THE BLOG @ TIR
December 2, 2011
Tim Parks, one of TIR’s contributors to its Forum on Literature and Translation, just published this piece at the NYR Blog, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/nov/30/translating-dark/, which from the very start stacks the deck against poor poet-translators by suggesting that they rarely know their source material well enough to really free themselves from it. The point might seem paradoxical at first, and he appears to be aware of this, when he notes
…a paradox at the heart of translation: the text we take as inspiration is also the greatest obstacle to expression. Our own language prompts us in one direction, but the text we are trying to respect says something else, or says the same thing in a way that feels very different. We have come to what Paul Celan meant when, despairing of translating Baudelaire, he remarked that "poetry is the fatal uniqueness of language."
My favorite characterization of this difficulty was by Minna Proctor, Editor of The Literary Review, on a panel at the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association (there is such an organization), where she named the source text a “bully”: it stands there in front of you, arms akimbo, not letting you pass, not letting you do what you want to do, and you don’t want to give in to him, but you also don’t want to antagonize him; you need to find some way of disarming him.
But Parks doesn’t seem to notice the paradox of turning more to the source than away from it in order to free oneself from it (isn’t this like letting the bully have his way?), and he transitions away very quickly. “All the same,” he notes—this is the extent of the transition—
what often frees the student to offer better translations is a deeper knowledge of the language he is working from: a better grasp of the original allows the translator to detach from formal structures and find a new expression for the tone he is learning to feel: in this case, however, every departure from strict transposition is inspired by an intimate and direct experience of the original.
What exactly this claim is based upon is not made clear in the piece. How exactly does this deeper knowledge of the source language enable the translator to “detach” from it? Might it not encourage even a deeper commitment to it? I am thinking of Nabokov’s thorough love for Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin, which encouraged him to create an English poem with all the mellifluousness of a hunk of wood being kicked down an alley: I can’t help thinking he just loved his Pushkin too much. Such a bully that Pushkin. He also loved to throw rocks, I hear.
Parks appears to offer some support for his claim when he notes that he has taught translation for many years in Italy and that he has seen that his students are often able to write well in their native language but unable to create fluid translations. But I know people who have taught translation for many years in the U.S. who say exactly the opposite—knowledge of the source language is a technical detail, they say; what is really hard to acquire isn’t that, it’s the skills to make one’s translation “sing” in English. I don’t know who’s right here, but surely both a deep knowledge of the language and literature of the source culture, and a high degree of expressive skills in the receiving culture’s language and literature are necessary if one is to create translated works of high quality. This shouldn't be controversial.
What Parks seems to be most concerned about, I think (and perhaps annoyed by would be a better term), is the attitude of certain poet-translators who appear to want to claim that those who know the source language really well and who come to the poetry from that angle—often having been trained in language and literature departments rather than in creative writing programs (this is another problem and a cultural divide that deserves exploration)—cannot know the poetry as poetry, or, if they can know it as poetry, they can do so only in the source, not in the receiving culture. And that’s because they’re not poets, which for an earlier generation meant they had not been accepted into the ranks of poets on the basis of avocation, and perhaps class, and today means they don’t have an MFA in it.
This troublesome attitude he locates, probably correctly, in a collection called Dante’s Inferno, a 1994 volume edited by Daniel Halpern featuring translations of different cantos by twenty contemporary poets, from Jorie Graham to Robert Pinsky and Seamus Heaney. One of the poets featured is Ciaran Carson, whose translation of the whole Inferno was published by NYRB in 2002 (The Inferno of Dante Allighieri). On the first page of his work, he notes that when he began the project he was “almost completely unfamiliar with the Italian language, let alone Dante’s language.” What might appear initially as a rather odd way of claiming authority for the work at hand makes sense in light of the annoying poet-translator attitude Parks points to: this is going to be a good translation because the translator is a poet, not one of those language experts who get bogged down in the details. Plus Carson can relate it to life in Belfast—even better.
