on translation in texas

it wasn’t until I discovered world literature that I have so voraciously read contemporary literature

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So my blog posts have decreased as the stories I’ve been writing for Arts + Culture Texas have increased. I’ll try to fix that but life has been bonkers.

In lieu of any additional hours in the day, I thought I’d start cross-posting and/or expanding here on some pieces I’ve published recently in A+C.

So. Without further ado.

I’ve always been a voracious reader BUT it wasn’t until I discovered world literature (so in the last several years) that I have so voraciously read contemporary literature.

I use the word discovered rather carelessly. I obviously knew people were writing in other countries, and I’d obviously read some international work inadvertently. I say discovered more as in I intentionally began seeking out work from around the world in an effort to find contemporary writing with which I could engage.

It’s not a stretch, I don’t think, to put forward the idea that there is A LOT of contemporary American writing that is, for lack of a better word, shit. Of course, that being the case, it’s also probably pretty much a guarantee, that a lot of contemporary literature from the far reaches of the globe is also shit. But, and this is totally a guess and not based on reality whatsoever, the barrier to entry (aka that the work has to find a publisher, translator and a distributor to even have the possibility of being read by English-language audiences) is high enough to keep a lot of the shit out. Right?

There’s so little world literature in English and it’s occasionally so different, that it’s a welcome respite for life-long readers like myself who, inevitably I think, get tired of the same stories, the same styles. International writing is, at its best, capable of introducing western readers who are incessantly bombarded with an inordinate number of American books, to new writing styles, new characters, new conflicts.

It’s akin to my rather late in life discovery of an entirely new class of literature, the stuff we (I) didn’t read in high school; Borges, Sebald, Gaddis and so many others.

I had no idea for much of my life that people wrote like that. So experimental, superficially meaningless but formally, and linguistically, beautiful.

So, because I enjoy complication (apparently), and because a publisher who works exclusively in translation set up shop in Dallas last year, I discovered the wide world of translation studies and decided I’d at least take a cursory dive into the philosophical waters.

Nothing has really come of my brief intensive (apart from an intimate acquaintance with the writings of Nabokov and the more contemporary Tim Parks on the subject) other than some burgeoning opinions and a rather unfortunately reductive examination of translation’s importance at its most basic for Arts+Culture Texas. I hope to write in some greater detail about the philosophical implications of translation in the future; thinking more about things such as Martin Heidegger’s assertion that it is “the height of superficiality to suppose translation is even possible,” and whether or not a global literature community has had adverse effects on writers outside of the West who might seek global acceptance to the detriment of their writing; creating a superficial sense of exoticism or detaching from debates internal to their country as examples

Round-about way of saying, I’m reading a lot of critical translation studies and a LOT of work in translation and expect to hear more about both.

Here’s a link to my piece in A+C if you’re interested in reading more about Deep Vellum Publishing (the new spot in Dallas) and my incredibly inane commentary on the importance of translation.

More to come.

on magical realism

Who is magical realism written for anyways?

Who is magical realism written for anyways?

I started thinking about that after rereading some thoughts I had jotted down after reading Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude a while back.

Despite an early love affair with Salman Rushdie, and conflicting feelings about Marquez, I find myself the holder of a hearty skepticism of the genre after several additional entries in to the canon.

Magical realism is, in terms of genres, a supremely appropriate moniker, one that stands in stark contrast to the overly generic, or the overly specialized, it explains exactly what its readers should expect; fantasy elements overlaid on top of what could have been a more straightforward piece of historical fiction, which seems to me more or less what the term realism is, in this case, a stand-in for.

The choice, however, to include that shroud of magic, of course, is the sticking point and a source of debate for both the genre’s advocates and detractors.

It seems to me that magical realism’s authors attempt to do two things, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes not, depending on the author and the story, in their writing, and it is the innate incongruity of those two things that make magical realism, a genre whose authors seem, if not supremely conflicted themselves, at least guilty of instilling a sense of supreme ambiguity amongst their readers, leaving myself (and I’m certain others) to wonder who these authors are writing for.

First of all, magical realism’s authors attempt to mythologize their history, or culture through their storytelling; to essentially position, usually a non-Western world, in line with its Western religious, literary and/or cultural contemporaries. Much has been written specifically about Marquez’s use of, for example, overtly biblical imagery in his stories, take the four-year flood of Macondo as an illustration. This is the half of the genre’s style which seems to be directed towards an outside audience, which is, perhaps, why Marquez, Allende, et al., have received an unprecedented level of international acclaim. By infusing a story with supernatural elements and utilizing what have become almost globally shared symbols and tropes, authors can rescue an ill-used, or typically ignored people, culture or history, and exhibit it to the world screaming, in a sense, “hey, pay attention to us, we’re not so different you and I.”

