Today, we hear from Editor-at-Large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi, who played an instrumental role in assembling our Spring 2017 issue’s Banned Countries’ Literature Showcase, even translating one of the pieces herself. Not unexpectedly, she reminds us of the need to be politically engaged, whether as readers, writers, or translators.
I want to focus on a few timely, essential titles that remind us all that politics infiltrates every layer of our existence.
I started my year reading Finks, a book by Guernica cofounder Joel Whitney about “How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers.” The book reveals the ugly side of the literary world during the Cold War, by delving into the blurred lines between literature, journalism, and “the needs of the state; between aesthetics” and “political requirements” of the times. In the present political climate, I found it an important reminder that literature cannot truly separate itself from politics and money; and that we, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work and need to strive to continuously raise awareness—both our own and others’—about such contexts.
Another work that helped me engage, politically and aesthetically, with global power relations was Moez Surani’s حملةOPERACIÓN OPÉRATION OPERATION 行动 OПЕРАЦИЯ. With an insightful critical introduction, the book is, in Surani’s words, “a globe-spanning inventory of the contemporary rhetoric of violence and aggression.” Beginning in 1945 and ending in 2006, the conceptual poem compiles 135 pages of names of military operations by member states of the United Nations all around the world, leaving a visceral overwhelming impact on its readers, as if it is saying, “Here you are: all the military operations of these years in one place. Just face it.” The compilation is effective not only due to the accumulation of this history in our bodies, but also for what the names cannot carry, for the void around them that begins to grow along with the list, reminding us of all that these names cannot tell us: the contexts of these operations, their social and cultural expenses, and most crucially, the narratives of the individuals implicated by these military operations. And then there is also the linguistic aspect of these name choices (briefly mentioned in the introduction): from names of cities such as Kansas, Sydney, and Ottawa; to obvious collocations such as “Freedom Deal,” and “Iron Bullet;” to names with natural elements such as “Clinch Valley,” “Rising Sun,” and “Scorpion Sting;” to even sentences such as “Baghdad is Beautiful;” and to eye-opening choices such as “Inferno”—all these make one wonder about the logic and conversations behind such namings, as well as how these terms will consequently go down in history.
Surani’s book would tie with another, the achingly beautiful Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich, winner of Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, as one of my books of the year. Translated by Keith Gessen, it is a collective oral history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It is filled with painful details of the everyday struggles of the people of the area in the aftermath of the disaster: the ones who did not want to leave, the ones who left but thought they were coming back, the ones who felt it was their duty to go to the center of the disaster and clean up the mess, the ones who drank, the ones who stole furniture from left-behind houses and sold them elsewhere, the kids, the babies born with radiation…. It is devastating to read about what happened to nature—to the vegetable gardens, to the forest, to the animals: “I killed them by the ten, by the hundred, thousand, not even knowing what they were called…”—and even to the humans. These accounts, comprising voices from all walks of life, were so overwhelmingly troubling that I actually could not take in more than a few pages a day. Meticulously orchestrated by Alexievich, they demand our careful listening so that we will never forget.
Another book I read in 2017 that I want to single out is Coal Mountain Elementary by Mark Nowak, a poet and labor activist who has been described by Adrienne Rich as “regenerating the rich tradition of working-class literature.” Like his earlier work Shut Up Shut Down, Nowak uses poetry, journalism, and photography to document the conditions of mine workers subjugated to the corruption and greed of authorities. This time, he combines stories of a mine disaster in America with those in China, to reveal both the differences and the similarities of the politics of labor—and their respective human costs. The text is, moreover, interspersed with lesson plans for students to carry out experiments related to mining, for example to crystallize coal flowers or to simulate the mining process, adding a strange educational though sarcastic layer to the conversation around the catastrophes brought on by the work. Similar to Alexievich’s, Nowak’s book collects voices of different involved parties to create a multi-layered collage, making for a holistic read, embodying not only the facts and numbers and reports but also the fear and anxieties embedded in the language of the miners and their family members giving testimony.
The final book in my 2017 reading list that I want to recommend everyone to pick up is Adrenalin, by Ghayath Almadhoun, translated from Arabic by Catherine Cobham and published just last month. Two poems from the book actually first appeared in Translation Tuesday, our very own page at the Guardian, in January 2017 as part of Asymptote’s showcase published in solidarity with the refugees and citizens of the seven Muslim-majority countries targeted by Trump’s administration. Almadhoun is a Syrian-born Stockholm-based Palestinian poet who digs deep into the heart of the calamities of war. Reading his poems is like facing the naked bodies of casualties of war being dissected right in front of you; you can’t look at them but you can’t really look away, and either way you will find yourself torn apart by your choice because, no matter what, it will make you complicit in what has been revealed. The poems embody the collective and personal truths of displacement, in beautiful language, both contemplative and winding—a language that steeps you in the brutality and beauty that only humanity can engender. Adrenalin is a book that mourns and celebrates Damascus and Syria, as well as both the world of today, and those of yesterday and tomorrow. It is the perfect book to end 2017 or begin 2018 with.
Read Poupeh Missaghi’s translation of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s specially commissioned essay, which leads off the Banned Countries Feature published in our Spring 2017 edition. Alternatively, receive an ebook of this anthology, featuring exclusive work not published elsewhere, as a perk when you sign up to become a Sustaining Member or, if you are based in Canada, the US, or the UK, a Book Club member.
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