to meet Dr. Ma Thida. An
earlier meeting we arranged was delayed by the cyclone, but on Monday she
suggests that we meet in the restaurant of the City Star Hotel, behind the old
City Hall near Sule Pagoda and within sight of the storm-ruined High Court
building. She sounded uncertain on her telephone, which clicked and faded as we
spoke.

Dr. Ma Thida is a medical doctor as well as the author of the
novel The Sunflower
and the short story collection In
the Shade of an Indian Almond Tree,
both of which are banned in
Myanmar. In the early nineties, she aligned herself with the Burmese opposition
leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Her activism resulted in
her arrest and secret trial. She spent six years in Insein Prison, much of it
in solitary confinement, until international efforts earned her release in
1999. In recent years, she has lectured at the University of Iowa and Yale
University, and shortly before my visit to Myanmar, Brown University selected
her to receive the International Writers Project Fellowship, a one-year residency
designed to help writers who are unable to work freely in their home countries.

On the Monday after the storm, I make the trek through the
eastern neighborhoods to the City Star Hotel, which is still without power. I
arrive fifteen minutes before our appointed time and take the exterior stairs
to the quiet, second-floor restaurant. In the powerless gloom, the fans are
still and no food is available. Sunlight, thick with dust motes, angles past
curtains on the windows that line the south side of the room. Despite the
motionless air and burdensome heat, three men sit at a round table in the
center of the room.

I order a warm Coke—the
hotel doesn’t carry the cheaper Burmese brands like Lemon Sparkling—and take
out my copy of Thein Pe Myint’s short stories. I find a story written in 1938
that begins: “The monsoon skies were ominously dark over Rangoon. Above the wet
green trees and the red buildings, the High Court clock tower stood out tall
against the threatening sky. The big clock face, very white against the dark
background, showed the time as half past six.” A block away, the cyclone has
knocked the white face out of the clock tower, leaving a gaping hole. As I turn
the pages, I sneak glances at the people seated at the center table. Two are
stocky, middle-aged Burmese men, their frames suggestive of ex-athletes. One
has a pitted face and wears a Hawaiian shirt. The other has on a black collared
T-shirt. Both wear slacks and smoke. The third member of the group is a
younger, slender man with Indian features. They do not talk or order drinks.
The waiters do not approach their table. I wonder if they are members of the
Burmese intelligence assigned to monitor my meeting with the writer. This is
the paranoia encouraged by the police state. I’ve learned to worry; during
interviews, I lower my voice to ask certain questions, even when nobody is
near.

At 2:30, the exact time the author proposed for our meeting,
a member of the hotel staff approaches me with his hand outstretched. “Are you
Mr. Steve?” he says. “I am sorry, but Dr. Ma Thida has given me a message. She
cannot come. Do you have a message to give to her?” He offers me a piece of
paper to write on.

page_5: 

I ask him to tell her that perhaps we can meet at Brown
University in late summer. Weeks after my trip to Myanmar, fiction writer
Robert Coover, who oversees the fellowship at Brown, tells me that Dr. Ma Thida
appears to be suffering from “a certain amount of electronic surveillance and
harassment during her present stay in Myanmar.” His impression is based on the
fact that the doctor’s e-mail accounts keep getting deleted, and he apologizes
for not being able to offer me a working e-mail address to contact her. She has
been given permission to go south into the Irrawaddy Delta, he tells me, and
she has been working long hours treating the cyclone victims.

I think back to something
an English-speaking Burmese told me as I walked back from the City Star Hotel
the day Dr. Ma Thida canceled our appointment. As we watched a handful of men
work at the trees with machetes, the stranger turned to me. “In a country where
there is no help from the government, we help ourselves,” he said, then quickly
slipped back into the crowd.

On the plane ride from Yangon back to Beijing, I sit
next to a German salesman dressed in black slacks and a black short-sleeved
button-down with a black Rolex on his wrist. His name is Peter, and he is
sixty. His wife is Burmese and from a powerful political family, and Peter
maintains profitable relationships with the ruling junta. He makes a good
living supplying several small factories scattered throughout the country with
spare parts. He tells me that his wife oversees a small medical clinic that he
funds in a town north of Yangon. This fact makes me want to overlook his social
and business connections with the ruling junta—until he begins to generalize
about both the regime and the Burmese people.

“They’re lazy,” Peter
says, then explains that without the military junta in charge, the people’s
indolence would cause them to starve to death. He’s certain that the
dictatorship will do everything necessary to care for the victims of the
cyclone in the south. It’s Peter’s contention that a regime that routinely
tortures its political opponents, that represses its artists and censors its
writers, a regime that held a free election in 1990 then locked many of the
victors in jail, is necessary to keep a country that is among the poorest in
the world from slipping further into poverty and despair.

Although I’ve changed the
names and descriptions of several people I met while writing this article,
sadly, Peter has not been fictionalized in any way.

Postscript: As I write this, more than eight weeks have
passed since my trip, and an estimated two million rice farmers are still
suffering from the effects of the cyclone. The military junta continues to
restrict access to the area and appears more intent on suppressing the efforts
of Burmese citizens to spread videos and firsthand accounts of the devastation
than they are in assisting efforts to distribute food and medical care to the
victims.

Robert Coover recently
wrote me a second note stating that Ma Thida would be happy to correspond with
me by e-mail, and I have exchanged several messages with her. In them, she
describes her work at a free Muslim clinic in Yangon working with cyclone
victims. “They, the delta people, have been ignored by both the government and
international NGOs in terms of health care for so long,” she writes. “So we
sadly found the medical needs of the delta to be huge. Health care facilities
and infrastructure are so weak there. On top of that, most medical teams just
focused on clinical treatment and they didn’t provide any follow-up activities
and health educational activities. So we fulfilled that blank.”

I ask her how her work as
a doctor is related to her writing. “I love to be with and work with people,”
she writes. “That is what made me become a medical doctor and writer. Listening
to people’s feelings, thoughts, and suffering inspired me to treat or help them
and write about them. My area of specialization is general surgery. I love
surgery a lot. Beneath the skin, everything is awesome, wonderful and
different. To correct, repair and remake weakness and abnormality of body parts
is such an interesting work for me. While I do surgery, I am feeling I am doing
an art.”

She reports that her
first and only novel was allowed to be published by “the scrutiny board” in
1993, but several months later she was arrested for “endangering the public
peace, having contact with illegal organizations, and distributing unlawful
literature,” and it was banned. After her release in 1999 (international
pressure from organizations like Amnesty International and foreign governments
succeeded in commuting her sentence), editors were reluctant to print her work,
and the censors rejected her short stories. It wasn’t until “late 2000,” when
she wrote some nonfiction articles, that she was permitted to publish again.

“Finally, I can write
now, but still under thorough scrutiny. But I love writing. I can’t help it. I
can’t stop sharing my feelings, thoughts, knowledge, empathy, concerns and
blessings with people and readers. So I continue writing.”

Stephen
Morison Jr.
teaches literature and writing at School Year Abroad
China in Beijing. His article “Chinese Characters: Report From Literary
Beijing” appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Poets
& Writers Magazine
.

Postcard From the Pandemic: Late at Night in the Heart of Bulgaria 

by

Stephen Morison Jr.

4.10.20

The debates began online, where they continue. My friend Todd, an adjunct English professor in Maine, commented on his Facebook page that the new virus didn’t seem to be any different than the old strains of influenzas that sweep through New England annually. It was late in the day, and I was worn out. Work at the American College of Sofia, in Bulgaria’s capital, where I’ve been living with my wife since last August, had stretched into evening, and I’d eventually slogged home through the slush and swapped my work desktop for my MacBook and a Stolichno Bock beer. I read Todd’s comment then glanced above the screen, out through the glass window and door of our balcony, to see the lights over the ski runs on the high ridges of Vitosha Mountain. 

Our daughter was still in New Haven, while our friends at our last school in Rome were still blithely teaching, oblivious to the plague that was already spreading in the north. I’d been reading about the virus in Wuhan and listening to information about it on the British, French, German, Qatari, and American news channels that were part of our cable package; so I wrote to Todd to share the report that 15 percent of the new virus’ victims in China appeared to wind up in the hospital with a virulent pneumonia. “That doesn’t sound like a typical flu,” I wrote, but I wasn’t super concerned. A few minutes later, my wife and I reserved a Spark electric car and used it to drive up the snowy mountain roads for an evening of skiing under the lights.

The Bulgarian government closed the schools the next week. They’d already closed them for a week in January for the annual “flu vacation,” but now they surprised us with a second closure. They blamed it on an outbreak of Type B influenza, but by then, we were all more nervous about COVID-19. As the dean of students at the American College of Sofia, I released my assistants and worked on through the break. But the daily rush was reduced to a trickle, and I had time to exchange e-mails with my Tangier publisher about her progress editing my memoir about my time in the city with Paul Bowles. I also exchanged a couple e-mails with the magazine editor in New York City who was guiding my article about Bulgarian writers toward publication. The coronavirus was an increasing concern, but it had yet to become an informational black hole, sucking more and more of my attention into its maw. 

My school stayed closed. The Bulgarian government wisely extended the flu-cation, then extended it again. My friends in Rome were quarantined and began posting photos taken from their windows, from their rooftops. My brother in Paris, the banker, shared a snapshot of his work computers crowding his mahogany dining room table in his apartment in the 16th arrondissement. 

On the Ides of March it snowed all day, dropping a glorious powder across the heart of Bulgaria. I trudged to the college through the snow-covered sidewalks of our postcommunist city where services like snow collection are underfunded and neglected. High above me, the mountain ski runs gleamed bright with fresh snow, but the creaky lifts were closed for social distancing. In the evening, the ridges were dark, an empty weight of shadows in the waxen winter sky.

The international mechanisms that sustain my family’s global lifestyle, which had made it so simple for me to teach in Bulgaria and fly to my brother’s place in Paris for Christmas or my cousin’s place in Tunis for Thanksgiving or to host my friends from Barcelona or Barlieu, began to be snuffed out by the virus. 

A Bulgarian colleague translated a news report for me that said the government might shut down the airport. International flights were already being canceled. It was spring break in New Haven and our daughter had driven to Canada with some friends. Yale was contemplating shutting down for good. Our nervousness became worry, which became concern then edged toward panic. In the course of three hours on a Saturday, we found her a flight, bought her a ticket, and asked sympathetic friends to drive her to Toronto. 

I loaded a flight-tracking app on my phone, and we watched her digital plane cross the Atlantic, layover in Brussels and, finally, land in Sofia. Visitors were no longer permitted in the terminal. We huddled in our Hyundai electric car and texted her. They weren’t letting her flight disembark. Surely, they wouldn’t send her back to the States. Minutes became an hour then an hour and a half, until they finally opened the doors and began to process them, taking their temperatures, asking where they had come from. The government required her to quarantine in our apartment for fourteen days—but she was with us, in the relative safety of the bedroom we’d decorated for her visits.

News of the sick began to arrive via social media. In New York City my friend Wendy, the dance choreographer who worked for the public schools, had it. Her saxophonist husband had it too, and so did their spritely eleven-year-old daughter. On a Zoom call, Wendy looked tired with puffy eyes and frizzy hair, but she could laugh. She was working out of their apartment in Brooklyn, teaching online, despite the fever and the cough,

News of the dead was more concerning, and for the first time the black hole of the disease exerted a physical pull, and I began to feel my orbit wobbling. Pauline from college, who’d inherited her father’s travel guide empire, reported on her Facebook page that her upstairs neighbor in Manhattan had died before the paramedics could reach him. He was sixty-five. 

Then Willie had it. His mom posted on his Facebook page so his friends would know that he was in the ICU. He was fighting the virus on a ventilator, but his fever had broken. His kidneys were failing; they were giving him dialysis. His friends posted praying emojis. I posted praying emojis. For five days it went on, and then he was gone. Willie’s obituary came in a group e-mail shared by college friends. We told stories, blocks of text in between indented forwarded messages. We were shocked that the likable, soft-humored old friend was gone, shocked by our own mortality, as I suppose everybody is eventually. His kids, both teenagers, didn’t care about our search for meaning, they just missed their dad. 

Todd, who’d once doubted the severity of the coming virus, informed me in a Facebook Messenger text that our high school friend’s father-in-law was in an ICU, “one of fourteen cases in his county in Maine.” 

I’d long before talked, via WhatsApp, with my mom on Martha’s Vineyard and convinced her to stop her work as a home health aid. She was in her seventies but looked fifty-eight and acted, as always, twenty-eight. The iPhone screen magnified her wrinkles in a way that annoyed the hell out of her, but there she was, sheltering in her living room in Oak Bluffs. My dad was buttoned up in his home in Florida. He reported in a WhatsApp chat—keeping the video off—that one of his friends from Massachusetts had the virus, but “he seems to be getting better.” 

Online and in the news broadcasts, the debates continued. My brother Sam, who must keep working his factory job in Borne, Massachusetts, in order to pay his bills and eat, insists on posting pro-Trump news stories on Facebook and e-mailing them to me via our family chat groups. The stories he forwards claim the virus is all a hoax, or that it is part of a plot by the Chinese government. Sam claims the president is a genius who will save us all.

Intelligently worded news articles in places like the New York Times are only marginally more reassuring. Nobody seems to know the truth. Are we desperate for ventilators or are they just a slow death sentence? Is the virus awaiting us all, insistent that the only way out is herd immunity, or should we stay hidden away behind our Frank Booth masks and latex gloves? Have we stumbled into a dystopic Zombie movie without Bill Murray there to remind us to laugh, or are we slowly transitioning toward normalcy and one morning we’ll wake and wonder what all the fuss was about?

In my dean’s office in my empty school on my empty campus in my abnormally quiet post-Communist capital, I sit in my chair, face my computer’s camera and begin my daily parade of Zoom and Google Meets conferences. I’ve learned to set the apps on split screen, so I can see everybody, but then I tend to stare at myself more than the others. Am I the only one who does this? There I am in the corner, bald and going balder, with glasses no less…this human I’ve become.  

The death count is still low in Bulgaria, but this is a poor country and there is growing pressure on the government to let the shopkeepers open their stores, to let the people mingle again so they can spend and earn. We’ve escaped the worst of it so far, but what will happen if the next wave rises higher than the first? When I was a kid on the Marblehead beach, in a wetsuit on a surfboard after a winter storm, my toes going numb as I paddled around with the swells coming in over the reef by the Neck, watching for the next break—back then I knew the second wave in the swell was higher than the first. I’d jump on the first only to have it mush out, and as I sank back down in the icy gray water, a nimble guy from California in his iridescent gear would skim past me balanced between gravity and the power of the sea.

Already the stray dogs that used to occasionally trot across my campus from the abandoned parkland to our west have become a pack of eight; eight quiet canines who pass me in the street in the twilight as I walk home after work. Eight quiet canines—sounds like a line from a nursery rhyme, a line from the old Europe of Falstaffian scoundrels, internecine wars, and plagues. The dogs are clearly hungry and scavenging, but not yet desperate. Not yet, but getting there. 

I write my editor at the magazine in New York, eager to do what I can to maintain my civil compact with the world, to prop up this web of connectedness that has preserved my global life, suddenly nervous that the fragility that was there all along, all those delicate invisible forces that kept my plane aloft and my computer screen lit, are being challenged by the drifting shapes and empty eyes of those feral dogs padding past me in the encroaching dark. My editor writes back and explains that they’re publishing postcards from the pandemic. I read a few from the other contributors, and they warm me. I’ve always loved postcards, I tell him. When I was first traveling, before we had mobile phones or the internet, postcards were little lifelines. 

It’s late at night, nearing midnight in Sofia, and I’m determined to be in my office at the abandoned school by nine tomorrow, but I refill my glass beside my MacBook. Out beyond the apartment window, the mountain is a dark emptiness that fills the sky. I get to work.

 

Stephen Morison Jr. is an American writer living in Bulgaria, where he is the Dean of Students of the American College of Sofia. His writings have appeared in the Sigh Press, Hippocampus Magazine, Antigonish Review, South Carolina Review, and other magazines. He is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. His recollections of his meetings with Paul Bowles in Tangier, titled Talking With Paul, will be published by Khbar Bladna in Tangier in June.

A view of Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, framed by Vitosha Mountain. 