It’s certainly effective, magical realism’s authors are some of the most read and most highly regarded authors who worked outside the western world, specifically South America, in the mid to late twentieth century and it does, speaking from experience, resonate with international audiences. It may be partly thanks to style, but it is a style which works in tandem with an incredibly colorful creativity (something regardless of how one feels about Marquez, cannot be contested), to make a people, or event seem important.

But an aura of importance overlaid on an event or history, with no underlying sense of why, doesn’t seem to me, to provide a people, or a reader, anything of long-lasting value. So the Nobel Prize grants Colombia and Marquez international approval, recognizes the country’s literature as “significant” and imparts to western readers everywhere a sense of validation and satisfaction; they’ve stepped outside of the first world and learned that, hey, people in Colombia aren’t all that different from me! But why is this necessary? And at what cost does it come?

Why does Latin American culture, or any, have to operate on the same plane as that of the rest of the world to be considered its equal? Why do we all have to have the same stories, the same ideas, the same feel-good sense of being the same, to recognize another country and/or it’s people as valuable? And how, as American readers, should we take that in? Doesn’t it, in a way, serve to present a face of desperation on the part of the author? That he/she feels there is no other way to communicate with a western audience but to position their own people and country in line with western mythologies? And what does that say about us, living in the western half of the “global village” in which we pride ourselves on being part of, if that really is the only way the rest of the world can get through to us?

I’ve been reading a fascinating volume of essays by author/novelist/critic Tom Parks recently on writing and what it means to be an author in the 21st century and in it he gives substantial space to globalization and its effects on literature. He mentions Mexican novelist Jorge Volpi, who vocally commented on magical realism’s deleterious effects by complaining that “by gaining the approval of powerful readerships abroad, magical realism was preventing South American writers from recounting the more prosaic truths about the continent.”

Parks goes on to relate, or at least ponder the consequences of a publishing world which values and therefore rewards writers writing for outside audiences, those readers outside of their own country/culture, and what that means for the talented writers writing in their own country, for their own country. First of all in the sense of how difficult it will be for those writers in the latter category to get published outside of their native tongue, their subject matter and style being too exotic for most readers to grasp and enjoy, and secondly in the sense of what we, as readers, begin to think we, most likely in error, know.

Do we really know Colombia because we’ve read Marquez? An author whose books are clearly about Colombia and its history, but seem to be intended for, or at least written with potent, unshakeable awareness of, those outside of it?

I mentioned there were two things magical realism’s proponents attempt to accomplish in their story, the first, as summarized above, being the creation of a national mythology, operating under the assumption, necessarily then, that it needs to be mythologized.

Secondly, its authors, at the same time, use fantastical elements and devices in their stories to illustrate a recent history which is, very often in South American and non-Western countries, a very difficult one, and one whose pain and suffering is still all too brutally recent.

It’s an effective and pragmatic approach to tackling a recent, agonizing history, allowing a group of people to begin the slow healing process after war or disaster by subverting actual reality beneath a shimmering haze of symbolism and absurdity. Life is absurd, Marquez seems to be screaming on every page. What more is there to say? It’s not denial or excuse-making, which all too often characterize a country’s reaction to suffering, but a recognition, an acceptance, and a potent gesture towards recovery.

But, while that idea can be conveyed in two sentences, Marquez takes a novel, an exhaustively detailed novel, full of dense symbolism and historical allusion, most of which will be completely lost on a non-Colombian reader.

As we, the international reading community, read novels like those of Marquez, what are we to make of the dense symbolism and historical allusion? And what do the vast majority of readers stand to gain by reading a symbolic reinterpretation of a country with whose history they are generally speaking, entirely unfamiliar? Is it acceptable to simply read for pleasure (should you be amongst those who find reading Marquez and company pleasurable)? Naturally I’m not arguing that reading isn’t in and of itself pleasurable, but is it fair to read purely for pleasure when a book, ostensibly, carries so much cultural and historical significance?

100 Years, with its plethora of characters who seem to refuse the notion that any explanation or verification of facts or existence are necessary, whether out of a desire to rightfully avoid additional trauma, or as a result of the passing of time and its effects on memory, makes sense for a Colombian audience, the history is of course already familiar, so there is no need to painfully reconstruct it factually. The story’s overarching aura of absurdity allows Marquez a conceit from which he can beautifully illustrate the futility of explanation; facts, and their recounting, in Marquez’s world, serve no good purpose for a country, in his case, following a brutal civil war.

