Posts filed under 'immigration'

Reevaluating the Urgent Political Relevance of 20th Century Brazilian Novelist Lima Barreto

"He’s the author who picks a fight with the republic, demanding more res publica."

Authors forgotten in their lifetimes sometimes resurface decades later, telling us stories that resonate far beyond their original historical moment. One such writer is Lima Barreto, whose poignant renderings of working class Brazilians from the turn of the twentieth century reverberate with contemporary relevance. Today, anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz tells Asymptote about her experience researching and writing the new biography of Lima Barreto, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, released in Brazil in July 2017.


Lara Norgaard (LN): In the biography you recently published, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, you read Lima Barreto’s fiction through the lens of history and anthropology. How was the experience of studying literature from that perspective? Why is historical context important for reading Lima’s work?

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (LMS): Disciplinary contact zones are engaging spaces, but they are contested. I place myself at the intersection of anthropology, history, and literary criticism. It was a great concern of mine not to see literature as a direct reflection of reality, since we know that Lima Barreto, while reflecting on reality, also created his own. At the same time, Lima said he wrote literaturamilitante, a term he himself used. That kind of committed literature dialogues with reality.

Lima even suffered for that approach in his time. What we now praise as high literature used to be considered unimaginative. Can you believe that? His contemporaries said that because he referenced reality and his own life, he didn’t have imagination. For me, that was a big step. I thought, I’m going to write this life by engaging with the reality that Lima lived, just as he himself did. Take his first novel, Recordações do EscrivãoIsaias Caminha, which is the story of a young black man, the son of a former slave who takes the train to the big city, as Lima did. In that city he experiences discrimination. And the second part of the book is entirely a roman à clef, as it calls attention to journalism as the fourth estate. The novel was so critical that the media blacklisted Lima, and the book was terribly received. His story “Numa e a Ninfa” critiqued politicians and his second novel, The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma, critiqued president Floriano Peixoto. Peixoto is part of the book. History enters the novel. And in that sense these novels dialogue with reality and invite the historian.

I also read the excellent North American biographer of Dostoevsky, Joseph Frank, who calls attention to how it’s possible for novels to structure a biography, not the other way around. So I tried to include Lima Barreto’s voice in my book. He’s the writer, and rather than explain something in his place it would be better to let him say it. And so, looking at the biography, you’ll find that I often intersperse my voice with Lima’s. Those were the methods I used working in the contact zones between disciplines.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Never miss a world literature update again.

We are back with literary news you simply cannot miss! This week we will take you to Romania where MARGENTO will help you discover the intricate networks of performance art. Also reporting from Europe is Fiona Le Brun who discusses the eclectic list of recent French literary prize winners, while subtly underlining the theme of migration that cuts across the various literary events. Far away from Mexico, Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn will highlight the increasingly important role of translation in its contemporary cultural landscape. 

Editor-at-Large from Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, provides us with an insider’s view of the exciting world of Romanian artistic experimentation:

The Bucharest International Poetry Festival featured last month an impressive line-up of international writers and performers, among whom were Christian Bök from Canada, LaTasha Nevada Diggs from the US, Steven Fowler of the worldwide prolific Enemies Project, Max Höfler (the tireless organizer of the yearly Text-World—World-Text Symposium in Graz, Austria), the multilingual performance vocalist Maja Jantar of Belgium, the Bucharest-based American poet and translator Tara Skurtu, and many more, alongside local poets such as Claudiu Komartin and Razvan Tupa.  Organized by London-based Romanian poet and curator Simona Nastac, this annual event has grown more and more visible and central in a country where the tradition of performance poetry going at least as far back as Tristan Tzara’s DADA seems to be thriving more than ever, with festivals thrown from Craiova in the south to Brasov and Sibiu in Transylvania to Cluj and Iasi up north (some of them performance-driven events, other more standard literary ones with a strong reading or performance section).