What Is Written for You: From Starvation to Salvation in Bulgaria

by

Angela Rodel

10.14.15

How did I become a translator of Bulgarian literature? Americans love to ask me this, while most Bulgarians shrug this question off, saying, “Taka ti e pisano” (“That’s what is written for you”)—by the hand of fate, presumably. While I’ve never been much of a believer in fate, or a fan of starvation, I have always had a propensity for the exotic, the off-the-beaten-path. Not surprisingly, my first celebrity crush as a child was Cyndi Lauper, and I dressed the part with bracelets all the way up both arms and a turquoise shag-rug vest. This was followed by infatuations with punk rock and finally Bulgarian folk music. You don’t have to be Freud’s second cousin to figure out why the exotic might attract a white girl from Minnesota, where the closest thing we have to ethnic identity is a vague vision of Teutonic great-grandparents coming across the ocean to take up their poses in American Gothic. (And yes, I got hit by lots of snowballs from kids who didn’t appreciate my attempt at flamboyance.) 

So how could I resist when my high school suddenly started offering Russian alongside milquetoast German, Spanish, and French? My sixteen-year-old heart skipped a beat when I saw the Cyrillic letters frolicking across the Language Arts bulletin board, the frilly, coquettish Ж, the cat-tailed Ц, and poor “backward” Я. A happy coincidence or fate? In any case, the Cyrillic alphabet led me to study Russian literature and Slavic linguistics at Yale, where I got my first taste of Bulgarian folksinging thanks to the Yale Slavic Chorus. When I heard the choir sing the first few notes of a Bulgarian song, belted out in sternum-shattering voices, I knew I had found my newest obsession: the mystery of Bulgarian voices. The tightly packed, dissonant harmonies, the razor-sharp timbre of unapologetically loud voices meant to be heard across a field or across a mountaintop—it made my hair stand on end and my whole soul resonate. I didn’t know this love affair would last far longer than Cyndi Lauper or punk rock had, and that it would be even more deeply transformational. 

In 1996, after I graduated from Yale, I was off to Bulgaria like a shot to study Bulgarian language and folksinging at the source, on a one-year Fulbright grant. But when I landed in gritty, gray Sofia at the height of an economic and political spasm brought on by hyperinflation and inept governance, the Bulgarian voice I thought I knew was nowhere to be found; the haunting voice of the shepherd had been largely drowned out in the postsocialist cacophony. That didn’t cool my interest in Bulgaria but rather stoked it, as this turn of events forced me to pay attention to the other, more contemporary Bulgarian voices on the cultural scene. 

After bouncing back and forth between Bulgaria and grad school in ethnomusicology at UCLA for more years than I should probably admit publicly, in 2004 I landed a Fulbright-Hays grant to study Bulgarian folksinging. Again, was it happy coincidence or fate that the first week I arrived, a Japanese friend and fellow Bulgarian-music-o-phile took me to a party, which just happened to be the after party of a book launch? There we fell into an hours-long jam session with a pair of Bulgarian poets, who also happened to be musicians. At the end of the night they asked me to join the band they were starting. So I did, and what subsequently became known as an “ethno-rock-poetry band,” playing at readings, book launches, literary festivals, and art performances, introduced me to the world of contemporary Bulgarian literature. One of our earliest gigs was part of Liturne (Lit Tour), a flash mob before flash mobs were known in Bulgaria. We lugged a decrepit amplifier around downtown Sofia, begging electricity from coffee shops and screeching out poetry and music to any passersby who cared to listen. Our fellow mobsters included some folks destined to become solid names in the Bulgarian literary scene: Georgi Gospodinov, Dimiter Kenarov, Angel Igov, and others. Through these adventures I realized that the literary scene in Bulgaria was surprisingly vibrant: It seemed deliciously old-world, like Paris in the 1920s, with writers gathered in circles and generations, everyone knowing everyone else (for better or worse). There was a real sense of discourse; readings took place almost every evening, followed by brandy-, cigarette-, and feta-cheese-fueled debates in cafés and pubs. The writing itself was very raw, experimental in form and content, daring and provocative, not shoehorned to fit publishers’ or even readers’ expectations.

Speaking of pubs: I was sitting in one in 2005 as my Fulbright-Hays grant was winding down, laughing, drinking, and haranguing with a group of Bulgarian writers. I recall very vividly the thought that occurred to me in dead seriousness for the first time: I could just stay. And in comparison to the forbidding landscape that is academia in the United States, the landscape of Bulgaria in the early 2000s did not look anywhere near as starvation-prone: The country had just joined NATO; EU accession was around the corner; and the arts, including literature, were in an upswing after the lean decade following 1989. So with just four hundred dollars in my bank account and no clear plan, I snipped the lifeline to my American existence. 

As a linguistics geek in my heart of hearts, I had always thought translation would be fun, yet had never seriously considered it as a career. But now, faced with survival beyond the apron- and-purse strings of the university, I looked around and found a gig: translating for Vagabond, a lifestyle magazine of sorts for expats in Bulgaria, whose editor in chief was Anthony Georgieff (picture the quintessential cigar-chomping, green-visor-wearing editor of Hollywood lore, but with a cigarette and fedora instead). Not only did this gig stave off starvation, but to this day I am thankful for Anthony’s unminced words, which were a necessary crash course for me in nuts-and-bolts editing and translating, which my fancy Yale education in linguistics and literature hadn’t provided me with. I learned not to hover too closely over the original text, but also not to take too many liberties with the style and content. On the side, I continued translating literature informally as I had done over the past year, helping out friends and friends-of-friends who needed poems, short stories, and novel excerpts translated into English—as well as writing query letters to magazines and publishers. Most of these early efforts disappeared into the void that is the English-language publishing world, sinking like a brick in a bog. Who had heard of Bulgaria then, let alone Bulgarian literature? Bulgaria had no Nobel laureate, no Big Novel as most Eastern European countries had. My first “real” literary job with the promise of “real” pay was working with Georgi Tenev to translate his Party Headquarters—which had won the Vick Prize, given annually for the best Bulgarian novel, but which, due to a string of errors that I can in hindsight call comedic, has not yet seen the light of day. It will be published by Open Letter in February 2016.

Although there were good translators working from Bulgarian to French and German at that time, native speakers of English willing and able to translate Bulgarian literature were few and far between. So perhaps it really was “written for me,” or perhaps it was just a happy accident, but I turned out to be in the right place at the right time: I was a native speaker of English with close ties to the Sofia literary scene, and the wonderful Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF) had just fired up in 2007, beginning to lay the necessary groundwork to get English-language publishers and magazines interested in the black hole that Bulgarian literature appeared to be to the outside world. Thanks to EKF and its outreach efforts, I was eventually able to get paying jobs translating Bulgarian literature practically full-time. The threat of starvation receded, replaced by the hope of salvation: There was so much good meat for the soul out there, calling out to be translated. And finally some American publishers were ready to join the feast. 

The bulk of this new soul-meat—for me, at least—was the new prose coming out in the 2000s. To give a brief history of recent Bulgarian literature: The year 1989 remains a muddled boundary in Bulgaria. Unlike the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia or the smashing of the Berlin Wall, what happened here was more akin to an ignoble perestroika, an internal coup in which communist insiders deposed the longtime dictator, Todor Zhivkov. While a change to democracy ensued, the state security apparatus and much of the nomenclature remained largely in place, with the communists-turned-socialists winning elections on and off for the next two decades while reformers struggled with the frustrating lack of lustration laws and political will to curb corruption. 

Against this tumultuous backdrop, it is not surprising that in the 1990s Bulgarian writers largely turned inward—producing highly psychological, confessional writing, often experimental in form. This was not only a rejection of communist-era monumentalism, but also a demonstrative way to give the bird to the perceived degradation of Bulgarian culture. During this time, poetry was the chosen genre for many writers, given its commercially antithetical nature. This, however, combined with the dearth of dissident prose from socialist times, made it difficult for Bulgarian writers to ride the post-1989 wave of interest in Eastern European literature, which was centered primarily on prose. 

Much of this changed with the international success of Georgi Gospodinov’s Natural Novel, which was published in Bulgaria in 1999 and released by Dalkey Archive Press in English in 2005, and is both highly postmodernist and erudite yet infinitely readable. Indeed, the early years of the twenty-first century saw a surge of novels from Bulgarian writers who, like Gospodinov, were previously better known for their poetry, as well as from younger writers who had come of age postsocialism and who embraced an international idiom with the novel as its flagship form.  

So how I did I dig into this meat? Since I became a translator rather by accident, I had to devise my strategies from scratch. Unlike translators who work with “big languages” such as Spanish or French, I unfortunately didn’t have an MA program or even a community of fellow English-speaking natives, off whom I could bounce my linguistics woes (although plenty of English-speaking Bulgarian friends were invaluable in this regard). For example, Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly five centuries, thus some of the most colorful words in Bulgarian today are Turkish borrowings that, when used in place of their Slavic synonyms, add a facetious flavor, like a good inside joke. (Juxtaposed against the dull Slavic turgoviya for “trade” or “business,” the Turkish borrowing alushverish, with its tang of not-quite-aboveboard wheeling-and-dealing, is far more vivid: To my great amusement, in Istanbul I have seen stores advertise their alushverish in broad daylight!) The liveliness these Turkishisms continue to inject in the Bulgarian language can most clearly be seen in Bay Ganyo, a late nineteenth-century fictional character invented by Aleko Konstantinov. In the novel of the same name, a group of college students tells stories about Bay Ganyo, an archetypal backwoods slyboots and huckster of rose oil who goes around Europe committing cringeworthy cultural faux pas. Interestingly enough, however, to the twenty-first-century reader, Bay Ganyo himself actually sounds more vivid and “contemporary” thanks in large part to the Turkishisms that pepper his speech, while the students describing his exploits sound irretrievably archaic and stilted to the modern ear—a testament to the enduring power of this lexical subset in Bulgarian language and literature. The anguish for the English-language translator is that we have no corresponding register that captures the tongue-in-cheek tang of this vocabulary—perhaps certain Yiddish borrowings such as putz and shyster in American English come closest, but they lack the whole corresponding cultural-historical paradigm that Turkish borrowings in Bulgarian bring in tow.

Socialist terminology is another bugbear for the American translator of Bulgarian literature, since we again have no sociohistorical parallel, while much of contemporary Bulgarian literature addresses the country’s socialist past. One hallmark of socialist-speak is its bombastic nonsensicality—highfalutin phrases that upon further inspection are devoid of content, or rather, the content itself is in the very bombastic sense of the words rather than in their meaning. Hence the translator is faced with the uncomfortable task of trying to capture this pathos-laden hollowness without sounding merely like a bad translation. This challenge has dogged me for years, most recently rearing its head in Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, my translation of which was published in English by Open Letter this past spring. The novel is a rumination on childhood, which for Gospodinov was lived out under socialism and hence inextricably linked with it; the author makes use of socialist-speak, often for comic or nostalgic effect, as in this “Letter to a Young Comsomol Member”:

Dear Young Man, 

There are moments in a person’s life that are never forgotten. Today, with trembling hands you untie the knot of your scarlet Pioneer’s neckerchief, replacing it with a red Comsomol membership booklet. This is a symbol of the great trust the Party and our heroic and hardworking people have in you. 

Be decent and daring in word and deed! Dedicate the drive of your youth and the wisdom of your mature years to that which is dearest to all generations—the Homeland!

Here at least I was saved by the fact that Gospodinov himself comments on the absurdity of the language: “Yet another stellar example of socialist-speak. I now see that it is a mouthful: Be decent and daring in word and deed! Dedicate the drive.… What are all those Ds, why make the tongue scoot along on its ass?” In Georgi Tenev’s Party Headquarters, however, another work riddled with socialist-speak, I’ve had to plunge wholeheartedly into the pathos, hoping the reader will follow suit and recognize this as a deliberate stylistic choice. 

The poetic aspect of Bulgarian prose is another challenge, with Gospodinov again as a good example. He cut his teeth as a poet, thus the sound of his prose, the rhythm, is extremely important. Indeed, much of the expressiveness of The Physics of Sorrow comes from this poetic sensibility—the emotional impact comes from his brief, poignant snapshots of being. I was lucky to be a translator in situ, living in the epicenter of Bulgarian literary production during the months I worked on the translation. I would get together regularly with Gospodinov to pick his brain, run ideas past him, and ruminate about the best ways to tackle a particular passage—all over coffee, of course. 

So, when asked another question Americans love: What are you doing in Bulgaria? My facetious answer is “Having fun!” But it’s actually not at all far from the truth. Being a translator of Bulgarian literature is one of the best, most intellectually and spiritually fulfilling careers I could imagine—despite the lurking specter of starvation. I prefer to see it as artistic salvation from the workaday world, an outlet for my own creativity, which also allows me to give back to this strange and wonderful country that has been kind enough to take me in and offer me a home. It has been an honor for me to serve as a bridge through which the international literary community has come to know wonderful Bulgarian works. And as portentous as it may sound, now that I have a Bulgarian passport, I seem to have gotten a Bulgarian state of mind right along with it: I just might agree that through some strange twist of fate, these books and this translator’s life that I have come to love were in some small way also written for me

 

Angela Rodel is a professional literary translator living and working in Bulgaria. She received a 2014 NEA translation grant for Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow (Open Letter Books, 2015), as well as a 2010 PEN Translation Fund Grant for Georgi Tenev’s story collection Holy Light. Five novels in her translation have been published by U.S. and UK publishers.

 

The Translation Tango: On Being an Emerging Translator

by

Megan Berkobien

10.14.15

I’ve never liked traveling. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed living abroad or visiting the various countries that have welcomed me. Rather, it’s something in the physical movement from place to place that unsettles. The movement between cultures and languages is a bodily experience; it marks you, and it can be exhausting to learn the new gestures, to contort your limbs into another semantic system, to conjugate your entire tongue. Even after years of not speaking Russian, though, I can still easily pull out the phrase: “My head hurts, do you have any aspirin?”

Last November I felt a similar body ache en route to Milwaukee, which was the location for the 2014 American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference. I entered the Hilton where the event took place—all high ceilings and polished marble floors—and pulled my carry-on luggage into the lobby, my arrival announced by a broken wheel. It wasn’t the romantic vision of becoming a translator—dreamily passing through the streets of Barcelona (though I’ve hallucinated those moments too)—but it was a momentous occasion nonetheless.

ALTA is something of a saving grace for literary translators in the United States. Having been around for nearly four decades, the organization has passed through several incarnations, the most recent transition being from its former institutional home in the Translation Center at the University of Texas in Dallas to an independently run nonprofit arts association in Bloomington, Indiana. Its annual conference draws hundreds of translators, editors, and critics to a different city each year for four days of events and after-dinner drinks. Though perhaps ALTA’s most ambitious undertaking is highlighting the work of its many members, including several special readings that celebrate a series of honors—the National Translation Award, the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, and the most coveted award for emerging translators like me, the ALTA Travel Fellowship, which gives four to six up-and-coming translators the financial support to travel to the conference and introduce their work to hundreds of expectant ears. 

I arrived intentionally early that Wednesday, a habit meant to work against my travel anxiety. As a student in a PhD program (at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor), there’s a general expectation for me to attend academic conferences. Having gone to one of those a year earlier—the Modern Language Association conference in Chicago—my expectations for ALTA were, well, skewed. Sometimes these formal gatherings can feel absurd, even at odds with their expressed missions; in my experience, many graduate students are so nervous about their own panel performances that they miss events while preparing to present their fifteen-minute papers. 

So I suppose I was on autopilot when I scurried up to my hotel room that November afternoon, cloistering myself for the better part of three hours, preparing for the group reading I was scheduled to participate in with the other fellows instead of venturing out to meet other translators. My translation from Catalan of Llucia Ramis’s “The Port” had to bear the bulk of my unease: a change in tense here, one word swapped out for another there, until I wasn’t even sure about my English anymore. I knew it was time to leave when I couldn’t quite tell if the was a real word or not.

When I finally headed down to the conference to look for familiar faces, I found the registration line, extending from what was usually the coatroom, growing. And by the looks of those around me, I had overdressed. My choice of black business attire—against that sea of more colorful and casual garb—betrayed that it was, in fact, my first time. 

One by one, my fellow fellows and I spotted one another, our photos having been posted on the ALTA blog some time before the conference. We huddled before the spiral staircase, and our small talk first revolved around whether or not to affix the Fellow ribbons to our badges. The wonderful Marian Schwartz, our mentor, laughed at our general uncertainty and gave us the push we needed. For the rest of the night, the eyes of other veteran translators dropped straight to our chests: “You’re a fellow, eh?” 

