Migrant Words / Palabras Migrantes, by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, trans. Christina MacSweeney

Migrant Words / Palabras Migrantes
by Verónica Gerber Bicecci
translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
(Impronta)

There are simply too many ways to start a discussion on this book. I’ll say first that I’ve never read a book like Migrant Words / Palabras Migrantes, and my bookshelf is better 67305970_2280448032062920_1451312665279332352_ofor having the book on it, which is also how I feel about Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s other book in Christina MacSweeney’s translation, Empty Set. (I also have a tattoo from that book.)

The book is a medley recounting the Migrant Words workshops Verónica Gerber Bicecci held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in elementary and high schools there. Jackson Hole, being “a financial paradise for the super-rich,” is an interesting place to hold these workshops. But perhaps all the better for it.

It’s hard to discuss the book without ruining the pleasure of reading it, the unfolding of form and bilingual (and the “what does that even mean?” the text evokes) words, the appreciated and never spoken-down-to opinions and ideas of the young people who took part in the workshops. Perhaps one of the most lovely things about this book is the seriousness with which the author, translator, and editor—in conversation with each other through the comments peppering the margins of the wide pages, beautiful to the touch—take each other’s and the students’ words. But not just the seriousness, the playfulness, too. Verónica Gerber Bicecci discusses her family’s migrant status, Italy-Argentina-Mexico; in the margin, Christina MacSweeney discusses her own mixed heritage, Irish, but she “[is] definitely English. Not feeling a fixed national identity can free up many areas of life.”

Today, the word “migrant” causes tension in conversation. It is refreshing to see it considered here so head-on, put into context against what most people might not expect—translation—to highlight its place in the world. When Verónica Gerber Bicecci asked students to discuss where they were “from,” “[t]he majority found themselves to be part of a genealogy of every variety of geographical movement: from one continent to another one country to another, one state to another. The Hispano-Americans are not, then, the only migrants to come to the United States, to that classroom.”

81ISreUQ2ILIf I’m allowed to butt into the margins here with my own commentary, post-author, post-translator, post-editor: I often have the good luck of GerberBicceci_EmptySet_9781566894944_1024x1024having the right book land in my hands at the right time. During a time of turbulent travel, I happened to pick up Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft’s Flights; during a time when I felt particularly lost and confused, I picked up Empty Set on a whim (that tattoo picture here). Now, at a time when I am facing another international move, I find this book in front of me, ready with its consideration of what it is to be a migrant. Migrant—immigrant—nomad. What is this spectrum? An immigrant is said to “move permanently to a new 29597726_10156367754727244_4407831563568310797_ncountry,” whereas the migrant is “a person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions.” My parents are immigrants, and I have the annoying half-accent and restlessness to show for it. Am I a migrant? A very, very privileged one? Does this help the discourse? Probably not. Existential crisis aside, this book begs to be read personally, to be related to. You can read it in an hour, but you should spend many more re-reading it.

We often see translators relegated to the sides, to the inside title pages, left off of covers and out of reviews, and if they’re in them they’re often paired with shudder-inducing words like “apt” and “skillful,” or, if they’re very unlucky, “choppy”. It’s rare, refreshing, and delightful to see the translator—and here, the editor!—invited into the text to comment, to converse. The border of the text is blurred, which is something I’m coming to expect from Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and I need more. Christina MacSweeney’s translation is playful (I don’t read Spanish at all, but comparing her translation into English of the English in Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s Spanish, I see a teenager saying “I think we both are?” rendered as “Maybe we both are?”, which is a beautiful shift into slightly-flippant-but-still-serious US teen vernacular), elegant, joyful and grounded, and—dare I say—smooth. It is also wonderful to see the issue of translation itself considered by young people and it being tied so explicitly to migration, a metaphor without making a metaphor: “Even though ‘migrant’ and ‘translation’ are two different words, the visual logic of these drawings is very similar: something that is split in two, but also apparently balanced.”

This book is excellent. It is one of a small edition limited to 450 numbered copies, and I’m the very proud owner of #0056. Snap it up and enjoy. Find out about elephants in rooms, white boards, and pages, about bridges and borders, and what the emoji for migration might be.

“Migration… is a movement from one place to another that makes you into an outsider.”