Petrila is a one-of-a-kind venue among all of the above, both in Romanian and international terms.  The derelict milltown riddled with condemned coal mines and shutdown falling-apart factories has been transformed over the last two decades by visual artist, political caricaturist, and curator Ion Barbu into a mecca of non-conformist festivals (initially thrown in his own backyard), eclectic or scandalous arts events, and improbable post-communist absurdist or faux-kitsch museums (including one that has resonantly revived the memory of once-censored outstanding dissident writer I.D. Sirbu).  A competitor—or rather concurrent event—has been the CUCA Festival organized over the past couple of years in Cartisoara, up in the mountains of Sibiu County, where cutting-edge and indie performances and installations converge with Romanian traditional architecture restoration work done by international volunteers.  A long-feature documentary titled Planet Petrila casting Ion Barbu in the lead role and portraying his eclectic personality and work against the background of the (post)communist history of his hometown has recently been widely praised and awarded at the international film festival TIFF.

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In Review: Jorge Argueta’s Bilingual Memoir About Fleeing El Salvador for the States

a brave country / a strong country / a country that shouts

“When I left El Salvador running, I didn’t know where I was heading, but I ran.” Despite the apparent simplicity of its prose, this passage encapsulates the author’s harried flight from his war-torn country in a moment where facing the complete unknown of exile was the best alternative to remaining in his homeland. In a particularly cruel twist, the country he is running from, El Salvador, translates into English as, “The Savior,” and the country the author eventually comes to, the United States, is responsible for fanning the flames of El Salvador’s Civil War (1980-1992) in an effort to win its own Cold War against the former Soviet Union.

With this story of fleeing in the face of conflict at its core, Jorge Argueta’s brilliant En carne propia: Memoria poética/Flesh Wounds: A Poetic Memoir (Arte Público Press, 2017) emerges as a text that challenges straightforward narratives surrounding immigration to the United States from Latin America, and remains highly relevant despite taking place in the 80s. Those readers already familiar with Argueta’s work through his award winning children’s literature may be shocked to find the author’s personal history laid bare in a genre-bending poetry-prose narrative (in Spanish with an accompanying English translation) that does not shy away from his childhood environs “teeming with drunkards, prostitutes, servants, popsicle vendors, mechanics—the working class or the poorest of the poor” nor “an entire generation disappearing” during El Salvador’s Civil War. Those unfamiliar with Argueta’s previous publications or with contemporary Latinx literature in general will find themselves grappling with a text that at times appears both intimate and alienating as it guides the readers through the lasting consequences of a Central American Civil War that most Americans have long forgotten if they have heard of it at all.

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What’s New in Translation? March 2017

Our team reviews some of the newest translations published in English this month

heretics

Heretics by Leonardo Padura, tr. by Anna Kushner, FSG

Review: Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor

Leonardo Padura’s novel, Heretics, has finally made its way to North American shores and English speakers everywhere thanks to translator Anna Kushner’s work for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Originally published by Tusquets Editores of Spain as Herejes in 2013, Heretics is a startlingly, and in many ways disturbingly, relevant work for 2017—as rising levels of xenophobia and nationalism are straining already tense relationships across many borders and affecting refugees throughout Europe and North America. Padura’s novel opens in the Havana of 1939 with the rejection of the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner sailing from Hamburg whose 937 almost entirely Jewish passengers were fleeing the Third Reich. Their tragic return to Europe—a effective death sentence—is watched by Daniel Kaminsky, the first character introduced and the namesake of the first of the novel’s four sections. Daniel has high hopes in his nine-year-old heart that his parents and sister aboard the ship will make it to land.

At 525 pages, Padura has ample space to leap through an ever thickening plot as his characters become more and more entangled in a seemingly unlikely series of events. Yet the read is a quick one, driven forward by drastic jumps between Havana and Amsterdam and a narrative structure which throws the reader several curveballs in the pages where a more traditional detective story might feel the need for resolution. It’s especially relentless in its final two dozen pages. This book, addicting in and of itself, will also compel readers to dive into the real history of the events on which it centers; they are oftentimes much stranger than any fiction could hope to be, even though Padura tells us right before we embark that “history, reality, and novels run on different engines.” However, to describe the work as a historic thriller, or even to focus on the mystery of a stolen Rembrandt that is woven throughout the larger plot, only hits at one level of Padura’s game. He lets us fall through history almost effortlessly, revealing the inevitable repetition of human cruelty from biblical times through the 17th century, the 20th and up through our own muddy 21st. He neither sugar coats nor exploits these horrors, to his credit.