Or, my personal favorite: “You don’t look anything like your picture, you know?” 

Receiving an ALTA Travel Fellowship was the biggest honor ever bestowed upon me, to be sure. I remember excusing myself for a moment to hurry back up to my room before the opening ceremony, moving in that excited gait one takes when one’s expecting you. In the elevator ride the lingering disquiet—of having to prove that I deserved to be there among esteemed translators—was interrupted by three lively women who invited me out for celebratory cocktails. And though I opted for the free local beer at the welcome dinner instead, I remembered their laughter later that night—perhaps not better than aspirin for a headache, but just enough medicine to soften the day’s chilled travels and the anticipation of the adventures to come. 

How did I arrive in Milwaukee, as an emerging translator? I fell in love with a certain text, of course. 

Seven years ago I was deep in the guttural trenches of my Russian language studies when I decided to begin university classes in Spanish and Portuguese. Knowing there would be few classes offered in Russian during upcoming semesters—and that those classes would often only cover the wise-old-male masters—I skimmed the course catalogue and happened upon another world entirely, in the department of Romance Languages and Literatures. I didn’t know how the transition would go, because my own story was the normal one: a few years of Spanish in high school, nothing substantive—I probably couldn’t even hold a regular conversation. But at least there was a clear path to work my way up to the more challenging classes and, eventually, achieve some semblance of fluency. What a word—fluency—a spectrum of signs that appear and disappear against one’s will. If you ask an emerging translator just what it means to be fluent, the pause often says more than the response.  

However, as a junior in college, instead of packing my bags and flying off to Latin America, I overcame that first step in the serpentine climb toward bilingualism through textual immersion: translation, that is. This approach is a gamble; most literature on the subject says that you have to live a culture in order to communicate it. But after reading Cristina Peri Rossi’s short story “Rumores” in a class about imagined cities, inhabiting a text seemed the more sensible (or maybe even the only possible) route.

When I began my initial attempt at translating this story, I had both Peri Rossi’s Cuentos reunidos [Collected Stories] and Cosmoagonías [Cosmoagonies], from which the story had sprawled out, beside me. The books were not enough. I also had several dictionaries on loan from the library and a dozen open tabs on my browser, from WordReference forums to pictures of Berlin in winter (“and after dark they would scrawl the words der traum in leben on desolate station platforms or metal shutters”). I knew Tobias Hecht’s brilliant version of the story was already available in English, thanks to Words Without Borders, though it was important for me to resist consulting it. Instead, I poured out my first impressions rather carelessly, listening more to my own sense of the thing than to the thing itself. This is where your own vision of the world takes over, and you wonder how to translate even a simple verb like contemplar, whether or not you really “contemplate the color of the sky.” (I suppose it depends on your translation strategy.) I only spent a few days on the story before putting it away. That’s how it went when I was first starting out; whenever I got frustrated, I would simply swap one cuento out for another. The first story I finished was the penultimate in the collection, “The Uprooted”—six paragraphs about people who weren’t really people at all. 

I ventured my first e-mail to Cristina three months afterward. I mused about the things I loved in a language not my own, things I saw inscribed in almost all of her printed pages. I had written with the secret intention of asking permission to publish my translation of “The Uprooted” in the undergraduate translation magazine I was founding at the time (a low-stakes venue, to be sure, for only a handful of people would ever read it). I made no mention of rights, however; instead I tried to win her over by treating her like a distant confidant, by drawing little sketches in words like private doodles in a notebook. Translation is a lovers’ tango, after all. 

The surprise was that she responded. 

Cristina wrote of love, of Borges, of what it meant to translate and be translated. She asked for a photo so that she could better know the person carrying fragments of her voice to new places, to Ann Arbor, to a time beyond when I would eventually publish her stories (she was more sure than I was on that point). From then on, we would speak about our own cities (real and imagined) as each season passed. In one of my most vulnerable moments, I sent her a video of me singing a Nat King Cole tune, a side of me that I only share with those closest to my heart, and she responded in complete shock that it was her favorite song—something I’m still not sure I believe. I had never trusted Walter Benjamin’s line that some texts call out to be translated at certain times, by certain people, but if I needed a sign, that was it. 

Really, I can’t quite remember when I switched verbs about the work I was doing, from “I want to become a translator” to “I am one.” As I try to hone in on it, the moments simply heap up. I don’t think I was a translator when I completed that first story of Cristina’s, but was I when I finally “completed” the entire collection of Cosmoagonies? (My gut still tells me no.) Or when I won an undergraduate award for it? (The award money was carelessly spent, but kept my spirits high.) Perhaps when I received my first publication acceptance? (“…yes I said yes I will Yes.”) Maybe, finally, when I stood up onstage and delivered another text from the Catalan to an audience of my colleagues in Milwaukee? (The importance of this gesture of acceptance by my colleagues was crucial, and there was my badge to prove it.) More than anything, I suppose, it was hearing, first through e-mail, then in person, from Cristina that my work mattered, and that she granted me poetic license to reinterpret, to re-create her stories, our languages now like shifting tectonic plates, scraping against each other to split the soil. 

But maybe the truth is that it still depends on the company I’m keeping.

My close friends hate that I’m a morning person, that I’m so god-awful cheery in those first fuzzy hours. At 8:30 AM I slipped down to the “First Time ALTA Participants” panel and nodded much too vigorously throughout. Then there were the panels on getting published, negotiating contracts, and self-publicity—standard but important fare for tenderfeet like me. At lunch, I can’t remember eating much as I listened to everyone’s stories: of Sara, whose first novel, Girl at War, was just coming out with Random House; or of Tenzin, who had worked a few years as special assistant to the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

It was hard not to feel a bit intimidated, but I derived some courage from the book exhibition, where I came across Marcelle Sauvageot’s Commentary, translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis, published by Ugly Duckling Presse. I then attended several bilingual readings and enjoyed some exquisite coffee at break. At around 4:00 PM the other fellows and I met up for our practice session before the reading. Knowing that I first had to read from the source text (a beautiful Majorcan story with the ends of the first-person singular verbs cut off like dangling fingertips) seemed the real test. I stumbled through sentences like a drunk, my mouth too close to the microphone to make any sense. 

The ballroom was packed with about a hundred expectant audience members that evening. The room itself, with its velvety interiors and ornamental framing, demanded the kind of reverential silence one imagines to be truly “literary.” I was fourth in line, just enough time to let the anxiety eat me up as I waited. 

The first few words in a different language always pop out haphazardly, I think. Yet, when I saw all the smiling faces before me, even the Catalan words hopped out of my mouth. Record un eriçó devorat per les formigues…. I remember looking down and seeing my friend Julia’s face—Julia is another wonderful Portuguese-Spanish-Catalan translator—her eyes closed as she listened to me speak. It felt almost natural. Perhaps more natural than when I speak Catalan during my stays in Barcelona. 

After the event, I felt the high that only reading work to an audience can give you. A couple of friends greeted me at the back of the room, and though I gleefully received their congratulations (in measure, of course), my immediate reaction was: But how did my Catalan sound? 

“Your voice gets so deep when you speak it,” Julia said. 

Another friend, Nate, remarked how strange it was too.

“Like a man’s,” I said. 

Maybe not like a man’s, though. Maybe something completely different, like the voice of a bumbling alien. Or maybe like a foreign radio sounding out from between my teeth, the static getting in the way.  

We spent some time comparing our voices in Spanish, Catalan, and English. Only mine refused to stay put. If I were to point to a palpable aspect of my own transition to a serious translator (de debò), it’s just this feeling of performance. And I’m always hoping that it’s normal, that we’re all just actors in separate acts.

After the reading, a group of us ventured out into the snow. It was that time of year when snow is a welcome sight, when it’s new and soft and dreamy. Flakes that remind you of when you were younger.

In a sports bar a few streets away from the hotel, I ordered a cider and began chatting with Kaija Straumanis, editorial director for Open Letter Books. We didn’t really talk all that much about literature. It’s not that we wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but there’s a point when you’d rather know a person as a person instead of merely talking shop (this is, perhaps, the corrective to performance). For as much as our days are swept up between printed lines and promotional e-mails, the ALTA conference gives translators a good excuse—and rare opportunity—to truly meet those other individuals in the field. 

As one who lives outside New York City, these moments of connection are vital for me. Having worked for several different literary journals, I had only ever known the larger community of so-called emerging translators through digital interfaces: e-mails, Trello, Twitter. And the recent addition of the conversation forums offered by the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America (ELTNA) has made it even easier to get and stay in contact when difficult questions come up for new translators. For translators, perhaps unlike a lot of other professions, there’s still a lot of fog surrounding the process of making an entrance into the larger field, especially if you want to make a living at it. 

I hesitate to say it, but I think that many of us believe that the period of emergence ends with a first print book publication. It’s certainly a big question we all carry with us, and it often seemed on the tip of my tongue whenever I discussed my own work and the work of other young translators at the ALTA conference. Working as an intern for Open Letter this past summer, however, has partly changed my mind about that. 

Publishing, need I say it, is a complicated business. Many of the independent presses dedicated to filling their catalogues with books in translation are underfunded and overextended. Even when a translated title slides into an editor’s hands, even if it corresponds with a publisher’s specific vision, it’s more a question of timing—to avoid the term luck—than talent. Because if there’s one thing that became apparent at the conference last winter, it’s that a lack of talented translators is not the problem. 

One of the things that I love about the translation community as I’ve come to know it is how we actively read one another’s writing. Certain presses, I believe, become allies as well. If I spot an Open Letter or Two Lines Press title on a shelf, I can’t really help but go look, read a passage, negotiate how many meals I might have to give up for it (two, usually, depending on my budget). But I don’t mind paying that money, because sitting in front of a computer for hours while thinking about another translator’s writing—as well as being counseled by patient editors like Kaija—has made me acutely aware of the work behind editorial negotiation, especially at presses like Open Letter that actively collaborate with early-career translators. 

My first full-length translation, Peri Rossi’s novella Strange Flying Objects, is forthcoming later this year from Ox and Pigeon, a relatively new press dedicated to literature in translation. But the most notable aspect of their mission? They’re still completely digital. It’s a surprising fact, as some readers might already know, because the few translation-based publishing houses that first pursued the e-book route quickly discovered that many of their readers still want things: artifacts, collectibles, proof of an author’s life beyond death. And as a translator I feel that pull too. I want to see a book materialized before me in the form through which I’ve been taught to revere it.  But I think that if we’re really going to make space for emerging translators in such a tight market, we can’t simply ignore the e-book: We need to explore its possibilities and make it our own. I anticipate that some form of this topic will move out of private conversations and take center stage at the next conference, as more and more translators register with ALTA to stake a claim in the community to which they belong.

Almost a year after being named a 2014 fellow, and as I prepare for my trip to the upcoming conference in Tucson, Arizona, I think I’m coming around to something: Perhaps the figure of the emerging translator doesn’t really exist. I’m not saying this to be dismissive. Translation is a skill, one to be honed, and we should celebrate the recent initiatives that make room for translators in the early stages of their craft. I would not be writing this article, for example, had I not been chosen by ALTA to represent a new cohort last year, had I not been funded by my PhD program to pursue my translations, had I not been welcomed by Open Letter to engage in the thornier issues of the editorial process. But I want to question what it means to have “made it,” to be “present” on the scene, to be emerging, and to have emerged.

Instead, I find that being a translator is always a process of recognizing, forgetting, and retracing the routes we make through texts. Sometimes I look back at stories I’ve translated (few though they are) and can hardly remember working through certain lines. And I know that, whatever translation I might publish in the future, another reading will reveal infelicities—things that once made sense but that now suddenly fall flat—but also those tender spots, moments in which I recognize not only the author, but also myself and the many other translator-writers who have made their way into my consciousness.

And I know I’m not saying anything new. To quote Peter Cole in the Spring 2015 issue of the Paris Review, “Smart people say such dumb and disappointing things about translation.” But if we’re saying dumb things—if we’re articulating our fear of failure, of the status of the profession, of the worlds we’re trying to inhabit—it’s only because translation is such an impossibly personal act, despite the texts never really being our own. So we say dumb things, but in the right company—whether in the rooms of the ALTA conference or in forums online—those remarks tend to make the right sense. 

 

Megan Berkobien is pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her translations from the Catalan and Spanish have been featured in Words Without Borders, Palabras Errantes, and Asymptote, among other publications.

How Do You Translate a Gunshot? Charlie Hebdo, Francophone Culture, and the Translation Conundrum

by

Jennifer Solheim

10.14.15

This past May, more than four months after the January 7 massacres at the Charlie Hebdo offices, I arrived in Paris for a research trip. On one of my first days there, I stopped in the Place de la République to see the vestiges of the impromptu Charlie memorial on the Marianne monument. In the words of Charlie Hebdo scholar Jane Weston Vauclair, the day after the killings, “people gathered in [the Place de la République] haltingly, haphazardly and almost confusedly. [There were] candles, and someone climbed the monument to put a black armband [on one of the statues of Marianne]. There was applause from the crowd at someone at least doing something, with sporadic burstings out of ‘Liberté d’expression!’” In the days and weeks that followed, graffiti appeared on the monument as well. On the bright May afternoon when I visited, it was mostly back to old purposes: People sat on its round base, eating sandwiches, talking on their phones; skateboarders used it to break their falls. But some of the armbands remained, along with Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”) scrawled in various spots, fanzine-like images plastered here and there, and one of the Mariannes had a black X scrawled across her lips. 

I snapped pictures and posted a few shots on Instagram and Facebook. I was thinking about showing these pictures to students in my Paris literature and culture course at the University of Illinois in Chicago this fall. I could literally point to different elements of the pictures to show the layers of history and culture. We could, for instance, compare this current iteration of Marianne, with the black X on her lips, to the many artistic representations of Marianne in France since she first became an allegory of French liberty opposed to monarchical rule in 1792.

Of course I was also considering the awful events of January 7 that took place so close to the Place de la République. As many know, the Charlie staff was holding a meeting when two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, stormed their offices and shot twelve people to death. I thought about the blank horror of moving from the sound of familiar voices to the sound of gunshots. Did the victims know why they were being killed? Did they think of the Danish cartoon affair in that moment? Did they hear the first gunshots before they were deafened by the noise? Were they already deaf by the time the shooters proclaimed the vicious attack on behalf of Islam?

But the true stakes of posting my photos became even clearer to me later that evening, when I returned to the home of my friends Weston Vauclair and her husband, David, in the Bastille. Weston Vauclair is an independent scholar, translator, and teacher in Paris; she wrote her dissertation on Charlie Hebdo and its predecessor, Hara-Kiri. Jane and David have also cowritten a book about the history of Charlie Hebdo, forthcoming from the publisher Eyrolles. Needless to say, both Jane and David have been in demand on the lecture circuit since the attacks. Jane was heading to Belfast in a few weeks for a conference on the Charlie Hebdo attacks that was almost canceled due to alleged safety concerns. She was also wrangling with the cancellation of the two panels on Charlie Hebdo at the joint International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference and International Bande Dessinée Society Conference at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP), which were called off after the near cancellation of the Belfast conference. 

“But,” Jane wondered aloud as we sat with David in their living room drinking tea, “if we can’t utter the words Charlie Hebdo, why is the panel on the representation of Islam in cartoons allowed to stand?” This led to a series of satiric questions on Jane’s part, which she later posted online as part of her protest over the censure of Charlie at the conference: 

  • Is it okay to mention Charlie Hebdo out loud as a word in the building?  
  • If one encounters a ULIP student, may we ask them their opinion on the Charlie Hebdo panels being removed?
  • Is it possible to wear a ‘Je suis Charlie’ T-shirt?
  • Is it possible to wear a ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ T-shirt?
  • Is it possible to wear a T-shirt that looks like ‘Je suis Charlie’ but in fact says something else? 
  • Is it possible to bring copies of Charlie Hebdo into the building?
  • Is it possible to bring copies of the old Charlie Hebdo (from the ’70s?) into the building 
  • Is it possible to mention Hara-Kiri but in fact mean something else when we say it?
  • May I talk about Charlie Hebdo but in a language only I can understand?
  • Is interpretive dance allowed?