I’m not so annoyed by this stance. I see it as just another ethos argument on the part of the translator, a necessary component of any translation, especially so for retranslation, doubly especially so for a retranslation of The Inferno. But the attitude is only the surface of a much more serious problem that Parks (Tim, please do more with this in future pieces!) doesn’t quite spell out clearly enough but that lurks beneath the surface of this and several of the other things he’s been writing these days: a basic question about the potential harm to the diversity and multiplicity of cultures worldwide with the growth of English as a lingua franca, not just in business and technical fields, but in artistic expression; and an accompanying, equally pernicious, tendency on the part of "native" English speakers prepared to find always one more reason why they do not need to make any effort at all to step outside their own language complacency.
December 2, 2011
Sarah Dohrmann, whose essay "Point of Departure" appeared in our Fall 2011 issue, and photographer Tiana Markova-Gold have received the Lange-Taylor prize to complete their documentary project on prostitution in Morocco, titled "If You Smoke Cigarettes in Public, You Are a Prostitute."
In 2010, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University awarded the twentieth Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize to photographer Tiana Markova-Gold and writer Sarah Dohrmann to produce their project If You Smoke Cigarettes in Public, You Are a Prostitute: Women and Prostitution in Morocco. The pair spent three and a half months of this year in the country, documenting the lives of sex workers to explore the complex nature of the choices Moroccan women face.
They approached the project with the express intent to “dismantle preconceived notions of the prostitute as sexual deviant,” an idea that Markova-Gold has explored in earlier projects on her own in the Bronx and Macedonia. Dohrmann had previously lived in Morocco, where she learned Moroccan Arabic and had begun writing about her interactions with female Moroccan sex workers. Their method is collaborative and unconventional, pairing Markova-Gold’s impressionistic and occasionally inscrutable photographs with Dohrmann’s narrative and very personal literary style. With time and space, the pair was able to cultivate deep and nuanced relationships with several women, resulting in a complex and holistic story. Working in a developing Islamic country during the Arab Spring allowed the pair to explore how other issues affected the subjects of their project, such as globalization, religion, politics and migration.
A wide-ranging and challenging subject deserves such a patient and extensive approach, and the pair has recently begun to work with their material in earnest. Typically the work for the Lange-Taylor prize is not revealed until the project is finished, but Dohrmann and Markova-Gold agreed to share some of the ideas they are working on exclusively with LightBox.
Markova-Gold shot primarily with film, but also used her iPhone to provide more instant feedback and evidence of the situations she was shooting. The photographs in the series above consist of iPhone photos, processed with the ShakeItPhoto app, which she found to be the closest approximation to her film work. As the project progressed, she found the images resonated beyond their immediate use and ultimately are relevant to the final project. They are paired with some of Dohrmann’s preliminary writing, which was written in a daily log of their time together, and focuses on one of their subjects, Khadija. The final project, slated for completion by the end of the year, will feature film and digital photography from Markova-Gold, and a long-form essay by Dohrmann.
November 29, 2011
To celebrate Publishers Weekly's naming of Ann Patchett's State of Wonder as one of the Best Books of 2011, we give you her short story "Africa" from our Spring 1988 issue (18/2):
"Boo." Georgia opened the closet door and peered inside. She could hear Lewis' light breathing and make out the shape of his small shoes in the darkness behind the coats. "When someone says 'Boo' you're supposed to say 'Boo' back at them. Otherwise it's bad luck." The silence continued for a while.
"Boo." Lewis said.
"Well, you're safe for now." Georgia went into the closet and shut the door. It was big enough for both of them to sit comfortably and so she sat down. Closets were like sanctuaries to her, places to go, and so she kept them cleaner than the rest of her home, forgoing the safety of moth balls for the clean smell of lavender. "Not a bad place you've got here, mind if I stay awhile?"
"No." Lewis said.
"I like a good closet. If you've got a closet you know you've always got a place to get away to, someplace where you can go to think things out. That's how I figured out you'd be here. You strike me as the kind of person who'd know about these things." She waited for a minute to see if he wanted to jump in. "I used to spend lots of time in the closet when I was your age, but my mother, she wasn't a closet person, she was an attic person. I'd go away to think and she'd start hunting for me up in the attic, since that's where she liked to go. But me, I was always in the closet." There was some shuffling and then Lewis stretched out his legs. "You don't have galoshes on, did you know that?"
