This is a pretty massive release that has been a long time in the coming. It’s close to 500 pages, and it’s got everything. Bernhardians should rejoice.
My latest Lit Hub column is up, and it’s all about the intersection of indie bookstores and political resistance.
I think for a long time now I’ve had some kind of sense that indie bookstores aren’t really like most other normal businesses, but it’s only been with the arrival of Donald Trump and the response by many indies in my community that I’ve been able to put these thoughts into coherent shape. It does say something that the one business I all but expected to see a strong and prolonged engagement from—and which has provided just that—was the indies in my community.
Anyway, some thoughts on all that over at the Hub.
Long a closely kept secret (a writer’s writer, or maybe a writer’s writer’s writer), Henry Green is getting the treatment by NYRB Classics and coming back into the mainstream. It’s about time.
They’ve done these 5, with more on the way. For an introduction and some ideas where to get started, I recommend Dan Green’s essay in The Quarterly Conversation.
If you want to see more about Green on Amazon, do so here.
With the passing of founder and 50+-year editor of the New York Review of Books, Robert Silvers, we’re seeing a number of remembrances praising what he built.
The New York Review has been special for a number of reasons, which include: being profitable for 50 years despite not dumbing down its content or catering to the trends; and being a wide-ranging publication of ideas that aimed to publish timeless essays but that also stayed on top of the news.
The other reason for the NYRB’s belovedness is of course that Silvers was by all reports an incredible editor, one who was dedicated and tireless, and who made everything he touched much, much better.
After an essay was finally on track, he would send an edited copy back — the famous “A Galley.” Your argument would be better, and your prose would be cleaner. But on every page, there would be his cramped handwriting, asking for page references for every quotation, questioning word choices, inserting paragraph breaks, pointing to recent work from the Congressional Research Service, invoking arguments from James Madison, John Marshall, John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant.
After you responded to “A Galley,” you would get “B Galley,” with still more questions and corrections, more references, meticulous editing and, occasionally, a serious concern. A direct quotation: “After many readings, I appreciated the changes you made, but in our ignorance my colleagues and I still had questions.”
When an essay was far along and close to ready to run, he would occasionally call to say, “We just have a few final questions.” My heart would sink. Was a conversation actually necessary? Had he found a serious defect? Wouldn’t email be better? Were we going to go over whole sentences, word by word?
Yes, yes, no and yes.
It’s really impossible to overstate how important editing experiences like this are for writers, especially up-and-coming writers who are still finding their voice.
Given the trajectory of many young critics today—which would include lots of blogging, writing reviews and essays for Web-native venues, and maybe doing some newspaper reviewing—I do wonder if this sort of intense editing is getting lost. And I wonder what this is doing to the current up-and-coming generation of American public thinkers.
To be clear, I think it’s fine that many Web-native venues don’t do a ton of editing. Oftentimes the nature of the work is that it is not to be lasting, and certainly there have always been venues where the editing was light. Oftentimes there’s not a whole lot you can do with a shortish book review if it’s submitted well-written. This will always be true, and it’s fine.
But, really strong editing is so important to a writer’s development. Looking back on the editors I’ve worked with who have stepped me through multiple edits of my own pieces, making them immeasurably better in the process, it is clear how 100% crucial good editing is. This is really where a writer learns to take note of his/her blind spots (we all have them, no matter what you think of your own self-awareness), to step beyond the sources and logic we are most comfortable with, to consider arguments we never would have thought of before, and just to take the prose and the reasoning behind it to the next level. Even though it can be hell for a writer to be asked to go through that draft one more time, in retrospect it is always something I value and appreciate, and editors who can do this well are people I am always inclined to work with in the future.
As Cass Sunstein writes, this is really a matter of “what a democracy needs,” as such on-the-job learning-via-editing is one of the only ways talented, promising writers can become the sorts of public intellectuals who are rightly looked to an admired. It’s one of the only ways to be kept humble, to make a writer really see all of the sides of an argument, to deal with his/her flaws, and to have the kind of scope and thoroughness necessary to be a great essayist. And if you can’t see the applicability of such writing to a functional democracy . . . well, it should be clear.
If you’re a writer (at whatever point in your career), try this: take a look at all the pieces being written about Silvers right now (they will invariably include discussions of his in-depth edits), and ask yourself if you couldn’t benefit from an editor with the skill, resources, and dedication.