While the novel takes one of Padura’s recurring characters, Mario Conde, as its hero, a reader uninitiated into this Cubano’s world will have no trouble becoming quickly acquainted. His prose style is elliptical; events and ideas are repeated by different characters as if Padura holds each piece of plot up to the light like a precious stone, turning it this way and that to appreciate its different angles and facets. Though Salinger undoubtedly receives the most attention, influences from Chandler, Hemmingway, Murakami, Kundera, and the occasional phrases from Voltaire’s Candide, which perhaps even inspired the name of Conde’s most pious friend, Candito, also find their place. Readers will note quite a bit of Nietzsche, too, as our hero is forced to try and make sense of the emo subculture springing up on the Island, not to mention a healthy dose of Blade Runner and Nirvana references to even things out.

Perhaps one of the most delightful plays between reality and fiction is the one Padura plays with the genre itself.  Despite some dark passages, the work is deeply humorous and self-reflective, especially in the periodic wish of our narrator to compose his own hard-boiled thriller as he continually feels trapped in one himself. No stranger to taking on huge historical figures (from Adiós Hemmingway to The Man Who Loved Dogs, which stars Leon Trotsky), Padura’s Rembrant is compelling and once again does that work of blurring fact and fiction that inspires a desire for the work to have come wholly from the real world.

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Translation Tuesday: “Made in Denmark” by Mohammad Tolouei

We lived in a world in which people followed certain ideologies even for how to grip a racket.

On the subject of the travel ban, much of the rhetoric coming out of Trump’s administration has focused on the dangers posed by immigrants. This devastating but ultimately heartwarming story by Iranian writer Mohammed Tolouei, told from the point of view of a four-year-old, conveys to us what it is like from the other side, that may not be so readily apparent to those who’ve never been forced to flee their countries. To be reckoned with, above all, in any decision to migrate, is the pain of uprooting from one’s homeland.

This short story marks the first of many in an extensive showcase we hope to bring you, spotlighting new writing—and new translations—from the seven countries Trump intends to ban. If you’d like to see more of this showcase, there’s still a week left to pitch in to our fundraiser here. If you are an author who identifies as being from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen (or someone who translates such authors)—and would like to submit work for consideration, please get in touch at editors@asymptotejournal.com.

We lived in a house of closed doors. The door to the veranda was closed. The third room’s door was closed. The bifolding doors to the hall were closed–we had placed an American sofa in front of them. The door of the big bathroom was closed. The basement’s door was closed. The door of the toilet in the yard was closed. The door opening to the ridge roof was closed. And so was the door of the large hall all over the springs and falls and winters because we never had enough oil to heat up the whole place. Only in summers the doors opened and I could play ping pong with my mother with the ping pong table in there. She put a bedstead below my feet so that I could reach up the table and then she tried not to strike hard returns. My mother was Iranian Girls’ Schools Champion and fond of penhold grip of the racket, while I favored shakehand. We lived in a world in which people followed certain ideologies even for how to grip a racket, and from the very beginning I sided with the Western party.

Our styles were totally different. My mother used to hit short, tight topspins while my hits were rather long and loose. I was more at ease with sidespins while my mother made better topspins. Yet in spite of all the trophy cups Mother had received, I won because of my playing style—the victorious western style. Mother still followed Eastern methods, yet Father wanted to take us to Denmark, a place in the West that ironically paid living subsidies, unemployment compensation and allowance for the children like most socialist countries. And in order to convince my mother to leave, each day he locked up more and more doors of our house.

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Postmarked from Iran: An Open Letter to the American People

It was only after President Ahmadinejad that we became grateful for what we had, like, for example, ice water.

Dear Americans,

Hi guys. How are you? Accept my condolences on the ending of President Obama’s presidency. I’m sorry that I must also send my condolences that it’s the beginning of President Trump’s era. It’s as if spring has immediately been replaced by winter. Or as if you’re in the passenger seat of a Ferrari, the driver suddenly falls asleep, the car goes crashing in a valley; then you are brought out of the Ferrari, escorted to a horse-drawn carriage whose coachman is one who has just gotten his license. But don’t worry. I totally feel for you. My country’s president during the Eight Years Reform era was a Ferrari driver and we had so much fun. Then, well, for the eight years after him, we rode in a carriage and I really need to thank the president who rode in that carriage, because at the end of his term, he turned the rules of physics upside down and set new Guinness World Records.

