Today, we share our favorite pieces from the Fall 2018 issue, released just four days ago, highlighting the diversity of cultures, languages, and literary styles represented. Chloe Lim, writing from Singapore, is joined today by two new blog editors as of last week: Jonathan Egid and Nina Perrotta, writing from the UK and Brazil respectively. Happy reading!
From the visceral, violent power of José Revueltas’ The Hole to the lyricism of Osama Alomar’s “Nuclear Bomb” and the schizoid voices of George Prevedourakis’ Kleftiko, our Fall 2018 edition plays host to a typically broad variety of styles, forms, and languages. A piece that particularly caught my eye was “Epilogue,” a quiet, sombre short story by Irina Odoevtsova about two Russian émigrées in Nice, their separation and their separate fates.
The story follows the unhappy existence of Tatiana and Sergei, initially as poor migrants surrounded by the Anglo-American holidaying elite of the Riviera, through Sergei’s uncertain departure and Tatiana’s newfound wealth to a tragic conclusion, with much of the story being told through short, terse conversations between Tatiana and Sergei, Tatiana and her new lover and (more frequently) Tatiana and herself. The restrained, even sparse dialogue and plain prose nevertheless creates touching, vivid and tragic characters in strikingly limited space, conveying to us the tragic story of a woman struggling to understand her dreams and desires, and the tragic consequences that come from her acting upon those confused and conflicting desires.
As in so much of the most powerful writing of the ‘white émigrées’, the characters are driven by passions and events that they are powerless to deny or to escape, and in its unhappy portrayal of the gulf between desire and circumstance the story runs parallel with David Vogel’s Facing the Sea, another heartbreaking work by a Russian émigré set in southern France. Unlike Vogel however, Odoevtsova manages to hold the despair at bay, never allowing it to tinge the clarity of her prose, allowing her to convey the deeply moving inner lives of her sad and vulnerable characters with a convincing, studied accuracy and seriousness unavailable to the tortured Vogel.
The section of the new issue that most stood out to me was the Catalan Fiction Feature, which showcases young Catalan writers alongside 20th-century giants like J.V. Foix and Cèlia Suñol (translated beautifully by Lawrence Venuti and Mary Ann Newman, respectively). But the piece I’d like to highlight— the one that most surprised and moved me—is an excerpt from Najat El Hachmi‘s Mother of Milk and Honey, translated by Peter Bush.
As a young girl, El Hachmi emigrated from Morocco to Catalonia with her mother, an experience that seems to have inspired Mother of Milk and Honey. The story’s protagonist, an illiterate Moroccan woman named Fatima, sets out for Catalonia with nothing but a Koran and an address scrawled on a piece of paper. Since she and her young daughter speak neither Spanish nor Catalan, they’re entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers, who help them with everything from buying bus tickets to getting off at the right stop. The need to interact with foreign men, in particular, comes into conflict with Fatima’s Muslim faith, but in spite of her vulnerability and discomfort—and the uncertain note on which the excerpt ends—her voice is powerful and confident, inspiring in the reader a belief that she will ultimately reach her destination.
Even more than the strength of Fatima’s character, what struck me most about this piece was its relationship to Catalan literature as a whole. By consciously using the Catalan language to tell the story of a Moroccan immigrant, El Hachmi subverts our expectations not only about who can write Catalan literature, but also about who it takes as its subjects. Fatima may be a Moroccan immigrant, but she is also distinctively, unequivocally Catalan.
Imagine a person born and bred in the central highlands of Vietnam, in his plơi, each morning ascending the mountain with an axe in his woven bamboo basket to cut down trees, each afternoon descending toward his plot of land to make holes in the ground for seedlings, each evening drinking around the fire, living in the mythic world of the Cham oral tradition, at home in the wildness of Southeast Asian jungles, one day finding himself lost amidst the flashing blue, red, and yellow lights of Manhattan, exposed yet invisible in the urban jungle.
Nguyễn Đức Tùng’s nonfiction is an evocative, and mournful one about loss—a loss both communally understood by refugees, and specific to the elderly couple in the story who are gradually losing their memories and grips on the world. In a modern, flashy New York City replete with skyscrapers and bustle, Siu Kpa (the Jarai tribesman) and his Ba Na wife, Dep, struggle to build a life. They are living examples of people who have been thoroughly let down by cruel government, and forgotten by international communities who do not have the resources to pay attention to these unmoored existences.
As a Southeast Asian woman who has many of the privileges of living in Singapore, this brings home both the lush, diverse beauty of my region, as well as the complications that that diversity has brought when it confronts ruthless politicians. There is no place like home, and for many, home is no longer a place to return to. While educational with regards to Vietnamese history, Nguyễn Đức Tùng’s magical realism and naturalism combine effortlessly to produce a moving piece of life as a refugee, and loss as a human being.
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