Enter Souffles, a Moroccan magazine of culture and politics. Hassan II’s aforementioned broadcast had mapped a how-to of sorts—in this instance, how to best pose a threat to the monarchy—and, heeding the call, a group of young poets and artists decided to start a magazine. Abdellatif Laâbi was the group’s main instigator. The twenty-four-year-old poet ran the magazine out of his apartment, penned the first issue’s opening salvo and served as the magazine’s editor throughout its five-year lifespan, from 1966 to 1971. In the prologue to the first issue Laâbi wrote with a brash confidence and made his intentions clear: those involved with his magazine intended to “demonstrate that they are less continuers than they are initiators.” A young country with young writers was charting the course toward cultural decolonization.
Saunders is thought of somewhat generically as a saint, as someone who exudes a Jesus-like kindness, about whom Joshua Ferris says, “He seems in touch with some better being.” Tobias Wolff says, “He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.” I have no wish to dispel these excellent thoughts about Saunders’s character, but it’s a little weird how our literary culture turns excellent male writers (again always male) into gurus. Saunders isn’t just the best American writer currently writing stories; he’s the Gandhi of grad school. But all this adoration aside, Gandhi still hadn’t written a novel. And short story writers who haven’t yet written a novel are treated like spinster women in a pre-war patriarchy: Why won’t they get with the program? What is wrong with them? And so here we are at the beginning of 2017 with Saunders finally walking a novel down the aisle, whether by cultural compulsion or authorial ambition no one truly knows.
the fact is that, in looking at Hungarian literature over the course of the 20th century and into the early millennium, what strikes one—for all the violent ruptures—is the extraordinary continuity of literary life and “generations,” as Hungarians themselves formulate it. This extraordinary microcosm of an extraordinary literary culture is now suffering additional stresses under Viktor Orbán’s illiberal regime, and only time will tell how it will evolve. Still though, the history of Hungarian literature in the 20th century, the extraordinary resiliency of its creators faced with genocide, deportation, totalitarianism, and the three T’s (Tiltott, Tűrt, Támogatott: prohibited, tolerated, and supported) tends to fill one with hope.
This research I am beginning—on the impact of the earliest photography on the experience of the world and the conduct of existence in the nineteenth century and up to our own day—must necessarily also be a reflection on poetry, since the study of what I shall call “the photographic” enables us better to understand both how poetry has developed and the tasks that confront it. The kind of—historically unprecedented—act the photographer has accomplished, and continues to accomplish, in fact exerts its influence directly on what poetry is seeking to be. And poetry, in its turn, must therefore examine what that act is, and what it asks of, or imposes on, contemporary society.
As one navigates the sprawling streets and avenues that spread out across the pages of Darran Anderson’s ambitious guidebook to the metropolitan ideal—past, present, and future—there is likely to be more than one occasion of disorientation, an invitation to entertain an entirely new way of understanding the possibilities of the urban reality. In this sense, Imaginary Cities is a map that encourages you to get lost. Subtitled A Tour of Dream Cities, Nightmare Cities, and Everywhere in Between, this journey is an open-ended inquiry into the myriad ways that the idea of the city has been conceived in history, art, literature, social theory, and architectural design—for better or worse.
To say that a book written in the author’s own language reads like a translation would normally be considered an insult. But this is exactly what Katie Kitamura achieves in her remarkable new novel, A Separation. The narrative voice has an otherworldly and disconnected air—quite unlike the hard clarity of her previous book Gone to the Forest—which is doubly appropriate, as the unnamed narrator is herself a literary translator, and because the story is a report of the search for her estranged husband in a foreign country.
Two years before his death, Alfred Döblin, author of seventeen novels and a dozen volumes of stories, essays, and memoirs, complained, “Whenever they mentioned my name, they always followed it with Berlin Alexanderplatz.” That there are worse fates a writer could suffer is a fitting rejoinder in the German-speaking world, where his novel is ranked among the milestones of literary modernism and readers can relish its seediness, its bewildering structure, and its vertiginous language in the original. In translation, however, the book has been cut and bowdlerized, and its formal innovations tamed; and the slang and sudden shifts in linguistic register, which are among its signal pleasures, drift from dated to incomprehensible. A new version by Michael Hofmann, due out this year, will doubtless do much to address these lacunae, but in the meantime NYRB Classics has issued translations of two seminal works of Döblin’s: The Three Leaps of Wang Lun and Bright Magic: Stories, selected and translated by Damion Searls.