But what about the rest of us? What do we lose, if our only knowledge of Colombia is Marquez?

So I’m back to the beginning. Who is the intended audience of magical realism?

If it is the outsider, the international reading community, then what does the story illustrate for its native readers? That their country’s leading voices (at least on the international stage) would seek to equate their own, unique history with that of everyone else? That that, indeed, might be necessary.

If it is for the “insider,” what do we, as the international reading community, stand to gain? What are we, without contextual knowledge, missing? And how much does it matter?

regarding the paradox of words

When an artist uses a certain color, is he using the color for the color’s sake, motivated purely by the aesthetic pleasure, or displeasure, the particular color has on the brain? Or is he using a color to represent what it is that that color has come to represent, thanks to a collective definition forged over centuries? A context which, like it or not, is seemingly impossible to eliminate.

As an example.

Is the color blue in a painting, chosen for its beauty, its “blueness,” if you will, or is it chosen as a signifier; intended to evoke, in the mind of the viewer, feelings of depression, or sorrow.

I’m fascinated by language, how words came to be and how they develop meaning far in excess of their dictionary definitions, and have written about the subject before in the context of David Lynch. Lynch is many things, foremost among them, Lynch is a filmmaker. As such, he uses the vocabulary of film to force his viewers to reconsider, visually, the innumerable associations we have with words. Why can’t a scab be beautiful, for instance? And is there any way to shed the vast network of associations we bring with us to language?

William Gass is another intellectual fascinated by language; how it fails us even as it proves our dependence. After all, as I’m sure Gass is well aware, there is a harsh irony implicit in the necessity of words in examining the unreliability of language, as he was forced to do in On Being Blue.

The argument of Gass’ casually philosophical treatment of the subject, hinges, in my summation, on whether writers want to express what their words represent, or the words themselves, and whether or not the two can be disentangled. Spoiler alert, he believes it’s the former, that words are used for their particular properties rather than themselves. But he spends 90, give or take, fascinating (and humorous) pages expanding on that dilemma.

“Words are properties of thoughts and thoughts cannot be thought without them,” he writes at one point, expressing the futility of the entire endeavor.

Its mind-blowingly complex, this issue. Like, make your head hurt complex. A recursive, ontological meditation on the paradox of words indelible and ever-shifting meanings and the staggering fact, that without these unreliable signifiers, we can’t think at all.

It helps to think about the idea in the context of sex, as Gass does.

If we’re going to discuss, or even think, about sex, we have no choice but to use words. It’s a given. But try doing so and you’ll quickly see it become obvious that “anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writings which comprise it are ludicrous.”

Words are everything, it could be argued that we wouldn’t exist without them, and yet they are insufficient, even as they are essential. Unstoppable. Pervasive.

The struggle, for anyone perturbed by the idea, lies in how that fact, the centrality of words, can coexist peacefully in the intellect with the reality that “a random set of meaning has gathered around the word[s] the way lint collects.”

The mind just does that.

Fuck.

The debate concerning language and its “true” meaning easily elicits an association with Plato and his theory of Forms as the true representations of reality, e.g., the Form (capital F) of any thing, is more real than reality’s various manifestations of that thing; the Dog is the only true dog, therefore every particular dog is merely a shadow of the true Dog.

A rather conclusive take on ontology’s search to explain what the features of things are. For Plato, there can be no features.

Gass grapples with that idea in the context of language, challenging the dogmatism inherent in Plato’s line of argument in the context of language, the signifier, as opposed to the sign itself.

Approaching the idea in a different way, Gass instead allows for the particulars, or the features, although he reaches a conclusion of his own.

I read Plato’s arguments as attempts to definitively eliminate those “random sets of meanings” which inevitably cloud a word’s definition; to conclusively state that the ontology of a thing, exists only its universal, or essential.

But, in the words of Gass, if “signs are not the same as the things they designate, they are at least an essential segment.”

In the context of color, which Gass uses frequently as illustration throughout his essay (the book’s title is On Being Blue, after all), he somewhat boldly asserts as “fact” the idea that color is only somewhat subjective. “No one is going to call the sounds of the triangle brown or accuse the timpanist of playing pink.”

Gass will give into the futile consideration of subjectivity, metaphysics, and ontology only to a point, what thinking person can do otherwise, but Gass fights throughout his writing for concession, in a sense, begging for mercy from the obliterating force of the philosophical argument.

