Posts filed under 'identity'

What’s New in Translation: July 2019

Four reviews of translations you won't want to miss this month!

From translations by heavyweights like Ann Goldstein and Jennifer Croft to novels by writers appearing for the first time in English, July brings a host of exciting new books in translation. Read on for coming-of-age stories set in Italy and Poland, a drama in rural Argentina, and the tale of a young man and his pet lizard in Japan. 

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A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.

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Co-Translation Across Borders: An Interview with Rachel McNicholl and Sinéad Crowe

As in all good tales and legends, Jarawan’s own narrative style is full of recurring motifs, imagery, and phrases.

How did the co-translators of Pierre Jarawan’s The Storyteller work together to craft a polished final draft—while living in two different countries? In this interview, Rachel McNicholl and Sinéad Crowe, the translators of this month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, tell us about the ups and downs of their long-distance collaboration.

They also discuss how The Storyteller, a novel about a young man born in Germany to Lebanese parents, blends twenty-first century issues of migration and displacement with the ancient Arabic tradition of oral storytelling. Read on for more about the novel’s “central themes of rootlessness, the search for a sense of home and identity, family secrets, and the relationship between fathers and sons.”

Lindsay Semel (LS): Tell me about the experience of collaborating on the translation of a novel. You’ve said in a previous interview that you translated The Storyteller in alternating sections and then underwent an intensive revision process to come to a seamless final draft. Were there any passages that you interpreted differently?

Rachel McNicholl (RMcN): As with most translations, there were some details and nuances that we needed to check with the author. Occasionally, when reviewing each other’s chapters, Sinéad and I realised that we were visualising something slightly differently, even though we’d read the same German text. For example, how exactly the river Berdawni carves up the city of Zahle (in Part II, ch. 5). We consulted online maps and satellite images, of course, but being able to check with the author is even better!

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Join as us we celebrate indigenous writers, intercultural connection, and the importance of linguistic diversity.

This week, we return with three dispatches exploring multicultural and multilingual connection. We begin with a reflection on the work of Humberto Ak’abal, an influential Indigenous poet who wrote in both K’iche’ Maya and Spanish. We also explore the multilayered dialogue between China and New York in the Hong Kong literary scene, and get an exciting firsthand account of the recent Creative Multilingualism conference in the UK.

 Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-at-Large, reporting from Guatemala

As declared by the United Nations, 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. According to their website, of the 7,000 languages currently spoken on the planet, over 2,500 are currently endangered. In Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and around the world, many hope this global recognition will lead to wider acceptance of Indigenous languages, as well as to increased opportunities for their oral and written expression.

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One Author, Many Selves: Murathan Mungan in conversation with Filip Noubel

On how many pages have I appeared and disappeared?

Murathan Mungan likes to describe himself as a polygamous writer: not only does he write plays performed across Turkey and Europe, including his widely acclaimed trilogy, The Mesopotamian Trilogy; he also writes essays, song lyrics, poetry, and novels that have brought him national recognition as one of the most inventive Turkish authors for the use he makes of the Turkish language. Being himself of mixed origins (Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and Bosnian), he is very sensitive to the life of underrepresented groups such as women, Kurds, the LGBTQI+ community, and explores taboo themes in his creative writing. I interviewed Mungan in the Czech Republic in the Month of Authors’ Reading Festival where the guest country was Turkey. His latest works include a novel called The Poet’s Novel and a play, The Kitchen. He is currently working on a novel describing the urban aloofness of Berlin.

Filip Noubel (FN): Murathan, you embody a plurality of personal origins, and seem to favor characters from various minorities. Why is diversity essential in your life and in your work? And how is it perceived in Turkey? 

Murathan Mungan (MM): Many people live inside of me. I come from the city of Mardin, in the southeast of Turkey, a city close to Syria and not too far from Iraq. Mardin mirrored the diversity of my own family: my father’s ancestors came to Turkey in the 17th century from Syria, my paternal grandmother’s mother came from the Kurdish regions; my mother’s side is from Sarajevo, which is in Bosnia today. Though I was born in Istanbul, I grew up in Mardin and within a mix of cultures and religions, mingling with people who are Turks and Kurds, but also Assyrians, Alawites, Yezidis, and Armenians.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2018

Our editors choose their favorites from the Winter 2018 Issue.