“A.M. Juster” is an incomplete anagram of the poet’s given name, Michael J. Astrue, who from 2007 to 2013 served as Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration (his tenure straddled the reigns of Bush and Obama). The pen name echoes “jester” and “adjuster,” and suggests that its bearer is juster than the late American poet Donald Justice. Juster was outed as Astrue in 2010 by Paul Mariani in the journal First Things, and may have the most unorthodox curriculum vitae in American literary history. He graduated from Harvard Law School, served as General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ran three publicly traded biotechnology firms and, since 2008, has published volumes of translations of Latin poetry by Horace, Tibullus and St. Aldhelm. Since leaving public office, Juster has been busy. The two volumes under review came out in 2016, and this year will see publication of two more books of translations: The Elegies of Maximianus and Milton’s Book of Elegies.
The opening pages of Cockroaches, Mukasonga’s memoir about the Rwandan genocide and the decades surrounding it, introduces a distinctive narrative style and framework onto the story that follows. Mukasonga creates an intimate space where she can speak. She seats us across the table and, in hushed tones (her children sleeping in the next room), shares her memories. It begins in the late 1950s, after the Rwandan Revolution. Hutus are in power. Mukasonga and her Tutsi relatives are forcefully relocated to Nyamata, in eastern Rwanda. Then they are moved to Gitwe, a village built by the government specifically to put displaced Tutsis. They will remain there for a time, but eventually will find a more permanent home in Gitagata. Gitagata is where her family will be killed.
Readers that rely on plot will find themselves on unpredictable ground. Bae Suah is a circular writer, and a circle, as we know, has no end. Recitation, especially, whose protagonist is a wandering actress, whose stories and memories become the stories and dreams of other characters, seems akin to gazing at a beautiful painting without a point of focus. Perhaps this is the point; where does one draw a map of life? Or art? Where do these things start and end? Are they supposed to start and end? García Márquez insisted that intuition was fundamental to writing fiction; Bae Suah seems to support this belief, demonstrating how this conviction shapes their work. As the characters in both these books wander through their lives, their pasts, and their memories, so too does the reader.
The human-precipitated Anthropocene promises unprecedented loss: of beauty and wildness in the natural sphere, and the comforts of convenient consumption in the domestic sphere—yet outside of science fiction, this has yet to register in our literature. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh argues that the blame should be put on the very structure of the novel, which employs depictions of mundane reality to conceal a scaffold of more remarkable plot points, and which developed at a time when nature was viewed as a bucolic canvas upon which human individuals acted rather than a system of which we are part. The best way to think about the Anthropocene may be through images, Ghosh suggests—film and television already seem to be having a more successful time. Danish writer Josefine Klougart’s cinematic experimental novel, Of Darkness, would seem to be the sort of novel Ghosh would appreciate
Our Street, which can be read both as a series of interconnected stories or a fragmented novel, consists of thirty-one vignettes depicting the post-1989 Hungarian countryside through a cast of villagers living in a dead end called “Crooked Street.” Coming from an impoverished family himself and having worked as a manual laborer most of his life, Tar chronicles the harsh yet often humorous realities of the working class in the industrial provinces and the post-agrarian rural world. His protagonists are the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the forgotten, those for whom the collapse of communism brought mainly unemployment. Tar’s people became known as the “losers” of the regime change—and they represented a sizable section of East European society.
Domini balances on the knife-edge of sheer surface content and the profundity that literary fiction, especially anything that verges on the experimental or exploratory, is expected to have as one of its characteristics. After so many novels and movies about filmmaking it’s hard to see how any writer can say something newsworthy about the core of the industry. For the most part Domini focuses on the surface because that’s where the producers, directors, screenwriters, and stars reside, and because that’s where the film genres lie that he wants to explore.
My latest column over at Literary Hub starts with Augustus, John Williams’s book of the incipient Roman Empire. (Since publishing the column, I have been surprised to learn that many people who love Stoner had no idea of this book’s existence. Which is particularly surprising since it may be better than Stoner.)
The column uses Augustus to look at the point of historical fiction (a weird and oft-maligned genre, but also one that many of your favorite writers have probably tried out at least once). I more or less argue that it’s kind of an in-between genre, not exactly history, but using a lot of the apparatus of history to deliver truths that only fiction can give us.
More on all that at the column.
The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi is a new of poetry from Civil Coping Mechanisms that’s been selling very well (in part thanks to a serial in The New York Times).
At the Lightning Field by Laura Raicovich is a forthcoming booklength lyric essay from Coffee House Press based in Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field,” an art piece of 400 stainless steel poles positioned 220 feet apart in the desert of central New Mexico.
When President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban was signed into law weeks ago, many people instantly realized the deleterious effects it would have on citizens of the banned nations, in addition to other vulnerable populations who are now regularly harassed by emboldened officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).