Georgia opened the closet door just enough for a crack of light to fall through. "Here," she said, handing him a pair of heavy black overshoes, "you can wear mine and I'll wear your dad's. You should always wear galoshes when you go into the closet to think. But you should wear somebody else's."
"How do you know?" The voice came from several folds of wool.
"Well, I didn't know at first, I just sort of did it by accident, and it made everything work out okay. Some of the most important things in the world are discovered by accident. So I figured if it was the right thing to do once, I'd better keep doing it, you know?" They both pulled them on and Georgia shut the door again. They sat there for a few minutes.
"Jesus Christ is in hell." Lewis said.
"He went to hell before the first Easter and now he has to go back every year because I do bad things."
"Lewis, who told you that?" Georgia whispered.
"Sister Lawrence Mary said so in school today, that he's there right now and he'll have to stay there until Sunday."
Georgia crawled back behind the wall of coats and pulled her son into her lap. The front of his shirt was damp from crying, but he wasn't crying now, he was stiff and resigned. "Whi is it because of you?"
"He knows everything I've done that's bad, even the things I haven't done yet, and it makes him go to hell."
She rested her chin in the coolness of his hair. "You haven't done anything bad, Baby, and even if you did, Christ would understand, he knows how it is with us. And all that other stuff about his going away, that's just a story they put out to fool people. He isn't in hell, I promise you."
"Sister Lawrence Mary says she always tells us the truth."
Georgia flinched, but in the darkness it went unseen. "She thought she was telling the truth because she believed the story too, everybody believes the story unless they know different."
"How do you know different?" Lewis said.
"Now you listen to me because this is a secret, a big secret that my father told me so I can tell you. Jesus Christ goes to Africa, every year right about now, he goes there to think about things the way other people go to the closet. Your grandpa met him there once, just by accident, that's how I know."
"Are you going to tell Sister Lawrence Mary?"
"She probably wouldn't believe me. It's the kind of thing you have to see for yourself, or at least be related to someone who's seen it. I used to think one day I'd go there and find him, and the two of us would spend all sorts of time together, going around the watering holes and counting zebras, that it would be the best time ever."
Lewis looked up at her, she couldn't see him, but she could feel his warm breath on her face as he spoke. "Why didn't you go?"
Georgia thought about it. "Because I got older, and I started trying to figure it all out logically, things like where I'd go when I got off the plane and how long it would take me to get there, and the more I thought about it, the more it just seemed too hard and so I decided not to think about it anymore. Maybe I was afraid."
"That it wasn't true?" Lewis said, his voice shaking a little.
Georgia loved him utterly. "No, that he would be there and I'd miss him, but now I know it's something you've just got to believe in. You can't hold it in your hand and you can't draw a map to where it is, but you know it's there. When you do go, you can't think about it too much, you've got to act like you remember and you've done it a hundred times before, like walking through your bedroom with the lights off."
"And we'll go to Africa one day?"
"Okay," she said.
"And I'll take you to where he is," Lewis said, "I won't ever think about it."
"Okay," she said, pulling him closer to her, "okay."
"Do you play poker?"
Harry heard the question as if it were being asked from a long way way. He didn't think about giving an answer, but instead took the sentence apart, going over each word separately in his mind.
"Do you play poker?" The voice was louder now.
Maybe it was a dream, maybe it was part of a questionnaire, a hospital admissions form: Have you been here before? Did you have any childhood diseases? Do you play poker? He moved his tongue and felt several smooth objects, like freshwater pearls, floating inside his mouth, homeless. He took these to be his teeth.
"Hey, are you listening to me?"
Harry pulled open his eyes. They felt like windows swollen shut in the heat. The sun was at twelve o'clock, straight above his head, and the sky had a horrible cast of green. He shut them tightly. Two hands pulled the collar of his leather jacket and sat him upright. There was a shooting pain in his back, the same pain he would have for years after this, whenever he tried to lift more than a sack of groceries.