You ask how? This is how: he rode the carriage forward but we kept going backward. If Einstein were alive, he would probably die of a stroke trying to solve that problem.

Anyway, don’t be too worried. This President Trump of yours will make you want to emigrate. This will be very good for you, because until now you have always seen immigrants but never been immigrants yourselves. We Iranians have widely emigrated to the U.S. ourselves. So you are more than welcome here; if you have it too hard, move here. Whatever the conditions are here, they are better than being known with Trump after Obama. Think about it: so far, we Iranians have imagined American life to be like the film The Matrix; it is truly a pity to see it as American Pie now, or something even stupider than that.

Can you believe it? Under President Ahmadinejad, we sympathized with Japan when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Since the inauguration of President Trump, perhaps you have been sympathizing with the universe during the Big Bang.

But be glad, because Mr. Trump is going to make you all grateful later. It was only after President Ahmadinejad that we became grateful for what we had, like, for example, ice water. No pill is going to cure your headache when you are furious about your president’s speeches; you’d do better to take an ice-cold shower and try to forget.

Believe me, there is no reason to panic. These days the medical field has improved a lot, and it can cure any cancerous tumor, even President Trump.

That said, one needs to be fair. President Trump might have a thousand and one vices, but he will have one great virtue. Rest assured that no matter how bad President Trump’s time in office is for everyone, it is going to be amazing for your satirists. They will have so much material they’ll be able to export half of it outside the U.S.

But President Trump has another virtue, as well: You will become so anxious that you will stop gaining weight. The Iranian people were each sixty-three kilos overweight, on average, before President Ahmadinejad. You won’t believe it, but by the day he left office, not only had we lost the extra weight, we almost disappeared. And if you get really lucky, your country will lose its extra weight, too. Our country was, for example, several thousand billions of rials and dollars thinner, and a few oil towers and gold bullion and foreign currency trailers lighter. The nation even lost millions of tons of its weight as a result of the decimation of buildings, forests, and lakes.

By the way, President Trump’s slogans are similar to President Ahmadinejad’s in that he keeps making promises to workers. I suggest that, no matter what your job, always hide a thousand dollars under your pillow, because these politicians, whenever they say they want to do a good job and benefit us, the first thing they do is take our jobs from us.

Truth is, if I were you, I would exchange all my dollars to rials. Why? Because if President Trump does to your economy what President Ahmadinejad did to ours, you will suddenly find yourselves able to buy only one can of Pepsi with one thousand dollars.

Also, why are you so troubled by President Trump’s anti-women talk? You should not forget President Clinton, who cheated on his wife and, of course, on you, while in the White House. Psychologists believe that people who appear to be nice are more likely to do bad things in their own homes and in the White House. Let’s hope that President Trump is all talk and no action. If President Clinton, who did not talk of such things at all, carried such acts, imagine what President Trump, who already talks of them, could do; if he is to act, you need to worry about the White House’s female cats and birds.

Anyway, as Americans would say, God bless you.

And, as Iranians would say, God bestow upon you real patience.

Yours truly,
Pouria Alami

Translated from the Persian by Poupeh Missaghi. This piece was originally published in Persian in two installments in Shargh newspaper on January 22nd and 23rd, 2017

Pouria Alami is a thirty-five-year-old satirist, journalist, and writer, based in Tehran, Iran. He has a daily sociopolitical satire column in Shargh newspaper, the largest independent newspaper in the country. He is the author of eleven books and teaches journalism, satire, and creative writing, as extracurricular classes in various universities. His work has also appeared in English in World Literature Today.

*****

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Waking Up in David Lynch’s American Dream

He’s already inspiring greatness by bringing out the best in those of us who can no longer sit idly by.

In Trump’s America, a Muslim-American filmmaker living in Los Angeles discovers that art meets reality.

The night of the US Presidential Election felt like a moment that could have been stolen from a David Lynch film. At once surreal and subversive, yet strangely fitting, Donald Trump was chosen as the President of the United States. Like Lynch’s own protagonists, an eerie detachment swept over me as I witnessed Trump take the stage to deliver his victory speech.

As a Muslim-American and a son of immigrants, that nightmarish disbelief turned into anger and resentment when I awoke the next day. How could a country built by immigrants on the bedrock of religious freedom elect a candidate who prided himself on xenophobia, racism, and religious intolerance? Yes. I’ve heard the many arguments showing that Trump supporters had very real concerns about the economy and individual prosperity that outweighed worries about his racist and misogynistic rants. But in one fell swoop, my perspective on the American electorate and the promises of this country changed dramatically.