Before I went to bed that night, I looked at the Charlie memorial photos again, this time in my Facebook feed. These photos were “liked,” of course, particularly the one in which Je suis Charlie was most prominent. Given everything, perhaps I needed to write a lengthy description of why this site for the impromptu memorial was significant. But the fact is, the image had already come and gone in my friends’ news feeds, and they wouldn’t necessarily look back at this point. That shift in context—on-site to online, local to global—made such a difference in understanding. And that’s when the question occurred to me: How do you translate those gunshots? They are the signal events that led to Charlie Hebdo’s global renown. We all know that understanding the society and history from which translated works arise can help the reader immeasurably. But how, as translators, can we render the texts related to particularly stark, awful, and uncrafted moments like the Charlie Hebdo shootings faithfully? 

As a teacher and researcher, my focus is on contemporary immigrant cultures from North Africa and the Middle East in France. I was introduced to Charlie Hebdo not through my research—although the connections, thanks to the January events, seem glaringly apparent now—but through Weston Vauclair, when we first met as lecturers in Paris while finishing our dissertations. 

When I mentioned to colleagues that I had a place to stay in Paris for this research trip prior to the January 7 massacre, I didn’t say I’d be staying with a Charlie Hebdo scholar—I said that my friend Jane works on contemporary political satire, because in our generation of academics, the great majority of us hadn’t heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks. In fact, the satiric newspaper was debating whether or not to shut down completely in the weeks before the killings due to flagging readership and state funding cuts. So this act of translation is not only across cultures, but a traversal of historic event. Charlie Hebdo is tricky to translate in time, to say the least, because its meaning changed swiftly, profoundly, and irrevocably following the attacks.

But while the connections between Charlie and Francophone cultures in France may only now seem clear and urgent, the field of Francophone studies is not new to this translation conundrum. Let’s begin once more with a question: Francophone is a great word, isn’t it? It sounds like a brass instrument. In introducing me at talks, scholars outside my field have at times hesitated over the pronunciation, and it’s not a term that has a clearly delineated meaning even within the field of studies in French. 

Indeed, Francophonie can be considered an instrument of change—and sometimes a war of words. The celebrated Martinican writer and politician Aimé Césaire called it back in 1946 with the title of his surrealist poetry collection Miraculous Arms, referring to literary language as a symbolic weapon. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “A Césaire poem explodes and whirls about itself like a rocket.” Rather than taking up arms, Césaire chose to pick up the pen. Literary language is itself the weapon in the case of Césaire, among many other Francophone writers. Francophonie—as opposed to the misguided, fundamentalist violence of the Kouachis—does not use guns to express dissent. Instead, Francophone language often embodies symbolic violence. It issues a vigorous yet peaceful call for social change. 

But as Francophone works move from language to language, or from page to stage to screen, some of the symbolic punch of the language is inevitably lost. For example, in the English translation of Assia Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (Heinemann, 1993), in which the metaphor of writing the body parallels Djebar’s masterful retelling of the French invasion of Algiers in 1830, there are several footnotes to support the translated text. Lebanese Quebecois playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s Incendies was adapted for the screen in the moving Denis Villeneuve film of the same name, and yet much of the vital humor surrounding the stark and horrifying Lebanese Civil War was lost in doing so.  

These shortcomings are no fault of translators. To use a brutal but appropriate idiom, if a gun were held to my head to define Francophone, I would say that as compared to French, Francophone connotes a linguistic choice. These writers were raised in multilingual families, and were most often educated in French. They could also express themselves fluently (and likely eloquently) in Arabic, Kabyle, Wolof, and Mandarin Chinese, to use just a few examples; instead, they opt to situate their fictional works in the French cultural terrain, to be published by a Francophone press, ideally both in their home country and in France. Francophonie is not only a linguistic choice, it is often a sociocultural and political choice. Play across languages is often paramount in Francophone works. While we see play with language across social classes in French works such as Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which vividly brings to life the banter of Parisian street urchins, Hugo’s work still lives within one language, and one culture. 

These cultural translation issues have been brought to the fore with Kamel Daoud’s newly translated novel, The Meursault Investigation, released in the United States earlier this year by the independent publisher Other Press. When a French person picks up the Actes Sud edition of Meursault, contre-enquête from a thick stack on one of the display tables at a French bookstore (we can assume this sort of display, because the novel was heavily promoted, critically acclaimed, and widely distributed), they might first notice the red band around the book jacket announcing Daoud’s novel as the 2015 recipient of the Prix Goncourt for a First Novel. Next, they might notice the names: Daoud (an Algerian Berber name, not a French one), and if they are versed in twentieth-century literary classics, they will likely recognize the name Meursault as the name of the antihero in Albert Camus’s renowned 1942 novel, L’Étranger (The Stranger). They might then notice the cover art: an aerial shot of a young man with dark hair, striding down a beach. Even if this French reader hadn’t yet read about Daoud’s debut, these details would indicate that this novel has something to do with the murdered Arab in Camus’s novel. I use the word indicate as a sort of translation metaphor here, for the word’s derivation comes from the French word for clue: indice. These clues leave a trail, but you need to have both social and cultural acumen in order to follow. 

So it’s not nearly so easy to leave this trail of clues for Daoud’s novel in the U.S. context: Beautifully translated by John Cullen, its publication in the United States was heralded by an excerpt in the New Yorker and a cover story in the New York Times Magazine. Where Daoud’s debut has been widely read in France, the nature of the publications that have lauded The Meursault Investigation suggests an educated and well-read audience—in other words, a niche readership. No one is expecting Meursault to become a best-seller; no one expects that Kamel Daoud will become a household name like Stephen King or John Grisham. This is one of the inherent problems for translation presses in the United States: Just as Charlie Hebdo was about to declare bankruptcy in January, due in part to new austerity measures that cut state arts funding, in the United States arts funding is a rare and precious commodity. So a work needs to hold the promise of sales in order to be published. 

Meursault—which is in direct dialogue, both in its reception and within the text itself, with Camus’s most famous novel—is ripe for publication in translation. And part of what makes The Stranger such a compelling work is its central act of violence. But how often does it occur to readers to imagine the sound of the gunshot in The Stranger? The victim in that book was described only as an Arab (as opposed to an Algerian like Camus, who was pied noir, meaning an Algerian of French descent). Has Meursault ever been called a terrorist? Not in any context I know. In the words of the Cure song that imagines the moment of the Arab’s death, he is simply “The stranger / killing an Arab.” And it’s with indignation that Harun, the narrator of The Meursault Investigation and the younger brother of the Arab killed by Meursault, says in the opening pages of the novel: “Good God, how can you kill someone and then take even his own death away from him?” Meursault portrays Harun’s struggle to overcome his mother’s obsessive mourning for Musa (the name given to Camus’s anonymous Arab in Meursault—two names that in French sound very similar) and an attempt to recover the identity of Musa. Harun was a young child when his brother died, and so he has to rely on the stories his mother told him as well as his own vague memories, with the gaps filled by his understanding of Algerian society and culture in the years preceding the war:

Most of Mama’s tales…concentrated on chronicling Musa’s last day, which was also, in a way, the first day of his immortality. She would [turn] a simple, young man from the poorer quarters of Algiers into an invincible, long-awaited hero, a kind of savior… In other [versions], he’d answered the call of some friends—uled el-huma, sons of the neighborhood—idle young men interested in skirts, cigarettes, and scars. 

Ultimately, Harun tells us, Musa’s body—in other words, his story—cannot be recovered. In other words, Camus’s Arab will forever remain untranslatable to his readership:

You’re here because you think, as I once thought, that you can find Musa or his body, identify the place where the murder was committed, and trumpet your discovery to the whole world…. You want to find a corpse…. But Musa’s body will remain a mystery. There’s not a word in the book about it. 

So the sound of a gunshot translates differently when the aggressor is someone like the Kouachi brothers, native speakers of French and French citizens whose last name bears the markings of a different country and culture. And the cultural effect is redoubled when the body penetrated by the bullet is a French artist whose work appears, when stripped of context, to be aggressive toward minority cultures, if not outright racist. 

It is here that the translation of words alone falls short as well. Charlie Hebdo not only publishes political cartoons that are part of a genre called bête et méchant (stupid and mean); it also publishes political essays thematically related to the cartoons that flank them. But those essays have rarely been mentioned in the debates over liberty of expression following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Setting aside the diverse backgrounds of the cartoonists themselves, those essays have been cut out of the frame in the aftermath and translation of the Charlie killings. Nor is the long history of political satire and caricature in France made clear, alongside the sacrosanct French duty to mock and question the role of religious institutions in society. This was a major stake in the French Revolution. The symbol of Marianne speaks to Charlie’s raison d’être as well: to extricate Catholicism from the French state following centuries of divine rule by monarchs and aristocrats who exploited French peoples and lands with the understanding that God gave them the right to do so. 

Just for the record, the best way I have found to explain Charlie Hebdo since the January attacks is to compare it to The Colbert Report broadcast in a different country with subtitles. If we take Stephen Colbert’s famous caricature of Bill O’Reilly and isolate his words; if we don’t know that the show was on Comedy Central and that the channel never broadcasts any kind of bona fide news or journalism; if we don’t know about Fox News or The Daily Show; then Stephen Colbert simply sounds like a scary-ass racist. So it goes when we look at Charlie Hebdo cartoons in isolation. It makes sense, when we think of the gunshot-translation problem, that so many great American writers chose to boycott the PEN Awards this past spring, and it makes equal sense that several great American writers and graphic novelists chose to take the boycotting writers’ places at the ceremony. 

We must stand at the intersection of writing, translation, and teaching to try to grasp for an answer to the gunshot-translation conundrum. When I think now about taking pictures in the Place de la République, it reminds me first and foremost of the privilege of translation work: I know this corner of the world in its historical and cultural depth. I teach, write, and translate French and Francophone cultures from the French into English. I am also reminded of how connected, and yet fragile, we all can be: As a gunshot passes from a handheld gun into the body of another, that shot and its morbid results can resonate across time, culture, history. How to translate a gunshot? What a strange and tenuous privilege to articulate such a question.  

 

Jennifer Solheim is a French scholar and teacher, fiction writer, and literary translator whose work has appeared in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder Series, Confrontation, Conclave: A Journal of Character, Fiction Writers Review, and Inside Higher Ed. She is working on a novel set in the immigrant neighborhoods of Paris. Her website is www.jennifersolheim.com.

Instinct, Energy, and Luck: An Indie-Publisher Roundtable on Literature in Translation

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

10.14.15

In the years I worked as a bookseller after college, I had the good fortune to encounter a wide range of literatures in translation. The indie bookshop I worked at, the now-closed Canterbury Booksellers in Madison, Wisconsin, had a section devoted to the work of Nobel Prize winners, as well as an international-fiction section. One of my fondest and most surprising reading experiences came after picking up a pale-green galley of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Knopf, 1997), knowing nothing yet of this author, but soon tumbling in awe through Murakami’s (translated) prose.

It wasn’t until I began working with the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF), an organization dedicated to creating connections among Bulgarian, American, and British writers, that I truly began to learn about the challenges of international literature reaching our shores, as well as the importance of nurturing an audience for it. Only approximately 3 percent of the books published in this country are works in translation, and, as the editors of the website Three Percent state, “In terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7 percent.”

Yet what I was discovering each summer I visited Bulgaria was an incredibly rich and diverse literary tradition—one in which I deeply wanted to immerse myself but was unable to because so few of these books had been translated into English. And Bulgaria is but one small country in the region. What other marvelous books from nearby neighbors like Greece and Serbia and Turkey was I not finding on the shelves back in the United States? The world of English-language publishing suddenly felt extremely small.

Through my work with the EKF, I also started meeting the editors and publishers of presses and literary journals, each passionate about bringing the best of international literature to English-speaking readers—places like Dalkey Archive Press and New Vessel Press, as well as publications like Absinthe: A Journal of World Literature in Translation and Words Without Borders.

So, as part of this issue dedicated to independent publishing, I planned to sit down with five editors and publishers to talk with them about the state of international literature, the particular challenges of focusing on books in translation, how to find readers for their titles, and what the industry should be paying attention to in the future.

Joining me were Barbara Epler, publisher and editor in chief of New Directions; CJ Evans, editorial director of Two Lines Press and editor of the biannual journal Two Lines: World Writing in Translation; Chad Post, founder and editor of Open Letter Books and Three Percent; Michael Reynolds, editor in chief of Europa Editions; and Jill Schoolman, founder and publisher of Archipelago Books.

How did you each come to publishing, particularly working with literature in translation? What drew you initially or continues to draw you today?
Michael Reynolds:
I never imagined a career in publishing until I woke up one day and had one. I was living in Rome in the early 2000s, at about the same time the founders and publishers of Europa Editions, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, were thinking about opening an American publishing house. At the time, I was doing odd jobs, among them running a writers festival in Rome with a couple of friends. Thanks to this work I was meeting quite a few Italian writers and publishing people. I got wind of what Sandro and Sandra were planning to do and decided to knock on the door of their Italian publishing house and offer my services—I had no idea of what those services might be.

As with most things in life, timing is everything. I was in the right place at the right time, because Sandro and Sandra were getting ready to announce the opening of Europa Editions at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That was the summer of 2004.

The seed of the idea started growing in them right after 9/11, when it seemed that once again the world was balkanizing, that the free exchange of ideas and opinions was being threatened, and that a surreal hysteria was enveloping the world—remember Freedom Fries? At the time, people all over the world, common people not intellectuals or academics, seemed to have fewer and fewer channels for communicating or communing. Sandro and Sandra [who founded Europa’s sister company in Italy, Edizioni EO, in the 1970s with the purpose of bringing unpublished, unknown, and under-appreciated authors from Eastern Europe to the Italian market] asked themselves what, as publishers, they could do to help overcome that communication breakdown. At the time, it also seemed to them—and, incidentally, not to anyone else—that an American publishing house focused on work in translation was a good business opportunity.

But beyond the business opportunity and the ideological motivation, there was also a more basic impulse: the desire to share something good. The fact that many of their favorite writers from Europe and elsewhere were not available to American readers because no publisher was in a position or of a persuasion to publish them in the States seemed almost unbearable. The explosion of social media demonstrates the basic human urge to share something that you feel strongly about with others. Europa was founded with this idea of sharing, of exchange, as its cornerstone.

My interest in international literature extends beyond the company that I work for, but I think it has found a natural home at Europa. And what continues to draw me to work with books in translation today is precisely this idea that something good is something that should be shared, in most cases with as many people as possible. I don’t believe that publishing work in translation should be considered a priori a noble endeavor. And I’m also dubious about the quantitative approach to evaluating where we’re at in terms of inclusiveness of literature in translation in the American culture of reading. I simply know that there are good, deserving, important, interesting, entertaining, provocative books being written in languages other than English. It’s a shame when those books cannot be read and talked about by people in America, the UK, Australia, etc. It impoverishes us all.

CJ Evans: Like Michael, I didn’t envision a career in publishing. I was working as the host in a “family brewpub”—which is as horrible as it sounds—in Portland in 2002 and a friend suggested I go up to Tin House magazine and see if they needed a poetry reader. I read for them for a while, then was hired as an editorial assistant for the magazine and to help with the development of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. When my wife and I moved to San Francisco in 2010, a friend suggested I check out the Center for the Art of Translation, which was, at the time, publishing an annual of international literature called Two Lines

I came on as the managing editor of Two Lines shortly thereafter. From the time I started, Olivia Sears, the founder of Two Lines and the Center, was talking about what the next steps for the journal might be. We had all of these wonderful contacts, primarily translators, built up from the nearly two decades of publishing, and felt that we could be doing more. We considered doing regional anthologies, but in nearly every issue we put out there was an excerpt from a book that we thought should be published in English, but couldn’t think of quite the right fit for a press to send the translator to. So, in 2012, Olivia; Scott Esposito, the marketing manager; and I decided we’d go for it and start the press to publish those books ourselves. 

Though I have always read literature in translation, my professional background had been much more focused on contemporary American literature. The way I like to think about it is that I don’t have any special interest in international literature. I’m, personally, very much not interested in the cultural dialogue aspects of it, even though I do see that there’s value in that. I’m interested in publishing the best books I can get my hands on, in a small press environment. And I firmly believe a huge percentage of the best books and writers are not in English. It is continually shocking to me how much amazing work hasn’t been published in translation yet. I think of a writer like Marie NDiaye, with whom we’ve done two books; she won the Prix Goncourt and was the youngest writer to ever be a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Someone of her stature would be unavailable to a press of our size in the US if she was writing in English. But because she’s French I’m able to publish her.

Barbara Epler: Not to be an echo chamber, but I also never thought I was going into publishing as a profession. If it is one!