Asymptote’s new Winter 2018 issue is replete with spectacular writing. See what our section editors have to say about the pieces closest to their hearts: 

It’s a struggle to pick ​just one poet to highlight from this momentous issue of our journal, but perhaps I will mention the Infrarealist Mexican poet José Vicente Anaya ​whose work Heriberto Yépez described as “revelation, a sacred practice against brainwashing and lobotomy” (source: translator​’s​ note). Much as each poet in this issue and ​the set of circumstances in which they write are distinct, I read all their works as sacred, necessary attempts to counter the forces of obliteration and oblivion against which they—and ​we—strive. In Anaya’s case, a core element of the ritual is híkuri (​”peyote” in ​the ​indigenous language of​ Rarámuri), the ingestion of which makes the speaker spiral, psychedelically, inward and outward​,​ so that nothing is quite separate from everything else. The revelation is this: we’ve overbuilt the world and left ourselves broken. Joshua ​Pollock’s translation recreates the visionary​ spirit​ of the hyperlingual source text to bring us the ferocity of lines such as these:

On Superhighways we hallucinate
in order to carry on living, Victor,
let’s build an anti-neutron bomb
that leaves life standing
demolishing suffocating buildings /
new machines working for everyone
so that time raises us
from joy
to Art
to joy / and
HUMANity governs without government

—Aditi Machado, Poetry Editor

“[there are also] a number of young writers who are emerging, for instance, in the Gambia, who are also catering a lot to the local market. They are to come.” — Tijan M. Sallah at an interview at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, 2012

It is impossible to think of Gambian literature without thinking of the poetry, short stories, and essays of Tijan M. Sallah. Sallah is The Gambia’s most renowned and prolific literary figure, but what makes him most remarkable is his generosity. Sallah, like many of the great Gambian writers before him, balanced his “day job” while continuing his tireless support of other writers and The Gambia’s burgeoning literary scene. For writers such as Lenrie Peters, it was being a medical doctor, while holding literary workshops for aspiring young Gambian writers; for Tijan M. Sallah, it was a successful career as an economist at the World Bank, while continuing to foster community among the Gambian diaspora’s literary voices, his early contributions to the Timbooktoo Bookstore, or even—lucky for us at Asymptote—his willingness to write this essay on some of The Gambia’s emerging poets. Sallah’s essay is both a tribute to the previous wave of Gambian writers and a passing on of the baton to the next generation of poets. In this essay, he spotlights three of the exciting new voices in the Gambian literary landscape today. It’s a must-read from this issue.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

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Tracing Szilárd Borbély’s Poetry in The Dispossessed

To lay bare the inarticulate self as it is thrown into the violent mould of the world—and to uphold the captured encounter without commentary.

Because language is like night-time. Moist,
an indecipherable series of grunts. Pure dread, and
inchoate visceral shrieking. It is inhuman.

from “On the wings of freedom

The Dispossessed, Szilárd Borbély’s first novel (translated by Ottilie Mulzet), was published in Hungary in 2013, just a year before he took his own life. Its reception was exalted, the scope of its success overwhelming and somewhat unexpected. Until then, Borbély had been primarily known as a poet, whose voice stood starkly apart from the literary mainstream’s travesties, veneration of subjectivity, and l’art pour l’art games with language. Instead, Borbély reached back to Baroque liturgical forms, motives of Hasidic folklore, and he crafted a depersonalised voice so as to hone in on the roots of the self: the stuttering of fear, grief, hope. In other words, he fused the interpersonal and the formalised with barely articulate and verbal intimacy. The relationship between language and the body was at the heart of this fusion: he wrote about the physicality of speech, the sequence of aging that connects birth and death, about the immediacy of sensory life and the brutality of this immediacy.