"Nothing's broken, I checked already. You've got a few scratches and a nasty lump on the head, but all in all I'd say you were a pretty lucky guy. Would a drink help? You can sit here for a few minutes and have a drink then we'll walk over to my place and play a couple of hands. Your legs are fine."
Harry nodded and opened his eyes again. The man positioned himself so as to cast a shadow over him, making the light seem bearable. His hand trembled a bit as he took the glass which was tall and well frosted, the word "Falstaff" lettered in red on the side. He spit a couple of teeth onto the grass.
The man bent over and began picking them up. "You should save these." He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wrapped them up. "They're doing wonderful things with dentistry now, they should be able to put them all back." He slipped the little bundle into Harry's pocket. "Drink up. I think you'll like it. Sidecar. I like to think I'm one of the few people around who still makes a good sidecar."
Harry drank. The sugared ice and brandy felt good on the cut in his mouth and down the back of his dried throat.
"We should probably be going pretty soon. I don't think those trees are going to hold that plane much longer."
Harry looked up and saw his plane, his dear plane which represented a second mortgage on his home and his entire life's work, balancing above his head. A burning wheel landed a few feet away and the man go tup to stamp down the fire in the grass. He had been right, nothing was broken. Harry discovered this as he jumped to his feet and pulled the two of them away from the cluster of trees, just as the left wing came in for its final descent.
"See, you'll be fine, maybe a little concussion, but I'll keep you awake. Here, give me your arm, we don't have very far to go."
The two of them set out across the veldt arm in arm. The grass was dry and yellowed and it made sharp snapping sounds beneath their feet. For a moment Harry tried to think, going southeast of Zambia, three hundred miles. The fuselage, it had something to do with that, he was sure, but the particulars made his head swim. He could not remember the going down. At least he knew who he was, but he didn't know where he was, how long he'd been there, or who the person walking beside him was. In light of everything that had happened, it didn't seem very important, he just felt quite, quite and content to be alive. He relaxed and put more of his weight on the man's arm.
Before too long they arrived at a giant gum tree, stretching side to side nearly a full city block. Rain trees were sensible, equipped to think ahead to the long summer months. They sent their roots crawling deep, past the dryness, down to the places where the water moved underground. They socked away every drop, in the roots, the giant trunk, through the branches and to the leaves, which stiffened in the sun and grew as big as dinner plates. Harry imagined it was probably as high as it was wide but he didn't want to roll his head back to look. There were two deck chairs with white linen cushions and between them a card table with a pitcher of sidecars.
"Have another," the man said, taking the glass which Harry still held in his hand. "These chairs are my pride and joy, the very chairs that Zelda and Scott sunned in when they first took the Queen Elizabeth to France." Harry received the drink and looked at the chairs, nodding appreciatively. "You don't find craftsmen like that anymore." Harry wondered whether he meant Fitzgerald or the person who made the chairs, but any sort of question made his head ache. He rubbed his temples with his fingers. "Do you want something for that? I have some aspirin back in the tent." Harry nodded almost imperceptibly and the man walked around to the other side of the tree.
Alone, Harry sat down on the edge of the chair and tried to keep his mind completely blank. He heard the sound of dry grass behind him and looked up for his friend, but instead he found a lioness, much bigger than the ones in the zoo. When she roared her breath smelled of old antelope meat. There was no point in trying to make it to the tree, even if he got there first, the cat was probably a better climber. I have survived a plane crash in the middle of Africa only to be eaten by a lion, Harry thought. The events of the day stood between him and blind panic. "I have a wife," he whispered to the animal, a fact he had just remembered, "Joan, and a little girl, Georgia. She's eight." The lion eyed him, dangling her tongue from one side of her open mouth.
The man reappeared. "Bufferin, is that okay?" The lion roared again. "Hush," he said, stretching out on the other chair and handing the bottle to Harry. The lion walked around to the end of the chair and butted her head against the man's long, tan feet. He rubbed his toes against her forehead until she fell asleep in the shade. "Sort of sounds like a toaster, doesn't she?"