In better times, I imagined the American Dream much the same way Francis Ford Coppola envisioned it in The Godfather, Part II:

Thousands of immigrants rise to their feet and stare at the Statue of Liberty with hope in their eyes as they head to Ellis Island. The camera pans to capture individual faces. The Godfather theme crescendos and then fades away. Cut to a young Vito Corleone standing in line at the Ellis Island Immigration Station. He’s interviewed by an immigration official and sent to quarantine. Fast-forward sixteen years. Vito lives safely in New York with his wife and infant son, over 4,000 miles away from the torment of mob-ruled Sicily.

That is a place where hard work, loyalty, and intelligence get rewarded. Sure, Coppola romanticizes the sometimes harsh facts of the early 20th century. Living in New York’s Little Italy during the 1920s, Vito’s meteoric rise from squalor to fortune has a fantastic quality. We don’t see the America with deep racial divides or a country on the verge of economic collapse. But that idyllic portrayal represents an image that immigrant families have clung to for centuries as they arrived in the United States.

It’s been over two weeks since the election, and the reality of a Trump presidency along with a Republican majority in the House and Senate has begun to settle. But a sense of safety, trust in our neighbors, and a greater vision for a pluralistic society have been lost in the face of an increase of reported hate crimes that personify Trump’s hateful campaign rhetoric.

In some ways, I consider myself lucky in that regard. Outside of my brown skin and the beard on my face, there aren’t many symbols that make me easily identifiable as a Muslim. Verbal and physical attacks appear to be reserved for Muslim women, who are easily recognized by their headscarves.

The country also faces an enormous political divide as protesters march in the streets in over a dozen cities to let their disaffection be known. President-elect Trump continues to vilify his opposition through Twitter and criticize the mainstream media. The events since the election are a far cry from the American Dream Coppola portrayed in The Godfather, and even David Lynch’s peculiar world no longer serves as an adequate metaphor for the current state of affairs. Instead, I find myself thinking of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and its depiction of the violent, nativist reaction to Irish-Catholic immigration in the 1860s.

But succumbing to that kind of negativity is a trap that leads to cynicism. Throughout the week I’ve witnessed glimmers of hope and courage from my own community. Three days after Trump’s win, the Islamic Society of Southern California’s interfaith allies from the Episcopal Church, in collaboration with local synagogues, stood in front the mosque’s doors with signs of solidarity. Later that week, I joined a group of protesters in downtown Los Angeles, where we chanted “No Hate! No Fear! Immigrants are welcome here!”

Donald Trump started his campaign on the vague promise of making America great again. By the looks of it, he’s already inspiring greatness by bringing out the best in those of us who can no longer sit idly by in this new America. Let’s just hope he meets us halfway.

Jawad Qadir is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

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In Conversation with Gazmend Kapllani

The desire to speak other languages invaded my mind. I, too, wanted to look strange, mysterious and attractive...

Gazmend Kapllani is an Albanian-born author, journalist, and scholar. He lived in Athens for over twenty years. He received his PhD in political science and history from Panteion University in Athens, with a dissertation on the image of Albanians in the Greek press and of Greeks in the Albanian press. In addition, he was a columnist for Greece’s leading daily newspapers. Kapllani has written his first three novels in Greek, which is not his native language. His work centers on themes of migration, borders, totalitarianism, and how Balkan history has shaped public and private narratives.

Kapllani’s first novel A Short Border Handbook (Livanis, 2006) has become a best-seller and has been translated into Danish, English, French, Polish and Italian. His second novel, My Name is Europe (Livanis, 2010), has been published into French. The Last Page (Livanis, 2012) his most recent novel, has been translated into French and was short-listed for The Cezam Prix Litteraire Inter CE 2016. Since 2012 he has been living in the US, where he was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Visiting Scholar at Brown University and Writer in Residence at Wellesley College. Kapllani currently lives in Boston and teaches Creative Writing and European History at Emerson College.  

Gigi Papoulias has a chance to sit down and talk to Kapllani on his work, language, and borders.

