THE BLOG @ TIR
December 16, 2011
The 2012 Bedell NonfictioNow conference in Melbourne, Australia is seeking panel proposals.
The University of Iowa, RMIT University, the Copyright Agency Limited, and the Nonfiction Writing Program of The University of Iowa's Department of English are pleased to present the 2012 NonfictioNow conference in Melbourne, Australia, a UNESCO City of Literature.
NonfictioNow is one of the most significant gatherings of writers, teachers, and students of nonfiction from around the world. Three full days of panels, screenings, and events will center on the practice, thinking, communication, and writing of nonfiction in all its forms. Keynote speakers will include Helen Garner, Margo Jefferson, and David Shields. Complete details are available at the NonfictioNow website.
Please submit panel proposals online. Submissions close April 2012, and conference registration opens in February.
December 15, 2011
One of my traveling companions on my recent Eurasia passage (see Crossing, Crossing 2, Crossing 3, and Crossed) was Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which I read cover to cover, or rather, pixel to pixel (on a Kindle—hey, I was traveling), and as I rarely get to do such an exotic thing as read a whole book these days, here’s a big bloggy review.
Any book written with this much love needs to be handled carefully. And Frazier’s book was indeed written with love, “Russia love,” a kind of magical, enchanted fascination that appears to have accosted the author in several waves over the sixteen years or so he spent writing. I don’t know if I’ve ever quite experienced what he describes, though I’ve been in Russia many times, studied the language a long time, and written and taught about its literature and cultural history. Still he teaches me plenty of things. And when he notes, during a trip to the northern most reaches of Yakutia in early 2005, that “in Russia writing is so revered that no one [of the people waiting for him to get back in the car] had had the nerve to interrupt me in what might have been an act of literary creation,” I recognize a deeper truth in what appears to be just a subtly descriptive aside, one of many such truthful moments: a sense of responsibility in his treatment of the subject, which I can’t help thinking comes from the respect accorded by those around him for what he’s doing, writing about them and their home.
Travels in Siberia (first published by FSG in 2010, then in paper by Picador in 2011) is capaciously thorough, with its years of research clearly visible. Alongside the enumerated journeys, the author announces his love for his subject more than once, though I found myself wondering whether infatuation might not be a better characterization, even when he calls it love, but I’ll come back to this. He traverses the country several times, in different seasons, by various modes of transportation, through regions from the far east to the Urals, all of which get called, sometimes erroneously, “Siberia” (probably because that’s part of the book’s title), a nineteenth-century appellation that glosses over the distinctive regional differences that have developed since then: Siberia is indeed big, just not as big as this book imagines it. Still, he paints the country and his infatuations with great care, humor, eloquence. The tributes to people he spends time with are often moving.
For a book of its length, there is surprisingly little that might be considered lazy (the telegraphic style that enters inexplicably somewhere in chapter 24—sorry, a problem with reading on a Kindle, you rarely know exactly where you are—departs just as quickly and without apparent motivation; the author just says, mid-sentence, “to drop the telegraphic style” and it’s gone; anyway, it’s an exception), it is frequently funny, and it has a sincere, honest quality that suggests something sincere and honest about the author, his interest in this place, his desire to make it come alive for us. The humor is often self-deprecating—well, of course, he’s in Russia—as when the elderly woman beside him in the back of a jeep complains as they’re clanging down the road toward some out of the way northern locale that she’s being crushed by “the fat American” next to her and his friend Sergei tells him not to feel bad because he’s “a normal size person.” He also loves to play around with numbers, turning them this way and that for effect, if not for greater understanding. Sometimes these turns are delivered with a satisfying kicker at the end, as, for instance, after a discussion of Russia’s declining population, when he stops at the gift shop at the Novosibirsk Museum and finds some refrigerator magnets made of mammoth ivory, which has taken the place of elephant ivory as an article of international trade. The elephants are protected after all, and the mammoths, well, they’re already dead and apparently quite plentiful: “Scientists estimate that the Siberian permafrost holds the remains of 150 million mammoths—or about 8 million more than the 142 million Russians above ground in Russia today.”
(I thought this was a very good line, so I told another of my traveling companions on the train, Fedya, who smiled and said yes, some villages don’t have more than a few people left in them. “But even if there are just two,” he added, “it’s a good bet that one is a ‘businessman’ and will cheat the other out of all his money.” Fedya and his wife both suspected that Frazier was a little too wide-eyed sometimes about their Russia.)
The genre of the book is a problem in Russia, which doesn’t have a separate category for literary travel writing, or literary nonfiction for that matter. This explains one of the many funny scenes in the book, when his guides begin to tell the people they’re meeting along their trip by car across the continent that their American author-companion is writing a book about the Decembrists. He has told them before that he’s writing a book about his travels through Siberia, but they don’t seem to get it. Each time he’s introduced as a Decembrist specialist, he gets taken on another side trip to see some local feature of Decembrist lore. He eventually just gives in.