What was perhaps not so clear was its effect on seemingly disconnected groups—for instance, those who have dedicated their lives to the study and promulgation of great literature.
So, to help make that more evident, I give you outstanding translator and academic Shelley Frisch.
When I saw that Trump’s border-closing activities had been having an adverse effect on Shelley’s ability to bring her fellow translators and academics into the United States to help spread great literature, I asked her to explain in her own words what was going on. You will find her remarks below.
At a time when we are getting shifting rationales for Trump’s Muslim Ban—first it was to protect us from terrorism now it is to protect American workers from competition—and also when Trump is directly assaulting the arts by attempting to cut off government funding to the NEA and NEH (despite the $702 billion the arts are estimated to bring to our economy, to say nothing to the benefits to our quality of life and national culture), I feel it is important to show some of the real ways that our Federal government’s policies are harming our community.
While reading the below, bear in mind that just last week, a highly respected French academic was held for 10 hours in detention at threatened with deportation while trying to enter the United States. Similarly, Muhammad Ali Jr was racially profiled and held in detention at an airport and demanded to explain his name and religion, despite being a born U.S. citizen.
So here is what Shelley has to say about her colleagues’ willingness to come to the USA. If you have a story of your own to share, I urge you to share yours.
For many years now, a German colleague, Karen Nölle, and I have been co-directing international workshops that bring together established translators from German to English and English to German. We have been convening in a variety of venues in Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Ireland) to discuss our participants’ translations-in-progress. Here’s the wording of the first paragraph of the announcement we send out to solicit applications, to give you a flavor of our approach:
We invite translators from German to English and English to German to apply for our eighth translators’ workshop, which will provide the opportunity for ten translators (five German-English and five English-German) to present and discuss their translations-in-progress. We will spend one week working in depth on the submitted texts to scrutinize problematic passages and hone our translations. Most translators find it invaluable to work with colleagues on concrete textual issues—sentence by sentence and word by word, in a constructive environment. We also anticipate the formation of lasting collegial bonds between professional literary translators in English-speaking and German-speaking countries. In addition to our work on the texts, the program will include meetings with literary movers and shakers.
We had always dreamed of holding the workshop in the United States, but, as is well known, funding for the arts is very poor in our very rich country. When we held the workshop in Ireland in 2010, that country was in dire economic straits, yet Irish arts funders displayed extreme generosity in promoting our effort to further cross-cultural literary exchange.
Finally, this time around, for our eighth workshop, and after years of planning, we have secured a wonderful venue in upstate New York, Ledig House (aka OMI), which has extended a generous helping hand and all manner of good will in making our translation workshop possible on American soil, and so all is well—or so we think and hope.
When we drafted the workshop announcement back in the fall, we could not have imagined a Trump presidency, and even once we learned the outcome of the election, we could not have pictured the deleterious effect it would have on international gatherings of the kind we were planning. We quickly discovered that some potential participants from Europe decided to forgo applying altogether in view of the current administration’s policies, and even those who did apply were now wary of entering the United States. These are people who, in the past, regularly traveled to the United States for both professional and personal reasons, and have a long history of pro-American sentiments, coupled with their professional commitment to promoting American culture. Under ordinary circumstances, they would be thrilled to be attending a workshop in our country.
The circumstances are no longer ordinary. With each passing day, we learn of new restrictions: on international travel, on personal freedoms, on a sense of comfort in this country. Our own workshop’s participants happen not to hail from the “seven countries” this president seems intent on identifying as his primary target, at least for the moment, but all travelers to the US may be asking themselves whether they really want to visit a country that would display this degree of xenophobia, and do little or nothing to speak out against a new wave of hate crimes. Moreover, who’s to say what further restrictions the government may decide to introduce, as randomly and unfairly as the ones so far?
I am hoping against hope that our upcoming translation workshop will run smoothly against these new odds, but even if all goes well during our week in April, there is no denying that our country’s image, at home and abroad, has been greatly—perhaps indelibly—tarnished.
Forthcoming from Archipelago Books, Nest in the Bones: Stories by Antonio di Benedetto (tr. Martina Broner), May 23. Di Benedetto, of course, is the author of the masterpiece, Zama (NYRB Classics, 2016, tr. Esther Allen).
Almost immediately when President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban went into effect (since rechristened the “Travel Ban,” and since scaled back by court order), British independent publisher Comma Press had an innovative response: in 2018 they would do a full year of titles only written by authors from the banned nations.