"Yours?" Harry asked.
The man shrugged, "Not really."
"Ive got a wife, Joan, and a daughter Georgia. She's eight."
The man smiled as if genuinely touched. "I like children."
Harry nodded and swallowed the aspirin. He had forgotten the point he wanted to make. "Oh," he said finally, "I'll be wanting to get back to them."
"There won't be a search plane coming through for a few days, but it's fine if you want to stay here with me, I like the company."
"You don't think they'll send one right away?"
"Not on Easter weekend. The guys that run the air control in Zambia are all Catholics, they shut down the strip and take off for three days."
The man looked a little hurt. "Why not for Easter?"
Harry shurgged. "I don't know, it just doesn't seem like the kind of thing you close an airport over."
"No, I guess not." He picked up a copy of Vanity Fair from beneath the chair and began to flip through it.
"I'm sorry," Harry said, "are you Catholic?"
"But Monday, do you think they'll come Monday?"
"Did you register a flight plan?"
Harry tried to remember. All he was really sure of was buying a pack of spearmint gum from a woman with a red cloth tied around her head. He didn't want to think about it anymore, his brain felt clouded and tender; it was in no mood to digest logic. He stretched back and put both hands over his eyes.
"I don't think you should be going to sleep. Come on and sit up and we'll play a game of poker."
Harry uncovered his eyes. The sun was beginning to set in a great, orange streak.
"You do play poker, don't you?"
Harry nodded. The man picked up the cards and smiled greedily. "Seven Card No Peek, red nines wild." When he shuffled it was almost as if his hands left his wrists. They went everywhere. The cards shot up through the air and wafted down to the table, where they were spread, sliced, and stacked in so many different patterns that there appeared to be no pattern at all. Harry was mesmerized. Even though the speed made his stomach churn, it all seemed to make some sort of sense. The deck smacked down in front of him. "Cut?" Harry shook his head. "So you've got a little girl?" He gave them each four cards, face down.
"Eight years last month."
"Isn't that something? They grow so fast. I never realized it would all go so quickly."
"You're telling me."
Harry's first card up was the three of clubs. His friend got the ace of hearts. Harry looked at one of them and then the other until he wasn't sure who had what.
"Do you have a picture?"
"Three of clubs?"
"In your wallet, may I see a picture of your daughter?"
Harry brightened, he loved showing this off. After looking through his shirt and jacket, he came across the wallet in his back pocket. "There she is," he tapped the plastic cover, "there's my girl."
It was taken on her birthday. There was a smudge of chocolate frosting on the front of her pale green dress. "Well, would you look at her." The man smiled and nodded. "She's something, all right."
The man got another ace and a red nine, Harry got a seven and the jack of spades. "You can tell your girl I said she's always welcome here."
Harry looked up from the cards. "Oh, that's nice." Regardless of who was dealing, Harry felt as if all the games he won were thrown to him, but he was having a wonderful time nevertheless. They played until after the sun went down, played until they had burned through two sets of candles, and watched the sun come back, and then they played again. Unlike everything else, the cards did not make Harry's head ache. The cards made good sense.
Georgia was sitting in the hall closet between her father's galoshes, her head leaning back against his winter coat. She had brought down a stack of his undershirts from his dresser drawer and would push them hard against her face; they smelled like him, like clean white sheets on a clothesline, like the ocean. She knew that his grey hat was on the shelf above her, and that behind the coats was the baseball bat he had as a child, the bat he had just last month started teaching her to use. She knew she was a good hitter too, she did it just like he showed her, one leg slightly bent, arms locked solid, her eyes squinted against the sun. She believed her father did not pull back when he sent his famous curve ball hurling across the lawn because she did not pull back when she sliced into it, clean and straight, the crack of the bat blending with her father's long, low whistle. He would say God knew what He was doing when He gave him a daughter as she climbed onto his back for a ride home.
Now Georgia was sure God knew nothing at all.