As Virginia Woolf’s ever-conflicted Orlando observed:

So then he tried saying the grass is green and the sky is blue and so to propitiate the austere spirit of poetry whom still, though at a great distance, he could not help reverencing. ‘The sky is blue,’ he said, ‘the grass is green.’ Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods. ‘Upon my word,’ he said (for he had fallen into the bad habit of speaking aloud), ‘I don’t see that one’s more true than another. Both are utterly false.’ And he despaired of being able to solve the problem of what poetry is and what truth is and fell into a deep dejection.

Haven’t we all had those out of body experiences? Who the hell decided what would describe what anyways?

But, as Orlando discovered, one can’t live like that. Not all of the time anyways.

Various qualities, or the “lint” as Gass calls it, words pick up over time, may not be part of the essential word, but, as Aristotle would argue, since our experience of a word, or a color, is by necessity, an experience of the whole; composed of each of our innumerable and unpredictable associations with it, we cannot help but associate the qualities we observe in reality, with its use.

It is the balance, in the opinion of Gass, between all aspects of a thing, that makes it what it is.

Perceptions are always profound, associations deceiving.

But they’re real, and we have no choice but to accept them.

I’m no philosopher but I would describe the two sides of the language debate as the essentialists vs. the pragmatists. In other words, those who believe in the existence, or the possibility of existence, of an essential nature to a word, just as there is for Plato with Forms, are on one side, and on the other are those who, like Gass, acknowledge and refuse to deny the cultural context words have.

Because life is just plain easier that way.

the man with(IN) MY head

It’s a rare occurrence to come across something genuinely transformative. Rarer still to be paying enough attention to fully realize something’s transformative potential when you find it.

As someone with a myriad number of interests, unceasingly ready to move on to the next thing simply because for me, there are so many things, I struggle with what I hear referred to often as “mindfulness.” In other words, living one’s life fully invested in each and every moment.

On a favorite radio show I recently listened to a doctor discuss the subject and what he described as our human propensity to “mind-wander.” Apparently it’s totally normal for your mind to want to wander during various, especially mundane, activities. Driving to work, for example. But that “mind-wandering” is also the source of many thinking people’s, let’s say, lack of satisfaction, because unhappiness seems too strong a word. It’s a source of stress, I’ll put it that way. Makes sense, when you’re thinking about how late you’re going to be for work or all the things you need to do when you get there for example, you’re dissatisfied, you feel a need to hurry.

Totally. Normal.

Or, as perhaps a better example, think of all the times when you’re at work and thinking about all of the things you’d rather be doing, or need to be doing, that aren’t work. You probably find, as I do, it’s quite easy to wish your entire day away that way. Your entire day, every day.

If your mind, like mine, by nature tends toward a slightly morbid train of thought it’s not hard to see how that can easily turn in to the wishing away of your entire life.

De.Press.Ing.

Just because it’s normal to mind-wander doesn’t mean we all do it, or that we all do it to the same degree, or that we would all admit this mind-wandering causes us unhappiness. For me, however, it is the source of a great deal of unhappiness, not least because I’m hyper-aware of its easy to ignore consequences, imagining myself always as the 80-year old woman who tells a friend how she wished she would have been enjoying life all those years instead of wishing them away, waiting for what’s next instead of realizing it was already there.

So the desire to live a more mindful life has been taking the form lately of me trying very hard to focus on enjoying what I’m doing right now, whatever it is, instead of wishing for 5 o’ clock, or Friday night.

It’s also been manifesting itself in more concrete resolutions.

As a voraciously competitive reader, I’m often really guilty of only halfway reading a book, something I attribute in large part to the hurry up and finish attitude that is totally understandable considering how many books are on my reading list at all times (and ever growing I might add).

Again, totally understandable not only thanks to an obsessive personality, but also because of the nature of life in our ADD-addled 21st century.

Point of all of this is to say that my goal, one of many really, for 2015, was to live mindfully, all the time. So far, if you were wondering, it’s greatly improved my work ethic because it’s greatly improved my attitude about being at work in the first place. It’s amazing how much a sense of accomplishment contributes to continued ability to accomplish.

I’ll also give this whole mindfulness stuff credit for what I hope is only the first of many transformative reading experiences to come in 2015.

The book was The Man Within My Head, by, wouldn’t you know it, mindfulness expert himself Pico Iyer.

It’s almost stupid this book. Stupid in how closely Iyer’s interpretation of Greene’s psyche mirrors my own, and, I’m grasping for words here, but for lack of something better, how freakishly astute Iyer’s ability to explain, in the perfect language, in a way I never could, why I have consistently gone back to Graham Greene’s novels over the course of my lifetime (and in the process explain me, better than me.)