Gigi Papoulias (GP): You seem to have a passion for languages. You are fluent in five languages. Were you born into a multilingual family?

Gazmend Kapllani (GK): Actually I was born in a shack. My father’s family was persecuted by the communist regime and was driven out of their house in the countryside and punished—sent to live in a shack on the outskirts of my hometown Lushnje. They were considered “enemies of the regime” because they were wealthy landowners. Stalin did the same with the so-called “kulaks” in the Soviet Union.

I grew up surrounded by a large group of monolingual relatives whose discussions always led to the glory days of their aristocratic past. I grew up surrounded by joyful uncles and aunts—all of them impressively good looking. I’m amazed today that in my memories that miserable place comes as a place of joy and love. I remember the flowers that were planted all around. My grandmother was an extraordinary woman—she had lost three brothers in the war against the Nazis in Albania—she did everything possible to make life in the shack seem normal. What has remained with me is the extraordinary love that I was given in that shack. I also learned what resilience and human dignity mean. But I refused the rest: living with the glory of the past. I understood though that when people are denied a present and a future they take refuge in the past.

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Thank you, Britain

I fear that the diabolical pas de deux of racism and xenophobia that we are now witnessing will escalate.

The day after the EU referendum I woke up early to check the results. It was 5am and already clear that the Leave camp would win. I hadn’t expected that. Despite the growing popularity of right-wing populist parties such as UKIP, to the outsiders (and a large portion of liberal Britons too), this divisive brand of Euroscepticism seemed like the voices from the fringes. It is true that UKIP employed dramatic scaremongering as its major political strategy, using migrants as the folk devil on whom to blame Britain’s economic and social problems, both present and future. But to me their tactics stood in sharp contrast to what I have always admired about the British, that is to say kindness, tolerance and openness. Not surprisingly, the Leave win left the country in turmoil. Those on the Remain side are bewildered by the prospect of being torn away from an identity they have eagerly embraced as their own and, increasingly, many of the Leave voters express a similar sentiment. But the Brexit referendum also mobilized an indignant minority that had been previously silent, and galvanized blatant xenophobia, racism and bigotry. It is the latter that saddens me most.

I myself was an EU migrant who settled in the UK following the first eastern enlargement in 2004, although I had first arrived in Britain in the summer of 2003, eight months prior to Poland’s accession to the EU. I was an undergraduate student on a gap year in Liverpool, away from home for the first time. Despite its long tradition of multiculturalism, the city saw very few migrants from Eastern Europe and people knew very little about Poland. Often, on hearing my nationality, they would recite in one breath: Lech Wałęsa, John Paul II, vodka, and engage with me in long conversations about the Pontiff’s poor health. I felt welcomed, and I immediately fell in love with the city and its people. I loved how they talked and joked, how women wore strapless dresses on cold nights out and how families went on the ferry across the Mersey on Sunday afternoons. I myself spent countless hours in the FACT cinema on Wood Street and I can still remember films I saw that year: Young Adam, Sylvia, Calendar Girls and, my absolute favourite, Love Actually. I went to see art exhibitions in the Walker Art Gallery, learning about British painting, from Pre-Raphaelites, through the Stuckists to the Singh Twins. On the 1st of May 2004 I celebrated Poland’s accession to the EU with a group of English friends. The mood was jubilant and hopeful. We drank sparkling wine and, as naïve as it may sound, it felt like Europe was united again.

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Dear Britain: Notes of an Adopted Daughter

"Poking your ribs aside, Britain, we do not need to see our various hyphenations as fracture."

“Look, I admit I came to Paris to escape American provincial, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for French traditional.”
—Audrey Hepburn, Charade

Dear Britain,

In spite of Murakami and the rural male youths of my mongrel pubescence informing me otherwise, I still prefer to think of a “morning glory” as a cat licking its paws through choppy rays of light—just at the moment when “rosy-fingered” dawn neatly vivisects your eyes and the living room in two (if the postmodern turn has accomplished anything worthwhile, it has bestowed scalpels on Homeric metaphors), leaving little else to do than bat the sand from your lashes and gulp down that third cup of coffee.

It was during of one these scenes from my everyday homeostasis, Britain, when I began to realize, at first rather absently, that for all legitimate reasons, my cat is British. READ MORE…

European Days of Literature 2015, “The Migrants:” A Dispatch

"When people are in a 'swarm,' they aren’t people."