I was disenchanted with staying on the professor track—and why I ever thought I would be one is long lost—and I was in love with someone in NYC and thrilled to get here. So I told my parents I was taking a year or two off before grad school and that I would get a job in publishing—thinking that that would be as easy as falling off a log. But then I couldn’t type and no one would hire me and it wasn’t until I met Griselda Ohannessian, who was running New Directions, that I met anyone who would talk to me.  

Now, it’s thirty-one years later.  

Jill Schoolman: I, too, sort of stumbled into publishing after having wandered around for a while trying various things. I started out working in film; I did a film course in Maine, worked on a few films in New York and then in Paris. In Paris I was also doing other things to make ends meet, like delivering pizzas on mopeds. After a few years of freelance film work, I started sniffing around for other possibilities. I then met Dan Simon and started interning for Seven Stories Press, where I learned a great deal about the business and about how much fun it could be to publish books. I was instinctively drawn to international literature. I grew up on a diet of classics from different parts of the world, I love traveling, and I love discovering a culture through its books and films.

After working as an editor with Seven Stories for a few years, I started dreaming out loud about starting a press devoted to international literature. It felt like a good moment to do it, and the people around me encouraged me to try to make it happen. I decided that if we set up Archipelago Books as a not-for-profit press, we might be able to be less dependent on book sales for survival. I’m very glad we did this. I was working out of my studio apartment for about a year, even after I hired a colleague and we enlisted a couple interns. My cat never seemed to mind, until our first books appeared in 2004, and she urged us in her way to find some office space.

Chad Post: After graduating from college, I worked at a couple of indie bookstores: Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina. I learned a ton of stuff from working in bookstores about the business end of things. But I ended up leaving [bookselling] because I wanted to get into the other side of things, helping decide which books would be sold, rather than hoping for someone else to make it possible for me to try and convince others to read these books.

At that time, Dalkey Archive had started a fellowship program, which was like grad school for publishing, but with a worse stipend. I was the first or second fellow to do this, back in the summer of 2000, and I quickly transitioned from working on editorial things to working with bookstores, and a year later was the director of marketing and sales. Fast forward seven years, and I ended up at the University of Rochester with two other former Dalkey employees, working on setting up a new publishing house that would support the literary translation programs the university wanted to launch. 

I think the thing I like best about being here in Rochester is the varied nature of what I’m doing as a “publisher.” Open Letter is a component of the University of Rochester, so our reader outreach and educational opportunities come more directly from a place geared toward expanding minds and whatnot.

The publishing side of things has been pretty tough. It takes a lot to get established sales wise, and although we’ve had some decent successes—Zone by Mathias Enard, The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov, The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra—there hasn’t been that true breakout title that changes your fortunes or gets the big mainstream media outlets to start paying attention to you. We have no Sebald or Bolaño or Ferrante or Knausgaard. One day!

Point being, if my job were only predicated on sales and our NEA grant, it would be fine, but maybe unremarkable? I think the things that define our organization, and the reasons I’m still in publishing—which can be grueling, especially if you started your press and are too close to it, emotionally tied to the successes and failures of the books—are all the ancillary things we do for readers: the Three Percent blog; the Translation Database, which, thanks to the wealth of data I’ve accumulated, is allowing me to work on a research project about how many books by women are translated from various languages and countries; the Best Translated Book Award; the podcast I do with Tom Roberge; even the World Cup of Literature and Women’s World Cup of Literature—two fun projects that I put together just to help get more people talking about more international literature.

The other thing that I really like about my position is working with young translators. Four to six translators come here every fall to get their MA, and I work with them all on a weekly basis, through the two classes I teach, by talking with them in the office, reading their samples, and organizing a weekly translation workshop for all the translators in the Rochester area—of which there are many, including Kerri Pierce and Lytton Smith, who are two of the best in the country. Without this sort of interaction, I think we’d really be cut off from the book world. Especially since there is no indie bookstore in town. 

What issues do you feel are most pressing for independent publishers in general and those working with literature in translation in particular?
Reynolds: In my mind, the No. 1 issue concerning the publication of work in translation is that of discoverability and promotion. I’m not entirely convinced that we have to dramatically increase the number of books in translation published here at all costs, but I definitely think that we need to grow the audience for those books that are published. Over the past ten to twenty years it seems to me that the focus has been on printing as many titles in translation as possible. But printing is not the same as publishing. I would like to see us all work more, and together, on innovative and effective ways of getting our books into the hands of a larger number of readers.

Evans: I very much agree with Michael that discoverability and promotion are the main difficulties we face, although I’m not ignoring the fact that editors at both small presses and major houses would identify the same challenge. Could any of us ever have enough readers? We made a very conscious decision early on to keep our list small so that we could continue to build the audience for our backlist and have every title we publish be a frontlist title.

In some ways I feel the literary community is coming around to translated literature, and the field has certainly grown in respect and readership since Olivia Sears started the journal Two Lines more than twenty years ago, but it still feels that we’re relegated to second class, that our books need to be classified in some category other than merely “books.” I love that organizations like PEN and Chad’s Best Translated Book Award exist, but I don’t understand why these translated books need to be distinguished from books written in English when it comes to awards and reviews. I don’t want our books to be “translated” books or “international” books, but just really good books. End stop.

I think some of this comes from a strategic mistake of the international-lit community years ago, when many translated titles were marketed as being “good for you” literature—marketed as books that would broaden a reader’s horizons. Some of it is ignorance about the artistry and skill of translators. Some of it, perhaps, is merely a type of systemic high-minded xenophobia. I think battling these challenges both within this smaller community of translation presses and within the slightly larger pool of literary presses and readers is essential to continued growth and sustainability.

Epler: I agree, and also, I think the main concern is finding readers for amazing books. Not necessarily flooding the market with more and more translations—as if that vision of emulating the flood of new English-language titles will get anyone anywhere. Say we wanted to have the German ratio of translated titles. Really? If we approach 40 or 50 percent, then we would have, say, 100,000 new translated titles annually. That also seems crackers. 

Schoolman: I’d say the most mysterious [issue] is how to survive. Someone should write a how-to book on the subject. How to keep our authors and translators writing, and how to stay afloat as a press when what trickles in doesn’t always amount to what’s flowing out in various directions. Because the dimensions of the industry—publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers and bloggers, distributors, readers, writers, agents, translators, educators—are changing so rapidly we need to find new ways of collaborating.

It’s an ongoing challenge to figure out what each book needs—they all have different needs and are born in different circumstances. It’s a creative process that involves instinct, energy, and luck. The most elusive question remains, How can we get our books noticed, and read?

Post: The publishing business can be really infuriating, and the fact that the main business model for the past few decades has been one of acceleration—acquire more presses; publish more books, faster; make them available quicker—is a good example of that. The field has created a glut that might have some benefits—more voices being published—but also ends up with a “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” way of promotion. For presses like the ones here, we need to be more innovative and interesting to cut through the six-figure marketing campaigns and seven-figure advances.

What are some of the means by which you have tried to break into the market as independent publishers?
Post
: First and foremost, when I think of our five presses and how we distinguish ourselves from most of the others, I think of the cover design. Archipelago is maybe the most distinct with the square format, but four of us all use covers that go together as a sort of set. And although New Directions doesn’t have one overriding “look,” there are subsets, like the Pearl series, and an overarching sort of feel to the look of the books. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but it’s helped us in getting people to recognize the press and to be able to know right off the bat that they’re looking at an Open Letter title when they see it in the store. My hope is that a good experience with one of our books makes a reader more willing to pick up the others, trusting that we won’t lead them astray, even if they haven’t heard of the particular author. And being able to identify our books at a glance should, theoretically, help that.

This is also in line with why we offered subscriptions right from the start. Although the content and styles of the books range widely, they somehow fit together and look nice on a bookshelf.

Evans: I agree with Chad that it’s important to develop a strong, identifiable brand—though I loathe that word—and that also extends to the voice of the press. One of the things I love about the presses in this roundtable is that each has its own aesthetic in acquisitions as well. In addition, with each book we try to find and target what we call the “one bigger pond” of readers. We don’t want to just step into the biggest ponds and always be the smallest fish holding out to land the cover of the NYRB, we want to step into the slightly bigger pond and see if we can wreak a little havoc as medium fish. We’d love to have that breakout title, but a lot of presses have gone under waiting for their Roberto Bolaño or Nell Zink.

For most titles we also put aside a little bit of money to try…something. Whether [it’s] a funky mailing to bookstore buyers, some extra ARCs to target academic or library sales, special events with new partners, whatever we think will work best with the resources we have for that title, with the idea that we’re also trying to make new connections for the press as a whole.

Subscriptions have been essential, as has been our nonprofit status, which lets us take some risks on books and marketing as we build the press—we’re the new kids on the block so we’re still in a period of experimentation. I certainly agree with Barbara that more and more books is not the answer—not only in translation—and I think trying to “create” readers sounds like a pretty tall challenge; I’d rather just poach readers of contemporary American literature for translated literature.

Epler: Long ago New Directions was heavily branded by the old black-and-white paperbacks, but now it’s less so. I think I can detect a sort of spectrum of design for our books, but I imagine that’s pretty much in the eye of the beholder in this case. I’d say more that New Directions tries to always bring out books of a certain quality and originality, to maintain among book buyers, booksellers, reviewers, and readers a sort of sense of what you’ll be getting if you pick up a New Directions book, which we hope is real art and deep pleasure.

However, I think this is so much more a preoccupation of publishers than of readers, who tend to follow writers, rather than thinking much about which house is bringing the writer out. I think it helps a lot if you can stick with authors and really represent them in English, and over time keep building their body of work here, which is a long and costly process but can really work, and result in a strong audience. Live events and getting the author and translator here is also key, as are appearances in magazines.

To put the books across, I think it’s a matter of trying everything you can think of and of having the sort of dedicated staff you need: It can be Crazy Town as far as how hard everyone here has to work. But it is immensely satisfying when you do find an audience for a great writer.

Reynolds: For Europa, it has been very much about branding. I gather there are more highfalutin words for this process—creating a personality, an identity, etc., that readers, retail partners, and members of the reviewing community learn to distinguish and trust over time—but I guess in the end it is just plain old branding. I like to think of what we do as being a conversation with these various players, meaning that I think of our publishing program as being a dialogue with readers. In the editorial choices we make and the way we go about publishing we are opening a conversation with an affirmation along the lines of: “This is what we think is important, interesting, significant, and entertaining. Take a look! What do you think?” We demarcate this conversation in a variety of ways: uniform design, acquisitions that fall within a certain range on the broad spectrum between experimental/densely literary and commercial, a way of approaching translation, etc. If we remain consistent with these aspects then we create an identity that can potentially ferry new, unknown, and foreign writers into the market.

In the end, I think it’s all about the books. This is a mantra I repeat to myself often. I don’t think publishers of our kind are in a position to make a success out of a really crappy book. The big guys and gals can do that; they have the marketing and leverage not only to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but also to fill that purse with gold. We can’t. We have to have good books, quality books that fit into the brand/identity/personality/conversation we have established with readers and retailers. What I’m sure we’ve all experienced, almost on a daily basis, is the opposite: failing to reach an audience with what we consider to be a really great book, one that sits perfectly on our list. You can do everything possible for a book and it still doesn’t work.

I’d like to talk a bit about the work of “outreach.” Obviously, this kind of activity fits more squarely into the mission of a nonprofit or a press connected with a university in the way Open Letter is. But I think it is also something that all presses should engage in. We have lost the ability to talk about books in meaningful ways. Most people are unable to go much further than a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, or appraise a work of literature with more than “I hated it” or “I loved it.” As a culture—I mean outside of our very limited clique—we have become critically illiterate; we no longer know how to understand, let alone express, the social, political, cultural, historical significance of a book. For that matter, we are almost incapable of expressing its significance for us even on a personal level. It may just be the way of the world—I think many people are conversant on the social and cultural significance of Breaking Bad, for example—and I should get over it. At the same time, I think a more critically literate readership would not only be important for the culture but would also mean that presses like ours would sell more books. Thus, perhaps efforts to grow this kind of critical literacy should be calculated more explicitly as part of our marketing budget. We are, after all, not simply trying to “break into the market” but also attempting to shape that market.

Let’s talk about a “critically literate readership,” the decline of which people often attribute, at least in part, to the shuttering of book pages in newspapers and decreased coverage for literature in periodicals. But at the same time, as the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review, I also know that there are a number of venues out there for thoughtful discussion of books. So where are people having the sorts of conversations about books that you wished more readers were aware of? Or what avenues for outreach would you either direct people toward to widen those conversations or propose creating, if you’re not already engaged in doing so?
Reynolds: I think you’re opening up a can of worms with this one. The conversation is long, deep, and broad. I’m going to try to condense some of my thoughts into morsels.

I like Fiction Writers Review and I respect what you’re doing there. In many ways it corresponds to exactly the kind of conversation about books that I suggested in my earlier answer we lack. But the context does not. This is not really because FWR and like-minded venues are doing something wrong, but rather because the media of mass culture are not behind you. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I imagine that the readers of FWR belong to a specific demographic and in many ways represent a cultural elite; and, perhaps even more poignantly, are mostly writers, who may or may not be real readers—a whole other can of worms. There is, as a result, an insularity to that kind of conversation that is unhelpful for the larger goal of making books and discussion about books relevant to “the masses.”

Consider the sheer number and the production quality of television programs about sports, movies, celebrities, TV, and the immense creativity that goes into developing and duplicating formats on these subjects. These programs cater to and shape the opinions and the conversations of many millions of people. As far as I know, there is currently no TV format dealing with books. Do we need one? Christ, I don’t know. I haven’t owned a TV for thirty-five years. But I do find the idea of using the means of mass culture to diffuse a vocabulary for talking about books appealing.

To be honest, the place where I see the kind of conversation about books that I desire happening most often is in the good old-fashioned book group. Book-group members, if you exclude New York, mostly don’t work in publishing and are not connected to the book industry at all. They are not academics. They are working people, housewives, the elderly, etc., who seek a congenial “third place” connected to their passion for reading and for talking. If the label and the formalities of running a book group fell away, this kind of atmosphere, and this kind of conversation, is my ideal. This “third place/great good place” idea that, frankly, I first heard about only a few years ago at Winter Institute, has crystallized a lot of my thinking on these questions. When I imagine “conversation about books” I don’t think of a lecture hall, an online magazine, publishing parties, or the pages of the New York Times; I think of a pub. Specifically I think of the pub on the corner of my street where I sometimes stop for a beer on my way home. If, in that context, in cities and towns across the country, in addition to talking about the merits of a sports player or a celebrity, patrons were also hotly debating the merits of a recent novel and pulling apart what was innovative about it and what had been rehashed from the literary tradition, I would feel that we had gone a long way to becoming “critically literate” as a culture.

Fostering this dialogue cannot be simply a question of preaching to the choir or making privileged people more privileged. As such, in my opinion, the organizations we must entrust to foster the ability to appreciate, place, understand, and talk about books are: public schools, libraries, community and continuing-education systems, universities. Other noninstitutional organizations whose efforts I feel run in this direction are in-school initiatives like Girls Write Now and writers and poets in the schools; failed experiments like Book Night, and more successful ones like One City, One Book; college “freshman reads” programs; etc.

page_5: 

We, as an industry, have our share of the blame in all this. We publish too many books. We publish too many insignificant books. As a result it becomes very difficult for an important book, one that can be enjoyed and talked about by people from many walks of life, to make its way amid the dreck to readers.

This will sound like a cop-out—we haven’t really initiated or engaged in any specific outreach programs—but I think our publishing program itself, and the readership it targets, are both conceived partially as a response to this crisis in critical literacy.

I also agree that online journals, book sites, and the like can be a bit of an echo chamber and perhaps broadcast to a narrow audience. This is partly the reason FWR founded an annual daylong literary symposium in Ann Arbor, free and open to the public, called the State of the Book, and why we now are one of the sponsors for the Voices of the Middle West festival each spring—a similar event that tries to nurture a broader conversation about books in collaboration with the university and some local community organizations. We especially try to reach out to younger readers and college students through these various channels. I’m curious to hear from others about similar programs that you’ve found equally beneficial on this front, or initiatives that might be adopted elsewhere, whether they’re projects of your own or others. And, of course, those engines—whether online or on the ground—that are helping foster the most productive conversations.
Schoolman: I love the long-form critical essay, in which the lines between writer, reader, and critic blur, where there is room to explore the inner world of a book and its cultural context, where there is room for the critic-writer’s own ideas to emerge and breathe. There are still places where this is possible: the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Threepenny Review, Guernica, Asymptote, Music & Literature, the White Review, the Quarterly Conversation.