This poetic voice was not simply an aesthetic choice for him. Rather, it stemmed from a realisation that the world is fundamentally different from “the language we live by” and that much of it “cannot even be expressed as questions, or formulated as problems.”[1] For him, the world existed in a rawness that defied legal and moral constructs, be they about human rights or divine redemption. It defied the very rules of language. Crime—raw and immediate—is only arbitrarily linked to punishment, and only when it is too late. Law alone could never prevent the killer from entering the room. Imre Kertész—the Holocaust survivor novelist who won Hungary’s only Nobel in literature—saw no reason not to expect that you can be shot anytime, anywhere. Similarly, Borbély was acutely aware of how thin the coat of law was and how in vain it existed in the face of brutality, especially after the house-break that led to his mother’s homicide.

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Snichimal Vayuchil: Writing Poetry in an Endangered Maya Language

They insist that they be allowed to express themselves, above all else, in Tsotsil and as Tsotsiles.

As outlined in the controversial fall 2013 editorial from n +1, concepts of “World Literature” or “Global Literature” in translation are continually haunted by circuits of colonial power. Must we begin with Goethe and his Weltliteratur? Must translation practices always be subject to market forces and so dominated by economically powerful languages like English? What is the role of individual multilingual readers who communicate in multiple languages? These questions become all the more pressing in the cases of so-called minoritized languages. Possessing limited access to education and formal literary training within their respective nation states, minorizited languages are by definition disadvantaged with regard to publication and the dissemination within their respective national confines. Indeed, whether the context is the United States, China, or Colombia, despite the tireless activities of linguistic activists, one of the overriding concerns of publication in minoritized languages is who, exactly, constitutes the audience for a text that, more often than not, will be accompanied by a translation into the dominant language anyway?

These are a few of the topics that came up in conversation with the San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, Tsotsil Maya literary collective Snichimal Vayuchil (“The Flowery Dream”) when I sat down with a few of its members recently. Consider, for a moment, the untranslatability of the group’s name. What sounds like an overwrought cliché in English is actually the adaptation of a pre-hispanic Mesoamerican difrasism or semantic couplet, in xochitl in cuicatl (“my flower my song”) in Náhuatl, which reflects an aesthetic conceptualization linking poetry with the natural world as well as entrée into a distinctly non-European set of literary and aesthetic values.

According to Xun Betan (Venustiano Carranza), the group’s founder and coordinator, the group’s mission is to produce a Tsotsil literature that originates from Tsotsil understandings of the world. That’s why, both in their first anthology and in an upcoming English translation of the group’s work in the North Dakota Quarterly, they label themselves “a poetic experiment in Bats’i K’op (Tsotsil Maya).” Betan noted that, unlike Maya K’iche’ and Yucatec Maya, languages whose pre-Hispanic literary traditions were recorded in the colonial Popol vuh and the Books of the Chilam Balam, respectively, there are no Tsotsil language colonial documents that reflect what we would call a Tsotsil literary tradition. The group sees its work as being more “experimental” and much less proscriptive than the traditional literary workshop setting, as they explore Tsotsil language as a medium for literary expression. For readers already well-versed in US Native American literature, this situation is not unlike the one described by Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko when she asks, “What changes would Pueblo writers make to English as a language for literature?” with the key difference here being that these writers are undertaking this work in their mother tongue. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: The Judgement of Richard Richter by Igor Štiks

An excerpt from acclaimed writer Igor Štiks' soon-to-be-published novel, in translation.

Igor Štiks is no stranger to Asymptote. As his April 2012 interview with us states, he was born in Bosnia, wrote his books in Croatia, and now divides his time between Edinburgh and Belgrade. The title character of Štiks’ soon-to-be-published novel, The Judgement of Richard Richter, is a Viennese writer and journalist who retreats from Paris and a painful divorce to his childhood home of Vienna just as he’s turning fifty, in 1992. In the midst of remodeling the apartment where he’d been raised by his aunt Ingrid, he stumbles on a letter written by his late mother, hidden in a blue notebook, tucked behind a bookcase in a wall he’d been demolishing.