Every year since 2009, writers, critics, and literature lovers have been flocking to the Austrian region of Wachau for the European Days of Literature. Late this October, I was fortunate to spend three glorious autumn days surrounded by vineyards in Spitz and Krems on the Danube, to talk about all things literary and listen to authors read from their works, all liberally sprinkled with local Grüner Veltliner. Literature was center stage throughout—and there was a perfect balance between readings, panel discussions, informal chats and the picturesque setting—no wonder many of the participants have been coming year after year.

The overarching theme of this year’s gathering—The Migrants (Die Ausgewanderten)—was chosen with a view to discuss the ways European literature has been changing through and along with the increasing migration of authors. Little did the organizers know that the symposium would take place at a time when migration dominates the media headlines as thousands of desperate refugees risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean and trek through Europe seeking sanctuary, putting the old continent’s humanitarian values, tolerance and unity to a test and threatening the very foundations of the European Project.

“Some of the best writing in Europe today is migrant writing,” said writer AL Kennedy, who tries not to define herself as having a specific nationality. In her powerful keynote speech (podcast recording here) she tackled the current migration crisis head on: “Between my first draft and my last a photograph of a small boy made it to headlines of many newspapers which had, only hours before, been pouring out hatred at refugees as a moral, cultural, biological and spiritual threat. As David Cameron put it: ‘a swarm of people.’ When people are in a swarm, they aren’t people. They are both of an alien species and a danger. When words put them in a swarm, they don’t receive the real world’s help.”

Practising art alone is not enough at times like these, she argued in her impassioned address, for “true art is not an indulgence but a fundamental defence of humanity.” She challenged writers to take on a more activist stand, using tweets, poetry, and bestselling novels, to create “50 shades of refugee.“

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Translation Tuesday: “Chairs and Sentences” by Anna Weidenholzer

"Ferdinand only likes the thin straws, and he likes it when a straw bobs back up after being submerged in a beer bottle."

A brown leather sofa, on it a man, below it a Lurch. A Lurch is a bundle of dirt made of dust, fluff and hair. A Lurch is what I call a Wollmaus. Because the chairs are never cleared away I have a lot to do, the man says. Because the chairs are never cleared away I get angry. But because the chairs are never cleared away I have a job to do. It’s better to have a job than not having a job. Because what would I do if I didn’t have a job. I would just sit at home, sitting at home is nothing, what do you do when you don’t have a job. It’s better to work even if I get the same money I would get if I didn’t work.

The man takes his left hand from his stomach, lays it behind his head, moves his thumb back and forth. Ferdinand watches the man move his left thumb back and forth. Ferdinand watches TV. It’s after ten pm, Ferdinand prefers serious programmes, he appreciates their seriousness and while watching he frequently looks past the television. Is there a hole in the air? A student asked him once; no, a lake, Ferdinand had answered.

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In Review: “Signs Preceding the End of the World” by Yuri Herrera

Ethan Perets reads a new novel sure to be considered "an enduring document of world literature."

What kind of journey begins without the possibility or intention of return? And what kind of person sets out, all the while knowing this to be the case?

Tales of the epic quest often take such questions as starting points. But the latest novel from contemporary Mexican writer Yuri Herrera, titled Signs Preceding the End of the World, rejects each of these questions from the outset.

Recently translated into English by Lisa Dillman for And Other Stories, Signs Preceding the End of the World focuses on Makina, a young Mexican woman, as she travels from her rural village across alien towns, ice-green rivers and black mountain passes searching for her brother north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Equipped with the determination to return home after a short trek across the border, she leaves with few provisions, which include, among other things, “one white blouse and one with colorful embroidery, in case she came across any parties.”

As Makina meets up with the “top dogs” in her town who arrange for her trip, Herrera offers a glimpse of the men that loom behind Mexican organised crime: Mr. Double-U, “a joyful sight to see,” the hustling Mr. Aitch, who hangs with his gang of misfits at the literarily-named drinking establishment Pulquería Raskolnikova, and the tight-lipped Mr. Q, who “never resorted to violence—at least there was nobody who’d say he did.” Besides adding a touch of Tarantino-esque flair to these shady characters, Herrera essentially establishes a novel of personalities. Biggest among them is Makina herself. READ MORE…