I agree with Michael that the best, most far-reaching conversations about books can happen in a local bar—the relationship between the overworked editor and the local bar is of course another question to explore—where people can express themselves without a lot of literary jargon. Archipelago has an ongoing relationship with a fantastic organization based in Staten Island, New York, called OutLOUD. It does an inspiring job of bringing people of all ages together from various walks of life to read and think about books and art. The conversations about our books and the worlds each has emerged from are always alive and move in surprising directions.

I’m intrigued by Michael’s comment about writers not necessarily counting as readers. Are you saying that they read in a different way? That reading is perhaps more essential to them than to other people? Or…?

Reynolds: Sorry, Jill. My comment about writers/readers wasn’t clear at all. I just meant that I am often surprised at how writers or those who have aspirations to be writers are not careful, prolific readers and converse about books in too businesslike a way, if at all. In addition, a high number of visitors to FWR and other similar venues may not be an indication of a largish public engaging in meaningful discussion about books and their place in the culture and society because many of those visitors may be aspiring writers engaging in the conversation in order to advance their careers rather than to pursue a genuine, disinterested engagement with the literary and artistic questions being raised. I’m not necessarily against writers advancing their careers! But this is not the kind of critical literacy, nor the kind of disinterested dialogue, I was talking about in my original comment.

Post: All the places Jill mentions are ones I would think to recommend as well. Drawing on Michael’s response, though, I do think there is a difference between the audiences reading the White Review or Quarterly Conversation—mostly people looking for high-minded discussion of capital-L Literature—and casual readers discussing books in a bar. To create and sustain a vibrant book culture we need to have outlets from both ends of the spectrum—along with Twitter conversations that range in quality from witty banter to knee-jerk reactions to measured comments [from] book clubs and mainstream reviews—since there’s no single way people can, or should, be interacting with and talking about books. Although what’s most important, in my opinion, is getting people who aren’t writers or publishing people talking about books. That’s what we exist for, right?

When I worked in independent bookstores, the sort of conversation Michael and I are pining for seemed to happen on a regular basis, both among booksellers and with customers. It probably still does, but there’s no bookstore in Rochester where this experience could possibly take place—something that’s likely the case in a lot of other midsize cities. My local bar, NOX, is actually book-themed, so it could be a bar where books are discussed. I would very much like that.

Reynolds: The conclusion to this whole conversation: books and booze, together forever!

Post: Cheers!

Epler: That sort of sounds like a wrap. Or last call? Just a final note so I don’t feel like a liar: I hands-down agree with talking up books anywhere and everywhere—which is why we have canaries here tweeting away, though I don’t know what they might be twittering—and we love any book talk from the highbrow journals to suburban book clubs to bar chats, but I do have to say—just to be honest—that New Directions just doesn’t do the sort of outreach that’s been mentioned, and much admired by me, such as Jill’s OutLOUD efforts and FWR’s engagement with local community organizations. We donate books to prisons and to some libraries, and give time to PEN and whatnot, but really we’re not that socially conscious. Maybe the old dog can learn new tricks, but that’s the truth these days. Now, back to the bar!

Evans: Practically, I’d love to see an organized effort in MFA programs and colleges to encourage the next generation who want to get into publishing to pursue some of the areas behind the scenes. If every person who starts a new literary journal in the next year would instead focus on hosting a book club at a local bookstore—or bar!—we’d be a healthier community. Or tackle the problems in literary magazine distribution. Or work at nonprofit fund-raising and/or lobbying for literary nonprofits. These are not as sexy as being an editor—although I assume my fellow panelists will agree that there’s very little that’s sexy about actually being an editor—but the same attention in the MFA programs to the real health of publishing as to pedagogy could do a lot for the industry.

I apologize for ending on a down note, but a certain amount of the reading audience is just gone—there’s simply other media that appeals more to a lot of the broader audience. But we’ve hopefully learned, after the rise and leveling of the e-book panic, that there continues to be an audience, and a sizable one, for literary books. But we need to rebuild the base of our industry and foster not readers necessarily, but rather those who will get the books into the readers’ hands. More book clubs. More diversity. More lobbying. More education nonprofits. More pop-up bookstores. More ideas and risks and people to start the casual conversations in the bar that end deep at last call.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is the assistant director of the English Department Writing Program. He is also the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review as well as a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

An Interview With Translator Wyatt Mason

by

Max Winter

4.5.02

Wyatt Mason’s Rimbaud Complete, published by Modern Library in March, is a translation of the complete writings of French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). The book contains all of his poetry—from his earliest juvenilia to his later poems, which Rimbaud wrote in his early twenties, before he stopped writing poems altogether. The volume contains fifty pages of previously untranslated material, including all the poet’s earliest verse, a school notebook, and a rough draft of his best known poem A Season In Hell.

Mason has also translated five books by contemporary French author Pierre Michon, and was a finalist for the French American Foundation Translation Prize for his first publication, Michon’s Masters and Servants (Mercury House, 1997). Mason’s complete translation of Rimbaud’s correspondence is forthcoming from Counterpoint in 2003.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Mason what drew him to the work of Rimbaud, what particular characteristics attracted him to the idea of translating him so thoroughly.

Wyatt Mason: I came to Rimbaud later than many. I remember reading A Season in Hell when I was sixteen and not liking it: It seemed to lurch around a lot, had an odd rhythm. I assumed-disastrously-that meant it wasn’t good. I was too young, too inexperienced, or just too stupid to realize that the very quality I disliked was one of its virtues, or, at least, I would later come to appreciate it as such.

P&W: So what changed your mind?

WM: Time, and dumb luck. About ten years ago, when I was living in Italy for the winter, I rented a house in an off-season tourist town. The house had a few books on its shelves. A Bible of course; Moravia, Calvino; and a translation of some Rimbaud, bilingual French/Italian. Initially, I used it as a sort of grammar-Rimbaud as Italian tutor-admittedly, not the most distinguished use of a great poet. That misuse was short-lived though. I soon found I liked the poems a great deal, and devoured everything.

P&W: Do you remember which poem first caught your attention?

WM: Absolutely: “Faim.” “Hunger” in English. The images in that poem were entirely his own. The narrator speaks of quenching his hunger with a meal of earth and stone, rock, air, loam. He eats pebbles underfoot, old church stones. And if that weren’t voracious enough, we get a wolf devouring a bird, spitting out feathers, the narrator comparing the wolf’s hunger to his own, not for a bird, but for himself. It’s lyrical and musical, and at the same time raw and unflinching. A balance apparent in Rimbaud’s best work. He takes Whitman’s grounding in the experiencing of the natural, his interest in self, but digs in his claws, bites.

P&W: Can you say a little more about Whitman and Rimbaud?

WM: There are lots of interesting connections, some meaningful, some just fun. Whitman’s first version of Leaves of Grass came out when Rimbaud was a year old, and his final expanded version the year Rimbaud died. Whitman’s book took 37 years to write; Rimbaud’s life took the same amount to live. Both poets are seen as sensualists of a kind, though that only gets us so far: There has always been the idea of the poet with a capital P. Sappho is as interested in bodies as Whitman; Wordsworth as interested in the natural world as Rimbaud. But the type and depth of engagement is different in each.

What seems new in Whitman is his self-consciousness, his depiction of himself celebrating what the poet traditionally celebrates: Portraiture becomes self-portraiture. The poem is not about a grassy field but about the poet grabbing handfuls of that field. There is a similar force at work in Rimbaud, as in “Hunger,” but Rimbaud is grazing that field. Whitman and Rimbaud both use “I” in their poems, but they define them very differently. Yes, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” features a celebratory “I” lusting through the landscape; yes, Rimbaud’s poem “Sensation” features a solitary “I” in nature, as happy alone, he says, as if with a woman. The difference is the guilelessness of Whitman’s “I”: It celebrates itself; it contains multitudes. It is democratic, is many in one, e pluribus unum. Rimbaud’s “I” is a separatist, is somebody else: “Je est un autre.” I see Rimbaud wearing many masks, adopting different personae and shedding them just as Pound would do later. Whitman’s “I” is always Whitman. Rimbaud’s “I” is a term of art, not a matter of confession.

P&W: So how did you end up translating all of his work?

WM: Well, I started translating a few of his poems when I found that book in Italy. He’s irresistible, because he seems so easy, so direct, so personal. Everybody tries to translate Rimbaud, and everybody, at least everybody sensible, gives up: He’s really very hard to convey in all his richness. I worked on various of his poems from time to time in my notebooks-in retrospect laying a sort of foundation-before many years later Modern Library asked me to do the complete works.

P&W: What makes translating Rimbaud particularly challenging?

MW: His entire lifetime of composing poetry was compressed into about five years—five years during which his style can been seen evolving from month to month. Like Picasso, he doesn’t have a style: He has styles. That changing voice is difficult enough to appreciate in French, and altogether treacherous in translation.

P&W: Given that his style changed often over the course of his life, what quality remains constant or “consistent” throughout?

WM: That’s difficult to answer, as it tends to become reductive. Too often Rimbaud is saddled with labels like “visionary,” “unsparing,” “bloodless,” descriptions that have more to do with our misunderstanding of his life than our appreciation of his poetry. A familiarity with all his work brings a reader to Rimbaud’s preoccupation with passage. That theme seems undeniable. I could say “departure,” but it puts too fine a point on things, leads us stumblingly to the “poem-as-prognostication school” that believes A Season in Hell is some sort of psychic itinerary for Rimbaud’s later years. Reading Rimbaud, I think of Joyce’s description, evolved from Flaubert, of the artist standing back, paring his fingernails in the face of his creation. Of course, Rimbaud would famously turn his back on his work entirely, but while he was still at it he achieved a distanced poise hinted at all along and perfected in many of the late poems in Illuminations. And yet, contradictorily, his passage to that remove is through experience, often of the dirt beneath the fingernails variety, the rending and devouring of flesh.

One might say Rimbaud’s inconsistency is what’s most consistent. Ultimately, though, what makes a poet different from another, and what makes his work lasting and essential, is his eye, which some call “voice.” Rimbaud’s eye roams a world of girls with orange and green lips, talking boats, descriptions of rabbits’ visions, children looking out rain-coated windows, all of it seen in passing. The only still points in Rimbaud are the fact of the poems. Perhaps a provisional answer to your question then would be that Rimbaud is always a poet of movement. Even a poem like “Faun,” a description of silence and stillness, is disturbed by motion. Rimbaud’s poems fidget, wander, won’t stay still.

P&W: How would you compare the experience of translating Rimbaud with the other translations you’ve done-of renowned French prose writer Pierre Michon for instance?

WM: Michon’s narratives are short: A novel from him weighs in at around 15,000 words. In place of length, there’s density. Sentences go on for pages, are richly musical, full of echoes to earlier passages and dependent on sonorities and rhythms for a great deal of their power. Roger Shattuck says Michon’s writing can at any time lift or lower into semi-hallucinatory effects that recall Arthur Rimbaud’s assaults on conventional perception. So there’s a kinship that isn’t accidental: Michon read Rimbaud early and often, and has written a super little book called Rimbaud the Son that I’m doing into English right now. Anyway, I’d say that translating Michon’s writing requires the same level of engagement necessary when working with a poet of Rimbaud’s complexity and rigor. This isn’t always the case. Some writing is more transparent.

While no one sensible would argue that Hemingway didn’t put as much thought and craft into his style as Faulkner did, translating Hemingway would be a hell of a lot easier. Translation is basically close reading, and Hemingway is an easier read than Faulkner (which is, of course, not a comment on their relative artistic merits). All translation requires a dedication to meaning, but to get a Michon or Rimbaud right requires an extra engagement to the musical qualities of their language. Not every prose writer is a stylist, though every serious prose writer must at some point engage the question of style in narrative. Every poet, however, is by definition a stylist. “Style” or “voice” or “eye” is how we tell them apart. In order to maintain that telling difference, the translator has to serve often contradictory impulses: to the truth of meaning and the truth of music. Without both, the original gets hopelessly lost.

P&W: Some would argue that literal translation is the only acceptable way of proceeding without losing the poem.

WM: Literal translation is a necessary fiction. Borges says the idea of literal translation comes from translations of the Bible: “If we think of the infinite intelligence of God undertaking a literary task, then every word, every letter, must have been thought out. It might be blasphemy to tamper with the text written by an endless, eternal intelligence.” Borges found the idea of literal translation distasteful. He liked to imagine a time when “translation will be considered something in itself . . . when men will care for beauty, not for the circumstances of beauty.” Because: A poem is always lost in translation. So the key is finding it again in the language you’re translating into. The whole “literalism and its discontents” kerfuffle can’t be resolved-both sides have their points-but at least it can be anecdotally fun.

There’s the story about Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson. Nabokov, who never spent more than six years on a novel, spent twelve on his translation of Pushkin’s Onegin. He considered it the most important work of Russian literature, and dedicated himself to seeing justice done to it in English. The whole thing-notes, introduction, commentary-ends up being four volumes, around a thousand pages, Nabokov’s longest work. A masterpiece, one would think. When it comes out, Nabokov’s old friend Wilson reviews it. And trashes it. Says Nabokov doesn’t know Russian, gets words wrong. He also accuses Nabokov of being too literal, of stubbornly and pedantically refusing to put his considerable poetical gifts at the service of approximating the beauty of Pushkin’s Russian in English.

On one hand, Wilson’s response is just silly. Nabokov spoke and wrote English, French, and Russian with equal facility: In his phrase, he was born “a perfectly normal tri-lingual child.” Wilson was a dedicated student of Russian, but the idea of him correcting Nabokov on that count is comical. What isn’t so ridiculous is for Wilson to chastise Nabokov’s reluctance to come up with more lyrical solutions than he does. That’s an entirely reasonable point of view, one philosophically at odds with Nabokov’s position: He wasn’t trying to be lyrical. He was trying to be exact, to create a useful book for students, not a poem of equal value, which he believed was impossible. If he’d had the time, Nabokov would have translated a great deal more, and with the same objective. This was a man who taught comp-lit for over a decade at Cornell, fighting through what he considered abominable translations. If we look at his copies of the Constance Garnett Anna Karenina or the Muirs’ Kafka, he’s always correcting them. Nabokov’s allegiance, as a translator, was to students of the original, of whom he was one. Any translator’s ultimate allegiance must be to his readers, but always in the service of his writers.

Literal translations, like Nabokov’s Onegin, Wallace Fowlie’s Rimbaud, or Donald Frame’s Montaigne, are valuable scholarly works of unimpeachable integrity and seriousness. But none captures the very quality that makes each writer most unique: his style. Since most readers of works in translation will never read the original, translations destined for the general reader must convey style and substance in equal measure. To do so, the translator requires (in Nabokov’s famous formula) “a scholar’s passion and a poet’s patience blent.” How each of us interprets that equation is, of course, where the fun begins.

P&W: What value do you think reconsidering Rimbaud would have for contemporary readers and writers?

WM: When we look at Rimbaud, we can’t see him. There’s the same problem with Van Gogh. Van Gogh isn’t a painter anymore: He’s “the patron saint of the beaux-arts.” We look at a wheatfield and see a suicide; we look at a self-portrait and think about the whore he gave a piece of his ear to as a Christmas gift; we see squiggles and think of him dying for his art. We don’t see pictures: We see fame. Rimbaud’s mythic posterity has done a similar disservice to his poetry.

If we think of Rimbaud at all we think of the gay poet, or the adolescent poet, or the drug-addicted poet. These labels are problematic for all sorts of reasons, beginning with the facts of his life, which often don’t support the more exotic claims made for his biography. Regardless of what he may or may not have lived, we know without a doubt that he wrote poems. We even have them available to us. Yet it’s inevitable that when we go to the poems with such preconceptions, they’re all we end up finding.

The basic example: Letters and manuscripts bear out beyond any doubting that Rimbaud and poet Paul Verlaine were close friends. What follows from these facts is instructive: first, a supposition made by most of the biographers (variously corroborated through anecdote and documentation), that Verlaine and Rimbaud were lovers; then, in the hands of recent biographers such as Graham Robb, a deduction that Rimbaud was firmly gay; followed by an interpretation by writers such as Benjamin Ivry (in his Rimbaud of a few years back), that Rimbaud’s poems are gay poems; and finally, by Rimbaud critic Robert Greer Cohen, a conclusion that A Season in Hell, Rimbaud’s best-known work, should be read as the story of Verlaine and Rimbaud’s affair. This maddening plunge into conjecture, assumption, and narrow-mindedness is the rule of law in reading Rimbaud. Take the pages of critical space devoted to his self-proclaimed “long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses.” It makes him seem like a wild-man, a hell-raiser, an image to which many have grown attached: poet as party-animal.