Advertisements

Mars, by Asja Bakić, trans. from the Croatian by Jennifer Zoble

Mars
by Asja Bakić
translated from the Croatian by Jennifer Zoble
(The Feminist Press)

I want to start this review by saying that I am farfrom an expert on speculative fiction, 9781936932481_FCso please bear with me. And since there is a lot of room for potential spoilers, I’m going to speak pretty vaguely so really, you should go get the book.

Also, as someone who is not well-versed in speculative fiction, this book is weird and it’s great.

I’m one of those in the camp that really likes horror but has issues, honestly, with anxiety and I’m prone to stay up late torturing myself with the images of scary movies and stories (even .gifs from scary movies will get me). This book is a complete mind-melt and sends you skittering, and if you find yourself reading late at night, you will get taken aback and won’t be able to put it down (trust me).

In this story collection, the reader is introduced to a myriad of bizarre and unsettling characters: a newly-dead author, neighbor children suspecting a murderer, a murderer, a cyborg, a Martian/Ozian cult, a writer banished to Mars, and so many others. All of them are incredibly odd, incredibly unsettling. The book begins with a freshly-dead writer discussing death and God with two entities that she may have thought up, who need her, who resurrect her–really, everything must be weird after that. However, for me personally, Abby was the story that came so out of left field for me that I realized that I truly, in reading Mars, was on a wholly different planet. After that, anything becomes possible.

Ellen Elias-Bursać, in her poignant and informative afterword, states, “Asja Bakić strikes and eerie, Poe-like note in her stories, projecting dystopia through the lens of female sexuality.” This is, indeed, the lynch pin of the work: it is fascinating that this book, rife with oddness, murder, uncertainty, and horror, is ultimately so much boiled down to this point. Female sexuality, viewed itself as a horrifying thing, becomes Schadenfreude and justice all in one, justifying itself in its own horror, as much as the rest of the content of this work. After all, what would you do with your clone?

Jennifer Zoble, the translator, does such a beautiful job with the ins and outs of this very odd language, of this very odd book. There are moments where the Croatian rings through the English, that the pacing seems so slow, trudging through lunch to rush to a murder. It’s part of the uncanniness of the work, continually leading the reader down strange paths to bring them out of the forest into the middle of coral reef, to a Martian desert. Was this even on the map?

This is one of my favorite quotes from the book:

When Mama and Papa look at their daughters, they see butterflies with short lifespans, not cockroaches. Or two hummingbirds, as they sometimes call them–not knowing that birds descended from dinosaurs, that birds survived what even cockroaches perhaps couldn’t.

This whole book is about copies, the imitation finding the self. It is all a becoming. We are presented with a world of horror: where neighbors become murderers; where husbands gaslight their robot spouses; where literature is banned and becomes currency; where gender roles persist even in a world without sex. Is this Mars? Let us never go there.

If you want to see an excerpt from the book, check out “The Talus of Madame Liken” over at World Literature Today.

Accommodations, by Wioletta Greg, trans. from the Polish by Jennifer Croft

Accommodations
by Wioletta Greg
translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft
(Transit Books)
Out July 9, 2019

I first fell in love with Wioletta Greg on reading Swallowing Mercury in Elizaswallowing mercury Marciniak’s translation, also put out by Transit Books, when the book made me cry in a café (over a very lackluster cappuccino) in Tampa, Florida. If you want a heart-tugging memoir-like collection that is by turns nostalgic, funny, and gasp-inducing, it’s the collection for you.

I had been long looking forward to this novel by Wioletta Greg, in translation here by the excellent and Man-Booker-winning Jennifer Croft. I steeled myself with a packet of tissues as I dug into this book, but I didn’t cry; rather, this is the sort of book that becomes the reason you carry dark circles under your eyes. At 113 pages, it’s a slim text, but for that, it’s another—if I may so term it—Gregian punch to the gut. Read in public at your own risk.

accommodationsDo you like fairy tales? Do you like coming-of-age stories? Do you like works that send you scuttling down hours-long Google hunts? This is the book for you.

At the plot level, we have our protagonist, Wiola, who has come from her mother’s house in the village to study in Czestochowa, where she has a hard time fitting in with her fellow students. We find out more about her life at the boarding house, and then later in the convent where she is given refuge after the boarding house becomes uninhabitable (no spoilers!).