Of course the whole premise of the book is how Iyer felt that Greene was ‘in his head’ as it were as he has traversed the world in his own lifetime. It’s a memoir, utterly creative in its telling, as it uses Iyer’s interpretation and second-hand knowledge through biographies, friends etc., of Greene’s life, perhaps the most formative author in his (Iyer’s) life, to shed light on the impulses that drove him, and decisions that he made.

It sounds weird, and boring, and maybe a tad cliché, but I was profoundly moved.

In less deft hands the book and its premise could easily have trailed off into narcissism, but I think the book succeeds here almost exclusively thanks to Iyer’s ridiculously unequivocal sincerity (and I will offer the caveat, some of it is a little bit too sincere).

If you’re familiar at all with Greene’s stories you probably are aware most of all of his character’s complex and deep-seated ability to, for the most part, live their lives constantly acknowledging their flaws and only occasionally be consumed by them.

His characters are beautifully tragic; the lovers in The End of the Affair, Scobie in The Heart of the Matter and Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American being just a few.

I was always aware of what I would describe as Greene’s ability to create a very human empathy in and for his characters for the reader; building characters who were magically so real and yet too good to be real at the same time, I just never would have been able to tell you exactly what it was about Greene, or about his characters that could inspire this in his readers.

I came away from Iyer with a lot of thoughts, but perhaps most importantly I came away with the notion that Greene’s prescience lies in Greene’s lifelong struggle with Greene.

He saw things in himself that he hated, hypocrisy being perhaps tantamount to the worst, and therein lay his ability to create profoundly relatable characters; his writing serving more or less as a way of exorcising his own flaws, although Greene more than anyone would have known he could never truly be rid of them.

Iyer noted Greene’s opinion that “the things we do are more telling than merely the things we claim to believe” and his own very human struggle to be honest, really and truly honest (which is stupid hard if you’ve never tried), with himself, inspired in him a profound sympathy for sinners of all kinds. Side note: It’s probably not a coincidence that so many of Greene’s sinners are adulterers, having struggled his entire life with fidelity.

Iyer also noted Greene’s astute acknowledgement, of “all the ways we can fail to understand one another.”

I have to stop using the word profound but it’s the best word to describe what seems like Greene’s innate and otherworldly ability to acknowledge his failings, as well as those of others, yet retain a love for, and faith in, humanity, as well as the ability to celebrate our small triumphs over sin.

According to Iyer Greene wasn’t a religious man, per se, something it’s easy to see in his characters, but it’s also easy to see he kind of wanted to be. He never rejects religion, that’s certain, he lives in the in-between place so many of us live in; recognizing the ideas of sin and salvation playing out around us all the time, yet never reaching a true “faith;” another way of saying it is that he had the “emotional” but not the “rational” basis for religion.

Iyer’s assertion that Greene maintained the intensity of faith yet “refused to stake out the easy ground of a nonbeliever” is paramount in his work, perhaps no more –so than with Scobie who struggles viscerally with sin and faith.

Greene like so many of us, lived his life hyper-aware of the frustration inherent in never really knowing anything for sure. Always feeling “much of the anguish of religion but little of its joy.”

Iyer also elucidated for me Greene’s role as “the caretaker of that part of us that feels we are larger and much harder to contain than even we can get our heads around.”

His struggle with faith is mirrored in myriad additional philosophical struggles Greene would deal with throughout his life, the “craving of knowledge,” as it were, that only some of us have. Something which is occasionally an asset, but is most of the time better described as a burden, refusing its bearer happiness. The curse of knowledge, in a manner of speaking.

But for me, the most profound element of Greene’s novels, the aspect that moves me the most, is the overwhelming empathy he feels for humankind.

His ability to acknowledge each of us has only a provisional point of view, in tandem with a deep understanding of, if not satisfaction with, the self, and a life-long struggle with knowledge, and a lack thereof, refused Greene the gratification of answers, and thereby, the absolution which goes hand in hand with the knowledge of good and evil.

“In our fallenness lies our salvation.”

I’ve felt acutely for many years all of these things; a struggle with the rationality of faith, the surprising difficulty of being honest with yourself, painful communion with the struggles and pains of others and the irresolution inherent to an overwhelming craving of knowledge.

Reading Iyer’s take on Greene’s novel was like reading a diary of my own, albeit far more beautifully written. I was once removed from Greene here, as if Iyer was the person within my head.

I’m so very grateful for having found the book, although I am now no more at peace than before, perhaps even less so, feeling more than anything else as I finished the book, an acute sense of what I earlier called irresolution. It was a reminder that these things I (and I’m sure many others) struggle with, will never be settled. I’ll never be at peace, which is a hard thing to come to terms with.

But hey, if Greene can do it.