I’ve long known Comma Press as one of the U.K.’s most daring publishers of international literature, but I was still surprised when I saw this. It was such an immediate, large-scale response, and it seemed like a huge challenge on numerous grounds (for one thing, given that we’re already in 2017, upending one’s 2018 schedule is a huge logistical hurdle). Little did I realize just how audacious Comma’s publishing plans are (read on).
For more on the why and the how behind this audacious decision—as well as some frank talk about the state of UK politics and our roles as members of the publishing community—I corresponded with Comma’s editor-in-chief, Ra Page. As eic of Comma Press, Ra has long helped oversee the entry into English of numerous important world writers, and he has long worked with writers from the Middle East and North Africa. In just one of many examples, Comma discovered the Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, now decorated with multiple international honors, published in the States by Penguin, and generally regarded as one of the most important contemporary writers from the Middle East.
Scott Esposito: Comma Press has announced that its 2018 translation titles will be exclusively by authors hailing from countries affected by Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban. Could you explain how you came to this decision and give a sense of Comma Press’s prior work with authors from these nations?
Ra Page: It was a snap decision, really. An impulse. We spent the weekend before watching all footage of all those demonstrations in airports across America. We were heartened by them almost as much as we were terrified by the ban. Come the Monday, we were in the middle of stressful deadline, and it struck us that there were more important things happening in the world than that deadline, so we took five minutes out to consider how we might respond. I proposed it to my colleague Sarah Cleave, very casually, and she just said yes, instantly. The rest followed.
There’s a lot to fear in all of the appointments, executive orders and throwaway comments issuing from the White House right now, but the travel ban has been the most symbolic so far. The resistance movement has formed around that one act, even though other executive orders will probably prove just as damaging.
Our decision is to champion, give voice to and better understand a set of nations that the White House would like is to believe are populated entirely by terrorists. Seven countries worth of “bad people.”
Prior to this decision, Comma had published a number of translation titles from the Middle East and from the Arabic in particular. Most notably, Comma was the first to publish the award-winning Iraqi author, Hassan Blasim, in any language. (Blasim has since been published in the States by Penguin, with the collection The Corpse Exhibition). Comma also publishes a series of anthologies of short stories from cities, including Madinah, The Book of Khartoum (the first anthology of translated Sudanese short stories ever published in the UK), and The Book of Gaza. This latter title came out in the summer of 2014 just days before the Israeli bombardment of the Strip started. Having been in close contact with these Gaza authors for months beforehand, Comma then became a means for their first hand reports of the bombardment to leak out into the world. Diary entries by one writer in particular, Atef Abu Saif, were sent through Comma to media outlets such as The Guardian, Slate.com, and The New York Times. Eventually all of Atef’s diary entries were published in The Drone Eats with Me (published in the States last year by Beacon Books).
A few months ago, Comma also released an anthology of specially commissioned stories from Iraqi authors, called Iraq + 100. The brief was to write a story set a century after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. What transpired turned out to be the first anthology of science fiction from Iraq ever (not that we were aware that it would be!), with some astonishing visions of Iraq, and extrapolations of the long-term consequences of 2003 – ranging from the Orwellian to the farcical (image: South Park meets ISIS). The book got an enormous amount of interest on Twitter, and we’re currently in the middle of striking a deal with a major SF publishing house to bring it out in the States.
SE: What has been the reaction to this decision?
RP: We’ve been inundated with offers of help – ranging from translators and volunteers (offering to read and proof-read manuscripts) through to fellow editors and in one case the wife of a diplomat! It’s been amazing. I think others in the UK publishing industry probably think we’re a bit barmy, but we already work in short fiction and translation both of which are very niche areas; we’re used to making life hard for ourselves.
How it will impact on the wider political conversation I don’t know. I think the idea of a cultural boycott on America is a little ambitious. But maybe we could start by not watching the Apprentice anymore? Maybe even that’s too ambitious.
SE: The UK is, of course, having its own round of right-wing, so-called populism at the moment, following the vote to leave the European Union and the election of Theresa May to Prime Minister. Anti-immigrant sentiment was clearly a part of the success of these politics, as it was here in the States. How are things right now in the UK as regards foreigners, and how do you see your own role as the publisher of a press that specializes in international writing?
RP: Yep, there’s a tide of right-wing populism crashing over Europe right now. And history would suggest it’s just the inevitable consequence of a prolonged period of economic recession. When you’re in the middle of it, though, it feels like there’s more going on.