But this book is so much more, though that narrative is rich in itself. Our protagonist is a perfect receptacle of stories, a sieve for the tales she is told which are then served up uncannily to the reader. We actually know very little about the narrator—she’s “uncomfortable in the company of her peers,” choosing to dress as a witchy child, doing witchy-child things like going from store to store smelling the paints there, reading the labels on old clothes, writing stories in daffodil-covered notebooks. She, like the people around her, drops everything to listen to a story: we as readers have already done so and it’s by turns unsettling and enriching to see the people we’re reading about sit cross-legged and starry-eyed around a storyteller.

Wiola, later named Anula by a nun losing track of her own stories, is a Sleeping Beauty figure with Snow White undertones: she slices her finger at the point of nearly losing her virginity, losing her innocence at the moment that her boarding house itself is plunged into darkness, mystery, and hiding; she even befriends a rat, and awaits a prince to kiss her from her sleep. She is a child awaiting Santa Claus, a patient receiving witch’s brew, a vessel for stories.

But in this story we also see a parade of other fairy tale characters and creatures: a sinister Little Red Riding Hood landlady who tells her, “…make sure you remember your first dream in your new accommodations tonight—it might come true”; a Cyclops; a coven/convent of witchy nuns who brew herbal remedies. Next to these larger-than-life figures, Wiola, the perfect pliable protagonist, and so the reader, is left small, “[looking] up at the sky through the inside of snail’s shell.”

Beyond this is the evolution of the narrator and so of the reader: it’s not just a loss of innocence, but the recognition that this loss of innocence is crucial to the growth of Wiola, the metamorphosis and becoming into more-than-Wiola, without wanting here to give too much away. Losing, here, is movement, the book is a losing of one’s self, a “kind of forgetting.” Wiola-Anula stares at the cross of a nun “that glitters over her neck like a molted mayfly, its nymph self lost.” To remain a nymph is ideal, but stasis is death here, in a world that interrupts fairy tales with real life, guns, and bombs. She says of her father, “My dad was a taxidermist, beekeeper and angler. Looking through nature books, he’d spend hours on end telling me tales of rare species of fish and birds, and then with great relish he would catch them, then kill them.” It is in this growth that the reader’s chrysalis is formed, where the most change occurs and simultaneously we are most vulnerable. It is a growth—towards what? Something less cruel than the parades around us?

I would be remiss without commenting here on the language, which is arresting in Croft’s excellent and elegant translation. On the first page of the book, we see Wiola: “[s]itting on my suitcase I stare out the window, where the sunlight disappears into the poplars like when water closes over a cuttlefish.” Or consider: “I see a dark green plant with little yellow splotches that looks, under the autumnal drizzle, like a severed alligator’s tail.” This is contrasted with the language of the other characters, who ask for “water zappers” and “little heater-uppers”—utterly charming. We are handed ingredients for witch’s smallhands_onlinebrew throughout, and we must drink.

Have you read Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, translated by Lisa 420c12ee96dec5a40560d8b40d15ce36Dillman (also Transit Books), or My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press)? These works move towards a similar vague sense of dread, of the horror of vagueness and the left-unsaid, of real life interrupting the imaginary. Don’t read them in a row—they’ll haunt you in the realest sense.

My only complaint about Accommodations is that it isn’t longer. I for one am hooked on Wioletta Greg and demand more.

Autobiography of Death, by Kim Hyesoon, trans. from the Korean by Don Mee Choi

Autobiography of Death
by Kim Hyesoon
translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi
Art by Fi Jae Lee
(New Directions)

I first read this book in winter, in a smoky café that had its Christmas lights up. I then read it AutobiographyofDeathnewagain last week sat under my air conditioning unit when it felt too muggy and hot to move outside. The experience of reading this collection of poems is unsteadying: it seems like a winter book, but reading it in summer is de-centering in an utterly different way. This book, the International Winner of the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize, feels holographic when you read it: different lights cast different colors, and it’s always moving.

I’m concerned that this review will be too short, but I’m honestly afraid of saying too much about the book: it would be easy to ramble and postulate, but the fact is, one must simply sit and read it. What I will say is: Kim Hyesoon penned these poems, which number 49 (one for each day that a soul must wait after dying to be reincarnated), after the 2014 sinking of the Sewol Ferry, which killed 304 of the passengers aboard, many of whom were secondary school students. With the capsized ferry hanging over the collection, the poems are sodden in, above all else, despair. The collection, itself a stationary object, is a moving-through.