I am not saying that Rimbaud wasn’t a wild-man. Rather, that I neither know nor care. What I know, after the chronological study that translating his complete works entailed, is evidence of an entirely different sort of fellow: a methodical poet who underwent a long, involved and logical engagement with the history of poetry. For when I translated those parts of his legacy that no one had bothered to translate before, a new Rimbaud emerged. Translating his student works, an early notebook, multiple drafts of key poems, and his fragmentary rough draft of A Season in Hell, I watched a poet deliberately forge an individual style by stealing from his predecessors. By looking, I saw-perhaps more clearly than with any other poet-how Rimbaud became Rimbaud. So many collected works of the Great Poets are these unassailable tomes. Eliot and Yeats and so many others pruned their Complete Works into a final, canonical form, discarding lesser efforts, or adjusting lines here and there, or, as with Whitman, rewriting one poem for 37 years. Rimbaud’s complete works are a partial mess, full of perfect and imperfect things. I don’t claim this makes him better or worse, only unique: His art remains forever unfinished. It’s full of false starts and wrong turns, and even a surprisingly happy ending. That happy ending, in the form of A Season in Hell and Illuminations, is the creation of a unique poetic voice, that, like all art, is one imagination speaking to another. And that’s always worth reconsideration.

Instinct, Energy, and Luck: An Indie-Publisher Roundtable on Literature in Translation

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

10.14.15

In the years I worked as a bookseller after college, I had the good fortune to encounter a wide range of literatures in translation. The indie bookshop I worked at, the now-closed Canterbury Booksellers in Madison, Wisconsin, had a section devoted to the work of Nobel Prize winners, as well as an international-fiction section. One of my fondest and most surprising reading experiences came after picking up a pale-green galley of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Knopf, 1997), knowing nothing yet of this author, but soon tumbling in awe through Murakami’s (translated) prose.

It wasn’t until I began working with the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF), an organization dedicated to creating connections among Bulgarian, American, and British writers, that I truly began to learn about the challenges of international literature reaching our shores, as well as the importance of nurturing an audience for it. Only approximately 3 percent of the books published in this country are works in translation, and, as the editors of the website Three Percent state, “In terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7 percent.”

Yet what I was discovering each summer I visited Bulgaria was an incredibly rich and diverse literary tradition—one in which I deeply wanted to immerse myself but was unable to because so few of these books had been translated into English. And Bulgaria is but one small country in the region. What other marvelous books from nearby neighbors like Greece and Serbia and Turkey was I not finding on the shelves back in the United States? The world of English-language publishing suddenly felt extremely small.

Through my work with the EKF, I also started meeting the editors and publishers of presses and literary journals, each passionate about bringing the best of international literature to English-speaking readers—places like Dalkey Archive Press and New Vessel Press, as well as publications like Absinthe: A Journal of World Literature in Translation and Words Without Borders.

So, as part of this issue dedicated to independent publishing, I planned to sit down with five editors and publishers to talk with them about the state of international literature, the particular challenges of focusing on books in translation, how to find readers for their titles, and what the industry should be paying attention to in the future.

Joining me were Barbara Epler, publisher and editor in chief of New Directions; CJ Evans, editorial director of Two Lines Press and editor of the biannual journal Two Lines: World Writing in Translation; Chad Post, founder and editor of Open Letter Books and Three Percent; Michael Reynolds, editor in chief of Europa Editions; and Jill Schoolman, founder and publisher of Archipelago Books.

How did you each come to publishing, particularly working with literature in translation? What drew you initially or continues to draw you today?
Michael Reynolds:
I never imagined a career in publishing until I woke up one day and had one. I was living in Rome in the early 2000s, at about the same time the founders and publishers of Europa Editions, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, were thinking about opening an American publishing house. At the time, I was doing odd jobs, among them running a writers festival in Rome with a couple of friends. Thanks to this work I was meeting quite a few Italian writers and publishing people. I got wind of what Sandro and Sandra were planning to do and decided to knock on the door of their Italian publishing house and offer my services—I had no idea of what those services might be.

As with most things in life, timing is everything. I was in the right place at the right time, because Sandro and Sandra were getting ready to announce the opening of Europa Editions at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That was the summer of 2004.

The seed of the idea started growing in them right after 9/11, when it seemed that once again the world was balkanizing, that the free exchange of ideas and opinions was being threatened, and that a surreal hysteria was enveloping the world—remember Freedom Fries? At the time, people all over the world, common people not intellectuals or academics, seemed to have fewer and fewer channels for communicating or communing. Sandro and Sandra [who founded Europa’s sister company in Italy, Edizioni EO, in the 1970s with the purpose of bringing unpublished, unknown, and under-appreciated authors from Eastern Europe to the Italian market] asked themselves what, as publishers, they could do to help overcome that communication breakdown. At the time, it also seemed to them—and, incidentally, not to anyone else—that an American publishing house focused on work in translation was a good business opportunity.

But beyond the business opportunity and the ideological motivation, there was also a more basic impulse: the desire to share something good. The fact that many of their favorite writers from Europe and elsewhere were not available to American readers because no publisher was in a position or of a persuasion to publish them in the States seemed almost unbearable. The explosion of social media demonstrates the basic human urge to share something that you feel strongly about with others. Europa was founded with this idea of sharing, of exchange, as its cornerstone.

My interest in international literature extends beyond the company that I work for, but I think it has found a natural home at Europa. And what continues to draw me to work with books in translation today is precisely this idea that something good is something that should be shared, in most cases with as many people as possible. I don’t believe that publishing work in translation should be considered a priori a noble endeavor. And I’m also dubious about the quantitative approach to evaluating where we’re at in terms of inclusiveness of literature in translation in the American culture of reading. I simply know that there are good, deserving, important, interesting, entertaining, provocative books being written in languages other than English. It’s a shame when those books cannot be read and talked about by people in America, the UK, Australia, etc. It impoverishes us all.

CJ Evans: Like Michael, I didn’t envision a career in publishing. I was working as the host in a “family brewpub”—which is as horrible as it sounds—in Portland in 2002 and a friend suggested I go up to Tin House magazine and see if they needed a poetry reader. I read for them for a while, then was hired as an editorial assistant for the magazine and to help with the development of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. When my wife and I moved to San Francisco in 2010, a friend suggested I check out the Center for the Art of Translation, which was, at the time, publishing an annual of international literature called Two Lines

I came on as the managing editor of Two Lines shortly thereafter. From the time I started, Olivia Sears, the founder of Two Lines and the Center, was talking about what the next steps for the journal might be. We had all of these wonderful contacts, primarily translators, built up from the nearly two decades of publishing, and felt that we could be doing more. We considered doing regional anthologies, but in nearly every issue we put out there was an excerpt from a book that we thought should be published in English, but couldn’t think of quite the right fit for a press to send the translator to. So, in 2012, Olivia; Scott Esposito, the marketing manager; and I decided we’d go for it and start the press to publish those books ourselves. 

Though I have always read literature in translation, my professional background had been much more focused on contemporary American literature. The way I like to think about it is that I don’t have any special interest in international literature. I’m, personally, very much not interested in the cultural dialogue aspects of it, even though I do see that there’s value in that. I’m interested in publishing the best books I can get my hands on, in a small press environment. And I firmly believe a huge percentage of the best books and writers are not in English. It is continually shocking to me how much amazing work hasn’t been published in translation yet. I think of a writer like Marie NDiaye, with whom we’ve done two books; she won the Prix Goncourt and was the youngest writer to ever be a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Someone of her stature would be unavailable to a press of our size in the US if she was writing in English. But because she’s French I’m able to publish her.

Barbara Epler: Not to be an echo chamber, but I also never thought I was going into publishing as a profession. If it is one!

I was disenchanted with staying on the professor track—and why I ever thought I would be one is long lost—and I was in love with someone in NYC and thrilled to get here. So I told my parents I was taking a year or two off before grad school and that I would get a job in publishing—thinking that that would be as easy as falling off a log. But then I couldn’t type and no one would hire me and it wasn’t until I met Griselda Ohannessian, who was running New Directions, that I met anyone who would talk to me.  

Now, it’s thirty-one years later.  

Jill Schoolman: I, too, sort of stumbled into publishing after having wandered around for a while trying various things. I started out working in film; I did a film course in Maine, worked on a few films in New York and then in Paris. In Paris I was also doing other things to make ends meet, like delivering pizzas on mopeds. After a few years of freelance film work, I started sniffing around for other possibilities. I then met Dan Simon and started interning for Seven Stories Press, where I learned a great deal about the business and about how much fun it could be to publish books. I was instinctively drawn to international literature. I grew up on a diet of classics from different parts of the world, I love traveling, and I love discovering a culture through its books and films.

After working as an editor with Seven Stories for a few years, I started dreaming out loud about starting a press devoted to international literature. It felt like a good moment to do it, and the people around me encouraged me to try to make it happen. I decided that if we set up Archipelago Books as a not-for-profit press, we might be able to be less dependent on book sales for survival. I’m very glad we did this. I was working out of my studio apartment for about a year, even after I hired a colleague and we enlisted a couple interns. My cat never seemed to mind, until our first books appeared in 2004, and she urged us in her way to find some office space.

Chad Post: After graduating from college, I worked at a couple of indie bookstores: Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina. I learned a ton of stuff from working in bookstores about the business end of things. But I ended up leaving [bookselling] because I wanted to get into the other side of things, helping decide which books would be sold, rather than hoping for someone else to make it possible for me to try and convince others to read these books.

At that time, Dalkey Archive had started a fellowship program, which was like grad school for publishing, but with a worse stipend. I was the first or second fellow to do this, back in the summer of 2000, and I quickly transitioned from working on editorial things to working with bookstores, and a year later was the director of marketing and sales. Fast forward seven years, and I ended up at the University of Rochester with two other former Dalkey employees, working on setting up a new publishing house that would support the literary translation programs the university wanted to launch. 

I think the thing I like best about being here in Rochester is the varied nature of what I’m doing as a “publisher.” Open Letter is a component of the University of Rochester, so our reader outreach and educational opportunities come more directly from a place geared toward expanding minds and whatnot.

The publishing side of things has been pretty tough. It takes a lot to get established sales wise, and although we’ve had some decent successes—Zone by Mathias Enard, The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov, The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra—there hasn’t been that true breakout title that changes your fortunes or gets the big mainstream media outlets to start paying attention to you. We have no Sebald or Bolaño or Ferrante or Knausgaard. One day!

Point being, if my job were only predicated on sales and our NEA grant, it would be fine, but maybe unremarkable? I think the things that define our organization, and the reasons I’m still in publishing—which can be grueling, especially if you started your press and are too close to it, emotionally tied to the successes and failures of the books—are all the ancillary things we do for readers: the Three Percent blog; the Translation Database, which, thanks to the wealth of data I’ve accumulated, is allowing me to work on a research project about how many books by women are translated from various languages and countries; the Best Translated Book Award; the podcast I do with Tom Roberge; even the World Cup of Literature and Women’s World Cup of Literature—two fun projects that I put together just to help get more people talking about more international literature.

The other thing that I really like about my position is working with young translators. Four to six translators come here every fall to get their MA, and I work with them all on a weekly basis, through the two classes I teach, by talking with them in the office, reading their samples, and organizing a weekly translation workshop for all the translators in the Rochester area—of which there are many, including Kerri Pierce and Lytton Smith, who are two of the best in the country. Without this sort of interaction, I think we’d really be cut off from the book world. Especially since there is no indie bookstore in town. 

What issues do you feel are most pressing for independent publishers in general and those working with literature in translation in particular?
Reynolds: In my mind, the No. 1 issue concerning the publication of work in translation is that of discoverability and promotion. I’m not entirely convinced that we have to dramatically increase the number of books in translation published here at all costs, but I definitely think that we need to grow the audience for those books that are published. Over the past ten to twenty years it seems to me that the focus has been on printing as many titles in translation as possible. But printing is not the same as publishing. I would like to see us all work more, and together, on innovative and effective ways of getting our books into the hands of a larger number of readers.

Evans: I very much agree with Michael that discoverability and promotion are the main difficulties we face, although I’m not ignoring the fact that editors at both small presses and major houses would identify the same challenge. Could any of us ever have enough readers? We made a very conscious decision early on to keep our list small so that we could continue to build the audience for our backlist and have every title we publish be a frontlist title.

In some ways I feel the literary community is coming around to translated literature, and the field has certainly grown in respect and readership since Olivia Sears started the journal Two Lines more than twenty years ago, but it still feels that we’re relegated to second class, that our books need to be classified in some category other than merely “books.” I love that organizations like PEN and Chad’s Best Translated Book Award exist, but I don’t understand why these translated books need to be distinguished from books written in English when it comes to awards and reviews. I don’t want our books to be “translated” books or “international” books, but just really good books. End stop.

I think some of this comes from a strategic mistake of the international-lit community years ago, when many translated titles were marketed as being “good for you” literature—marketed as books that would broaden a reader’s horizons. Some of it is ignorance about the artistry and skill of translators. Some of it, perhaps, is merely a type of systemic high-minded xenophobia. I think battling these challenges both within this smaller community of translation presses and within the slightly larger pool of literary presses and readers is essential to continued growth and sustainability.

Epler: I agree, and also, I think the main concern is finding readers for amazing books. Not necessarily flooding the market with more and more translations—as if that vision of emulating the flood of new English-language titles will get anyone anywhere. Say we wanted to have the German ratio of translated titles. Really? If we approach 40 or 50 percent, then we would have, say, 100,000 new translated titles annually. That also seems crackers. 

Schoolman: I’d say the most mysterious [issue] is how to survive. Someone should write a how-to book on the subject. How to keep our authors and translators writing, and how to stay afloat as a press when what trickles in doesn’t always amount to what’s flowing out in various directions. Because the dimensions of the industry—publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers and bloggers, distributors, readers, writers, agents, translators, educators—are changing so rapidly we need to find new ways of collaborating.

It’s an ongoing challenge to figure out what each book needs—they all have different needs and are born in different circumstances. It’s a creative process that involves instinct, energy, and luck. The most elusive question remains, How can we get our books noticed, and read?

Post: The publishing business can be really infuriating, and the fact that the main business model for the past few decades has been one of acceleration—acquire more presses; publish more books, faster; make them available quicker—is a good example of that. The field has created a glut that might have some benefits—more voices being published—but also ends up with a “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” way of promotion. For presses like the ones here, we need to be more innovative and interesting to cut through the six-figure marketing campaigns and seven-figure advances.

What are some of the means by which you have tried to break into the market as independent publishers?
Post
: First and foremost, when I think of our five presses and how we distinguish ourselves from most of the others, I think of the cover design. Archipelago is maybe the most distinct with the square format, but four of us all use covers that go together as a sort of set. And although New Directions doesn’t have one overriding “look,” there are subsets, like the Pearl series, and an overarching sort of feel to the look of the books. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but it’s helped us in getting people to recognize the press and to be able to know right off the bat that they’re looking at an Open Letter title when they see it in the store. My hope is that a good experience with one of our books makes a reader more willing to pick up the others, trusting that we won’t lead them astray, even if they haven’t heard of the particular author. And being able to identify our books at a glance should, theoretically, help that.

This is also in line with why we offered subscriptions right from the start. Although the content and styles of the books range widely, they somehow fit together and look nice on a bookshelf.

Evans: I agree with Chad that it’s important to develop a strong, identifiable brand—though I loathe that word—and that also extends to the voice of the press. One of the things I love about the presses in this roundtable is that each has its own aesthetic in acquisitions as well. In addition, with each book we try to find and target what we call the “one bigger pond” of readers. We don’t want to just step into the biggest ponds and always be the smallest fish holding out to land the cover of the NYRB, we want to step into the slightly bigger pond and see if we can wreak a little havoc as medium fish. We’d love to have that breakout title, but a lot of presses have gone under waiting for their Roberto Bolaño or Nell Zink.