I think first, we need to remove the word “populism” from the problem. The movement that brought Obama to power was a populist one, and only became ‘non-populist’ when he failed to deliver on half of his election promises, and sank into the mire of day-to-day compromise. He was only non-populist in retrospect. What’s happening at the moment is wave of right-wing manipulation of the working class/blue-collar vote, there’s nothing particularly populist about it. Obama’s base was initially young and multi-ethnic. Why is that not populist, but the base of Brexit or Trumps’ vote – i.e. old and white – is? Yes, the current wave involves previously unelected figures, who trade on their personalities over and above their beliefs, but that’s an classic (very conscious) top-down campaign tactic, not a bottom-up grassroots decision.
To say it’s populist is to fall into the journalists’ trap of saying “there’s something in the water” right now, and to pretend to be merely reporting on that wave of feeling. It’s a construct.
For the last four years, in the UK, the BBC has been putting one man at the forefront of all their political coverage, a man who isn’t even capable of winning a seat in the British parliament despite seven attempts! A failed politician (Nigel Farage). The reason they did this is the media needed to create ‘a new type of politics’ and it was third attempt to do so. Their first attempt to create ‘a new type of politics’ was with the self-confessed holocaust denier and fascist, Nick Griffin (of the British National Party). After Griffin and his party fizzled out, they tried it with Nick Clegg, when he appeared in the first presidential-like TV debates, ahead of the 2010 general election. Again he was the voice of “a new type of politics.” Then, when his party scored fewer votes than it 5 years before, and consequently sold out to the Tories in a coalition government (and became hated for it), the BBC had to go somewhere else for their precious “new type of politics.” They went to Farage, and after four years of unprecedented coverage it finally amounted to some votes.
The reason for the unprecedented levels of exposure Farage enjoyed, for four solid years before Brexit, was not some grassroots groundswell, or something “in the water,” it was simply a consequence of the way politics is covered in the media in Britain; it takes all its cues from entertainment industry – from celebrity culture and gossip columns – and nothing from anywhere else. There are too many journalists in the world, and no one wants to step out of line, so they all chase after the same “story.” And what makes a “story” – whether in reality shows or in political news coverage – is the same set of dumb-ass archetypes: the maverick outsider, the plucky underdog; the man fighting the system (or fighting for the little guy). Even if the “system” he’s fighting against is the democratic rule of law, and the “outside” he’s hailing from is fascism.
We need to re-learn the art political coverage. Our conversations about politics need to aspire to be more than just gossip around the kings’ court. We need to talk about ideology for a change, not just scandal and outrage. The hysteria around the new president just feeds that presidency. In his world of reality shows and show business, no coverage is bad coverage, and the more we mock him, the more his supporters will love him, for being the underdog.
SE: What are things like in the UK right now post-Brexit?
RP: Well, race hate crimes have gone up. Homophobic hate crimes have soared. Islamophobia is finding its full voice. The Labour MP Jo Cox was stabbed to death on the street outside her constituency office, primarily for supporting refugee children from Syria, in the run up to the Brexit vote – an event which seemed to make no impact on the vote a few days later. This is not a happy picture is it?
I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on how “foreigners” or outsiders are viewed in the UK right now, because I’m not one of them. I can’t say. The figures tell their own, frightening story.
But perhaps all is not lost. There are a few, small crumbs of hope within the Brexit result. It was a close call, and the Leave vote was based on a profoundly misinformed and badly reported campaign. Anecdotally, there seems to be many stories of regret the morning after, coming from people who weren’t really aware of what Leave would mean. The reasons for voting Brexit in many cases were farcically misinformed. A friend’s mother said she voted Brexit “because of the traffic on the Prestwich roundabout.” Another woman on a recent televised debate, said she voted Brexit “because of straight bananas” – a myth perpetuated by the Sun newspaper in late 80s about EU edicts.
Perhaps we shouldn’t mock these individuals. But we should, at least, mock the media that has allowed the debate to leave half of the electorate behind and, for the other half, reduced it to the language of the gossip column: chasing after Bozo (Boris Johnson)’s latest, hilarious gaff, or surrounding Farage at every photo op, holding a pint of flat English beer, monopolising what it means to be an English ‘bloke’.
Perhaps we should start to question this “free news” we’re getting all the time. Someone must be benefitting from us getting it for free, right?
SE: How do you see you role, as a publisher amid these politics?
RP: I could get all misty-eyed and tell you that writing, reading and publishing are all acts of resistance; and that we’re all in the business of offering alternatives, resisting the ones being sold to us. And there’s an element of truth in this. The purpose of literature is indeed to increase sales resistance, to equip us as human beings with the means to look beyond one account of events – the one being “sold” to us – and infer or imagine alternatives.