The collection is preoccupied with nightmarish impossibilities captured within objects, with movement within stasis. Witness:

In the morning, filthy flowers bloom inside your eyes!
They burrow through your black pupils
Creepy pistils and stamen protrude through them!

and

What’s the point of flying when the sky is the inside of a grave?

So many times in this collection there are horrifying moments, nightmare-like fantasies that we, relieved, push away on waking. It cannot happen, we say, it will not happen: but it can, and that is where the horror, and the despair, burst from. How could this happen? Kim Hyesoon asks. “So, where are you going / with a red foreclosure notice stuck to your back?” Our bodies are never truly ours, so how do we pay taxes on them? Death is the where, death is the why, and for us, it is cruel and it is senseless.

The collection grasps at reality. The reader is arrested by the doubling that takes place in the lines, in the mentions of things that are brightly bright, of enormously enormous envelopes, and

don’t go don’t go don’t come don’t come

and

you bark kung kung at your own name that’s running away
like a dog barking at the moon

The doubling, here, ensures and sets the magic and the movement, while also pegging the lines into place. We are reminded that “pain is deep, death is shallow and made ridiculous by pain”—this is the answer to that ridiculousness, to the despair that our little bodies cope with.

Throughout the collection, devastatingly rendered into English by the wonderful Don Mee Choi, the reader is broken down over and over again. It’s a beautiful breaking down, and a wondrous rendering. The English here is exhausting as much as it is itself exhaustion (“Please give me the there / the arrival after arrival,” a begging for stability), the translation is itself as inevitable, terrible, and beautiful as the doublings and holograms cast by the lines. Another beautiful part of the text is that which is not text, but the artwork by Fi Jae Lee, which is peppered throughout. At first appearing bubbly, the artwork is itself drooping and loopy, sinister and endlessly complex. The drawings are the same trick as a magic eye picture: you must learn the unfocusing that leads to focusing, and the learning comes from the poetry.

81ISreUQ2ILIf I may, I’d like to recommend companion reads to this one. If you 81HntRt80VLwant to be devastated reading poetic prose based in real-life events, I recommend Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, which beautifully weaves together many instances of stomach-jerking, rug-out-from-under-your-feet events that leave the reader reeling; and Human Acts by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, rooted in the Gwangju Uprising and massacre. Human Acts, too, is rooted deeply in senseless death of young people, and starts with a dread-inducing view of a drifting afterlife. All three of these books kicked me in the stomach, and they all have a deep hold on my heart and my guts.

Why is your soul human when your spine is a pen and your shadow is a hen?
Is it true that poets see a piece of filthy paper at the time of their death?

Birnam Wood, by José Manuel Cardona, trans. from the Spanish by Hélène Cardona

Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam
by José Manuel Cardona
translated from the Spanish by Hélène Cardona
(Salmon Poetry)

If you’ve ever seen one of those .gifs that is meant to help regulate your breathing when Taking_Time_Out_Cover.qxdyou feel an anxiety attack coming on, you’ll recognize the mood set in this collection of poetry. Birnam Wood is a collection you pick up when the cycle of life—creation, destruction, love, everything—gets to be too much. These poems are the kind that make you feel small in the world, but in a cottony kind of way: being small does not mean being insignificant. Being set into a myth, even as an observer, needn’t be frightening, and here is even grounding.

The book is divvied up into three sections: Poems to Circe, The Vintner, and Other Poems. For this reader at least, it is hardly an easily-perceived division as, while the subject matter itself varies, the feeling and movement of the collections rushes up and over itself overwhelmingly, like sitting in sucking and rushing waves on a stony black beach. The delineations in the book are buoys marking your progress as you’re swept further and further out.

In a world that needs more witches, this collection is a joy to read: the author gives the power to the reader to create the witch, our Circe, and carry her name and spells with us. It is this creation that is so much the crux of the work, but the reader is continually reminded that creation has a price. And when you’re creating an immortal witch, you’re playing with fire and crags, and love.

[…] love itself was making you.
I created you, Circe; humanly
I keep recreating me in your image,
I keep recreating you and living
My creation in you, until I don’t know
Or confuse, by dint of knowing,
Where you, reality, start
And where I, desire, end.