From the unsent letter, he learns that his father was a man Richard had never heard of—someone called Jakob Schneider, a leftist Jewish antiwar activist from Sarajevo. Just then, in April of 1992, the war is breaking out in Bosnia. Moved by this unexpected information about his parentage and the mounting hostilities in Bosnia, Richter decides to go to Sarajevo to report from there as a war correspondent and, while he’s there, to search for more information about his father.

Once he arrives he is quickly caught up in the reality of the war and, at first, he sets aside his search for his father. Instead he finds a student, Ivor, to serve as his guide and translator, and he and Ivor decide to shoot a film about a play which is being rehearsed, amid the terrifying conditions of the siege, by a Sarajevo theater, based on a script adapted from the novel, Homo Faber, by Max Frisch. While working on the play he falls in love with Alma, the play’s leading actress. It is from this love affair and the outcome of the search for his father that he flees with such shame and horror, as described in the opening sentences of the excerpt, which we’re thrilled to present to you today in contributing editor Ellen Elias-Bursac’s excellent translation.

When the United Nations transport aircraft took off from Sarajevo on the morning of July 7, I was convinced that shame would strike me dead right there if I looked back once more at the city. I stayed in the seat I’d been assigned and fended off the desire to gaze one last time through the window at Sarajevo as I fled. I held my face in my hands, dropped my head to my knees, and didn’t even rise to lift a hand and wave to the besieged city I’d arrived in as a journalist in mid-May—only to desert it that day like a coward running from my own personal catastrophe, which had intertwined so strangely with the city’s calamity. Coward-like, I repeat, with no word of farewell. Or better, like a beggar in disguise, because there was nothing left of the old Richard Richter but, perhaps, the name on the accreditation ID that allowed him to board the aircraft as simply and painlessly as if hailing a cab to whisk him away from a war he had no tie to whatsoever.

And the tears that dripped onto the grimy iron deck of the aircraft, finding their way through his tightly squeezed fingers, might be perceived as nothing more than a perfectly reasonable human response to what he’d been through, a reaction to the stress that is invariably a part of the work of a journalist, a release of emotions now that the danger had finally passed, after our famous writer, valiant correspondent, and shrewd analyst of this tragic European war at the century’s end had chosen to withdraw. Perhaps to write a fat new book about his experiences and the bravery it took to be there, on the spot, before anybody else could, to open the eyes of Europe—as long as the honorarium was generous enough. No one knew that the man they took pains to extract from the plane that hot day in Split when the plane had landed was no longer the man listed on the ID attached to his shirt. No longer did he answer to that name.

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What’s New in Translation? March 2017

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

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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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What’s New in Translation? February 2017

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from French, Kannada, and Danish.

 

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Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet, tr. Sophie Yanow, New York Review Books

Review: Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

Dominique Goblet’s Pretending is Lying, translated by fellow cartoonist Sophie Yanow in collaboration with the author, immediately recalls the best work of those figures like Alison Bechdel, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware, who have done so much to insist on both the relevance and elegance of the graphic narrative form in the Anglophone world. Fortunately, New York Review Books is dedicated to showcasing the many voices contributing to an ongoing, worldwide comic conversation, and its latest contribution is this Belgian memoir. Originally titled Faire semblant c’est mentir, it centers on the experiences of Dominique—a fictionalized version of the author herself—as she navigates fraught relationships with her parents, including with her looming lush of a father. Also sketched out is a romantic relationship where Dominique attempts to grapple with that most fundamental question of heartbreak: why did he leave me?

A certified electrician and plumber, Goblet clearly understands a thing or two about the necessary connections running through structures to make them work, and her illustrations carry this skill into Pretending is Lying, her first work to appear in English. Image and text perform an intricate choreography, reveling in an aesthetic that frequently slips between the easily imitated and the utterly remarkable. If the easy analogy for reading comics is the process of examining a series of film stills—and even if we might be tempted to label parts of the construction of this work cinematic—I would instead suggest that Goblet offers something that more closely resembles a well curated series of photographs, each of which could easily stand on its own, given each frame’s clarity of vision and attention to detail.