But everyone who’s scared of what’s going on right now, in all walks of life, will be thinking how they too can resist, professionally or otherwise. But, as a publisher at least, I have to be honest. Symbolic gestures like this might not be enough. Just as posting amusing memes of Trump or May on social media might not be enough. Eventually, we’ll have to put down our pens, our phones, our tablets, and try something else.
SE: I agree that it’s essential for members of the artistic community to be politically active—I mean in terms of engaging directly in politics as citizens, and not necessarily as writers, artists, editors, booksellers, etc. We’ve seen a lot of that here since the inauguration of Trump, with thousands of political action groups springing up across the nation, massive protests, enormous amounts of pressure being put on Congressional representatives, and unprecedented donations to groups directly fighting Trump’s agenda. That said, I also feel like it’s up to us to find ways to develop our own responses as a literary community, be it through publishing initiatives like yours, events highlighting groups and nations that are being discriminated against, or even simply just trying to get more people to read and pay attention. In those terms, do you see responses to Farage and May coming together in the UK?
RP: Writers (and most people in the arts community) are generally very good at displaying political outrage among their like-minded friends, especially on social media. But if it isn’t accompanied by any action, it’s hard to distinguish it from opportunistic “value signalling.” It’s a harsh criticism, but everyone in the arts community has to stand up and defend themselves against this accusation. There are lots of small, promising things happening at a grass roots level – reader and bookshop initiatives that parallel what’s been happening in the States (for instance, book club initiatives like this one); and publishers are responding with their commissions too (two random sets of examples, here and here).
But we’ve barely started when it comes to the bigger challenges. We need to stop being complacent or even ambiguous about where literature and the arts stand in relation to politics. If we carry on pretending that art somehow stands aloof from ideology – that a single, isolated piece of art can exist outside of its political context – then we’re reducing all art to merely the product of patronage; a set of ornaments for rich people to spend their money on, signifiers of wealth and class to separate art’s owners from those who can’t afford it.
If art is to be any more than this pathetic, class-signifying ornament, it must be conscious of political context, aware of the undercurrents and dominant narratives at any one moment; it must actively push against these, to redress the dominant narratives being ‘sold’ to us, and to swim upstream. To quote Corbyn recently, “If you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Readers have to start questioning literature in the same way a Chomskyite might question a piece of media coverage: Who benefits from me buying into this narrative? What is this story trying to get me to do? If the answer is merely “To feel good about myself for having read it,” or “To line my nest with this and other products like it – to affirm my identity as this or that sort of cultured person” then the art has failed, and this failure should be exposed.
If a story can be enjoyed by an ignorant nationalist – a Trump fan or a Farage supporter – without bringing them into any kind of greater awareness of the world beyond their blinkers, then it’s failed as piece of art; it belongs with the rest of the “narrative-machine” out there, whose narratives are “sold to us” – to make us blame others, act conservatively, carry on lining our identity-nests, etc. If a story doesn’t take us further out into the world than we’re used to going, then the story-teller has failed in a key part of his or her duty, and should be called out for it. Escapism isn’t enough. Entertainment isn’t enough (Sorry, La La Land). They both offer as much succor to the ignorant as they do the informed. They’re neutral, they go with the flow.
Instead publishers, writers, producers, filmmakers – all have a responsibility to fight back.
After all, things like Brexit and Trump are the logical consequences of isolationism – of us all retreating into our bubbles – be these bubbles of nationalism and national nostalgia, or echo-chambers of like-minded friends. Writers, artists, and producers of art all have a dytu now: to grab people kicking and screaming out of their bubbles and to dump them in front of the strangers (including population groups that have become strangers, even in their own countries).
SE: As you’ve noted, Comma Press has long been involved with world literature, and its work with authors from these seven countries greatly predates the Muslim Ban. What kinds of unique challenges are present with projects like Iraq + 100 or The Book of Khartoum, and do you expect those challenges to escalate as politics becomes more nativist? Can you see any potential advantages that the changing political climate might present to a press like Comma going forward?
RP: There are many challenges, or rather pressures and expectations, when translating from these countries – coming from within and without. From without: there is the expectation that these authors should write about what we, as Westerners, already know of their culture, and that they confirm and speak to our existing perceptions of them; when actually the good writers shouldn’t be remotely interested in how we, in the West, currently perceive them.