There is a cloying need in this creation, a desperation to be recognized as creator and loved in turn as much as the creator loves the creation. When there is no home on the horizon, the creator must create and so becomes in creation, and vice versa. The author created Circe to see her make magic, created her so that he can believe in magic. It is a beautiful selfishness, a living haunting.

I have the ageless power of volcanoes
And I feed my thirst for adventure.
You already recognize, Circe, my bones.
[…]
I’ve traded my peace for the knife.
I’m here to abolish Death.
Those who believe in me will not die.

These are the rules of Cardona’s poems: Creation is possession. Destruction is possession. Love is possession. Possession is destruction. Recognition is immortality.

Here, love is the space between the symbiosis of creation and destruction. It is the yin-yang symbol pushing itself around and within, endlessly and hypnotically.

A creature with no home is a living ghost. The stubbornness of living, of refusing to die, in creating so as to preserve one’s own bones when they no longer belong to us, is the anxiety-inducing and poignant linchpin of this collection of poems. The need to be seen and loved trumps all else, and makes a fool of the creator. But we love the fool, because the fool is us. Just as the creation is also us: in reader, we are created as reader by author. We are claimed and owned, just as we, like Circe, by turns shuck off and adore the eyes and hands of the creator.

Only man is capable of destroying
what he never created
and he alone believes belongs to him.
Seeing is not enough to live,
everything has to be his, owned.

I do not read Spanish at all, and am grateful to Hélène Cardona, translator and daughter of author and creator José Manuel Cardona, for rendering this collection in English. Because it is a rendering, as the words themselves seem rent from the Spanish and forged and recast into English, much like the “crown like a yoke / Macerated in irons and crystals.” The translation, the poems, glimmer and cast shadows, breaking over the cliffs the lines comprise of. The poems spill over themselves but then come to collect themselves in little pools: the anxiety breaks over the reader’s head but collects into the vintner’s glasses of heady wine that cozily overwhelms.

All is consumed, Circe, and I live.

The White Book, by Han Kang, trans. from the Korean by Deborah Smith

This review first appeared in August 2018 on the American Literary Translators Association blog.

The White Book
by Han Kang
translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Portobello Books, 2018

One weekend last Women in Translation Month, I found myself hypnotized by The White 9781846276958Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. The scene was almost too idyllic: it was a rainy night, and surprisingly cool for Belgrade—appropriately, Serbian for the white city—in August. The White Book is one that you read when it is cold out—or when you want to feel a chill in your bones, when you want to be reminded of the whiteness within your body, of all that will eventually be left.

The concept of the book is simple: it is a meditation on things white. Snow, swaddling bands, rice—but also shrouds, bones. The text illuminates the line of the fragility between life and death, and how one can mean the other for yourself, for someone you know, or someone you never got to know. Here, the author meditates on the deaths of the siblings who came before her and died a few hours after birth, knowing that had they lived, she would never have been born:

This life needed only one of us to live it. If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now.
       My life means yours is impossible.
       Only in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach, do we manage to make out each other’s faces.

In reading this text, one cannot help but ponder the black and white—this book, in being The White Book, tosses that black, that ether, to the reader to consider for herself—and the knowledge that real life is fuzzy. But sometimes it is also ultimate, as here. And that finality looks at itself, a dark mirror.

That human beings are constructed of something other than flesh and muscle seemed to her like a strange stroke of luck.

This meditation on fragility, on luck, is poignant: Who doesn’t think about all of the events that had to fall into place in order for us to simply exist? Like the “sharp implement” used to carve the number into the door of the apartment the narrator lives in, the text drives this condition into the reader’s eyes and mind.

One cannot meditate on the text without drawing attention to the language, rendered—would it be a pun to say incandescently?—into English from the Korean by Deborah Smith. Fog obscuring the world as it moves from night to day is described with “each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness”; waves are literally highlighted as “each wave becomes dazzlingly white at the moment of its shattering.” The text is itself shattering; it reads as poetry boiled overnight in a pot and served up as prose.

This book is preoccupied with transformation. Skin into bones, swaddling bands into shrouds, snow into waves, life into death. This preoccupation is appropriate, as the book, being a translation, is itself a transformed text. It will only take you a few hours to read it—but the light it casts and the darkness you see emanating from that casting will follow you long after.

Only a little time is needed now, and the whiteness will leave those wings completely. They will become something other, no longer wings, and the butterfly will be something that is no longer butterfly.