She was looking at an Easter card that her aunt had sent her, postmarked from the week before when a piece of mail or the two dollars folded inside it might have meant something. Now she hated it, hated the rabbit on the front, hated the message that she read over and over again because there was nothing else to do. She began tearing up the card into tiny pieces and throwing it into the corner and when that was done, pulled the huge galoshes on over her shoes. She decided to wear them until her feet grew to size. Once she had settled on this she felt a little better and opened the door a crack for air. She heard her mother say, "Oh my God," and the sound of something heavy falling, like an ashtray or a lamp. Georgia started to run into the other room, but the shoes slowed her, making her clump and slap down the hall as if it were some sort of game. She shuffled into the kitchen where her mother sat on the floor, the receiver of the phone still in her hand. Georgia tried to stand her up. Mothers shouldn't be on the floor. Her mother said, "Oh my God," five or six times without any inflection until she felt her daughter pulling at her, as if from someplace far away. Then she took Georgia's shoulders and pulled them hard against her chest. "Georgia, Daddy isn't dead. Daddy is coming home."
Time works differently for children, because it seemed like just a few minutes later (her mother said just short of thirty-two hours) that he was standing there. Georgia knew it was her doing, because she had slept in galoshes, hung her feet over the side of the tub and washed only to her knees when she took her bath that morning. It was her good thinking that brought him back to the entry hall where for a second they all stood and stared at each other with disbelief. Her father was tall and very handsome, everyone said so, and what struck her right off was how tan he was and that there was a tear in his leather jacket. He sailed her onto his hip and took Mother in his arms and kissed her, just like Fredric March kisses Myrna Loy in "The Best Years of Our Lives." But there hadn't been a war, he was flying vaccinations to a remote section of Africa, a rain forest with landing strips just big enough for Cessnas. Of course, she didn't know any of this until years later, when they could talk about it without her mother bursting into tears and having to leave the room. Even then they didn't say much. His plane had gone down at the edge of the jungle, some natives had found the wreckage, charred and twisted, hanging from several gum trees. What else could they have assumed? That night her father came into her room. "You going to take those shoes off now?"
She shook her head, feeling suddenly shy, even though he had only been gone a week. The covers stood up in great mountains around her feet and her father began to laugh his same, wonderful laugh. "What am I going to do when it rains? I can't go around with wet feet."
Georgia thought about this and then pushed the shoes out from beneath the bedspread. He pulled them off as gently as if he had been removing a band-aid from her knee. "Tomorrow I think you should stay home from school and the three of us will go out and get you a pair of rubbers that really fit. Did you say your prayers?"
Georgia nodded, even though there were no prayers left to say.
He sat down on the edge of her bed. "I love you, Georgia Peach." She twisted around and clung to him tightly. It seemed as if the bed had fallen away and the two of them were suspended from the lip of some terrible cliff, that if she were to let go they would fall into that great stomach of darkness and be alone.
She asked him, what was in Africa?
"Well, I got a pretty bad bump on the head, so there's a lot of it I'm not sure about."
She told him he could remember.
Although his eyes were clearly on Georgia's face, it seemed to her that he couldn't see her. "I know I saw a lion, and there were spiders as big as my fist. Everything looked green. The sky was so blue and the grass was so yellow that after awhile your eyes sort of ran it all together. That sky was big, bigger than the ocean, so big I couldn't figure out why there wasn't any room for my plane." He stood up, as if he had just remembered something. Georgia held tightly to his neck and wrapped her legs around his waist. Together they went and looked out her window, as if the details of the story might be hidden somewhere out in the yard. "At night, Baby, there were stars. Big ones, little ones, so many that every couple of minutes one jumps right out and you start to think that maybe if you walked around long enough you might be able to find one. But that's just about the biggest place in the world, no place to wander around. Someday I'll take you there," he was talking to the night, "would you like that?'
She didn't answer, she pressed her face deep into the curve of his neck and loved him for coming home.
"Georgia," he said quietly, "Georgia, look at me. Do you know what's in Africa?"
Jesus Christ pulled his deck chair out into the sun and sipped a sidecar. When it got too hot he turned over the cushions and lay on the cool undersides, moving the tree a little closer for shade. If it wasn't for the fact the ice in his drink never melted you might have thought he was just an ordinary man. He was thinking about baseball, wishing he didn't always know who was going to win. He should have been contemplating Easter, but it all seemed like such a long time ago. If it wasn't for this trip every year he might have forgotten about it altogether.
