Juxtapositions are rife in Intan Paramaditha’s enchanting story, “Visiting a Haunted House,” translated from the Indonesian by Stephen Epstein. To me it read almost like an incantation, the words constantly looping memory upon the story’s present. As a granddaughter visits her dead grandmother’s house, she paints a pointillist picture of her grandmother’s life, whose colors soon run into her own. A broken red lipstick, a cloudy mirror, vanished smells of Gudang Garam cigarettes—the world spins, and so do familial memories, ancestral souvenirs, and time.
The granddaughter is an eternal migrant, “dashing around in bus terminals and airports with a backpack.” She remembers how her grandmother had always wanted to go abroad but contented herself with the thrill of riding a minibus to market while dressed in a flowery cotton dress. The story is ostensibly a simple tale of returning to an ancestral home. But the narrator’s voice soon bifurcates like a snake’s tongue, each sentence describing the grandmother and the granddaughter both. When speaking of a kuntilanak, “a woman no longer here, in our world, but not ‘over there’ either,” is she describing the ghost, or herself?
“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go wandering,” the story reminds us repeatedly, but leaves questions open—is the grandmother a good girl who went to heaven or a bad girl whose spirit continues to wander? Does heaven lie in one’s ancestral home or is it ever shifting, situated somewhere between New York and Sydney and Indonesia? Is the kuntilanak the dead grandmother who cannot leave the ancestral home or is it the granddaughter who cannot return to it? The beauty of the story is that it lets you decide for yourself.
Aurvi Sharma, Assistant Blog Editor
“Orchids” by Margarita García Robayo and translated by Alicia Maria Meier is stunning because of its simplicity. It is a collection of short pieces, almost reading like diary entries. It is a conscious analogy I make because similar to reading someone’s diary, Robayo’s essay leaves one feeling as if one has been given access to an intimate world. The pieces are mostly observational in nature and essentially communicate the everyday. In Windows, for example, Robayo focuses on the patterns that comprise day-to-day existence. It can be argued that it is a respite from the weight of magic realism that South America’s literary cultures are often subsumed under.
If García Márquez spoke of the need for leaps of reality to portray the true nature of life in a South America torn by civil wars in his Nobel acceptance speech, Robayo’s piece shifts the lens to the lived experience of each day, moment by moment, tightly bound by habit. The characters in the piece long for a break from monotony as communicated by the line “I’m always tempted to imagine that one day someone will abandon the script and ruin it all. That someone will disturb this mute, ascetic coexistence.” The ‘hyper-reality’ of magic realism is in sharp contrast to the sense, almost Godot-like, of non-action. Take this passage from Scene in a Bar, for instance: “They keep moving. She snakes an arm around his waist, rests her head on his chest: Nothing. And they leave. Inside, silence: we wait for them to return, to bow, to receive their applause. But no, they’re gone for good.”
Robayo’s writing is underlined by existentialist currents and distinguished by its somber, observational style. Does it mean we are witnessing the emergence of new writing from South America that is at odds with the magic realism the continent it is predominantly known for? You will have to follow Asymptote to know!
Sneha Khaund, Assistant Blog Editor
Elvira Ribeiro Tobío’s poems from Welcome to Sing Sing, translated by Keith Payne from the Galician, are extraordinary for demonstrating how language negotiates extreme situations. In the first poem, the object of the gliding door becomes the ultimate projection of frustration for the narrator’s imprisonment: “The floods held back, you see, by the door…It stares at me with its no-eyes.” The door, rather than the prison itself as a whole, becomes the prisoner’s silent, faceless captor—an obstacle that, even if surpassed, will have you “bogged down in the wind.” The next three poems, “Crab,” “Tiger,” and “Kangaroo” play with images of opening, from the countryside to bodily openings, contemplations of freedom, and the brute violence of a prison.
As Keith Payne mentions in his translator’s note, Tobío’s poems are based on working at the A Lama prison in Vigo, Galicia. Prisons, as we are all aware, are places where cultures clash, but where cultures are also created, for example through hand signs and prison slang. Every inch of space can play a crucial role for one’s physical and mental survival, and objects and spaces therefore can have a variety of meanings attached to them. It is fitting that we do not actually get a description of what the door actually looks like, or what the ‘real’ significance may be of a Tiger, Crab, or a Kangaroo. Life inside a prison becomes a new reality that seems fantastical to those of us who are on the outside, in freedom, looking in.
Sing Sing is also the prison where Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the couple convicted of passing secrets of the atomic bomb to the U.S.S.R, were executed. The poem “Ethel” describes her harrowing execution by electric chair, bringing in a multitude of competing voices, while “Ethel (II)” gives a voice back to Ethel Rosenberg struggling to prove her own innocence. In The Rape of Europa, Europe itself becomes a prison for women writers during the Second World War. Objects—pianos, watercolours, poems—are left behind, and snapshots of moments or of thoughts become seemingly motionless in these minds. The language here is notably sparser and more barren than in the earlier poems. But even here, as in the previous poems, there are words we might not be familiar with, such as the esoteric translations of “encysted” and “chilblains” that work to create some distance between the reader and history. In the end though, there is something strangely satisfying about a translation where the words in one’s native language appear decidedly foreign.
Stefan Kielbasiewicz, Assistant Blog Editor
More Recommendations from the Summer Issue:
- The World is Beautiful Enough to Drive You to Distraction
- Paper Airplane
- Memories of the Kirta Dangra