For most titles we also put aside a little bit of money to try…something. Whether [it’s] a funky mailing to bookstore buyers, some extra ARCs to target academic or library sales, special events with new partners, whatever we think will work best with the resources we have for that title, with the idea that we’re also trying to make new connections for the press as a whole.

Subscriptions have been essential, as has been our nonprofit status, which lets us take some risks on books and marketing as we build the press—we’re the new kids on the block so we’re still in a period of experimentation. I certainly agree with Barbara that more and more books is not the answer—not only in translation—and I think trying to “create” readers sounds like a pretty tall challenge; I’d rather just poach readers of contemporary American literature for translated literature.

Epler: Long ago New Directions was heavily branded by the old black-and-white paperbacks, but now it’s less so. I think I can detect a sort of spectrum of design for our books, but I imagine that’s pretty much in the eye of the beholder in this case. I’d say more that New Directions tries to always bring out books of a certain quality and originality, to maintain among book buyers, booksellers, reviewers, and readers a sort of sense of what you’ll be getting if you pick up a New Directions book, which we hope is real art and deep pleasure.

However, I think this is so much more a preoccupation of publishers than of readers, who tend to follow writers, rather than thinking much about which house is bringing the writer out. I think it helps a lot if you can stick with authors and really represent them in English, and over time keep building their body of work here, which is a long and costly process but can really work, and result in a strong audience. Live events and getting the author and translator here is also key, as are appearances in magazines.

To put the books across, I think it’s a matter of trying everything you can think of and of having the sort of dedicated staff you need: It can be Crazy Town as far as how hard everyone here has to work. But it is immensely satisfying when you do find an audience for a great writer.

Reynolds: For Europa, it has been very much about branding. I gather there are more highfalutin words for this process—creating a personality, an identity, etc., that readers, retail partners, and members of the reviewing community learn to distinguish and trust over time—but I guess in the end it is just plain old branding. I like to think of what we do as being a conversation with these various players, meaning that I think of our publishing program as being a dialogue with readers. In the editorial choices we make and the way we go about publishing we are opening a conversation with an affirmation along the lines of: “This is what we think is important, interesting, significant, and entertaining. Take a look! What do you think?” We demarcate this conversation in a variety of ways: uniform design, acquisitions that fall within a certain range on the broad spectrum between experimental/densely literary and commercial, a way of approaching translation, etc. If we remain consistent with these aspects then we create an identity that can potentially ferry new, unknown, and foreign writers into the market.

In the end, I think it’s all about the books. This is a mantra I repeat to myself often. I don’t think publishers of our kind are in a position to make a success out of a really crappy book. The big guys and gals can do that; they have the marketing and leverage not only to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but also to fill that purse with gold. We can’t. We have to have good books, quality books that fit into the brand/identity/personality/conversation we have established with readers and retailers. What I’m sure we’ve all experienced, almost on a daily basis, is the opposite: failing to reach an audience with what we consider to be a really great book, one that sits perfectly on our list. You can do everything possible for a book and it still doesn’t work.

I’d like to talk a bit about the work of “outreach.” Obviously, this kind of activity fits more squarely into the mission of a nonprofit or a press connected with a university in the way Open Letter is. But I think it is also something that all presses should engage in. We have lost the ability to talk about books in meaningful ways. Most people are unable to go much further than a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, or appraise a work of literature with more than “I hated it” or “I loved it.” As a culture—I mean outside of our very limited clique—we have become critically illiterate; we no longer know how to understand, let alone express, the social, political, cultural, historical significance of a book. For that matter, we are almost incapable of expressing its significance for us even on a personal level. It may just be the way of the world—I think many people are conversant on the social and cultural significance of Breaking Bad, for example—and I should get over it. At the same time, I think a more critically literate readership would not only be important for the culture but would also mean that presses like ours would sell more books. Thus, perhaps efforts to grow this kind of critical literacy should be calculated more explicitly as part of our marketing budget. We are, after all, not simply trying to “break into the market” but also attempting to shape that market.

Let’s talk about a “critically literate readership,” the decline of which people often attribute, at least in part, to the shuttering of book pages in newspapers and decreased coverage for literature in periodicals. But at the same time, as the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review, I also know that there are a number of venues out there for thoughtful discussion of books. So where are people having the sorts of conversations about books that you wished more readers were aware of? Or what avenues for outreach would you either direct people toward to widen those conversations or propose creating, if you’re not already engaged in doing so?
Reynolds: I think you’re opening up a can of worms with this one. The conversation is long, deep, and broad. I’m going to try to condense some of my thoughts into morsels.

I like Fiction Writers Review and I respect what you’re doing there. In many ways it corresponds to exactly the kind of conversation about books that I suggested in my earlier answer we lack. But the context does not. This is not really because FWR and like-minded venues are doing something wrong, but rather because the media of mass culture are not behind you. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I imagine that the readers of FWR belong to a specific demographic and in many ways represent a cultural elite; and, perhaps even more poignantly, are mostly writers, who may or may not be real readers—a whole other can of worms. There is, as a result, an insularity to that kind of conversation that is unhelpful for the larger goal of making books and discussion about books relevant to “the masses.”

Consider the sheer number and the production quality of television programs about sports, movies, celebrities, TV, and the immense creativity that goes into developing and duplicating formats on these subjects. These programs cater to and shape the opinions and the conversations of many millions of people. As far as I know, there is currently no TV format dealing with books. Do we need one? Christ, I don’t know. I haven’t owned a TV for thirty-five years. But I do find the idea of using the means of mass culture to diffuse a vocabulary for talking about books appealing.

To be honest, the place where I see the kind of conversation about books that I desire happening most often is in the good old-fashioned book group. Book-group members, if you exclude New York, mostly don’t work in publishing and are not connected to the book industry at all. They are not academics. They are working people, housewives, the elderly, etc., who seek a congenial “third place” connected to their passion for reading and for talking. If the label and the formalities of running a book group fell away, this kind of atmosphere, and this kind of conversation, is my ideal. This “third place/great good place” idea that, frankly, I first heard about only a few years ago at Winter Institute, has crystallized a lot of my thinking on these questions. When I imagine “conversation about books” I don’t think of a lecture hall, an online magazine, publishing parties, or the pages of the New York Times; I think of a pub. Specifically I think of the pub on the corner of my street where I sometimes stop for a beer on my way home. If, in that context, in cities and towns across the country, in addition to talking about the merits of a sports player or a celebrity, patrons were also hotly debating the merits of a recent novel and pulling apart what was innovative about it and what had been rehashed from the literary tradition, I would feel that we had gone a long way to becoming “critically literate” as a culture.

Fostering this dialogue cannot be simply a question of preaching to the choir or making privileged people more privileged. As such, in my opinion, the organizations we must entrust to foster the ability to appreciate, place, understand, and talk about books are: public schools, libraries, community and continuing-education systems, universities. Other noninstitutional organizations whose efforts I feel run in this direction are in-school initiatives like Girls Write Now and writers and poets in the schools; failed experiments like Book Night, and more successful ones like One City, One Book; college “freshman reads” programs; etc.

page_5: 

We, as an industry, have our share of the blame in all this. We publish too many books. We publish too many insignificant books. As a result it becomes very difficult for an important book, one that can be enjoyed and talked about by people from many walks of life, to make its way amid the dreck to readers.

This will sound like a cop-out—we haven’t really initiated or engaged in any specific outreach programs—but I think our publishing program itself, and the readership it targets, are both conceived partially as a response to this crisis in critical literacy.

I also agree that online journals, book sites, and the like can be a bit of an echo chamber and perhaps broadcast to a narrow audience. This is partly the reason FWR founded an annual daylong literary symposium in Ann Arbor, free and open to the public, called the State of the Book, and why we now are one of the sponsors for the Voices of the Middle West festival each spring—a similar event that tries to nurture a broader conversation about books in collaboration with the university and some local community organizations. We especially try to reach out to younger readers and college students through these various channels. I’m curious to hear from others about similar programs that you’ve found equally beneficial on this front, or initiatives that might be adopted elsewhere, whether they’re projects of your own or others. And, of course, those engines—whether online or on the ground—that are helping foster the most productive conversations.
Schoolman: I love the long-form critical essay, in which the lines between writer, reader, and critic blur, where there is room to explore the inner world of a book and its cultural context, where there is room for the critic-writer’s own ideas to emerge and breathe. There are still places where this is possible: the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Threepenny Review, Guernica, Asymptote, Music & Literature, the White Review, the Quarterly Conversation.

I agree with Michael that the best, most far-reaching conversations about books can happen in a local bar—the relationship between the overworked editor and the local bar is of course another question to explore—where people can express themselves without a lot of literary jargon. Archipelago has an ongoing relationship with a fantastic organization based in Staten Island, New York, called OutLOUD. It does an inspiring job of bringing people of all ages together from various walks of life to read and think about books and art. The conversations about our books and the worlds each has emerged from are always alive and move in surprising directions.

I’m intrigued by Michael’s comment about writers not necessarily counting as readers. Are you saying that they read in a different way? That reading is perhaps more essential to them than to other people? Or…?

Reynolds: Sorry, Jill. My comment about writers/readers wasn’t clear at all. I just meant that I am often surprised at how writers or those who have aspirations to be writers are not careful, prolific readers and converse about books in too businesslike a way, if at all. In addition, a high number of visitors to FWR and other similar venues may not be an indication of a largish public engaging in meaningful discussion about books and their place in the culture and society because many of those visitors may be aspiring writers engaging in the conversation in order to advance their careers rather than to pursue a genuine, disinterested engagement with the literary and artistic questions being raised. I’m not necessarily against writers advancing their careers! But this is not the kind of critical literacy, nor the kind of disinterested dialogue, I was talking about in my original comment.

Post: All the places Jill mentions are ones I would think to recommend as well. Drawing on Michael’s response, though, I do think there is a difference between the audiences reading the White Review or Quarterly Conversation—mostly people looking for high-minded discussion of capital-L Literature—and casual readers discussing books in a bar. To create and sustain a vibrant book culture we need to have outlets from both ends of the spectrum—along with Twitter conversations that range in quality from witty banter to knee-jerk reactions to measured comments [from] book clubs and mainstream reviews—since there’s no single way people can, or should, be interacting with and talking about books. Although what’s most important, in my opinion, is getting people who aren’t writers or publishing people talking about books. That’s what we exist for, right?

When I worked in independent bookstores, the sort of conversation Michael and I are pining for seemed to happen on a regular basis, both among booksellers and with customers. It probably still does, but there’s no bookstore in Rochester where this experience could possibly take place—something that’s likely the case in a lot of other midsize cities. My local bar, NOX, is actually book-themed, so it could be a bar where books are discussed. I would very much like that.

Reynolds: The conclusion to this whole conversation: books and booze, together forever!

Post: Cheers!

Epler: That sort of sounds like a wrap. Or last call? Just a final note so I don’t feel like a liar: I hands-down agree with talking up books anywhere and everywhere—which is why we have canaries here tweeting away, though I don’t know what they might be twittering—and we love any book talk from the highbrow journals to suburban book clubs to bar chats, but I do have to say—just to be honest—that New Directions just doesn’t do the sort of outreach that’s been mentioned, and much admired by me, such as Jill’s OutLOUD efforts and FWR’s engagement with local community organizations. We donate books to prisons and to some libraries, and give time to PEN and whatnot, but really we’re not that socially conscious. Maybe the old dog can learn new tricks, but that’s the truth these days. Now, back to the bar!

Evans: Practically, I’d love to see an organized effort in MFA programs and colleges to encourage the next generation who want to get into publishing to pursue some of the areas behind the scenes. If every person who starts a new literary journal in the next year would instead focus on hosting a book club at a local bookstore—or bar!—we’d be a healthier community. Or tackle the problems in literary magazine distribution. Or work at nonprofit fund-raising and/or lobbying for literary nonprofits. These are not as sexy as being an editor—although I assume my fellow panelists will agree that there’s very little that’s sexy about actually being an editor—but the same attention in the MFA programs to the real health of publishing as to pedagogy could do a lot for the industry.

I apologize for ending on a down note, but a certain amount of the reading audience is just gone—there’s simply other media that appeals more to a lot of the broader audience. But we’ve hopefully learned, after the rise and leveling of the e-book panic, that there continues to be an audience, and a sizable one, for literary books. But we need to rebuild the base of our industry and foster not readers necessarily, but rather those who will get the books into the readers’ hands. More book clubs. More diversity. More lobbying. More education nonprofits. More pop-up bookstores. More ideas and risks and people to start the casual conversations in the bar that end deep at last call.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is the assistant director of the English Department Writing Program. He is also the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review as well as a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

How Do You Translate a Gunshot? Charlie Hebdo, Francophone Culture, and the Translation Conundrum

by

Jennifer Solheim

10.14.15

This past May, more than four months after the January 7 massacres at the Charlie Hebdo offices, I arrived in Paris for a research trip. On one of my first days there, I stopped in the Place de la République to see the vestiges of the impromptu Charlie memorial on the Marianne monument. In the words of Charlie Hebdo scholar Jane Weston Vauclair, the day after the killings, “people gathered in [the Place de la République] haltingly, haphazardly and almost confusedly. [There were] candles, and someone climbed the monument to put a black armband [on one of the statues of Marianne]. There was applause from the crowd at someone at least doing something, with sporadic burstings out of ‘Liberté d’expression!’” In the days and weeks that followed, graffiti appeared on the monument as well. On the bright May afternoon when I visited, it was mostly back to old purposes: People sat on its round base, eating sandwiches, talking on their phones; skateboarders used it to break their falls. But some of the armbands remained, along with Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”) scrawled in various spots, fanzine-like images plastered here and there, and one of the Mariannes had a black X scrawled across her lips. 

I snapped pictures and posted a few shots on Instagram and Facebook. I was thinking about showing these pictures to students in my Paris literature and culture course at the University of Illinois in Chicago this fall. I could literally point to different elements of the pictures to show the layers of history and culture. We could, for instance, compare this current iteration of Marianne, with the black X on her lips, to the many artistic representations of Marianne in France since she first became an allegory of French liberty opposed to monarchical rule in 1792.

Of course I was also considering the awful events of January 7 that took place so close to the Place de la République. As many know, the Charlie staff was holding a meeting when two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, stormed their offices and shot twelve people to death. I thought about the blank horror of moving from the sound of familiar voices to the sound of gunshots. Did the victims know why they were being killed? Did they think of the Danish cartoon affair in that moment? Did they hear the first gunshots before they were deafened by the noise? Were they already deaf by the time the shooters proclaimed the vicious attack on behalf of Islam?

But the true stakes of posting my photos became even clearer to me later that evening, when I returned to the home of my friends Weston Vauclair and her husband, David, in the Bastille. Weston Vauclair is an independent scholar, translator, and teacher in Paris; she wrote her dissertation on Charlie Hebdo and its predecessor, Hara-Kiri. Jane and David have also cowritten a book about the history of Charlie Hebdo, forthcoming from the publisher Eyrolles. Needless to say, both Jane and David have been in demand on the lecture circuit since the attacks. Jane was heading to Belfast in a few weeks for a conference on the Charlie Hebdo attacks that was almost canceled due to alleged safety concerns. She was also wrangling with the cancellation of the two panels on Charlie Hebdo at the joint International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference and International Bande Dessinée Society Conference at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP), which were called off after the near cancellation of the Belfast conference. 

“But,” Jane wondered aloud as we sat with David in their living room drinking tea, “if we can’t utter the words Charlie Hebdo, why is the panel on the representation of Islam in cartoons allowed to stand?” This led to a series of satiric questions on Jane’s part, which she later posted online as part of her protest over the censure of Charlie at the conference: 

  • Is it okay to mention Charlie Hebdo out loud as a word in the building?  
  • If one encounters a ULIP student, may we ask them their opinion on the Charlie Hebdo panels being removed?
  • Is it possible to wear a ‘Je suis Charlie’ T-shirt?
  • Is it possible to wear a ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ T-shirt?
  • Is it possible to wear a T-shirt that looks like ‘Je suis Charlie’ but in fact says something else? 
  • Is it possible to bring copies of Charlie Hebdo into the building?
  • Is it possible to bring copies of the old Charlie Hebdo (from the ’70s?) into the building 
  • Is it possible to mention Hara-Kiri but in fact mean something else when we say it?
  • May I talk about Charlie Hebdo but in a language only I can understand?
  • Is interpretive dance allowed?

Before I went to bed that night, I looked at the Charlie memorial photos again, this time in my Facebook feed. These photos were “liked,” of course, particularly the one