Sometimes he was tired of the whole business. Pouring himself another drink from the pitcher he kept beneath the chair, he wished he could play cards with someone and talk about what it was like to be young. Occasionally there was a bushman or someone who was in the neighborhood accidentally, it helped pass the time, but this year was quiet. This year he was bored. It wasn't such a good afternoon, the drinks were going to his head and he felt like he was getting a sunburn. To keep from getting lonely he sang some old German folksongs he knew. Jesus Christ had a very nice voice. He took comfort in knowing that tomorrow was Easter and all of this would be over. If he woke up early enough, he'd be home in time for breakfast.
November 11, 2011
I’ve often wondered if it’s possible to approach writing in a similar way to how my fine artist friends approach their craft. As an undergrad, I first started writing stories at about the same time I was hired to work at the bookstore at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. For two years, I spent afternoons shuffling around the store looking at books and trinkets and talking to my co-workers who were mostly all artists themselves. There was Frieda, who made hammerhead sharks out of leather, and Kim, who froze and gutted a dead raccoon to embalm in a jar. Zan made abstract paintings of spaghetti, and Hana returned to her exhibit every day through the length of her show to burn up an object she had papier-mâchéd. I listened to all these projects, amused and amazed, and thought, Why can’t I do something like that?
Of course, fine art and literature are two different art forms, but seeing all those images and sculptures and installations implanted access to original thought and feeling in my brain that I’ve wanted to somehow embody with stories. So I spent my first semester at the Writers’ Workshop sitting with nude models for six hours a week, listening to my drawing teacher show us how visual narratives are constructed with a play of light and dark.
I almost didn’t take the class. Without any formal training, I got most of my art history education from children’s books—first Adventures in Art (which made me think, Yes! Art is an adventure!) and later, in Europe, a dancing warthog guiding me through the Uffizi Gallery and describing The Venus of Urbino as “this pretty naked girl.” I wanted to experiment with the children’s-book form that uses both images and words, so I made my own picture book filled with color pencil “illustrations” of stick figures with their heads cut off. It took nearly half a year to write and draw the first draft, and then about five seconds for my drawing teacher to flip through it and say, “Are you sure you want to sign up for this class?” Still, he let me stay.
He taught us how the whole drawing has to rise up from the page at the same time, and told us not to get attached with the marks we make, but to lay them down, move them around, and feel out the shapes and layers of the lines. One afternoon he called us over to stand behind the models. “Isn’t that beautiful?” he said. The shadows of the blinds curved over their backs. The mounds of their skin reminded me of sand dunes—like we were standing over the desert.
I’ve heard suggestions that I should collaborate with a professional illustrator for my stories, but it’s difficult to explain that in “writing” I needed to do both. I think what drew me to pictures, that first day I drew the stick figures’ squiggly house, was how literally I could see it on the page. I had to draw the house to know there would be a forest, and I had to draw the forest to know there would be pears. Like my stick people, words, too, are symbols that the brain takes in and transforms into meaning—or images. And when I get lost in my own writing, it’s like I have see it—to know how to lay down the bones and let the narrative rise from slowly building up the shadows and the light.
Hannah Kimei is TIR's fiction editor and a first-year student in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The top two illustrations are her own work, and the third is from Grandi Musei per Piccoli Visitatori (Grand Museums for Young Visitors): The Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
November 10, 2011
Get de-funked with Defunct, an online literary magazine containing "reviews of everything that has had its day" (things like defunct fads, religions, and superheroes, to name just a few). Defunt Volume II, Issue II is ready and waiting for your perusal. This issue of the biannual magazine, brought to you by the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, features work from David Shields, Paul Collins, Daniel Nester, and others. Fight the November blues with some good reads, and don’t forget to check out Ye Olde Blogge, where Defunct editor and Iowa Review nonfiction editor Robin Hemley traces history with a box of old crayons.