In fact, I would count his treatment of the Decembrists among the work’s particular triumphs, as he manages to bring their various successes, failures, infatuations, and long work to life (despite not writing a book about them). His extended discussion of the work of George Kennan on prisons and prison culture, and the many other American travelers to Siberia opens up new vistas even to people (like me) who might think they already know. The treatment of the historical importance of the sable, with more numbers ingeniously turned, is equally impressive, and when he sees one (SEES ONE) hopping along in the tundra beside their all-terrain vehicle, the moment conveyed is surprising and magical. Then there are tidbits throughout, as for instance the story of the Japanese major, Fukushima Yasumasa, who traveled on horseback from Poland to Vladivostok, ostensibly just on a bet, though that seems unlikely given the significant opportunities for reconnaissance the trip afforded. (I have since found a Polish article on the subject, which suggests that his route allowed him to make contact with Polish revolutionaries at either end of the Russian Empire, and that the Japanese of the late nineteenth century saw their situation as potentially akin to that of Poland, with a growing imperial Russia at its border, ready to swallow them up).
He does not mention Colin Thubron’s 2000 book In Siberia, which I would have thought was the nearest neighbor to this one. In fact, however, the two books have very little in common beyond the fact that they are both English-language works of literary travel writing with the word “Siberia” in the title. I have used Thubron’s book in class but won’t ever again, while Frazier’s I would use, or some of it at least, especially those parts that find traces of the Decembrists, the eloquent section on Magadan and the lager’ (forced labor camp) whose remnants he discovers nearby, or the historical sections on travels in Siberia. The difference between the two books is largely one of tone. Thubron’s narrator is often tired, the voice experienced, almost jaded, while Frazier manages to maintain an exploratory, naïve (in a positive sense) interest throughout, even when he’s exhausted and irritated and filthy. And when he’s just too exhausted or filthy, or long-winded officialdom exerts its inevitable pressure, he recovers quickly, which makes me suspect that genuine curiosity is his natural state. The voice is endearing, trustworthy, and exuberant.
It’s not an academic book, and this means that he sometimes misses things he might have found interesting and useful for his work, for instance Katerina Clark’s distinction between elemental spontaneity and conscious control in Russian cultural history, or the many fine insights about pre-Revolutionary revolutionary Russian culture contained in James Billington’s magisterial The Icon and the Axe. I was surprised to find no literary or historical scholars mentioned in the acknowledgments. But this just made me sad about the cultural divisions in the current publishing environment, where scholarly books tend to be written by scholars with a scholarly apparatus and scholarly friends, and literary books tend to be written by litterateurs with literary friends.
But—and this is the biggest question the book left me with, and I realize my asking it won’t likely be well taken by the author, his publisher, and the majority of his readers, but I’m going to write it down anyway—I could not help but find myself asking if perhaps a major reason he was able to maintain that positive, slightly wide-eyed sense of wonder and discovery in his many encounters with Russia through all the years he found himself drawn to it in that particular “loving” way he describes with such insistence, I wondered, in short, if that wasn’t because he never learned the language beyond a fairly elementary level. It’s hard to know something like this, especially as he’s the one who explains his limited language proficiency and his many attempts to raise it, and there may be some added self-deprecation in this portrait as well, I don't know. But the early stages of language learning—I’ve seen it many times in my students and felt it more than once myself—are often characterized by a kind of freshness and energetic attraction that can feel a lot like falling in love.
I’m remembering a song by Susan Werner that enumerates all the things she can be for her partner, except for new.
I can be your girl
Through the best and worst time
But I can't be the girl you notice
For the first time
There's so much I can do
But I can't be new
(here are the lyrics for the whole song).
By not learning the language, or not learning it well enough to function on his own by using it, I wonder if he doesn’t maintain, for many years and through many different encounters with the place and its people, that initial stage of language learning, cultural flirtation, infatuation, a state that Vassilis Alexakis describes in his Foreign Words: “I’m starting to think that learning a language is like taking a dip in the fountain of youth.” Everything is new because the words are fresh, you haven’t used them before, you don’t know enough of them to say anything beyond the most basic names of items and sensations, and what they conceal is always just beyond your grasp, exciting and filled with mysterious, beautiful potential. Imagine what a fine book you could create by maintaining that state of being over a long period of time and using it to fuel your curiosity and your writing. You’re falling in love, again and again and again.
December 9, 2011
Choosing only six pieces to nominate for the Pushcart Prize is never an easy task. We could have nominated any of the 123 pieces we published this year for the 2012 anthology, but (after much list-making and hand-wringing) decided on these:
“Magellan” by Bradley Bazzle (41/3, forthcoming), fiction
“The Perfect Age” by Kevin Moffett (41/1), fiction
“Y” by John Witte (41/1), poetry
“Testimony of a Private” by Steve Almond (41/1), fiction
“There” by Andrew Feld (41/2), poetry
“Squab” by Melissa Ginsburg (41/1), poetry
Thanks to all our contributors, and congratulations to the nominees. We've got our (papercut) fingers crossed!
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.
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.