From within: there are all kinds of pressures like the weight of expectation when representing a cultural, or indeed a language and its literature, on an international scale. It’s so rare that a writer from Iraq, say, gets translated and published in English – so rare there’s an expectation that he or she should show the language and the culture in its “best light.” This is hard, because for one thing, a country like Iraq isn’t exactly in its best light right now; and for a second, when it comes to Arabic (the predominant language in 6 of the banned countries), the language is itself sometimes the primary method through which ordinary people are oppressed.
But for a language to truly grow, it must be dirtied, broken, contaminated, muddied, or dragged into interactions with the outside. When Arabic writers do this, however, as Blasim does, they generally get a lot of flak, most often from people who don’t care about the language at all.
As for how the challenges will change . . . I think the situations around censorship on the ground are improving in some places (Iraq and Syria for instance, as the secret police have other battles to fight). In places like Yemen and Syria, the biggest problem is getting access to writers (or writers having any time to safely write at all) while a war is still raging (I should also say the same for West Sudan/Darfur, and also for Libya). You can’t really imagine it getting any worse than it is now for these places.
From a publishing point of view, the problem of movement is the biggest challenge, and it will get worse for as long as Trump is in power, and for as long as Brexit is read as proof of some “groundswell” of anti-immigration nationalism (which it isn’t).
Many of Comma’s writers can’t get out of their countries (or into the UK) as it is. Comma has struggled to get authors out of Sudan and Iraq before. We also work a lot with Palestinian authors, in particular writers from Gaza, and we’ve had many events in the UK in the past where some, or all, of the authors have failed to get permits to leave the Strip (either failing to get permission to travel across Israel to the airport in Amman, as the Egyptian border is almost permanently closed, or failing to get a visa to enter Britain for the tour). This will only get worse. Arabic artists from across the Middle East and Africa will find visas to enter the UK harder and harder to come by. It’s already extremely hard. For years, the UK Border Agency has seen itself as some kind of extension of tabloid racism. Their systems have xenophobia and particularly Islamophobia hard-wired into them; they’re brilliantly designed to “appear” to be asking impartial (if ridiculous) questions, whilst in effect they trip up and block exactly the right race and creed of people – namely those that the readers of The Daily Mail, The Express and The Sun think should be blocked: Muslims. If you’ve ever tried to get an Arab artist out of Palestine or Iraq, you’ll know Britain has had its own effective Muslim ban for years – it’s just a lot more subtle, and under the radar. For instance, Comma had its first visa application to bring Hassan Blasim to the UK from Finland rejected by the British Embassy in Helsinki because his letter of invitation from various literature festivals weren’t signed in blue ink (being signed in black ink, the British Embassy said it was a photocopy and therefore invalid). Britain’s a bit smarter in the way it pulls up its racist drawbridge.
So with writers unable to travel (to the States or the UK), the book will increasingly be the only way we get to hear from life on the ground in these countries. So people should get used to attending literature events where the author speaks to you via a pre-recorded video message; we should get used to asking questions of glitchy Skype images of authors projected onto the walls of bookshops. This will probably be the best we’ll get.
SE: Lastly, can you offer us any previews of the titles and/or authors you’ll be working with to put together this year of Muslim Ban authors?
The first title in this series will be a fast-turnaround publication: an anthology of seven short stories by authors from each of the seven “travel banned” countries, written specially in response to Trump’s ban. Titled simply Banthology – it will ask writers to respond to one or more of the issues exposed by the ban: the experience of being treated like a second class citizen (and a terrorist) when travelling at the best of times; the emotional and political consequences a ban like this could have; what the world might look like if bans like this become normalized, or an on-going reality. Most importantly the book will offer perspectives from ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in countries that the White House regards as populated entirely by terrorists.
The full list of participants hasn’t been confirmed yet, but they will include Rania Mamoun (Sudan), who first appeared in The Book of Khartoum; and Anoud (Iraq), who first appeared in Iraq + 100. (We plan to have a full list of all seven authors by the end of this month.) Comma plans to publish Banthology within the period of the original 90-day ban. We also plan to simultaneously co-publish this title with a U.S. publisher (to be announced shortly).
Then, next year, we plan to publish up to four, full collections by writers originally showcased in Banthology. These will most likely include Rania Mamoun’s Thirteen Months of Sunrise (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette) and Anoud’s Kahramana, as well as a second anthology of science fiction from Iraq, and anthologies from specific cities around the region, including Basra and Tehran. (I’m also half-tempted to commission a series of superhero origin stories, from “banned country” perspectives . . . but I’m yet to persuade the rest of the team about this one. :) )