In illustrations that move from Rothko-like explorations of pure color to nuanced collections of penmanship that gradually reveal a series of ethereal forms, the melancholia that we often find in other works emerges here as well—maybe there’s something about the form that lends itself well to expressions of such emotions in its ability to match words with alternatively visceral and measured strokes. The muted color palette of Pretending is Lying is also remarkably expressive. READ MORE…

Highlights from the Asymptote Winter Issue

Our editors recommend their favorite pieces from the latest issue.

First off, we want to thank the five readers who heeded our appeal from our editor-in-chief and signed up to be sustaining members this past week. Welcome to the family, Justin Briggs, Gina Caputo, Monika Cassel, Michaela Jones, and Phillip Kim! For those who are still hesitating, take it from Lloyd Schwartz, who says, “Asymptote is one of the rare cultural enterprises that’s really worth supporting. It’s both a literary and a moral treasure.” If you’ve enjoyed our Winter 2017 issue, why not stand behind our mission by becoming a sustaining member today?

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One week after the launch of our massive Winter 2017 edition, we invited some section editors to talk up their favorite pieces:

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones on her favorite article:

My highlight from the Criticism section this January is Ottilie Mulzet’s review of Evelyn Dueck’s L’étranger intime, the work that gave us the title of this issue: ‘Intimate Strangers’. Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian, but (being prolifically multilingual) is also able to offer us a detailed, thoughtful, and well-informed review of a hefty work of French translation scholarship. Dueck’s book is a study of French translations of Paul Celan’s poetry from the 1970s to the present day (focussing on André du Bouchet, Michel Deguy, Marthine Broda, and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre) and is, in Mulzet’s estimation, ‘an indispensable map for the practice of the translator’s art’. One of this review’s many strengths is the way it positions Dueck’s book in relationship to its counterparts in Anglophone translation scholarship; another is its close reading of passages from individual poems in order to illustrate differences in approach among the translators; a third is the way Mulzet uses Dueck’s work as a springboard to do her own thinking about translational paratexts, and to offer potential areas for further research. The reviewer describes L’étranger intime as ‘stellar in every way’—the same might be said of the review, too.

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek, who stepped in to edit our Writers on Writers section for the current issue, had this to say: 

When asked to pick a highlight from this issue’s Writers on Writers feature, I was torn between Victoria Livingstone’s intimate exploration of Xánath Caraza’s fascinating oeuvre and Philip Holden’s searching essay on Singapore’s multilingual—even multivocal—literary history, but the latter finally won out for its sheer depth and detail. Moving from day-to-day encounters with language to literary landmarks of the page and stage, Holden surveys the city’s shifting tonalities with cinematic ease, achieving what he himself claims is impossible: representing a ‘polylingual lived reality’ to the unfamiliar reader. And as a Singaporean abroad myself, Holden’s conclusion sums it up perfectly: the piece is ‘a return to that language of the body, of the heart’.

Visual Editor Eva Heisler’s recommendation:

Indian artist Shilpa Gupta addresses issues of nationhood, cultural identity, diaspora, and globalization in complex inquiry-based and site-specific installations.  The experience of Gupta’s work is explored by Poorna Swami in her essay ‘Possessing Skies’, the title of which alludes to a work in which large LED light structures, installed across Bombay beaches, announce, in both English and Hindi, ‘I live under your sky too.’  Gupta’s work, Swami writes, ‘positions her spectator in an irresolvable conversation between the abstracted artwork and a tangible sense of the so-called real world, with all its ideologies, idiosyncrasies, and fragilities’.

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Translation Tuesday: “Shadow Puppets” by Wong Yoon Wah

With a dab of paint I become the singing, dancing doll everyone loves.

The stories told with Southeast Asia’s shadow puppets, better known in the region as ‘Wayang Kulit’, range from adaptations of ancient epics to familiar, domestic sagas. This poem was written in 1977, when the Malayan-born Wong Yoon Wah (by then an outspoken scholar, critic, and award-winning writer) was appointed Director of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nanyang University—just as higher education in Singapore was experiencing a period of upheaval. In this poem, Wong holds his own multiple identities up to the light, and a candid sense of his inner self shines through.

i. Birth

A sharp knife
pares the leather into shape.
A ruthless awl
carves each nub of my character.

With a dab of paint
I become the singing, dancing doll
everyone loves.

 

ii. Family Background

Though I’m a shadow
acting in the night’s mystery,
I am a child of light,
nothing without its beam.

The village’s earth is a white gauze.
In this soiled world, I can’t find myself.

I’ve never left a footprint
on the path.
I sing movingly
but never with my own voice.
At home, I’m a shadow on the screen.
On stage: a self you can see.

 

iii. Confession

Don’t take me
for one who loves fights,
schemes to be king,
or hankers
after Solomon’s princesses. 

A shapeless thread holds each of my four limbs.
Being superstitious, I can’t refuse being fate’s plaything.
The old man backstage
has my voice in his hands.
Whether I’m crying or laughing,
he decides.

 

iv. Fate

If you go backstage
when the show ends,
you’ll find usheroes, ladiesall
in the arms of the ugly puppeteer.

After we’ve been played,
our heads are taken down,
bodies folded and stacked again
in his box, secured with string
where patiently, like prisoners,
we’ll wait to see the sun.

November, 1977

Translated from the Chinese by Theophilus Kwek

Born in Malaysia, Professor Wong Yoon Wah has won Singapore’s Cultural Medallion (1986), Thailand’s South-East Asia Write Award (1984), and the ASEAN Cultural Award (1993). He has published more than twenty books as well as over fifty articles on modern and postcolonial Chinese literature, and is presently Senior Vice President of Southern University College, Malaysia.

Theophilus Kwek has published three collections of poetry, most recently Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets’ Prize in 2016, and his translation of ‘Moving House’ by Wong Yoon Wah placed second in this year’s Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation.

*****

Read More Translations:

Hong Kong, My Home

“The moment I felt most at home in Hong Kong, my entire body was covered in tear gas residue and I sat exhausted on a sidewalk corner. ”

The smell was an acrid burning, very unlike the cool sea breeze that usually wafts off the harbor and drifts down Connaught Road in Central, Hong Kong. In Admiralty, I knew, there were students lined around the Tamar government buildings. Earlier I had seen the protestors shouting and shoving past barricades before the pepper spray began. It was hard to believe the same students who had written me polite emails explaining their reasons for protesting and thus being absent from class would one minute make promises to complete all their assignments, and the next minute be the source of this burning and smoke. As I walked across the abandoned street, stepping over empty water bottles and cardboard boxes, I remained skeptical that these same students would cause any violence. And as I came closer to the ramble of dark figures perched on median strips in the road and scattered in the streets, I wanted to see what could possibly be destroying my city.

Saying the phrase “my city” in reference to Hong Kong and not Long Branch, New Jersey, where I was born still strikes me as partially profound and partially profane. When I told people back in New Jersey about being tear-gassed during the protest, they replied, “Why would you put your life at risk? You’re not Chinese.” I am not Chinese. I am African-American; in Hong Kong, children will point at me, old men will stare rudely at me, and the customs officials will always pull me out of line at the airport to be searched. Yet the lush hillside backdrop of this city is as familiar to me as the crisply cut suburban lawns of my American childhood. In the years I have lived in Hong Kong, I have realized myself, grown creatively, and matured personally in the city’s closet-sized apartments and stifling humidity, while I have listened to the clink of Mahjong tiles and the phlegmatic cough of its old men, smelled the scents of ripped open slabs of cows in the markets and the fragrance of sun-drying abalone. I could live the rest of my life somewhere else but suddenly always have a yearning to taste the syrup of iced lemon tea. It would be the nostalgia of home.

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